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Primary sources/Evolution/RoS 53
THE AGE OF THE EARTH
When President Joseph Fielding Smith's book Man, His Origin and Destiny was published, someone urged it as an institute course. One of the institute teachers came to me and said, "If we have to follow it exactly, we will lose some of the young people." I said, "I don't think you need to worry." I thought it was a good idea to get this problem out in public, so the next time I went to Sunday School General Board meeting, I got up and bore my testimony that the evidence was strongly in the direction that the world was four or five billion years old. That week, President Smith called and asked me to come see him. We talked for about an hour, and he explained his views to me. I said, "Brother Smith, I have read your books and know your point of view, and I understand that is how it looks to you. It just looks a little different to me." He said as we ended, "Well, Brother Eyring, I would like to have you come in and let me talk with you sometime when you are not quite so excited." As far as I could see, we parted on the best of terms.
I would say that I sustained President Smith as my Church leader one hundred percent. I think he was a great man. He had a different background and training on this issue. Maybe he was right. I think he was right on most things, and if you followed him, he would get you into the celestial kingdom.
The scriptures record God's dealing with his children back to a "beginning" some six thousand years ago, but dismiss the long prologue in a few short paragraphs. The scriptures tell us of six creative periods followed by a period of rest. During these periods the earth was organized and took essentially its present form. In the King James Version of the Bible, the phrase creative periods is rendered as "days." The use of this term has led to at least three interpretations. In the first, the "days" are construed to mean the usual day of twenty-four hours. In the second, the days of creation are interpreted as thousand-year periods following such statements as occur in 2 Peter 3:8: "One day is with the Lord as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day." The third interpretation accepts "creative periods" as times of unspecified length and looks to a study of the earth itself to give added meaning to the exceedingly brief scriptural accounts.
In earlier times some variation of the first two interpretations was all but universally held by the Christian world. This is no longer true. In school and in secular publications, the third interpretation is the generally accepted one. Accordingly, whatever our own point of view may be, we need to know the viewpoint presented to our children if we are to be effective counselors to them.
The cumulative thickness of rocks laid down as sediment is about four hundred fifty thousand feet, or eighty miles. The rate of deposition varies enormously with the time and the place, but a not unreasonable average rate is one foot every 250 years. This leads to a very rough estimate of 112 million years for the time required to deposit all the known sediments.
Also, in my opinion, the orderly structure of these horizontally lying layers, with their fossils, argues strongly against the notion that the earth has been assembled, relatively recently, from the wreckage of earlier worlds.
A quantitative way of getting at the age of strata and other earth structures is by use of the radioactive decay of various elements. An analogy of how radioactive decay works may be helpful. If one should look at a fire and note that half the wood is burned the first hour and that an hour after that, half of what was left had burned, he could say the fire obeys the radioactive decay law. This law states that in a given length of time the same fraction of the fuel is burned, independent of the circumstances. Conversely, by measuring the fuel remaining at a fire and the amount of ashes already produced, one can deduce the fraction of the fuel consumed and so estimate how long the fire has been burning.
All the radioactive elements behave like our hypothetical fire in that, independent of the existing conditions, the same fraction of the radioactive elements is always transformed to another element in a given interval of time. The new element is the ashes of the radioactive fire; for example, half of the potassium (atomic weight forty) present to begin with changes into argon forty in a period of 1,300 million years, and half of what remains is changed in the next 1,300 million years, and so on. This period of 1,300 million years is called the half-life of potassium forty.
When a potassium-containing mineral crystallizes, it is ordinarily free of all gaseous argon. As time goes on, the potassium forty changes to argon forty at a rate determined by its half-life. If the crystal doesn't leak so that the liberated argon is retained inside the crystal, one can melt the crystal, measure the amount of potassium and the amount of argon, and so determine the age of the crystal.
If equal amounts of argon forty and potassium forty are found, the crystallization occurred 1,300 million years ago. If there is only one part potassium to three parts argon, 2,600 million years have elapsed since crystallization of the mineral occurred, and so on. Clearly, any potassium-containing mineral constitutes a built-in clock that we can use to read the time of the formation of the crystalline mineral.
