Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Hurray for Mary Higby Schweitzer: Working Mom, Christian, and Dangerous Scientist

The Book of Mormon warns against some of the many fallacies made by the elite and educated ranks who find many reasons to mock religion and deny Jesus Christ (e.g., 2 Nephi 9:28-29). One of the great ironies in science is the ease with which scientists and educated thinkers stop thinking once they think they have something figured out. Don't be shocked: they are human too. In spite of all that education, they can readily fall into the trap of clinging to old paradigms, proudly thinking they now know something for themselves, when real science should take the humble attitude of recognizing that it is tentative and that numerous untested assumptions sometimes go into the mental models we create when we interpret data. This vulnerability is especially great when we make judgments about things that are not simply straightforward matters like how much something weighs. When science is applied to resolve moral issues or matters of faith, for example, look out. It is an inadequate tool for some purposes.

One interesting illustration of the problems in blindly relying on "established" scientific knowledge involves the recent discovery that soft matter--cartilage, skin, muscle tissue, etc.--may have been preserved in some actual dinosaur finds. Sounds crazy, right? Dinosaurs are millions of years old, and obviously soft tissue could not possibly last that long so it's just not possible. Dinosaurs are fossils. Rocks. After millions of years, nothing else but fossilized rock can remain. Science has spoken, and as we all should know, when science has spoken, the debate and the thinking are done. At least that's how some scientists apparently responded when Mary Higby Schweitzer, a woman and a known evangelical Christian, of all things, dared to claim that she had solid evidence for soft tissue from ancient dinosaurs. The woman is Mary Higby Schweitzer and her story is ably told by Barry Yeoman in "Schweitzer's Dangerous Discovery," Discover Magazine, April 2006.
Schweitzer gazed through a microscope in her laboratory at North Carolina State University and saw lifelike tissue that had no business inhabiting a fossilized dinosaur skeleton: fibrous matrix, stretchy like a wet scab on human skin; what appeared to be supple bone cells, their three-dimensional shapes intact; and translucent blood vessels that looked as if they could have come straight from an ostrich at the zoo.

By all the rules of paleontology, such traces of life should have long since drained from the bones. It's a matter of faith among scientists that soft tissue can survive at most for a few tens of thousands of years, not the 65 million since T. rex walked what's now the Hell Creek Formation in Montana. But Schweitzer tends to ignore such dogma. She just looks and wonders, pokes and prods, following her scientific curiosity. That has allowed her to see things other paleontologists have missed—and potentially to shatter fundamental assumptions about how much we can learn from the past. If biological tissue can last through the fossilization process, it could open a window through time, showing not just how extinct animals evolved but how they lived each day.
This is a huge advance. What breathtaking finds are waiting to be revealed in the soft tissue and perhaps even the DNA of these ancient kings and queens of the planet? Hurray for Mary Higby Schweitzer and for her unusual background and her faith that helped her see things other scientists have probably been missing (and accidentally destroying) for decades.

Mary is an evangelical Christian, but also accepts that the earth may be billions of years old (that fits my understanding of the evidence as well). There are other things about her I really like:
In 1989, while dividing her time between substitute teaching and her three children, Schweitzer steered back toward her childhood fascination with dinosaurs. She approached Jack Horner, a renowned dinosaur scientist, and asked if she could audit his vertebrate paleontology course at Montana State University. He appreciated her refreshingly nontraditional mind. "She really wasn't much of a scientist—which is good," says Horner, curator of paleontology at the Museum of the Rockies. "Scientists all get to thinking alike, and it's good to bring people in from different disciplines. They ask questions very differently."

Schweitzer's first forays into paleontology were "a total hook," she says. Not only was she fascinated by the science, but to her, digging into ancient strata seemed like reading the history of God's handiwork. Schweitzer worships at two churches—an evangelical church in Montana and a nondenominational one when she is back home in North Carolina—and when she talks about her faith, her bristly demeanor falls away. "God is so multidimensional," she says. "I see a sense of humor. I see His compassion in the world around me. It makes me curious, because the creator is revealed in the creation." Unlike many creationists, she finds the notion of a world evolving over billions of years theologically exhilarating: "That makes God a lot bigger than thinking of Him as a magician that pulled everything out in one fell swoop."

Schweitzer's career began just as paleontologists started framing their own questions in more multidimensional ways. Until the 1980s, researchers were more likely to be trained in earth science than in biology. They often treated fossils as geologic specimens—mineral structures whose main value lay in showing the skeletal shapes of prehistoric animals. A younger generation of paleontologists, in contrast, has focused on reconstructing intimate details like growth rates and behaviors using modern techniques normally associated with the study of living organisms....

This shifting perspective clicked with Schweitzer's intuitions that dinosaur remains were more than chunks of stone. Once, when she was working with a T. rex skeleton harvested from Hell Creek, she noticed that the fossil exuded a distinctly organic odor. "It smelled just like one of the cadavers we had in the lab who had been treated with chemotherapy before he died," she says. Given the conventional wisdom that such fossils were made up entirely of minerals, Schweitzer was anxious when mentioning this to Horner. "But he said, 'Oh, yeah, all Hell Creek bones smell,'" she says. To most old-line paleontologists, the smell of death didn't even register. To Schweitzer, it meant that traces of life might still cling to those bones. 
Wow, right under their noses! Dinosaur finds at that site were well known to smell like cadavers. Dozens of soft tissue treasures had probably been destroyed over the years, with a treasure of information right under the offended noses of scientists. It took someone with a different perspective to dig into what was really there and reveal something tantalizing. Thank you, Mary Higby Schweitzer!

I also love her approach to science as something that teaches us more about the handiwork and, yes, humor of God. It is exhilarating. 

