Does DNA evidence refute the Book of Mormon?
One of the most popular arguments against the Book of Mormon involves results of DNA testing of Native Americans. Our critics allege that science has proven the Book of Mormon to be false. What does the science of human genetics really say about the Book of Mormon? The answer involves understanding what the Book of Mormon actually is and says. On this Mormon Answers page, I explore some common questions about DNA and the Book of Mormon, and argue that the critics aren't attacking anything the Book of Mormon requires, but common assumptions about and even misreadings of the text. The findings of modern science, though often tentative, can be welcomed by those who treasure the Book of Mormon as ancient scripture. This work is my responsibility and does not necessarily reflect official views of the Church. Copyright © 2013 by Jeff Lindsay.
This page is the Introduction and Overview. There are four other parts that go with it: Appendix 1: What the Book of Mormon Really Claims, Appendix 2 : Understanding the Scientific Evidence, Appendix 3: Further Scientific Issues, and Appendix 4: References Cited and Further Resources.
I'm delighted with the major new and scientifically-based statement from the Church on DNA and the Book of Mormon, issued January 2014. This statement affirms that the Book of Mormon does not claim to describe the origins of all Native Americans and does not exclude the possibility of other and earlier migrations of humans to the Americas. It also points out the limitations in using DNA testing to trace origins of a population, and draws upon some of the excellent resources from LDS apologists (e.g., apologetics publications from the Maxwell Institute). The statement also reflects a willingness of the Church to include science as a tool for understanding our world, without abandoning revelation from God. I discuss this further on the Mormanity blog.
Breaking News, Nov. 2013:
Look at this lead paragraph from news at NationalGeographic.com:
Nearly one-third of Native American genes come from west Eurasian people linked to the Middle East and Europe, rather than entirely from East Asians as previously thought, according to a newly sequenced genome.
The source is the story, "'Great Surprise'—Native Americans Have West Eurasian Origins" from National Geographic's Daily News, Nov. 20, 2013, which discusses research in the journal Nature. In related posts at Mormanity and The Nauvoo Times, I explain why Mormons should not get overly excited about this tentative report. However, it does represent an important surprise that weakens some of the attacks made against the Book of Mormon. There is simply no basis to claim that there is no genetic evidence linking Native Americans and the Middle East.
Dr. Michael F. Whiting, a prominent geneticist whose work has received widespread attention (it was featured as the cover story in cover article in Nature in mid-January 2003), recently gave a lecture at BYU entitled, "Does DNA Evidence Refute the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon?: Responding to the Critics." Please watch the video presentation.
He also has an excellent article, "DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective" in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Nov. 2003.)
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. To be blunt, some of the seemingly persuasive DNA arguments are genuinely absurd. That's a strong word that I've tried to avoid on this topic, but now that the evidence is out, thoroughly discussed, and the proponents have had time to adjust their views and reconsider the logic of their position, it's time for me to recognize that genuinely absurd arguments are being used by some in an all-out effort to attack the faith of Latter-day Saints. Kid gloves come off now: the arguments are absurd--if you actually know what the Book of Mormon says. Here's why.
The typical DNA-based argument against the Book of Mormon runs like this:
Simple, black and white. But the argument reeks. It is absurd for several reasons, discussed at length in the various sections of this essay. Most critically, though, is the absurdity of the first statement: "The Book of Mormon teaches that all Native Americans are descended exclusively from Hebrews." This is particularly absurd. 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 issue [Ostler, 2004 (see Appendix 4 for references)]:
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.
As I document in Appendix 1, What the Book of Mormon Really Claims, 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 somewhat 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 Joseph Smith or later prophets failed to develop an accurate understanding of the details of the Book of Mormon text (there is plenty of evidence, in fact, 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 series on "The World of the Jaredites" began with "Men Out of Asia," one of several places where he links Jaredites to Asia (Nibley, 1952, see the middle of Chapter 6 for "Men Out of Asia"). 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 (Nibley, 1988).