Many complications may arise to make the clock give incorrect time. If some argon were entrapped in the crystal as it formed, the clock will read too long a time. If some of the argon has escaped since crystallization occurred, the indicated time will be too short. Nonetheless, by being careful to choose elements with appropriate half-lives and by careful selection of the crystal used and by using more than one kind of a "clock," a reasonably consistent time scale for the formation of the various strata in the world has been achieved.
The radioactive clocks, together with the orderly way many sediments containing fossils are laid down, result in agreement by most scientists on an age for the earth of about four-and-one-half billion years. On the other hand, the exact age of the earth is apparently of so little import religiously that the scriptures sketch earth history in only the briefest terms. The present heated religious controversies on the subject will undoubtedly be resolved in time and will then appear as quaint as the medieval arguments on the shape of the earth seem to us now.
In my judgment, anyone who denies the 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 two of our greatest Latter-day Saint leaders and scientists, John A. Widtsoe and James E. Talmage. However, there are vast differences in the training and background of members of the Church. Therefore, I am completely content that there is room in the Church for people who think that the periods of creation were twenty-four hours, one thousand years, or millions of years. I think it is fine to discuss these questions and for each individual to try to convert others to what he thinks is right. It is only fair to warn parents and teachers that a young person is going to face a very substantial body of scientific evidence supporting the earth's age as millions of years, and that a young person might "throw the baby out with the bath" unless allowed to seek the truth, from whatever source, without prejudice.
The Lord made the world in some wonderful way that I can at best only dimly comprehend. It seems to me sacrilegious to presume that I really understand him and know just how he did it. He can only tell me in figurative speech that I dimly understand, but that I expect to more completely comprehend in the eternities to come. He created the world, and my faith does not hinge on the detailed procedures he used.
When one of my grandsons was a small boy, just starting Primary, someone remarked to him, "So, now you are a Sunbeam." His face clouded, and he answered, "I am not a 'unbeam, I'm Henry Johnson Eyring!" I can understand how we sometimes object to being labeled. Some labels we accept. For instance, I'm content with "Mormon," "devout," "Christian," "chemist," "husband," "father," and so forth. Sometimes, however, a label is loaded with emotional baggage far beyond its usefulness or importance. For example, "organic evolutionist" or "creationist" are labels, either one of which I would reject, for myself, at least. They simply carry too much baggage and confusion for my taste.
Considering the difference in training of the members of the Church, I never cease to marvel at the degree of agreement found among believing Latter-day Saints. However, organic evolution is one topic upon which there is apt to be wide disagreement.
Such a topic becomes controversial partly because it is interesting to us, but it seems to be sufficiently nonessential to our salvation that the Creator has only briefly treated it in the scriptures. If you think about it, it makes almost no difference at all to the way we should live our lives and treat one another. Still, there are those who line up on both sides as if everything depended on the outcome of this year's "monkey trial."
Some people object to the slightest hint of being related to the rest of the animal kingdom, particularly the hairy apes. The idea is right next to the three "s's"--spiders, snakes, and sharks--on their list of things beyond the pale. I've never had that particular aversion. In fact, I've kind of enjoyed what little I've seen of them.
One time I was stuck most of a day in London and couldn't face the thought of sightseeing, so I went to the London Zoo. I was attracted by a crowd watching the great apes. One fellow in particular was getting a lot of attention as he sat close to the front of the cage on a tree platform. As the zoo visitors moved closer, he suddenly spewed them with water he had in his mouth. Now, that was interesting! I found a bench across the path--out of range--and watched. The ape got down and went over to his water trough to reload. He then went about the cage awhile and finally repositioned himself on the platform. He waited--patiently. Finally a new group of humanoids, not aware of the danger, moved into range. Spray! Splat! Bullseye! The fellow practically chortled out loud as he made his trip to the trough. I spent the entire afternoon enjoying his enjoyment. Theoretically, he was there for our amusement, but quite clearly, he didn't understand that. He thought we were there for his. I have to admit I kind of admired the fellow. Animals seem pretty wonderful to me. I'd be content to discover that I share a common heritage with them, so long as God is at the controls.
