Evolution and Spirit Birth

As I said in the last post, if we believe in evolution it becomes difficult to believe that we knew our spouses in the preexistence, or that we even knew who our families would be or that we even had the same "physical" appearance that each of us enjoys now. Of course one can, and probably should, maintain that organization into families is an ongoing process which is happening as we speak. All in all, however, each person's preexistentent individuality is becoming more generic.

These problems are nothing, however, compared to the notion of spirit birth. Remember, Joseph Smith didn't believe (or at least didn't teach) that we were born to spiritual parents. He believed us to be uncreated spirits with no beginning or end. But this is not what we teach now so we must address this issue.

All things, especially living things, were created spiritually before temporally. We are the spirit children of God, while the animals are.... what? Usually it is believed that animals are formed, somehow, but this goes against the logic of those 19th century Mormons who believed that the only real way to create is through procreation. This is why they taught that Adam was literally a son of God. This is one of the reasons why some adopted the idea of spirit birth in the first place. So maybe animals were born spiritually to some resurrected and glorified animal. But here is where the problems arise.

In the geological strata we can go back in time and see that man evolved from an ancestor which we share with chimpazees. There was no definite break. No place where we can say, this son was a human while his parents were cro-magnon. No place where we can say, this son was a spiritual son of God while his parents were spiritual creations of God, or even a spirit child of a cro-magnon-God.

We can say that all of the children of Adam were spirit children of God, but this brings up other issues which we will address later. One that I will mention here, however, is that we are related quite intimately to animals. Which means that if we all go back to an Adam, this Adam goes back to a cro-magnon. The same logic can be applied to any "species" as we humans have labeled them for convenience if we are to attribute spiritual birth to them. We can't say that each animal from any given species were spiritually born to a single "God" of that species. This destroys the continuity displayed by evolution.

Put another way, evolution effectively destroyed what has been called essentialism as applied to organisms. Aristotle taught that we could define everything, in our case organisms, by its essential properties, properties which if any given organism did not possess it would no longer be classified as a member of that particular species. The whole point of evolution is that there are no essential properties in life. Numberless intermediate life forms make it impossible to categorize each organism according to essence. In fact, all life forms, including us, are intermediate, on their way to becoming something else. Dennett describes the predicament of the essentialist paradigm as follows:
You may think you're a mammal, and that dogs and cows and whales are mammals, but really there aren't any mammals at all-ther couldn't be! Here's the philosphical argument to prove it.
  1. Every mammal has a mammal for a mother.
  2. If there have been any mammals at all, there have been only a finite number of mammals.
  3. But if there has been even one mammal, then by (1), there have been an infinity of mammals, which contradicts (2), so there can't have been any mammals. It's a contradiction in terms.
The way around this, according to Darwin, is that things gradually became more and more mammal-ish until enough separation has been established between them and what we now call non-mammals to officially declare a difference between the two.

But this doesn't work for spiritual birth. Can creatures gradually become more and more born-of-God-ish? No, a creature is either a spirit child of God or not, there is no grey area.

Let's consider an alternative which was actually tossed around by Orson Pratt. We are not so much children of God as much as we are spirit grand children of God. This, Elder Pratt speculated, would releave our Mother in Heaven from having to give birth to the billions of people of the earth. This idea has some advantages in this context, for it allows us to be related to our earthly family members and thereby let's us think that our spirit displayed our current family resemblances and so forth.

This leads us to talk of (please hold back the laughter) "spiritual genetics" and "spiritual evolution." This would help eliminate the issue of essentialism in the spirit realm as it has here. It could also give us a place to maintain that God actually did control evolution, again, somehow.

But problems still remain in addition to a new one. We are saying that evolution took the exact same road twice. This is a direct violation of Dollo's Law:
Dollo's Law is really just a statement about the statistical improbability of following exactly the same evolutionary trajectory twice... in either direction. A single mutational step can easily be reversed. But for larger numbers of mutational steps... the mathematical space of all possible trajectories is so vast that the chance of two tragectories ever arriving at the same point becomes vanishingly small. -Richard Dawkins
Also, unanswered are the issues surrounding free-will (the ability the have children with whoever you want) and historical contigency (extinctions, bodily dismemberments and so forth).

All in all, I simply cannot find a footing for a literal spirit birth in the preexistence. There are other options however. There is the "eternal spirit" doctrine taught by Joseph Smith which involves a kind of spiritual adoption into God's family. There is also the idea of our having preexisted in God's mind, but having no actual preexistent identity.

The literal doctrine of a spirit birth inevitably gives rise to essentialism in our classifying living creatures. Evolution, however, has thoroughly demolished essentialism as applied to living creatures. Thus, it is very difficult if not impossible to reconcile evolution with a literal spirit birth.


I don't want to detract from what we're doing here, but I just want to point out that there was quite a discussion about pre-mortal life over at Times and Seasons.

I've seen it argued that if we could turn back time, the same basic course of evolution would be followed--ie. we would still get here. (I think maybe Dawkins said this.) I'm not prepared to really engage this issue, but is it possible that in worlds with out end, the same general types of life develop? If we allow for some flexibility in spirit-body relationship (putting aside humans for the moment), is it possible that God creates (however it is done) spirits that he knows will have physical form because the same general patterns develop over and over?

As for "spirit birth," it's hard for me to see why, or even how, it could be a process very much like mortal birth. The mortal birth process is tailored to mortality--why should spirit creation follow the same constraints and processes?

