"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
November 9, 2012
DNA and the Book of Mormon: Some Reminders
by Jeff Lindsay

In the past few years, DNA studies have been used to provide what may be the strongest and most convincing evidence so far against the authenticity of The Book of Mormon. But being the "strongest evidence so far" against The Book of Mormon is a relative thing, akin to selecting the best smelling skunk in your local forest. No matter which one smells best, relatively speaking, you still need to approach this beast with caution.

The DNA arguments, like many others against The Book of Mormon, can be extremely misleading. Like skunk spray, they can catch you by surprise, blind you, and leave you in a really foul condition.

It's time to point out the skunk and explain the danger, even though it presents itself as a simple black and white issue. Some of the seemingly persuasive DNA arguments are genuinely misleading, even, if I may use a harsh word, absurd — if one actually knows what The Book of Mormon teaches.

The typical DNA-based argument against the Book of Mormon runs like this:

1. The Book of Mormon teaches that all Native Americans are descended exclusively from Hebrews.

2. DNA studies of Native Americans show that their ancient ancestry is exclusively Asian, with no trace of Jewish ancestry.

3. Therefore, The Book of Mormon cannot be true. The case for it is simply destroyed.

Simple, black and white. But the argument reeks, as I discuss at some length in my LDSFAQ (Mormon Answers) page on DNA and The Book of Mormon. Most critically, though, is the absurdity of the first statement: "The Book of Mormon teaches that all Native Americans are descended exclusively from Hebrews." The Book of Mormon teaches no such thing.

In fact, a careful reading of it points to the existence of non-Hebrew lines even in the small territory encompassed by the book, and says nothing to rule out extensive non-Hebrew populations across the hemisphere. Blake Ostler offers incisive insight on this:

Any person who believes that The Book of Mormon is what it claims to be will also take seriously what The Book of Mormon itself claims with respect to its geography. For those who have taken the time to actually map out and look at the distances involved in The Book of Mormon, the assertion that The Book of Mormon claims to be a history of all inhabitants of ancient America is absurd on its face.

And even if the writers of The Book of Mormon made such a claim, clearly those involved in the record keeping (assuming these to be historical persons) could not possibly have known from their epistemic position that their assertion was true. They simply did not have the extensive geographical knowledge necessary to make such a claim. (Blake Ostler, “Assessing the Logical Structure of DNA Arguments against The Book of Mormon," Sunstone, Dec. 2004, pp. 70-72.)

My DNA page is supplemented with several appendices. In Appendix 1, “What The Book of Mormon Really Claims,” I show that LDS scholars long ago recognized that The Book of Mormon deals with a limited geography covering only a tiny fraction of the New World. It permits other migrations both before and after Lehi and his tiny boatload of people set foot in the New World in 600 B.C.

Now if twenty or so people step onto a hemisphere already populated with millions, what genetic evidence of that ancient group must we expect to find 2,000 years later? Even if large portions of their descendants had not been wiped out by war and disease, what would the mix of Native American DNA today look like if those ancient newcomers were a tiny drop in a vast bucket of ancient New World DNA?

These are fundamental questions. How can the evidence be said to disprove The Book of Mormon if we don't know what we are testing for? The problem is even more severe when we realize that we have no idea what Lehi's DNA looked like.

The DNA of modern Jews is widely scattered in its characteristics, and we have no idea what the "Hebrew DNA" of Lehi and his family would have to be in order to test for it. We can't even rule out that it wasn't squarely within the mix of DNA signatures (haplotypes) that are found today in Native Americans.

The real problem is not that the DNA evidence challenges The Book of Mormon, but that it challenges common but arguably lazy assumptions Latter-day Saints have made about The Book of Mormon. Many have assumed and even taught that this majestic revelation about important ancient migrations to the New World explained all the ancient origins of Native Americans. In the absence of other information, this was an easy assumption to make, but today we know better.

This is not back-pedaling in response to new DNA arguments; it's what serious LDS scholars were explaining decades before the DNA evidence came out. The real problem has been failure to include the proper academic nuance to conclusions drawn from The Book of Mormon.

