Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Evolution Redux

I got a response to an older post, Transitional Life Forms, and I figured I post my response here. You can read the response in the comments, but the essence is that it takes more faith to believe in evolution than creation and that there is no evidence for evolution. Here's my response.

Aw, but MonkeyMom, the evidence is plentiful. Over the 4.5 billion years of its existence the fossil record clearly records the emergence, extinction, and continuation of all of the kingdoms. It just happens over extremely long periods of time. So if you expect to see it over the period of your lifetime or even during the period of recorded human history then you'll probably miss it. People easily misjudge probabilities because they can't easily fathom the magnitudes of the involved numbers. But to state that there is no evidence is simply wrong. It's there even if it is just fragmentary snapshots.

What's completely lacking is any evidence that supports a single creation event where all of the world's species were created with no new ones emerging since that creation.

The beautiful thing about science is that it's not afraid to say when it doesn't know something. Regardless, what we do know is that the earth is significantly older than 6000 years and that life has existed on it for a very, very long time, and that the types of life have changed radically over those long periods and that they have changed from simple life forms to increasingly complex life forms and that the life forms have changed to match the conditions.

If you know what fossils are, you probably know how rare they are and that they are only formed under very special circumstances. The result is that the fossil record is incredibly incomplete. This makes it very unlikely that we'll ever see a complete fossil record showing transitions. However, it does show the appearance of increasingly complex organisms over very large time periods.

Evolution is a theory that tries to explain the known facts. So far, it is the most plausible although like all theories it will be modified and perhaps discarded as new evidence is found that either supports it or undermines it.

That's the beauty of science.

I was, of course, joking about dogs being evidence of transitional life forms. I'm not sure that I buy the theory of evolution either. I'm willing to say I don't know. I think that it's quite likely that there are processes that we don't or can't understand because they happen over millions, billions, or trillions of years. Also, by the very nature of the question, I'm not sure we'll ever be able to know the answer.

What I am 100% certain of, is that the Biblical creation account is not how it happened. The evidence on the ground completely contradicts the account unless you read it as a purely metaphorical story whose details are essentially meaningless.

Since you've studied this so much, I'm sure you're also aware of the problems with postulating an all powerful creator. On the other hand, if you had you'd probably understand why that is an even more improbable theory than evolution.

I'm sure it is comforting to believe in a simple answer: God did it. But if I concede that, then you still have to explain what God is and how he did it. Which kind of brings us back to square one. In the end, "God did it" is just a comforting way of saying, "I don't know." And I'm okay with that answer.

In the end our existence is miraculous, amazing, and astounding. Whether or not we believe in God doesn't change that one bit.

Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Office of Presiding Patriarch: Where Has It Gone?

Search the Mormon scriptures for the term patriarch and you will find the following tantalizing reference in D&C 124:91-95:
91 And again, verily I say unto you, let my servant William be appointed, ordained, and anointed, as counselor unto my servant Joseph, in the room of my servant Hyrum, that my servant Hyrum may take the office of Priesthood and aPatriarch, which was appointed unto him by his father, by blessing and also by right;
92 That from henceforth he shall hold the keys of the apatriarchal blessings upon the heads of all my people,
93 That whoever he blesses shall be blessed, and whoever he acurses shall be cursed; that whatsoever he shall bbind on earth shall be bound in heaven; and whatsoever he shall loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven.
94 And from this time forth I appoint unto him that he may be a prophet, and a aseer, and a revelator unto my church, as well as my servant Joseph;
95 That he may act in concert also with my aservant Joseph; and that he shall receive counsel from my servant Joseph, who shall show unto him the bkeys whereby he may ask and receive, and be crowned with the same blessing, and glory, and honor, and priesthood, and gifts of the priesthood, that once were put upon him that was my servant cOliver Cowdery;
What's so tantalizing about this you ask? Joseph Smith instituted the office of Presiding Patriarch of the church and Brigham Young later stated that it was an office that should always exist within the church yet today that office no longer exists in the church. It was silently done away with when the church put its last Presiding Patriarch on "emeritus" status without explanation to him or the church other than that all stakes had their own local patriarchs and that therefore the presiding office was no longer necessary.

