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Impact Magazine

50 Years of Teaching Evolution at BYU

“Science dominated by the spirit of religion is the key to progress and the hope of the future.”—David O. McKay

Illustration mimicking the apes to man illustration with four figures. From left to right: a light-skinned man with short dirty blonde hair wearing a yellow button down and tan slacks sits in a chair and bends over a desk writing with a pencil. There are several sticky notes on the wall behind him and a blue clock. The second figure is a light-skinned woman with short light brown hair bends forward as she draws a phylogenetic tree on a green chalkboard. She's wearing blue pants with a white stripe down the side, a blue striped button down, and a brown cardigan with an elbow patch. The third figure is a medium-skinned man with short dark brown hair leans on a brown projection stand shining a human skeleton on a yellow background behind him. He's wearing a gingham blue shirt and green pants. The fourth figure is a light-skinned woman with long blonde hair tied up a ponytail, wearing light brown pants and a cropped brown sweater. She's presenting in front of her, carrying a tablet.
Photo by Kate Olsen

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

Camera angle is from lower to the ground facing upwards. A blue satin ribbon stretches from the left side to the middle, tied in a bow. Three men holding a giant pair of scissors with a red handle place the blades on the top and bottom of the ribbon. In the middle of the image, on the left side of the group, is a balding light-skinned man wearing black-framed grasses, a blue button down, and a blue striped tie. The second member of the group is an older looking man with balding silver hair and thick eyebrows. He's wearing rectangular glasses with thin silver frames and a yellow button down. The third, and furthest to the right of the image, is an older man with thin silver and white hair. He has a white mustache and wears a brown wool coat with elbow patches.
Michael Whiting, Clayton White, and Duane Jeffery cut the ribbon opening the new LSB evolution display.
Photo by Aubrey Johnson

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

Newspaper clipping from 1911. The headline reads "B.Y.U. students destroy reply of presidency and make public the protest they formulated." Below is a subheading that reads "Diplomatically but firmly they warn the faculty that if modern teachings are excluded they must look elsewhere for their education; demand freedom of investigation." In a rectangular box below this, the text reads "Say church cannot ignore science." A subheading below that reads "Evolution, petition declares, gives new view of Mormon religion, but accounts for more facts than any other hypothesis; retention of professors asked." The article continues: "B.Y.U. students asked for the retention of three teachers of evolution and the higher criticism, present the following arguments: No church is big enough to ignore science. Freedom of investigation requisite to progress. If the Mormon gospel is true it will triumph over error without artificial aid. Theology, not science, is the church's matter. Evolution, although causing students to view Mormon doctrine in different light, nevertheless accounts for more actual facts than any other hypothesis. If these professors go none other of like scholarship and like sympathy with Mormonism can be found. Their removal will hurt school's credit in eastern universities. Students will be compelled to look elsewhere for a complete education."

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.
BYU Students' 1911 Petition

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

Quote on a watercolor blue and green background. "The fact that all created things are the works of God and that all processes of nature are due to Him as the administrator of law and order is to the scientific mind an axiom requiring neither argument nor demonstration. The botanist knows that God makes the plant grow: but he, weak mortal, is devoting time and the energy of body, mind and spirit, to a study of the way in which God works such a marvelous miracle. The geologist knows that God created the earth; but the best effort of his life is put forth in the hope of finding out in some degree, however small, the method by which the Creator wrought this wondrous world." Attribution to James E. Talmage, footnote 16.

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.

On the left is an older man with thin silver and white hair. He has a white mustache and wears a brown wool zip up coat. On the right is an older man with balding silver hair and thick eyebrows. He's wearing rectangular glasses with thin silver frames and a yellow button down with a brown corduroy blazer over it.
Jeffery and White celebrating evolution at BYU.
Photo by Michael Whiting

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

A little girl with blonde hair wearing a long-sleeve orange shirt, light blue jeans, and white sneakers with rainbows on the heels stands in front of a tall display, measuring her height against the glass to a small skeleton. The next three skeletons to the left get progressively taller, the last being a human skeleton. On the other side of that skeleton are two primate skeletons, one standing on its back two legs and the other bent over onto four limbs. The sign on the back of the display says "Human evolution" and each skeleton is joined by a phylogenetic tree on the back wall.
Understanding the Principles of Evolution is a permanent exhibition at the BYU Monte L. Bean Life Science Museum.
Photo by Nicholas Rex

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.
Daniel J. Fairbanks

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

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.”

Three men are in side profile looking into a display case featuring various skeletal pieces. The light-skinned man on the left has short dark brown hair, glasses, and a little bit of white stubble. He's wearing a blue button down, a blue striped tie, and a gray suit jacket. The balding light-skinned man in the middle is wearing black-framed grasses and a blue button down. His arm is tucked under the third man's as he gestured to the display. The older light-skinned man with balding brown and silver hair and thick eyebrows wears rectangular glasses with thin silver frames and a yellow button down. In his left hand he holds onto a cane.
Rick Potts, Whiting, and White reading the LSB evolution display.
Photo by Aubrey Johnson

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.
Elisabeth Currit

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.

Infographic with white text on a blue background. The text reads "Incorporating evolution into BYU's curriculum has provided students and faculty with opportunities to participate in research, receive grants, and public papers on the topic. 112 grants by the National Science Foundation, worth $20.5M. 40 other grants by external funding, worth $3.5M; top grant givers include: US Department of Agriculture, Bureau of Land Management, National Institute of Health, 934 papers by 8 faculty members who research evolution; each of the 8 faculty publish an average of 4.7 times a year." In the bottom corner the statistics are dated 1997-2021, with the footnote 33 attached.

1 Doctrine and Covenants 88:118

2 Nalia Tafua, “Life Sciences Building dedicated by Elder Russell M. Nelson,” The Daily Universe, April 10, 2015,
3 “What does the Church believe about evolution?,” New Era, October 2016,
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,
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,
10 Bruce C. Hafen, “Religious Education in BYU's Prophetic Historical Context,” transcript of speech delivered at Brigham Young University, August 28, 2019,
11 “B. Y. U. Students Destroy Reply of Presidency and Make Public the Protest They Formulated,” Salt Lake Tribune, March 16, 1911,
12 “B. Y. U. Students Make Position on Evolution Clear,” Salt Lake Telegram, March 16, 1911,
13 “B. Y. U. Controversy on Higher Criticism,” Logan Republican, March 18, 1911,
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,
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,
23 R. Howell, M. Abel, J. Gardner, M. Gardner, “Evolution” [Letter to the editor], The Daily Universe, May 19, 1971,
24 Duane E. Jeffery, “Seers, Savants and Evolution: A Continuing Dialogue,” Dialogue 8, no. 3/4 (Spring/Summer 1974): 41–75,
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,
26 BYU Board of Trustees, “Evolution and the Origin of Man,” June 1992,
27 William E Evenson, “Evolution packet defined,” The Daily Universe, November 12, 1992, 3,
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.