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Evolution, dinosaurs and faith: Navigating the world of discovery

PROVO — Model skulls sit in front of students in Dr. Michael Whiting's evolutionary biology lab at Brigham Young University.

"Find your chimps and find your humans," Whiting says.

The students pick out two skulls and are handed a checklist of items to compare between the two skulls, including teeth, brain size and nose.

Wearing a tieless, blue, button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up, Whiting roams the classroom and points out the difference between the two skulls to the students.

"You're going to forget a lot of stuff," he tells his students. "My hope is you'll remember what you learn here today."

The topic: Evolution. It's a subject Whiting has to keep up with as new fossils are discovered that provide a more complete understanding of the world we live in. His class also provides a snapshot into the intersection of science and faith and how both the learned and learning at a faith-based university develop the skills to balance science and religion in a quest for truths.

"What we try to do when we teach evolution is provide a solid course in evolutionary science," Whiting said. "There is room in LDS doctrine to believe a God who uses evolution."

New archaeological discoveries are celebrated by Whiting, a religious man teaching at a university where classes can open with prayer. And this year the discoveries keep on coming:

• In March, a foot fossil found in Ethiopia dated at 3.4 million years old was announced in the journal Nature. The fossil, scientists said, suggests a species of hominin that climbed in trees and existed at the same time as hominins that walked upright.

• The journal reviewed stone tools discovered in Salado, Texas, campsite remains in Chile and fossil dung from Oregon, archaeological evidence that challenges previously held beliefs about the timing and origins of the first human culture in the Americas.

• Earlier this month, the New York Times detailed the Open Tree of Life project. Evolutionary biologists, armed with a $5.7 million grant from the National Science Foundation, are attempting to draw a tree of life that includes every known species. The first draft is due in 2013 of a tree that will include about two million branches.

Whiting said he isn't surprised by the efforts and discoveries, saying new finds are becoming more common.

"The evidence for the ancient origin of man is only going to increase," he said, citing better technology and tools. "We've been looking harder for bones than ever before and we're finding them."

Mike Bell, a pastor for South Mountain Community Church in Draper, said he's skeptical any time scientists say they have a new discovery.

"Call me a cynic, but I feel like it's going to be the emperor's new clothes again," he said.

Bell recalled a college anthropology class where model skulls were set out in front of him as well. He said he assumed that because his professor was an academic, "she knows what she's talking about." Years later, when Bell became a Christian, he had to figure out how what he was taught in anthropology fit in with his understanding of the Bible.

"I did a little research and I found out every single thing that professor had taught had been refuted," he said.

Bell said within his church, there is a diversity of opinions on topics like the age of the earth and dinosaurs, but it doesn't cause problems.

"People have to come to their own conclusions," he said.

As Whiting's lab lets out, the model skulls on every desk are lined up chronologically. Whiting said that although some students have trouble accepting human evolution, the students in his lab typically do not have any problems. He said many of his students come to see evolution not as a theory that threatens their beliefs, but as a tool God uses to "accomplish his design."

"They leave the class thinking, 'Isn't this cool? Isn't the creator so clever?'" he said.

Whiting, who studied biology at BYU in the 1980s, said evolution was a much more controversial subject when he was a student. Professors would often hand out packets with quotes from leaders of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that supported their beliefs.

"We were having this battle of my general authority can beat your general authority," he said.

The controversy died down in 1992, when the university released a packet with comments from the LDS Church's First Presidency and the Encyclopedia of Mormonism.

"The scriptures tell why man was created, but they do not tell how, though the Lord has promised that he will tell that when he comes again," William Evenson said in the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, a statement reprinted in the packet for BYU professors and students.

Whiting said the packet and statements have helped reduce the stigma that evolution is something that contradicts religion. Today, he said, many students view evolution as a logical explanation for biological diversity and that it's compatible with their faith.

Scott Trotter, spokesman for the LDS Church, offered further clarification:

“Science and religion are not at odds in our faith. We accept truth wherever it is found and take the pragmatic view that where religion and science seem to clash, it is simply because there is insufficient data to reconcile the two.”

For Rodney Scheetz, curator of the BYU Museum of Paleontology, the mysteries at the intersection of religion and science are actually what piqued his interest in religion.