What is lost in all of this is the prolonged internal debate and dissension within the presiding circles of the church over what exactly the nature of the office of Presiding Patriarch was within the church. The above quote is about all that the scriptures have to say about it, but in Joseph Smith's time it was understood that it was a lineal office that should go to the oldest worthy descendant of Joseph Smith, Sr and that understanding continued in the church right until the end of the office.

So what happened? In a nutshell the office threatened the primacy of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. When Joseph Smith was murdered there were no clear succession plans. During his life Joseph Smith ordained his son Joseph Smith III to be his successor but he was too young. There were various claimants to the position but ultimately most of the church followed the president of the 12, Brigham Young. But even with the 12 some of the apostles felt that a new prophet could take the position of the president of the church without a revelation. That revelation never came and after a few years Brigham filled the position and this precedent has been followed to this day despite the fact that there is not revelation stating that this is the correct method of succession. The church could change its succession tradition whenever it wants to and not contradict any known Mormon doctrine. What the tradition does do is eliminate dissent when the president dies.

So how does that relate to the office of Patriarch? In the same section God reveals the officers of the presiding priesthood in order and for a long time the officers were sustained in this order during church conferences.
123 Verily I say unto you, I now give unto you the officers belonging to my Priesthood, that ye may hold the keys thereof, even the Priesthood which is after the order of Melchizedek, which is after the order of mine Only Begotten Son.
124 First, I give unto you Hyrum Smith to be a patriarch unto you, to hold the sealing blessings of my church, even the Holy Spirit of promise, whereby ye are sealed up unto the day of redemption, that ye may not fall notwithstanding the hour of temptation that may come upon you.
125 I give unto you my servant Joseph to be a presiding elder over all my church, to be a translator, a revelator, a seer, and prophet.
126 I give unto him for counselors my servant Sidney Rigdon and my servant William Law, that these may constitute a quorum and First Presidency, to receive the oracles for the whole church.
127 I give unto you my servant Brigham Young to be a president over the Twelve traveling council;
128 Which Twelve hold the keys to open up the authority of my kingdom upon the four corners of the earth, and after that to send my word to every creature.
Note that the office of Patriarch was listed first, before even the prophet or first presidency. Although it was an office without institutional authority over the operations of the church, it seems clear that it was intended to be a presiding officer on par with the rest.

In the aftermath of Joseph Smith's death Brigham Young's authority was challenged on several fronts. The Quorum of the Seventy was also a presiding quorum that theoretically could claim authority to lead the church. Young deftly defused that potential threat by creating stake level quorums of seventy. This ploy existed in the church until the church put the matters right in the 80s when they eliminated the local 70s and left only the 70s who were in the first and second quorums of the 70s. 

He was also threatened by the Smith family. There was young Joseph III, but there were also Joseph's surviving brothers Samuel and William. Samuel died in the care of a confidant of Brigham Young and William believed that Samuel was poisoned to remove a threat to Brigham's authority. William became the presiding patriarch but challenged Brigham's leadership and was subsequently excommunicated under the pretext that he was teaching and practicing polygamy even though all of the twelve were also doing so.

Note that in all of this that a revelation was never received clarifying how the succession was to procede. Remember that Mormon's claim to fame is that it is led by prophets. Yet at a critical junction the leadership crisis was dealt with in a manner that you'd expect from any similar institution with plenty of politics, strife, and machinations.

The next patriarch was Joseph Smith, Sr.'s brother John. He had zero aspirations to power and was thus a safe choice while Hyrum Smith's son was a child. When John Smith died in 1854 the patriarchal office fell on a different John Smith, the eldest son of Hyrum Smith and half brother of apostle and future president Joseph F. Smith. He held the office from 1855 to 1911, but his tenure turned out to impact future successions to the office. While he fulfilled the office well and gave many blessings, he smoked and drank and didn't live the principle of polygamy with proper enthusiasm. He took a second wife, but apparently only as an obligation. His first wife hated the practice and in one telling quote remarked that all of the girls 14-19 in the territory were married off to polygamists. 

