Book Review – “Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist”, by Steven L. Peck
Maxwell Institute’s newest volume from the Living Faith series is scheduled to be released the end of October 2015. The author, Steven L. Peck, is an associate professor of biology at BYU and is trained as an entomologist.
I wasn’t sure what to expect of this book, as it seems the Living Faith series appears to be somewhat eclectic, such as Adam S. Miller’s excellent book, “Letters to a Young Mormon.” And “Evolving Faith” is an eclectic book, as Peck ranges widely in several essays from science to personal musings on death and nature.
The chapters include:
- Embracing Science, Resisting Literalism, and Shifting Pardigms
- Randomness, Contingency, and Faith: Is There a Science of Subjectivity?
- Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution
- The Current Philosophy of Consciousness Landscape: Where Does LDS Thought Fit?
- Life as Emergent Agential Systems: Tendencies without Teleology in an Open Universe
- Death and the Ecological Crisis
- An Ecologist’s View of Latter-day Saint Culture and the Environment
- Reverencing Creation
- Grace vis-à-vis Violence
- My Madness
- Noah’s Lament
- Crossing Boundaries and Sacred Spaces
As noted, the essays vary greatly, some scientific and some as personal views. I’ll briefly cover some of the issues discussed and my thoughts on them.
The Biologist at Work
He quickly notes he has two nemeses: Richard Dawkins and global warming skeptics. I was interested in seeing just how Peck would discuss his disagreements with both. More on this later.
In the first chapters, Peck deftly explains the concept behind scientific inquiry, including the importance of testing theories, observation, and repeatability of a quality theory. He warns that some use a dab of science to push theories that are not science, “it can be used as a weapon to imbue one’s personal ideas with the aura of science.”
There are times in the first chapters where he discusses mistakes made regarding evolution by church members, but unfortunately Peck does not explore these deeply – perhaps one of the biggest flaws of this volume. For example, he very briefly notes how Joseph Fielding Smith embraced the writings of 7th Day Adventist and Creationist George McReady Price, which caused decades long enmity against evolution in the Church. Instead of telling the story, he states, “the battle among Joseph Fielding Smith, James E. Talmage, and B. H. Roberts is well documented and need not be repeated here.” That may be well for a scientific or historical journal, however if one is attempting to convince the average Mormon that evolution is not one of the “seven deadly heresies” (Bruce R. McConkie, JFS’ son-in-law), then you have to tell the full story. Talmage did explain to Elder Smith that Price’s book was full of junk science, but Smith continued to expound it. Perhaps the only reason why a mistrust of evolution has continued in the Church for so long, is because Elder Smith outlived Elders Talmage and Roberts (and Widstoe), who were actually trained in science.
Because of issues like this, sometimes it was difficult to determine who is the actual audience for this book. Either you are presenting convincing arguments to the average Mormon, or you are preaching to the already convinced choir. This is an important point, I believe, because the hope is to convince an audience with logical, scientific and historical answers.
“God is dead” – Nietzche
“Nietzche is dead” – God
In discussing Richard Dawkins and other neo-atheists, who make their living on attacking religion and God, Peck does an excellent job in defending the faith. He shows that there is a point where Dawkins’ scientific arguments leave science and enter into conjecture. Why Dawkins’ conjecture should be of any more value than anyone else’s is an important point.
Peck discusses objective and subjective truths. He declares that while objective truths can be measured with microscopes, subjective truths cannot. Still, they exist. He uses the concept of the mind and consciousness to further our understanding. Science cannot objectively measure consciousness, yet subjectively we all know we have one. Peck’s discussion is very interesting and compelling to show that man cannot arrive at all truth through the scientific method.
“The last two decades have seen a flurry of books and papers on the compatibility of evolutionary biology and religion. As a religious evolutionary biologist, I find this both refreshing and reassuring.” He discusses the whether the universe was made with a purpose or not (he does believe it was), but notes, “but it was not brought about suddenly or with constant intervention by God.” Instead, God uses evolution to bring to pass a beautiful and glorious plan for the universe and earth.
While the neo-atheists would have us believe that everything is random in evolution, Peck convincingly shows that life has patterns. For example, when it comes to oceanic life, fish and ocean mammals developed fins and tails. It is likely that, even with changes in the past, a man-like creature would have developed. While God may not intervene much in evolution, someone had to set up the landscape for development.
“I’d Like to Bear My Testimony that I Know the Environment is True”
To begin this section of the review, let me state that I am an environmentalist. As a youth, I was engaged in the first Earth Day, cleaning up parks, river banks, and roadsides. Growing up in western Montana, I grew to love nature and was zealous to protect it. I was concerned about rivers that caught on fire, Lake Erie and other lakes that no longer could support life. People were getting choked off by smog, and from a distance, you could not see London Tower because of the pollution. As a teenager, I was a member of Greenpeace and the Sierra Club. I was ecstatic seeing Americans cleaning things up. Lake Erie now has fish! London’s air is cleaner than it has been in over a century. People were recycling and making choices to protect the environment from man-made effects. Polar bears went from an endangered population of 6000 to now over 30,000.
Then something happened. Many of these environmental groups I associated with became militant. Instead of seeking solutions all could work with, they insisted that their radical solutions were the only acceptable ones. Some demanded mass sterilization, so we could reduce our human population to 2 billion (viewed as sustainable), otherwise there would be mass famine, pestilence and starvation. What the militants didn’t understand is that free markets and technology have allowed us to accomplish many awesome things. We can feed the world. There are fewer people starving to death today than ever before (even though populations are greater). China now has a middle class of 300 million, where 30 years ago most would have been living hand to mouth.
