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This is the eighth of nine weekly blog posts published in honor of the life and work of Hugh Nibley (1910–2005). The series is in honor of the new, landmark book, Hugh Nibley Observed, available in softcover, hardback, digital, and audio editions. Each week our post is accompanied by interviews and insights in pdf, audio, and video formats. (See the links at the end of this post.)
Somehow, in addition to his continual immersion in ancient records and the pressing religious and social issues of the day, Hugh Nibley managed to keep up with important new developments in an impressive range of scientific subjects: cosmology, physics, and brain science — to name but a few of his chief interests. And one of his lesser-known gems is an essay entitled “Science Fiction and the Gospel.” The expansive framework of the Restored Gospel accommodated new findings in nearly all of these fields without a hitch. However, on the subjects of death before the Fall of Adam and Eve and the origins of humankind, faithful members sometimes disagreed.
Leaders and members of the Church who made statements strongly expressing the view that no death existed on earth before the Fall generally were not intrinsically unsympathetic to science, but naturally resisted any views that might be seen as compromising authoritatively expressed doctrines relating to the Creation, the Fall, and the Atonement. Likewise, scientifically-trained leaders and members were not typically seeking to subordinate the claims of faith to the program of science, but understandably desired to circumscribe their understanding of truth into “one great whole.”
In this regard, Elder Harold B. Lee, a staunch advocate of the idea that there was no death before the Fall, spoke approvingly of a story recounted by Latter-day Saint scientist Harvey Fletcher about President Joseph F. Smith’s reply to questions posed to him at BYU about the topic of evolution:
After listening patiently, he replied: “Brethren, I don’t know very much about science. It has not been my privilege to study… deeply… any of the sciences, but this I do know, that God lives, and that His Son instituted this church here upon the earth for the salvation of men. Now brethren, you have that testimony, and I’ve heard you bear it. It’s your job to try and see how these seeming difficulties can be overcome.”
Consistent with this charge by President Smith, Hugh Nibley, a very well-read amateur scientist, and a faithful disciple-scholar, occasionally stepped into the fray.
Hugh Nibley, with his deep love of God’s creatures, had great sympathy for the ancient individuals about whom so much evidence had been discovered and authoritatively dated to long periods that antedated Bible history. He pondered long and hard about how their stories might fit in with those of Adam and Eve. For a thoughtful perspective on this issue, we can do no better than to cite him directly:
The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer, in his Essay on the Christian System, said that the two fatal flaws of Christianity were (1) denying spirit and mind to any other creatures but ourselves and (2) allowing life on no other world but our own. …
This … should be no concern [for us]. …
It is Adam as my own parent who concerns me. When he walks onto the stage, then and only then the play begins. He opens a book and starts calling out names. They are the sons of Adam, who also qualify as the sons of God, Adam himself being a son of God. This is the book of remembrance from which many have been blotted out.
Is the Bible a comprehensive history of every individual and creature that has ever lived on earth? By way of analogy, it should be remembered that the Book of Mormon, as a history of those who were Nephites by lineage or “adoption,” records only incidentally the story of the Lamanites and their associates. So also the Book of Moses tells us very little about the history of the Cainites or of the children of Adam that were born before Cain and Abel who “followed Satan by choice and were disqualified as sons of God.” The account instead focuses on the inauguration of temple ordinances among the righteous, which began, as Nibley indicates, “when God set them apart, gave them a blessing, gave them a new name, [and] registered them in the new Book of the Generations of Adam.”
In light of what scripture tells us, how do we account for the results of genetic studies indicating that every person who has ever lived on earth is descended from a common population of, perhaps, 10,000 founders who lived 100,000 to 150,000 years ago — long before Adam and Eve entered mortality? Drawing on the richer sources of scripture produced through modern revelation, Nibley raised a series of questions with an eye to finding scriptural support for surviving non-Adamic and non-Noachian lineages that might help explain such findings:
What about those people who lived before Cain and Abel? What about those who disappeared from sight? What about those who were not even warned of the Flood? … What about the comings and goings of Enoch’s day between the worlds? Who were his people … ? … What about the creatures we do not see around us? Speaking of Noah, … “the Lord said: Blessed is he through whose seed Messiah shall come.” Methuselah boasted about his line as something special. Why special if it included the whole human race? These blessings have no meaning if all the people of the earth and all the nations are the seed of Noah and Enoch. What other line could the Messiah come through? Well, there were humans who were not invited by Enoch’s preaching.
