Thoughts on the Interface between Mormonism, the Environment, and Evolution: Connection and Dilemma

June 13, 2011

by Clayton White
“…most men, it seems to me, do not care for nature and would sell their share in all her beauty, so long as they may live, for a stated sum…It is for the very reason that some do not care for those things that we need to continue to protect all from the vandalism of a few…”
Henry David Thoreau 1
One could talk or write about environment and human effects on it at several scales from, for example, just cleaning up the place to mass conversion of landscapes and acidification of lakes. It seem to me that no discussion about life on earth as we know it is complete without at least a reference to the environment.  But living with environmental “kindness” is not a function of belief systems, or religious affiliations, or of how condescending or atheistic a person may be.  Rather it results from maintaining functional free ecosystem services (water cycle, oxygen cycle, soil cycles, fresh water cycles, energy cycles, and so forth). At the end of the day our physical environment is what keeps humans alive and more, allows survival of all life on earth. I suggest that it has been evolutionary processes rather than religious belief that produced the environment.  However, human beings’, including Mormons’, interaction with the environment is nonetheless deeply influenced by religious beliefs about our earthly home. Let’s start by looking at some scriptures that lay out the dilemma:
In our first condition, God declared that his Creation was “very good” (Genesis 1:31, Moses 2:9, 12, 18, 21, 24). He did not say that He wished he had not created the scorpion, the egg plant, the stinging jellyfish, the rattlesnake, the black widow spider, blood sucking gnats or all those pesky bacteria that infect and kill humans, viruses linked to human AIDS, or malaria-causing parasites, but rather declared that all of it was good (emphasis added). And He thought it was good before he created man.  Thus the “things” of the earth have an inherent value in and of themselves. Could that creation have been God’s “main event?”
Given these divine words, Noah is the metaphorical model for environmental conservation. Noah did not decide what should survive the flood and what should not,  but rather took at least two of everything. The writer of Ecclesiastes, perhaps a son of King David, suggested, “For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts; even one thing befalleth them; as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast; for all is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 3:19.). And then the Lord in speaking of the earth indicated that “… all the things therein (that is, the things of the earth or could we call it the “Creation”) are mine…” (D&C 104:14) and that we are but stewards not the “deciders” on how to treat them, and they were, “… to be used, with judgement, not to excess, neither by extortion” (D&C 59:17-20). Things of the earth that become extinct at man’s hands have clearly been used to excess. There are “free ecosystem services,” such as the water cycle, the oxygen cycle, the process of soil creating and so forth that make the environment function and make life possible. Based on these scriptures and concepts  we are but part of the earth, not apart from it, and while here on earth we should act as stewards of the Creations.
On the other hand, and in a second condition,  D&C 59:18 indicates that the things of the earth were made for the benefit and use of man (see also 1 Nephi 17:36). Many saints have interpreted this to be an open mandate for what we do with them; we may use them as we see fit. Prior to that verse, and perhaps even more telling, is Genesis 1:28, “And God blessed them (speaking of man and said)… replenish the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over…every living thing that moveth upon the earth .” I recognize that in some scholarly circles there is debate over just what subdue and dominion were really meant to signify but it is my experience that the average Latter-day Saint uses the contemporary European dictionary meaning that is “to conquer and subjugate…bring under control by physical force” and “control or the exercise of control; rule; have sovereignty.” Unfortunately, many saints use the revelation to Joseph Smith, when he told the saints at Kirtland that if they lived the United Order, “…the earth is full, and there is enough and to spare” (D&C 104:17) to be a global matter. In other words, “No worries, we’ve got lots on earth.”   Many Saints disregard the fact that this statement was given at a particular historical moment, and referred to the people of Kirtland, and go about their lives using the environment as they see fit because God gave it. We are tempted to be unconcerned about maintaining the Creation and the environment as God and Noah saw it.
In a controversial and debated 1967 article by Lynn White, The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,2 White argues that the Christian notion of dominion over the planet and human beings’ priority and singular position in the ecosystem, based on religious principles and teachings, have been the main environmental culprits. And frankly humanity’s record has not been good. One illustrative example is the case of the passenger pigeon. Over the past two centuries behavioral environmental mismanagement has brought about the extinction of the most abundant bird on the North American continent if not globally.
Over two billion individual passenger pigeons were thought to be alive in the 18th and 19th centuries.3 If that many pigeons, which are about 16 inches long, were placed in a straight line head to tail they would stretch around the earth’s equatorial circumference 22.6 times.  Two billion is a lot. The pigeons were trapped, shot and slaughtered by the tens of thousands at their nesting colonies and elsewhere to be used as food in eastern urban centers. They were trapped to be later shot as though they were skeets at sporting events. Pigs were turned loose on their breeding colonies, many nests of which were on the ground, where the squabs were a course of food for the pigs. Their habitat was eroded with the westward expansion of people. By 1 September 1914 the last known individual on earth died in the Cincinnati Zoo.4  The same fate fell upon the Carolina parakeet, and one of the largest woodpeckers in the world, the ivory-billed woodpecker of the southeastern United States. The latter was apparently doomed when the habitat within its main remaining stronghold was altered by the removal of trees, primarily for financial gain. 5
The story of the American bison is not much better. Wyatt Earp reported in 1871

