Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Has DNA Disproven the Book of Mormon?

"The normal way of dealing with the Book of Mormon
'scientifically' has been first to attribute to the Book of
Mormon something it did not say, and then to refute the
claim by scientific statements that have not been proven."- Hugh Nibley

The Book of Mormon has come under attack by critics on a number of levels. The most recent attack on the authenticity of the Book of Mormon has been under the guise of "science" in the form of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) testing on Native American populations. These attacks, spearheaded by former Mormons Thomas W. Murphy (an anthropologist who has been heralded by many as the Mormon Galileo) and Simon Southerton (a plant biologist) essentially run as following:
  1. The Book of Mormon claims that all Native Americans are descendants of a Middle Eastern Semite named Lehi.
  2. Genetic testing on Native American populations has shown that Indians are not of Middle Eastern descent, but from Asia.
  3. Thus, this proves that the Book of Mormon is not a true history.
  4. Ergo, this disproves any claim by Joseph Smith to have translated ancient records from real ancient Americans.
These attacks on the Book of Mormon stem from a poor understanding of the claims of the Book of Mormon and an even poorer understanding of genetic science in relationship to the history of ancient populations. In effect, DNA attacks on the Book of Mormon are attacking a straw man that critics have set up against the Book of Mormon. As as been shown again and again by Latter-day Saint scientists, historians and scholars, the Book of Mormon simply does not present a hypothesis that can be tested by DNA. Thus, the DNA evidence does not hurt the Book of Mormon itself, but simply erroneous interpretations of the text of the Book of Mormon.

Take the first part of the argument. Critics claim that the Book of Mormon says that all Native Americans are descendants of Lehi. However, this is poor reading of the text. The Book of Mormon is, as has been shown by Dr. John Sorenson, a linear history, or, in other words, a history that selectively treats few populations. It is not describing the entire history of America in ancient times, but rather select populations.

Furthermore, evidence from the text seems to indicate that when Lehi and his family landed in Mesoamerica (the most likely spot where the events of the Book of Mormon occurred) they encountered and intermingled with native populations that were already present in America. Therefore, if Nephi and his family began intermarrying and mingling with native populations, then their genetic material would be nearly impossible to detect today. This phenomenon is called a population bottleneck. In other words, a genetic drift away from Lehi's genetic structure would take place amongst his descendants as their DNA began to mutate and adapt to the already overwhelming genetic presence of the native population. This bottleneck effect is also perpetuated by massive killings of selected populations that further wipe out whatever genetic material may have been left in the alien population. This is exactly the case with the Nephites, who were, en mass, wiped out (DNA and all) by the thousands.

Another consideration is what is called the founder effect. According to Wikipedia, founder effect is "the loss of genetic variation when a new colony is established by a very small number of individuals from a larger population." (See here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Founder_effect)

In other words, as is attested in the Book of Mormon, when a small number of individuals marries and intermingles into a larger population, the genetic signal of the smaller group can become lost or overpowered by the already prevalent genetic makeup of the larger population that the smaller population is being assimilated into. (Interestingly enough, Murphy admitted this himself in his essay critical of the Book of Mormon based on DNA evidence. See "Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy and Genetics," in American Apocrypha: Essays on the Book of Mormon, ed. Dan Vogel and Brent Lee Metcalfe (Salt Lake City: Signature, 2002), 53)

These and other reasons are important in taking to consideration if one is going to pronounce gloom and doom upon the Book of Mormon based on DNA. Simply put, the Book of Mormon does not present a scenario that can be tested by DNA.

Nevertheless, this has not stopped people (and entire organizations) from heralding this as the final nail in the coffin for the Book of Mormon. Much like Charles Larson, who proclaimed that it was "all over!" based on the controversy surrounding the Book of Abraham, so critics have announced that at last the Book of Mormon has been disproven by science.

