Plenty Coups and Believing in Evolution (repost from BCC)

This is a repost from, July 2009. I’ve got something coming that requires this context, so rather than link to it (which no one will read), I’m going repost in its fullness. There are some fundamental misunderstandings by the science attackers (and make no mistake an attack on evolution is an attack on science as such). What’s at stake is the rational inquiry that has driven the successful scientific advances of the last few centuries. But these new perspectives can be hard to contextualize. This can be devastating. It requires new ways of thinking. Sometimes, when one of our youth enters the university to study the modern life sciences, and some well meaning, but basically biologically uniformed, person throws up strings of out of context quotes from general authorities to attack the solid and well-founded life sciences, they give the impression that the student must choose between the gospel and science. Because these new students have not developed the resources to handle such logically and spiritually flawed approaches, they wander away. Some never to return. People who conflate the role of science and religion do immense damage to both faith and science. Let’s start here and talk about what it takes to sometimes reorient in a new world in which a fundamental restructuring of simplistic creationist literalism is necessary.

I’ve been thinking about evolution of late. Not so much about evolution as such, but about people’s resistance to it. I’ve been thinking about the fear that some experience as they face the prospects that a new scientific age is bringing to an end their way of seeing the universe. The simple creationism of a Harry Potter-like God that was appropriate in the Seventeenth Century, and which we borrowed from the Greeks, is giving way to more complex conceptions and more Mormonism-informed perspectives. These are leading to even deeper engagements between science and religion. These require readjustments, however, to our ways of dealing with the natural world and its history. I’ve not been very sympathetic to the difficulty of the kinds of reframings that have been required of Mormon creationists nor perhaps understood their difficulty—being as seeped in evolutionary theory as I am 24/7. But I want to help those still embracing these creationist ideas that are largely right out of the neoplatonist views of Plotinus. Cheap creation is not part of the restoration, as much as people want to hold on to it.

The book, Radical Hope has opened new vistas to me in regard to doing the kind of deep reframings necessary when large cultural shifts are inevitable. The book is subtitled, “Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation.” and it explores surviving the complete loss of the ones cultural perspective. It explores it through the life of a Crow visionary named Plenty Coups. Plenty Coups’ life straddled the time between the traditional Crow way of life and the take over by the US Government of all Indian affairs. He was raised in a culture in which everything was couched in terms of their continual war with the Sioux. Young children were raised with the idea that being a warrior and counting coup (a way of letting your enemy know that it was you, a Crow, who was the one killing him by touching them with a stick before striking them down) was the highest good and the aim of a well-lived life. Women did not just prepare food for the people, but they nourished the warriors. Plenty Coups’ world began to collapse as the buffalo disappeared and within a few short years his way of being was completely gone as the white settlers took over more and more of their lands. They joined the US Government in their fight with the Sioux, their traditional enemy, and in the end were the only tribe that was allowed to settle on their original tribal lands. Of course the other tribes looked at this a betrayal, but to the Crow, the US was just a powerful people, with whom they had no real quarrel, while the Sioux had been their mortal enemy for over two centuries.

In any case, suddenly everything they had lived for changed. The buffalo and the beaver on which they depended had been hunted to nothing. The other tribes, who had fought against the US, had been parceled out to reservations and their culture had been destroyed, and in fact made illegal. As a result many of the native peoples did not know how to live in the new world imposed on them. Plenty Coups, however, provided a way to help his people reinterpret their old ways in a new context that was unique among these native tribes. The change was severe; everything they had believed in had become meaningless. In fact, Plenty Coups said that after the US had taken control of their lives “Nothing Happened.” The book is an exploration of what he meant by this.

What Plenty Coups meant, goes beyond the fact that his way of life had become meaningless. They were even more lost than that, they had even lost the context where meaningless or meaning could be conceptualized. The ground and context for meaning itself had been destroyed. That’s why “nothing happened” nothing could happen, all categories had been wiped out. Even though he went on to lead his nation in learning to farm, promoted education among his tribe members, and in fact became a representative of Native rights in Washington DC, ‘nothing happened.’

In readjusting to a world where evolution is real, things are not so bad as that. Still there are huge readjustments that are necessary in order to view the world through both scientific and religious lens. The book suggests that the way to handle this is through courage in the face of risk. He argues that as finite beings we are always face to face with the fact of our finitude and our abject and absolute vulnerability to forces beyond our control. Including the risks that new information and new understanding brings. Courage means to face boldly the reality that we are always at risk and there are things we cannot control. The difference between Plenty Coups and the other Indian leaders was he saw clearly that the buffalo and beaver were gone. He saw that the European settlers were unconquerable, while other Native American leaders kept a false hope alive that they would drive the Europeans out, or that an Indian messiah would arise to free them, or that by doing the Ghost Dance they could bring spiritual help from the other side that would defeat the settlers. The book shows that by not facing the reality of the situation, by having a ‘hope’ that focused on winning or beating the white settlers the other chiefs actually worked against their people.