Mary was lucky to have a supportive and open-minded mentor. Meanwhile, another evangelical Christian was allegedly fired from California State University, Northridge (CSUN) for publishing a peer-reviewed article in Acta Histochemia about his discovery of soft tissue on another dinosaur find, also at Hell Creek. Here is part of the story, as told by CBS Los Angeles:
While at the Hell Creek Formation excavation site in Montana, researcher Mark Armitage discovered what he believed to be the largest triceratops horn ever unearthed at the site, according to attorney Brad Dacus of Pacific Justice Institute.
Upon examination of the horn under a high-powered microscope back at CSUN, Dacus says Armitage was “fascinated” to find soft tissue on the sample – a discovery Bacus said stunned members of the school’s biology department and even some students “because it indicates that dinosaurs roamed the earth only thousands of years in the past rather than going extinct 60 million years ago.”
“Since some creationists, like [Armitage], believe that the triceratops bones are only 4,000 years old at most, [Armitage's] work vindicated his view that these dinosaurs roamed the planet relatively recently,”according to the complaint (PDF) filed July 22 in Los Angeles Superior Court.
The lawsuit against the CSUN board of trustees cites discrimination for perceived religious views.
Armitage’s findings were eventually published in July 2013 in a peer-reviewed scientific journal.
According to court documents, shortly after the original soft tissue discovery, a CSUN official told Armitage, “We are not going to tolerate your religion in this department!”
Armitage, a published scientist of over 30 years, was subsequently let go after CSUN abruptly claimed his appointment at the university of 38 months had been temporary, and claimed a lack of funding for his position, according to attorneys.
Perhaps the problem may have been that he wasn't quiet about how this discovery supposedly supported his personal young-earth views. If his claims are correct, it was unfortunate and not a very scientific thing for the university to do. Not surprisingly, scientists and university leaders are humans like everyone else and bring plenty of biases with them in their quest for truth and funding. Sadly, some university systems have become remarkably intolerant of diverging views and enforce uniformity of thought much more than they let on in their P.R. Some pretty extreme abuses happen from time to time. I'm glad Mary Schweitzer's work was able to move forward and shake things up for the good of all of us.

By the way, other scientists think they have an answer for how soft tissue could be preserved so long. Turns out iron nanoparticles might be doing the trick. They seem to have done well in preserving soft tissue during a two-year period already. Just another 50 million years or so before we'll be sure.

Related stories: GodfatherPolitics.com discusses some of the initially negative reactions Mary received for her work.

44 comments:

Jeremiah said...

How does one reconcile the existence of fossils that are millions of years old with this statement from the LDS Bible dictionary? "Latter-day revelation teaches that there was no death on this earth before the Fall of Adam. Indeed, death entered the world as a direct result of the Fall (2 Ne. 2:22; Moses 6:48)."

Or is the intent of this post to suggest that dinosaurs didn't die until after Adam, acknowledgment of a billions-of-years-old earth notwithstanding?

Jeff Lindsay said...

My personal opinion: I think that Bruce R. McConkie's views in the Bible Dictionary need to be updated to acknowledge that official LDS doctrine does not rule out an old earth or evolutionary mechanisms in preparing the earth. Statements in the LDS scriptures do not rule out death long before the Garden of Eden was created. The problem is that the scriptures are not intended to be a guide to science and the details of the creation, but a guide for spiritual matters and how to live our lives. Taking general statements about the Fall and reading broad scientific generalizations into them is unwise.

Related resources: http://en.fairmormon.org/Mormonism_and_science/Dinosaurs

http://www.jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/science.shtml

Jeff Lindsay said...

So what happened in the Garden of Eden? Where was it and when? Not sure. The concept being taught is that Adam's transgression brought spiritual and physical death, and that Christ is the answer to these problems. I think whatever state Adam was in and the Garden of Eden was in prior to the Fall need not apply to everywhere outside the Garden, such as the entire earth for its entire history, though that's been a common assumption.

Spiritual and physical death came to Adam through the Fall, but perhaps death had been going on for millions of years for bacteria, reptiles, mammals, and others before the special conditions in Eden were established. I'm really not sure, though.

Alma Allred said...

What state was Adam in and the Garden was in prior to the FAll? Wasn't it Missouri?....(I apologize).

I believe John Widtsoe theorized that if people could be redeemed before the death of Christ, it is reasonable to postulate that animals could also die before the Fall of Adam. Both actions could occur by virtue of what was going to happen in the future.

Jeremiah said...

It seems the concept of the Fall has gone from being an explanation for something (death) to being something that must be explained.

Pierce said...

It is interesting to note that in Genesis and other accounts, God told Adam that "in the day that thou eatest thereof THOU shalt surely die."

To me, this implies that the Garden narrative is fairly limited in scope, especially as it deals with death. Many of the scriptures involving this period refer events happening within "the Garden" (2 Nephi 2:22), rather than the world as a whole, or even the rest of Eden. The scriptures describe the earth being formed and animals and herbs being "over all the earth," and only later God plants a Garden eastward in Eden. Those little details, among many others, suggest to me a more limited view of what happened in the Garden and the scope of its effects.

One more thing that I also heard someone mention once is that God told Adam that if he ate the fruit, he would die. It is not explained what this information could have meant to Adam, who would not seem to be able to comprehend the idea of death. Some have said that this suggests that animals and plant life could have been dying already, and that Adam would understand what it means to die because he was seeing it in the animals, fruit, and plants around him. I don't know about that, but it's an interesting thought.

Quantumleap42 said...

If you had asked scientists 100 years ago if it were possible for an observer to observe an infinite amount of time in a finite amount of time (or in an instant, as if all things were present before their eyes) then they would have unanimously declared that no it is not possible.

If you ask almost any scientist today the same question you will most likely get the same answer, that it is not possible. But if you ask the right scientist (i.e. one who studies cosmology and theoretical physics) then they may say, "Well, it is theoretically possible."

In less than 100 years our understanding of the universe went from it being absolutely impossible that someone could observe an infinite amount of time in a finite amount of time, to being in something that is theoretically possible (Thanks Einstein! This is one of the less well known consequences of general relativity. It is possible, even without invoking time travel.).

When our understanding of science changes it changes in small and subtle ways that we could never imagine possible, and when it does some of the apparent conflicts seem to melt away. But we still have a long way to go.

There are so many other subtle things in our current understanding of science that can and will change that will seem marvelous to our eyes.

Quantumleap42 said...

Perhaps I should clarify. When I say our understanding of science will change, I do not mean we will wake up one morning and there will be a news story about how gravity actually doesn't exist (though considering some of the news organizations out there I wouldn't put it past them...wait maybe I should Google that first...[goes to Google]...too late they are already reporting that gravity doesn't exist, sigh). Or perhaps I should say, we won't wake up one morning and the Sun will have ceased to exist (sorry Hume, can't happen).

The changes will be seemingly insignificant and in some cases imperceptible but will go a long way in resolving many of the conflicts between science and religion. Here are two examples of potential change:

The current most popular expression of Evolution, as expressed by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, is fundamentally at odds with both LDS theology and Christianity in general (and I don't mean on the topic of the age of the earth, that is only a minor and trivial argument). But Evolution as expressed by Edward Wilson in his book The Social Conquest of Earth has in it perhaps the greatest evolutionary argument in favor of organized religion in all of science (just don't tell Dr. Wilson that, he is very anti-organized religion). By changing the fundamental conception of Evolution many of the most serious conflicts between LDS theology and Evolution disappear (but for the rest of Christianity, especially American Evangelicalism the conflict is still there, just not with LDS theology).

