Taking on the Book of Mormon and DNA Studies

Posted: February 3, 2014 in Adam Ford, Mormon Studies
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by Adam Ford 
Introduction: On January 31st the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints published a new Gospel Topics page on the official church website entitled “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies”.  For those unfamiliar with these articles, they are a series of brief essays on, as the website states,  “doctrinal subjects, history, and other information about people, places, teachings, and beliefs relating to the [LDS] Church and the [Mormon] gospel.”   We’re also told that these articles are vetted and approved by the church’s General Authorities prior to being published.* While traditionally these articles have shied away from taking apologetic stances on controversial issues, starting in December 2013 several articles have.  Here is Mormon author Adam Ford’s penetrating take on the most recent one. (the editors) 

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It is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”
Mormon Apostle Dallin H. Oaks

Well it certainly could prove the authenticity of the book. Just find Zarahemla with King Mosiah’s inscribed tomb. Or find evidence of a highly literate American civilization that lasted about 1000 years and worshiped Jesus Christ, including a verbatim account of the Sermon on the Mount which they taught to their children and grandchildren in peace and prosperity for over 200 years. It would be very easy to prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon via secular evidence if any secular evidence existed. Elder Oaks’ statement seems to admit that such secular evidence will never be found. I agree.

After hundreds of thousands of archeological digs in the Americas, from the Hudson Bay to Patagonia, from Bristol Bay to the Cape of Sao Roque there is not a single civilization that could be the Nephites. There was no literate civilization of millions of people who built major cities and had a developed written language including measurement system, currency system, legal system (with lawyers and judges), and a major proselytizing religion with a living scriptural tradition.

While we will certainly uncover a new ruin next year, a new grave, a new village or city even, it is inconceivable that in all our searching mankind has overlooked an overlooked entire civilization of the size and maturity of the Nephites.

The

The “DNA vs. The Book of Mormon” documentary which discusses the Book of Mormon DNA issues in detail.
(click to watch)

Secular evidence will never prove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, not because it couldn’t, but because it can’t. It didn’t happen.

Now the religious teachings are another story. Nothing would make me happier than to see Church leaders take seriously the teachings of King Benjamin in Mosiah chapter 4 or Moroni’s voice of warning set forth in Mormon chapter 8. I would like greater focus placed on the teachings of the book (in general), not less. I find the discussions of its historicity distract from its message.

The Book of Mormon is scripture. So is the book of Genesis. The world wasn’t created in 7 days and a flood never covered the entire earth. No guy named Lehi sailed with his family to the America’s and had half his kids cursed with a skin of blackness and no highly literate society spent 200 years studying and living and teaching the New Testament sermons of Jesus in the western hemisphere. Just like the vast majority of Mormons don’t have a problem appreciating Genesis while accepting it is nearly all fiction, the same should be true of the Book of Mormon. It is time for Mormonism to grow up and accept the reality of the situation.

Some of my greatest heros are fictional–Alyosha from the Brothers Karamazov, Hugo’s Jean Valjean, Steinbeck’s Tom Joad and Abraham and Joseph and Moses too. I have no problem adding Joseph Smith’s Alma the Younger and both Moronis to that illustrious list. No one should refuse to appreciate the Book of Mormon just because others believe the story literally happened–it would be like refusing to learn from Aslan of Narnia because some people believe there really are portal holes in the back of wardrobes into fantastic worlds of magic. Don’t reject the good because of other people’s mistaken beliefs.

Specifically about this DNA article:
1. Science is never done so reserve judgment.
This is true on its face, but inapplicable here. The fact that we don’t know everything doesn’t mean we don’t know some things. We know from the DNA that there wasn’t a population of millions of people in the Americas who came from Jerusalem in 600 BC. For sure. No question about it.

2. There were other migrations of populations from Asia.
Yes. Thanks for finally directly admitting it. My seminary teachers insisted that the “land bridge from Asia” theory was completely false and inspired by Satan to shake our faith. Really.

On this point, I lost all faith in any Church published book last year when I found that the book Articles of Faith by Apostle James E. Talmage had been significantly altered on this point sometime between the first printing and the 1989 edition that I had as part of my missionary library. Talmage was absolutely certain in 1901 that the Nephites and Lamanites filled the whole of North America from east coast to west coast. Pseudo-Talmage in 1989 only says that a traditional belief was that Nephites spread into some part of North America. The book contains no note/forward/appendix/introduction saying that significant passages had been completely rewritten. This is considered completely dishonest without question in the publishing industry. (I wrote a post about this a few months back with exact quotes and page numbers.)

