The Best Explanation of Human Life

Coronel Suarez was the last town I was assigned as a missionary. One feature of the town was polo. From 1952 through 1983, teams from that small town on the Pampa had won the Argentine Open Polo Championship 25 out of 32 years. In the fields surrounding the town we would see them practice as we visited with stable keepers who lived near the horses. A couple rungs up in that world was a trainer we met with who had worked for royalty in the Mid East and in the Far East.

Also of note were the Volga Germans. At the invitation of Catherine the Great, they had migrated to Russia in the 18th Century, and in the last decades of the 19th Century, a portion of them came to Argentina. Within a couple miles to the south of Coronel Suarez were three “pueblos alemanes” (German villages). One hearty Suarense of about sixty said that in his day if any young man from Coronel Suarez were found in the German pueblos, he would be beat and thrown out of the village, and reciprocal courtesies were extended to any young German male found in Coronel Suarez. He recalled this wistfully, not with any malice, but just a bit of longing for the days when a good brawl could be a civic duty, and visiting nearby could be an adventure.

By the time I arrived, the population of the main town and the auxiliary villages had mixed together to a degree. One person we met with a few times was a retired policeman named Adolph Fuchs. He said that as a policeman his job had been “to do good to the good, and to do bad to the bad.” He liked me and my porteño companion, but he told us one afternoon that our mission was futile. People don’t change, can’t improve, and there was no point in trying to lead them to. We said that this philosophy was contrary to our beliefs; we believed in the atonement of Jesus Christ, and we believed in repentance. We were also both experienced missionaries, and had seen that despite all the ups and downs of the conversion process, some real changes do take hold.

Those conversations with Mr. Fuchs return to mind sometimes when I come upon a writer expounding on the centrality of evolution in the understanding of pretty much everything. Two years ago, there was much lamentation when Pew released a survey showing that only 22% of Mormons agree that evolution is the best explanation of the origins of human life. As Clark Goble pointed out at the time, the survey question as phrased was a poor one for sorting out opinions as to the correctness of evolution. Respondents would take into account other concepts that they may view as more important for arriving at a best explanation for life.

How much of an explanation of life does evolution provide? Evolution holds that an organism immutably is what it is as established by its genetic inheritance. The only influence we have on our children is the number of them that mature and the selection of the source from which the other half of their inheritance is drawn. We ourselves were a finished product before our first breath was drawn. Improvement and progression follow the maxim, “Breed the best with the best and forget about the rest.” As a principle explanation of life, it doesn’t seem to have much use for the gospel of repentance, nor much to say about most of life.

Fortunately, though many claim understanding evolution is central to understanding everything, eugenics is currently out of favor, though there is no telling what the fashions of future decades may bring. The Soviets had their own ideological conflicts with evolution. A determinative role for biological inheritance was incompatible with the perfectibility of New Soviet Man, and science had to testify of ideological tenets or be discarded. (Probabilistic quantum theory suffered similar disqualification.) Alma told Korihor “All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it.” Within our capability to comprehend, I’m not sure if this is so. The number of true things with no significance to us is far vaster than we can take in.

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About John Mansfield

Mansfield in the desertA third-generation southern Nevadan, I have lived in exile most of my life in such places as Los Alamos, Baltimore, Los Angeles, the western suburbs of Detroit, and currently the northern suburbs of Washington, D.C. I work as a fluid dynamics engineer. I was baptized at age twelve in the font of the Las Vegas Nevada Central Stake Center, and on my nineteenth birthday I received the endowment in the St. George Temple. I served as a missionary mostly in the Patagonia of Argentina from 1985 to 1987. My true calling in the Church seems to be working with Cub Scouts, whom I have served in different capacities in four states most years since 1992. (My oldest boy turned eight in 2004.) I also currently teach Sunday School to the thirteen-year-olds. I hold degrees from two universities named for men who died in the 1870s, the Brigham Young University and the Johns Hopkins University. My wife is Elizabeth Pack Mansfield, who comes from New Mexico's north central mountains and studied molecular biology at the same two schools I attended. We have four sons, whose care and admonition, along with care of my aged father, require much of Elizabeth's time. She currently serves the Church as Mia-Maid advisor, ward music chairman, and choir director, and plays violin whenever she can. One day, I would like to make shoes.