Another possible point of change is in our understanding of entropy. If you ask just about anyone (who has heard of entropy), including scientists, what entropy is then they will most likely say something along the lines of, "It is a measure of the disorder in the universe." But this actually isn't the definition of entropy. It's a measure of the most probable state, which we naively assume is the most disordered one, but that second assumption doesn't necessarily follow from the definition. I think that if we change that one seemingly minor conception of entropy then a whole universe of very interesting possibilities open up in ways that we never thought possible.

Just remember that some of the most serious conflicts between religion and science are there because of seemingly minor ideas and assumptions that we have made that we don't even realize we have made.

Mormography said...

"In spite of all that education, they can readily fall into the trap of clinging to old paradigms, proudly thinking they now know something for themselves, when real science should take the humble attitude of recognizing that it is tentative and that numerous untested assumptions sometimes go into the mental models we create when we interpret data."

Wow, what eisoptrophobia Mormanity must have. To quote Mormanity himself, "He claims he has a Ph.D. (but then, don't they all?"

As for the completely separate topic in this post regarding scriptural interpretation of creation methodology, I have often pointed out to Evangelical Christians that William Jennings Bryan, despite professing a literal interpretation of the Bible, testified under oath during the Scopes Monkey Trial that the Bible does not limit the creation period to 24 hours and each period may have continued for millions of years or 600 million years each period. The humor in Bryan’s logic is the implied extra attention from God in creating Eve, that is, God could have possibly used evolution to create Adam, but definitely intelligently created Eve literally out of Adam’s rib. These Evangelical Christians object to Bryan that the Genesis’s clarifiers “there was evening, and there was morning” make no doubt that the original Hebrew meant 24 hour periods. My unanswered question is why did their great defender testify otherwise?

Worse than Bryan being an Evangelical in error, is Mormanity’s deception that it was McConkie alone falsely passing personal opinion off as official doctrine. At any rate, the modern Mormon apologists favorite and contradictory weasel of that-was-never-official-doctrine essential concedes that the critics are right and that the Mormon belief structure is as error prone as any other faith (that is Mormons are not special). The humor in Mormanity’s logic is, despite Nephi “delighting in plainness”, the Nephite scriptures are so poorly translated and poorly interpreted that their meaning is render meaningless.

Pierce said...

Blah b-blah blah blah Mormography.
You are starting to become a one-complaint pony. You are surrounded here by people who understand the "official doctrine" idea, but you are still stuck in the 1970's paradigm and fuss when you can't also keep others within it with your criticisms. Your criticism on this matter ultimately comes down to "w-wait, you can't do that!" It is you who has egg on his face every time you complain about us favoring revelation over assumption.

You are also being deceptive in your own accusation of Jeff claiming that McConkie was "alone" in his opinion on the doctrine. He didn't say that word (which changes everything). Whether or not it was a widely-held belief is outside the scope of the intended statement. Most people here probably know that it was McConkie who oversaw the board who compiled the Bible Dictionary, and who had a direct hand in writing it. He is ultimately responsible for it (and has rightfully been admired for it). Get a grip.

Mormography said...

Blah b-blah blah blah Pierce.
To think I thought you were going to nick-pick that Bryan was a Presbytian, not an Evangelical. Generosity is a personality flaw I am working on. Are ad hominem attacks the only trick you know? AAhhh, Nonetheless, you complement me with them, for they indicate that sound reason has stumped you again.

“You are surrounded here by people who understand the "official doctrine" idea Wo, this is a major revelation. Please enlighten me on official doctrine, for I have been unable to find a single Mormon apologist with can explain it without contradicting themselves. “1970's paradigm and fuss” Please enlighten me, what is this?

As for ”Your criticism on this matter ultimately comes down to "w-wait, you can't do that!"” I disagree. You can concede all you want. Please continue to do so. That will not prevent honest people from helping you call a spade a spade.

“you complain about us favoring revelation over assumption.” This is also major. Me and others have been begging Mormanity for single example of modern revelation for years now. So please explain how you favor revelation?

No deception on my part, as you contradictorily appear to admit, Mormanity was being deceptive (see “also being”). I did not accuse Mormanity of using the word “alone”, I claim he was being “deceptive” not lying, which you seem to understand. The fact that it was a widely held belief is ENTIRELY the point and to claim McConkie is ultimately responsible for it is fantastically deceptive, but of course you know that, don’t you?

When you obtain a grasp find a rejoinder to this one, ”The humor in Mormanity’s logic is, despite Nephi “delighting in plainness”, the Nephite scriptures are so poorly translated and poorly interpreted that their meaning is render meaningless.”

Greg said...

The distinction between official vs. unofficial doctrine has no logical grounding and no practical value in the church. The logical problem is that establishing criteria for what constitutes official doctrine leads to either question begging or logical inconsistency. Question begging occurs when the criteria themselves possess the characteristics of being "official doctrine." Why should the criteria be accepted as official doctrine? Because they satisfy their own criteria. That's begging the question. The alternative to this is that the criteria for what constitutes official doctrine don't possess the characteristics of being official doctrine. Then the criteria themselves cannot be accepted as official doctrine, and a logical inconsistency emerges.

More importantly, the distinction has no practical value in the church. The overwhelming majority of church members think that what they hear in general conference is official church doctrine. My wife suggested in her relief society class that we're not required as members of the church to believe everything that church leaders teach. She was instantly ganged up on and shut down by the relief society presidency. They subsequently released her from her calling as teacher.

There is much that Mormons are bound to believe and do that doesn't satisfy some definition of "official doctrine." The church handbook of instructions, for example, would not constitute "official doctrine" by apologetic criteria. There is no official doctrine that women cannot be ordained to the priesthood. There was never any official doctrine that Blacks couldn't hold the priesthood. Nothing taught in the temple would qualify as official doctrine. That God was once a man is not official doctrine, Nevertheless, the church members behave and think as though these things are "official doctrine," whether they satisfy some little known apologetic criteria or not. The point is, there is only doctrine.

The outcome of teaching "unofficial" doctrine (has a general authority ever used that phrase?) is precisely the same as proclaiming "official" doctrine. Under the watchful eyes of leaders and congregations, you behave as though everything is "official," or you become viewed with suspicion.