Nibley no doubt was wondering whether some of these shadowy peoples described in scripture might be neither descendants of Noah nor of Adam but rather distantly related contemporaries whose descendants may have mixed at various times with the Adamic lineage. Fortunately, as Ryan Parr reminds us, blessings promised through of descendance from patriarchs such as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are to be ultimately confirmed through the keeping of covenants associated with the sealing ordinances, not by genetics, since specific “nuclear DNA finding its way from any one of these progenitors to any descendant of today is extremely unlikely from a biological perspective.” In other words, the promises made to the faithful posterity of the patriarchs are not about inheriting fragments of Abrahamic DNA but rather about receiving a fulness of Abrahamic blessings, ultimate assured through one’s faithfulness. Otherwise, the doctrines that describe the possibility of adoption into the Abrahamic lineage would be meaningless.
For all these reasons, Nibley encouraged us to keep an open mind. He knew firsthand that God’s heart and mind are “wide as eternity” and that His work to infuse the universe with lasting happiness extends to every one of His creatures:
Do not begrudge existence to creatures that looked like men long, long ago, nor deny them a place in God’s affection or even a right to exaltation — for our scriptures allow them such. Nor am I overly concerned as to just when they might have lived, for their world is not our world. They have all gone away long before our people ever appeared. God assigned them their proper times and functions, as He has given me mine — a full-time job that admonishes me to remember His words to the overly eager Moses: “For mine own purpose have I made these things. Here is wisdom and it remaineth in me.”
Rebecca Nibley Remembers Her Father, Hugh Nibley
This week, we are pleased to include two short video remembrances about Hugh Nibley, newly recounted by Rebecca Nibley, his daughter. The first video, “Reading with My Dad,” recounts touching scenes of an affectionate father who loved to bond with his young children through unusual reading traditions. The second video, “Movie Night with Dad,” shares a poignant father-daughter conversation after a local viewing of “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” The film raised concerns for Rebecca about the former restrictions that prevented men of African descent from being ordained to the priesthood. His full answer to these concerns was not given till one year later.
Listen to the complete audio recording of “Reading with My Dad”:
Listen to the complete audio recording of “Movie Night with Dad”:
Hugh Nibley’s Love For God’s Creation
In addition, an Insight entitled “Hugh Nibley’s Love For God’s Creation” is embedded in video form below, along with a more complete podcast and pdf transcript that are available for listening or download. The video examines the roots of that love in childhood memories and experiences as a father, and his later efforts to define and model what it means to be a steward over God’s earth and His creatures.
Listen to the complete audio recording of “What Five Things Did Hugh Nibley Teach Us About the Temple?”:
500,000-Year-Old Neanderthal Viruses Found in Modern Human DNA — (Did We Interbreed?) (November 19, 2013). In The Daily Galaxy. http://www.dailygalaxy.com/my_weblog/2013/11/-500000-year-old-neanderthal-viruses-found-in-modern-human-dna-did-we-interbreed-share-a-language-ge.html. (accessed November 20, 2013).
Bailey, David H., Jeffrey M. Bradshaw, John H. Lewis, Gregory L. Smith, and Michael L. Stark, eds. Science and Mormonism: Cosmos, Earth, and Man. Interpreter Science and Mormonism Symposia 1. Orem and Salt Lake City, UT: The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2016. https://archive.org/details/CosmosEarthAndManscienceAndMormonism1/160111-scienceAndMormonism1-s. (accessed May 17, 2021).
Callaway, Ewen. 2013. Ancient Humans had sex with mystery species, new DNA study shows (November 19, 2013). In Huffington Post (Science). http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/11/19/ancient-humans-sex-mystery-species-dna_n_4302031.html. (accessed November 20, 2013).
Collins, Francis S. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York City, NY: Free Press, 2006.
Funderburg, Lise. "The changing face of America." National Geographic, October 2013, 80-91.
Hunter, Howard W. The Teachings of Howard W. Hunter. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1997.
Interbreeding?: The relationship between modern humans and Neanderthals. In Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. http://humanorigins.si.edu/evidence/genetics/ancient-dna-and-neanderthals/interbreeding. (accessed November 20, 2013).
Lee, Harold B. The Teachings of Harold B. Lee. Salt Lake City, UT: Bookcraft, 1996.
Nibley, Hugh W. 1972. "Man’s dominion or subduing the earth." In Brother Brigham Challenges the Saints, edited by Don E. Norton and Shirley S. Ricks. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 13, 3-22. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1994.
———. 1980. "Before Adam." In Old Testament and Related Studies, edited by John W. Welch, Gary P. Gillum and Don E. Norton. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 1, 49-85. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1986.
———. 1986. "Return to the temple." In Temple and Cosmos: Beyond This Ignorant Present, edited by Don E. Norton. The Collected Works of Hugh Nibley 12, 42-90. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1992. https://mi.byu.edu/book/temple-and-cosmos/. (accessed August 21, 2020).