“…as far as I could see, twenty or thirty miles in each direction…the prairie appeared to be covered by a solid mass of huge, furry heads and humps, flowing slowly along like a great muddy river…I remember thinking that the rolling plains, which I knew were treeless had by some freak been covered with a growth of stunted, dark shrubbery. Clear to the horizon the herd was endless.” 6

Then indiscriminate shooting and wanton killing of bison started before the railroad was completed. For example, in 1881, 50,000 hides were sent from the Midwest to factories in the East, 200,000 in 1882, only 40,000 in 1883, a bare 300 in 1884 and by 1885 no bison could be found to kill.7  The military saw the destruction of the bison as a way to control the Native American. General Sheridan reported

“It is a sentimental error to legislate in favor of the bison. (Legislators wanted to protect them). You should on the contrary, congratulate the skin hunters …(they) have done more to solve the Indian problem than the whole of the American Army…The extermination of the bison is the only way of founding a lasting peace…”8

Fortunately a few hundred bison survived in isolated spots here and there when it became clear that the killing had to stop.9 Many of those involved in these above early historical examples were surely God-fearing, Bible-reading Christian people. Could a handful even have been Latter-day Saints? The vast herds of bison were sustained by the tallgrass and shortgrass prairies of the Great Plains. At least since the end of the Pleistocene, reckoned to be some 10,000-12,000 years before present, there was within the Great Plains the association of prairie dogs digging up the ground (and aerating it in the process), the bison mashing the land down and fire burning it over in an endless process. The result was one of richest soil environments to be found. Within less than 100 year period between the mid-1800s to first third of the 1900s man abused the land and when the environment and weather patterns changed the Mid-West was turned into a dust bowl.10   Surely many of the farmers were God-fearing, scripture-reading Christian people. But then, “dust bowls” are not the result of religious belief but of human environmental abuse in tandem with environmental vagaries. The skyrocketing numbers of African “dust bowls” are related to human agricultural practices.11
Latter-day Saint Experiences and the Environment
So what of Latter-day Saint history? Does it differ much from other Christians? Up front I think the record indicates that many early Latter-day Saint settlers were mainly of western European origin, where landscapes are not arid and are humid, and really had no concept of the arid west and so they can be partly excused for their environmental abuse. Those entering the Salt Lake Valley had just crossed those magnificent Great Plains with its waving grasslands. But the prairies are not arid environments. So did the Saints know what to expect when they arrived at their Great Basin destination or how to deal with it? I learned in primary that the settlers entered a barren desert and they were going to “make the desert blossom as a rose.” The land the pioneers entered was already a rose but not one those settlers recognized. It was one vast sea of grasslands and shrubs. The journal of Thomas Bullock is instructive. Bullock was in the advance party and entered Salt Lake valley two days before Brigham Young’s group. Bullock’s journal reads