Facing the reality of a religious world that includes the evolution of humans, is hard to face for some. And it has been hard for me to recognize the pain that others face in dealing with these new realities. And it does require painful readjustments. But as Plenty Coups showed, facing realities is the best way. To face these new risks of reinterpreting our deepest understandings of fundamental things requires courage.

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16 Responses to Plenty Coups and Believing in Evolution (repost from BCC)

  1. Tom O. says:

    I never cease to be fascinated by this subject, and the consternation that distills around it. As a rather conservative, TBM, convert to the Church I default to two base principles whenever this subject comes up: first, that the fullness of the Gospel encompasses all truth, and that all facts can be reconciled with it when sufficient knowledge is present; second, that (to me, a layman in these matters,) organic evolution only seeks to explain the origin of man’s body, not his spirit or identity, and that evolution cannot speak to humankind’s divine worth or potential.

    Perhaps I’m mistaken, but I fail to see evolution as a problematic explanation of the mechanics of how Jehovah formed man from the dust of the earth. Am I missing something, or is there really not much of a conflict here when we define our terms clearly?

  2. SteveP says:

    Tom, I think that’s right. Because evolution and religion became enemies early on, people have held onto the grudge without warrant. The two are combatible, but not with a literalistic reading of the scriptures, largely a modern invention, it takes some effort on both. But there are vocal voices that will not budge on both sides of the issue: Atheists who think religion has nothing to say, and literalist creationists, who want a god out of the magic worldview model.

  3. Tom O. says:

    SteveP: Agreed. Biblical literalism is a difficult nut with which to crack the facts we encounter in the biological and geological records. It comes back to Occam’s Razor: which is more likely the case — that young earth creations is the true order of things, and all of the evidence we see in Creation arresting to its exceedingly ancient origin is wrong, or that young earth creationists are incorrect in their interpretation of scripture?

  4. raedyohed says:

    I would add to your introductory thoughts that when “they wander away” it might be from the Church, or their testimonies, or the science community, or rational inquiry as a way of knowing, or any combination of the above. This is problematic because we need to unite all of these things, not divide them. It’s a critical juncture in Mormonism at the cultural level, and at the level of the individuals we care about mentoring and fellow-shipping.

    I sympathize with your thesis, and hope for some future positive developments in the LDS culture and doctrine. While I would acknowledge the problem of biblical literalism, I think the elephant in the room is the expansive cosmology of the founding theologists of the Church. Smith, Young, Pratt, et al. created a cosmology in which evolution meant eternal progress, not the diversification of species from a common ancestor. In Mormonism Adam’s entry into physical existence was a “special creation” in a sense totally different from contemporary literalist theology. These kinds of theological questions have to be addressed. Can an LDS evolutionist work within the framework the early prophets established?

    While that may be the elephant in the room, the gorilla sitting next to it is the fact that the details of this cosmology are in and of themselves confusing and often contradictory. We are met with near-silence or glossing from modern leadership. There are very deeply held foundational beliefs (I won’t call them traditional because they are actually quite radical) among many in the church, and yet there is also an air of hush and secrecy. Simultaneously we outwardly eschew the speculative, and internally base our reasoning precisely on those same speculations. How can we face the “risks of reinterpreting our deepest understandings” when we aren’t sure as a group what those even are? How does a scientifically informed faithful Latter-day Saint readdress the unaddressable?

    I look forward to reading your upcoming post(s)!

  5. SteveP says:

    These are great questions raedyohed. I’ve tried to take a stab at these in my Dialogue article, and my SMPT article (which I hope will be appearing in BCC papers soon). However, as you point out this can be a stumbling block, but they needn’t be. Part of the problem is that literalist reading creations are actually dragging the scientific way of knowing back into their religion. As Elder Scott points out, each is a separate way of knowing.

    Literalists, especially LDS literalists, are applying scientific questions into their religion. Like, ‘Where does Adam’s body come from? How does evolution explain that?” this question exposes a strong discomfort with a universe where there maybe unanswerable questions. It, in fact, turns things on its head and becomes a kind of scientism, the view that all questions are scientifically answerable. So it looks for scientific truth in the scriptures, and tries to read these texts as if they pointed to how the world works. As if, say, quantum mechanics, must somehow be embedded in our treasured scriptures.