Parr, Ryan. "Missing the boat to ancient America… just plain missing the boat." The FARMS Review 17, no. 1 (2005): 83-106.
Sorenson, John L. An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City, UT: Deseret Book, 1985.
Walton, John H. The Lost World of Adam and Eve: Genesis 2-3 and the Human Origins Debate. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2015.
Population geneticists, whose discipline involves the use of mathematical tools to reconstruct the history of populations for animals, plants, or bacteria, look at … facts about the human genome and conclude that they point to all members of our species having descended from a common set of founders, approximately 10,000 in number, who lived about 100,000 to 150,000 years ago. This information fits well with the fossil record, which in turn places the location of those founding ancestors most likely in East Africa.
Collins (ibid., pp. 125-126) draws out an implication of this finding:
At the DNA level, we are all 99.9 percent identical. That similarity applies regardless of which two individuals from around the world you choose to compare. Thus, by DNA analysis, we humans are truly part of one family. This remarkably low genetic diversity distinguishes us from most other species on the planet, where the DNA diversity is ten or sometimes even fifty times greater than our own. An alien visitor sent here to examine life forms on earth might have many interesting things to say about humankind, but most certainly he would comment on the suprisingly low level of genetic diversity within our species.
Collins is noted for his leadership of the Human Genome Project. Currently, he is director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). A critic of both Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design, he is a proponent of theistic evolution or evolutionary creation, and describes himself as a “serious Christian.” The well-known atheist “Christopher Hitchens referred to Francis Collins as a ‘Great American’ and stated that Collins was one of the most devout believers he had ever met … [Hitchens said] that their friendship despite their differing opinion on religion was an example of the greatest armed truce in modern times” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Francis_Collins#Christianity [accessed January 18, 2016])
In some models Adam and Eve are thought of as two of the members of a small population of humans and that through the course of time as generation followed generation, their descendants spread through the population and other lines died out such that today everyone has genetic material from these two. This view attempts to place Adam and Eve in Genesis 1 among an en masse creation of humans and still retain the idea that Adam and Eve are the parents of us all. It affirms that Adam and Eve were (among) the first humans and that (through a complex process) we are all descended from Adam and Eve. Though it looks nothing like the traditional biblical interpretation, it makes similar affirmations while at the same time accommodating common descent and affirming that the history evident in the genome actually took place.
With reference to a much earlier time than the era of Adam and Eve (no later than approximately 30,000 BCE), there is a growing consensus among researchers that there was a limited amount of interbreeding between the ancestors of today’s humans and Neanderthals that led to modern humans carrying 1-4% of Neanderthal genes (Interbreeding?, Interbreeding?). The authors of one study believe they have “pinpointed the skeletal remains of the first known human- Neanderthal hybrid. … The finding came from northern Italy, where some 40,000 years ago scientists believe Neanderthals and humans lived near each other, but developed separate and distinctly different cultures” (500,000-Year-Old Neanderthal, 500,000-Year-Old Neanderthal). Other researchers “suggest that interbreeding went on between the members of several ancient human-like groups living in Europe and Asia more than 30,000 years ago, including an as-yet unknown human ancestor from Asia” (E. Callaway, Ancient Humans).
Incidentally, the 1980 talk that Jeff mentioned, “Before Adam,” (available in CWHN v1, Old Testament and Related Studies, came as a major revelation to me when I had the opportunity to listen to a cassette tape of it, and later as a FARMS Reprint. It opened up the possibilities in the Book of Abraham and Book of Moses that previous LDS thinkers had overlooked, mostly due to the tendency to prematurely take sides in the supposed conflict between evolution and faith, that is, for faith to even be possible, evolution must be totally wrong. My mind expanded especially where Nibley noted the language in Abraham, “And the Gods prepared the waters that they might bring forth great whales, and every living creature which moveth…” The language, Nibley noted it future potential tense. Not create whales on the spot, but to initiate a process which eventually results in whales, among other things. After all, the creatures are not “absolutely obedient” to reproduce after their own kind, but “very obedient,” which, by definition, allows variation. And the variety, among other things, gives beauty. And Nibley points out that in Abraham the times take “until” which means take all the time you need. In Before Adam, Nibley chided the LDS for prematurely taking sides in a debate that we really ought to fret over because we have a radically different story to tell. More time and thought goes by leading to one of Nibley’s last major essays was his “Abraham’s Temple Drama,” available in CWHN, 17, Eloquent Witness, in which he made the case that the account we have is a literally a script to be performed, including stage directions. That changes things as well, and resonates with Margaret Barker’s case that Genesis 1 closely parallels the erection of the tabernacle. (See her Temple Theology: An Introduction). And since the tabernacle is a portable temple, the erection of the tabernacle itself models the creation of the world. How long does that take?
