October 16, 2011

Review: Howard C. Stutz, “Let the Earth Bring Forth: Evolution and Scripture”

Title: Let the Earth Bring Forth: Evolution and Scripture
Author: Howard C. Stutz
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Evolution/Religion
Year: 2011
Pages: xvi, 87
Binding: Softcover
ISBN13: 978-1-58958-126-5
Price: $15.95 ($9.95, Kindle)
“One of the greatest tragedies in recent times has been the extensive promulgation of creeds that have created chasms between science and religion. At no time in the history of humankind has science provided a more comprehensible panorama of the universe in which we live. Nor has there ever been a time when God has more clearly revealed Himself and His purposes to His children. Why then should there be so much apparent conflict between science and religion?” (xix).
Let the Earth Bring Forth is the culminating testimony of a man who spent his life successfully exploring the realms of faith and science. In addition to earning a Ph.D in genetics at UC Berkeley and teaching at Brigham Young University, Howard C. Stutz (b. 1918) served in various church callings from bishop, to high councilor, to stake patriarch. In university and church settings he interacted with students who were unsure of how to make sense of evolution from a faithful perspective. Shortly before passing away in 2010, Stutz completed his manuscript to “point out the harmony which exists between the theory of speciation by organic evolution and revealed truths contained in hold scriptures” (xv).
Stutz repeatedly emphasizes a few guiding principles throughout the book:
1. Science and religion are not incompatible by nature. Instead, Stutz believes they share a “common quest for truth” and thus often “converge” (64). At times they differ in the types of questions they ask and the methods available to explore the questions, but “there can be no permanent impasse between human discoveries and those provided by the Lord through revelation; they are all His” (xix). Thus, all truth will eventually harmonize (65, 78).
2. As Francis Bacon explained, Stutz believes “the book of God’s word” and “the book of God’s works” must both be consulted in a search for truth (vii). The “book of God’s works” includes things like the fossil record, geographical and ecological distribution patterns of species, embryology, anatomical structure, biochemical patterns, and genetics. Each of these receive focus as Stutz attempts to explain complex scientific theories to a lay audience. While he makes use of scripture to demonstrate scientific principles, he asserts that the Bible is not a science text (67, 77).
3. Organic evolution occurs, and it is the means God prepared for the carrying out of his purposes. “God’s dictum, ‘Let the earth bring forth,’ [Genesis 1:11; Abraham 4:11] is a profound declaration about speciation by evolution,” Stutz writes. “The Earth has brought forth and is still bringing forth species after species after species. The concepts of organic evolution, as I understand them, appear to harmonize with the scriptures. Points of disharmony seem few, and these few disparities appear to be the result of either ignorance or misinterpretation. In either case, they will most likely be resolved as new light and knowledge become available” (65). Stutz is careful to distinguish his conclusions from that of many so-called “Young Earth Creationists” whose theories tend to lay further outside the bounds of mainstream scientific acceptability (xxi, 17, 23, 28, 36, 42, 49, 56, etc.).
Stutz rhetorically makes scientific principles more palatable by using correlative scriptural language. “Phenotypic plasticity” and “genetic flexibility” are described, then related to the LDS concept of “free agency” (7). Such biological processes interacting with different environments provide “beauty and variety to the face of the earth” (62). All of this is in harmony with “the great plan of God” (8, 58). Ultimately, “faith in the truthfulness of scientific discoveries…has come from extensive study, from the testimonies of others, and from personal experiences”on the part of scientists (64). Stutz is also careful to include evidence for organic evolution which residents of the Wasatch Front, presumably a large part of his target audience as well as the area in which most of his research was focused, can observe in person. Cultivated rye at a small BYU nursery, bitterbrush on Utah’s mountain slopes, Juab County saltbush, and dinosaur fossils in Vernal all receive attention as evidence for Stutz’s conclusions (10, 15, 21, 28).
Because Stutz argues that human bodies, like those of various plants and animals, emerged through biological processes over a long period of time, he needs to account for a literal Adam and Eve common to LDS belief. Although he isn’t quite specific on this point, he seems to posit a long evolutionary background preceding a time when God introduced human spirits into bodies which were at last prepared (73). He believes evidence is overwhelming that the creation of human bodies is “not unique”:
Our body is made of the same materials found in other living organisms; we use the same source of energy for growth and metabolism. Our genetic code consists of the same four nitrogenous bases that code the DNA of all living organisms. Biologically, our bodies are not unique (71).
He tackles other common LDS speculations on the origins of humans throughout the text, countering the idea that the earth was formed from multiple other earths, thus leaving a deceptive fossil record (x, 28, 79). He disagrees with the idea that the “days” in the creation accounts were periods of “one thousand years” because the text itself does not require such a reading and the evidence suggests much longer periods of time (65). He posits a general correlation between the scripture accounts and the findings of evolutionary theory: waters and dry land needed to be separated before humans would appear, seasons and atmosphere, plants and animals, creation from the “dust of the earth” all find expression in scientific discoveries (67).
Although the essay was written for a general audience, Stutz covers many complex scientific principles, a few of which left me scratching my head. He also avoids a few nagging questions I wish he would have tackled more directly. For example, he states that “Truths revealed to us through the prophets can in no wise be incompatible with truths revealed to us in our laboratories” (78). He doesn’t mention that some LDS leaders, including one who eventually became president of the LDS church, have condemned organic evolution as a false teaching, or even a “deadly heresy.” The book’s forward, written by BYU professor Duane E. Jeffery, acknowledges that, “Without question, Mormon writers have produced many anti-evolution, indeed anti-science, books” (xi). But he points to other LDS authors who have disagreed with those views. And Stutz, who “brought the first formal training in evolution to students at BYU” as written “the first book by an LDS evolutionary biologist in the strict sense of the term” (xi-xii). Stutz’s faithful fulfilling of various church callings and his multiple-decade professorship teaching such things at BYU witness that faithful members of the Church can find compatibility between the gospel and organic evolution.
Without question, Stutz’s approach leaves more questions to be asked, more puzzles to be solved. Without question, Stutz relates his perspective with wonder, humility, gratitude, and sophistication. Let the Earth Bring Forth is an excellent little introduction to questions about the compatibility of organic evolution with LDS scripture. It also includes a useful index of the scriptural citations Stutz employs. Please recommend it to all your friends who are among the 78% or so of Mormons who don’t accept evolution as “the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.”*
*I recognize the question from this 2008 Pew survey is somewhat loaded. Even Mormons who accept the theory of evolution may be uncomfortable not acknowledging God in the process, as the question’s phrasing seems to do. Another fascinating approach to the question of LDS teachings and organic evolution is BYU professor Steven Peck’s article, “Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution,” Dialogue: a Journal of Mormon Thought, 43, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-36, .pdf available here. Also check out this guest column Peck wrote for the Flunking Sainthood blog. Also see the great (in content) and spacious (in length) discussions on evolution at the newcoolthang blog, before they got taken over by sports fanatics.