I have always felt comfortable with the views of our trained scientists among the General Authorities. For example, James E. Talmage delivered a sermon entitled "The Earth and Man" from the Salt Lake Tabernacle on August 9, 1931, and John A. Widtsoe published "Science and the Gospel" in the Young Men's Mutual Improvement Association manual of 1908-9. Each of these brethren regarded the earth as having a very great age and were open to the testimony of science to uncover the truth on those questions.
What, then, is to prevent us from seeking to understand God's methods of creation by any and all means available to us? Many avoid seeking understanding from science because they believe that any theory in conflict with the Lord's revelations will finally be proven false. Of course, given those assumptions, the position is clearly correct, since I don't believe that God intentionally misleads his children.
We have a dilemma, however, because God has left messages all over in the physical world that scientists have learned to read. These messages are quite clear, well-understood, and accepted in science. That is, the theories that the earth is about four-and-one-half billion years old and that life evolved over the last billion years or so are as well established scientifically as many theories ever are. So, if the word of God found in the scriptures and the word of God found in the rocks are contradictory, must we choose between them, or is there some way they can be reconciled?
The scriptures state that Adam was the first man on the earth and that he was also the first flesh. Other scriptures teach that Adam was not subject to mortal and spiritual death before the fall, and that the fall brought these deaths into the world. Also, the scriptures say the earth is passing through seven periods ("days") of temporal existence, and that it was not temporal before the fall. Each of these ideas seems to be in conflict with the scientific views of organic evolution, but are they?
The fundamental principle that has guided my religious life is that I need believe only what is true. The gospel is the truth as learned or discovered by whatever means and tools I can lay my hand or mind on. I appreciate the scriptures for their insights into how to love God and my neighbor and how to learn obedience to the laws and ordinances of the gospel. These teachings are precious to all devoted Latter-day Saints. However, the brevity of the scriptures about God's methods of creation indicates that this may be a subject we will understand sometime but do not need to worry about for the time being: "Yea, verily I say unto you, in that day when the Lord shall come, he shall reveal all things--things which have passed, and hidden things which no man knew, things of the earth, by which it was made, and the purpose and the end thereof--things most precious, things that are above, and things that are beneath, things that are in the earth, and upon the earth, and in heaven." (D&C 101:32-34.)
In the meantime, I think it is perfectly appropriate for us to study and learn as much as we can about this wonderful place God has prepared for us.
We should keep in mind that scientists are as diligent and truthful as anyone else. Organic evolution is the honest result of capable people trying to explain the evidence to the best of their ability. From my limited study of the subject I would say that the physical evidence supporting the theory is considerable from a scientific viewpoint.
In my opinion it would be a very sad mistake if a parent or teacher were to belittle scientists as being wicked charlatans or else fools having been duped by half-baked ideas that gloss over inconsistencies. That isn't an accurate assessment of the situation,and our children or students will be able to see that when they begin their scientific studies.
"Now wait a minute," you say. "I thought you weren't an 'evolutionist'!" I'm not. I'd be just as content to find out that God stirred up some dirt and water and out stepped Adam, ready to occupy the Garden of Eden. The only important thing is that God did it. I might say in that regard that in my mind the theory of evolution has to include a notion that the dice have been loaded from the beginning in favor of more complex life forms. That is, without intelligent design of the natural laws in such a way as to favor evolution from lower forms to higher forms of life, I don't think the theory holds water. I can't see randomly generated natural laws producing these remarkable results. So, in my mind, God is behind it all whether we evolved or not.
Probably one of the most difficult problems in reading the scriptures is to decide what is to be taken literally and what is figurative. In this connection, it seems to me that the Creator must operate with facts and with an understanding that goes entirely outside our understanding and our experience. Because of this, when someone builds up a system of logic, however careful and painstaking, that 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 physical world. At least I would like to move slowly in such matters.
The really awful thing about me is that I really don't care one way or the other. Sometime, a billion years from now, it may come up in some heavenly science class and I'll be glad to know, but until then I'll be content.
From Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Company, 1983), 53-62.