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Evolutionary Foolishness

Lincoln Cannon recently made me aware of Our God Truly Is God by Elder Douglas Callister of the LDS church. He devoted a portion of his talk to the subject of evolution.

The LDS church is officially agnostic regarding organic evolution, at least according to a 1909 First Presidency message reprinted in the February 2002 issue of the Ensign, the official church magazine. Yet I have never read a single article in the Ensign in favor of organic evolution. It’s much easier to find those which are opposed to it, Callister’s being one.

Naturalism’s explanations of the origins of life and the miracle of our bodies often appear convoluted when placed side by side with the simple truths of the revealed word and divine scripture.

Evolution is complex, certainly more complex than bumper sticker creationism: “Big Bang Theory: God said it, and BANG! It happened!” Simple ideas don’t equate to true ideas. Just because evolution can be relatively hard to understand, that doesn’t justify seeking easier to understand theories which don’t reflect our experiences well. As Einstein is often paraphrased, “Theories should be as simple as possible, but no simpler.”

With its 107 million cells, connected to the brain by over 1 million neurons, the eye is more perfect than any camera ever invented. It caused Charles Darwin to humbly admit, “That the eye with all its inimitable contrivances … could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest sense.”

It is a sign of Darwin’s scientific honesty that he admitted the existence of data which seemed to him to contradict his own theory. Callister ignores that scientists have evidence which suggests that the eye was in fact evolved.

The Psalmist wrote, “The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God” (Psalm 53:1). Such a foolish disbeliever ought to look at his hands. Seventy muscles contribute to hand movements. Much of the rest of the body is devoted to optimizing the complex function of the hand. There are no muscles in the fingers. The sole purpose of the forearm, its muscles and bones, is to move and position the hand.

I’ll excuse Callister’s playground taunts on the ground that he’s just mirroring the questionable behavior exemplified in his sacred texts.

However, he makes a fundamental assumption that all highly complex systems must have a designer. This assumption is understandable because most complex systems in our everyday lives (e.g. cars, computers, and Congress) have human designers. There is no evidence, however, that this relationship holds for natural systems, eyes and hands notwithstanding. His argument boils down to something like “I just can’t understand how complex human beings evolved without the intervention of a Designer”, an argument from either incredulity or ignorance. His inability to accept evolution is probably partially rooted in a lack of familiarity with the details of evolutionary theory.

Sir Isaac Newton is reported to have said: “In the absence of any other proof, the thumb alone would convince me of God’s existence.”

Newton was a very interesting genius. His contribution to our understanding of natural laws cannot be overestimated. Yet he had his own blind spots. He spent a significant portion of his time pursuing alchemy, a pseudoscience on par with astrology. This illustrates why we shouldn’t appeal to authorities in order to base our beliefs. I wonder if Callister would give equal credence to Newton’s views on alchemy as he seems to give to his thoughts on the thumb.

One of my brothers is a physician. During medical school he was assigned to study anatomy in companionship with an agnostic. Their education eventually required that the two of them carefully examine and dissect a cadaver. They studied the incredibly complex yet harmonious systems of the body.… My brother and his friend became silent as they contemplated the miracle they were examining. Sensing the moment was right, my brother challenged: “Coincidence is a marvelous thing, isn’t it?” His agnostic classmate responded, “You win.”

This anecdote might make the creationist feel good to see the opposition conquered, but it also shows me that Callister doesn’t properly understand evolutionary theory. To call it “coincidence” demonstrates that he believes evolution to be a purely random process. It isn’t. No one aside from creationists believes that evolution is purely random.

This earth departs from its orbit of the sun by only one-ninth of an inch (2.82 mm) every 18 miles (29 km). If, instead, it changed by one-tenth of an inch (2.54 mm) every 18 miles, we would all freeze to death. If it changed by one-eighth of an inch (3.18 mm), we would all be incinerated. Did this all happen by accident?

I don’t know how true this is, but this statement seems a little misleading because the Earth travels 18 miles every second. That distance is therefore an insignificant part of the Earth’s orbit (i.e. 1 part in 31.5 million). Any small deviation over that tiny portion of the orbit would accumulate to huge deviations over the course of a year.

But allowing that what he says may be true, does this show that there is a Divine Designer? What are the odds that a habitable planet would happen at random around the average star? To be overly generous, let’s just guess that the odds are one in one billion billion (i.e. one star in every 1 000 000 000 000 000 000 stars has a habitable planet). There are believed to be 1021 stars in the universe. That still leaves 1000 habitable planets in a universe based on pure, dumb luck.

Questioning why we happen to be on one of those habitable planets is like a puddle questioning how it happens to live in a hole that seems tailor-made to fit its shape precisely.

The doubter requires too much of us when he asks us to believe that the miracles of eyes and hands and DNA and order in the universe all happened by chance. The passage of time, even long intervals of time, is not a “cause” and provides no answers without an intelligent designer.

Further evidence that he doesn’t understand evolution.

