“Science dominated by the spirit of religion is the key to progress and the hope of the future.”—David O. McKay
Students and faculty at BYU have been reconciling faith and science since the university’s founding in 1875. The BYU science community discerns truths from all sources, following guidance from prophets and apostles to seek inspiring knowledge as part of the ongoing Restoration of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Scriptural teachings also indicate our responsibility to “seek . . . out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.”1
President Russell M. Nelson reinforced this message at the 2015 dedication of the BYU Life Sciences Building when he said, “This university is committed to searching for truth and to teaching the truth. All truth is part of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Whether truth comes from a scientific laboratory or by revelation from the Lord, it is compatible. All truth is part of the everlasting gospel.”2
When Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, he introduced a new perspective for understanding this world. The scientific community responded to this new theory, as it does with every theory, by spending decades testing it with experiments and observations.
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has no official position on the theory of evolution;3 however, BYU’s role as a gathering place of faith and science sparked decades of debate on the topic. In the fall of 1971, BYU formally brought that conversation into its classrooms by officially incorporating biological evolution into the life sciences curriculum. Instead of banning the controversial topic, university leaders introduced an academically rigorous course within a gospel context.4
In celebration of teaching evolution for over fifty years, the Bean Life Science Museum recently held several events. It began by hosting an open house for parents and teachers on how to teach evolutionary concepts. In a keynote address, lauded paleoanthropologist Dr. Rick Potts shared his experiences as the director of the Smithsonian’s Human Origins Program and a member of the Broader Social Impacts Committee5 that seeks for opportunities for a productive relationship between science and religion. Dr. Duane Jeffery and Dr. Clayton White, BYU’s first professors to teach an official undergraduate evolution course, culminated the celebration by unveiling a new evolution display on the second floor of the Life Sciences Building. These events inspired BYU students, faculty, and community members to reflect on how the study of evolution has propelled their academic and spiritual growth.
In the Beginning
Although BYU joined evolution research and education in the seventies, the Church became involved in the conversation much earlier. In 1909, the First Presidency released a statement entitled “The Origin of Man,” affirming humankind’s divinity.6 A year later in the Improvement Era, the First Presidency clarified that they had not received instruction from God on exactly how Adam and Eve came to be.7 They also emphasized in their annual Christmas message that Latter-day Saints should honor diversity of thought instead of giving way to intolerance or grudges.8
Despite these messages, evolution was still fiercely debated. In 1911, BYU faculty members Henry Peterson, Ralph Chamberlin, and Joseph Peterson were dismissed for teaching evolution and modern biblical criticism without approval.9,10 Students from their classes organized after the fact to defend them. In their petition, they argued that students at BYU should have the opportunity to learn about evolution like at other institutions—not because they wanted to prove it right or wrong, but because of evolution’s place in global scientific debate.11,12 They asserted, “We believe that the great problems of modern science are worthy of our most respectful consideration.”13
We believe that the great problems of modern science are worthy of our most respectful consideration.
Debate continued amongst members and Church leadership. President Joseph F. Smith encouraged members to avoid treating their opinions like doctrine, reiterating that “the Church itself has no philosophy about the modus operandi employed by the Lord in His creation of the world.”14 In 1931, the First Presidency attempted to resolve an evolution debate between two Church leaders by urging General Authorities to “leave Geology, Biology, Archaeology and Anthropology, no one of which has to do with the salvation of the souls of mankind, to scientific research, while we magnify our calling in the realm of the Church.”15
Moving forward, the Church sought neutrality in its evolution discourse. But members of the Church still struggled with the evolution question. Elder James E. Talmage, a scientist as well as an Apostle, taught in a 1931 sermon to trust that existing discrepancies will be resolved with time and further research, treating the idea of an ancient earth as a part of God’s processes. Talmage rejoiced in scientific study as a method through which people can understand God’s purposes and build a stronger relationship with Him.17 Talmage’s instruction was a mirror of what Brigham Young had shared decades earlier when he said, “Our religion embraces all truth and every fact in existence . . . A fact is a fact, all truth issues forth from the Fountain of truth, and the sciences are facts as far as men have proved them.”18
Teaching Within a Gospel Context
White and Jeffery joined the life sciences faculty prepared to make the study of evolution standard undergraduate curriculum.19 Jeffery studied genetics in the fruit fly model system at UC Berkeley before joining BYU in 1969, prefacing in his interview that he planned to propose evolution curriculum.20 White came from an ornithology background and had previously taught evolution at the University of Kansas and Cornell University.
One of White’s first responsibilities was reviewing dental school applications. He noticed a worrying trend: a top dental school was rejecting every BYU applicant. When he called them to find out why, they told him the problem was BYU’s curriculum. White remembers the administrator explaining that if BYU didn’t teach evolution, “we’re not even sure that your students are well grounded in the life sciences and biology.”
