The Relatedness of Living Things

by Bertrand F. Harrison
The Instructor,
July 1965, pp. 272 - 276
This article
has been read and approved for publication
by the editors of
The Instructor.
[The editor was President David O. McKay.]

It is presented not as Church doctrine
but as a statement worthy of serious study,
written by a faithful Latter-day Saint
who speaks as a scholar in his field.

Len Scott, dairyman extraordinary, approached the back of his lawn and called across the hedge to his professor friend,

"Hi neighbor. Got all your biological specimens under control?"

"All but my neighbors and the starlings," Brother Nielson returned. "Come on over and sit awhile."

"Thanks, I'd like to. It's a couple of hours yet before sacrament meeting."

"By the way, congratulations on winning the award for the best Holstein herd in the county. Those must be pretty fancy cows of yours."

"They certainly are. Why last year one of my cows produced an average of eight gallons of milk a day."

"That sounds like an unbelievable amount of milk for one cow."

"Well, today's cows produce much more than cows did just a few years back. Last year in this country 16,000,000 cows produced more milk than 27,000,000 cows produced just 30 years ago."

"What did you do, start feeding them milkweeds for hay?"

"Certainly good feed helps, but this record was made possible by our selective breeding program. For years we dairymen have been culling out the scrubs and selecting the top producers for breeding stock."

"You dairymen have been able to accomplish virtually a miracle through your selective breeding program. Do you think that God has the power to use the same technique of selection that you dairymen use?"

"What do you mean? Of course God has this power."

"Well, last week when we were discussing the creation of the world you said that life on earth could not have come about by evolution. We both agree on the one really essential aspect, that God created all living things; but when you say that He could not do so by an evolutionary process, are you not in effect saying that God could not do with the beasts and the lilies of the field what man can do with cows and dogs or wheat and roses?"

"I didn't say He couldn't; I just said He didn't. Besides, what has the development of a strain of cows got to do with evolution?"

"The term 'evolution' means 'orderly change, unrolling or development.' The development of a good strain of Holsteins from the scrubby cows of the past is an example of evolution - an evolution directed and controlled by man."

"Yes, but the man who developed today's Holstein cows started with "cows"! Everyone recognizes that strains within species differ widely from one another, such as in the case of dogs; but variations occur only within species - species never change."

"Well, actually,variations do occur across species lines just as they do within a species, as I could easily show you. But first answer me this: if God did not create the fish of the sea, the beasts of the fields, the fowls of the air and all manner of herbs, grasses, and trees by an evolutionary process, then how did He do it?"

"Well, I suppose He created each kind of organism by some kind of a 'special creation' at the time He created the world, just like it says in Genesis."

"Let me remind you that it doesn't specifically say that in Genesis; that is your interpretation of the account of the creation. I believe in the Biblical account of creation, but I don't agree with your interpretation of it.

Suppose we look at some of the implications of your 'special creation' idea and of the evolution idea, and then consider these implications in the light of some observed facts. You may not agree with the most commonly accepted interpretations of these facts, but a knowledge of them will help you decide more wisely for yourself.

"If all forms of life were created by a 'special creation,' as you say, then it must follow that all kinds of plants and animals alive today were created originally in their present form and were not developed more recently. It also follows that all species have remained distinct with more or less sharply defined differences from the beginning until the present. Do you agree that these generalizations are inherent in the concept of special creation?"

"Yes, I suppose they are"

How Did Life Begin?

"By contrast, life may have begun as one or a number of simple, one-celled organisms. These organisms developed the ability to duplicate themselves by some process so the products were similar to, but not necessarily identical with, the parent cells. Thus, there would be slight variations among the offspring.

It seems quite logical that those individuals which were best adapted to their environment would be the ones most likely to survive; and, if they lived long enough to reproduce, they would be the ones which would leave offspring.

On the other hand, those that were poorly adapted to the environment, the scrubs as you call them, would be least likely to survive; and, if they did not reproduce, their kind would not be perpetuated. The problem of survival for all individuals, but especially for the scrubs, would become increasingly acute as the numbers of organisms became more and more numerous.

There Are Many Different Environments

"Inasmuch as physical conditions differ widely from place to place, there were, and are, many different environments; for example, some hot, some cold, some wet or dry, bright or shady. Each different environment would favor organisms with different adaptations so the organisms in one environment would become less and less like their fellows in a different environment, and thus the tree of life would branch out.

Should the organisms in various habitats become sufficiently different, they could no longer be considered the same species. The development of a new species, however, would require considerable time. Each 'new year's' model would be very much like the last, but over a considerable period of time a strain might differ greatly from the original model. There might even be some of the old models still around."

"Then, Brother Nielson, you are suggesting there are still 'Model T' kinds of plants and animals?"

"Yes, but most of the 'Model T's have been retired for 'T-birds' and 'VW's. And, as I see it, today's species of plants and animals came into being by a process not unlike the way our present styles of cars came about, by a process of trial and testing, discarding the unfit, saving the best for each purpose, and going on from there with further improvements; in short, they evolved. And if this is so, the lines of descent resemble a tree, a great 'tree of life.'

