Wednesday, February 5, 2014

DNA: The Evidence of Things Not Seen

The LDS church recently posted their newest in a series of official apologetic articles dealing with thorny issues that threaten basic Mormon truth claims. You can read "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies" on the church's website. Since the recent advent of genetic population science, critics have argued that DNA evidence disproves the Book of Mormon as an historical record. In the article, the church presses instead for a "No Contest" resolution in the face of these claims. Interesting.

I guess you could say this essay means something to me personally. As that Mormon kid in your elementary class who couldn't contain himself when mention was made of Beringian migration, I just had to raise my hand and set the teacher straight on true Native American origins. Yes, I was that child.  

Like many believers, I took the testimonies of prophets and apostles seriously when they guaranteed the veracity of the Book of Mormon without reservation. It is because I took their words at face value that the church's prevaricating response is such an embarrassment to me. I didn't realize as I shouted from the (schoolyard) rooftops that within a few short decades my church leaders would retreat to a philosophy of plausible deniability on things that were always portrayed as historical truth.

This seems to be a running theme in these apologetic essays. 

Now to be honest, I know virtually nothing about DNA science. But I am becoming familiar with the works of an Australian plant geneticist with whom I share my faith heritage. Simon Southerton formerly served as Bishop in the Mormon church down under. His story is all too familiar for people who've left Mormonism or have been otherwise expelled for voicing dissent. 

He became distressed when discoveries made in the course of his career radically differed from things he, as a Mormon, believed about Native Americans. Pressed by his intimacy with the subject matter, he began to express confusion and doubt over the issue, which he openly sought to resolve. When he refused to sit silently, he was snubbed and set aside by his superiors. He did some further research and published his findings in a book. He was excommunicated as a result.

Southerton has a horse in the race then, but I still think his blog response to the church DNA article, "Tentative Faith meets Uncompromising Facts," points out some glaring misrepresentations on the part of the church. I recommend you read it. Frankly, nothing earth-shattering is presented there. I've come to learn he simply affirms the widespread consensus of the world's top geneticists - namely that Native Americans are demonstrably of East Asian genealogy rather than Hebrew. 

In fact, his expert perspective fits right in with the consensus of literally every other scientific discipline touching on ancient American peoples to this date. Michael Coe and other serious Mesoamerican anthropologists who are familiar with the Nephite account have long understood it to be a non-historical work. Coe says, "The bare facts of the matter are that nothing, absolutely nothing, has ever shown up in any New World excavation which would suggest to a dispassionate observer that the Book of Mormon, as claimed by Joseph Smith, is a historical document relating to the history of early migrants to our hemisphere."

Whereas the church initially sought to leverage archaeology, sociology, and linguistics to establish evidence of Book of Mormon history in ancient America, they have been frustrated time and time again by the results. For B.H. Roberts and others who have tried to harmonize the Book of Mormon with scientific knowledge, the evidence never seemed to match what the book claims for itself. And for many of these intellectuals, what often starts as a legitimate truth-seeking quest is conquered by loyalty to tradition. 

In the wake of these failures, the church has worked hard to obscure the negative evidence from its membership. They've encouraged believers to ignore the physical data, much in the way they are now encouraging believers to dismiss the DNA evidence they know to be accurate. The church's article is a testament to that fact, but I want to further demonstrate it. 

What is really astonishing here is watching the same scenario play out with genetic science as happened with anthropology. The church literally conducted their own genetic surveys to gather data supporting Jewish ancestry for Native Americans. Do you suppose they ever published their results? They did not.

Southerton recounts the history in his book, Losing a Lost Tribe. In many ways modeled after the international Human Genome Project, BYU initiated their own "impressive global molecular genealogy project aimed at welding traditional family histories with cutting-edge DNA technology” (Southerton, p. 180). It was eventually backed by Ira Fulton and James Sorenson in March 2000, major players in the LDS investment community.

Many on their research team hoped to prove the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon narrative by gathering DNA evidence and thereby refuting tentative results from secular, non-LDS studies. By 2003, more than 40,000 individuals had donated blood to the project and it was poised to make incredible strides towards accomplishing its goals and then some.

"Inexplicably," BYU suddenly dropped the project and all ties to the church were severed in the same year. In 2004, their project was relocated to the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation in SLC and it has since continued bringing to fruition their vision of locating the ancestral homelands of people by examining their blood’s genetic information. Apparently it has been very successful; it is still touted as the world’s foremost archive of human DNA.