“As we progressed down the Valley, small clumps of dwarf Oak & Willows appear [and] Wheat Grass grows 6 or 7 feet high. Many different kinds of grasses appear, some being 10 or 12 feet high. After wading thro’ thick grass for some distance, we found a place bare enough for a camping ground, the grass being only knee deep, but very thick; we camped on the banks of a beautiful little stream which was surrounded by very tall grass [near present day 500 east and 1700 south].” 12

Earl Christensen and Myrtis Hutchinson use several sources in describing the valleys west of Salt Lake and Utah valleys when the Latter-day Saint people entered them. “…(they) form an excellent pasturage for numerous herds of cattle…The grass is very abundant…a waving mass of grass three to four feet high….no winter feeding was necessary for domestic stock.” 13 Without proper care this soon changed. Christensen and Hutchinson record a report from the Deseret News for 25 September 1879 that read,

“…At present the prospect for next year is a gloomy one for the farmers, and in fact all for when the farmer is effected all feel the effects. The stock-raisers are all preparing to drive their stock where there is something to eat. This country, which was once one of the best ranges for stock in the territory, is now among the poorest; the myriads of sheep that have been herded here for the past few years have almost entirely destroyed our range.”14

A myriad other examples of environmental abuse prompted the renowned University of Utah professor, Walter Cottam, to pen his essay, Is Utah Sahara Bound?15 Historically, the Latter-day Saint environmental record does not shine. The topic of the environment is generally not dealt with in commonly used LDS literature. The Encyclopedia of Mormonism does not include an entry on “environment.16 The oft-cited Mormon Doctrine deals with “Environment” but defines the term as conditions in the home life.17 A Topical Guide to the Scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints lists the category of environment in its index and then breaks it into two headings, Nature and Pollution.18 The Nature category contains such references as, “…in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1); “…consider the lilies of the field how they grow…(3 Nephi 13:28); “…called upon you by the voice of thundering” (D&C 43:25). 19 The category of Pollution refers to scriptures in the context of, to defile, such as, “…when you entered you defiled my land” (Jeremiah 2:7); “…I will not suffer my name to become polluted” (1 Nephi 20:11); and, “…by these things they polluted their inheritances” (D&C 101:6).20 In essence the meaning of environment as “influences which modify or determine the development of life” is skirted. One simply needs to read Man His Origin and Destiny to get a common Latter-day Saint perspective of the role of the earth (and one has to intuitively include environment although that word is not listed in the book’s index) in relationship to humankind.21 There is no mention of ecosystems. There seems to be a rather detached (if that is the appropriate word) view of the relationship between the earth and humanity. We seem incapable of heeding the counsel in Job, “…ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee. Or speak to earth, and it shall teach thee…”(Job 12:7-8).
And many Mormons’ contemporary interactions with the environment reflect this detachment. The major issue I see seems to be that dealing with environmental issues comes at a at a financial cost. Money usually wins over environment. The dollar is the bottom line. The resistance to and bitter fighting of residents of the Kaiparowits Plateau over the creation of the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument in 1989 is a classic example of a Latter-day Saint’s community reaction to environmental issues that come at a cost. Local people saw dollar signs through the development of a land now placed off-limits.
How Evolution Fits In
If human behavior towards the environment is largely dictated by money and not religion, at least in Western societies and religions, how can we foster a healthier connection to our environment?  I suggest there needs to be a greater emphasis on our biological relationship with the earth and environment.  I think this comes, in part, by having a more realistic view of our biological selves.
Suppose we hog-tie a large pig and place it on University Avenue in Provo, Utah, and then run a 18-wheeler rig down the street at, say, 70 miles per hour.  When it hits the pig what happens?   Pork chops and hams all over the landscape.  Now hog-tie (or people-tie) a person and repeat the experiment.  Same results.  Human chops all over the landscape. One is a pig the other a human, but it  doesn’t seem to matter.  Suppose we place a laboratory mouse (it can be white, black or any color) in a plastic bag and seal it off with trusty duct tape.  What results?  The mouse dies from lack of oxygen.  Now place a plastic bag over the head of a human (who can be black, white or any shade of melanin) and apply the trusty duct tape.  The results are self evident.  But how can that be?  One was a mouse and the other a human.  It did not seem to matter.  Lastly, allow me to get a bit sanguine.  Many experiments in the laboratory require getting large samples of blood from the experimental animal.  Throats of the laboratory rats (can be white, black or any color) are severed and held over a vial to collect the blood.  Results? Animal bleeds to death.  Now do the same to a human.  Results are the same as with the rat. Our relationship to the physical environment is more strongly affected by our biological nature than our religion or spiritual nature.  That biological connection is the evolutionary paradigm and therein an environmental connection.  To ignore the magnitude of the evidence from a variety of disciplines, all of which support the same scenarios, seems like a perilous journey for several reasons not the least of which is religious integrity.
The Noah story suggests that God’s desire was to preserve all living critters.  Perhaps the “ main event or grand finale” is not the Creation but the preservation of the Creation.  The prize winning biologist Edward O. Wilson said it well in his book “The Creation.”22 He imagined writing a letter to a protestant minister in which he discussed the biological, environmental, and spiritual dimensions of the Creation.  Wilson’s attempt was to solicit help from the religious sector in the preservation of the diversity of life and the environment.  Wilson wrote,

