Book Review – “Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist”, by Steven L. Peck

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:

  1. Embracing Science, Resisting Literalism, and Shifting Pardigms
  2. Randomness, Contingency, and Faith: Is There a Science of Subjectivity?
  3. Crawling Out of the Primordial Soup: A Step toward the Emergence of an LDS Theology Compatible with Organic Evolution
  4. The Current Philosophy of Consciousness Landscape: Where Does LDS Thought Fit?
  5. Life as Emergent Agential Systems: Tendencies without Teleology in an Open Universe
  6. Death and the Ecological Crisis
  7. An Ecologist’s View of Latter-day Saint Culture and the Environment
  8. Reverencing Creation
  9. Grace vis-à-vis Violence
  10. My Madness
  11. Noah’s Lament
  12. 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:

http://www.populartechnology.net/2009/10/peer-reviewed-papers-supporting.html

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.

My Conclusions:

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.

19 thoughts on “Book Review – “Evolving Faith: Wanderings of a Mormon Biologist”, by Steven L. Peck

  1. I can tell you from personal experience that Brother Peck’s primary argument on global warming is: “I am a scientist. Trust me. Don’t be a denier.” Not very convincing.

    In my experience, he is a good writer, and it is nice to see him take on the horrid Dawkins.

    Nice review overall, Rame.

  2. I am a conservationist with education both zoology and botany with concern for the conservative values of prudence and frugality which results in extending the life of expendables and finding substitutes for disposable items. At the same time I feel no shame for having an extensive progeny. I am dismayed by the attitude some environmentalists display toward humanity, particularly those who are willing to consider mass extinction as a means to save the earth.
    Mormon theology teaches me that the earth is a living being over which we have a stewardship for which we are accountable. As far as evolution is concerned, I am comfortable with the idea that the Lord used spans of time and power that we cannot comprehend to achieve a suitable environment for his children. If we damage it we will reap His anger. I suspect most Mormons are willing to accept a story of creation that includes evolution of a kind that does not contradict the existence of a Creator. I suspect that without a guiding principle, life would be restricted to an organic soup of prions and viruses.

  3. Out of curiosity does he define “subjective” and “objective” truths? I’ve never liked that dichotomy for a variety of reasons. For one it confuses the issue of the nature of the truth with the issue of how we know. After all we might be able to know a subjective truth through objective means and vice versa. I tend to prefer limiting the discussion to questions of justification rather than truth and just talk about public versus private evidence.

    To give an example I’m here typing on my computer in my office. No one else is here. I think the truth that I am typing is an objective truth. Yet the only way to know it is through private evidence – my relating it. The problem with objective/subjective is that it confuses truths relative to my mind and truths independent of my mind with how I know them. In philosophy this is sometimes called the realist/anti-realist debate and it’s usually a debate about content. The debate about evidence, reliability, and justification is usually seen to be separate.

  4. One other thing. You said:

    “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.”

    We should be very careful not to take the environmental movement as monolithic because it simply isn’t. There are those who see climate change as such a threat that they now are pushing nuclear and other means. Including some major figures.

    It is true that many (but hardly all) environmentalists don’t like to think about cost/benefit analysis but merely want to be against what they see as immoral. Thus they neglect the costs of preventing things like quickly getting power lines up through California only looking at the immediate costs, never the long term ones. Yet this sort of thinking is also found on the right amongst say anti-abortionists who sometimes worry more about opposing anything smacking of their dogma (including easy access birth control) even if it increases the number of abortions. This idea that what counts is personal morality in terms of opposition and not results is just unfortunately a common behavior of people. I wish it wasn’t.

    I like to say that if liberals feared climate change as much as they say that they’d not simply be advocating for taxes and closing down coal but would be doing everything they could to build nuclear power plants everywhere. That this isn’t remotely happening shows the nature of the real fear of consequences. (I think climate change is real, but also think it’ll be gradual and we’ll have technological fixes in time to eliminate the worst of it)

  5. “I like to say that if liberals feared climate change as much as they say that they’d not simply be advocating for taxes and closing down coal but would be doing everything they could to build nuclear power plants everywhere. That this isn’t remotely happening shows the nature of the real fear of consequences. (I think climate change is real, but also think it’ll be gradual and we’ll have technological fixes in time to eliminate the worst of it)”

    I agree with you on this, Clark.

  6. Clark, on climate change, I agree with you. I think Al Gore wouldn’t be trotting around the world with a huge carbon footprint, if things were as dire as he says they are. That said, I’m all for doing what we can to improve our environment.

    Steven does give a definition of objective and subjective, useful for his book. Objective are things that can be viewed by everyone through a microscope. Subjective are things that are experienced by the individual. So, his discussion on consciousness (an excellent piece) discusses how scientists cannot figure a way to measure it, where everyone can test it out the same, but we all still know we have one.

  7. I think the only two things Steven Peck and I have in common are that we are both LDS and both dislike Dawkins. I have spent many a dialogue with Mr. Peck over the years and I have gained many valuable insights from him about science and how scientists can be just as dogmatic as anyone else and how even in science we have a religion of dogmatism that isn’t going away anytime soon. At least Steven believes in Christ and that at least is what really matters.