Challenging the rigor of terminology used by Church teachers and leaders, and challenging the accuracy of assumptions they have made about the text, is quite a different thing than challenging the authenticity of The Book of Mormon. Perhaps many LDS leaders failed to develop an accurate understanding of the secular details of The Book of Mormon text. (In fact, there is interesting evidence that The Book of Mormon text is far "smarter" than Joseph Smith, consistent with his role as mere translator, not author or even academic scholar of the text.)

Perhaps the diversity of Native American origins has not been adequately appreciated when people have given sermons about Book of Mormon peoples and their descendants today — descendants whose DNA may primarily stem from non-Hebrew sources, whether they were Asiatic migrants from Siberia or the possibly Asiatic migrants known as Jaredites in The Book of Mormon.

What, Jaredites? Yes, the most ancient migration to the New World described by The Book of Mormon, the one that probably had the greatest impact upon the genes of the hemisphere, was the ancient Jaredites who originated from somewhere in the Old World. Long before DNA studies were out, LDS scholar Hugh Nibley argued that they were Asiatic already in 1952, where Part 10 of his Improvement Era series on "The World of the Jaredites" began with "Men Out of Asia," one of several places where he links Jaredites to Asia (see the middle of “A Permanent Heritage” for the "Men Out of Asia" quote).

But weren't the Jaredites all destroyed? Yes, the civilization was "destroyed" and their last prophet saw a terrible civil war in which two armies wiped each other out. But when crazy wars like this take place, the smart folks get out of town, and The Book of Mormon says nothing that precludes remnants of Jaredite peoples from scattering and surviving.

In fact, there is evidence that Jaredite populations were intermingled with Nephite populations, probably via the Mulekites. Centuries after the great Jaredite war, Jaredite names are cropping up among the Nephites, and are typically associated with people who don't really buy into Nephite religion. This includes names like Korihor, the atheist, reminiscent of the ancient Jaredite name Corihor, and the Nephite dissenter Coriantumr. See “Nephites with Jaredite Names” in Hugh Nibley's book, Lehi in the Dessert; The World of the Jaredites.

Wait a second: If The Book of Mormon teaches that possibly Asiatic Jaredites came to the continent long before the Nephites and flourished here, and if Jaredite genes and influences persisted even in the heart of the small geography covered by The Book of Mormon, not to mention the possibility of having spread elsewhere, then what exactly is the problem with finding Asian genes in the Americas today?

Well, the Asian genes we find today may have come to the New World much earlier than the Jaredites — but again, that's OK because The Book of Mormon does not claim to describe all origins of all peoples. It does, however, expressly leave the door open for Asiatic genes, as Nibley noted in 1952.

Which brings us back to the real question. If The Book of Mormon is true, what genetic results must we absolutely expect to find in the Americas? And if the expected results haven't been found, does it prove the Book is false, or merely that the search is not yet complete?

Without knowing what Lehi's DNA was like, how do we test for its presence? And even if we knew what his DNA haplotype was, is there any reason to expect it to have survived, if he was just one person on a continent of millions in 600 B.C.?

There are many important conversations to be had in light of science and The Book of Mormon, but resigning from the Church and throwing The Book of Mormon out the window because of the misleading DNA-based attacks on The Book of Mormon would be a tragic overreaction.

Related resources:

For more from Jeff Lindsay, see Mormanity at http://mormanity.blogspot.com and his Mormon Answers section at http://jefflindsay.com/LDSFAQ/.

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About Jeff Lindsay

Jeff Lindsay has been defending the Church on the Internet since 1994, when he launched his LDSFAQ website under JeffLindsay.com. He has also long been blogging about LDS matters on the blog Mormanity (mormanity.blogspot.com). Jeff is a longtime resident of Appleton, Wisconsin, who recently moved to Shanghai, China, with his wife, Kendra. He works for an Asian corporation as head of intellectual property. Jeff and Kendra are the parents of 4 boys, 3 married and the the youngest on a mission.

He is a former innovation and IP consultant, a former professor, and former Corporate Patent Strategist and Senior Research Fellow for a multinational corporation.

Jeff Lindsay, Cheryl Perkins and Mukund Karanjikar are authors of the book Conquering Innovation Fatigue (John Wiley & Sons, 2009).

Jeff has a Ph.D. in Chemical Engineering from Brigham Young University and is a registered US patent agent. He has more than 100 granted US patents and is author of numerous publications. Jeff's hobbies include photography, amateur magic, writing, and Mandarin Chinese.

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