Sunday, May 25, 2014

Population Growth and The Book of Mormon

Every so often I come across an argument against the Book of Mormon that I feel I have to respond to in some way. Some arguments are so trivial that they can be dismissed out of hand but there are a few that look damaging on first view but with a little thought and additional information the apparently damaging argument loses its bite. The hardest ones are the arguments that are presented in a seemingly logical manner with numbers, facts, figures and even references to reputable sources yet have some underlying, yet not immediately apparent failing that invalidates the argument. The thing that makes these arguments so hard to counter is the fact that they take time and lots of understanding to expose the underlying failing that is fatal to the entire argument.

A while back I came across an argument that attempted to prove that the Book of Mormon could not have occurred in the real world, that is, it was a work of fiction. There are many such arguments but for some reason this argument stuck with me, not because I believed it or thought it had any merit but because I could not come up with what I felt to be an adequate response to the argument. I could very easily point out the major fallacy of the argument but I was having a hard time arranging a sufficient counter argument with enough data to consider the issue settled.

The basis of the argument that I will be addressing is that given the number of people who arrived in the Americas with Lehi and Mulek there could not have been sufficient population growth by the time the major Nephite-Lamanite wars happened to make the losses reported on both sides unrealistic given the supposed possible population size. One anti-Mormon critic laid out the argument and then concluded,
"Even the most unbiased person must look at the facts and numbers that history and demographics provide and come to the undeniable conclusion that the numbers just don't add up. One can prove the Book of Mormon wrong by using a simple $1.99 calculator and a few books on world demographics. Sadly, even in the light of such obvious facts, some of the best and brightest and most sincere people the world has to offer have fallen for the lies of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints."
Well I don't have a simple calculator that costs $1.99. I have a $500 computer with some expensive software. So I guess that is why I came to a different conclusion than this particular anti-Mormon critic.

First let me establish the basis of the argument. As I mentioned above the basic criticism is that given the relatively small number of people that arrived in about 589 BC there could not have been sufficient population growth by the time the wars described in Alma happened to realistically support the number of losses reported in the wars. The crux of the argument comes when our critic proclaims,
"Population growth during this pre-agricultural period was virtually nonexistent, roughly .0001 percent per year or less. This is an established fact that can easily be confirmed. (Parsons, Jack. Population versus Liberty. London: Pemberton, 1971, 33; Miller, G. Tyler. Living in the Environment. 4th Ed. Belmont, MA: Belmont, 1985, 88-91; Ehrlich, Paul R., and Anne H. Ehrlich. Population Resources Environment. 2d ed. San Francisco: W. H. Freeman, 1970, 6)"
Citations in the original text. So the essential part here is that in historic times the average population growth rate was very small (we will overlook the fact that he first cites the rate of 0.0001% which would only be true for a non-agrarian, hunter-gather society, despite the fact that there are ample references to Nephite and Mulekite societies being agrarian, non-hunter-gather societies and thus would have a higher average population growth rate).

 But as the critic goes on to point out,
"For the Amlicite-Nephite war of 87 B.C.E., Alma 2:17-19 reports a total of 19,094 fatalities. On the basis of these figures John Sorenson, a professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University, estimated the total Nephite-Lamanite population to be over 600,000 at that time (about 200,000 Nephites-Amlicites and over 400,000 Lamanites). For an original band of thirty reproductive individuals in 590 B.C.E. to proliferate even to 19,094 by 87 B.C.E. would require an average annual growth rate of 1.3 percent sustained over the span of five centuries. To reach the 600,000 level Sorenson determined to have existed at that point, the growth rate would have had to be 2 percent, again maintained for five centuries. This is a level never reached on a global scale until C.E. 1960 and fifty times the actual world rate of the pre-industrial epoch." (Emphasis added)
So here is the problem. Given the very small historic (or pre-historic) average population growth rate of 0.0001% (or 0.3%, or 0.04% depending on which part of the article you are reading, the author is never quite consistent nor does he settle on a number) it would be impossible for the less than 100 original settlers to reach a population of 600,000 people within 500 years. That would require a population growth rate of 2% (not 0.2%, 2.0%) which, as the author points out, is a rate practically unheard of until modern times. To make this case the author includes a table with "Average Percent Annual Global Growth Rates" from a variety of different sources. While there is some difference among the different sources they are all fairly consistent and agree that the "Average Percent Annual Global Growth Rate" before 1650 was 0.3% or lower, which is what our anti-Mormon critic seizes on to make his case.

