“I am a happy seeker.” This is the final thought I leave with my students after discussing how science issues (like organic or biological evolution) and other ways of knowing (like religion or spiritual communication) can co-exist. Seek is defined as: to try to locate or discover; search for; to endeavor to obtain or reach. So what I really mean is that I am happy to look for truth, good ideas, well supported theories, etc., wherever they may be found. I understand that in this search I may come across untruth, bad ideas, insufficiently supported theories, etc. As a seeker, I simply accept the good ideas and I discard the bad ones. This idea isn’t mine; Dr. Henry Eyring proposed that all we really need to do is “find out what the truth is,” and that is what I seek to do.
I am an evolutionary biologist. Therefore, instead of generalizing how I reconcile my religious and spiritual views with all of science. I am going to attempt to discuss perhaps the most controversial subject, biological evolution, including human evolution. I am often asked, “Do you believe in Evolution?” Now before I tell you how I answer this, I recognize that this question may mean many different things to many different people. So I always answer with two parts. Part 1 is very short: “No, I do not believe in evolution,” I say and wait just a second or two for the words to register and for confusion to set in (as their knowledge that I am an evolutionary biologist and teach evolution usually provokes the question in the first place). Then Part 2: I state that “I accept evolution based on the body of evidence that supports it.” By this time, it is necessary to explain what I mean. Thus, depending on the circumstances and situation, my approach may start to differ, but usually includes a combination of the arguments below.
Evolution as a Scientific Theory: Scientists, in my view, look for patterns or phenomena in nature (observations) and try to explain the way that the pattern or phenomenon came about (hypotheses). This plausible explanation is supported or refuted, but not absolutely proven true. If it continues to be a good idea, it will likely continue to gain more support by further testing. It will be combined with other good ideas that have been similarly tested, until the sum of the tested hypotheses and supporting data becomes a theory. Side note: A theory is the end point of scientific explanation. Nothing is better. A theory is as good as it gets. (Sorry, laws and facts, you just don’t cut it.) So the idea that evolution is “just a theory” is simply a misunderstanding of how science proceeds. Assigning this type of colloquial definition to “theory” as a belief or guess that can guide one’s behavior is not what we mean in science. Rather, scientific theories are the endpoints or “the crown of science” (Harré, 1986), and no one is better than a king or queen (the crown bearers) in a kingdom.
Evolution is the best explanation for the diversity of life that has inhabited this planet. No other idea does a better job at putting together all observations and evidences of life’s differences and patterns than evolution. Evolution is sometimes misunderstood because it is both a process and an outcome. The process of evolution ensues by way of five main mechanisms: 1) Natural Selection, which was first described by Charles Darwin; 2) Mutation; 3) Genetic Drift; 4) Gene flow; and 5) Non-random mating. The result of these five mechanisms brings about the pattern of evolution, descent with modification, best represented by the great tree of life (not to be confused with the tree of life from the Garden of Eden, although it is interesting how well the name fits for both ideas).
Reconciling Doctrine with Theory: It would seem that there are some apparent conflicts between evolution and the LDS Church’s doctrine, particularly in regards to the origin of man. I believe that most of these conflicts result from a lack of understanding of the Church’s official position on a doctrine, or because of a misunderstanding of evolutionary science. As far as I can tell, all official doctrines of the Church completely align with the parts of evolutionary theory that are well supported and accepted by the majority of serious biological scientists. So what is an official position of the Church? I suspect that in regards to evolution and the origin of man, the BYU Evolution Packet comes as close as you can get. Sometimes I remind students that what they thought was the official position may not be, and just because someone said it in Sunday School, Institute, Stake Conference, General Conference (although I think that leaders are now more careful about what they say in this venue), or the Ensign, it may not be an official position of the Church. Most reasonable folks embrace this idea. I believe that whenever you have good (or true) doctrine and good science they will be compatible, because, in my opinion, all truth is the same truth. Conflicts, in my worldview, rise to the surface because of bad doctrine and good science, bad science and good doctrine, or bad science and bad doctrine. So when there are apparent conflicts, I am happy to seek to find the truth, and I don’t care which side wins, because I am really only interested in accepting and believing truths.
Human Evolution: I believe that “man is the literal offspring of God” and I completely accept that Homo sapiens evolved from a common ancestor with chimpanzees about 7-8 million years ago. I believe that I am a child of God. This is not because Heavenly Father is the biological father of my physical body (or that of any other human being, with the sole exception of the only begotten, Jesus Christ), but rather because he is the father of my spirit. I believe that Adam as Michael (the name associated to his spirit body) was the literal offspring of God for the same reason. I do not know when Adam and Eve lived on this Earth. However, I accept that their physical bodies are united to all other life on this planet in a great tree of life. In other words, all of life, from the smallest bacteria to humans, is related and united by descent with modification. The evidences that support this idea are astounding. For example (and these numbers vary depending on how it is calculated), human DNA is ~98% similar to chimpanzee DNA and 75% similar to mouse DNA. Around 60% of the DNA found in the fruit fly genome (which is considerably smaller than ours) is shared with human DNA. As one compares our genome with more distantly related organisms the similarity decreases, as expected. I could go on and on with more examples, but I’ll just give one more. Human beings (and all animals for that matter) actually have two genomes; a nuclear and a mitochondrial. Our mitochondrial genome is actually more closely related (similar) to the complete genome of certain types of bacteria than it is to any of our nuclear DNA. What does this mean? Well, I accept that ~1.5 billion years ago, aerobic bacteria made their way inside of an early eukaryotic cell via endocytosis and that, after many years of co-evolution with the host cell, they evolved into mitochondria (this is known as endosymbiotic theory). Now I can’t seem to see any reason for a Deity to go out of His way to put patterns like similarity of DNA or bacteria genomes inside us, if our physical bodies actually came from a special creative act. That just doesn’t make sense to me. For these and a multitude of other evidences, I accept the process and result of billions of years of evolution. At the same time, I have received multiple spiritual witnesses that I am a child of God, that He lives, and that I can have an eternal relationship with Him and with my loved ones.
