Book of Mormon/DNA evidence/Geography issues

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    Book of Mormon geography and DNA Questions

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Introduction

Main article on DNA issues unrelated to geography can be found here.

Geography and DNA Questions

It is important, as when setting out to answer any scientific question, to define the question which DNA-based attacks are attempting to answer. This requires that we establish a Book of Mormon model for potential testing. Any Book of Mormon model based in real history must address the issue of geographic scope.

The Book of Mormon account has been understood by the LDS in at least two broad geographical contexts:

  1. A limited geography model known as the Limited Geographical Theory (LGT).
  2. A hemispheric geography model known as the Hemispheric Geography Theory (HGT).

Details on these models are available in the links above; it is assumed that the reader of this article is familiar with these concepts, and they will not be elaborated on here.

DNA attacks on the Book of Mormon are arguably futile, regardless of which geographical model one adopts. However, some geographical models pose problems for the DNA attacks which other models do not, and so these issues are considered here.

Limited geography models

Many Book of Mormon readers, especially during the last sixty years, have read the Book of Mormon text as requiring a relatively small geographic area within the Americas. Such readings predate issues of DNA and genetics by decades, and are not (as the critics sometimes claim) desperate "rear-guard" actions to defend the Book of Mormon against the awesome onslaught of DNA science! Such claims are ridiculous, as a review of the history of such ideas shows.[1]

LDS readers who accept a limited geography model would find it unsurprising (and even expected) that the majority of Amerindian DNA does not match purported "Lehite" DNA. Under the limited geography model, a relatively small number of Lehites landed in the Americas. This small initial population eventually intermarried with other populations in the hemisphere. Over a period of 2600 years, any initial Lehite "signature" would be hopelessly 'swamped' by other peoples' genetic markers. Just as a drop of red dye will not turn a whole swimming pool red (though the red is still "in" the swimming pool), a few Lehites added to a limited geography model's hemisphere of inhabitants will have little or no detectable genetic influence today, except by the greatest coincidence.

In 2002, anthropologist Thomas Murphy published an essay in which he argued that DNA evidence points to native Americans being related to Asians, and therefore this disproves the Book of Mormon. In 2004, plant biologist Simon Southerton published a book that made a similar argument. (Both were inactive Mormons who no longer believed the Book of Mormon was divinely revealed scripture.)

Unfortunately, neither of these men acknowledged the current state of LDS scholarship on the Book of Mormon before writing. They imagined Lehi arriving in an empty continent, and concluded that all Native Americans must therefore have a genetic inheritance solely from him. They clearly assumed, and in fact insisted, that all Mormons believed the HGT without reservation, and so were caught off guard when Mormon scholars didn't surrender to their arguments. Murphy and Southerton were addressing a straw man and didn't even realize it; they simply didn't do their homework on the LDS side of things. (This fact alone should demonstrate how out of touch they were with active Saints' thoughts on the issue when they wrote their articles.)

In their more candid moments, those who present this criticism concede that the key assumption of "only Lehi" must be made. Simon Southerton writes of how some Mormons have argued that

Bottleneck effect, genetic drift, Hardy-Weinberg violations and other technical problems would prevent us from detecting Israelite genes [in Amerindians].

This is a technical way of explaining a relatively simple fact: if a small group is placed in contact with a larger group and allowed to intermarry, it becomes harder to detect the small group’s “genetic signature.”

Southerton then goes on to say:

I agree entirely. [!] In 600 BC there were probably several million American Indians living in the Americas. If a small group of Israelites entered such a massive native population it would be very, very hard to detect their genes 200, 2000 or even 20,000 years later. But does such a scenario fit with what the Book of Mormon plainly states or what the prophets have taught for 175 years? Short answer. No![2]

This is really quite astonishing. Southerton has obliged us by shooting himself in the foot. He admits that there are many genetic objections to his attack, unless we accept that the Book of Mormon requires that American Indians only be descendants of Lehi and Mulek.

Since realizing that LDS thought on this point is much more involved, those who present this criticism have been playing catch up, trying to argue (as Southerton does above) that Mormons are required to accept the HGT because most LDS leaders in the past believed it and LDS leaders are never wrong.

However, this is a fundamentalist view of our religion that students of Mormonism reject. Furthermore, some claim that this reading is the only one permitted by the Book of Mormon, while over a century of LDS writing on the subject demonstrates that this claim is false too.

So Murphy and Southerton are reduced to making a religious argument, not a scientific one. And their religious argument is incorrect.

