Daniel Fairbanks knows the exact day and place he was converted to Darwin's theory of evolution: Jan. 30, 1979, in Clayton White's vertebrate zoology class at Brigham Young University.
White convinced Fairbanks by laying out a compelling case for evolution as a powerful idea that best explains biological observations.
The moment transformed the recently returned LDS missionary, who had spent his childhood believing evolution was wrong even as he sketched bugs and other creatures that crawled out of a pond near his home.
"I went to talk with Professor White, who answered all my questions," says Fairbanks, associate dean of science and health at Utah Valley University in Orem. "He became an important example to me of a first-rate scientist and a faithful member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
Now Fairbanks believes with most biologists that evolution is the unifying theory in the field. And he is the same kind of mentor as White was to new generations of Mormon would-be scientists, helping them understand the importance of evolution without losing their faith. At BYU until last year, Fairbanks helped build one of the best evolutionary biology departments in the country, says fellow BYU professor Duane Jeffery. "I can't think of a time when we didn't teach evolution, the same way we would teach it at any other university."
As a bonus for students, Fairbanks often sculpts a bust of Charles Darwin while lecturing on evolution. It's a skill he learned from his grandfather, the renowned Mormon sculptor Avard Fairbanks.
Last year, Fairbanks published an acclaimed primer called Relics of Eden: The Powerful Evidence of Evolution in Human DNA . It has been hailed by scientists and religious figures alike.
"We are obligated to examine experimental data and interpret it in an objective way, without allowing nonscientific beliefs to influence our interpretations," Fairbanks says. "As more information comes along, we revise those interpretations."
But that is no reason to reject God or Mormon scriptures, which, he says, explain why God created the world, not how.
"You run into a problem if you try to interpret scriptures too literally. Where do you draw the line?" Fairbanks asks. "I just don't bother to draw the line. I look at the Bible as a guide on how to lead my life. I don't try to fit it within a particular historical framework."