“Do we know how the earth’s history as indicated from fossils fits with the earth’s history as the scriptures present it?” Tambuli, Apr. 1988, 29–31
Morris S. Petersen, professor of geology, Brigham Young University, and president of the Provo Utah East Stake.
There is much we do not know about the creation and early history of the earth. The scriptural record is not very detailed, and the record of science is incomplete. Indeed, what we imagine to be true now about the history of the earth may prove to be only partially true in the light of greater knowledge. We are assured, however, that the day will come when the Lord “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.)
Until that day comes, we must rely on what we are taught in the scriptures and what we assume to be true based on the evidence gathered and examined by science.
We are, in fact, encouraged to seek both scriptural and secular knowledge in striving to learn about God and his creations: “Teach ye diligently and my grace shall attend you, that you may be instructed more perfectly in theory, in principle, in doctrine, in the law of the gospel, in all things that pertain unto the kingdom of God, that are expedient for you to understand;
“Of things both in heaven and in the earth, and under the earth; things which have been, things which are, things which must shortly come to pass; …” (D&C 88:78–79.)
Latter-day Saints share Elder James E. Talmage’s conviction that “within the gospel of Jesus Christ there is room and place for every truth thus far learned by man, or yet to be made known.” With these ideas in mind, let us now examine briefly some current conclusions from our study of the fossil record and compare them with the scriptural record.
God is the creator of our earth and of all life on the earth. “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. … And God created … every living creature that moveth. … And God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good.” (Gen. 1:1, 21, 31.)
Among the life forms God created were apparently many species now extinct. Fossil-bearing rocks are common on the earth, and these fossils represent once-living organisms, preserved now as part of the earth’s rocky crust.
As one examines layers of fossil-bearing rock, it is obvious that there is a very definite, ordered pattern. As Elder James E. Talmage (a geologist) wrote in the Deseret News on 21 November 1931:
“Geologists say that these very simple forms of plant and animal bodies were succeeded by others more complicated; and in the indestructible record of the rocks they read the story of advancing life from the simple to the more complex, …”
The sequence in the frequency of fossils repeats itself in sedimentary rocks throughout the world. Furthermore, whether they were in Australia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, or elsewhere, the various forms of life on earth appeared and disappeared at the same time. To the faithful student of the scriptures, this precision reflects the ordered processes of God, the divine Creator. The sequence of the creation of life on earth as recorded in Genesis—first plants (Gen. 1:11–12), then animals (Gen. 1:20–23)—is duplicated in the fossil record: the appearance of plant fossils comes before the appearance of animal fossils.
This agreement shouldn’t be surprising, because the God who created this earth is the same God who inspired the prophets. A conflict arises only when we assume that God has revealed all he is going to reveal on the subject or we forget that scientific theories change as new discoveries are made. We also need to remember both the purposes for which the scriptures were given and the objectives of the scientific method.
Basically, the scriptures testify of Jesus Christ and how we may receive the blessings of salvation and exaltation through his atonement. They reveal why (not necessarily how) the earth was created, and what laws and principles a person must follow to obtain eternal life. The goal of science, on the other hand, is to learn how (not why) the world was made and to understand the laws and principles governing the physical world.
The different roles science and religion play is illustrated in a study of the dinosaurs. From the fossil record it is theorized that the dinosaurs were the dominant animals on earth between 225 and 67 million years ago. Some were meat-eating, others lived on plants. Some were small, while others were gigantic, weighing up to seventy-two metric tons and growing to lengths of more than twenty-seven meters.
The existence of these animals is unquestionable, for their remains have been found in rocks all over the world. What eternal purpose they played in the creation and early history of the world is unknown. The scriptures do not discuss the subject of dinosaurs, and it is not the purpose of science to explain why they were here. We can only conclude, as Elder Talmage did, that “The whole series of chalk deposits and many of our deep-sea limestones contain the skeletal remains of animals. These lived and died, age after age, while the earth was not ready for human habitation.”
The relationship between scripture and what is currently understood in science is always changing. Science continually learns more about the history of life on earth, and we have every reason to believe that much more will be learned as research continues.
The struggle to harmonize a passage in scripture with a specific portion of scientific research has been a challenge for centuries. But experience has shown that what a person understands today will be modified by tomorrow’s discoveries. Patience and humility will eventually resolve all questions—if not in this life, then in the next.
Fortunately, we need not know all the details of the Creation to take advantage of the essential saving ordinances of the gospel and conform to divine standards of progression. The scriptures and the inspired counsel of the prophets are sufficient to lead us back to God.
But this does not mean that science has no place in our eternal pursuit of truth. The more we learn of God’s handiwork, the more we come to know him and love his works. As a Latter-day Saint geologist, I consider myself very fortunate to have the opportunity to study rocks and fossils as evidences of God’s creation of our earth. Everything I have learned of the grandeur of the Creation has strengthened my resolve to learn more of our Heavenly Father and live as he would have me live.