    This is a fundamental misreading. The scriptures point inward, I believe and establish communities of relationship: Relationship with others and with God. They open the ways in which we should view ourselves as his children. They answer questions about why we find ourselves in the wondrous universe we are in and who is responsible for its presence.

    Literalisms actually point in the wrong direction. They are the ones who poison the meaning by their attempts to embed scientific questions of ‘how’ in works provided for deeper and more important questions. Like a child using a family bible as a footstool to reach the sink. Much is missed in literalism’s misuse.

    The risk comes in setting aside the scriptures as a footstool and looking at them as they were intended: to reveal the creator, not as a method-manual on His ways of doing things. This is a radical readjustment because we once lived in a world where explanations of creationism had no alternative. Religion and science were the same way of knowing because no science in its mature form existed. We take the risk in setting aside these naiveties for a more mature faith in which both science and religion flourish.

  6. raedyohed says:

    @ SteveP
    “Like a child using a family bible as a footstool to reach the sink. Much is missed in literalism’s misuse.”

    Well said.

    It’s funny you mention the “Where does Adam’s body come from? How does evolution explain that?” line of questioning. I’m in that right now over at mormonsandscience with Rob Osborn and Dave C. To me it’s kind of like asking why evolution doesn’t explain gravity, but oh well.

    I agree that what you’re talking about here is a radical adjustment. I have some first hand experience with that. Think of reading TPJS for the first time, or going to the temple for the first time. It’s not comfortable or easy. It’s taxing on an emotional and intellectual level. I would express it in terms of having to overturn things which you once thought to be patently obvious and even central to your gospel world-view and accept new ideas into your system of thinking. I say “assumptions” you say “naiveties,” I say poe-tay-toe, you say poe-tah-toe!

    What gets me thinking though is that it seems like the early saints had to go through this kind of cosmological reconfiguration on almost a daily basis. Joseph, and later Brigham (not to mention disputes between Brigham and Parley or among others!) seemed to be keeping them so much on their toes I don’t know how they knew what to believe. We are so focused on standardizing our cosmology so we can establish the global church more quickly and efficiently, that I wonder if this era has passed and what we’ve got is what we’ve got.

  7. raedyohed says:

    Faster than you can say jack-rabbit, or faster than I can submit a comment, either/or. Thanks for keeping your site tidy.

  8. SteveP says:

    Yeah, I caught him. I hate spammers.

    That’s a great point. We ask people to rethink everything they believe in order to become LDS, but so many LDS literalists won’t openly rethink the gullies they’ve entrenched themselves in.

  9. whiteshirtandtie says:

    Acceptance of evolution may actually be an example of conceptual change. That is, an instance of cognitive development where a new concept arises that can not be explained by simply enriching the previously held concept. The new concept is qualitatively different from the old one, a requirement for conceptual change being that the newly formed concept is incommensurable with the previously held one. The history of science and human cognitive development has many examples. Kepler’s view of the solar system, for example, went from one where the planets traveled in perfect circles at uniform speed to elliptical patterns at non-uniform speeds caused by the Sun. These developments are slow and are hard-won. It is no wonder then, that without investing some serious thought, most fail to accept or even understand evolution.

    One question:
    Preface: Forget biblical literalism. We can also agree that science and religion have different ways of knowing.

    What about modern revelation’s role in the sluggish acceptance of evolution? Modern revelation is not ancient scripture where cultural context has been largely lost or meaning can misinterpreted. I am specifically talking about those with authority to declare doctrine speaking over the pulpit against evolution.

  10. SteveP says:

    Thanks whiteshirtandtie. Interesting questions.

    I actually disagree here. Couching it in terms of Kuhnian incommensurability doesn’t work, because that is about scientific theories. And is the kind of misreading I’m talking about. You are already, just in asking the question, considering the scriptural account as another scientific theory, which should be commensurable or incommensurable with science. I don’t think that’s right. These have completely different domains and aren’t talking about the same thing. It’s like talking about chemistry being commensurable with poetry.

    You ask why modern revelation has not talked about evolution, but you do not ask why modern revelation has not talked about the molecular orbital theory of Organic Chemistry. Why not? As far as I know revelation has been concerned with other things, notably salvation, why do you suddenly start expecting it to answer questions that otherwise we discover through science?

  11. SteveP says:

    “those with authority to declare doctrine speaking over the pulpit against evolution”

    There is a conflation here. Having the authority to declare doctrine, and actually doing so, are two different things. The church has no position on evolution. They have made this clear. People can play ‘my general authority can beat up your general authority’ all they want, but there is a clear demarcation between what is declared doctrine and what someone says over a pulpit or prints in a book.