30 thoughts on “The Best Explanation of Human Life

  1. John M, I think I understand what you are getting at here, and if I do, I think you are correct. I wrote a little about it in this post:

    Personally, I think evolution is important in two big ways: it is central to biology and it is important to understand that our spirits have evolved from one thing into another and we have to potential to evolve even more. So, evolution is extremely important on the Earth and it is extremely important spiritually. Does this mean we know that we evolved from apes? I think the answer is no, we don’t know, and it is irrelevant to our central story, which is that we should concentrate on spiritual evolution into becoming more like Jesus Christ and Heavenly Father.

    Your Herr/Sr Fuchs is incorrect. People can change and do. The gospel makes bad people good and good people better. I am 47, and I can think of 50 people off the top of my head who have become better people during their lifetimes in very, very significant ways. I can also think of a few who have stagnated most of their lives or even become worse people. So, people *do* change.

  2. “Evolution holds that an organism immutably is what it is as established by its genetic inheritance.”

    As someone who has a basic understanding of evolution and genetics, that sentence is entirely false. Biologists understand that both genes and environment act to shape an organism. Nature and nurture.

    “The only influence we have on our children is the number of them that mature and the selection of the source from which the other half of their inheritance is drawn.”

    Also entirely false, for the same reasons stated above. Parents are able to shape their offspring’s upbringing and environment.

    Of course, evolution is science, and doesn’t exist merely to teach us some moral lesson. It’s just how things are.

    Of course, from a genetics standpoint, there’s not a whole lot an organism can do to change its genes. That doesn’t mean the organism itself can’t change, it just means that it can’t change the genetic traits that it will pass on to its offspring.

  3. volution holds that an organism immutably is what it is as established by its genetic inheritance. The only influence we have on our children is the number of them that mature and the selection of the source from which the other half of their inheritance is drawn. We ourselves were a finished product before our first breath was drawn.

    I don’t think that’s true nor do I think any biologist would claim this is true. Look at the effects of nutrition, heavy metals and a lot else. This is reading the human body in too essentialist of lines. The DNA develops the body in close connection to the environment it finds itself in. If it was all about DNA then a woman’s activities during pregnancy simply wouldn’t matter whereas we find they matter a lot.

    This also ignores the place of epigenetics. While epigentics appears over-hyped I don’t think we can simply say it’s not part of evolutionary science.

  4. Tim and Clark you are being rather expansive in your use of the term evolution, almost as much as Geoff when he wrote that our spirits evolve. You seem to have an equation going that evolution equals biology equals science equals truth, therefore everything is evolution.

    From UC Berkeley’s Understanding Evolution website:

    The definition
    Biological evolution, simply put, is descent with modification. This definition encompasses small-scale evolution (changes in gene frequency in a population from one generation to the next) and large-scale evolution (the descent of different species from a common ancestor over many generations). Evolution helps us to understand the history of life.

    The explanation
    Biological evolution is not simply a matter of change over time. Lots of things change over time: trees lose their leaves, mountain ranges rise and erode, but they aren’t examples of biological evolution because they don’t involve descent through genetic inheritance.

    The central idea of biological evolution is that all life on Earth shares a common ancestor, just as you and your cousins share a common grandmother.

    Through the process of descent with modification, the common ancestor of life on Earth gave rise to the fantastic diversity that we see documented in the fossil record and around us today. Evolution means that we’re all distant cousins: humans and oak trees, hummingbirds and whales.

  5. Determinism is my visceral fear, so I think I know where you are coming from. I fight to have faith in repentance and change and to act as if I do. At the same time, my conviction that much of what we are is beyond our willed control and isn’t or perhaps can’t be changed by the Almighty in this life has deepened my understanding of the gospel.