It is not possible to contemplate the immeasurable vacuum and purposelessness that would exist in our lives if He were not there. We would regret the passing of every day and the passing of every loved one, knowing that neither time nor relationships could be extended. We would approach the autumn and then the winter years of life with crescendoing fear. Every day of our lives we should thank Him that He is there and that this life is not all there is.

It is possible. It is true that contemplating a world without a loving God can make our time with loved ones more precious and death more dreadful. I want to live in a world where chocolate makes me lose weight and the opposite sex is powerless to resist my charms. Too bad that’s not the world I live in.

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Letters from the Universe

So I was a little envious of my wife. She got to teach our daughters a cool story about a Heavenly Father swooping down and creating everything. The basics of the story any toddler can comprehend. And she had cool pictures to back her up.

Then I try to teach them about evolution and modern cosmology and it just doesn’t grab their attention. I don’t have personal experience of how to teach children about evolution and so on because my parents are creationists. There are amazingly few books aimed at really young children on the subject. At least I couldn’t find many. I tried to make it up as I went, but I was doing a pretty crumby job of telling the story.

“So you see, the mammals evolved into apes and then into human beings. Isn’t that cool?”


So, anyway, I was a bit jealous.

Then I found a delightful trilogy of books that take us from the first moments of the Big Bang to modern humans. They take the form of a letter from a personified Universe to the reader. The Universe tells its own story in colorful, comprehensible terms. The words are accompanied by equally colorful illustrations. The reader is placed in the middle of an epic adventure of truly universal proportions.

Born with a Bang starts with the big bang and ends with the formation of planet earth. Along the way we learn about inflationary theory (really!), particles and anti-particles, the formation of hydrogen, the birth of stars and galaxies, and how we are made of the stardust from a supernova. The second and third books, Lava to Life and Mammals that Morph, which I have read fewer times so far, tell our story from abiogenesis to the development of modern humans. I’m no astrophysicist or paleontologist, but everything seems to check out. The authors stuck close to the current scientific understanding.

Any books that can get my four-year-old asking about atomic forces, comparing black holes to bathtub drains, and remembering why grass grows from the bottom-up deserve an A+ in my book.

The books are too long for my two-year-old, though I think she would like the story and illustrations if I just skimmed through. Each page has boldface text which convey the central idea. I think the authors may have intended it just for the purpose of shortening the story for those with a short attention span. I plan to try it out soon.

To top off all the learning about science, the Universe uses its own story to teach the reader important lessons like life is risky, we have to work toward our dreams, diversity is important, and so on.

While this book makes no mention of religious ideas, it is not hostile to religion either. I believe that a religious parent who accepts the current scientific theories (even the Pope accepts the theory of evolution) can benefit from these books. If God acted through the Big Bang and evolution, then these books tell God’s creation story in an inspiring way.

These books present an engaging creation myth that isn’t fiction. I got the books in the hopes of teaching my girls about current scientific theories about human origins. I ended up being inspired by my place in the story of the universe.

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Open Letter to the Bishop

Dear Brother Dastrup,

On several occasions you’ve expressed a desire to speak with me. I’ve refused your offers because I don’t recognize the authority of your position as bishop in the LDS church and because I don’t see any good that could come from it. I understand your purpose is to help me see the error of my ways, but any discussion on this point could only end in continued disagreement, if the tenor of your public remarks are a true indication of your thoughts on the matter.

Your public remarks last Sunday are the occasion for this letter. Given my situation, I think you’ll understand why I feel that your remarks were directed partially to me, or at least to my situation. It is your job to warn your congregation against heresy, so I shouldn’t feel singled out, yet I do. Perhaps you have reasonably given up on me and this is just a sign of my self-absorption, but I feel like you’re still trying to have your say despite my refusal to meet with you.

You used your bully pulpit to preach against my beliefs, so I will use my modest platform to respond. I realize that you are aware of this blog, but I don’t know if you read it. I would be surprised if you did, but I write this letter so that if you ever feel the desire to speak with me on this subject, I can point to this post and you’ll have a taste of what that discussion would be like.

Please excuse me if I didn’t hear all of your remarks. I was busy single-handedly keeping my girls from typical childhood mischief during a long meeting. Even the fact that their mother was speaking didn’t distract them for long.

When the speakers concluded their talks about the importance of education, you felt the need to fill a little of the extra time by warning against an education untempered by faith in Mormon doctrine. I’m sure you would have preferred for someone to quote 2 Nephi 9:29: “But to be learned is good if they hearken unto the counsels of God.”

The first point of your remarks that stood out to me was your use of the phrase “educated idiot” to paraphrase Paul’s warning to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:7 against those who are “[ever] learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth.”

Your phrase, educated idiot, is nothing more than an ad hominem attack to distract and amuse the congregation. It confers no true understanding. I merely serves to circle the wagons by insulting anyone who doesn’t believe in Mormonism. Your congregation’s pride in Mormonism was increased while you taught them nothing. I wish I was surprised by such reactive anti-intellectualism, but am not. It has infected all levels of the church.