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.
Science is a wonderful but limited tool that must be applied with caution, especially when it comes to making decisions about "fuzzy" issues like politics, social issues, and religion. If you look to science to determine whether Jesus Christ is the living Son of God, chances are you won't be applying the right tools in the right ways. Science can provide important insights on issues addressed by religion, such as the Creation. In this realm, I believe science can help us see that account in Genesis must not be taken too literally, at least not in English, for there is convincing evidence that the earth is far older than a few thousand years. But the Hebrew text, whether figurative or literal, does not require such a young earth. The term we translate as "days" in the King James Version can refer to long epochs of time. So if the Creation occurred in a series of lengthy epochs lasting hundreds of millions of years to bring the earth to its current state, then I have no reason to abandon God, even if the way Moses and others understood and wrote about the Creation was rather inadequate from my modern perspective. Ancient accounts of the Creation were not written to answer my scientific questions, but to testify that God created the world. How He did it and how long it actually took remains unknown. As we learn more from science, I may need to update my reading of the text, but I do not see a need to reject all scripture--however incomplete or, yes, even flawed at times--or to reject God. We must, however, move forward while coping with uncertainty and incompleteness. Answers from science are typically tentative, and so should be some of the science-based questions we have about religion. Secular tools may not be the right ones to resolve critical issues involving God and faith.
Some will find their answers in science and while I may disagree with their methodology and conclusions, I will also say that I can respect the effort to explore religion with the lens of science. I also recognize that those who reject the Book of Mormon over scientific issues or those who reject the Bible or God on the basis of science may be good, intelligent people sincerely seeking truth. Latter-day Saints with different views should at least understand that those who reject the Church or leave it may sincerely feel they are doing the right and intelligent thing. Let's respect that. But please, some of the arguments used to drive people away from the Book of Mormon are simply absurd, and I'm not ashamed to say that. If you're going to appeal to science, do it scientifically. Examine the assumptions, be clear in what you are testing and why, and examine what the results really may or may not mean.
In my opinion, many DNA-Book of Mormon controversies derive from misunderstanding what the Book of Mormon says. Part of this misunderstanding involves the issue of geography and scope of the Book of Mormon. As Book of Mormon students increasingly understand that the Book of Mormon actually describes a very limited geographical area in its accounts, and as they recognize that Mesoamerica (southern Mexico, Guatemala, and surrounding territory) offers the best candidate for the setting of the Book of Mormon, they also recognize that the DNA attacks on the Book of Mormon have limited impact when the text is properly understood. An excellent starting place on this topic is "Basic Methodological Problems with the Anti-Mormon Approach to the Geography and Archaeology of the Book of Mormon" by William J. Hamblin (1993). Our critics have accused us of back pedaling, revisionism, and a desperate retreat in favoring a limited geography instead of the once common but sloppy hemispheric model for the Book of Mormon (where South America was the "land southward" and North America was the "land northward," Panama was the narrow neck, and Lamanites were battling Nephites across thousands of miles of territory, and where the whole continent had nothing but pure Israelite genes--none of which is supported by the text!). I respectfully disagree.
I can understand the frustration, for much of the Church, including many of our leaders, long made rather natural assumptions about the Book of Mormon as if it described the only migrations to the New World and had a continental scope. If they are inspired leaders, shouldn't all the opinions and views they express, implicitly or explicitly, be infallibly corrected by God to ensure scientific exactness? No. That's an unreasonable expectation. But it is time to update our understanding and recognize that the Book of Mormon text itself may be the record of a lineage of people whose founders brought a few strands of DNA into a small portion of a large continent already teaming with Asian DNA, including perhaps the Asia DNA of the ancient Jaredite peoples.