    So, while recognizing that this doesn’t get at the roots of what you are talking about, on the surface issue of evolution by natural selection I have to agree with Tim and Clark G. that the mechanism of natural selection can theoretically cause evolution if a significant part of an organism is congenital, even if other significant parts are environmental or willed. I admit that the theory of Darwinian evolution *wants* to be totalizing, but intelligent biologists resist this tendency because it doesn’t fit the facts and lived experience.

  6. This, I think, is the first critical error of your post: “Evolution holds that an organism immutably is what it is as established by its genetic inheritance.”

    As has been commented already, I think the opposite is true. The principles of evolution work as well in describing the cladistic descent of cells throughout organismal development as they do in explaining the diversification of species. Neither the organism as a whole nor the genomes within its cells are immutable. Furthermore, genetic reductionism is not the settled view.

    “The only influence we have on our children is the number of them that mature and the selection of the source from which the other half of their inheritance is drawn.”

    The nature/nurture debate rages on. Yawn. 🙂 In a strange twist of fate, a research team founded by Soviet scientists who secretly (some were executed for their work) continued evil western Darwinist genetics experimentation are uniquely poised to add some insight here. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that nature trumps nurture in certain situations. They have bred tame and hyper-agressive lineages from local populations and have conducted experiments in embryonic transplantations and found that switching from agressive embryos to tame mothers and vice versa fails to significantly change offspring behavior. (Take that Lysenko!)

    OTOH I’ve read mouse studies that indicate maternal attentiveness can affect things like stress reaction and things like that. Round and round we go.

    The second critical error is this; “nurture” is not really what the gospel is about. “Nurture” assumes that one individual’s actions affect another individual’s inherent qualities. The scriptures explicitly state that this is not possible. “Now there is not any man that can sacrifice his own blood which will atone for the sins of another.” In other words nothing we can do can overcome the sin [behavior] of another person. Only Christ’s atonement can do what you are attributing to nurture; fundamentally change a person’s being.

    Nurture is, in my view, the secularist’s replacement for the power of the atonement. Evolution explains the natural world. The gospel explains the spiritual one.

  7. John Mansfield,

    Why does gene frequency change from one generation to the next? The impact the environment has on a population is a vital part of evolution. If a population’s environment doesn’t change, there’s little reason for the gene frequency to change. Evolution isn’t merely genetics, as you seem to believe.

  8. Worst. Understanding of evolution. Ever.

    “Evolution holds that an organism immutably is what it is as established by its genetic inheritance.”

    False. Who ever said that? Experimental data showed that Lamarckian inheritance was false, but this wasn’t something assumed or even demonstrated by evolutionary science.

    “The only influence we have on our children is the number of them that mature and the selection of the source from which the other half of their inheritance is drawn.”

    False. Again, who says this? You make it sound like evolution is indifferent as to whether parents of any species stick around or not.

    “We ourselves were a finished product before our first breath was drawn.”

    False. Where do you get this stuff?

    “Improvement and progression follow the maxim, “Breed the best with the best and forget about the rest.””

    False. Many people misrepresented evolution like this (aobut a century ago). All evolution says is that like it or not, everybody can’t possibly survive and reproduce and there is a reason why some do so better than others. Some times the reason has to do with the “breed and bounce” strategy, sometimes nature is key. Sometimes it has to do with a solitary lifestyle, other times no.

  9. Our brains a very flexible, valuable organs that, given fixed genetics, can adapt, grow, shrink, become unbalanced chemically etc.. While I may not have the free agency to grow 6″ if I wish it, I do have the ability to change my mind both in a physical and a philosophical sense. Evolution has given us that ability.

    Let me turn the conversation on its head. Our spirits have supposedly existed eternally, our personalities, it is said, existed before our bodies. How free are we to change our spirits? How does that coincide with changing the physical organ of our brains?

    btw, yeah, you need to read a book on evolution.

  10. Way too many reflexively defensive comments here, guys. Us Mormons who accept evolution by natural selection need to learn to be less snotty about it.