Why the trepidation at involvement, the sudden retraction on the part of BYU and the church? I do not take it as coincidence that this is the exact period when scientific surveys garnered from the grandiose HGP began gaining media attention. The genetic evidence concretely refuted the Book of Mormon’s claim that the ancestors of Native Americans are chiefly Semitic by descent. 

Further, ultimate conclusions by Sorenson and his orphaned team admit that today's surviving Native Americans descend from six genetic sources arriving in the Americas about 20,000 years ago. Suffice it to say the time period in question is long before the Book of Mormon migrations purportedly took place.

In fact, one of the project’s original contributors was BYU professor Scott Woodward whose primary vested interest was proving the Book of Mormon’s genealogy true through these means. As with Thomas Ferguson and Howard Hunter in their church-backed archaeological pursuits, Woodward did not experience the desired results. Fortunately, the SMGF and Woodward (as co-author) went on to publish their findings without church backing. They affirmed that the results of the secular scientists were sound.

Despite initial enthusiasm from BYU’s board of trustees (read: apostles) for their global genetic project, it was quietly dismissed when their own research independently confirmed what geneticists and anthropologists had been singing all along - that Native Americans are almost strictly of Asian descent and arrived from Siberia some 15,000-20,000 years ago. 

Actually, the church's DNA article makes more sense in this light. In the face of such mounting opposition, the church can neither confirm nor deny anything besides the spiritual truth of the text itself. It is damage control. The article boils down to an open display of tactical double-speak that slithers in, over, and around the issues science is raising for Mormon truth claims. 

The truth is, there has been a growing stockpile of evidence against the Book of Mormon's historicity for more than a century. Physical evidence for the Book of Mormon has all but vanished under the scope of scientific scrutiny. This contrary data has accumulated from a variety of scientific disciplines, now including genetics, to show that the Book of Mormon's historical claims are dubious, fraudulent. 

I probably would've kept my opinions to myself in social studies class had I known how quickly the brethren would be changing their tune on these fundamental Mormon truth claims. But this is what a brief study of history can afford you. Like any other human culture in history, one can observe that Mormonism changes with the seasons and will continue to adapt where necessary.

I think the brethren will continue to testify of the same old farce in the closed circuit that is Mormon culture, but they must now address a new audience. They must address that portion of the membership who refuse to close their eyes, bow their heads, and simply say, "yes." It is a growing subset of their membership and they can no longer ignore widespread secular education.

Essentially everything that framed my understanding of Book of Mormon history and prophecy growing up in the LDS church is now being dodged, disavowed, or otherwise denied by official church response to controversial scientific findings. 

Is the Book of Mormon a historical work? 
Does it make any verifiable claims about this continent or its ancient inhabitants? 
Who are the Lamanites? Are they of Hebrew descent?
Can their modern descendants be identified so that the Book of Mormon's promises can be fulfilled in them?

The church's answers to these questions are different now than they were when I was a member. They are non-answers. Don't read the church DNA article expecting a response to any of the above questions. 

The only thing the church seems sure about here is that DNA evidence, while a useful aid for genealogical research, really can't tell us anything about the Book of Mormon peoples. Nor can any other scientific study of ancient Americans - no matter the quantity of data, no matter how substantial the results!

This amounts to crucifying Galileo afresh, I believe. The earth is flat and the sun revolves around the Earth, and so forth. Instead, irrational faith will have to suffice as the evidence of things not seen.

My question is this. When did the leading occupation of the Lord's Watchtower shift from prophecy and seership to politics and legal practice? It's almost apocalyptic in its ironic fulfillment of prophecy, isn't it? Then again, perhaps there never was a shift at all. 

Maybe that's what it is to be a prophet. To predict vaguely enough that there is fulfillment regardless of what actually transpires! To assume the credit when things works out, but distance yourself should the prophecy fail! Some call this charlatanism. Whatever we call it, this much seems sure: if you look to the Church Office Building for answers, you'll find little besides pandering platitudes and half-hearted concessions.


  1. Very insightful and well researched. Thank you for all your hard work!

  2. It's a hard thing to question one's faith, I applaud you. Your search is admirable.. it's a great deal harder to question then it is to blindly accept. 'Faith' is worth searching for and making sense of, you've inspired this reader!

  3. It is about time for another post, my friend. I always enjoy reading your well researched ideas. Post something new soon!