Sunday, August 14, 2005

What Did Nibley Think of Evolution?

Many Church members—even some who profess an interest in Mormon thought—resist discussion of evolution. Early in his career, Hugh Nibley discussed the subject in his classes; then, for a period of time, he decided “it was a waste of time;” and finally, he recognized that the alleged evolutionary origin of humanity is “a subject that is impossible to avoid,” and was willing to weigh in on the matter. He expressed his view in Before Adam, an address to the BYU community delivered in 1980 (also available in CWHN, Vol. 1, Ch. 4). While he commendably took scientific findings much more seriously than material published by the Church, in the end his view does not stand up in the face of currently available data.

Nibley deserves credit, first of all, for recognizing the need for a reconciliation between scientific data and scriptural accounts. He urges us to get beyond the “nursery tales” and “Sunday-school recitals” that many take away from Biblical stories, but he also disparages those who “fall into adolescent disillusionment” under the influence of their “emancipated teachers.” When it comes to getting beyond these default options, he declares that “We have drawn back from that assignment, preferring to save a lot of trouble and take sides with the traditional schools.”

Nibley is not kind to these “traditional schools.” “…we have been the spectators of a foolish contest between equally vain and bigoted rivals, in which it is a moot question which side heaps the most contempt on God’s creatures.” In the same vein, on the surface it would seem to be a moot question which of these “rivals”—“apostate religion” or “an always inadequate science”—receives more contempt from Nibley. With these, “…the issue is never the merits of the evidence but always the jealous rivalry of the contestants to see which would be the official light unto the world.”

In fact, however, his bark is worse than his bite; his sarcastic dismissals seem to be a rhetorical stance adopted out of concern over theories “that turned some of our best students away from the gospel,” and perhaps also an effort to assure his audience of his bona fides before taking a step or two beyond traditional doctrine. “Am I willing to stake my eternal salvation on their highly conflicting opinions?” No, Professor Nibley, we are persuaded you are not. But we can see past the red meat your audience demands to the way you have voted with your feet: your summaries of worldly learning, copious references, and ultimately your attempt at accomodating what you accept as stubborn facts all constitute a high compliment, betraying the time and thought—and therefore serious respect—you have accorded the scholars and scientists, and some of us are grateful.

Whether or not his mockery of the would-be official luminaries is merely rhetorical, it’s not, of course, as though Nibley himself is without an official light: “This means that Joseph Smith is the only entry.” Relying primarily on his ‘grown-up’ interpretation of the Book of Abraham, but sensitive to the facts uncovered by geology and paleontology, Nibley parses the account as a description of the creative enterprise more or less in line with scientific realism. He makes as much as possible of available resources offered by the text, emphasizing changes in perspective, the earth and waters being “prepared” to “bring forth” life, the waiting and watching to see that things “obeyed.” He paints an interesting picture “entailing careful planning based on vast experience, long consultations, models, tests, and even trial runs for a complicated system requiring a vast scale of participation by the creatures concerned.”

Predictably and perhaps necessarily, his congeniality towards science begins to wane as he approaches man, and he is ultimately at a loss to provide a clear-cut solution to the Adam problem (though he does in the end throw a desperate “Hail Mary,” mentioned below). He vacillates, on the one hand seeming to need and want the theoretical space afforded by eight “roles” and four “senses” of “Adam,” and acknowledging the existence of “100,000-year-old villages;” but in the end he chooses the other hand, and denies the authority of archaeology and anthropology to say anything about us. Regarding “creatures that looked like men long, long ago,”
…their world is not our world. They have all gone away long before our people ever appeared.…That gap between the record keeper and all the other creatures we know anything about is so unimaginably enormous and yet so neat and abrupt that we can only be dealing with another sort of being, a quantum leap from one world to another. Here is something not derivative from anything that has gone before on the local scene, even though they all share the same atoms.
By thus positing an unbridgeable gap in time and type, when it comes to man he makes a decisive break with evolution.

In making his case, Nibley positions himself above the fray, occupying the high ground cleared by Joseph’s sweeping revelations, and adopting the strategy of triangulation long before anyone ever heard of Dick Morris. Seeking a solution beyond those proferred by the equally inadequate jealous rivals, the idiosyncratic picture Nibley ends up with has important affinities to the position staked out by B. H. Roberts in his (until recently) unpublished manuscript The Truth, The Way, The Life. (One wonders if Nibley arrived at his views independently, or if perhaps he had access to this embargoed work of Elder Roberts.) Knowingly or unknowingly following in Elder Roberts’ footsteps, Nibley’s synthesis valiantly attempts to thread the needle–accepting more than is customary (for a Mormon) from science, while taking more seriously than is customary (for a scientist) the scriptural accounts. In conceding the reality of death before the fall and the existence of “a lot of creatures running about long ago who looked like men,” he risks alienting the Priests; in ultimately rejecting an evolutionary origin of mankind, he finds himself hopelessly at odds with the Scientists. His intriguing and dramatic finale, a bold coup de gras, is almost literally deus ex machina: a not-so-subtle hint at a resort to private acceptance of some form of the Adam-God doctrine in order to resolve the problem of Adam, whereby he manages to simultaneously offend both Priest and Scientist in equal measure—a situation probably inevitable in any attempted reconciliation anyway. (Nibley here provides a roadmap for getting away with this sort of thing with an academically unwashed audience of faith: first, let the impression fall as gently and subtly as possible, like the dews of heaven, that you know a hell of a lot more than they do; and second, make as explicit as possible—and as bombastically as occasion allows—your unalloyed allegiance to the Restoration, by roundly condemning its detractors while overtly wrapping yourself in the ægis of Joseph’s revelations. Must be fun to throw lightning bolts from that rhetorical Olympus.)

I like this piece of Nibley’s, for its willingness to take on the subject, its erudition, and its engaging, bold, almost flamboyant style; but I think it fails on scientific grounds, right where it matters most: the origin of man. It is not at all clear that the gaps in man’s nature and descent that he requires are there; on the contrary, everything seems to point to us being an elaboration of anatomy and culture possessed by ancient and different ancestors. (The modern genetic evidence seems particularly definitive regarding historically contingent descent of the physical body; see this post for a specific example.) Nibley seems tolerant of evolution of the animal kingdom, but is unwilling to take it all the way to man. (I suspect that if President McKay accepted evolution, as often alleged, it was only in this limited sense that does not ‘give away the store.’) The necessity of this gap is a legacy of the fundamental Mormon doctrine of an anthropomorphic, procreating God, whose consequences for the expected nature of exaltation will not easily be relinquished.

[This is cross-posted from Mormon Evolution: A Quest for Reconciliation. Please go to the original post to comment.]