While the Church has never taken an official position on the geography of the Book of Mormon (contrary to insinuations or claims of some people peddling errant models centered in North America), we can look to Joseph Smith himself for the idea that Mesoamerica might be considered as the land of the Nephites, and apparently even for the idea that Zarahemla, in the "land southward," might be north of Panama in Mesoamerica. The DNA debate is best understood by understanding the origins and history of the Limited Geography Model of the Book of Mormon. Recent contributions in understanding these topics comes from John Tvedtnes' excellent article, "A Brief History of the Limited Geographic View of the Book of Mormon." Equally valuable is Ted Dee Stoddard's "Joseph Smith and John Lloyd Stephens," which shows the impact that a Mesoamerican explorer had on Joseph Smith's understanding of the Book of Mormon and its geography - over a decade after the text was published. It provides insights into what Joseph Smith said or approved of saying in the LDS publication, Times and Seasons, during the time when Joseph acted as its editor. It's a fascinating story worth careful consideration.
Some of the confusion over the DNA issue has been compounded by some LDS folks advocating Book of Mormon geography models focused on the present United States as the primary setting for the ancient Nephites. For those interested, a number of resources have been compiled by the Book of Mormon Archeology Foundation showing the obvious problems with the so-called Heartland Model, as I discuss in my Jan. 2010 post at Mormanity, "Away from the Heartland: Joseph Smith, John Lloyd Stephens, and a Mesoamerican Setting for the Book of Mormon."
We must also remember that the Church has never had an official position that would exclude the possibility of many others being on the Continent when Nephi arrived. The possibility of other migrations was raised by Joseph Smith and the possibility of many others having been here was raised by thinkers in the Church long before DNA analysis was possible. What the critics are attacking in showing that Native Americans have predominant Asian roots is not the Book of Mormon, but a sloppy yet popular old misinterpretation of the text. Drop that error and we are left with a recognition that evidence for Lehi's and Sariah's genes from 600 B.C. are simply impossible to find since (a) we don't know what their DNA was like and (b) it was a tiny fraction of the DNA in the Americas that very likely was not preserved in mitochondrial DNA or Y chromosomes. So is the inability to find that needle in a haystack a logical reason to abandon the Book of Mormon? Really, it's not.
Among the many resources I link to here, one of the most up-to-date and scientifically oriented is Ugo Perego's excellent essay, "The Book of Mormon and the Origin of Native Americans from a Maternally Inherited DNA Standpoint" in FARMS Review (2010). Enjoy.
Thomas Murphy has received well-orchestrated national attention for his critique of the Book of Mormon based on DNA evidence. He is posing as a Galileo, an objective scholar being persecuted by an oppressive church. But the reality is much different, as Allen Wyatt shows in his review of Murphy's actions and inconsistencies at FAIRLDS.org. Given Murphy's active support of those who openly claim that they seek to "tear down" the Church, and given his open attacks on many aspects of Church doctrine, I suggest that the possibility of his excommunication has nothing to do with a scholar's honest questioning of LDS beliefs.
To counter some errors in the media about the DNA controversy, the LDS.org website now has a "DNA and the Book of Mormon" page with several articles as unofficial background material--including a PDF version of this essay (the Nov. 16, 2003 version) that I created for their use. My article is posted at http://www.mormonnewsroom.org/assets/pdf/Jeff_Lindsay_DNA.pdf.
A concise and thoughtful summary of the real problem behind those who lose their faith over the DNA issue is given by Kevin Barney in "A Brief Review of Murphy and Southerton's 'Galileo Event'" at FAIRLDS.org. Barney responds to an article by Thomas Murphy and Simon Southerton, "Genetic Research a 'Galileo Event' for Mormons," Anthropology News, Vol. 44, No. 2 (February 2003): 20, a publication of the American Anthropological Association. Also see the compilation of DNA-related links at the Messenger and Advocate blog.