3. There are some very few middle eastern DNA markers, and scientists don’t know when they were introduced.
Yes. This a factually true statement. But we do know that they were not introduced by a single group in 600 BC who came to number in the millions. Again, the Church uses a legitimate scientific uncertainty to suggest an uncertainty that doesn’t exist. No credible DNA scholar suggests that the trace amounts of middle eastern DNA found in native american populations could have been introduced as the Book of Mormon says they were introduced.

4. Scientists believe that small migrations probably happened from time to time.
Yes. It is almost certain that they did. But none of them created a highly educated and refined civilization numbering in the millions with highly advanced economic, legal, political, and religious structures. Citing a sole eskimo grave in Greenland hurts your argument, doesn’t support it.

5. The Founders Effect means that maybe we don’t find the DNA evidence because Lehi, Ishmael, Zoram and all the males among the Mulekites had male ancestors that didn’t come from the Middle East ala Perego’s long lost male ancestor from East Asia.

LdS Molecular Biologist Ugo A. Perego, PhD is cited extensively in the Gospel Topics article

LDS Molecular Biologist Ugo A. Perego, PhD is cited extensively in the Gospel Topics article

Not very likely. We are talking about at least a dozen men from Jerusalem here, some of them from the royal family. What are the odds that all of them, or even most of them, had a male founder with a different haplogroup than modern descendants from those Jerusalem people who stayed behind. This is silly.

Perego’s DNA shows he is European with a distant male ancestor from East Asia. The DNA of modern Native Americans show they are Native Americans with distant East Asian ancestors. Modern Jews have DNA different than either Perego or modern Native Americans.

So, yes, we don’t know the Founders DNA for the Nephite/Mulekite men with certainty because we haven’t found their graves. But for this argument to have any validity, we have to assume they were all, nor nearly all, from male lines that differed from the male lines of the Hebrews that stayed behind. This is really reaching for straws.

6. A population bottleneck could have eliminated the Hebrew DNA.
Yes it could have. But the scriptural record they say is historical doesn’t record such an event. In fact the Lamanites are so numerous they cover the land at the death of Moroni.

The massive deaths in the 15th Century just before and after European contact among native populations might have bottlenecked out Hebrew DNA evidence. But hundreds of genetic samples have been taken that pre-date the 15th Century population crash have been found and evaluated. They do not significantly alter the DNA picture we get from the living DNA. And none of them have come back Hebrew.

The illustration of population bottleneck from the Gospel Topics article. The caption states:

The Illustration of population bottleneck from the Gospel Topics article. The caption states: “Due to a dramatic reduction in population, some genetic profiles (represented here by the yellow, orange, green, and purple circles), are lost. Subsequent generations inherit only the DNA of the survivors.”

7. Genetic drift could have hidden any trace of Hebrew DNA.
The studies I have read say that the population with a dissapeared DNA trail must be very small for genetic drift to take it out. Notice the wording of the article: “When a small population mixes with a large one, combinations of autosomal markers typical of the smaller group become rapidly overwhelmed or swamped by those of the larger. The smaller group’s markers soon become rare in the combined population and may go extinct due to the effects of genetic drift and bottlenecks as described above.” They never say how small the population has to be. According to the scientists, the population has to be smaller than it ever was for the Nephites/Lamanites/Mulekites. There were millions of Nephites/Lamanites/Mulekites spread out over thousands of miles. Genetic drift would have taken over a million years to wipe them out of the DNA record. This isn’t a few dozen marbles in a jar we are talking about.

drift[1]

The illustration of genetic drift using colored marbles from the Gospel Topics article

Conclusion:
There are ambiguities in the DNA analysis. The ambiguities do not rise to the level where the Book of Mormon story is plausible as a history. No non-LDS DNA scientist is going to look at the data and conclude that the historicity of the book is likely. At best they will say it is difficult to prove the negative and by bad luck every male child of the Hebrew line might have died at childbirth in some generation and because they can’t prove this tragedy didn’t happen it is possible. But they won’t be joining the Church on that chance.

Elder Oaks’ fear that secular evidence will never prove the Book of Mormon is well founded. His hope that secular evidence will never disprove the book’s historicity is looking increasingly shaky every year as more and more data come in.

It will be nice when we finally move on from the endless debates about historical veracity and appreciate the beauty in the teachings, just like we do with the Bible. A hundred years ago you would be in very serious trouble if you were to try to say out loud in Mormondom that the Book of Genesis was fictional. Now you would be in the majority of educated Mormons, including the Brethren (although they would prefer the term “metaphorical” to “fictional”). Hopefully it doesn’t take us another hundred years to get to that point with the Book of Mormon.

National Geographic Maps, Atlas of the Human Journey

National Geographic Maps: “Atlas of the Human Journey” which is based on the findings of the Genographic Project

About the Author:
Adam Ford is an attorney practicing law in New York and Utah. He is married with six children: Sariah, Hannah, Rachel, Willard, Heber, and Parley.