"In a sense, dinosaurs brought me into church," Scheetz said.

Scheetz, who grew up in Colorado, found the bones of a baby dinosaur when he was 12 years old, which led to a meeting with Jim Jensen, a BYU paleontologist who earned the nickname "Dinosaur Jim." Jensen became a mentor to Scheetz, who went on digs in Colorado with Jensen during summers. Scheetz eventually became a member of the LDS Church, and said the willingness of faithful members to ask questions was part of the reason why.

"It's that sort of open-mindedness that drew me to the church," he said. "Truth is truth. They're not afraid of what they find."

The museum occupies only a small portion of the building. Visitors walk past the replica skeletons of an allosaurus and an apatosaurus, but next door, a giant warehouse connected to the museum houses rows of fossils. Across the parking lot sits a chapel that houses multiple LDS congregations every Sunday.

"You have scriptural literalists and atheists," Sheetz said. "They say either you believe in science or you believe in God. There are a lot of people who aren't so conflicted until someone says you need to be."

That approach has spurred a growth in the number of resources designed to stimulate thought on religion and science., for example, is promoted by evangelical Christians as a place to explore "compatibility of evolutionary creation and biblical faith."

The group taps Christians involved in science, theology, biblical studies and theology but maintains as a baseline a verse from Colossians in the Bible: “all things hold together in Christ.”

Even at secular state schools, students in 2012 find themselves seeking resolution to apparent conflicts. Heath Ogden, a Latter-day Saint who teaches evolution at Utah Valley University, said he had to re-evaluate his worldview in college to deal with what he called "overwhelming" scientific evidence that he thought clashed with his religious beliefs.

Today, he helps many of his students with the same thing. "Most all concerns have to do with human evolution," he said.

Ogden said students who are active in their faith are often reassured to find out he is religious but still believes in science.

"I think that's refreshing for them," he said. "Mostly, I get them in this mindset to find truth."

Roughly 30 percent of his students accept the notion of human evolution at the start of the semester, Ogden said. But by the end of the semester, it jumps to approximately 70 percent. Part of that quest is understanding what is meant by evolution.

Many students don't know what evolution is when they start the class, Ogden said. Some religious students think evolution was "cooked up" to push a worldview at odds with religion. Ogden said he dispels that by showing evolution does not necessarily contradict religion.

"I believe that I want to know what God knows, and he knows the truth," Ogden said.

Francisco Ayala, a former Dominican priest and professor at UC Irvine who authored "Darwin and Intelligent Design," said there is no reason for there to be a contradiction, claiming conflict arises because of ignorance.

"In this country, we have the most advanced science and technology in the world and we're also one of the most religious," Ayala said. "The purpose of the Bible is to teach religious truths."

He said people get into trouble when they "interpret it as a book of science."

For Taylor Van Every, a sophomore at BYU, his understanding of faith and science took place during the past school year when he enrolled in geology and biology classes.

"At first, I was kind of hesitant," he said. "I've been taught the earth is 7,000 years old, but then there's a rock that's 4 million years old. … You have the archaeological facts that are hard to deny."

Now, Van Every says he has found resolution. Rather than contradict each other, science and religion coexist to inform different aspects of his worldview — the physical and the spiritual.

For teachers like Whiting, that's the point. There is a level of uncertainty in both science and religion. He wants students to seek information.

"We don't know much about the mechanics of creation from the scriptures," he said. "How does Adam and Eve fit into that? I don't know. But that doesn't bother me. There are some students who have a hard time with uncertainty. They want to know where Adam fits in with all the hominal line."

The uncertainty doesn't scare Whiting, who said, "It seems like every three or four months, a new, transitional fossil is found," like the one unearthed in Ethiopia.

"It's only going to get more exciting," he said. "We don't understand everything about how evolution works, but at the same time, we don't know everything about the Gospel."

Ross Anderson, a teaching pastor at the Alpine Church, said there isn't a "fundamental disjunction" between science and religion, but to reconcile the two requires humility and an understanding of the limits of both types of knowledge.

"I've found over the years, people are struggling with something that shouldn't be a problem because maybe there's a perspective they haven't thought of yet or information they haven't heard of yet," he said. "Usually, there's things someone hasn't considered."