When I first heard this argument I could tell it was fallacious on the face of it because it confuses the "Average Percent Annual Global Growth Rate" with a local non-average population growth rate. Given the concept of an average we should expect there to be years, or even several years, where the growth rate is above average, and several years where the growth rate is below average. This would be true for a specific location. When we take those fluctuations from location to location, all over the world, and average them together we get the global average. Local populations may vary from year to year, or from century to century, but on average the global population growth rate is fairly consistent.

So essentially the author is fundamentally misunderstanding (either intentionally or unintentionally is hard to tell) what the average global population growth rate really means. It would be like saying that the average temperature where you live could not have risen by 20 degrees over the past six months because the global average surface temperature is only rising by 0.3 degrees per decade. Our esteemed critic seems to have a hard time understanding the concept of a global average.

But what would be a reasonable population growth rate at that time? This is the question that had me stuck for a while. It is easy to point out that there is a difference between a global average and a local population growth rate, but is it reasonable to have a 2% growth rate in a pre-modern society?

To answer this let us look at the population of Rome during the Roman Republic. The history of Rome provides a good analog to the time period in question from the Book of Mormon because it happens at approximately the same time and has a few similarities that allow for a good comparison. To be sure there are some very important differences, but those differences can also play into our discussion here.

The Roman Republic was founded in 509 BC and officially lasted until Octavius was proclaimed Caesar Augustus in 27 BC. So just like in the Book of Mormon we have an agrarian society centered on a city state that covers approximately 500 years in the first millennium BC. Also during that time there are several wars, but also some territorial expansion and the integration of surrounding populations into the city state. We don't have population data for the Nephites and Mulekites but we do have some of the data for Rome.

Below I have a graph of existent Roman Census data. Blue crosses are census data with green lines indicating a year where war impacted the population of Rome. Red lines indicate years with major epidemics. I did not include years of economic crises. These census data are a bit complex because these only give the number of freemen who hold property and thus are eligible for military service. These numbers do not include slaves, women or children (generally, though there are a few censuses where this rule was not followed). The population ranges from about 100,000 men around 500 BC to more than 4 million in 14 AD.
Below I have the percent rate of population change per year calculated from the previous census.
The actual population of Rome is a matter of intense debate among scholars. There may also have been a few censuses where the numbers are different from the other censuses because they changed the way they counted freemen or citizens. But one thing we can see from the graph showing percent change per year is that there were several periods of a population decrease, no change, or population increase. Some of the percent changes are quite dramatic such as an average drop of -6% per year for five years. Others time periods, such as in the first century BC (from about 86 BC to 26 BC) saw an average population growth rate of 4% per year, for 60 years. During that time the population of Rome went from about 460,000 freemen to just over 4,000,000 freemen* (*some debate about whether or not this number includes women and children, but no hard evidence). Not an insignificant change.

The other thing to realize here is that during this time there were several major wars that affected the population of Rome. For example, in 387 BC the city of Rome was burned to the ground and almost abandoned. Yet a little over 100 years later Rome fought Carthage in the First Punic War which resulted in more than 155,000 Roman soldier deaths while fielding approximately 700,000 soldiers over the course of the 23 year war. Not to be outdone, 23 years later Rome and Carthage engaged in the Second Punic War in which Rome fielded more than 782,000 soldiers and lost more than 300,000. That war only lasted 17 years and saw Rome directly threatened by Hannibal. At this time Rome had a policy of using land holding, free (non-slave) soldiers in their armies. You can see significant drops in the population of Rome during these wars. At several points Rome was losing on average 4% of its population per year due to these wars. Yet the population rebounded within a few years to the point that in 200 BC Rome was invading Greece and beginning to take control of some of the lands conquered by Alexander the Great.

While the average population growth rate per year may fluctuate wildly we can also take the population data and by doing a linear fit of the data we can see that the population grew about 0.3% per year over the course of the Roman Republic (hmmm, so that is where all those historians came up with 0.3% per year for population growth before 1650). But this nominal rate of 0.3% per year masks some of the wild ups and downs of Rome during that time. It does not show the hundreds of thousands lost in the Punic Wars nor the incredible population growth in the lead up to the start of the Roman Empire and the end of the Republic. If you insist on a population growth rate of 0.3% or lower for all dates before 1650 then there are a great many empires and nations, and not just the Romans, who long would have been wiped off the map from war and disease.