“…each species, however inconspicuous and humble it may seem to us at this moment, is a masterpiece of biology, and well worth saving.  Each species posses a unique combination of genetic traits that fits it more or less precisely to particular part of the environment….The defense of living Nature is a universal value.  It doesn’t rise from, nor does it promote, any religious or ideological dogma.  Rather, it serves without discrimination the interests of all humanity…”23

Because of the belief in “the end of times,” “the rapture,” and the “second coming being near at hand,” the fate of many forms of life does not seem to matter to a large contingent of Christians, but as Wilson wrote,“ …this and other similar doctrines are not gospels of hope and compassion.  They are gospels of cruelty and despair.  They were not born of the heart of Christianity.” 24
Wilson readily understood the power of religions but recognized their goals were not necessarily centered on protection of the Creation as are goals of biologists and environmentalists.  That’s simply a difference in the connection the two disciplines feel.
Conclusions
My conclusions are of course from the perspective of a North American.  They may be different if I were from India, or Brazil, or eastern Europe, or Asia, or wherever, for example.  My perspective is generated in part by watching Latter-day Saints in my wards and stakes and listening to their views and priorities and how they respond to environment issues.
It seems that even when we are “in the environment” we seek to remove ourselves from it.  As I walk the streets I see most people with white plastic receptors plugged into the ears, connected by white plastic lines going to electronic gadgets in their pockets or attached to belts.  They may be leaving classrooms at their schools, they my be jogging or simply strolling.  They may be sitting on park benches or lawn chairs on their front lawns.  They are listening, but to who knows what?  One thing is for sure, they are missing the sounds and vistas of the environment.  The call of a quail, the buzz of a bee, the rustle of leaves.  They do not connect themselves to the environment.  Those people living before the last third of the 20th century were probably truly the “last children in the woods,” so called by Richard Louv.25 These are people–metaphorically children–who enjoy being out of doors, in natural environments, in the woods as it were, just for the sake of being there.  They need no ATVs.  No need for constant noise from music or the discombobulation of crowds. They recognize a true relationship with the natural.  They don’t look for the nearest electrical outlet.  They are not bound by the cell phone which are now gadgets that can do everything but give you a bath and change your underclothing.  Most people today indeed do seem to suffer from what Richard Louv has termed “Nature-Deficit Disorder;” not a medical diagnosis but rather a way of looking at the environment.  Unfortunately each succeeding generation deals with a shifting baseline.  That means losing track of the initial condition of nature or environment to the point where one can no longer accurately say how far nature has been degraded.
To me the data suggests that from the religious perspective humankind has not been very successful on the environmental front.  The religious texts and writings of Christians, including Latter-day Saints, seem to send mixed messages about human beings’ relationship with the environment.  Accordingly we respond in a “mixed” fashion.  In fact those texts never broach the topic of “free ecosystem services” that the environment provides to sustain life.  Perhaps they should not.
My view is that we respond better to the environment, we treat it better, we have a more realistic view of the world, if we immerse ourselves into it and become part of it as is done using the evolutionary paradigm.  It has been suggested that, “Empathy for living things (and the environment) comes from … observing ….natural environments, which is why field (evolutionary) biologists … (are) among the most adamant defenders of (the environment and the “Creation”)….in order to care deeply about something it is first necessary to know about it.”26 This manner of thinking has not be a part of our religious heritage.  Perhaps it should not be.  Religious heritage should deal with our relationship on a spiritual basis with our God and the spiritual fingerprints of God.  As we cultivate this heritage, however, we should also put environmental responsibility and kindness into our religious ethos.