So when Boyd Packer, Bruce McConkie, and Joseph Fielding Smith teach loudly and clearly that humans did not evolve and there was no death before the fall, most church members feel obliged to believe it. They go on to teach it at home, in seminary, and in church. My teenage daughter got a lecture in her Sunday school class from a church member with no scientific training that evolution is a false idea and that Darwin was an idiot. As far as the teacher was concerned, that's official.

Pierce said...

Count on Mormography to simply parrot the things that I say back to me. You should start putting in foot notes where you lift my vernacular. And always the first to start crying about "ad hominem attacks." You've demonstrated time and time again that you don't understand what ad hominem actually means. People addressing your points and using sarcasm is not "ad hominem." But I guess you just HAVE to type those words each time, so hopefully it is out of your system.

"Please enlighten me on official doctrine"

Please. You can find plenty of essays, talks, and articles about this subject, and no doubt you have and tossed it aside because it doesn't support your bias. Granted, many people in the church have different ideas about what should be considered official, or revealed doctrine. So there won't really be a consensus. We don't have creeds. But that also supports the idea that a critic such as yourself needs to actually be open to that reality in order to be credible in his criticisms.

"So please explain how you favor revelation"

Let's take the context of this article, for example. You will find my answer in my first post. What has been revealed is that God created the earth. That is doctrine--it is found in scriptures (several books) and has been and is unanimously taught by apostles and by Joseph Smith. What does not have the same credentials is the doctrine that 7 days are literal, that God did not use evolution, that there was no death in the world, etc.
This is the distinction that you refuse to accept because it makes things harder for you in what whatever your goal is here. That you refuse to acknowledge the intellectual integrity it takes to distinguish assumption/tradition from revelation, excludes you from being one of the "honest, calling a spade a spade."
And receiving recent, church-wide revelation doesn't have anything to do with us making sense of the revelations we have already received.

Own up to what you say. You inserted the word alone. Nobody, nobody said that McConkie is responsible for the actual doctrine. He was responsible for what ultimately went into the Bible dictionary. It was literally HIS DEFINITION! I don't see why you don't get that. I'll let Jeff speak for himself in regards to this moving forward. But I am amazed at what lengths you go to to accuse someone of willfully deceiving others in the most casual of comments.

"find a rejoinder to this one ”The humor in Mormanity’s logic is, despite Nephi “delighting in plainness”, the Nephite scriptures are so poorly translated and poorly interpreted that their meaning is render meaningless.”

Nephi delighted in plainness. He probably delighted in a good meal too. That doesn't mean that things aren't naturally complicated, or that you don't burn the food sometimes. You can have the gospel as plain as you want it or as deep or complicated as you want it.
I don't consider it poorly translated nor poorly interpreted. The Nephite scriptures are absolutely full of meaning for me. Any more brain busters?


Pierce said...

Greg,

"The distinction between official vs. unofficial doctrine has no logical grounding and no practical value in the church."

What is "the church?" Are you speaking about the institutional church or are you talking about individuals who make up the church? If it is the latter, then there is a distinction, because I say there is. Some people in the church may gasp and balk at that idea, but ultimately, that doesn't concern me. For me, and my beliefs, there absolutely is practical value in learning and believing in things that come from God rather than man. Once I strip unnecessary things away, I can let the Spirit guide me as I pursue truth in study and mediation.

"There is much that Mormons are bound to believe and do that doesn't satisfy some definition of "official doctrine."

There is and there isn't. There are plenty of ways that I am not "bound" to believe things, even though others think I should be. But your examples are good ones. There are many policies that are not "doctrines" that are used to govern the affairs of the church, and most of them are man-made. Elder Oaks acknowledged this in his recent Priesthood talk.

"So when Boyd Packer, Bruce McConkie, and Joseph Fielding Smith teach loudly and clearly that humans did not evolve and there was no death before the fall, most church members feel obliged to believe it."

And that is their choice. That's the key. In no way has God made it clear to me that I am obliged to believe those things. He has made it clear that I must believe in Christ, love and serve my neighbor, keep his commandments that he has given, covenant with him through ordinances in the church and help others to do so, and repent. He has made it clear that I am his child and that he wants my family to be like his family and created this world for me to do so. He has made that known through prophets. Everything else is fluff.

Quantumleap42 said...

After reading most of these comments this is what came to mind (and this can certainly apply to just about any comment thread on the internet).

When I was finishing up my undergrad degree I was part of a group of physics majors that had spent several years doing our homework together and studying for every test. One night someone observed that in all of our physics classes that we had taken we had learned nothing new since taking the first four introductory classes.

After some point we had not been taught any new physics. Our classes simply consisted of learning new ways of applying the same basic principles to ever more complex problems. Even today with my research I am not using a different set of basic principles I am just applying the same basic principles to extremely complex situations.

To someone who is just starting their education it can be hard to see that the more complex problems are simply a different manifestation of the same basic principles and not a complete change of basis. Sometimes those who get too deep into the complex problems lose sight of the basic principles and are pleasantry surprised when basic principles suddenly pop out of complex problems.

In my experience, both in my own personal gospel education and observing others who struggle with problems, the two things that cause more problems than anything else is either forgetting basic principles when confronted with a difficult problem or failing to see that the things that we don't understand can be solved by applying basic principles. On the one side if the fault of "knowing too much" and on the other the fault of "not knowing enough".

We can get too obsessed with complex that we lose sight of the basics and dismiss them, and we can fail to see how basic principles apply to complex situations and judge them to be inadequate and dismiss them.

Orbiting Kolob said...

Hi Jeff. In a comment above you wrote something I can truly appreciate:

[T]he scriptures are not intended to be a guide to science and the details of the creation, but a guide for spiritual matters and how to live our lives. Taking general statements about the Fall and reading broad scientific generalizations into them is unwise.

This is a statement I can agree with 100 percent.

But tell me, would you be willing to make the same statement, only substituting "history" for "science"? The result would read like this:

"The problem is that the scriptures are not intended to be a guide to history and the details of the creation, but a guide for spiritual matters and how to live our lives. Taking general statements about the Fall and reading broad historical generalizations into them is unwise."

I could be wrong, but I'm guessing the answer is that no, this statement about scripture's relation to history is unacceptable to you. If so, I'm curious as to why.

Let me invite you also to respond to a slightly different question, not about what you personally believe about the historicity of the scriptures, but about what is possible for a Mormon to believe on this question (and still remain a proper Mormon).