Many articles have discussed the DNA issue from this perspective, including the following:

  • Kevin Barney, "A Brief Review of Murphy and Southerton's 'Galileo Event' (Review of Thomas W. Murphy and Simon G. Southerton, "Genetic Research a 'Galileo Event' for Mormons," Anthropology News 44/2 (February 2003): 20)," FAIR. FairMormon link
  • David A. McClellan, "Detecting Lehi's Genetic Signature: Possible, Probable, or Not?," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 35–90. off-site
  • D. Jeffrey Meldrum and Trent D. Stephens, "Who Are the Children of Lehi?," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 38–51. off-site wiki
  • Matthew Roper, "Nephi's Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 91–128. off-site
  • Matthew Roper, "Swimming the Gene Pool: Israelite Kinship Relations, Genes, and Genealogy," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 129–164. off-site
  • John L. Sorenson and Matthew Roper, "Before DNA," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 6–23. off-site wiki  (Key source)
  • John A. Tvedtnes, "Reinventing the Book of Mormon (Review of: “Reinventing Lamanite Identity,” Sunstone, March 2004, 20–25)," FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 91–106. off-site
  • Michael F. Whiting, "DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 24–35. off-site wiki  (Key source)

Hemispheric geography model, type 1

Other Latter-day Saints have understood—and continue to understand—the Book of Mormon on a more "hemispheric" scale, with the "narrow neck of land" being in Panama, and the final battle site being located in New York, in the hill in which Joseph Smith recovered the plates.

Thus, this model anticipates that Book of Mormon history played out over much of the continent. However, it is here labeled as a "type 1" model, because it does not require that Lehi be the sole "source" of population for the Americas. Jaredite remnants may have intermarried with Lehite/Mulekite peoples, contributing foreign DNA markers. Other peoples unmentioned in the Book of Mormon may have immigrated to the hemisphere before, during, and/or after the Book of Mormon time frame, and provided DNA foreign to Lehi's group. These additions could have played a major, even dominant role in the genetic history of the continent (in which case the DNA attacks can be answered in a fashion similar to the 'limited geography model' as above) or they may have provided a more modest contribution which is nevertheless sufficient to "muddy the waters" when the other uncertainties of assigning DNA origins to mixed populations come into play (see below).

Articles which discuss LDS views on "other Americans" being added to the mix of Book of Mormon peoples (which do not require a limited geography model to maintain their force) include:

  • John M. Butler, "Addressing Questions surrounding the Book of Mormon and DNA Research," FARMS Review 18/1 (2006): 101–108. off-site wiki
  • Matthew Roper, "Nephi's Neighbors: Book of Mormon Peoples and Pre-Columbian Populations," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 91–128. off-site
  • Matthew Roper, "Swimming the Gene Pool: Israelite Kinship Relations, Genes, and Genealogy," FARMS Review 15/2 (2003): 129–164. off-site

Articles which discuss testing the "hemispheric" perspective:

  • Michael F. Whiting, "DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 24–35. off-site wiki

Articles which do not invoke any type of "limited geography" in their discussion include:

Hemispheric geography model, type 2

Under this model, the American continent was completely empty of any human inhabitants prior to the Jaredites (though previous to the Jaredites, other peoples could have been present who were subsequently eradicated, leaving no genetic contribution to subsequent populations.) The Jaredites were then utterly and completely destroyed (except Coriantumr—see Omni 1:21, whose contribution to the Mulekite gene pool was either negligible or non-existent) and replaced by Lehite/Mulekite immigrants, who were likewise the only source of humans in the Americas, giving rise to all (or nearly all) of the present Amerindian population.

Of all the models discussed thus far, this is the only variant to which the DNA data poses any significant challenge at all, though many of the issues discussed below also apply to DNA testing the Book of Mormon's claims with this model.

Articles which discuss testing the "hemispheric" perspective:

  • Michael F. Whiting, "DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 24–35. off-site wiki

Articles which do not invoke any type of "limited geography" in their discussion include:

Hemispheric geography model, type 3

This model could be a labeled as "empty continent, all-Lehi." Under this model, the Americas have had no inhabitants except those mentioned in the Book of Mormon. Thus, Jaredites, Mulekites, and Lehites are the only inhabitants the New World has seen before Columbus, and the Jaredites left no genetic remnants in the Lehite/Mulekite mix.

A larger problem for this model than DNA evidence is archaeological evidence of human habitation thousands of years prior to the Nephites (which would have to be explained by either appealing to dating errors, or ascribing all such remains to Jaredites). This model is arguably the most challenged by current DNA science—and science in general—but it is also the least likely model supported by the Book of Mormon text itself. Ironically, it is to this model that Murphy and Southerton seem to have addressed most of their efforts.

Articles which discuss testing the "hemispheric" perspective:

  • Michael F. Whiting, "DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective," Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12/1 (2003): 24–35. off-site wiki

Articles which do not invoke any type of "limited geography" in their discussion include:

Notes

  1. For the history of the LGT, see Matthew Roper, "Limited Geography and the Book of Mormon: Historical Antecedents and Early Interpretations," FARMS Review 16/2 (2004): 225–276. off-site
  2. Simon Southerton, e-mail, “Answering the DNA apologetics,” 15 February 2005, 18h42 (copy in editors' possession).


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