That said, let’s return to the book:
In discussing the environment, Peck leaves the scientific discussions behind and turns to personal experiences and views. At one point, he even shares a personal revelation he had in regards to saving the whales. While interesting anecdotes, they do little to engage the reader in his concerns for the environment, and even less to convince.
Where Peck does a brilliant job in dismissing Dawkins’ attacks on God, he does little or nothing to help us understand his concerns, particularly in regards to man-made global warming. His one statement in regards to skeptics is that they get all their information from the Internet. Well, given that Steven shares many of his thoughts at his Mormon Organon blog and at the other major LDS blog that shall not be named (BCC), he seems to ignore the fact that there are some good things on the Internet. I would have loved to see him discuss his scientific reasons for believing in global warming, rather using the logical fallacy of: I’m a scientist, and so you should trust me. He already dismissed Dawkins’ similar argument earlier in the book, yet expects the reader to give him such a perk.
He spends several pages encouraging us to open up dialogues between Mormons and environmentalists, at least on things we agree upon. However, he does not mention which things those might be. Environmentalists are now fighting wind mill farms and massive solar panel arrays, as being harmful to the environment – yet also fight nuclear, oil and coal. I’m not certain just how to have a discussion with people who want us to return to dwell in caves. At least, in caves we would not need air conditioning, but we possibly would do damage to the ecosystems of cave fish.
As for me, I am an agnostic in regards to global warming. I believe there probably is anthropogenic climate change going on. I’m just not certain how much it affects the over all, long term climate. My concern is that in most discussions I’ve seen, other issues are dismissed, such as solar activity, El Nino, etc., on how they affect climate. And if things are growing warmer, whether that is a good or bad thing (previous warming periods have benefited many ecosystems and man).
I would like to have seen suggested solutions to the problem that would be acceptable to Mormons and Americans in general, not the drastic solutions Al Gore seeks to impose on us. As it is, studies show that implementing the Kyoto Accord would make little difference over the period of the next century – we would harm economies, only to still have to deal with rising oceans, etc. Given that volcanic activity stalled temperature increases over the last decade, I asked Steven on his blog recently whether releasing particulates into the atmosphere to cool the earth (by reflecting light back to space) would be useful – he quickly answered no, because it hadn’t been tried.
If he and Neil Degrasse Tyson refuse to discuss the issue with those who are seriously wanting to consider the evidence, then I’m not certain how Peck is going to accomplish a discussion between environmentalists and Mormons, at least not on this one topic.
That said, here is an Internet link that has over 1000 peer reviewed articles on climate, just so you can see that the truth is a little inconvenient, if you will not take the time to discuss it:
Mad Scientists that Love Nature
Peck shares some interesting thoughts and fascinating stories in his last chapters. He has a humorous story of Noah and his family attempting to disperse the millions of types of animals across the planet after the Flood. It clearly shows that Noah’s Flood could not have been a global event, but more likely a local phenomenon that was believed to be global.
In his chapter on Madness, he describes his personal experience into insanity, as his brain was attacked by bacteria from a visit to Vietnam. Very compelling story that shows just how complex and fragile our most important organ is. I would have loved to see a follow up essay discussing the science behind what was happening to him, how the bacteria was able to convince him concerning things that were not really there.
In Crossing Boundaries and Sacred Space, Peck shares a fascinating adventure in climbing through difficult terrain, passing from one ecosystem into the next, sometimes within just a few feet of one another. His descriptions of the trail blazed captivated me. He then shares how we also experience such changes in boundary systems in life and the Church, using the temple as a solid example.
At first, the quick switch from scientist to testimony confused me, as I expected a book filled with scientific thoughts and proofs. Once I got over that initial feeling, I enjoyed much of what this book has to say. Steven Peck loves science and nature. So do I.
Occasionally, his examples and discussions clearly needed work. For example, in convincing Mormons that evolution is a good thing and can show us a beautiful pattern by which God works, he gives the story of an old Crow chieftain, who seeing the necessary changes needed to adapt to white men, introduces farming to his people. Long gone are the wars with the Sioux, buffalo and beaver. Along with their demise comes change in all other areas of life. This chieftain explained that they had a solid life of growth and growing, “and then nothing.” Peck thought the story would help us to adapt joyfully to the change of accepting evolution. Instead, it seemed out of place. You have enjoyed your past Creationism. You will embrace evolution, and then you’ll experience “nothing.” I’m not sure that is what Peck wanted me to gain from the story, but it is clearly incongruent with his wonder and praise for evolution.
That said, while some of the essays are weak, opinionated, and needed work, the book has some real treasures in it. If you were to skip a few of the essays in the middle, and enjoy the beginning and end, you will find some jewels there. I know I’ve been thinking a lot over the past several days on many of the thoughts and issues he discusses.
I know my faith in God is richer because of Peck’s discussion on subjective truths. Peck’s love of nature reminded me of my own deep love of Nature and my desire to see it preserved for generations to come. I hope that this book will open up conversations, and that Steven himself will be more open on his blog and elsewhere with those he would like to persuade. Even if everyone cannot agree on global warming, we can agree on taking care of Mother Earth. She’s the only one we have, and we must dwell on her – whether we make a Garden or a sewer out of her.