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Over the years, the LDS Church has rarely stepped into the fight over evolution.
Certainly, as religious people, Mormons see God's hand in the origins of the universe, the world and its inhabitants. Conservative leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have challenged Charles Darwin's theories.
Former LDS Church President Joseph Fielding Smith and his son-in-law Bruce R. McConkie, a general authority, both wrote influential books that included attacks on the notion of evolution. Recently McConkie's son, Joseph Fielding McConkie, a retired Brigham Young University religion professor, wrote a popular doctrinal commentary insisting LDS beliefs rule out evolution and that there was no death before the fall of Adam, which occurred only 7,000 years ago.
According to a 2001 poll, as many as 21 percent of BYU freshmen taking biology and zoology classes believed that the Earth is only a few thousand years old and 50 percent agreed that creationism and evolution should be given equal time in public schools. But by the time they were seniors, most had accepted the scientific explanations.
"If creationism is an issue in Mormondom, it tends to be in the fundamentalist strain, not the scientifically educated part of the Mormon world," said David Bailey, a computer expert at Lawrence Laboratory in Berkeley, Calif., who wrote a 2003 essay on "Mormonism and the New Creationism."
Creationism requires literal belief in the biblical account of how God created all things, and that the Bible is infallible. Mormons believe neither, said Bailey, who will be addressing evolution on a panel at next month's Sunstone Symposium, an annual conference about Mormon issues.
"Mormons believe that the Bible is the word of God, as far as it was translated correctly, that 'plain and precious truths' were taken out of the book, that divine revelation continues today and that certain passages such as Eve being taken from Adam's rib are meant figuratively," Bailey said.
The official LDS Church position has remained steady from a 1931 First Presidency statement to a 1993 packet handed out at BYU students: "Leave geology, biology, archaeology and anthropology, none of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research."
Teachers at LDS high school seminaries "are encouraged to discuss with their students principles about the divine nature of human life as taught in the scriptures and in official declarations of church doctrine from the First Presidency," said church spokesman Dale Bills. "They are cautioned not to debate the theory of evolution."
According to a 2002 book, Where Darwin Meets the Bible, LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley shares that view.
Recalling his own study of anthropology and geology, Hinckley said, "Studied all about it. Didn't worry me then. Doesn't worry me now."
Such openness has meant that several BYU scientists have produced important research in the field of dinosaurs, anthropology and evolution.
At a BYU devotional assembly two weeks ago, entomologist Michael Whiting gave a pro-evolution speech titled "Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life." Darwin wrote that "the affinities of all the beings of the same class have sometimes been represented by a great tree," he said. "I believe this simile largely speaks the truth."
Today BYU is playing a leading role in deciphering the Tree of Life, Whiting said, putting together the connections between reptiles, nematode worms, insects, and crustaceans and beetÂles, among others.
Trent Stevens, an Idaho State University biologist, author of Mormonism and Evolution and a Mormon bishop, has no problem reconciling evolution with his belief in a supreme being.
The Bible doesn't say that God intervened in creation at every level, Stevens said from Pocatello. "He said, 'Let there be,' and then stepped back and watched it unfold."
When scriptures talk of human beings being created in the image of God, it is referring to the spirit, not the body, he said.
Here's Stevens' analogy: Mormons teach that the body is a temple. Compare that to the actual Salt Lake Temple. On the way from the quarry, some stones, ready to be installed, were damaged or deemed unnecessary. They were rolled off into the stream and some are still there now. Are those stones holy?
"We have the same misconceptions about our physical bodies as stones making up the temple," Stevens said.
"It's my spirit that makes me a child of God, not my body. How my physical body comes into being developmentally and phylogenetically through time is something for science to discover. It is not relevant to my level of spirituality or spiritual being."