Driven by the realization that the missing curriculum was limiting student opportunities, White and Jeffery proposed BYU’s first undergraduate evolution course—Zoology 404: Comparative Evolutionary Theory. They described the class as “a critical study of principles of organic evolution and its impact on modern thought.”21 After receiving approval, the pair began teaching the course—exactly sixty years after Chamberlin and the Peterson brothers were dismissed. The class was completely full that first semester.
To Jeffery, exaltation was and is 'a conscientious, dedicated, disciplined, and rigorous search for truth, for an understanding of the laws that make this world and universe run.'
Just like in 1911, the topic of evolutionary biology polarized the BYU community. Students took to “Letters to the Editor” pages of The Daily Universe to argue about evolution’s validity and place at BYU.22 They pulled quotes from letters, anecdotal conversations, and firesides by individual General Authorities to support their respective sides.23 Jeffery attempted to reconcile conflicting parties by publishing a piece entitled “Seers, Savants and Evolution: The Uncomfortable Interface.”24,25
Jeffery and White experienced criticism from several BYU religion professors. This ultimately led to BYU publishing a packet in 1992 called “Evolution and the Origin of Man,” which contains every First Presidency statement on evolution.26 The College of Physical and Mathematical Sciences Dean William Evenson, who played a role in compiling the packet, said, “The goal is not to achieve some kind of ‘balance’ among the views that have been expressed, but to give students the full range of official views so that they can judge the different positions they encounter. The full range of official views should provide the basis for the evaluation of other views that have been expressed but that do not have the status of official Church positions.”27
As White and Jeffery navigated their class through high emotions and strong opinions, they relied on the Prophet Joseph Smith’s instructions for individuals to expand their minds “as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity.”28 To Jeffery, exaltation was and is “a conscientious, dedicated, disciplined, and rigorous search for truth, for an understanding of the laws that make this world and universe run.”29
Jeffery included students in the discussion, opting to openly address controversial issues using every substantive perspective. It was life changing for many students to have a spiritual space where they could work through their complex questions. White reminisced, “Even today I occasionally get a note or email from a student long forgotten . . . One student recently was even bold enough to suggest that I and other faculty served as a sort of role model. I do hope that was true and accurate.”30 To this day, the thousands of students who have taken a 200- or 400-level evolution class rank it as one of their most impactful BYU courses.31
I discovered a newfound way of thinking as a scientist.
One such student, Dr. Daniel J. Fairbanks, wrote in his book Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA, “I recorded the very day, January 30, 1979, when during a discussion on evolution in Dr. White’s class I discovered a newfound way of thinking as a scientist. Shortly thereafter I met Dr. Jeffery, who personally helped me work through the change in thought required by that discovery.”32
That undergraduate student remained a faithful member of the Church and became a renowned evolutionary geneticist as well as a BYU Honors program director, a biology professor, and a dean of undergraduate education.
Faith and Science
Most importantly, evolution curriculum has been an avenue for BYU students to practice reconciling faith and science. In parallel to working through unknowns with the scientific method, students learn how to seek and receive personal revelation for their spiritual questions. Growing faith takes time and effort, which can be difficult in the face of apparently conflicting information.
I have faith in spite of the unknowns.
Cordon Wade (BIO ’23) received the Squires Scholarship in Evolutionary Biology and worked in the Seth Bybee Evolutionary Biology Lab prior to graduating in April. Throughout his research, he noticed similarities between scientific inquiry and Church teachings. “We act like we should have the answer to every spiritual question,” he observes. “Questions will come up and I want the answer, but just like in science, I need to step back and see that I can’t have all the answers right now.”
Wade encourages students to face their questions instead of shying away from them. He confirms, “My faith has grown because I have to wrestle my way through that reconciliation process.”
Graduate student Elisabeth Currit (PWS ’24) spent her undergraduate years at BYU lobbying for and researching environmental stewardship. For her, science is a way of connecting with her Heavenly Parents by caring for God’s creations. She sees God in every detail and appreciates how her faith has grown through her education. “Doing environmental stewardship work and scientific research has helped me to feel closer to God because I feel like I’m doing some of God’s work as well, in a very small way. I feel like I’m helping important things to be known and understood better,” she says.
In research and in faith, not having a full understanding of truth is normal. In fact, it’s the lack thereof that drives truth-seekers forward. “I have faith in spite of the unknowns,” Wade affirms.
I feel like I’m doing some of God’s work as well, in a very small way. I feel like I’m helping important things to be known and understood better.
Debates about evolution may not cover BYU’s editorial pages anymore, but students and faculty continue to faithfully wrestle with their questions in the classroom. These difficult discussions do not result in immediate answers or unified opinions, and yet the past teaches that individuals can explore scientific truths and remain true to their faith. As President David O. McKay proclaimed, “Science dominated by the spirit of religion is the key to progress and the hope of the future.”34
Special thanks to Cory Nimer, Clayton White, and Michael Whiting for their assistance with this article.