The original primitive organisms would constitute the trunk and from this trunk would diverge many branches. But unlike real trees, the branches would not all be alike; rather, each branch would be different. Simple forms would give rise to more complex forms; primitive kinds would give rise to more advanced forms. Often the primitive kinds would die out and be replaced by the more 'progressive' ones, but if the primitive kinds were well enough adapted to survive and reproduce, they too might persist."

A Giant Genealogical Pedigree Chart

"It sounds to me like a giant genealogical pedigree chart."

"Yes, that's exactly what it is."

"Why don't we do some really old genealogical research and take a look at the record of the past. We can start with the story in the rocks - the 'dust of the earth,' if I might use a quote. It is easily observed that these layers have been twisted, folded, bent, and cracked; but in the main the oldest ones are at the bottom, and the youngest are on top.

As you know, the rocks often contain fossil remains of past forms of life. Sometimes the preservation has been poor and the remains are very fragmentary, but sometimes the organisms have been so well preserved that the very cells of the organism and structures within the cells can be discerned in detail. The older layers of rock contain fossils which are the remains of primitive forms of life.

Most of these are now extinct and occur no place on earth that we know of. For example, our oldest coalbeds contain fossils of hundreds of species of insects, fish, reptiles, ferns, and trees that do not exist today.

"On the other hand, fossil evidence of the more advanced animals and plants, which we have today, is completely missing from these older strata. But there are abundant fossils of these organisms in the younger, more recent, layers.

Today there are around 8,000 known species of mammals, the group of animals to which man belongs; but no fossils of any true mammals have been found until relatively late in the geologic timetable.

"Similarly, there are about 200,000 species of flowering plants known today. No fossil remains of these plants are known from the older layers of rock. They do not appear on the scene until about the same time as the mammals, and fossils of these plants are abundant in the newer strata of rock.

Progression of Species

"As for species remaining distinct back to the beginning, there are many examples of groups of species that merge gradually into each other, making it very difficult to draw lines of demarcation between the various kinds. Some examples of this condition are found in the brome grasses, wheat grasses, oak trees, sparrows and lampreys.

"It is obvious that the different species of sparrows are closely related to each other, and most oak trees seem related to other oaks; but isn't it rather ridiculous to claim that sparrows are related to oak trees and that rabbits are related to trout and that they are both related to grasses?"

"Well, the examples you mention are pretty far apart; but would you really expect the more remote branches of this great tree of life to be alike? Let's take a look at some examples closer to the main trunk. Here one could expect to find creatures that are intermediate between the major branches and thus provide a kind of link between them. Now to illustrate what I mean, would you tell me the differences between a plant and an animal?"

Plants and Animals Defined

"Sure, that's easy enough. Plants are anchored in one place, and they are green and make their own food. Animals move around; they are not green, and they depend on plants or other animals for their food."

"All right, now let's see if these distinctions are always reliable. Let me tell you about an organism I have in mind - no, I'll tell you about its whole family; it's the Volvox family. The simplest member of the family is a pear-shaped, single-celled organism. It has whiplike hairs that enable it to swim around in water; hence, on that basis it should be an animal. But it also has chlorophyll and makes its own food and by this token should be a plant. It has a larger cousin made up of four similar cells joined together in a flat plate, and a still larger cousin with sixteen similar cells packed together like pomegranate seeds in a solid sphere. A still more advanced species has thirty-two cells comprising a hollow sphere, and finally there is Volvox, with hundreds of cells making up a large hollow sphere. All of these organisms swim around in water in all stages, and they all possess chlorophyll and manufacture their own food. Botanists consider them plants, but zoologists regard them as animals."

"Well, which are they?"

"Who is to say? They fit at the bottom of the trunk before it branched to form two separate kingdoms. And as primitive as these organisms are, they are by no means the most primitive forms of life. The blue-green algae and bacteria are much more simple and more primitive. Still simpler than these are the viruses which seem to be on the border between the living and the non-living. They have some traits of living organisms such as a definite form and a mechanism for getting themselves reproduced. But not all biologists are ready to regard them fully as living.

Cell Structures Are Similar

"It's easy to see apparent relationships in these lower forms of life. But let's get back to relationships between sparrows and oaks and rabbits and fish and grasses. They certainly are different in outward appearance. Feathers and fins and fur and foliage are a long way apart; but what would we find if we looked inside, at the basic unit of life, the cells. Each of these, and all other living organisms are composed of cells, you know.

"An organism might be composed of a single cell, or of several billion cells. Now, while the most primitive organisms have no well-organized, distinct cell structures, all the higher organisms, both plants and animals, have cells with similar netlike organizations of the life substances; they have similar nuclei, chromosomes, mitochondria, and so on.

"The same kind of similarity we observe in the structure of plant and animal cells is also seen in their comparative physiology. Let me cite just two examples that illustrate the close relationship of living things. All living cells require a continuous supply of energy to carry on their various life processes. This energy is ultimately stored in the cells as sugars and starch. The energy of these foods is released by the process of respiration. Within each cell, this process involves some twenty or thirty distinct steps which release the energy in small, 'bite-size' amounts. Each step is controlled by a complex regulator called an enzyme. The process of respiration seems to follow the same pattern in birds and trees and people and grass and so on, endlessly, even to the point of involving the same enzymes.