  12. whiteshirtandtie says:

    RE: incommensurable
    I’m making no claims about what is right or wrong. I’m looking at this as a cognitive scientist interested in how concepts are formed. The cognitive development literature only takes scientific theories as one type of conceptual change. There are many other examples of conceptual change that happen over cognitive development that have nothing to do with scientific theories. I’m talking about personal conceptual change more broadly. I’m arguing that a traditional/conservative creationist concept of how humans came to exist is incommensurable with an evolutionary account on the cognitive level (meaning, you can’t come to understand evolution by building on your concept of the creation). Instead, you have to form a new concept of evolution. Once this development happens, then you are free to see how they might or might not fit together, be different modes of explanation, etc.

  13. whiteshirtandtie says:

    “…there is a clear demarcation between what is declared doctrine and what someone says over a pulpit or prints in a book.”

    I believe there is and I’m glad to see that you do too. Many, however, do not see such a distinction. In practice, things said in popular books, talks, and church magazines by church leaders are extremely influential to the practice and collective thought of mainstream Mormonism and Mormon culture even if me and you can agree that is in not “official church doctrine”. In other words, it is nice for you and me who like to think about these things; it doesn’t matter much (the distinction) to your average Mormon.

    This is probably a longer discussion though; sorry to take the discussion off track a bit.

  14. SteveP says:

    Thanks for the clarification whiteshirtandtie! Yes, I was not understanding you. I get argued with so much I tend toward the defensive. I think we may agree on most points.

  15. Brad says:


    While you say that people play ‘my general authority can beat up your general authority’ when it comes to organic evolution, my study of this subject, does not show that this is the case. It is true that the church has no official position on this subject (which makes sense since it not pertinent to the mission of the church). But I think it is misleading to intimate that there is a debate going on in the higher echelons of church leadership on this subject. In fact, most of the writings and talks that I have read on this subject by general authorities past and present, have predominately been against Darwinian evolution being the source of life upon the earth. So while the church may not take an official position, I believe the private position of most general authorities who have an opinion on the subject, would hold that life was placed upon the earth by a loving Heavenly Father and did not evolve from some primordial soup.

    While I have not been exhaustive in my research, I have not yet come across any quotes or writings of general authorities in favor of Darwinian evolution being the source of life upon the earth. If you could give me a few examples, I would appreciate it.

  16. Dusty R. says:

    >>While I have not been exhaustive in my research, I have not yet come across any quotes or writings of general authorities in favor of Darwinian evolution being the source of life upon the earth. If you could give me a few examples, I would appreciate it.

    Darwinism doesn’t postulate that it was “the source of life upon the earth”. Rather, it postulates that it is one single mechanism of speciation (i.e. species already in existence giving rises to multiple lineages that diverge over time). There are several mechanisms of evolution besides Darwinian. Sexual selection, Genetic drift, to name a couple.

    But if you mean whether there have been General Authorities who have accepted the version of organic evolution of their day, then yes, there have been several. I say, version of org. evo., because science is a self-correcting process. It’s like starting with a very small tv antenna and gradually getting bigger and better antennas over the years — the picture just keeps getting clearer, and the noise keeps getting less significant.

    BH Roberts and James E Talmage both held views that evolution accounted for the diversity of life on earth – past and present. There have been others, as well. Of course, Elder Talmage was a geologist, and I think very few GEs have been scientists, by profession, especially any sort of natural science. I do not believe that revelation falls into anyone’s lap without them having ardently studied the subject out in their minds beforehand. And I don’t see why a scientific question would be answered via prayer. They are different ways of seeking knowledge. Vaccines did not come about by spiritual revelation — they came about by testing — the same goes for all other legit theories I know of. It comes to me as no surprise that many of the general authorities, when pressed to give an opinion of choosing between (not a necessary action, IMO) scientists behind the “Scopes Monkey Trials” of 1925 and the good old boy “Christian” notion that “I didn’t come from no gawl dern monkey!” — that the majority probably thought that choosing the “Bible over monkey science” was a no brainer. Yeah, if those were the only two choices as laid out by the media of the day, and if I hadn’t made a serious, long, tedious study of the subject, I’d have probably sided with the creationists too.

    If the church has no official stance, then shouldn’t that be enough? The church doesn’t have an “unofficial” position either. To me, this means that the personal opinions of general authorities have been just that…personal opinions. I’m glad the BYU packet admonishes us to leave the science to scientists.

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