2 Nalia Tafua, “Life Sciences Building dedicated by Elder Russell M. Nelson,” The Daily Universe, April 10, 2015, https://universe.byu.edu/2015/04/10/life-sciences-building-dedicated-by-elder-russell-m-nelson/
3 “What does the Church believe about evolution?,” New Era, October 2016, https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/new-era/2016/10/to-the-point/what-does-the-church-believe-about-evolution?lang=eng
4 William W. Winder, History of the Department of Zoology and Entomology and the Zoology Department at Brigham Young University (2016), 17.
5 The Broader Social Impacts Committee, https://humanorigins.si.edu/about/broader-social-impacts-committee
6 The First Presidency Statement, Improvement Era, November 1909, 75–81.
7 Priesthood Quorums’ Table, First Presidency, Improvement Era, April 1910, 570.
8 “Words in Season from the First Presidency,” Desert Evening News, December 17, 1910, part 1, 3.
9 “Teachers at Provo to Resign,” The Evening Standard, February 21, 1911, https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn85058397/1911-02-21/ed-1/seq-6/
10 Bruce C. Hafen, “Religious Education in BYU's Prophetic Historical Context,” transcript of speech delivered at Brigham Young University, August 28, 2019, https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/bruce-c-hafen/religious-education-in-byus-prophetic-historical-context/
11 “B. Y. U. Students Destroy Reply of Presidency and Make Public the Protest They Formulated,” Salt Lake Tribune, March 16, 1911, https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/details?id=14191661
12 “B. Y. U. Students Make Position on Evolution Clear,” Salt Lake Telegram, March 16, 1911, https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/details?id=19014128
13 “B. Y. U. Controversy on Higher Criticism,” Logan Republican, March 18, 1911, https://newspapers.lib.utah.edu/details?id=4791263
14 Joseph F. Smith, “Philosophy and the Church Schools,” in Juvenile Instructor (Deseret Sunday School Union, 1911), 208–9.
15 The First Presidency to the Council of the Twelve, the First Council of Seventy, and the Presiding Bishopric, memo, April 5, 1931.
16 James E. Talmage, “The Earth and Man,” address delivered in the Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah, August 9, 1931, published by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reprint from The Deseret News, November 21, 1931.
17 Talmage, “The Earth and Man.”
18 Brigham Young, “Conference Remarks on Science and Religion,” transcript of speech delivered at the Tabernacle, Salt Late City, Utah, May 14, 1871, http://mldb.byu.edu/byoung.htm
19 Duane Jeffery, foreword, in Howard C. Stutz, “Let the Earth Bring Forth”: Evolution and Scripture (Salt Lake City: Greg Kofford Books, 2011), 7–12.
20 Winder, History of the Department of Zoology, 17.
21 Winder, History of the Department of Zoology, 18.
22 C. Williams, Evolution [Letter to the editor], The Daily Universe, May 17, 1971, https://archive.org/details/dailyuniverse23149asso/page/n1/mode/2up
23 R. Howell, M. Abel, J. Gardner, M. Gardner, “Evolution” [Letter to the editor], The Daily Universe, May 19, 1971, https://archive.org/details/dailyuniverse23151asso/page/n1/mode/2up
24 Duane E. Jeffery, “Seers, Savants and Evolution: A Continuing Dialogue,” Dialogue 8, no. 3/4 (Spring/Summer 1974): 41–75, https://www.dialoguejournal.com/articles/seers-savants-and-evolution-the-uncomfortable-interface/
25 Stephen Snow, Kathy Snow, Dow Woodward, Normon L. Eatongh, and Duane E. Jeffrey, “Seers, Savants and Evolution: A Continuing Dialogue,” Dialogue 9, no. 3 (Autumn 1974): 21–37, https://www.dialoguejournal.com/articles/seers-savants-and-evolution-a-continuing-dialogue-5/
26 BYU Board of Trustees, “Evolution and the Origin of Man,” June 1992, https://biology.byu.edu/00000172-29e6-d079-ab7e-69efe5890000/byu-evolution-packet
27 William E Evenson, “Evolution packet defined,” The Daily Universe, November 12, 1992, 3, http://www.ndbf.net/010.pdf.
28 The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Teachings of Presidents of the Church: Joseph Smith (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2011), 267.
29 Duane Jeffery, foreword, in Trent D. Stephens, D. Jeffrey Meldrum, and Forrest B. Peterson, Evolution and Mormonism: A Quest for Understanding (Salt Lake City: Signature Books, 2001), 13.
30 Winder, History of the Department of Zoology, 18–45.
31 Michael Whiting and Steven Peck, Fifty Years of Evolution at BYU: A Celebration [PowerPoint slides], Brigham Young University, Biology Department, November 17, 2022.
32 Daniel J. Fairbanks, Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA (New York: Prometheus Books, 2010), 8–9.
33 Whiting and Peck, Fifty Years of Evolution at BYU: A Celebration.
34 David O. McKay, “A Message for L.D.S. College Youth,” transcript of speech delivered at Brigham Young University, October 8, 1952, BYU Speeches of the Year, 5–6.