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1.  Henry David Thoreau, Journal, 3 January 1861.  Odell Shepard, editor, The Heart of Thoreau’s Journals, 2nd ed.  (New York, Dover, 1961), 334.
2.  Lynn White, Jr.,  “The Historical Roots of our Ecological Crisis,” Science 155: (1967), 1203-1207.
3.  Christopher Cokinos, Hope is a Thing With Feathers; a personal chronicle of vanished birds (New York, Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin, 2009),197.
4.  Ibid., 266.
5.  Phillip Hoose, The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (New York, Farrer, Straus & Giroux, 2004), 208
6.   Peter Veney, Animals in Peril; man’s war against wildlife (London, England. Mills & Boon Ltd., 1979),70-71.
7.  Ibid., 80.
8.  Ibid., 60.
9.  Ibid., 81.
10. Brad Lookingbill, Dust Bowl (Athens, Ohio, Ohio University Press, 2001), 190 ff.
11. Sid Perkins, “Africa Exports Bumper Crop of Dust,” Science News, Vol 178 (3), (31 July 2010), 14.
12. Will Bagley, The Pioneer Camp of the Saints: the 1846 and 1847 Mormon Trail journal of Thomas Bullock ( Norman, Oklahoma, Arthur H. Clark Company, 1997), 232.
13. Earl M. Christensen and Myrtis A. Hutchinson. “Historical Observations on the Ecology of Rush and Tooele Valleys, Utah,” Proceedings of the Utah Academy of Arts and Sciences, Vol. 42, Part 1 (1965), 91-93.
14. Ibid., 97.
15. Walter P. Cottam, “Is Utah Sarah Bound?” Bulletin of the University of Utah, Vol 37, No. 11, (1947), 40 pp.
16. Daniel H. Ludlow, editor, Encyclopedia of Mormonism, Vol. 2, E through M, (Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, 1992), 431-978.
17. Bruce R. McConkie, Mormon Doctrine, 2d ed. (Salt Lake City; Bookcraft, 1966).
18. Bible Aids Project, Correlation Department, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, A Topical Guide to the Scriptures of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, (Salt Lake City, Utah, Desert Book, Co., 1977), 500pp.
19. Ibid., 316-317.
20. Ibid., 337-338.
21. Joseph Fielding Smith. Man His Origin and Destiny (Salt Lake City, Utah, Deseret Book, 1973), 563 ff.
22. Edward O. Wilson, The Creation. (New York, W.W.Norton & Company, 2006), 168 pp.
23. Ibid., 4-5.
24. Ibid., 6.
25. Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods; saving our children from nature-deficit disorder, (Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Workman Publishing, 2005), 323 ff.
26. Mark V. Barrow, Jr., Nature’s Ghosts: confronting extinction from the age of Jefferson to the age of ecology, (Chicago, Illinois, University of Chicago Press, 2009), 458.