Primary sources/Evolution/Eyring Bennion Letter

Table of Contents December 16, 1954

Dear Brother Bennion:

President Joseph Fielding Smith's book "Man--His Origin and Destiny" poses a variety of interesting questions. First it is an impressive compilation of scriptural references on Earth History and of statements of selected church leaders. One must say selected because our trained scientists among the general authorities are not only not quoted, but are not even mentioned. It would be instructive to have President Smith comment on "The Earth and Man" by James E. Talmage, delivered from the Tabernacle August 9, 1931 and published by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; or on "Science and the Gospel" by Brother John A. Widtsoe, the Young Men's Mutual Improvement Association Manual of 1908-1909. Both these brethren regard the earth as having a very great antiquity.

The consensus of opinion among the foremost earth scientists place the beginning of life on this earth back at about one billion years and the earth itself as two or three times that old. Whether or not these scientists are right is something which is best discussed dispassionately on a basis of a careful weighing of the evidence. Any other approach will not influence serious scholars.

Here I will briefly sketch a few of the more or less familiar lines of evidence on the age of the earth. The world is filled with radioactive clocks which can be read with varying accuracy but usually within ten percent or so and often considerably better. The principle involved is essentially simple. The heaviest elements such as uranium are unstable and fly apart sending out particles which can be counted on a Geiger counter. From the number of counts one can tell how much of the radioactive substance one has. As the substance continues to decompose, the count decreases always remaining proportional to the number of particles not yet decomposed. Now the particles shoot out are helium so that if the decomposing uranium is enclosed in a rock this helium will also be entrapped. Thus by determining how much helium is entrapped and how much uranium is present in the rocks one can tell exactly how long it has been since the rocks were laid down in their present form, since it always takes exactly the same amount of time for a given fraction of the uranium to decompose.

There is another check on this. Each time a uranium atom decomposes it leaves a lead atom behind as well as ejecting the helium atom. Thus the residual of these lead atoms to uranium is another wonderful clock. Four and one half billion years must lapse in order that half of the uranium present will be gone. Half of what remains will decompose in another four and a half billion years and so on. Thorium, another radioactive clock, has a half life of fourteen billion years and there are a variety of other long time clocks as well as some short time ones like carbon fourteen with a half life of five and one-half thousand years. The radioactive clocks, together with the orderly way many sediments containing fossils are laid down, prove that the earth is billions of years old.

In my judgment, anyone who denies this orderly deposition of sediments with their built in radioactive clocks places himself in a scientifically untenable position. Actually the antiquity of the earth was no problem for one of our greatest Latter-day Saints and leaders and scientists, Brother John A. Widtsoe (see Evidences and Reconciliations, Volume I). It also offers not the slightest difficulty to me and to most of my scientific LDS friends. The Lord made the world in some wonderful way that I can at best only dimly comprehend. It seems to me sacreligious to presume that I really understand him and know just how he did it. He can only tell me in figurative speech which I dimly understand but which I expect to more completely comprehend in the eternities to come.

Probably one of the most difficult problems in reading the scriptures is to decide what is to be taken literally and what is fiction. In this connection it seems to be that the creator must operate with facts and with an understanding which goes entirely outside of our understanding and of our experience. Because of this, when someone builds up a system of logic, however careful and painstaking, which gives a positive answer to this difficult question, I can't help but wonder about it, particularly if it seems to run counter to the Creator's revelations written in the rocks. At least can't we move slowly in such matters?

Our prophets have been given clearly to see the road we should follow and can point the path to the Celestial Kingdom, but being human they too must walk and wait and study in order to partly understand many of God's wonderful works. I can understand "Man--His Origin and Destiny" as the work of a great man who is fallible. It contains many serious scientific errors and much ill humor, which mar the many beautiful things in it. Since the Gospel is only that which is true, this book cannot be more than the private opinion of one of our great men to be admired for the many fine things in it. I find it much less satisfactory in scientific matters than the excellent writings of Brother Talmage and Brother Widtsoe with which it is frequently in disagreement. Our scientists in general have no difficulty in reconciling Earth History and the Gospel as presented by our scientifically trained general authorities. The concern of most LDS scientists is as to what extent President Smith's interpretations must replace those of Brother Talmage and of Brother Widtsoe where they fail to agree with President Smith.

I hope my opinions offered for what they are worth will not seem presumptuous. Please feel free to make such use of this letter and the enclosed material as you may choose. Both Dr. Stokos and Dr. Smith are devout active members of the Church and are representative of our thoughtful LDS scientists. Each is willing to document his opinions further if it would be helpful.

Sincerely Yours,
Henry Eyring