One such organization, Living Hope Ministry (LHM), has produced a DVD entitled DNA Vs. The Book of Mormon in which Joel Kramer, the producer of the DVD and the head of LHM, has gleefully announced that the false prophet Joseph Smith and his bogus Book of Mormon has been proven to be a fraud. At the end of his DVD, he urges his watchers to accept fundamentalist Protestantism as the true Gospel and to leave Mormonism.

In DNA Vs. The Book of Mormon, Kramer presents that DNA evidence has proven that the Native Americans are from Asia and not the Middle East. This, he says, disproves the Book of Mormon. However, one thing that Kramer is careful not to tell his watchers is the fact that that very same DNA evidence is being used by secular scientists to bolster Darwin's theory of evolution, which is the polar opposite of the ideology of fundamentalist Evangelicalism. Furthermore, Kramer also omits the fact that the DNA used by scientists to link the Indians to Asian ancestry (the very DNA Kramer is proclaiming disproves the Book of Mormon) is believed to have been transmitted to the Americas from between 20,000 to 12,000 BCE. This is further at odds with the fundamentalist Evangelical view that Adam and Eve lived around 8,000-6,000 BCE.

Here is an apt cartoon illustrating this:

which cartoon is further explained here for the humor-impaired.

So we see a subtle double standard being employed by Evangelical critics of the Book of Mormon. On the one hand, they want to use DNA to disprove Mormonism. On the other hand, they refuse to apply the same standards (indeed, the very same DNA testing) they are subjecting the Mormons to towards their own paradigm. Considering this, one is forced to wonder just what Mr. Kramer's intentions are. Does he really want to proclaim the truth? Or is he simply trying to get a cheap shot off at the Mormons? In this case, I view the latter as more viable.

In conclusion, despite the popular ideas that the public holds about DNA testing, thanks largely in part to TV programs such as CSI, the Book of Mormon simply cannot be tested by DNA one way or another. It simply does not present a hypothesis that can be tested by DNA.

This has been but a brief overview on the issue of DNA and the Book of Mormon. There is much more that could be said about this issue. Therefore, the reader is advised to follow up on this issue by reading the following links.

Kevin Barney, A Brief Review of Murphy and Southerton's "Galileo Event.". A review of an article on DNA and the Book of Mormon that appeared in Anthropology News.

Cooper Johnson, "DNA and the Book of Mormon," (Redding, California: FAIR, March 2002) Some say that DNA research can disprove (or prove) The Book of Mormon. This article examines a presentation on the subject by Dr. Scott R. Woodward at the 2001 FAIR Conference.

Brant Gardner, "The Tempest in a Teapot: DNA Studies and the Book of Mormon," (Redding, California: FAIR, January 2003) A review of what DNA studies can and, more importantly, cannot tell us about the Book of Mormon.

Jeff Lindsay, Does DNA evidence refute the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon has come under heavy fire from critics in light of DNA evidence which is said to utterly refute claims of its historicity. These attacks typically rely on several faulty assumptions about the Book of Mormon and leave out important scientific details about the DNA evidence.

Brent Lee Shelton and Jonathan Marks, "Genetic Markers Not a Valid Test of Native Identity," (City Unknown: Council for Reponsible Genetics, 2002) While not directly citing DNA in relation to the Book of Mormon, this article provides an interesting viewpoint that indicates why DNA tests cannot provide conclusive proof of whether a person belongs to a specific ethnic group (such as Lamanites).

The FARMS Review, 2003. Volume 15, Number 2, pp. 25, 35, 91, 129, 165, 183. (PDF, 6.95 MB). Note that while not all of the essays in this edition of the FARMS Review do not deal with DNA, there a number of important essays on the subject contained therein.

Michael Whiting, "DNA and the Book of Mormon," (Provo, Utah: FARMS, January 2003) Published as a PDF and as a 45-minute video presentation concerning DNA and the Book of Mormon. An excellent resource that explains the problems in drawing definitive conclusions about the Book of Mormon based on DNA findings.

See also:

Part 1 - The Book of Mormon and New World DNA

Part 2 - The Book of Mormon and New World DNA

Part 3 - The Book of Mormon and New World DNA