  11. What it is about the anonymity of the internet that makes people feel it is OK to be such snots? Guys, get a life. You are missing John M’s main point. We are all very impressed with your knowledge of evolution. Can we move on now?

    Next comment to denigrate the author gets deleted. Be nice.

  12. I’m reminded of the time some physics students were joking that a real physicist is someone who watches the sun set and feels himself rotating away from it. For some apparently everything—repentance, plate tectonics, supernovas, each thought and feeling and act—is best understood and explained under the grand heading of evolution. Perhaps there are others who have a similar attachment to electrodynamics; with each experience of sight and sound and touch their first and last thought is “Electrons and photons.”

  13. John Mansfield,

    You are right of course that evolution is not the key to understanding everything. Science itself is not the key to understanding everything. Those who focus solely on evolution or on science in general are missing important parts of life.

    I do, however, feel that evolution can teach us some things. We can see how God’s time is not our time, and that he has an immense amount of patience. We are reminded of how he does things gradually.

    Of course, an understanding of evolution is also important in understanding disease and agriculture.

    As far as “All things denote there is a God; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it,” I think it has to do with perspective. Those who have faith in God may have that faith confirmed by the natural world–certainly many of us have had that faith strengthened by spending time in nature. Those who do not have faith in God obviously have a different perspective.

  14. John,

    If the point of your post was to simply point out that it would be overstating things to say that biological evolutionary theory could be marshaled to explain all points of the gospel and the eternities, then that would basically go with out saying. The detail that this overlooks is that biological evolution explains a whole heckuvalot in terms of human nature, and basically everything in the biological world around us. Depending on how much of a reductionist/behaviorist/constructivist/Marxist/Darwinist/etc one is this view may vary in intensity, but at the end of the day the various sciences agree that evolution is ground zero for understanding nature.

    Interestingly, many (but not all) early LDS writers hijacked Darwinism and raised it up to a level of eternal evolutionary progression. A particular favorite of mine is from Geo Q. Cannon, “Who is there that believes more in true evolution than the Latter-day Saints?—the evolution of man until he shall become a god, until he shall sit at the right hand of the Father, until he shall be a joint heir with Jesus! That is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, believed in by the Latter-day Saints.” So unless one were to limit one’s self to defining ‘evolution’ as strictly pertaining to the origin and diversification of mortal life on earth, one might be compelled to indeed say, along with President Cannon, that evolution does in fact explain everything.

  15. Geoff,

    Having had a little time to think things over, I completely agree that my comment was “snotty”, among other things. I think, however, that you misdiagnose the cause. It doesn’t have to do with anonymity so much as it does the fact that 90% of all bloggernacle discussions about evolution consist of three things:

    1) Thing attributed falsely to evolution.
    2) Corrections of these falsities.
    3) Complaints about how evolution is over-discussed in the bloggernacle.

    I guess my snarkiness was simply another form of (3) in that the reason why evolution is debated sooooo much in the bloggernacle without ever making any progress on the subject is because there is so much (1). I’ve been discussing evolution on M* for about 7 years now and to see the same old mischaracterizations used over and over gets pretty frustrating. Hence the snotty tone.

    Now that I have explained my behavior, I want to make it clear that I am not trying to justify my behavior. There are clearly various ways of expressing (3) and I simply choose the most childish and least civil of them. I do apologize and hope to shape things up in the future evolution threads in which I will inevitably contribute.

  16. Jeff G, you’re a good guy. I hope you continue to comment here.

    I am responsible for at least part of the stupid things that have been written about evolution over the years, and the lesson I have learned is that evolution has absolutely nothing to do with religion, so I should just shut up about it (I am not a biologist and it doesn’t affect my life in any way). So, as you may have noticed, for the last few years I have been shutting up about evolution (except to point out that it has nothing to do with religion). 🙂

    Peace dude.