NOTES:
* In 2013 LDS Church historian Steven E. Snow verified that these articles have been vetted and approved by church leaders when he stated:

“Most who study our history well understand the context to these matters as far as time and place, but some members of the church, many really, are surprised by some of the things they learn in our history and we want them to be able go to a place where they can read accurate information and be able to seek to understand those historical chapters in the context of time and place and understand that those answers have been approved by the presiding brethren of the church. I think that will give many of our members confidence that they can rely on these answers.”
— Steven E. Snow, Church Historian, Understanding of Events in Church History “What about historical questions?” (video); https://www.lds.org/topics?lang=eng#media=11373505780672488714-eng

Comments
  1. Travis Gower says:

    Nice post. Two things: I think the reluctance to acknowledge that the Book of Mormon is not historical might stem from how freely past prophets have taught the book’s historicity. Even “Jesus Christ,” in the D&C, refers to actual peoples as Lamanites. In my opinion, this new church essay already contradicts those past teachings, but… I guess they don’t want to “go all the way” to validate the idea that all the past prophets were so woefully wrong about unique and foundational LDS teachings.

    Also: Do the “vast majority” of Mormons really not believe in the historicity of Genesis? Maybe not a seven-day creation, but certainly Adan & Eve and The Flood. If nothing else, I’m not sure most of them really think about it.

    Like

    • Excellent points Travis. Some of them mirror a deconstructive post that Thomas Kimball put on his Facebook page that said:

      “Another bold essay provided by the LDS Church, and posted on LDS.org. More major concessions to scholars. Acknowledging that Native Americans have in affect zero genetic ties to the middle-east and thus conceding that there is no way to link any first Americans as descendants of the scriptural Lehi is very significant.

      Every Mormon prophet to date has declared that Native Americans are the descendants of Lehi. This essay puts an interesting wrinkle into our history.

      Scholars of Mormonism, have been discussing this topic for over a decade. The interesting battle hasn’t been between the apologists and critics, but the truly heated and bitter battle has taken place between the apologists themselves.

      The science presented in the article is unfortunately outdated, maybe by as much as 20 years. Simon Southerton author of “Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA and the Mormon Church” has been offered updates to the scientific advancements over the years and has explained the technology that has developed since his book was published and how it would affect this particular discussion. As an example, one of the many problems facing this article is that the amount of Mitochondrial DNA that would have been introduced to the Americas as described in the Book of Mormon would be very difficult to swamp out. This type of DNA passes from mother to daughter, spelling unchanged. With a mutation rate of this type of DNA being once every ten thousand years there would literally be no change to the spelling in the DNA. The orthodox narrative of a historical Book of Mormon falls safely within that time-frame.

      Since the 1990’s type understanding of DNA described in the article, geneticists have mapped the human genome and last I heard from Southerton, population geneticists were utilizing the use of SNPs which would further significantly eliminate the chance of “swamping” a Book of Mormon type of DNA introduction, even with the post-Columbian bottleneck. We should consider that there have been DNA samples of remains of pre-Columbian bottleneck natives and to my knowledge, there have been no inconsistencies in these cases.

      It would be important to remember that the Book of Mormon represents itself as a story of Israelites coming to an empty land preserved by God from all other nations, just for them. The Book of Mormon people are described as being fabulously successful in reproducing, the scriptures states that the Book of Mormon is specifically brought forth for the descendants of the people in the Book of Mormon. If this were to be true, no doubt there would be significant discoverable amounts of DNA.

      A few issues of fallout from the article:

      The essay indirectly calls into question the many revelations recorded by Joseph Smith that state that the Native Americans around his New England and Midwestern homes were the Lamanites who descend from the Book of Mormon (Take Joseph’s vision of Zelph for example).

      This essay has in-affect, abandoned the Polynesians from being descendants of the Lamanites as they not only have zero middle-eastern DNA but have zero DNA found in Native Americas. Our missionaries in these parts of the world continue to tell these good people that they are the descendants of Lehi. The same type of missionary approach also goes on with the South American Native Americans who missionaries still tell the locals that they are the descendants of Lehi. The authors of this essay should have anticipated this fallout. My heart goes out to our Mormon Native Americans and Polynesians whose self identity was officially just ripped from them.

      The article essentially supports the problematic limited geography theory by citing the theory’s proponents in the footnotes. My friends (Wayne May and Rod Meldrum) who advance more of a traditional view just took a big hit with this article. They were essentially called on the carpet for continuing to promote that North American Natives are broadly Lamanites. Too bad, I like those guys personally, they are just trying to defend the revelations of Joseph Smith.”

      Like

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