B.H. Roberts on Evolution

Gospel and Man's Relationship to Deity, a book written by B.H. Roberts, was first published in 1888 with new editions released as a late as 1924. In a "Supplement" at the end of the book, Roberts takes on the topic of evolution. It is clear from his discussion that Roberts did not accept evolution for reasons having to do with both theology and science. Since there were multiple editions of the book, I do not know whether the supplement was included from the beginning or was added later, however it appears that he eventually did modify some of his thinking on the matter (see below).

The Supplement is interesting for at least two reasons. First, it shows what Roberts thought about evolution (as understood at the time). Second, Roberts lays out a number of arguments that persist to this day. The Supplement is too long to reproduce here, but I will provide the most relevant passages. Since it is such a readily accessible resource, I will also provide links to counter-arguments made on Talkorigin.com's Index to Creationist Claims. I will also add a few comments of my own. In doing so I intend no disrespect toward Roberts--as the 1931 controversy and other aspects of his life show, he was a man of both spiritual and intellectual integrity. I do not, however, believe that we do Roberts any honor by not providing answers to his objections.

The state of science has progressed immeasurably since Roberts first published this book--or even since he died. Think of the concepts of radioactive decay, genes, plate tectonics, the structure and coding of DNA, molecular biology, and genomics--the majority of these did not even exist in Roberts' lifetime and those that did were still in their infancy. These concepts have brought us an unprecedented understanding of the world we live in--an understanding that is increasingly harnessed by technology for practical benefit. I wonder what Roberts would say today.

Excerpts from the Supplement (page numbers are included):
p.265 What do these facts prove, I mean the sterility of species and hybrids on the one hand, and fertility of varieties, descendants from a common stock, on the other? Why, that the great law of nature is, as announced in holy writ, that every seed shall produce after its kind, and every fish, fowl, creeping thing, beast, and man shall bring forth after his kind-that is what it proves. And though man may for a moment by crossing species cause a slight deviation from the great law, it can be but for an instant, the monstrosity cannot be perpetuated, it dies out by being made unfruitful.

How do these facts affect the theory of evolution? Let us remember upon what that theory rests. It rests upon the principle that lower forms producing favorable variations, and these being preserved by the process of natural selection, amount finally to the production of distant species; but we have seen that varieties cannot produce what may be called the great characteristic of species-infertility to each other; then also we have seen there is a check to variation in the sterility of species and hybrids. Add these facts to that other fact that neither in living nature nor in the geological records can be found the intermediate transitional forms linking together by fine gradations the species, and the theory of evolution as advocated by many modern scientists lies stranded upon the shore of idle speculation.

Now that the basis of heredity and genetics are better understood, Roberts' objections are consistent with, if not outright supportive of, evolution. The more closely related two species are, the more likely it is that they can produce a hybrid (not all hybrids are sterile, by the way). Inability to produce a hybrid means that the reproductive isolation is complete. This is a matter of genetics, not a supernatural law governing variation.

Evolution has not been proved.
Mutations do not produce new features.
Range of variation is limited within kinds.
Evolution predicts a continuum of organisms, not discrete kinds.
Transitional fossils are lacking.
There should be billions of transitional fossils.
Science cannot define "species."

p.266 But if the hypothesis of evolution be true, if man is only a product evolved from the lower forms of life, better still producing better, until the highest type of intellectual manhood crowns with glory this long continued process-then it is evident that there has been no "fall," such as the revelations of God speak of; and if there was no fall, there was no occasion for a Redeemer to make atonement for man, in order to reconcile him to God; then the mission of Jesus Christ was a myth, the coinage of idle brains, and Jesus himself was either mistaken, or one of the many impostors that have arisen to mock mankind with the hope of eternal life.

There are two crucial links in reasoning here, and in many other theological treatments of evolution. The first is that the Fall of Adam and Eve is incompatible with evolution. The second is that without the Fall, the Atonement is unnecessary. I would like to deal with these in a future post. For now I will just say that I believe that these objections can be overcome. (If the first is overcome, the second is moot.) It is self-evident that we are subject to physical death. It is also self-evident (to most people) that we are not in the presence of God. Since the purpose of the Atonement is to overcome these two things, I think that how they came to be is of secondary importance, theologically. I hope to expand on this in a future post. Although the index treatment of this is unsatisfactory to me, it at least gives something to think about.

