U.S. evangelicals and fundamentalists have vigorously debated when to date the origin of planet Earth and of the human species, whether God as Creator employed Darwin-type evolution and, more recently, whether the Bible requires belief in a literal Adam and Eve.
Reporters should be acquainted with Ken Ham’s strict “young earth” creationists, Hugh Ross’s “old earth” creationists, pro-evolution evangelicals at BioLogos (founded by Francis Collins, an evangelical and world-class geneticist), the Intelligent Design researchers at the Discovery Institute and discussions within the American Scientific Affiliation, an organization of Bible-believing professionals in science.
Though conservative Protestants have dominated news coverage, there’s a good story angle in other religious groups that likewise struggle over evolution. In recent weeks, both Islam and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (a.k.a. LDS or Mormon) have won some media attention on themes other writers could explore in further depth.
Islam’s creation account in the Koran parallels the longer version in the Jewish and Christian Bible. On scriptural grounds, Muslim authorities insist on a literal Adam and Eve (the latter is unnamed in the Koran but cited in recognized Hadith texts).
More broadly, “The Oxford Dictionary of Islam,” edited by Georgetown University expert John Esposito, states that evolution “is denounced by most Muslim scholars” as “a refutation of Koranic theories of creation.” Evolutionary ideas are excluded from school textbooks in nations like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Sudan. However, a recent beliefnet.com column by Stephanie Hertzenberg sketches a more complicated, three-sided debate.
First, many Muslims do believe any form of evolution is incompatible with their faith, a la Protestant creationists. Hertzenberg notes that in such traditional interpretations of the Quran, Adam “had no parents and was a fully formed human being” when created, and other species also stem from the “sudden creation of complete modern organisms” without evolution. A prominent exponent of this stance is Turkish neurosurgeon Oktar Babuna, who has taught at three U.S. universities.
The second approach, partial compatibility, was part of a 2013 Muslim conference on evolution (Babuna participated in this London event via the Internet). As reported in The Guardian, Shaykh Yasir Qadhi, academic dean at Houston’s Al Maghrib Institute, largely embraced Darwin’s theory but insisted on the belief that God miraculously inserted Adam into the evolved natural order. McGill University biologist Ehab Abouheif also accepted Darwinism as well-established but said just how processes took place is an open question.
A third faction holds evolution to be fully compatible with the faith. In London, University of North Carolina anthropologist Fatimah Jackson discussed prehistoric human remains and said the human genome traces back to the “genetic Adam and genetic Eve,” individuals who could be identified with the literal Adam and Eve.
Muslims who defend compatibility with evolution cite the Koran’s teaching that God “created you in stages” and “caused you to grow out of the earth” (71:14,17, in the authoritative New York University Press translation). Also -- though major English translations read differently -- some read the Koran as saying that God “designed you and then made your designs better” (64:3 and 40:64).
The Latter-day Saints are in the news because their global religion is based in Utah and that state last November launched a re-examination of its public school science curriculum.
The collective LDS First Presidency defined “the truth as God has revealed it” on human origins in 1909, with no revision since. Much of this decree proclaims founder Joseph Smith’s distinctive doctrines that “God Himself is an exalted man,” having a body “like other men,” and that each human is the literal offspring of “the universal Father and Mother” and capable “of evolving into a God.”
The First Presidency affirmed that Adam was “the first man” and “the primal parent of our race,” not “a development from lower orders of the animal creation.” The decree said God also formed every other animal and plant species “each after its own kind,” appearing to mean direct creation without evolution.
Notably, the LDS authorities did not insist on the young-earth chronology championed by Protestant creationists, which rules out Darwin’s long process, even though one of Smith’s scriptural revelations states that planet Earth will have a “temporal existence” of only 7,000 years (see Doctrine and Covenants 77).
Influential LDS doctrinal writers Joseph Fielding Smith (an apostle 1910-1970, then church president) and Bruce McConkie (a “general authority” from 1946 and apostle 1972-1985) staunchly opposed evolution. McConkie wrote that species “do not change” from their original God-given form and the theory of a primordial “common origin” for species conflicts with “revealed religion.”
Centre College’s “Next Mormons Survey” finds 74 percent of members are “confident” or “probably” believe God created Adam and Eve at most 10,000 years ago without evolution “from other life forms.” But some current Mormons see leeway to abandon such ideas, as in recent articles in the Salt Lake Tribune and at the Huffington Post.
Newswriters may be more familiar with the Jewish tradition of a young-earth-type chronology from the Talmud or earlier (detailed here). The Orthodox will reckon the Jewish New Year (Rosh Hashanah) next September as the 5,779th year since God created Adam and Eve and originated the human race. (See Rabbi Joel Hoffman’s Jan. 25 explanation in the Jerusalem Post). Most modern-day Jews reject that understanding.