Perhaps there is one thing to be learned from your use of the phrase. I can infer that you feel that anyone who disagrees with your beliefs must be lacking in intelligence or character. Life teaches us that good, honest, intelligent people disagree with each other. The fact that I or anyone else who is intimately familiar with Mormonism would reject it does not mean that we are evil, dishonest, or stupid. It means that we see the world differently. Humility and civility dictate that we acknowledge that disagreements will happen, and that we can be wrong on occasion. I did not hear any evidence of this humility in your remarks.

On the other hand, on your side you have Paul who identifies the people you call educated idiots with people who are “lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures…” and who “creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts,…” (2 Timothy 3:2–4, 6) Do you truly think this of me?

Let’s leave the schoolyard insults to the children.

The second point that stood out to me was your use of the 747 argument, that old chestnut, to defend creationism. I presume you did this to demonstrate how education can go awry. You wanted to show how the educated conclusion (i.e. belief in the theory of evolution) is nonsensical. You wanted to foster the congregation’s dependence on the church for truth (i.e. creationism). There are a number of problems with this.

First, creationism isn’t an official doctrine of the LDS church. There was some controversy on the issue over the years, but the church has no official doctrine against evolution. The BYU Packet mentioned in the Deseret News article contains a few official statements showing that the church’s position is neutral.

So you should feel no compulsion by the requirements of your religion to abandon the evidence of science and reason. The First Presidency in their Christmas message of 1910 said:

Diversity of opinion does not necessitate intolerance of spirit, nor should it embitter or set rational beings against each other. The Christ taught kindness, patience, and charity.

Our religion is not hostile to real science. That which is demonstrated, we accept with joy; but vain philosophy, human theory and mere speculations of men, we do not accept nor do we adopt anything contrary to divine revelation or to good common sense. But everything that tends to right conduct, that harmonizes with sound morality and increases faith in Deity, finds favor with us no matter where it may be found.

Many faithful members of your church believe the theory of evolution to be the truth, especially among those most familiar with the evidence.

Second, the 747 argument is based on a misunderstanding of how the evolution of species works. The basic argument is that assembling something as complex as a human being from raw materials by random chance is as unlikely as a tornado blowing through a junkyard and assembling a fully operational Boeing 747. We obviously don’t expect this to ever happen, so evolution can likewise not explain the origin of man. Or so the argument goes.

Unfortunately for this analogy, evolution isn’t a purely random process. It doesn’t create complexity randomly. It gradually fosters greater complexity through random mutation only if that mutation is conducive to enhanced survival and reproduction. Randomness may be evolution’s fuel, but the engine of natural selection is brutally non-random. The synthesis of the two builds up complexity over time producing a result which is not purely random.

For illustration, imagine dipping a jar into a muddy river and scooping out the water. Inside that water are many small particles randomly distributed. In the absence of gravity, those particles would remain randomly scattered within the water. On Earth, where there is gravity, if you leave the jar undisturbed and wait long enough, the sand and silt will settle to the bottom. Gravity acting on the random distribution and random movements of particles leads to a non-random result: water and sand in separate layers. Biological evolution similarly confers order on a random process.

Third, we could turn this argument on its head. Imagine walking to the junkyard, seeing a Boeing 747, asking the junkyard owner “Where did that come from?” Imagine your confusion when he answers “That has always been here. Since before the beginning of time it has been there.” You would probably doubt this man’s sanity.

Yet you ask me to believe that God—an entity much more complex than a 747 or even a human being—has existed for all eternity. You might counter that God hasn’t always been there, that he was once a man. (Are you sure that’s still official doctrine?) That only delays the problem. It simply replaces an eternal personal God with an eternal procession of Gods. Appealing to God or Gods to explain the complexity of the world doesn’t answer the question. It just leads to more complexity that still requires an explanation.

If you still want to discuss how the all things denote that there is a God, you can read how I imagine our conversation might proceed.

If you want to bear your testimony to me, I have also imagined how that conversation might go.

The message of the your remarks seems to be “Learn all you can, but remain ignorant of anything that contradicts what I, Brother Dastrup, personally believe.” In contrast, Elder Hugh B. Brown said:

Be unafraid of new ideas for they are the stepping stones to progress. But you will respect, of course, the opinions of others [but be unafraid to dissent if you are informed.]… Now I mention the freedom to express your thoughts, but I caution you that your thoughts and expressions must meet competition in the marketplace of thought, and in that competition truth must emerge triumphant. Only error needs to fear freedom of expression. Seek truth in all fields, and in that searching you’re going to need at least three virtues: courage, zest, and modesty. The ancients put that thought in [the] form of [a] prayer. They said, “From the cowardice that shrinks from new truth, from the laziness that is content with half truth, from the arrogance that thinks it has all the truth—O God of truth, deliver us.”
(Man and What He May Become, BYU Speeches of the Year, 29 March 1958)

This blog is an open air marketplace of the truth. Anyone can peddle their wares here as long as they are respectful. I invite you to engage in the conversation here, in the light of day, where the truth can have a chance to emerge triumphant. Show me where I am in error, and I will try to show you where you stray from the truth, in the spirit of brotherly love.


Your Brother

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