  17. If I could add my trivial opinion here, I think Jeff&Geoff’s exchange touched on an important problem; that of communication and forward motion on the topic of evolution in the LDS community. I wonder if there could be or already has been a project or even a just a post (thought I think it would probably be more like a book) that attempted to catalog, categorize, chronicle, or otherwise analyze the difficulties that arise in discussions of evolution among Mormons and why they seem to entirely preempt any real movement on the issue. I say this fully realizing that as a sporadic commenter at this for only a few years this is at best a futile attempt to jack a mostly dead thread. 🙂

  18. That would be pretty interesting, BUT if it were a post, I have no doubt that it’s comment tread would suffer from the exact same misunderstandings which the post was attempting to chronicle.

    What I would like to see would be some kind of project where two authors, one pro- the other anti-evolution, list the objections which each side has to the other’s position. What would be special about this treatment, however, is that each author has to articulate not their own position as clearly and as forcefully as they can, but rather that of the other author.

    Hopefully this would force each author to “help” the other understand and state their position better while at the same time allowing each position to be articulated in a language which is more familiar to those you usually misunderstand it.

  19. Jeff G,

    The problem with that approach is this:

    Most active Mormons have a pretty good understanding of the gospel. Many of them have grown up in the gospel, taken seminary courses, served missions, etc. Unfortunately, that’s not the case with evolution. Chances are the pro-evolution author would have a pretty good understanding of evolution (probably a biologist who teaches evolution at the college level–there are a couple of those guys who participate on the bloggernacle). I’m not sure I know of any LDS anti-evolutionist who has a decent understanding of evolution. They might exist, but I certainly haven’t run into them in the bloggernacle (although there are certainly a few anti-evolutionists around who think they understand evolution).

    So basically, you’d probably have someone who understands the gospel and evolution taking an anti-evolution view, and someone who understands the gospel but doesn’t understand evolution taking the evolution view. Obviously, that’s going to be problematic…

    It would, however, be an interesting experiment…

  20. Jeff G – I think it could work if it were two objective, dispassionate and academically trained Momrons who were assigned to a position randomly, or perhaps if both had to write a pro and con section. “Contemporary Debates in Philosophy of Biology” by Ayala and Arp could be a great format for a project like that, though I have only skimmed it. Each main issue has either a pro and con or an expansive versus conservative view of the problem being considered. There could be several people selected, two of whom would be assigned to a sub-topic, say for example origins of the earth, origins of life in general, descent with modification, variation and natural selection, man’s origins, social implications of Darwinism, etc etc.

    Often we turn to the Miller’s, the Ayala’s, the Collins’ who are trying to find a religion-science synthesis, but as a Mormon I often feel under-served since so many issues critical to Mormonism are not even considered in broader forums. Mush of it turns into feel-goodery instead of a robust natural theology, and forget about anything that really really shines in a Mormon context. Is it too much to hope for a L.D.S. version of Fransicso Jose Ayala?

    Tim’s concern is worth noting, but I wonder if having “someone who understands the gospel and evolution taking an anti-evolution view” all by itself wouldn’t be a step in the right direction. There’s got to be some folks smart enough and neutral enough with enough theological understanding who are capable of articulating a pro view without actually being evolutionists, and vice versa right? Right?

    One problem seems to be sifting out stale pseudo-scientific creationist arguments from genuine LDS theological problems, otherwise I see it as an impossible taks. Certainly a creationist-leaning Mormon would have a real problem articulating a scientifically rigorous pro evolution stance, let alone showing it to jibe with the gospel. I really appreciate you guys’ reactions, even if it’s only a thought experiment… for now!

  21. I also realize this has sort of been done, but only from a reconciliation-oriented approach. Hess & Matheny’s “Science and Religion: Toward a More Useful Dialogue” from 1979 was a two volume set that approached a lot of evolutionary topics. It quickly disappeared into publishing oblivion. But again, it wasn’t a pro and con series, which I would argue might generate a bit more buzz, and facilitate more informed discussion on all sides. I had Hess as a freshman, I blame him for my Mormonism & Evolution fixation!

