Mormons need not shy away from evolution, says BYU biologist

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Salt Lake LDS Temple in January 2018.

They believe in “eternal progression,” for example, and that the universe was organized from pre-existing matter, Steven L. Peck told a packed audience Thursday on the Utah Valley University campus. Those are ideas embraced by evolutionary biologists, too.

“The relationship between science and religion has been among the most fiercely debated issues since the Copernican Revolution displaced traditional wisdom regarding the nature of the cosmos,” program director Brian Birch said in his opening remarks. “Some have argued for a sharp division of labor while others have sought to harmonize spiritual and empirical truths.”

A Pew Forum poll from a decade ago show that 21 percent of Latter-day Saints agreed with the statement that “evolution is the best explanation for life on Earth.” In 2014, however, another Pew survey found nearly 50 percent believed in some form of evolution.

Peck, who has written several books, including “Science the Key to Theology,” was almost gleeful as he addressed the relationship between science and Mormon doctrines.

A few days after he and his wife married in the Salt Lake LDS Temple, they traveled to Seattle for a reception in his bride’s hometown. As they were returning to the Beehive State, their car was hit by a drunken driver. Both barely survived. For six weeks, their jaws were wired shut.

“As I hobbled around on my cane, I wondered what happened,” Peck said. “We did everything right and it was supposed to work out. Nothing made sense.”

After reading the words of the late Eugene England, an influential Mormon writer who died in 2001, Peck became convinced that such tragedies are not only possible but also an essential part of existence.

There certainly are surprises in the development of complex structures, he said. “Things that occur on one level — like DNA mutations — are truly random. And they can bubble up to the macro world.”

In response, life “organizes networks to manage this universe,” he said. “There is genuine novelty in this process. We see surprises being mothered into the universe. … We see it everywhere — rocks, strata and developmental processes.”

“There’s no direction in evolution; it is not trying to get somewhere,” Peck said. “The universe is making itself up as it goes along.”

“God is nothing,” Peck quoted Bergson as saying, “if conceived of as external to or separate from this course of events.”

“A plan of no agency would require a deterministic universe, where God sits above time and broods over an endless loop where nothing new ever occurs,” he said. “Like a ‘Gilligan’s Island’ rerun on loop forever.”

As a scientist, Peck said, he was struck by “a universe brimming with dynamic flows of energy and material, a universe of objects, hills and processes that advances with ebbs and flows, with randomness, chaos and order.”

The struggle for existence is paramount but should not lead humans into despair, Peck said, because they are “joined in a confederation of love … in relationship with each other and with God.”

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