If you follow Mormon-related news, you may have encountered the publicity about a Mormon bishop who left the Church because of DNA evidence, or the story of a Mormon scientist who has publicly taught that DNA evidence disproves the Book of Mormon. Christian ministries now distribute videos and brochures claiming that DNA evidence disproves the Book of Mormon. Many web sites proclaim the death of the Book of Mormon, slain by a bullet of DNA. What's going on?
The Book of Mormon has come under heavy fire from critics in light of DNA evidence that is said to refute the Book of Mormon, for the evidence points to Asiatic origins, not Middle Eastern origins of the ancient inhabitants of this continent. Since "everyone knows" that the Book of Mormon teaches that ancient Middle Easterners were the primary ancestors of modern Native Americans, doesn't their Asiatic heritage destroy any case for the plausibility of the Book of Mormon? Absolutely yes, according to many of our critics.
These attacks typically rely on several faulty assumptions about what the Book of Mormon actually states. In fact, the DNA evidence does not refute the claims of the text itself, nor does it preclude a divine origin for the Book of Mormon. DNA evidence has relatively little to do with the authenticity of the Book of Mormon, but does provide importance tentative insights into the origins of many ancient American peoples. The DNA does help refute the unjustified and long criticized but popular idea that the Book of Mormon describes the origins of ALL Native Americans and covers the entire hemisphere in its scope. It was silly and easily attacked long before the DNA evidence came out, but it was a popular misunderstanding that was shared even by some Church leaders. Sorry, it just doesn't fly.
Further, it's important to note that the Book of Mormon does not lead us to expect that the peoples it describes should have DNA that we could recognize today as "Jewish" DNA or even non-Asiatic DNA. Of the various men and women in three different Old World groups who came to the Americas according to the Book of Mormon, we can only safely state that one of them, Mulek, was definitely Jewish, but we still do not know what kind of DNA he carried. Lehi was somehow descended from Manasseh, but that does not specify what kind of Y-chromosome he had. We have no clue about the genetic origins of his wife or the other individuals that came with him. We know nothing about the genetic origins of others in Mulek's party or the people they almost certainly intermarried with in the Americas. We know nothing about the Jaredites, though they probably originated from Central Asia (the possibly Asiatic origins of the Jaredites were being discussed by Hugh Nibley and others decades before modern DNA testing came on the scene). The DNA they contributed to the Americas could have looked like Asiatic DNA. Given the uncertainty in the genetic origins of the groups mentioned in the Book of Mormon, one cannot accurately claim that genetic evidence has somehow disproved the Book of Mormon (see my article, "Why Should We Expect to Find Jewish DNA in Native Americans?" and the archived May 2004 article by David Stewart, "DNA and the Book of Mormon"). DNA attacks on the Book of Mormon ultimately boil down to erroneous logic and flawed assumptions, as Blake Ostler has shown in his article, "Assessing the Logical Structure of DNA Arguments against the Book of Mormon" [Ostler, 2004].
Also see the Sept. 2004 news stories about previously missed evidence of ancient Australian immigrants to the Americas that I posted on my Mormanity blog.
In my view, the DNA-based attacks on the Book of Mormon are rather unscientific, though they are dressed in counterfeit robes of scientific objectivity. The scientific weakness in the DNA attacks is clearly illustrated in the November 2003 issue of The Journal of Book of Mormon Studies published by the Maxwell Institute. This volume offers four excellent articles from scholars, including a couple of DNA scientists, on the issue of DNA and the Book of Mormon. Many of their conclusions are similar to ones that I have reached here, but they provide many additional insights that I highly recommend considering. These articles are:
Note: Several of the above articles plus a PDF version of this essay (the Nov. 16, 2003 version, rather old now!) are posted on the official LDS Newsroom page on DNA studies and the Book of Mormon at MormonNewsRoom.org.
DNA evidence of human origins, which entered public consciousness with the work of Cann et al. (1987) and the "African mitochondrial Eve," has been shaking up many old assumptions. The science around DNA and its role in tracing human origins is a complex topic with many helpful basic treatments available online, such as "American Indian mtDNA and Y Chromosome Genetic Data: A Comprehensive Report of their Use in Migration and Other Anthropological Studies" by Peter N. Jones (2004), made available by the International Institute for Indigenous Resource Management.
