The ultimate purpose of the work of this God may never be understood by the mind of man. Perhaps it was, as the Baltimore Catechism told me long ago, that God wanted to be known, loved, and served. If that is true, He did so by devising a universe that would make knowledge, love, and service meaningful. Seen in this way, evolution was much more than an indirect pathway to get to you and me. By choosing evolution as His way to fashion the living world, He emphasized our material nature and our unity with other forms of life. He made the world today contingent upon the events of the past. He made our choices matter, our actions genuine, our lives important. In the final analysis, He used evolution as the tool to set us free. – Kenneth R. Miller 
On my mission years ago, in another one of my Wienerschnitzel-based district lunches up in Carson City, we somehow stumbled on to the subject of evolution. One elder, brimming with greenie arrogance, declared authoritatively that evolution was certainly untrue. I inquired as to why exactly he thought this was the case. He appeared dumbfounded that I would ask such a thing, yet seemed unprepared to answer my question. He stammered a little and said something to the effect of, “Based on what I know about the gospel, I know I didn’t come from a monkey!”
My own views on evolution had evolved (witty, I know) over the course of my mission. Originally, I had more-or-less held the anti-evolution view of a Joseph Fielding Smith/Bruce McConkie flavor, but without the dramatic flare or strong feelings. For example, I was called a “hybrid Mormon” (compared to prior missionaries, apparently) early on in my mission by a young man we tracted into because I said I was willing to accept evolution if that is where the evidence led. But what really set me in a new direction was physicist Gerald Schroeder’s The Science of God, in which he constructed a possible theistic version of evolution using ancient Jewish sources and mysticism while still criticizing the current Darwinian theory. I had adopted a Mormon version of his argument and used it to press my fellow missionary a little more, asking him what specifically about the gospel conflicted with evolution. While my memory could be failing me, I don’t recall him being able to conjure up a single thing beyond something like “God created us.” When I briefly explained that the evolution of our physical body in no way degrades our divine origin, the ruffled elder calmed down a little and, while still unconvinced, acknowledged the point.
How I wish Steven Peck’s book had been available at the time. Instead of simply trying to spare religious belief from the brute force of evolution’s explanatory power (as Schroeder does), Peck instead embraces evolution–and science generally–and seeks out ways in which it might inform and enhance our theology. The book is broken down into two main parts. The first presents Peck as an academic, offering up both scientific and philosophical explorations of the multiple angles of science and religion. The essays seem to build on each other, rooting the reader firmly in science while inviting them to ask questions bigger than material origins. Part 1 begins with an overview of what science actually is. Challenging what he calls the “schoolkid definition” of science, Peck reviews the tools and processes of the scientific method. By doing so, he wrestles the concept out of the abusive hands of both creationist and atheist fundamentalists. Peck explains how the objectivity of science and the subjectivity of our own experience can complete one another:
When it comes to thinking about science and religion, what interests me is how completely integrated my spiritual experiences are with the physical aspects of my mind. They are not separate from the normal workings of my brain. My rationality, my senses, and my memory are not turned off or suppressed. In fact, my conscious experience is completely integrated with these spiritual experiences. The process seems to engage mind, body, and spirit (pg. 17).
In Peck’s view, the importance of our subjective experience is the very reason why we should avoid reading the scriptures as science textbooks. “The text of the scriptures,” Peck writes, “pulls me into new realities…I think reading certain scriptures in an overly literal fashion can impede our access to the depth that the scriptures actually offer…The purpose of scripture is to connect us to deeper, more important realities, about which science can offer no insight” (pg. 17). Peck then turns his attention to the metaphysical assumptions of scientists. His prime example is Alfred Russel Wallace, the British naturalist and co-discoverer of natural selection, who did a scientific investigation of spiritualism and later authored a book on the subject, straining his relationship with the scientific community (spiritualist assumptions actually fueled some of modern science). Materialist assumptions can color scientific inquiry and cause us to miss one of the most important ways of knowing: subjectivity. Peck then begins to tease out the implications of evolution for LDS theology (and vice versa) as well as explore the recent science and philosophies surrounding the nature of consciousness. In one of my favorite chapters (Ch. 5), he presents evolution as a means of continual novelty and creation:
[The evolution of life] also speaks to the uniqueness of life because it is novel and open-ended and gives reasons for preserving, perhaps as a theological mandate, the treasures of this ongoing creation. It gives reasons for supposing that there is something precious and sacred about life on Earth because it has not be manufactured like a boat crafted for a purpose; rather, creation is exemplified by life itself as manifest in the history and unfolding of the universe. This kind of open, unfolding view of creation highlights the importance of ecological considerations in the world (pgs. 123-124).