Essentially if our anti-Mormon critic were to apply the same logic that he uses on the Book of Mormon to Rome he could very easily disprove the reality of the First and Second Punic Wars. "Even the most unbiased person" who insisted on a strict population growth rate of 0.3% per year could use his $1.99 calculator to disprove the existence of the Roman Republic and the later Roman Empire.

But wait! There's more!

Our critic may argue that Rome was a special case, or that the population of Rome was inflated by immigrants (never mind the fact that the Romans were picky about who could call themselves a Roman citizen, until the Empire came along that is). But there were so many other Empires throughout history with comparable losses in battle that without occasional periods of higher than average (0.3%) population growth we all would have died out long ago.

To our anti-Mormon critic the numbers may seems incredible but given our recorded history the numbers and approximate populations in the Book of Mormon should not come as a surprise.

So again we ask the question, how reasonable is a 1 or 2% population growth rate? Sure we have seen it over a period of 50 or 60 years in the Roman Republic, but over 500 years? In the book Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond was addressing the issue of how the world came to be populated by humans. In discussing this he said,
"One might also at first be surprised that the Americas evidently fill up with humans so quickly.... That population growth also proves unsurprising when one stops to consider the actual numbers.... [I]f the initial colonists had consisted of only 100 people and their numbers had increased at a rate of only 1.1 percent per year, the colonists' descendants would have reached that population ceiling of 10 million people within a thousand years. A population growth rate of 1.1 percent per year is again trivial: rates as high as 3.4 percent per year have been observed in modern times when people colonized virgin lands, such as when the HMS Bounty mutineers and their Tahitian wives colonized Pitcairn Island." (p.45.)
A population growth rate of 1.1% per year, sustained over 1000 years, Dr. Diamond calls trivial and notes that higher rates "have been observed in modern times when people colonized virgin lands". In the case of the Nephites and Mulekites in the Book of Mormon we have two groups of people moving into apparently sparsely populated, but not entirely empty land, and then 500 years later fighting wars that would require a total population of 600,000 people or more. Surely this is within the realm of possibility given what we know of demographics throughout history.

But wait! There is still more!

As a final example we can read in the Bible about the children of Israel who entered Egypt with 70 souls (plus Joseph and sons), yet when they left 430 years later they had 600,000 men, which would mean a total population of roughly 2 million people. These numbers would require an average population growth rate of 2.4% per year to accomplish this. While there may be some anti-Mormon critics who would have no problem using this fact to discount both the Book of Mormon and the Bible, I find it slightly satisfying that for those critics who hold to the Bible, and only the Bible, the numbers presented in the Bible require a larger population growth rate than the rate they claim disproves the Book of Mormon. By their own logic the Bible they hold so dear has been shown to be a fraud. Unless you use something more than a $1.99 calculator and a basic understanding of what an average population growth rate is.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Stories from My Mission: "It seems you have a lot of doubts"

This experience comes from my first area in the town of Bella Vista, Corrientes. I was with my second companion Elder Bullock (we also happened to have graduated from the same high school). One day while out tracting we ran into a man who did not seem interested in talking to us at that time but was very enthusiastic about us coming back later that evening. Because we didn't have anything else that evening we agreed.

A few hours later we arrived at his house and he was still eager to talk to us, and demonstrated his interest by bringing out a few books to use in the discussion. In retrospect I don't think any first discussion I had on my mission ever went well when the person was excited to talk to us. The discussion started like just about any other discussion. We talked about the Church and Joseph Smith. At one point we read a scripture from the Bible and the guy asked if he could see my companion's Bible. As missionaries we were aware of the common criticism against the Church that we use a different Bible (we don't, at the time we used the Reina-Valera 1960 version) so my companion handed over his Bible so the man could see for himself that we have a standard Bible.

The man quickly took the Bible, opened his own and began to compare the title page of his Bible to ours. He began counting the number of books and because he was comparing our Protestant derived Bibles to his Catholic Bible he came up with a different number of books (seven to be exact). Whereupon he handed back my companion's Bible and declared that it was wrong because it was incomplete. To which my companion replied, "Oh really? Do you know which books my Bible is missing?"

"No." he replied.

"Do you know what is in the books that your Catholic Bible has that mine doesn't?"

"No." again was the reply.

"Then how do you know that our Bibles are wrong?"

"But your Bibles don't have the correct number of books!"

"But if you don't know what is in those extra seven books then how do you know that we are actually leaving out something important?"