Without a literal Fall, there is no need for Jesus and redemption.

p.267 I am aware that there is a class of men who profess to be "Christian evolutionists," and who maintain that Christianity can be made to harmonize with the philosophy of evolution. But how are they made to harmonize? We are told that Jesus is still a Redeemer, but in this sense only: he gave out faultless moral precepts, and practiced them in his life, and inasmuch as people accept his doctrines and follow his example they will be redeemed from evil. But as to the fall of man and the atonement made for him by the Son of God-both ideas are of necessity rejected; which means, of course, denying the great fundamental truths of revelation; it is by destroying the basis on which the Christian religion rests, that the two theories are harmonized-if such a process can be called harmonization. It is on the same principle that the lion and the lamb harmonize, or lie down together-the lion eats the lamb.

If this is the best harmonization that can be accomplished, we do have a problem. While this may be the solution for some, I think the options presented here are a false dichotomy. See above.

p.279 The Prophet Joseph Smith is credited with having said that our planet was made up of the fragments of a planet which previously existed; some mighty convulsions disrupted that creation and made it desolate. Both its animal and vegetable life forms were destroyed...

p.281 Accepting this statement of Joseph Smith relative to our planet in its present state being created or formed from the fragments of a planet which previously existed, one may readily understand how the supposed differences between scientists and believers in revelation have arisen. Scientists have been talking of the earth's strata, that were formed in a previously existing planet; they have considered the fossilized flora and fauna embedded in those strata, and have speculated as to the probable lapse of time since those animal and vegetable forms of life existed; and have generally concluded that the age is so far remote that there is no possible chance of harmonizing it with the account of the creation as given in the Bible. Believers in the Bible, on the other hand, have generally taken it for granted that the account of the creation in the sacred record would give to the earth no greater antiquity than six thousand years; and have held that within that period the universe was created out of nothing by the volition of Deity-an idea so palpably absurd that intelligence, despite all church authority to the contrary, everywhere rejects it.

The theory set forth in this writing that before Adam was placed upon this earth to people it with his offspring, the matter of which it is composed existed in another planet, which by some mighty convulsion was broken up, and from its ruins was formed our present earth, at once affords a means of harmonizing those facts established by the researches of men and the facts of revelation. If scientists shall claim that myriads of years or of centuries must have been necessary to form the earth's crust, it may be allowed by the believers in revelation, for there is nothing that would contradict that idea in the revelations of God on the subject. If scientists shall claim that the fossilized remains in the different strata of the earth's crust reveal the fact that in the earlier periods of the earth's existence only the simpler forms of vegetation and animal life are to be found, both forms of life becoming more complex and of higher type as the earth becomes older, until it is crowned with the presence of man-all that may be allowed. But that this gradation of animal and vegetable life owes its existence to the process of evolution is denied. As before stated, the claims of evolution, as explained by philosophers of the Darwin school, are contrary to all experience so far as man's knowledge extends. The great law of nature is that every plant, herb, fish, beast and man produces its kind; and though there may be slight variation from that law, those variations soon run out either by reverting to the original stock, or else by becoming incapable of producing offspring, and thus become extinct.

Furthermore, since we have learned that God made "every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb before it grew" (i. e. in our earth), the gradation of life forms which the naturalists discover in the various strata of the earth's crust may reasonably be accounted for aside from the theory of evolution-viz., by the animal and vegetable life forms of some older earth being brought to our own; different species being transplanted as changed conditions in the soil and atmosphere and temperature of our earth rendered it favorable to their productions, the older species becoming extinct as the changed conditions of the earth became unfavorable to them.

Then too, the theory advanced in this writing gives ample room for the reconciliation of another serious difficulty between the scientist and the believer in revelation. To the latter Adam is the first man; the former maintains that there are evidences which prove the earth to have been inhabited before Adam's time. Whether or not the planet which existed previous to our own, and out of the ruins of which our own was organized was inhabited by man as well as by vegetation and animals, I cannot say; all remarks on this subject would be conjecture merely. But if the researches of scientists prove beyond all question that there were pre-Adamic races, then doubtless they were inhabitants of that world which was destroyed, but the evidence of their existence as well as the evidence of the existence of animals and vegetation was preserved in the re-creation of that planet to form this earth. Though, in this connection, I must say that so far as I have examined the works of those who treat on the subject of pre-historic man, or pre-Adamic races, they have hung the heaviest weights on the slenderest of threads: and I am inclined to the opinion that Adam was the progenitor of all races of men whose remains have yet been found.

The claim that the age of the earth and the fossil evidence can be explained by the earth having been formed from previous planets that were broken is unique, I think, to Latter-day Saints. I will defer discussion of this claim to my next post. I would just note that one of the reasons The Truth, The Way, The Life was not published by the Church was because it assumed life and death had occurred on this earth before Adam and Eve. Thus it appears that Roberts did not stick to the argument laid out above.