3/20/2005 11:03:00 AM  

Dawkin's comment, if it was him, belies a strong notion of determinism, namely that there is one possible past in our universe and one possible future. In other words the future is absolutely fixed. This idea is not that incompatible with Mormon doctrine (see L. Rex Sears' Thesis "An Essay in Philosphical Mormon Theology"), but I'm not sure many members would like the idea that no matter how many times you are put in a certain circumstance, you will always do the same thing. This strongly implies that our decisions are made entirely by our circumstances.

Dawkins and Dennett both said that it is possible that the same general types of phenotypes could arise over and over again, but not genotypes. For instance, if we find intelligent life, they will probably have a metabolic system, some form of skin to form definite boundaries between themselves and everything else, they would probably have eyes (though very different from ours), and some form of appendages to help them move around (serving the same purpose as our arms and legs). If they are smart enough, they would also probably know mathematics, but probably not base ten arithmatic. These are forced moves in evolution, but they are not near specific enough for us to use them in our idea of spiritual creation.

It is possible that God spiritually creates each animal relatively close to their birth, but not all organisms are born. Pregnancy would be a perfect solution for when god creates the spirits of animals, but most would not be happy with this idea as applied to humans.

Perhaps, spiritual birth is not like mortal birth, but if such is the case we should stop calling it birth altogether. What is required is that all organisms are either "born" to God or none are. If none are, and we are really only called or adopted as spirit children, then one can use the logic set forth in the post "evolution and self-existing spirits." But agains we run into the same problems of randomness, historical contigency and free will. These problems require a great deal of foreknowledge and extraordinary power.

I was considering doing a post analyzing this possibility, but I think that we have already covered enough preexistence ground for people to see what my points will be.

3/20/2005 11:55:00 AM  

Jared, thanks for the link. I have no plans of reading all 220 comments, but I do plan on perusing it.

I saw that Blake Ostler kind of agreed with my conclusion regarding the self-existing spirits (though in a very different context and for very different reasons). It is comforting to no that such a great mind is in agreement with me as opposed to opposition.

3/20/2005 12:05:00 PM  

I think that we can say with confidence that there is a difference in "intelligence" between two beings. Christ, it is said, is greater than all. If we follow through with this we get a gradation of spirits that could be lined up based on intelligence. The being at the head of the line is Divine and had the eternal capacity for Godhood.

If you follow the line backwards, you have to come to a point where the being standing there, while pretty intelligent, does not have the capacity to become like God.

I don't see any basis for projecting our current physiology onto our premortal spirits. I do think that Adam was the first co-heir (if you will) to inhabit this earth. There needs to be an outlet for the rest of those beings who did not have the capacity for manhood.

There is, however, a huge amount of disparity in reasonable belief on this issue (which that thread at T&S will verify). But, I concur that viviparous spirit birth seems extraordinarily untenable. And if we are not limited by the concept of viviparous spirit birth then the field seems wide open (other types of spirit birth seeming to pose little problem).

3/20/2005 10:01:00 PM  

Another interesting point regarding this issue, is that it could help explain why God used evolution. People point out the huge amounts of waste, death and suffering implied by evolution, but what if God is merely letting less intelligent "intelligences" progress through mortality? After all, isn't that the point of our temporal existence? This could be one of the "greater goods" that I mentioned in the "Is Evolution the Best He Could Do?" post.

3/21/2005 01:06:00 AM  

Jeffrey, we should keep in mind that creation = procreation was not just a 19th century doctrine; as Greg pointed out, it was taught by Pres. Kimball in the April 1977 General Conference, and therefore arguably late 20th century doctrine.

Where can I read more about Joseph not believing in spirit birth? This idea is new to me.

3/23/2005 09:27:00 AM  

There are two sources I would recommend reading, 1) Line Upon Line has two essays on it which are quite good, 2) the times and seasons link which Jared supplies above. The discussion is long, but quite good.

Pres. Kimball's remarks, though taught in the 20th century, were obviously based not on any revelation he had recieved, but on 19th century Mormon teachings. He was by no means the only 20th century church leader to speak on those things either, but nobody in the 20th century claimed revelation on the subject. This may not mean much to some people, but I think it is relevant.

3/23/2005 09:44:00 AM  

Jeff Said

"but nobody in the 20th century claimed revelation on the subject. This may not mean much to some people, but I think it is relevant."

Within the "structure" of the Kingdom, so to speak, how does an "authority" claim and publish or announce "revelation"? Two examples come quickly to mind. One, of course,is the "Revelation on the Priesthood" in 1978. It was announced that way, and I personally accept it as Revelation. However, many posters here would consider it actually be only a correction of "false doctrine."

The other is the revelation ending the practice of plural marriage in the U.S. This was also announced as revelation. Both of these examples are published as Scripture. However, again, many would consider this also to be a correction of false doctrine. Thus, the two obvious examples can be easily discounted as inherently "politcal" actions.

Please give examples of your standard for a statement or teaching to be "revelation," if you would.
Since Pres. Kimball's does not qualify, I assume you have a standard that was not met, but can and has been met, lest there be no standard and thus no possible revelation at the institutional level.

3/24/2005 07:09:00 PM  

For somebody to claim revelation they need merely claim that it was given to them be revelation. "Thus saith the Lord.." has worked well in the past. "Behold, I had seen a vision.." was sufficient for Joseph. I heard a voice.. I had a dream... Any of these things would work just fine. Just let us know that you are speaking with more than your authority.

3/24/2005 09:03:00 PM  

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7/17/2006 10:50:00 AM  

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