This leads into the final chapter of Part 1, in which Peck reflects on the disconnection from not only Creation itself, but from the cycle of life and death within it. All this sparked by the memory of a hurried tuna lunch: “Buried forgotten in all that packaging was a life, hidden, unattended, unacknowledged, and even unrecognizable–a being processed from all its rich biological complexity to the simple categories of taste, color, and texture” (pg. 127). This is not a defense of vegetarianism (plants die too in order to feed us, he reminds us), but a call to appreciation; to awareness. I was reminded of an insight made by Orthodox philosopher David B. Hart: “[I]f death is, in some sense, the “cause” of religion, it is only insofar as religion reconciles us to death–or, better, reminds us of death, or reminds us to die–by making death familiar, explicable, rational, and even natural to us. If our orientation toward an indefinite future, our awareness of ourselves as mortal, and our inability to resolve the tension between the two seem to condemn us to a perpetual alienation from the natural world, the principal function of many of the more venerable forms of religious practice would seem to be one of overcoming this alienation, by reintegrating us into the circular economy of nature through recurring rituals that allow us to participate in some larger cosmic or sacral order of which the natural cycle of life and death is merely one manifestation.” While Hart was largely referencing sacrificial rituals in ancient religions devoid of a concept of an afterlife, Peck offers a much more modest ritual that can achieve similar effects: “Next time you open a can of tuna, eat a piece of chicken, or put a fork into a salad, pause a moment and remember the life given for this meal. Reverence that life and for just a moment situate yourself deeply within the cycle of life and death. Life matters. Death matters. Both rely on each other” (pg. 136).
Part II is far more personal, with deep meditations on the human experience (largely his own). These include comparisons between LDS views of the environment and common environmentalist ideologies, reflections on violence and God’s love for the entire creation (including all living beings), and a harrowing, disturbing, and utterly fascinating tale of Peck’s personal experience with hallucinatory insanity brought about by a bacterial brain infection. But within one of these personal essays (Ch. 8) I found what I consider to be the heart and message of the book as a whole:
I love the idea that creation is part of a long, patient becoming, the evidence for which we see in the fossils of this earth, in the DNA of every cell of our bodies, and in other creatures’ bodies. Evolution ennobles the creation and Creator because it suggests that God is a gardener, not a magician. To picture the creation as the wave of a wand devalues it. Perhaps this is a reason we Latter-day Saints have sometimes not appreciated the immense work that went into creating the marvelous diversity amid which we live. The thought that millions of years have been required for the creation goes far in helping us appreciate the uniqueness and preciousness of our earth. As we look at nature, we are looking into deep creation through an eye fashioned out of elements gleaned from the remains of burned-out stars. Not a nature fashioned by the quick wave of a hand, but one that has required about 13.7 billion years to cultivate (pg. 163).
Beyond merely being a book that speaks positively of evolution that was published through “the Lord’s University” (which may come in handy when discussing it with Mormons skeptical of the theory), it also is an example of what Latter-day Saints should be doing: thinking deeply about science, philosophy, and theology. Peck’s essays could potentially rekindle a sense of connection between Latter-day Saint readers and Creation, binding them to all living beings. The book is a reminder of the strangeness of embodiment and consciousness, an invitation to reflect on the millions of years written into our genetic code, and a call to environmental ethics and proper stewardship. Peck has provided a benchmark in LDS dialogue between science and religion. Not only will this book be helpful for lay readers, but it can serve as a model for future academics seeking to tackle similar subjects. I hope to see insights by Peck and others begin to trickle into class discussions and maybe, just maybe, replace the anti-scientific views found in so much Church curriculum. We will be a better church for it.
- Kenneth Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground Between God and Evolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1999), 253.
- This objection misunderstands common ancestry. Kenneth Miller explains, “I often hear people say that they’re not descended from monkeys, and they would defy me or anybody else to show that they are. Well, they’re right, they’re not descended from monkeys. They’re not descended from chimps or monkeys or gorillas or any other living organism. The essential idea of common ancestry is that ultimately all living things on this planet share common ancestors if we go far enough back into the past. So, for example, to take the case that people talk about all the time, we share a common ancestor with all primate species. This means that we’re related, by having a single ancestor somewhere in the past, to monkeys, gorillas, chimpanzees, and so forth. But the idea of common ancestry goes way deeper than simply saying we’re related to monkeys. We’re in fact related to all mammals. You go farther back, we are related to all vertebrates. And, ultimately, we are related, if you go far enough back, to every living thing on this planet. The almost universal nature of the genetic code, the fact that all life depends upon DNA, all of these things are evidence of this commonality of ancestry, if we go far enough back in time.”
- See Gerald Schroeder, The Science of God: The Convergence of Scientific and Biblical Wisdom (New York: Free Press, 1997). As I’ve written elsewhere, “I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone frankly. It is mildly interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying when it comes to the religion vs. science debate. However, it was Schroeder that made me actually look at the debate. My interest in science and the history of science can be traced back to this book. Furthermore, it is the reason I became quite comfortable with biological evolution. Prior to my mission, I hadn’t given evolution a thought. I gave it superficial attention on my mission, drawing largely from outdated, anti-evolution quotes (still) found in the Church’s institute manuals. But it was Schroeder’s book, which I picked up at a Barnes & Nobles (?) one P-Day, that made me think differently. Despite being critical of the theory (he is one of the contrarian scientists in Ben Stein’s documentary Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed), he provided a new paradigm by drawing on ancient Jewish scholars such as Rashi, Maimonides, and Nahmanides. This helped me think about my own faith’s approach to science and I found myself defending evolution against fellow missionaries by the end of it all.”
- David Bentley Hart, “Death, Final Judgment, and the Meaning of Life,” The Oxford Handbook of Eschatology, ed. Jerry L. Walls (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 480.