DNA analysis of multiple Native American tribes generally points to Asian origins, challenging some common views held by Book of Mormon believers. Native American DNA does not appear to have distinctly "Jewish" traits. The mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is passed only along maternal lines, primarily falls into four groups--haplogroups--that are termed A, B, C, and D--and these same groups are typical of Asian DNA. Initial studies comparing the mtDNA of Native Americans and other peoples of the world pointed to a definite Asian origin. Latter-day Saints pointed out that Lehi's tiny group might have had negligible impact on the genes that would persist on the continent if the New World already had thousands or millions of people upon his arrival, as it almost certainly did. See, for example, the discussion of Cavalli-Sforza et al. (1997) on the replacement of genes and languages of one group by those of another. Still, some of us hoped that further genetic research would turn up something more interesting.
Then it was noticed that 3 or 4 percent of northern Native Americans had a fifth haplogroup called the X haplogroup, which was unknown in Asia but common in Europe and especially the Middle East. Some of us Latter-day Saints pointed to the non-Asian X haplogroup as evidence for possible transoceanic contact with Europe or the Middle East, though probably not as evidence for Lehi's migration since the estimated date of entry into the New World for haplogroup X was thousands of years before Lehi. But we would emphasize the complete absence of haplogroup X in Asia and its relative abundance in Europe and the Middle East, including Israel. But that would change in July, 2001, when a new report (Derenko, 2001) showed that haplogroup X had been discovered in Siberia after all. That report, as we shall see, raises more questions than it answers. While it is technically possible that nearly all Native Americans have a primarily Asian ancestry, a "Siberia only" origin does not square with all the evidence relating to New World origins.
In fact, as I discuss in Appendix 2, the recent work of Reidla et al. (2003) shows that the kind of haplotype X DNA in Siberia is not related to the haplotype X DNA found in the Americas. As I had previously speculated, Reidla et al. state that the small pocket of haplogroup X DNA in Siberia "are more likely explained by recent gene flow from Europe or from West Asia" rather than being remnants of a group that migrated to the Americas anciently. But genetic clues like haplotype X data provide only shaky hints of Middle East linkages, and may not really be relevant to the Book of Mormon.
While we may wish for more confirmation, we must remember that the scientific evidence is not necessarily incompatible with the Book of Mormon. The Book of Mormon simply does not require that "Jewish" genetic markers should be found throughout Native Americans, contrary to the claims of several vocal critics. When the claims of the text are clearly understood, the scientific findings pertaining to DNA do not pose any serious challenge to those who accept the Book of Mormon and also respect the findings of science. In fact, the scientific details about the DNA evidence leave plenty of room for the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.
One important detail is that there is evidence of genes in Native Americans that may have come from sources other than northeastern Asia, such as the Middle East. Many of the DNA-related attacks on the Book of Mormon misrepresent scientific findings by falsely claiming that Native American DNA originated solely from Asia. While Asia appears to be the leading source of ancient immigrants to the Americas, there is plenty of room for additional groups coming to the continent, and several studies have found evidence for non-Asian DNA that might not be explained by modern European admixture. These are discussed in Appendix 2 in the section entitled, "Throwing out the Pearl with the Oyster Shell: The Likelihood of Discarding the Most Interesting Evidence." The bottom line is that the "Asia only" model of ancient migration to the Americas is clearly incomplete.
However, if more direct evidences of Jewish/European origins were to be found in DNA evidence, it would likely be assumed to be due to modern admixture rather than due to pre-Columbian sources, which I discuss at length in Appendix 2. In fact, contrary to some anti-Mormon claims, it is not impossible to find genes characteristic of Jewish ancestry among some Native Americans, and while these may generally be due to modern mixing with European Jews, how can one be sure of that? One example is given by Carvajal-Carmona et al. (2000), who discuss the presence of several indicators of Jewish ancestry among the Antioquian population of Colombia. These genes are believed to be due to Sephardic Jews who came to the Americas with the Spaniards, but it is very difficult to prove that conclusively.