So I will continue to be a “happy seeker” as I search for truth. I will accept the fact that we don’t know everything in science or in religion. Hopefully, I can be humble and accept when I am wrong, and be happy to embrace the right.
If you wish to keep reading, a more personal narrative of my background is found below and it may give you a better idea of why I accept and believe the way I do. If not, I think the take-home message should just be that it’s OK to just keep seeking out the good ideas and discarding bad ones.
I didn’t always think this way. In fact, I might say I was pretty closed-minded in my first year of college and on my mission. For example, I remember teaching numerous times that there was no way that there could have been death before the fall. Oh how I wish I could go back re-think and re-say many of my words. Nevertheless, here are a number of experiences that have shaped and are still shaping my current view.
I graduated from high school with the goal of going to BYU for undergraduate studies and then on to medical school to become an orthopedic surgeon. I had broken my hand in the Alta High School’s gymnasium doing a full back layout, which ended up being about a ¾ layout and a broken metacarpal on my middle finger of my right hand. I was amazed by the x-ray showing the screws traversing the small bone with the spiral fracture.
During my first semester at BYU I decided to take human anatomy from Kent Van de Graaff. I remember that at some point in the semester, he invited students to come to a meeting about the possibilities of academia as a future. I went to the meeting and for the first time I seriously considered becoming a professor at some university. Actually, I think I thought that maybe on the side of my medical practice, I might teach some courses for a university, just a part time gig. One semester of “true blue” and then I was off to my mission in Concepción, Chile. I fell in love with teaching the gospel, and I realized that teaching anything is better than selling carpet (sorry, Dad!). I returned to BYU and continued my B.S in zoology, still thinking I might want to be a doctor and teacher. I was deeply impressed with Duane Jeffrey and his candidness about teaching evolution, science, and how they fit in with LDS theology. After another year at school, it happened: I met and fell in love with my sweetheart and soon-to-be physician, and I thought that one MD would be enough. And so, after finishing my B.S degree, I married her, moved to Chile and began a master’s degree in zoology. I was fortunate to meet and eventually work with Luis E. Parra, from the Universidad de Concepción. My master’s thesis dealt with the natural history of a number of moths living in southern Chile. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Chile; I really started to learn to think for myself.
Nearing the end of my master’s, I was now sure that I wanted to work in academia, and so I began a search for a PhD program and advisor. I happened to notice a relatively new faculty member at BYU, Michael Whiting, who was doing some amazing work in insect molecular systematics. I applied and interviewed, and despite my non-stellar grades and GRE scores, he took a chance on me. We moved the family to Provo and I chose to focus my dissertation on the phylogeny and evolution of the basal winged insects (mayflies, dragonflies, and damselflies) and their implications for the origin of insect flight. These years shaped my worldview even more and I confirmed that teaching and research is what I really wanted to do with my life. After a postdoc in bioinformatics with Michael Rosenberg at ASU, I worked for three years as a visiting assistant professor at ISU in Pocatello, ID (my wife completed her residency training to be able to practice medicine in the States during this time). Since then I have been at Utah Valley University, where I teach courses in the biology department such as general biology, evolution, entomology, bioinformatics, and molecular evolution and bioinformatics.
During my professional training I have always tried to maintain my activity level in the church and in the gospel. I have tried to fulfill all the callings I have been given to the best of my ability and with the help of the Lord. I am certain that Joseph Smith saw what he saw, that he received the priesthood authority to carry out eternal ordinances, that Jesus is the Christ, and that God is my spiritual Father. That certainty does not come from empirical evidence, or data, or experimentation; rather, the non-replicable feelings of the Holy Ghost have witnessed to my soul that these things are true. I thank the Lord for my eternal companion, children, parents, family, and friends, who have helped to shape me as a “seeker” of truth.
T. Heath Ogden is an assistant professor of biology at Utah Valley University. He was a visiting assistant professor at Idaho State University from 2006 to 2009.
Professor Ogden earned a B.S. in zoology from Brigham Young University, and then went on to earn an M.S. “with mention” in the same subject from the Universidad de Concepción (Concepción, Chile; Luis E. Parra, advisor) and a Ph.D. in integrative biology with an emphasis in molecular systematics from BYU (Michael F. Whiting, advisor). From January 2005 through June 2006, he performed postdoctoral research in computational genomics and bioinformatics with Michael Rosenberg at Arizona State University.
Dr. Ogden’s work has appeared in such journals as Transactions of the American Fisheries Society, Systematic Entomology, Zootaxa, Cladistics, Annals of the Entomological Society of America, Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, Entomologische Abhandlungen, Argia, Mayfly Newsletter, and the Revista Chilena de Historia Natural, as well as in Sequence Alignment: Methods, Models, Concepts, and Strategies, ed. M.S. Rosenberg (Berkeley: University of California Press: 2009).
Posted September 2010