BYU science professors don't view teaching evolution as excluding faith
Feb. 09, 2009
Most biology faculty and students do not have a problem reconciling faith with their study of evolution, and many even find it spiritually inspiring.
"Too often we assume a false dichotomy," said Brigham Young University biology professor Jerry Johnson. "Yet one can accept evolution and still be a faithful follower of Christ."
Students study evolution every semester, whether in the senior capstone class Biology 420, evolutionary biology, or in Biology 100. Charles Darwin's theories are not a controversial side-topic for the sciences but a core, connecting theme.
Johnson and biology department chair Keith Crandall referred to a quote by geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky that "Nothing in biology makes sense, except in the light of evolution."
BYU biology professors Johnson, Crandall, Michael Whiting and Jack Sites said they have had positive experiences teaching evolution and few problems. They are careful to teach evolution so students' concerns are addressed, and they spend time in class discussing the issues. Professors resolve religious questions by referring students to the packet of LDS First Presidency statements on evolution. They said they pay close attention to feedback on student ratings and that many students say taking the class strengthened their testimonies.
"We spend time dispelling the myth that evolution and religion are incompatible," Johnson said. "We try to unburden students from the idea of either-or. That's baggage they don't have to carry."
Johnson said his study of evolution has not diminished his faith, but has strengthened it by giving him a greater understanding of the creation.
"It gives me insight into the creator's mechanism," Johnson said. "I hope every student comes out of my class with a greater testimony of the creation God has made."
Whiting, who teaches a Book of Mormon class this semester as well as evolutionary biology, said he finds it much more impressive to view God creating species through the mechanism of evolution rather than individually.
"I find it very faith-affirming," Whiting said. "We learn about the nature of the creator."
Johnson said sometimes fitting together science and religion does create challenges, but students should not let this become a roadblock.
He gave an analogy of building a rock wall. When he finds a good rock, but it doesn't fit into the wall, instead of throwing it out, he sets it aside to see if it will fit later. Johnson said often in biology, religion and life, all the answers do not come immediately, but that does not mean we should discard good ideas, such as evolution.
"We need to be careful not to think that we understand everything, both from a science and religious perspective," Johnson said. "It's OK not to have all the answers."
Professors said it helped students to understand the view of the creation in LDS theology, which does not always align with traditional interpretations of the creation story in Genesis.
"The first thing is to realize we are not creationists the way the world understands it," Crandall said.
He said understanding this makes it easier to fit the two together.
Evolution at BYU
Professors do not avoid the topic of evolution at BYU or modify Darwin's theories in class.
"We're teaching a solid, rigorous evolution course," Johnson said.
Johnson said in national standardized exams, Biology 420 students score higher in evolution and ecology than the national averages.
Johnson and Sites completed their post-doctoral teaching at other universities before coming to BYU, and found that students of all faiths are interested in knowing how evolution fits in with their beliefs.
"You might be surprised to learn that I've had the exact same questions about evolution and religion asked of me everywhere I've taught," Johnson said.
Rather than finding greater conflicts at BYU, professors said there were greater opportunities.
"We have the best of both worlds," Whiting said. "We can teach in the light of the restored gospel. [When students have a] better understanding of evolution, they realize their faith isn't being challenged."
Johnson said evolution is his favorite class to teach and that he hopes every biology class will cover it. He said questions regarding evolution will come up wherever his students go after leaving BYU, and it is a benefit to be able to discuss these topics while they are here.
"I'd much rather have my students wrestle with hard questions here at BYU where they can be basked in [this] environment, than somewhere else," he said.
The distinction between science and religion
Most biology majors do not have a problem studying evolution and some tire of the religion-evolution debate.
"The constant debate wears you out after the first day," said Mike Streeter, a junior from Tucson, Ariz., majoring in physiology and developmental biology.
Many do not find a problem because they see science and religion as distinct spheres with their own unique functions.
"When we talk about evolution, it's just facts and what you can observe," said Aaron Fordham, a senior from Byron, Ill., majoring in biology. "I can view evolution as a very good mechanism to understand our natural surroundings and still have a testimony."
Fordham and other students said LDS First Presidency statements on evolution were helpful.
Caitlin Nichols, a sophomore from Orange, Calif., majoring in molecular biology, said she thinks it is important to learn about evolution as a science.
"I don't think science has to conflict with religion," Nichols said.
Sites said he is opposed to requiring public schools to teach religious views of the creation alongside evolution in science classes because religion is not science. He said religion has a separate place.
"Science can figure out the laws and how they work, but it can't ask 'where did the laws come from?'" he said. "Science is not equipped to do it. That's not its purpose."
He said if he put God as the one who orchestrated those laws, there is never any conflict.
Good from Darwin
While some may not know where Darwin fits in the rock wall, professors say his theories have many positive contributions.
"It's amazing to think of all the applications the theory of evolution has in daily life that we take for granted," Johnson said.
Among these are advances in medicine, agriculture, conservation, vaccine development and research to understand HIV and other diseases using knowledge of viral evolution.
"All these advances are firmly anchored in the theory of evolution," Johnson said. "To tout this as an evil thing is a paradox. I think it's the opposite. It is a blessing of knowledge that we know how evolution works."
Darwin's theories have not only benefited biology, but all the life sciences.
Geology professor Brooks Britt said Darwin's theories are integral to everything he teaches. Surrounded by an office with dinosaur bones and fossils, he studies and teaches what he calls "genealogy in deep time," the lineage and relationships of prehistoric species such as dinosaurs.
The concepts of evolution enable paleontologists to find how dinosaurs are related to birds, crocodiles and other species, through identifying common features on bones and fossils.
"This earth isn't static," Britt said. "Organisms have changed dramatically. [Evolution] is the glue that binds biology and paleontology together."
Whiting said much good comes from competent biologists who understand evolution. He said LDS biologists refuted claims that challenged the credibility of the Book of Mormon because they understood DNA signatures.
"I think that evolutionary biology has not only blessed humankind but the church and students," Whiting said.
Sites said the theories of Darwin and colleague Alfred Wallace are the landmark story of biology, followed only by the discovery of the DNA molecule in the 1950s.
"It's our story in biology," Sites said. "It has important lessons for us, so it ought to be taught."