  8. The nice thing about climate change is that solar power is coming down in price very quickly. Within the next few years we’ll hit the point where it is cheaper than oil, even with the big drop in oil prices due to the slowdown in China. Once that happens the market will naturally start shifting over more and more to solar. As that happens our carbon footprint will drop quickly. The other nice thing is that the shift to fracking and natural gas is helping (even if the smaller carbon footprint was overstated relative to recent investigations of losses around wells). I also think that shifting to electric cars will help. (I have a Nissan Leaf and love it for regular commuting – I went from paying $200/mo in gas for my Pathfinder to a $200 lease plus $13 in electric for about the same amount of driving) Admittedly due to battery manufacture electric is a bit more complicated than most assume.

  9. Relative to taxes I also think that Democrats and Obama, if they really wanted it, could have gotten a carbon tax had they offered to offset the tax with cuts in the corporate tax to be closer to what Europe’s corporate taxes are. That none have even attempted this speaks volumes again about their views on climate change.

  10. With Apple and Google getting into the car business, I think it is possible we may have some incredible innovation on cars in the coming years. I have no idea yet what that means yet, but I am optimistic that the new products will be better than what we have today.

  11. If we are serious about climate change, we should be building nuclear power plants as fast as the resources can be made available.

    I see solar as a valuable supplement to nuclear, but I am very skeptical it can provide anything close to the necessary generating capacity any time soon.

    All other non-fossil energy sources are boutique.

  12. Kent, the issue with solar is time. So it will likely take traditional power offline during the day but not at night. That’ll make a big influence and with batteries may affect the night a bit. But you’re right that solar simply can’t eliminate other forms of power.

    Large scale solar may be more successful as many forms work 24/7. However the test reactors south of Las Vegas significantly underperformed. So that’s not progressing nearly as well as traditional semiconductor based solar.

    There are various ideas about power storage ranging from moving water up mountains and generating power via hydropower to flywheels to generating hydrogen. However all of these significantly lower the effective efficiencies relative to coal or oil.

  13. My problem with conservatives on climate change (including those commenting here) is that rather than trying to find solutions, they spend all their effort trying to find angles for keeping things the same (or making them worse). Is this really a productive use of time?

  14. Snake, if the supposed “solutions” would do nothing to actually improve the climate but would lead to even more government control over our lives, then yes, it is definitely a productive use of our time to protect the few areas of freedom we have left. If you actually spend time studying the issue, all of the proposed “solutions” would have minimal effect. Now, there is something that actually would improve the situation, which is to encourage innovation, and this is what Clark and I have been talking about. I foresee a world where in 40 or 50 years there are new sources of “clean” energy, and I think that is great, but the only way it is going to happen is if the productive and innovative areas of the economy are allowed to be productive and innovative. And, no, giving more money to Solyndra-like boondoggles are not going to cut it. We need 100 more Googles and Apples and Ubers out there, and things will begin to change.

  15. There are other solutions that more directly affect the global temperature. We have had relatively stable temps for about 10 years, with temps raising a little, but only a fraction of that predicted by the computer models. One proposed reason is volcanic eruptions, spewing particles into the atmosphere, reflecting heat away from the earth and cooling it. I am all for man made particles being sent up to help cool things, if needed. We start slow, and ramp up slowly, as we see the impact on temps.
    But we also need to see if these things may not be good overall. More CO2 makes trees use water more efficiently, and make trees stronger. It could possibly lead to a greener climate in many areas, such as Greenland – which was habitable by the Norse during the last warm period.

    As it is, there are other areas besides climate change, in which we can help our environment. I think Steven Peck is right that we need to spend more time finding solutions to issues we still have. Anyone living in SLC knows that on a clear day…., well there are no clear days. The lack of water in the West is a very serious problem. I hear frequently of how it threatens crops and cities, but can only imagine how it must be affecting wildlife and ecosystems. It clearly is time to discuss other methods of obtaining water – whether from desalinization of ocean water, or piping water in from the East.

  16. rameumptom, I just wanted to drop by and thank you for this thoughtful review. I’ll be ramping my up blog again and we can discuss climate change in greater detail (I’ve been swamped with getting out some tsetse fly research and have been negligent in my blogging because of crippling, unwieldy business). But with the book coming out and being motivated thereby hopefully will soon have some time to revive the conversation. However, right now, I just wanted to express gratitude for your kindness in taking the time to read and review this.

  17. Steve, I was glad to review the book. I found lots of good stuff in it, and hope others can, as well.

  18. Snake, as a conservative commentating I think I did outline solutions. A carbon tax offset by lowering the corporate tax rate to match Europe is a specific solution for reducing carbon emissions. Reducing significantly the red tape for building nuclear power plants is a specific solution to reducing carbon emissions.

    So I’m surprised you are saying there aren’t specific proposals. Nor are we trying to keep things the same. That has been much more the case of liberals who like to decry climate change but are unwilling to do much beyond offer grants to solar plants. As I said, if they believe climate change is as devastating as they say, why haven’t they made moves to switch at least 80% of electric power production to nuclear? Something very doable with current technology and doable 8 years ago.

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