Basically, is it acceptable for a member of the Church to publicly argue for, or even teach, something like this? --

The scriptures are not historical texts, but rather fictional texts that use narrative form to convey religious truth. We should not be surprised at this, since most cultures, in most times, have tended to embody their religious beliefs in the form of stories rather than expository statements. We don't need to worry about the historicity of Adam and Eve any more than that of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The wisdom of Twain's novels does not depend on the historicity of their characters and events; in the same way, the basic truths of the LDS faith do not depend on the historicity of the Bible and the Book of Mormon.

Would the latter statement be acceptable? Or do they take one beyond the outer limits of Mormon belief (and if so, how exactly)?

Mormography said...

Pierce,

”Count on Mormography to simply parrot the things that I say back to me.” Success! I have successfully taught you to see your own reflection. This is progress. I am so happy at this moment [tear in my eye]. I have tried for years for Mormanity to see his own reflection with no success.

It appears that you are conceding that the critics were right in that Mormons were wrong in believing there was no death before the Fall and the Mormon leadership failed to correct them. So the critics are credible? Get your story straight. Are you just violently agreeing with the critics? What was thought to have been doctrine could not have been for many of the reasons the critics claim?

Intellectual integrity and owning up to what you have said requires you to recognize that you frequently make implied contradictions. For example, in your retort you go from having no definition of doctrine to an implied definition ”doctrine--it is found in scriptures (several books) and has been and is unanimously taught by apostles” Of course this runs into immediate difficulties because many things ”found in scriptures (several books) and has been and is unanimously taught” are no longer claimed doctrine by apologist.

You write ”This is the distinction that you refuse to accept” What?? When did I accept or refuse to accept anything? I do not care one way or the other. I only care in the logical universe derived from what is accepted. To copy and paste what I have already expressed many times here “There is one problem with the that-was-never-official-doctrine argument that apologist are using so much lately. The argument itself demonstrates that the divinely inspired leadership has been entirely unable to keep incorrect doctrine, speculation, legends, etc. from running rampant in the Mormon Church. The argument essential implies that if I were to join the Mormon Church I would be institutionally misled on doctrine as much as any other church. Or that, Internet apologists are more effective at setting the doctrine straight than the divinely inspired leadership.” Greg’s post above essential validates this.

With regards to your McConkie rejoinder, it nice to see you concede that the actual doctrine existed, whether or not McConkie existed. Your rejoinder that McConkie is responsible for the transcription is as silly as saying the typesetter is responsible. Own up to the fact that Mormanity wrote, and I quote, “McConkie's views in the Bible Dictionary” Blatant deception. It was not “McConkie’s view”, it was THE view. At any rate, this does not change the fact you agree with the critics that Mormons were wrong. I am amazed at what lengths you go to pretend you don't get that.

The best part was your inability to provide a single example of modern revelation. Again, conceding. Mormons have no more access to divinity than the rest of humanity.

Mormography said...

Orbiting Kolob,

Excellent question. I have asked similar questions here as well with no response:

“What if true did not mean that there were Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites in the Western hemisphere, but rather their ships went through some sort of port hole in the middle of the ocean to another planet? If that was the case, would the BoM be any less true? Of course the next logical extension is what if Nephites, Lamanites, and Jaredites did not live on another planet but only in the head of a particular person who sincerely believed they existed.”

Greg said...

Pierce,

To answer your first question, the distinction between the institutional church and the individuals within the church is just as meaningless as the distinction between official and unofficial doctrine. The church is soy lent green, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms.

Your individualized approach is necessary and proper for a certain level of maturity, but it underscores the futility of defining "official doctrine." All there is is a marketplace of beliefs, strongly influenced by church leaders. Definitions are not true or false; they are useful or non useful. The definition of Mormon doctrine that seems most useful is whatever most Mormons happen to believe and teach. "Official doctrine" can't be nailed down and should be abandoned as a false category. Of course, most Mormons don't believe that.

Joseph Smith's statement that Mormonism has no creeds is a favorite among liberals like Van Hale, and I think it would be great to make the statement itself a creed, but Joseph Smith also wrote the articles of faith, which are taught to Mormon children who are encouraged to recite them from memory, something that I can still do. Seem a lot like creeds to me.

Greg said...

Orbiting Kolob,

For what it's worth, I agree with the statement that the basic truths of the LDS faith do not depend on the historicity of the Bible and Book of Mormon, but as an active Mormon, I do not feel that I can state this publicly to members of my ward. How wide the divide. I hope that the church could thrive if a significant number of members came to endorse this point of view, but I'm not sure that it could.

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Quantumleap42 said...

Orbiting Kolob and Greg,

There is a fundamental difference between viewing the scriptures as a scientific guide vs. a historical document. It should be fairly obvious that the scriptures were not written as a post-Enlightenment, modern, systematic exposition of scientific facts. But they were written as historical documents that record historical events. Just because they do not adhere to our current concept of historical rigor does not mean that the events reported therein do not have historical basis. Also just because certain parts of the scriptures rely on oral tradition does not mean that the people mentioned there in are not real historical figures.

As to the question of viewing scriptures as narrative fiction, if you do then you are missing an extensive realm of understanding regarding the nature of the relationship between God and man. There is merit in viewing the scriptures as historical texts because it forces us to learn and view how God has related with all of his children in all ages of the earth and not just during the time when social norms and expectations were in close alignment with ours.

If we view the scriptures as nothing more than inspired fiction then there is very little incentive to understand them outside of our own narrow understanding and cultural biases. There will be things that we will miss that are necessary for our salvation that we will not even be aware that we are missing, things relating to the importance of the temple, the status of the people of God, His relationship to us and how we receive our salvation. All these things require a historical view of the scriptures.

I remember once talking to a Philosophy major who insisted that he could understand the ideas behind general relativity without learning any of the math. Having just spent two semesters in graduate level classes on general relativity I could safely say that there is no way he or anyone else could understand general relativity without also understanding the math associated with it. Even if you refuse to learn the math, by the time you know enough about general relativity to really understand it on a useful level you would have no problem understanding the math. I you tried to learn it completely without learning any math you would have to in effect reinvent the same fundamental principles of math to understand general relativity.

The same holds true for understanding the scriptures. You can insist that they are not historical, but by the time you understand them in their fullest sense (i.e. in the sense where they are useful for salvation and exaltation) then you will have reconstructed a historical view of the scriptures. So why reinvent the wheel?

But rather than wondering about it, try asking God to lead you to understanding. If you are willing He will answer your prayer and show you the wonderful understanding that is possible by knowing that the people mentioned in scripture, Adam to Alma, are real people.

Greg said...