  22. Yeah, I think that so much of the problem for both sides of the debate is that so many words have subtly but importantly different meanings under the two paradigms. Words like “design” “fit” “evolve” “improve” “death” “law” “first” “man” and so on each have pretty ambiguous meaning. I think the benefit of my dual analysis would be the forced translation of so many of these terms, if only to show where each side is missing the other’s point.

    What creationist (broadly and inoffensively construed) doesn’t feel like evolutionists aren’t playing a few word games when they talk about how God “uses” evolution to create or that Adam was the first “man”? What evolutionists doesn’t roll their eyes when creationists drop words like “random” and “selfish”?

  23. John,

    I am not sure, but I think maybe I understand your real point here. To use the examples Jeff G used, but in reverse:

    “Evolution holds that an organism immutably is what it is as established by its genetic inheritance.”

    I take this to mean that according to the point of view that “evolution provides the whole purpose of life” we exist as giant machines with the sole purpose of reproducing DNA. Therefore everything that happens to us through out our lives, in all ways we change, is according to the selfish-gene theory (or at least a legitimate interpretation of it) just pre-determined machines performing our duty to replicate DNA as best as we are programmed to.

    “The only influence we have on our children is the number of them that mature and the selection of the source from which the other half of their inheritance is drawn.”

    Since we are just replication machines for DNA, then while we do influence our children, they are in fact just replication machines also. Therefore the real purpose of raising children is also to replicate DNA. So having more of them puts us at an advantage in ‘the purpose of life.’ Raising them well does to, but why bother? Just have more.

    “We ourselves were a finished product before our first breath was drawn.”

    Because we are now a built machine. Now we just need to run our code until we die.

    “Improvement and progression follow the maxim, “Breed the best with the best and forget about the rest.””

    Because everything is to serve this one purpose: replicating DNA, our masters. You might go on to be a nobel prize winning physicist or author. You might change the world ‘for the better’ yet ultimately you are nothing compared to someone that understood that the real purpose of ‘life’ was to replicate DNA and therefore had 14 children.

    Is this what you are getting at? Because, if so, I agree with you that looking to evolution (solely) for life’s purpose is a Lovecraftian endevour. It would be better to not know what the real purpose of life is and live a delusion instead.

  24. Bruce:

    I don’t know if that was John’s point, but I at least understood yours.

    Sorry, John, it’s been a long week and I’m pretty brain dead tonight. My fault entirely for not understanding.

  25. Yeah, I’m probably misunderstanding his point too. 🙂

    I read Dawkins the Selfish Gene not long ago. Can you tell? 😛

    Good book, by the way.

  26. Re the OP (via Bruce): “Because everything is to serve this one purpose” ought to read “Because everything biological…” It gets back to the question of whether biological evolution explains everything in the biological world (I think it does pretty well), and then whether everything in the biological world explains the spiritual dimensions of humanity. In that context I think the OP makes some great points, mainly that genetic or ecological survival alone don’t really go very far in explaining a broader spiritual existence.

    On the other hand I think it’s important to understand that this is the natural world we live in right now, so when we talk about human nature, life, death, and so on it isn’t helpful to simply pretend like the natural explanations for things are unhelpful or insufficient. I think the opposite is true; it’s unhelpful and insufficient to try to explain human nature independent of evolutionary biology. This goes along with Jeff G’s comment about a need for a “forced translation” for improved cross talk between these domains of understanding.

  27. My position isn’t that far off of that. Having been highly influenced by Dennett, you could probably call be a Darwinian-fundamentalist of sorts, in that I think the principles of variation and selection are ubiquitous throughout the natural world. Explaining any aspect of human life without any appeal to Darwinian principles will be inadequate. However, this doesn’t mean that this is all there is. I think all of the ultra-Darwinian share my view in that Darwinism is a necessary condition for explaining human life, but not a sufficient one… not by a loooong shot.

  28. Jeff,

    I think maybe Darwinism is less explanatory then “cojecture and refutation.” But perhaps those are two names for the same thing.

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