In fact, the mathematics of genetic mixing (see discussion in Appendix 3) imply that there should be "Semitic DNA" among Native Americas. According to Steve Olson in the highly acclaimed book, Mapping Human History (2002a, p. 114):
The forces of genetic mixing are so powerful that everyone in the world has Jewish ancestors, though the amount of DNA from those ancestors in a given individual may be small. In fact, everyone on earth is by now a descendant of Abraham, Moses, and Aaron--if indeed they existed.
Every Native American may literally be a descendent of Abraham and even Lehi, but a vast number of other ancient ancestors who also contributed their genes may make it difficult to find the remnants of Semitic DNA. This does not destroy the plausibility of the Book of Mormon, when fairly and accurately read. It also means that calling all Native Americans "children of Lehi" as some Church leaders have done is not such a blunder. Their DNA may be overwhelmed by Asiatic influences, but may also still share Lehi and thousands of others as ancestors.
There are other relevant scientific issues to consider besides studies of mitochondrial DNA or Y-chromosomes. For example, significant evidence of pre-Columbian Middle Eastern and European genes entering the Americas is offered by analysis of human lymphocyte antigens (HLAs), as James L. Guthrie has shown (2000/2001) using extensive HLA data compiled by Cavalli-Sforza et al. (1994). The HLA genes code for the histocompatibility antigens on the surfaces of many cells. HLA type is used to match individuals for organ donation (e.g., bone marrow transplants). Unlike mtDNA and Y chromosomes, HLA genes are not passed on only along purely maternal or paternal lines, possibly making it easier for minority genes to persist. While the HLA data do not contradict the possibility that Native American genes overwhelmingly came from Asia, there are small amounts of genes that appear to provide evidence for the pre-Columbian entry of other groups in ways that I suggest are consistent with Book of Mormon claims. There is evidence for pre-Columbian migrations from Europe and Middle East that may be compatible with Book of Mormon claims, for example. I discuss Guthrie's article in more detail in Appendix 3.
Once we recognize that the real challenge from DNA evidence is not contradicting the Book of Mormon text but rather what many of us assumed about the text, one can still register complaints. After all, if these leaders were prophets and apostles, why did they seem to think that the Book of Mormon described the origins of all Native Americans? Why weren't they more accurate in their interpretation of the text? Why didn't God correct these errors ASAP instead of relying on modern science to do it for us? Shouldn't we expect more scientifically nuanced prophets and revelation?
Critics may rage about God's purported failure to reveal complete scientific information to modern prophets. However, I believe that God's revelations are intended to teach people what is needed for salvation. If a prophet were to mistakenly think that a bat was a bird, a mistake Moses may have made (based on Deut. 14:7,18), then can we accuse that prophet of having led people to damnation? Not really. It's a detail of minor importance--at least of minor importance for the purposes behind the Book of Deuteronomy. When later scientific information reveals that bats are mammals, not birds, we can take several approaches in responding, such as:
I choose approach #2. In my opinion, the other two approaches are scripturally and scientifically immature, being two sides of the same coin. Both assume or require that the Bible be absolutely free of apparent problems. When possible evidence for a problem is presented, the immature response is simply to either deny the Bible or deny the evidence. Anyone attempting to resolve the two are dismissed as being apologists or corrupters of the word. To gain real knowledge, we must be prepared to dig into things as they are and not rely on grade-school level aphorisms to make sweeping conclusions. (For further background, see my essay, "Questions about Science and Mormon Doctrine.")