John Smith was publicly called to task over his shortcomings during his lifetime and when he died in 1911 the office of patriarch passed over his son to his grandson, Hyrum G. Smith. Apparently John's son was not deemed worthy since he apparently wasn't faithful in obeying the Word of Wisdom.

With Hyrum G. Smith the role of the presiding patriarch again became an issue and a perceived threat to the apostles. Unlike his two predecessors, he was a strong leader and under the presidency of his uncle, Joseph F. Smith, he tried to reassert the primacy of the office of Patriarch in the church. While supported by the president, this received a chilly reception from other apostles. This hostility resulted in the office of Patriarch going unfilled after his untimely death in 1932.

The successor by lineal descent should have been Eldred G. Smith, but President Heber J. Grant strongly opposed him and refused to call him to the office. Unfortunately, the church assumed that he wasn't being called because of unworthiness and he had to live with that stigma for over a decade.

Now once again, this is where a prophet would have come in really handy. Instead, President Grant had the apostles research the issue. He really, really wanted to get around the lineal descent issue so he could be allowed to choose a man of his choosing. He felt that Eldred was too young and of insufficient stature to take such a prominent position. Furthurmore, Grant had grown up in the 1800s and was very familiar with Eldred's great grandfather who had the Word of Wisdom and polygamy problems. Based on that he felt that the entire line of descendants from John Smith were unworthy to hold the office and he preferred for the office to go to a different descendant of Joseph Smith Sr. that he felt was more worthy. In 1942 he finally got his way and Joseph Fielding Smith was set apart as presiding patriarch. The inspiration behind this choice was revealed when the new patriarch was released in 1946 after he was discovered to be a homosexual. So much for revelation.

Eldred G. Smith finally became presiding patriarch in 1947 and continued in that role until 1979 when he told that he was being place on emeritus status.

The thing I find stunning in all of this is the complete lack of divine inspiration and direction in such critical questions as prophetic succession and the role of patriarch and other presiding officers in the church and the ultimate dropping of what was originally the first presiding officer in the church.

I guess I haven't heard how the apologists address this issue, if they even do, but it strongly confirms my belief that the Mormon church is not what it claims to be.

The whole story is documented in the following fascinating book: Irene M. Bates and E. Gary Smith, Lost Legacy: The Mormon Office of Presiding Patriarch, Urbana, Illinois, 1996.

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Hammer Blow

As I resumed running after my ankle surgery I noticed that my German Shepherd Dog (GSD), Scout, seemed a little out of shape. Then one morning one of the kids noticed bloody streaks on the floor of the kitchen after a run. Worried that he'd cut a paw during the run I quickly examine Scout's paws. The pads were fine, but the nails on both his hind paws were worn down to the quick which is where the blood was coming from. As he was walking around it became clear he was dragging them forward.

The vet took xrays which showed that his hips are in great shape and the only thing he noticed was some calcification between a couple of vertebrae that might be an indicator of a bulging disk. The problem was definitely neurological and it was either a disk pressing on the nerves or a condition called degenerative myelopathy (DM). He referred me to a orthopedic specialist who I saw on Thursday. He confirmed what my vet had told me. If it was a disk I was looking at about $2000 for corrective surgery, but if it was DM then there was nothing that could be done.

When I got back to work I looked up DM and discovered that it is fairly common and almost exclusive to GSDs. It was the first I'd heard of it. In a nutshell it is like MS in people. It is a disease that attacks the nerves in the spinal column starting with the rear legs and rapidly progresses until the hind legs are paralyzed and eventually the dog dies.

The way the condition is progressing, I'm 99% sure that Scout has DM. His symptoms are rapidly worsening. He has difficulty going up and down stairs and frequently trips or stumbles. His legs cross under him when he is walking slowly and when he is standing it isn't uncommon for his hind legs to just slide out from underneath him. If it's DM then in a short time, 3 to 6 months, he'll become incontinent and completely lame. Before it gets too bad I'll have the difficult task of saying goodbye to a dear friend and putting him down.

Sad day.