Thanks, Kevin. It is good to hear from you. I felt the same way you did when I first heard Nibley’s talk. I was lucky to have found a spot to listen outside the doorway of the standing-room only crowd in the classroom when it was delivered.
I appreciate my friend Dennis Horne raising a question about Nibley’s previous views on the subject of evolution, written in 1965. Obviously he had the right to change his mind in light of new evidence. In the first paragraph of Nibley’s 1980 article he wrote:
“Within the past ten years, … things have changed so much that it is time to resume the discussion if only to reorient my own thinking on a subject that is impossible to avoid” (Before Adam, p. 49).
Other developments since 1965 signaled that Nibley was not alone in his later views. “The first formal class in evolution was instituted at BYU in the fall of 1971 with the First Presidency’s approval, and is currently a required part of the core curriculum of all BYU students in the biological science. [Neither Creationism nor Intelligent Design nor similar theories are part of the curriculum.] Evolutionary biology has seen become ‘one of the largest and most successful graduate programs at BYU,’ with professors publishing in the major evolutionary conferences and journals” (See Bailey, Bradshaw, Lewis, Smith, and Stark, Science and Mormonism 1: Cosmos, Earth, and Man (The Interpreter Foundation and Eborn Books, 2016), p. 482. See pp. 446–484 for a collection of statements relating to evolution and the origin of man by presidents of the Church, also including the BYU Evolution Packet that was approved by Brigham Young University’s Board of Trustees in 1992 — consisting of the First Presidency, some members of the Quorum of the Twelve, and other General Authorities and officiers.
I am not aware of any collection of statements on the subject that have been issues with the authorization of the First Presidency since that time. Following approval, the packet was made available to students and faculty of BYU, and in 1999 it was distributed to all teachers in the Church Education System. Further explanation of the background of the packet is in the volume mentioned above.
With appreciation and respect,
PS. The book “Cosmos, Earth, and Man” is available as a free download at https://archive.org/details/CosmosEarthAndManscienceAndMormonism1 ).
While not Nibley-related, I hope everyone reads the wonderful packet Jeff mentions.
Regarding this general subject: In 1965 Hugh Nibley had an article rejected by the Improvement Era, called “Archaeology and our Religion.” This item has been published in the CWHN. In response to the rejection, Nibley wrote a letter to Lorin F. Wheelright, editor of the Era, most of which follows:
Actually there is an enormous accumulation of factual information refuting the claims of the evolutionists, or at lease casting serious doubts upon them. Maybe the stuff is no good, but we will never find out by forbidding all mention of it. We may put the age-old controversy (by no means the child of our Modern Scientific Age, as most people are led to believe) in the form of a dialogue:
A. Why do you undermine the faith of these young people?
B. To make them think! To get them out of the grooves!
A. But there are millions of things to think about. Why do you always emphasize the same half-dozen shop-worn commonplaces?
B. Because they are true! Truth at any price! All things must yield to the facts.
A. Bully for you! I could not agree more. And here are some facts to which I would like to call to your attention. Let us tell them to the students, and then they will think harder than ever.
B. No, No! You can’t do that! That will merely make trouble.
A. But you said truth at any price—that includes the price of much trouble.
B. I see no point to undermining scientific reputations; these things are agreed on by many important scientists—it would be foolish to question them.
A. But isn’t that exactly how science has made progress in the past? Who is in a groove now?
And so on. . . .
THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE OUTSIDE OF THE CHURCH TODAY BECAUSE OF SCIENTIFIC TEACHINGS WHICH HAVE BEEN EXPLODED, ARE NOW BEING EXPLODED, AND ARE YET TO BE EXPLODED, while the gospel remains unscathed.
With the Christian world in general the scientists have always had their way (not the other way around, as we have been taught), the whole history of doctrine being, as Whitehead points out, one “long undignified retreat” as year by year the churchmen since the third century have diligently accommodated their teachings to the science of the day. . . .
Brigham Young had the proper words for those intellectual Mormons who generously offered to place their great minds at the disposal of the Church and make the Gospel intellectually respectable: “O puss, what a long tail you have got!”