One of the fundamental assumptions of science is that under similar conditions, people have similar experiences. This is essentially the criterion of reproducibility in experimentation and the principle of analogy in history. Maybe Balaam did have a talking ass, but which is more likely, that he had a talking ass or that storytellers merely said he did? By historical analogy, a talking ass is unlikely, but people embellishing stories over time is quite likely. If I conclude that the talking ass is historical, I'm not applying the same standards of evaluating probability to the story of Balaam that I do to everything outside the scriptures. In order to believe that the scriptures are mostly historical, you have to suspend the standards of probability that you normally apply to everything else. A lot of smart, educated believers do this because human beings are very good at compartmentalization. I've chosen not to compartmentalize to that degree.

Nevertheless, I was able to have a conversation with my Sunday school class about the story of Balaam. We talked about aspects of the story that can be applied to our lives that I won't go into. Whether Balaam actually had a talking ass was immaterial to the discussion. We were interacting with the literary character Balaam. The literary character is all you can interact with whether there ever was a real Balaam or not.

Based on empirical evidence, I feel it's safe to predict that God will not tell me not to do something, then tell me I can do it but block my donkey's path with an invisible angel, then allow my donkey to talk to me to tell me about the angel before he allows me to see the angel myself. I can ponder this story in a positive way whether it will ever happen to me or not. Whether it's worth pondering is an individual decision based on cultural relevance.

If your next-door neighbor told you that his dog talked to him and told him there was an invisible angel in the room, would you believe him? Why not? Would you pray to God and ask if he was telling the truth? Probably not. Why apply a different standard to a book written by people you've never met than to people you know?

Orbiting Kolob said...

I must say I am very impressed with the thoughtfulness and clarity of the two responses above. I still think Greg is right, but I want to thank you both (Quantumleap24 and Greg) for delineating your positions so well. You are a credit to the blogosphere.

Greg said...

"There is merit in viewing the scriptures as historical texts because it forces us to learn and view how God has related with all of his children in all ages of the earth and not just during the time when social norms and expectations were in close alignment with ours."

I used to view the scriptures as historical, and that led me to see a big disconnect between how God dealt with people in the past vs. how he deals with us now. Now I interpret the scriptures through the lens that things haven't changed that much. People have always had spiritual experiences like the ones I and my associates have had, and people sometimes embellish.

Greg said...

"If we view the scriptures as nothing more than inspired fiction then there is very little incentive to understand them outside of our own narrow understanding and cultural biases."

People who view the scriptures as historical do that all the time. How many times have Old Testament stories been reduced to lessons about how we should do our home teaching?

Pierce said...

Momog,

"Success! I have successfully taught you to see your own reflection."

Mimicking people does not teach anything. It actually shows a lack of creativity and makes me question whether or not you can speak using an original thought.

"Get your story straight."

I'm sorry, what's my "story?" Have we had a discussion about the credibility of critics? I don't recall. Whether or not they are credible is immaterial. I'm a bit more interested in the actual criticism. And what you are talking about is not a unique position for "critics." Many members in the church have debated for years whether or not there was death before the fall, and what to make of fossils and other evidence--leaders included. Other sects of Christianity are also involved in the discussion. So while it suits you to figure out who scored points in an "us vs. them" situation, it doesn't really matter to me. The answer to your question then: I....guess?

"Of course this runs into immediate difficulties because many things ”found in scriptures (several books) and has been and is unanimously taught” are no longer claimed doctrine by apologist."

I have never said "you cannot define what doctrine is." Whether or not it suits you to believe this, I believe that there are very, very few doctrines in the church that are "official doctrines," and my consideration might be different from others. But guess what, it was designed to be that way from the beginning with Joseph Smith, who refused to write creeds similar to other Christian denominations. Sorry if that doesn't work for you.

"What?? When did I accept or refuse to accept anything?"

Your obtuse critical statements demonstrate that you refuse to acknowledge that there are core doctrines in the church that are official, and then there are other doctrines that people teach that are based on assumption about those things. It has been explained to you many times, yet here you are again. If you are going to tell me that you accept this, then we have no argument. If not, let's not pretend.

"The argument itself demonstrates that the divinely inspired leadership has been entirely unable to keep incorrect doctrine, speculation, legends, etc. from running rampant in the Mormon Church"

So basically, it is the leadership's responsibility to remove the human aspect out of their callings as well as the general membership? The purpose of "leadership" is to provide the gospel of Christ and the ordinances to the world. At no point, in my belief, has that ceased since Joseph Smith. That many have publicly taught ideas outside the scope of that calling, or believed that it was part of the gospel message, does not cancel out the core of what they do provide. The problem with someone as critical as you who is outside of the church is that you get caught up in all of the superfluous stuff and have no interest in the actual important message that we focus on IN the church and as individuals. It is much more personal than "being misled by an institutional church" over doctrines that are often peripheral at best (this topic, for example).

"Own up to the fact that Mormanity wrote, and I quote, “McConkie's views in the Bible Dictionary” Blatant deception. It was not “McConkie’s view”, it was THE view."

So there was NO other view in the church concerning this issue? James E Talmage believed there was no death before the fall? Mormon students and scientists didn't? Again, trying to shoe-horn everyone in the church into one entity, who then influenced BRM to include it into the BD by popular demand, is of course absurd. Just like his book, he included this particular popular view (among others) into the Bible Dictionary, even though he didn't have to. It was his decision. He could have left it out since it is not in our revelations.
But you will grasp onto straws until the end, like always.

Pierce said...

"The best part was your inability to provide a single example of modern revelation. Again, conceding. Mormons have no more access to divinity than the rest of humanity."

As though "conceding" somehow takes away from my beliefs or discipleship. I believe that Mormonism has a unique and correct message about our relationship with God and what He wants us to do, and that it is applicable to everyone. That, in no way, limits someone else's access to him.

I have come to learn that the gospel that Joseph Smith brought out of obscurity is not diminished by what seems like a lack of church-wide revelations.

Pierce said...

Greg,

"the distinction between the institutional church and the individuals within the church is just as meaningless as the distinction between official and unofficial doctrine"

Then the judgmental version of me would say that the person who believes this depends too much on the institutional church. There is a distinction, and there always was. Joseph did not write creeds that defined all of our doctrine and he despised that idea. Though there has existed an emphasis on orthodoxy in the church over the years, ignoring the distinction doesn't mean it isn't there. It's true that this doesn't help in the way of defining "official doctrine," but my statement wasn't meant to.

My opinion is that some doctrines are indeed "official." Just because we have have removed this moniker from several doctrines that we now don't consider to be official, doesn't mean there aren't official, or core doctrines that are almost universally accepted. For example, I haven't seen us change our stance that the Savior was literally resurrected and that we will be too. That's pretty official.