The statement by Roberts that "the claims of evolution...are contrary to all experience so far as man's knowledge extends" is telling. I think that many arguments against evolution really boil down to this sentiment. It is what Richard Dawkins calls "The Argument from Personal Incredulity." However, the truth or accuracy of scientific concepts does not lie in whether they are intuitive or not. Quite the contrary--science is full of counter-intuitive ideas. For example, even a casual exploration of physics will uncover concepts that have no resemblance to our day-to-day lives. We are used to it now, but there is nothing immediately intuitive about how microorganisms cause disease--the etiology of infectious diseases has been unknown for most of history. The germ theory of disease was deemed absurd by some skeptics. Examples could be multiplied--the point is that our daily experience is not always the best way to judge such things.

As for the transplantation of life on earth from a another planet, this is a common idea found in LDS circles--I'm not sure whether it is found in the broader Christian tradition. The history of this concept within Mormonism would be interesting--something I may investigate later. For now I will just say that the idea that most life-forms were transplanted from another place does not really solve any problems. First, it does nothing to answer the question of how the life-forms were created. It merely moves the question back to another place. It also fails to explain the evidences from biogeography, the fossil record, and molecular evidences of common descent. Whether the original life on earth was a transplant is something that probably cannot be ruled out by present evidence, but that is another matter. If transplantation of life from elsewhere has occured we currently have no evidence for it, and for large-scale transplantation, we have much evidence against it.

Macroevolution has never been observed.

[This is a cross-post from LDS Science Review.]


It's good to see that somebody is still lurking around here. It seemed like ever since we got past Mormon Doctrine there was almost nothing to talk about, as if my theories were good enough. (Yeah, right.)

I will be very interested to see how you deal with the atonement in your posts, especially in how they are different from my approaches. Perhaps you can offer a better approach than I can, thus perhaps allowing the NDBF-ers to at least consider the possibility that the entire biological community isn't mislead. 

Posted by Jeffrey Giliam

6/29/2005 11:44:00 AM  

"Jeff Said"

"I will be very interested to see how you deal with the atonement in your posts, especially in how they are different from my approaches. Perhaps you can offer a better approach than I can, thus perhaps allowing the NDBF-ers to at least consider the possibility that the entire biological community isn't mislead"

I am only a "soft-line" NDBF'er. I have a hard time believe the entire current Curriculim is wrong, but, I
also believe the fossil record. I still vote for a "Noah's Ark" type of destruction followed by a renewal.

However, as Jeff has pointed out, human evolution so destroys the integrity of the Scripural Cannon that I am forced to conclude that either it, or the "entire biological community is missing a chip somewhere.


Otherwise, I must dismiss a 34 year personal history of interacting with Deity through Scipture, resulting in 1000's of personally experienced miracles, based larely on faith in the veracity of all of the Cannon.

Then, other than to dismiss them as "out of the mainstream of science" - no one on here has yet dealt with the Intelligent Design movement in a way that appears to me nuetral. A bias towards mainstream science on this matter seems very evident to me, one quite strong enough to prejudice views.

Since, with its 40 funded projects, all in infancy, but, with credible scientists working,Intelligent Design MAY be able to someday bridge the gap between science and scripture, I place some faith there.

I would think that is where rational LDS scientists would also be working. Otherwise, they are forced to choose between 2 personal and apparent and conflicting
absolutes, or, as Jeff has done, jetison (at least as history) one of them. The others will continue to say things like that physicist who says "boy, if we earthlings who were lucky enough to get immortal spirits after 14 billion years of random effort on the part of the universe don't get our act together in the
next 2 billion years, when the sun goes red-giant, God will not be able to save our species"

Posted by Greg

7/16/2005 10:18:00 AM  

Jeff - the last, anonymous post was mine . Greg

7/16/2005 10:19:00 AM  

My favorite literal reconciliation goes like this: The world was first created in a spiritual state, no death, spirit instead of blood, etc. Adam and Eve had bodies made of spirit 'dust', etc. Then the events of the Garden of Eden take place, Adam and Eve are removed from the Garden of Eden, and the world is rebuilt from scratch as a physical world complete with death over a period of several billion years while Adam and Eve tarry elsewhere. Then at the appropriate time ~4000 BC or so they are granted mortal physical bodies by whatever means, and the story continues. I don't see any other way to preserve the Fall as an actual event with universal effect. 

Posted by Mark Butler

7/22/2005 10:27:00 PM  



<< Home