The Mechanism of Inheritance

"Still more amazing facts have been revealed recently [1950's] by modern biologists and biochemists in their studies of the mechanism of inheritance. DNA is comprised of four different organic compounds. The arrangement and sequence of these differs from gene to gene and from species to species; but the transmission of hereditary traits by means of DNA is characteristic of all advanced plants such as grasses and trees and of animals such as rabbits and people, and a similar mechanism is found in microorganisms like bacteria, and even in viruses!"

"But does this prove that all plants and animals are related?"

Nothing Proven Conclusively

"I think it proves nothing conclusively, but these facts and countless others, reveal a basic unity in all living things no matter how diverse they are in outward appearances. To me, this indicates a magnificent master plan of creation, of such magnitude that it fills me with awe and inspiration."

"Well, this has been quite a discussion; and to think it all started with an innocent remark about my herd of Holsteins. We sure have strayed a long way from cows."

"No, we haven't, not really. You see, Charles Darwin was strongly impressed by the fact that men have been able to make great improvements in domestic plants and animals by selective breeding; this was one of the things that led to his theory of evolution. But he couldn't see how nature selected among wild things as did man among his domestic livestock.

Then he learned of the observations of the Reverend Thomas Malthus, that populations tend to increase faster than does their food supply. These populations thereby outrun their available food. Darwin recognized a parallel situation in nature. He knew that all plants and animals have a tendency to produce more offspring than will survive. For example, if a single Russian thistle were to produce only 50 seeds, and if these should all grow and produce only 50 seeds each, and if these in turn should grow and produce 50 seeds, and this continued year after year, there would be 78,125,000,000 Russian thistles in just seven years.

Since all forms of life tend to produce more offspring than can possibly survive, which ones are most likely to survive? Darwin reasoned that those which were best adapted to their particular environment would live and reproduce, thereby leaving progeny similar to themselves. Here then was a mechanism for the selection of the favored races that would survive. Darwin termed it 'natural selection,' in contrast to the 'artificial selection' practiced by man in improving domestic plants and animals."

Where Knowledge Ends, Faith Takes Over

"What you say, and the way you put it, seems logical. It might even be true that plants and animals in general have come about through evolutionary processes, but I can't accept the idea that man arose by such a process."

"And why can't you, Brother Scott?"

"Because I can't understand how to reconcile an evolutionary origin of man and the Biblical story of Adam."

"I don't understand it, either; neither do I really understand the hereafter nor the preexistence. But where knowledge ends, faith must take over. Still I see no great problem; there are so many explanations. For example, evolution would account only for man's physical body; the spirit, which is of divine origin and nature, very dramatically sets him apart from the other animals. Whichever way this came about, I am willing to wait for some future time to learn the details."

"You scientists pride yourselves in being able to wait for answers, but I don't have that much patience - I'd like to know now."

God, The Master Architect

"I would, too; but whatever the details are, I believe that God did indeed create man and all other living things by an evolutionary process.

I also believe that a God who could devise a pattern of creation that provides the means for plants and animals to adapt to all the myriad environmental niches of a changing world, a pattern that carries within it the necessity of continual improvement, would have to be a far superior Being to one who only creates a large number of unrelated fixed species, each of which might last only until things became unfavorable for them and then pass out of existence like a dinosaur.

I believe also that an understanding of the infinite complexity of living organisms, and of the evolutionary processes by which they have achieved such delicate organization and such balance with their environment, leads one to a greater sense of wonder and reverence for the Master Planner."

"Well, Brother Nielson, you have given me some interesting ideas to think about, but don't think you've convinced me that evolution is true - I'm not ready to accept that!"

"Do you think I expected you to abandon the convictions of a lifetime as the result of an hour's discussion? Each of us must interpret life in the light of his own information and background. One must have a broad understanding of biology to be competent to judge whether evolution is true or not. I have been studying biology for a quarter of a century - how could I expect you to see things as I see them, anymore than you could expect me to suddenly be an expert in the dairy industry?"

"I guess I misunderstood. I thought you were trying to convert me to the idea of evolution."

"I never try to convert anyone to evolution, but I do believe in helping people to understand enough to judge for themselves. What I was trying to do was to convince you that one can believe in evolution and still believe in the Gospel. I believe the Gospel embraces all truth; then if evolution is true, it is part of the Gospel."

"Thanks, Brother Nielson. This has been a rewarding discussion. I think I understand enough to see that there is a place in the Church for both of us."

Dr. Harrison was a professor of botany at Brigham Young University.
He won his B.S. and M.S. degrees from BYU in 1930 and 1931;
his Ph.D. was granted by the University of Chicago in 1937.
He was a member of the Utah Academy of Science,
and the Sunday School General Board.

(edited by David Van Alstyne)
Home / For Latter - day Saints