"Seem a lot like creeds to me."

Then you must not have read a lot of the popular Christian creeds. Or read the Catechism of the Catholic church. The articles of faith do not contain all of our doctrines that we would consider "official." For example, it does not mention the 3 degrees of glory. That JS listed a few key beliefs in a letter once should not be even considered in the same league as a "Nicene Creed," which attempts to define the nature of God in an official capacity at a days-long council.

Mormography said...

Oh, I see. You dislike your reflection because it lacks the same creative that you lack. That makes sense, lacking original thought, your reflection just leaves where you started.

I never said you said “you cannot define what doctrine is.” I said you provided no definition and again in your retort, you still provide no definition. It is just a matter of fact that you cannot, or if you can, for some bizarre reason you refuse to provide one.

“Your obtuse critical statements demonstrate that you refuse to acknowledge that there are core doctrines in the church that are official” Wow, now you are calling FAIR obtuse. Glad I am not the only one you embarrass yourself via simplistic name calling. According to FAIR, there are no core doctrines except, “concerning Jesus Christ, that He died, was buried, and rose again the third day” So according to you, FAIR would be “obtuse”.

To suggest that BRM could have used his vast dictatorial powers to remove the predominate, defacto view of the Fall is strawman argument to the discussion of “McConkie’s view” verses “the view”. Again you provide no rejoinder to “Your rejoinder that McConkie is responsible for the transcription is as silly as saying the typesetter is responsible” Nonetheless Wikipedia contradicts your all-responsibility claims for BRM. Monson was chair and the BYU documentary does not even mention BRM. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bible_Dictionary_(LDS_Church) If I am grasping at straws, then you are grasping at thin air. Well at least I have a grip on something, like you requested. Why do you demand other people get a grip, but think you do not have to?

Correct me if I am wrong, but it sounds like you conceded, “ if I were to join the Mormon Church I would be institutionally misled on doctrine as much as any other church.” And “Mormons have no more access to divinity than the rest of humanity." Conceding these things would make you a critic of the Mormon Church. Like I say it is hard to tell. You appear to concede, but pretend you are not a critic.

Mormography said...

Pierce, Just curious, what is the constant mental mechanizations and conversations you are having in your head with me? For example, in this thread (let alone the others):

“This is the distinction that you refuse to accept”
”you are still stuck in the 1970's paradigm and fuss when you can't also keep others within it with your criticisms.“
“So while it suits you to figure out who scored points in an "us vs. them" situation”
“Sorry if that doesn't work for you. “
”Get a grip”
“that you refuse to acknowledge that there are core doctrines in the church that are official,“
“you get caught up in all of the superfluous stuff and have no interest in the actual important message that we focus on IN the church and as individuals”
“As though "conceding" somehow takes away from my beliefs or discipleship. “

Where do all these conversations in your head come from?

Mormography said...

Pierce,

”The humor in Mormanity’s logic is, despite Nephi “delighting in plainness”, the Nephite scriptures are so poorly translated and poorly interpreted that their meaning is render meaningless.” The extent of your response (but not a rejoinder) was there is no limit in the number times a something like “horse is not a horse” and “no death” does not mean “no death” can occur. This is not true. Such things items can should be rare and when used with frequency renders the scripture poorly translated/interpreted and meaningless. Merely wishing that was not true, is not a rejoinder. So yes, it does appear to have been a brain buster for you.

Pierce said...

Mormog,

"You dislike your reflection because it lacks the same creative that you lack."

Mimicking people and saying this kind of thing after it reminds me of grade school.

" Wow, now you are calling FAIR obtuse"

I've said nothing of FAIR. Just you. Whatever it is you're quoting I'm sure isn't meant to encapsulate everything that can be considered official doctrine. The statement does seem to identify the Savior being the core of all our doctrines, which I agree with.

"To suggest that BRM could have used his vast dictatorial powers to remove the predominate..."

BRM was on the Scripture Committee and is often credited (such as by Elder Packer) for doing most of the work on it. That being the case, and that it reflects what is said in Mormon Doctrine, makes Jeff's statement at the very least non-deceptive. Maybe Jeff's statement was a bit broad, but that really just shows how casual it really was and you trifle over something in order to support your overly-critical accusations.

"Correct me if I am wrong, but it sounds like you conceded..."

You chose to ignore the substance of my whole response in favor of trying to score some sort of points. So I budge in order to have a real conversation about my beliefs and this is how you treat it? Jumping all over it and twisting it so that now I'm a critic of my church? I can't imagine what is driving you to come to a blog like this and act this way.

"Where do all these conversations in your head come from?"

This is by far the weirdest thing you have ever posted on here. Everything that you assiduously copy and pasted is part of a larger conversation that I was having with you on this board. I don't get what the question is. I'm guessing it has something to do with not using flowery speech. But you're not a flowery speech kind of guy.

Anyway, I just wanted to point out your bogus statement that deception was employed, and that you are a broken record when it comes to the idea that not every doctrine is part of our beliefs or practices. We get that you don't understand it or accept the idea. That's it.

Greg said...

Pierce,

My failure to distinguish between the institutional church and people within the church is motivated by my love for the people who are imperfect and make mistakes sometimes but are ultimately a force for good. Again, definitions are useful or non useful. I don't find the distinction between the institutional church and the people within it to be useful.

So you have criteria for what constitutes official doctrine? Official doctrine is doctrine that never changes? If that's the only way to determine what's official, then we can never know what's official because we can't know which doctrine will be changed at some future time. The best you can say is that it hasn't changed yet.

And you must not have read the definition of "creed." Creed: a formal statement of religious belief. From the Latin "Credo" meaning "I believe." See also "article of faith." Good grief.

Pierce said...

"Official doctrine is doctrine that never changes?"

Not at all. Official doctrine does seem to change from time to time. Personally, I believe that we started in the developing years of the church with many ideas about doctrine that turned out to be not-doctrine. Bruce Porter described it best when he called the time after Joseph Smith the "research and development" phase--a time when the doctrine was publicly explored and some things were found to not be correct or "useful" as you put it. So over the years we have pared a lot of it down, rather than added to it. I actually appreciate that effort. While there are doctrines that may change, there are many that I don't believe will. And those I consider to be official doctrines.

But, for a decent treatment on how to better distinguish it, I would recommend Robert Millet's "What is Doctrine?" essay.

