This is a brief chronology of my vacillation and exploration of the issues between evolution (especially human evolution) and LDS doctrine.
My mom taught me that maybe dinosaur fossils were in the earth because the earth had been created from other planets. Good enough for me. (I’ve since learned this is a scientifically untenable hypothesis and no LDS geologists believe it).
In high school
I felt the tension with the data we were exposed to in biology class, but I was in rural Texas and everyone including the teacher sort of winked at one another because we all knew it wasn’t really how God made us. Some tension.
As freshman at BYU
All my biology teachers seemed to fully accept evolution and we learned lots of the primary data which pointed to evolutionary origins. The case seemed open and shut and here were believing Latter-day Saints who accepted evolution. Evolution was true, end of story.
As a missionary
With my second companion we were talking with an investigator and the topic came up. I explained that we believe in evolution and it’s all good. That night my companion came home and schooled me for several hours. We listened to McConkie’s “7 deadly heresies” (the audio is way more intense than the official transcript, FYI) and he opened up the Old Testament seminary manual (same one we have today) and we read through all the discussion on the origin of man. Since I believed 100% in the Church and that the Brethren would never published something in an official manual that wasn’t true, I accepted that evolution must somehow be false and Adam and Eve must be real individuals created by God, etc. I even remember months later testifying to an atheist that Adam and Eve were real people. I began studying the Young Earth Creationist (YEC) literature a bit (e.g., Velokovsky). Mostly I shelved the topic, but definitely toed the YEC, orthodox, McConkie line.1
As an older BYU student
Again I was exposed to massive amounts of primary data that really only made sense from an evolutionary perspective. I went around and talked with BYU professors who seemed to know the most about evolution and the Gospel (e.g., Duane Jeffery and Scott R. Woodward). We discussed potential reconciliation, and that reconciliation almost always ended up pointing out how the leadership could sometimes be wrong on things and maybe there were figurative interpretations of scripture that were compatible with the data. I wrote my technical writing final term paper on the doctrinal reconciliation of evolution and the Gospel, so that means I basically researched the topic as much as I had time for the entire semester. I took a Pearl of Great Price class from Micheal Rhodes hoping to learn how to reconcile BoA issues. He basically spent a lot of the class teaching that evolution was false, so I ended up having long email exchanges with him trying to defend evolution and its compatibility with LDS doctrine. Church was true, scriptures could be interpreted to interpret evolution. LDS leaders sometimes get things wrong but there was nothing official against evolution so it was all good.
I made a point of doing a research rotation in the lab of David Hillis, one of the world’s leading experts on computational evolutionary tree reconstruction and a serious herpetologist. I was exposed to lots of primary data, how passionate these students were for understanding the data and how to properly interpret it, and also the math and algorithms behind phylogenetic reconstruction.
I eventually joined a lab doing systems biology, but some of the projects had an evolution focus (e.g., protein network evolution). One of the lab members doing this research was actually a Young Earth Creationist (an anabaptist) even though he was open to evolution being true, so we had lots of discussions on interpreting the data from a YEC and evolutionary POV.
During my postdoc and then at BYU I continued studying how best to reconcile evolution and the Gospel. I read books by faithful Latter-day Saints (e.g., Evolving: The Human Effect and Why It Matters) and in the course of my research and teaching continued being exposed to primary data strongly supporting an evolutionary perspective.
I expected that as a faculty member I would finally be privy to the nitty gritty details of how faithful LDS biochemists and biologists reconciled it all. I was disappointed. Most of them hardly understood the doctrinal issues or history and few of them had spent any real time in reconciliation from what I could tell. From what I could tell, BYU biologists fully accept evolution, including human evolution, (since the evidence for it is so overwhelming) and they don’t try to reconcile that in any resolution with LDS doctrine. It’s mostly hand-waving and cherry-picking the handful of statements that support science while ignoring all the difficult issues.
I always leaned towards making the most orthodox reconciliation possible, but after reading Guns Germs and Steel and getting more familiar with the primary data supporting ancient human migrations, I realized that I could not think of a single viable model that would bring together standard LDS doctrine and the human migration data (e.g., see these questions).
Perhaps more importantly, I spent a fair bit of time conversing with R. Gary Shapiro, the author of the No Death Before the Fall blog. He’s gone out of his way to document virtually every time a doctrine or teaching cuts against evolution and supports the LDS doctrine of no death before the fall for all living things. During my last two conversations with him (here and here I became convinced that the LDS Church implicitly rejected the evolution of humans in many ways and that a person unfamiliar with science and focusing only on Church material should conclude the same as R. Gary (i.e., that evolution, or at least human evolution, was likely false).
These realizations (i.e., an orthodox LDS narrative and the human migration data are irreconcilable and the strong leaning of LDS doctrine in opposition to demonstrable aspects of the evolutionary record) were key parts of my faith transition which occured just months after I left BYU.2
Our mission president, who was a Gospel scholar and to whom I looked up immensely gave everyone in the mission a copy of BRM’s Mormon Doctrine for Christimas, so that was the culture of our mission (gospel scholarship with an orthodox slant). ↩
I was 100% believing when I left BYU and left because I did not think my financial situation (we needed very expensive instruments to operate and I had not procured that level of funding) would be viable for me or helpful to my department, and I was fully confident I would get tenure (CFS) if I had stayed based on my teaching and publication record. ↩