Recognize that prophets are mortal. Though they are inspired by God on many matters pertaining to our salvation, God does not replace 100% of their brain with new matter upon being called as prophet. I believe that they maintain their knowledge and understanding of things until God sees fit to provide new knowledge. Everything from their use of grammar to their preference of football teams to their understanding of ancient American history and the genetic makeup of indigenous peoples will be subject to their past education and experience. Biases, misconceptions, and limitations in understanding need not suddenly morph into perfect omniscience once they are called as prophets.
We can look forward to future revelations to help us better understand the history of mankind upon the earth and the details of God's creations. We can expect that true advances in scientific understanding will ultimately help us better appreciate God's creations and better understand the scriptures. Advances in knowledge have already done much to strengthen our appreciation of the Book of Mormon (consider, for example, the rich understanding that has come through investigations of the geography of the Arabian peninsula relative to Nephi's account, as discussed on my Book of Mormon Evidences Page). Further advances may challenge our assumptions about some things, but we should welcome all the light and knowledge that God sees fit to bestow upon us--recognizing, of course, that the scientific "truths" of any era have often been discarded or revised in light of later advances, so a degree of caution and patience is always advisable. And we must not make the mistake of letting the tentative and often incomplete or errant proclamations of men weaken our faith in the Savior, Jesus Christ.
There are still many issues to explore in the other pages of my material on DNA and the Book of Mormons, but let me offer a summary of my findings.
The application of DNA analysis to human genetics and ancient history has posed tough new questions for those who believe in the Book of Mormon, just as it poses tough new questions for those who believe in the Bible--and for those who "believe" in linguistics, anthropology, and other sciences. DNA evidence is forcing many old assumptions to be reevaluated, but is also causing genuine head-scratching as it sometimes seems at odds with reasonable conclusions drawn from other fields.
Science frequently causes old assumptions to be revised or even discarded. For example, it was long an assumption in Christian circles that the earth was created in six 24-hour days. Then the scientific evidence became nearly overwhelming for an old earth whose biosphere changed and developed over a course of many millions of years before man appeared. Many Christians then had to revisit their old assumption, noticing that the Hebrew word translated as "day" in Genesis 1 can also mean "epoch" or "time." (Latter-day Saints had a head-start in this area, as one version of the Creation story recorded in the Book of Abraham, translated by Joseph Smith, speaks of the creation events not in terms of days, but times.) Scientific evidence has led many Christians to drop an old but popular assumption to replace it with a more reasonable assumption, with no need to discard faith in God.
Many people, not knowing anything about the early settling of this continent outside of the migrations reported in the Book of Mormon, assumed that ALL Native Americans descended ONLY from the few small groups mentioned there. That assumption is wrong, to the best of our knowledge. The assumption that the Book of Mormon covered the entire hemisphere and explained all Native American origins is not supported by the text or by scientific evidence. It was not a matter of doctrine or anything affecting the core of our religion, but is an area of academic interest. Destroying that errant though understandable assumption with modern evidence does not destroy the Book of Mormon, but enhances our understanding of the details behind and helps clarify many issues in the text. The critics think they can destroy the LDS faith with DNA evidence, but all that is necessary is to revise and update an errant assumption--and keep learning!
For those seeking to understand the relationship between modern DNA studies and the Book of Mormon, there are several points to remember, each of which will be discussed in more depth below:
Further, we must recognize that DNA studies of Native Americans are still in their infancy. DNA tests have been conducted on a few thousand Native Americans, representing only a tiny fraction of individuals. The tested individuals also represent only a fraction of the tribes and languages in the Americas. We must not assume that we understand the origins of all the present or ancient inhabitants of this continent on the basis of such limited testing.
We should also keep in mind the confounding effect of admixture of genes with modern settlers as well as the elimination of possibly 90% of the population of the continent due to disease brought by European explorers and settlers--raising the possibility of extensive loss of evidence pertaining to ancient origins. What we don't see now in DNA testing doesn't rule out anything in the Book of Mormon.