Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Why I Believe DNA and the Book of Mormon Is a Non-Issue

I think the Book of Mormon DNA issue is very easy to reconcile intellectually, IF the only conclusions are drawn from the actual book itself and not from what members (including leaders) assumed for a long time that it says. I'll try to be concise, but here is the way I read the book itself, relative to DNA:

Three groups are detailed, to some degree, in the book. In order of longevity and size:

1) The Jaredites - This group is described as being large at the beginning of their migration - mulitple familes, perhaps an entire "tribe". If we assume the standard Old Testament chronology, which I don't assume to be accurate but can use for this purpose, they left their home probably no later than 3,000 BC - which means they were in the "promised land" for roughly 3,000 years when the other two groups arrived. The Book of Ether is quite clear that it covers ONLY the people who remained at or near the government center - and basic population demographics pretty much guarantee that they would have spread widely across whatever land they inhabited. Thus the total annihilation described at the end of the Book of Ether logically could have been only the people who lived close enough to be gathered, leaving many people still spread out elsewhere - and the area they inhabited easily could have been massive.

In looking at the society described, as a former History Teacher, I would place their origin in the Northeast Asian steppe region, meaning their DNA would be consistent with the current research. Thus, it is very plausible that they would be the "principal (largest and/or original) ancestors" of the Native American Indians - that the primary DNA still extent 2,000 years after the destruction of their government would be Asian.

2) The people of Mulek - This group was relatively small and occupied a very limited area (one city and perhaps its surrounding area) when discovered by 3) the Nephites. As small as they were, they were "more numerous" than the Nephites - the smallest group. Interestingly, both groups combined were FAR smaller than the Lamanites, which only makes sense if the Lamanites had combined with a more numerous, indigenous people - and if that indigenous people were of Asian descent (some of the non-killed Jaredites), it would explain perfectly the "apostate" designation and dark skin stigma attached by the Nephites to the Lamanites.

The population and distance clues in the book itself are convincing to me of a limited geography model - and I reached that conclusion on my own long before I read any modern arguments for them (and long before I read any DNA research showing Asian origins for the Native American peoples). Thus, I see a very limited geography and a relatively small population of Nephites (just over a couple of million, tops, and perhaps significantly less) destroyed, while a much larger population dominated genetically by "Asians" continued to spread widely (perhaps even inter-continentally) for a total of at least 5,000 years.

That's what I see when I read the book itself and focus only on what I think it actually says. That means two very simple things to me:

1) The latest DNA research doesn't invalidate the claims of the actual book about origins.

2) The latest research shows that the assumptions about the overall demographics in the book (particularly what "principal ancestors" meant) held by the people who believed in the book (the early Mormons, including Joseph Smith and other leaders) were wrong.  

I'm OK with the second conclusion.


Firebyrd said...

I think there are some other things to consider as well. First of all, Lehi and Ishmael were not Jews-they were of Manasseh and Ephraim respectively. While we may know what DNA markers for descendants of Judah are, what are they for other tribes? Additionally, even if we did know such markers, a huge number of tribes and populations were wiped out entirely by European diseases once the "New World" was discovered. There's no telling what genetic knowledge we lost. Historians can't even agree as to how many people died. I've seen estimates ranging from 50% of the native populations to 90%.

I do like your explanation of the Asiatic genes and the dark skin. I think it further shows that there are lots of interconnected reasons and ways DNA is not some trump card to prove Joseph Smith was a liar.

agree completely said...

Yes, I completely agree. I think the idea of a large, indigenous population as background is strongly implied continuously throughout the Book of Mormon.

I've been a professor doing molecular biology and biochemistry, and I've directly done my share of phylogenetic analyses. I'm familiar with the DNA evidence related to the origins of the American Indians. I'm very comfortable interpreting and generating bioinformatic statistical analyses (of all sorts). I've studied the BoM a gazillion times, and I appreciate all the best arguments for the historicity of the BoM (e.g., I've read Mormon's Codex and most other apologetic books on the BoM). I'm also familiar with the best arguments against the historicity of the BoM. At the moment, I'm highly skeptical of the historicity of the BoM--but **it has nothing to do with the DNA argument**. As you outline here, it really is a non-issue for the BoM, because the small geography / indigenous background model is completely compatible with the DNA research. We wouldn't expect the DNA background to look any different, IMHO. It's just not a genuine problem.

The bigger issue for me is my trust in the institutional church as a dispenser of truth. Even though the BoM implies a small geography continuously, most of its leaders have been on record over the past two centuries in the opposite camp, and the church generally taught this incorrect model (e.g., "principal ancestors") [even if a few apologists at BYU did not]. I get it--"they were speaking as men". The problem for me is that when I examine each issue that can be verified to some degree of certainty (e.g., Bednar's recent re-affirmation of the highly problematic April 6, 0AD birthdate for Christ), I am left with the conclusion that the GAs are either ignorant or misleading--"they were speaking as men". And if the mode and manner of speech was no different on these issues than it was on anything can I trust the words of the GAs or of the Church? They have a really poor track record on actually being right on anything verifiable, hence, I am highly skeptical that they are right on things that cannot be verified.