Realizing that this line of attack wasn't getting him anywhere and that it was actually demonstrating his ignorance rather than ours he switched tactics. He changed the topic by bringing up polygamy. He said that we could not be Christian since we practiced polygamy. My companion assured him that we do not currently practice polygamy. The man insisted that we still do practice polygamy.

Intrigued my companion asked where he was getting his information. At this point he pulled out a little book from his stack of books. Essentially it was a primer on different religions written from a Catholic perspective. The section on Mormons was, shall we say, severely lacking in logic and relevant factual information. He read us a few paragraphs from his book and in that selection he read a quote that essentially stated something to the effect, "There are X number of polygamists living in Utah. Of the people in the state Y% are Mormons. Therefore Mormons still practice polygamy."

Even at the tender age of 19, without ever taking a class on logic, I knew this was bad logic. I pointed this out to him and he became defensive. My companion, a bit amused at his lack of logical rigor, asked where his book got the quote from. He said something that neither one of us could understand. He read the source again from the book but we couldn't make out what he was saying. I asked to see the book and he handed it over. I found the quote and read the source. It was from the Ladies Home Journal, from the 1920's or 30's. At this point my companion laughed out loud much to the confusion of the man we were talking to. My companion had to explain what the Ladies Home Journal was to him (I think my companion called it "Chisme de las mujeras." "Ladies gossip."). Our adversary was beginning to realize that he probably hadn't picked the best resource for a gospel fight. He was about to learn that he was seriously spiritually out gunned.

We went back and forth for a bit but we realized that we weren't getting anywhere. He offered a few more arguments, but eventually his arguments devolved into general objections against religion and not just our religion in particular. He was also realizing that he actually didn't have any good arguments.

It was at this point that my companion commented and said, "It seems like you have a lot of doubts."

He hung his head slightly and admitted that there was a lot of things he had doubts about.

What followed was one of the most powerful testimonies I ever had the opportunity to hear on my mission. My companion leaned forward and said, "I know that what I believe is true. I know that what we have in the scriptures is the word of God. I have no doubt in my mind that Joseph Smith was a prophet of God and that he translated the Book of Mormon. There is no doubt in my mind about God and His Church on the earth. You may doubt but I have no doubts about what I know and your doubts and what you don't know can never change what I do know and what I don't doubt."

The man, struck by the forcefulness of my companion's testimony compared to the weakness of his own doubts quickly shot back and threw up a defensive wall of, "No! I actually do know things!" and "I don't have any doubts." But it was to no avail we both had heard him say in all honesty and sincerity that he was full of doubts. We wished him a good night and left.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

Stories from My Mission: How I Knew the Book of Mormon Was True

I grew up in the Church which means I always remember going to church and hearing about the Book of Mormon. My family also had daily scripture study which mean that we would all sit together as a family and read at least a verse from the Book of Mormon. I learned about it in Sunday School and Seminary and it never entered my mind to ask whether or not the Book of Mormon was true. I never doubted that it was true or that it was anything other than it claimed to be so it never occurred to me to pray and ask if it were true. I might as well prayed to know if the sun was shining (considering I grew up in Arizona it is not something I would ever doubt).

For a good portion of my time growing up I got to hear the experiences and testimonies of young men and women who left on missions and then came back. I think there was a period of time when we averaged four or five mission farewells or homecomings every month. There were many, many return missionaries who talked about how they learned that the Book of Mormon was true. Some had very powerful life changing experiences that they related to us. Some had experiences that lasted an entire night. Others told how it happened very suddenly and could point to a specific time when they "knew".

Despite all of these stories I never had had a similar experience nor had a specifically looked for it to happen. I never thought about it because why would I ask about something that was as obvious as the sun?

When it came time for me to put in my mission papers I was just starting at BYU. I had had plenty of spiritual experiences in my life. There was a lot that I knew as a matter of fact and faith, but I had never attempted to pray to ask if the Book of Mormon was true.

After I entered the MTC I was submersed in a climate of faith and spirituality. It permeated everything we did. Everything we did became an extension of our faith. Everything, from our meals, to our sleep, to our service, to our exercise, to our learning was focused on faith and spiritual knowledge. We spoke it, we cried, we bore testimony. There was nothing that we did that was not infused with the spirit. It was at that time that many of the missionaries around me began to talk about how they had prayed to know if the Book of Mormon was true and had received an answer. It was something mentioned in our language classes. It was mentioned in church, in testimony meetings, in devotionals, in choir practice. Everywhere we were reminded that we were to bear testimony of the the Book of Mormon and that we could not do that if we did not have a testimony ourselves of whether or not it was true.