As for the creed thing, my statements are a response to your jab at those who take Joseph's feelings on creeds seriously, where you said the statement in and of itself is a creed. I was pointing out that it is not the same thing, and the Articles of Faith (a letter Joseph penned once) hardly qualify. Our church doesn't really have creeds in the traditional sense of the the word--strict definitions aside.

Greg said...

So according to you, official doctrine does seem to change from time to time. So does unofficial doctrine. Sorry if I don't see the difference.

I made no "jab" at people who take Joseph's feelings on creeds seriously. If I did, I would be taking a jab at myself. I didn't say that the statement is a creed; I said I wish it were. The traditional sense of the word creed is the same as the definition, FYI. Mormonism has them despite Joseph's expressed feelings.

Usually when I have to point out what I've already written or refer to the dictionary to make a point, that means the conversation has reached the limit of its productivity.

Mormography said...

Pierce,

Success! Now you are starting to see your reflection, grade school.

The rest (like most your responses) was just conceding speckled with anger, very grade school. In the end you were unable to demonstrate my statement was bogus, but rather ended up further validating it.

When you are ready for genuine dialogue with substance and quite jumping all over others and twisting just let me know.

Anonymous said...

Official doctrine can change by revelation.
But I doubt that we will ever get new revelation because Pres. Hinckley said the church does not need more revelation nor do the lraders seek it. IMHO that is a wrong way of thinking.

Ryan said...

When did Pres Hinckley say that?

Orbiting Kolob said...

If I may offer a couple of questions and observations re the discussion of official doctrine and ongoing revelation...

First, can we at least take the Articles of Faith to be official doctrine?

If so, then I think Article 8 is highly noteworthy for what it does not say:

8. We believe the Bible to be the word of God as far as it is translated correctly; we also believe the Book of Mormon to be the word of God.

Why are the Pearl of Great Price and Doctrine and Coovenants left out here? Does their omission provide a possible way of avoiding certain problems, e.g., the highly questionable authenticity of the Book of Abraham?

Also, Article 9 clearly suggests there are important revelations yet to come:

9. We believe all that God has revealed, all that He does now reveal, and we believe that He will yet reveal many great and important things pertaining to the Kingdom of God.

Plenty of wiggle room there for the Church to make the sort of adjustments it made in 1890 and 1978. Unlike, say, the Catholic Church, the LDS Church has the potential for radical change built into its doctrinal DNA.

Finally, I'm fascinated by the reference in Article 7 to glossolalia, which one doesn't seem to see or hear about nowadays in the Church:

7. We believe in the gift of tongues, prophecy, revelation, visions, healing, interpretation of tongues, and so forth.

Does anyone know whether speaking in tongues still has a place in LDS worship?

Ryan said...

I don't know why Doctrine and Covenants was left out. The Pearl of Great Price, as such, did not exist when the Articles of Faith were written. Regardless, the Articles of Faith are by no means comprehensive.

With regard to the gift of tongues, I don't know about the version of it that, to me, amounts to speaking gibberish. I think there may have been claims to that sort of thing in the early days of the church. But generally we see the gift of tongues in the facility with which our missionaries learn foreign languages. We were, in fact, encouraged to pray for that gift on my mission.

Tom Hardman said...

Quantumleap42 -

You said: "Evolution as expressed by Edward Wilson in his book The Social Conquest of Earth has in it perhaps the greatest evolutionary argument in favor of organized religion in all of science."

You have definitely made me want to read Wilson's book. Would you mind providing a little more explanation about what you mean?

Quantumleap42 said...

Hi Tom,

Sorry I took some time responding, but I’m busy writing my dissertation at the moment. I was wondering if anyone would ask about that. I will try to give a short answer to what is in reality a very complex issue.

First we need to understand some of the basics of evolution. Natural selection is the idea that different biological traits become more or less common depending on environmental conditions. Put simply it is the idea that any given genetic material will want to continue and pass on its genetic code, if it is successful then the biological traits continue and become more common, but if not then they become less common. But one of the questions that comes up is the concept of altruistic behavior. Some organisms, including humans, take actions that work against their personal genetic advantage and instead benefit someone else. Biologists have noticed that organisms will tend to help those who are the most genetically similar to themselves (i.e. bees help other bees and not wasps).

This is the concept of kin selection. Mathematically it is expressed as rB > C, where C is the personal reproductive cost taking a particular action, B is the reproductive benefit of taking the action and r is the relatedness parameter. The more genetically related two animals are the higher the relatedness parameter and thus the more beneficial it is to perform altruistic actions (i.e. actions with a high C value) as opposed to selfish ones (i.e. actions with a low C value).

The standard view of most biologists is that this concept of kin selection holds true for all organisms, including humans. But the alternate theory proposed by Edward Wilson (and a few others) is multi-level selection or group selection. This theory does not entirely replace kin selection but states that for social animals (bees, ants, humans etc.) what drives genetic selection is not the fitness of individuals but of the entire group. Essentially what Dr. Wilson and others are proposing is that when you have social creatures the rules of natural selection change to place greater importance on the preservation of the group as a single unit. [Continued]

Quantumleap42 said...

[Continued] Here’s an analogy that might help. If you have a single celled organism it will develop certain defenses and methods of attack. But when you have a multi-celled organism the rules regarding its survival change. Both the individual cells and the organism as a whole begin to function fundamentally differently from a single celled organism. The difference is that now the individual cells in the multi-celled organism don’t behave like solitary cells competing for resources. They have specialization, common defense, coordination and communication. These are all traits seen in social animals.

Some biologists have responded that this just adds unnecessary complexity to something that is already explained through kin selection, but as I understand it this theory offers a fundamentally different paradigm to evolutionary biology. Under standard kin selection every action is ultimately selfish (see Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene), even altruistic actions, but under multi-level theory for social animals it is no longer a question of evaluating whether or not an action is better for the individual vs. the group, all selfish actions are bad and all altruistic actions are good. As Dr. Wilson put it, “Individual selection is responsible for much of what we call sin, while group selection is responsible for the greater part of virtue.” (p.241)

This means that for humans, because we inherently function as social animals we function and survive by having a group identity. We may fall back on basic self preservation but that either causes problems for ourselves or others, or is the result of selfish acts by others. When I was reading the book The Social Conquest of Earth I kept thinking about how a religious institution is perfectly suited for creating, teaching, preserving and perpetuating a group identity. There are other methods of creating group identity (i.e. sports teams, political parties, governments, businesses, brands, clubs, gangs etc.) but by far the most successful and comprehensive structure for creating group identity, and thus preserving the group through group selection, is organized religion. Now the only question is, which of all the religions out there is right?

[Jeff, excuse the long comment.]