Sunday, February 2, 2014

The Book of Mormon and DNA Evidence

Over the past few years the Church has been putting out articles on the official website that address some of the common criticisms of the Church, its doctrine and its history. These articles rely on the best scholarship that has been done over the past 40 or 50 years. The most recent article is one that addresses the issue of DNA evidence and the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

As DNA tests and sequencing has become more common critics of the Book of Mormon have pointed out that if there really was a group of people that traveled to the Americas from the Middle East (West Asia) then there should be some DNA evidence of that found in the modern descendants of those people. But DNA studies have shown that the ancestors of the American natives came from East Asia. Critics quickly jumped on these studies to say, "Look! DNA evidence proves that the Book of Mormon is a fabrication of fiction!"

Part of this criticism is based on the assumptions made by members of the Church when they assumed that all inhabitants of the Americas before Columbus were descendants of the people in the Book of Mormon. Because this assumption was taught as doctrine for many years it became deeply ingrained in our (LDS) culture. But like other assumptions that members have made that have lead to accusations of anachronisms in the Book of Mormon, a careful reading of the text demonstrates the incorrectness of the assumption that the Book of Mormon takes place all over the Americas, as opposed to just a limited geography. Thus we cannot assume that all, or even most, of the American natives are descended from the Book of Mormon peoples.

As a quick illustration of this, below is a map of the world and I have marked in yellow approximately where the majority of the Bible took place.
Original image from Wikipedia.
On top of that most of the Old Testament took place in only a small part of that area. So if we were to study the DNA from a random sampling of people from all over Eurasia and Africa and then try to establish the authenticity of the the Biblical account we would have a hard time. The only reason why we can even attempt to do it for the Biblical record is because we have a continuous written history detailing the lands and people of the Bible going back more than 2000 years. We do not have anything comparable for the people of the Book of Mormon.

So while I can see why many members of the Church in their enthusiasm assumed that all the inhabitants of the Americas were descended from Book of Mormon peoples, the simple fact is we cannot make that case for the Bible, and we cannot make that case for the Book of Mormon. For reference I have included the same map from above but now marked with the assumed location of the Book of Mormon lands, based on the best current scholarship in the field.

The article put out by the Church explicitly sides with the limited geography model of the Book of Mormon (but not with any particular location) and allows for the vast majority of American natives to be descended from the people of East Asia. It then gives a very good review of why it would be very difficult to either prove or disprove the Book of Mormon based on DNA evidence. As the article puts it, "In short, DNA studies cannot be used decisively to either affirm or reject the historical authenticity of the Book of Mormon."

I found the article very interesting to read and it does a very good job at explaining, very simply, the complexity of doing DNA studies to find and track historic populations. I know of people who have lost their faith over this issue but if we take the time to learn just a little more about the subject we will see that these things should not be so faith shaking. We still have a lot to learn, and I'm excited about that. We may have to give up some of our preconceptions or ideas that have been regularly taught as "doctrine" over the past ~150 years but it is something that will be given to us line upon line, here a little and there a little.

Occasionally we will be confronted with things where we will say, "But that doesn't make sense because it completely undermines everything I know to be true!" But if we take the time to learn the new understanding offered to us then we will see that it is not incompatible with the faith and knowledge that we already have. It is just more being added upon us and not taken away.


LL said...

Not everyone on the ship from the old world to the new was named, but assuming 20 (large end of the speculation) people landed and roughly half of them joined with the locals, which they did - and the other ten ended up joining in time with the people from Zarahemla --- and sometimes with locals, the DNA would be statistically insignificant, which it is. It doesn't mean that the book is wrong, only the "legend as furthered by some members" is.

Jdropper said...

Excellent. I hadn't read this before I commented on your geographical place names post but it matches my thoughts precisely.