I think at the time there were several Elders in my district who had had powerful experiences while in the MTC and told the rest of us about their experiences. Even though I participated in the testimony meetings and added my voice to theirs in witnessing that the Book of Mormon was true I had never prayed to know if it was true. I had never had a powerful experience confirming the truth of the Book of Mormon to me. I had never had my "Alma moment" as it were.

The more I thought about it the more I thought that I should ask God whether or not the Book of Mormon was true. But why would I ask about something that seemed so obvious? I wrestled with this uncertainty for a while (about two days, I tend to be indecisive) before one night I decided to pray to ask God if the Book of Mormon was true. I knew the pattern, I had to read it (check). I had to ponder about it (check). I had to remember how merciful the Lord had been (check). And then I had to ask.

After reviewing Moroni 10:3-5 again I knelt down and prayed to know if the Book of Mormon was true. Immediately I got my answer. God said, "What are you asking me for?!? You already know it is true!!

Immediately I felt silly for giving in to the "need to ask" mentality. I had always known it to be true so I never had to ask. I did not have to ask about something that I never doubted.

Since then the truthfulness of the Book of Mormon has been demonstrated to me in a multitude of ways. I have learned more than I ever thought I could and I learned things that I was not even aware that I did not know or understand. What God was trying to teach me is that I do not have to return to the same things that I already know but that He wants me to inquire after things that I don't know so that He can teach me. Line upon line, precept upon precept. I also learned that when we pray God will answer us in the language that we understand. He knows us so well that He can answer us in the way that will have the most impact and meaning to us. He would not say the same thing to others who ask but He said it to me because He knew that I would know and understand. That is the way of God and the voice of the Spirit that we must learn to recognize.

Hearing the Voice of the Spirit

I have just a short story to tell today. On Monday morning I was getting ready to go to work when the thought came into my mind that I should go to the temple and that I should go the next day (Tuesday). As I thought about it I wondered if it had to be on Tuesday or if I could go any other day. But the thought came back stronger than before with the distinct impression that I needed to go in the evening specifically. At this point I began to think if it were possible to go on either Thursday or Wednesday and again the thought returned that I needed to go on Tuesday in the evening.

By this point the thought was strong enough that I knew I was not dealing with my normal "What am I going to do this week" thoughts. There is a very distinct difference between my own thoughts and the voice of the Spirit. It is something that I have learned to recognize over the years. It is not something that is learned immediately but it is something that must be learned over time. After enough experience you can learn to recognize the voice of the Spirit much in the same way that you learn to recognize the voice of a good friend. You would not mistake your best friend who you see and talk to every day for a stranger nor would you recognize a stranger as a friend. I don't mean that you might not recognize your friend in a crowd or see someone out of the corner of your eye and think it was your friend. I mean you would not mistake your friend for a stranger when you are focused on them and have been speaking to them for more than 30 seconds. To learn the voice of the Spirit is to know him as you would know a friend. In a conversation with out distractions his voice is as clear as the voice of a friend or family member.

So I wondered if it had to be Tuesday afternoon/evening-ish or if I could be any other day or even Tuesday morning (because I was open Tuesday morning). But again the thought came back that it had to be Tuesday and I knew that I would be leaving in the afternoon and get back in the evening.

I finished getting ready to leave and I went to check my email and that is when I saw a message from the Elder's Quorum President in my ward. The young men and young women were having a temple trip and they needed volunteers to help out with the temple trip. They were meeting at 5:00 pm on Tuesday and needed to get to the temple by 6:00. As soon as I saw the email I knew that I needed to go and help and that was why I had been prompted to go. I responded to the email saying that I could help. It turned out that we had barely enough Melchizedek Priesthood holders to help. We actually needed one more and a temple worker had to fill in. The Raleigh temple is a small temple and there aren't a lot of temple workers so if a youth group shows up and they don't have enough leaders or volunteers to help then it is hard for the normal temple workers to also help the youth group and do their normal work.

It was a small thing but the Lord knew that they needed help and He knew that I would listen. Sometimes His instructions are very specific and sometimes they are not, or even occasionally entirely absent. But His Voice is always clear once you have learned to recognize it. As clear as the voice of a friend.