Mormon Creation Narratives and Creation by Evolution

I once heard it said when I was a young undergraduate that the creation accounts – particularly that of Abraham – fit very well with evolutionary accounts of creation. A casual read of Abraham seems to confirm this: earth, void; waters divided from earth; plants come up from the earth; fish and fowl; beasts of the earth; man. This sort of progression would make sense from an evolutionary perspective – creation evolves from simple to complex.

But add Moses’ account into the mix and things become a little dicier. In Moses 2-3, we get a sense that the first account is a spiritual creation that occurs previous to the physical creation, which doesn’t begin until chapter 3. Then, when the physical account is actually given, the Lord states in Moses 3:7, “And I, the Lord God, formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul, the first flesh upon the earth, the first man also” (my emphasis). I can’t tell whether figurative language is being used here or not. The narrative continues when God says to His Only Begotten that “it was not good that the man should be alone; wherefore, I will make an help meet for him” (3:18). So, in the next verse, God forms, out of the ground, all the beasts (other “flesh upon the earth”) and brings them to Adam. Adam names them, “but as for Adam, there was not found an help meet for him” (3:20). None of the beasts would do. It wasn’t until Eve was created of his own flesh that “This I know now is bone of my bones…” (3:23; my emphasis).

It seems in this account that man was the first flesh, followed by the beasts, followed by woman (who was there all along, just part of man). That’s a somewhat backwards progression, in light of evolution.

But Abraham is different, isn’t it? Well, a more careful reading of Abraham’s creation account might in fact show more similarities. Look at how this narrative unfolds: it proceeds rather the same, beginning with the light, dividing the waters from the waters, the water from the earth, etc. Then we get to vegetation and things begin to get redundant. In verse 11: “Let us prepare the earth to bring forth grass…and it was so, even as they ordered” (my emphasis) and then verse 12: “And the Gods organized the earth to bring forth grass…and the Gods saw that they were obeyed” (my emphasis). But it only seems like a redundancy: first, the Gods prepared the earth to bring forth grass, and it was so. Then they organized the earth to bring forth grass, and they were obeyed. It’s as though they are planning (spiritual creation?) before they actually do it (physical creation?).

But look at how the planning/doing “redundancy” plays out later. Verse 20: “Let us prepare the waters to bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that have life; and the fowl, that they may fly above the earth in the open expanse of heaven.” This is – potentially – the first flesh, but in this first verse, the waters are only prepared, and it was so. Then we see something change when, in the next verse, the Gods prepare for the fish and the fowls: this time, they don’t wait to see that they are obeyed; instead, “the Gods saw that they would be obeyed, and that their plan was good” (my emphasis). Note the future tense, both here and when the Gods prepare for the beasts.

It appears, at this point, that Abraham might be covering both a spiritual and physical creation in a single narrative, rather than dividing it up like Moses did. First prepare, then do. But if that’s the case, then we must see somewhere where man is first flesh, like in the Moses account. Is that what we see? In fact, it seems that the Gods first  go down in verse 26 to “form man,” both male and female, give them dominion and whatnot. Then, in verse 30,  the proceed to “give…life” to all the beasts, fowl, and fishes. It seems that Abraham and Moses may indeed agree that Adam was the first flesh upon the earth, with the beasts to follow. Abraham, then, seems to offer the same reverse-progression that we get in Moses’ account of creation.

Now understand, I’m not trying to refute evolution by using the scriptures (please, people: I’m not a creationist; I do not claim these accounts are literal, but literary). But for those Latter-day Saints who love evolution, I am asking if our creation narratives ought to be, or even can be, used in support of creation by evolution?

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5 Responses

  1. Regardless of how it relates to evolution, Joe, I like the insights you pulled from Abraham. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Abraham’s account as implying a dual creation.

    I suppose it’s possible that the “would be obeyed” could be interpreted differently–that they saw evidence of obedience (in this life) and inferred that they would continue to be obeyed. But I think I might like your interpretation better.

  2. “I am asking if our creation narratives ought to be, or even can be, used in support of creation by evolution?”

    The answer I feel is no. Proving or teaching evolution is not the purpose of the scriptures. For that matter, science lessons are not the purpose of any scriptures. That doesn’t mean the scriptures should be seen as anti-science or anti-evolution or that the scriptures should be read non-literally (I am a literalist, but not an inneranist). What that means is that we should try to work on reconciling both worlds for a better understanding of both. The writers were not perfect and didn’t have a perfect understanding as mortals even with the revelations they received. They were, however, writing down truths and not fantasies.

  3. There was a time in my life (while a student at the BYU) when I put a lot of energy into collecting evidence that evolution was “wrong”. Now, looking back a couple of decades, I can see pretty clearly that my adolescent faith had been shaken by the revelation that the BYU Biology professors were not (*gasp*) strict creationists. For a while I was more than a bit frantic to repel the invaders to my bubble and get back to my knowledge of “the truth”.

    I’ve mellowed a lot since then. :-)

    As a faithful science guy, I believe that a loving Heavenly Father gave us the scriptural creation accounts for a variety of specific reasons — but that the various accounts we have are by no means an explicit instruction manual for (or a comprehensive news account depicting) the creation of a new world.

    Good science is a quest to understand reality and truth, and as good science progresses, more and more of that real truth is revealed to the scientist (and anyone else who cares to pay attention.)

    To be clear, vigorous argument against concepts we perceive to be threatening our faith is not necessarily entirely counterproductive, to the extent that the vigorous argument can help us ultimately gain more light and knowledge.

    Besides, the argument can also be quite entertaining. ;-)

    That said, any time we venture to put a stake in the ground with regards to creationary “truth” (or “fantasy”, as it were…) we ought to be very humble about the fact that we know very, very little about the physical processes that our Heavenly Father used to create the world and/or populate it with such an amazing variety of cool stuff for us to enjoy.

    In the eternities, I’d venture to guess that we’ll all look back at the creation/evolution debate and say, “Ooooooh…. Now that I understand the mechanics of what really happened, Abraham and Moses *both* make total sense.”

    …and in the meantime, it’s fun to try and figure out as best we can how it all works. :-)

    In the words of the (very faithful) Mormon Scientist Henry Eyring, “Is there any conflict between science and religion? There is no conflict in the mind of God, but often there is conflict in the minds of men.”

  4. I have posted a previous essay entitled, Biblical Genesis Corresponds with Evolution. The scriptures do not provide an adequate account of evolution, as they have an entirely different purpose. Even so, there are interesting correlations.

    As for me, I am a firm evolutionist. But, the big messages of the scriptures go far beyond any tiny contradictions with science. It seems shortsighted to disregard either science or religion. Both have value, and both need to be placed into a proper context. One of my favorite sayings is: “Don’t throw out the baby Jesus with the bathwater.”

  5. Interesting post. Thank you.

    Surely the scriptural accounts are literary and should not be taken literally, which is why I always say that I don’t know how the creation of life and Adam’s body occurred. I think that I can safely say, however, that it was a purposeful and directed process.

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