Friday, February 8, 2013

Prehistoric Man in Seveth Grade Social Studies

I was surprised the other night at dinner by what my seventh grader said. (Usually it’s my high schooler who surprises me, mostly because I think he lays awake at night thinking of ways to do so because it’s so much fun for him to see me react.)

They’ve begun a new unit in Social Studies that is looking at prehistoric developments like cave paintings in Europe. The cave paintings have been dated to up to 40,000 years ago, and some speculate that they may come from Neanderthals instead of Homo Sapiens. That didn’t surprise me. But what came next did. My daughter said her social studies teach said she’d get in trouble if she taught Chapter 2 out of their book, so they’d be skipping that.

I asked what was in Chapter 2, and my daughter wasn’t completely sure (they only have a classroom set of the books, so we couldn't look at it together), but she thought it had to do with human evolution from Neanderthal to Homo Sapiens. We talked a little about why that might be a hot topic, and I expressed my surprise that they would not discuss it in class. I explained that many of our friends in our area are fundamentalist Christians, who tend to take a more literal approach to the creation story than we do. Further, they tend to accept an ex nihilo approach to the creation. Those ideas are not completely compatible with scientific theories of the beginnings of the earth and the development of man.

I’m still puzzled at the notion that my daughter’s teacher would get in trouble for teaching accepted anthropology in a social studies class, but I chalk that up to hyperbole from either the teacher or my daughter’s understanding of what her teacher said.

But I also took the opportunity to offer some other thoughts to my daughter on the subject of evolution. I pointed out that there are many faithful Latter-day Saints who take a similar approach to our fundamentalist Christian friends, who believe in a time bound specific creation as described in Genesis, and for whom the theory of evolution is something not to be believed, and even to be feared.

I also said that I don’t hold that view. I said our modern prophets have taught that the church does not take a stand on organic evolution, but does teach – and has consistently taught -- that man is a specific and precious creation of our Father in Heaven. Modern prophets in years past have made specific statements that have been quoted and re-quoted over the years. A First Presidency letter published in 1909 was republished in the November 2002 Ensign. It teaches the divine nature of the creation of man in the image of our Father in Heaven. Among other things, we read there:

It is held by some that Adam was not the first man upon this earth and that the original human being was a development from lower orders of the animal creation. These, however, are the theories of men. The word of the Lord declared that Adam was “the first man of all men” (Moses 1:34), and we are therefore in duty bound to regard him as the primal parent of our race. It was shown to the brother of Jared that all men were created in the beginning after the image of God; whether we take this to mean the spirit or the body, or both, it commits us to the same conclusion: Man began life as a human being, in the likeness of our Heavenly Father.
What others have written (including the First Presidency-approved entry in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism) is this:

The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how.

Both the 1909 letter and subsequent statements from other First Presidency members have made clear that the question of evolution as a theory is not essential to our salvation. They have counseled church leaders to focus on those things that are essential to salvation – the preaching of the gospel and administering in the ordinances thereof. Further, they suggest, we should leave scientific inquiry and exploration to the scientists.

Here’s why this is important to me, and why I wanted to spend time with my seventh grader on the subject. When I was in ninth grade and had a lesson on organic evolution in my biology class, I felt I had to defend the church’s anti-evolution point of view. I assumed my church taught what other churches taught, that evolution was evil and ignored the need for God. (And, in truth, there are some in that time who clearly taught those things in church).

What I have since learned is a more nuanced approach. I can accept the divine parentage of a loving Father in Heaven without understanding the how of His creation. And I can accept the good that has come from the study of evolution and the wonderful organism that is the human body. And further, I can encourage my children to explore the sciences, to study them and to understand them. Our world needs bright scientists to continue to explore and discover and invent.

My children and I can look critically at scientific theory and we can also examine critically the literal interpretation of religious texts. And by critically, I do not mean we find fault with them, but I mean we can examine them, understand them, seek parallels and differences, identify what we do and do not understand, select areas for further study and understanding and so on. The conversation is at least as important as the outcome at this stage of my daughter’s life.

I pointed out to her that she will meet lots of people with lots of views on this particular subject, even within our extended family. And it’s ok to have different points of view. Those who are more or less conservative than she is on this matter are entitled to their opinions; these are not matters essential to salvation, and are not worth losing precious relationships over. In the end, as she matures, my wonderful daughter will draw her own conclusions. And that’s ok.


  1. One book that I love, that has really confirmed my testimony of the Creation, is Bill Bryson's _A Short History of Nearly Everything_. It served to instill a sense of awe for the natural world that I didn't feel before, because I didn't really understand or know all that much. It also made me realise that scientists are often scrabbling around in the dark and aren't these all-knowing, all-seeing creatures that popular culture makes them out to be (sometimes in a mocking sort of way, but the idea is there).

  2. I think the account of the creation in Abraham is the best one. It describes periods of time devoted to each phase of creation rather than expressing it as a day. Also verse 18 of chapter 4 says that "the Gods watched those things which they had ordered until they obeyed." How long did that take? I do not believe in evolution as that process defies logic and natural laws. But I do believe the earth is as old as the materials with which it was made. The history since the fall of Adam and their expulsion from the Garden of Eden seems to be almost 7,000 years. Population estimations are based on modern thinking. (Same with estimates for Nephite/Lamanite populations) But that is something for another day. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

  3. R4C, I've not read Bryson's book, but I might pick it up; thanks for the tip!

    RL, I'd be interested (perhaps on another day) to understand how a process of evolution defies logic and natural law (that's a charged phrase, so I don't know precisely what you mean by it). I'm not trying to bait an argument, but to understand a point of view.

    I've written before about the thought of "believing" in evolution. I simply don't think it's the right way to express the concept. Evolution is a scientific theory, based on scientific observation and evidence. It is an explanation of observed (and inferred) events. It is not a religious construct (though I admit there are those in the scientific community who would suggest it is an anti-religious one).

    Simply put, whether I 'believe' the creation story in scripture is a literal account of how the world and man came to be does not need to determine my belief in God. I accept evolutionary theory as one existing explanation of events observed and inferred, one that happens to provide some significant organizing assumptions that allows a great deal more work to be done. That such an explanation exists in no way dictates that I must abandon my faith in a Creator.