During the Darwin Centennial Year a great outpouring of articles took stock of 100 years of Evolution. I have a whole shoe-box full of notes taken from them. The dominant theme in these is that what Darwin really gave the world was not so much a particular explanation of how things came about as the fundamental awareness that however it happened it was entirely through natural and material means; whether this or that process produced the world around us is not the important thing, we are told over and over again, the important thing being to recognize that whatever the process, it was purely a mechanical one, the working of natural forces alone and unaided. The corollary of this, expressed with great heat and passion by scientists today as well as a hundred years ago, is that it is both unnecessary and pernicious to clutter up the picture with “supernaturalism.” G. G. Simpson, the patron saint of our local geologists, never ceases to harp on this theme; he equated God to Santa Claus in his dialectic, and then berates those immature souls who still believe in Santa. It is no accident that Marx wanted to dedicate his monument of dialectical materialism to Darwin—the key to both systems is their uncompromising materialism. But it was hardly an original discovery; where is the thesis better expressed than in the Book of Mormon? Korihor not only taught that “every man fared in this life according to the management of the creature,” but urged the people to give up their absurd belief in Simpson’s Santa Claus, “the effect of a frenzied mind.” Again it is Brigham Young who states the issue with characteristic clarity and brevity: “Instead of considering that there is nothing known and understood, only as we know and understand things naturally, I take the other side of the question, and believe positively that there is nothing known except by the revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ, whether in theology, science, or art.” You cannot reconcile those two views because they look in opposite directions. . . . .
Nibley letter continued:
A common pitfall in reconstructions of the past is the illusion that if one had explained by a proper scientific method how a thing COULD have happened, one has explained how it actually DID happen. The best scientists are guilty of this very unscientific thinking. We are allowed to say, “This is how it MAY have happened,” but never, “This is how it DID happen.” There are always unknown factors. “Fifty-seven years ago,” wrote Whitehead, “I was a young man in the University of Cambridge. I was taught science and mathematics by brilliant men and I did well in them; since the turn of the century I have lived to see every one of the basic assumptions of both set aside. . . . And yet, in the face of that, the discoverers of the new hypotheses in science are declaring, ‘Now at last, we have certitude’—when some of the assumptions which we have seen upset had endured for more than twenty centuries.” It is easy and pleasant to show off by talking about the subject one is presently working on, but to put it in the category of eternal truth is inexcusable. . . . The evolutionary hypothesis from the beginning had this merit; its proponents boldly set forth certain propositions, confidently predicting the outcome of certain experiments. Many of these experiments were carried out, with results diametrically opposed to those predicted. What did the experts do? Did they apologize for their presumption? Did they admit that there might be a flaw in the hypothesis? Not a bit of it! With the greatest of ease they contrived new interpretations of the data that proved that the outcome of the experiments, though it was the reverse of what was predicted, proved the validity of the original hypothesis instead of refuting it. Such men can’t lose. . . .
I begrudge no man his model or the corner of the floor he is paying on. But when anyone insists that he knows from his model alone exactly how the entire jigsaw cosmos will look when it is completed, it is time to protest. That can be known only by revelation. The Lord has given us the Big Picture, but no amount of juggling the pieces in any one or any dozen disciplines can begin to give us the remotest inkling of what the whole picture is like. The best we can hope for from that direction are man’s own hypothetical tentative constructions, and to present them as part of the Gospel is entirely out of order.
(Correspondence, Hugh Nibley to L.F. [Lorin F.] Wheelright, September 16, 1965.)
More from Nibley on the subject:
The words of the prophets cannot be held to the tentative and defective tests that men have devised for them. Science, philosophy, and common sense all have a right to their day in court. But the last word does not lie with them. Every time men in their wisdom have come forth with the last word, other words have promptly followed. The last word is a testimony of the gospel that comes only by direct revelation. Our Father in heaven speaks it, and if it were in perfect agreement with the science of today, it would surely be out of line with the science of tomorrow. Let us not, therefore, seek to hold God to the learned opinions of the moment when he speaks the language of eternity. (Nibley, The World and the Prophets, p. 134.)
The university has dictated doctrine and policy to every church that has sponsored it, and the churches of the world have listened to its voices only for a lack of a better guide. The true Church needs no such crutch to lean on. (Hugh Nibley Correspondence, July 29, 1960)
Thank you for this illuminating comment.
For clarity’s sake, additional context should be provided for Nibley’s statement that “The university has dictated doctrine and policy to every church that has sponsored it…” In this case, he was not referring to BYU (whose doctrines and policies when important questions arise have always been approved by the Board of Trustees that includes members from the highest levels of Church leadership) but rather to the general history of other church-sponsored universities. The full discussion of the decisions regarding teachings, research, and dissemination at BYU of material about evolution in “Cosmos, Earth, and Man” make it clear that the additional direction given by the Board of Trustees between the time of Nibley’s 1965 statement and his 1980 article was no exception in this regard.