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Does DNA Evidence Refute the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon? A Response to the Critics

The following was posted on the Salamandar Society web site.

January 29, 2003 at 11:30 am in the first floor auditorium of the Harold B. Lee Library on the BYU campus, there was a campus lecture featuring Dr. Michael Whiting which addressed the current DNA debate. It was entitled, "Does DNA Evidence Refute the Authenticity of the Book of Mormon? A Response to the Critics." (Click link for video stream of proceedings from FARMS website.)

Dr. Michael Whiting

After Whitings presentation, there was a panel discussion featuring: left to right - Heath Ogden, Doctoral Candidate, Molecular Systematics, Dr. Keith A. Crandall, Assistant Professor of Population Genetics, Dr. Michael Whiting, Assistant Professor of Integrative Biology, Daniel C. Peterson of FARMS, Dr. David A. McClellan, Assistant Professor of Molecular Evolution,


Question & Answer Session Following Dr. Michael Whitingís Presentation

Q: (unknown person) The Book of Mormon also says that the Lamanites, or the curse of the Lamanites came, it was a skin of blackness that came upon them that I would assume changed in some way their genetic code. I donít know if thatís true or not, but it seems the only surviving people of the Book of Mormon were the Lamanites. We donít know how much change of the genetic code may have occurred because of that curse, that so-called curse. And beyond that we are told that there wasnít a lot of mixing between the Nephites and the Lamanites, so we may not have any the Nephite genetic code?

Whiting: Let me allow Dr. Peterson to respond on how one might interpret that scripture.

Dr. Peterson: Of course we don't know exactly what the mechanism of that "curse" in quotes, was. It may well have been something like inter-marriage of the original descendants of Laman with the populations out there coming from groups that we know nothing about. Presumably the Nephites would have been careful about not marrying outside of the covenant. But I don't know if Laman and Lemuel cared all that much about such things. One striking thing is that very early in the Book of Mormon, very, very soon, the Lamanites vastly outnumber the Nephites which makes you think that something funny has gone on there. Unless theyíve had some really unprecedented population boom.

And we really don't know much about the Lamanites. It is difficult enough to construct a linear history of the Nephites from the Book of Mormon, but it's impossible with the Lamanites. Look at someone as prominent as the prophet Samuel the Lamanite. What do you know about him until he appears on the wall of that city? Nothing. He is presumed to be a great prophet but we know nothing about him. What do we know about him after he jumps off the wall? Of course, I've always thought looking at the wall in the Arnold Friberg's painting that he must have died (audience laughter). But presumably he lives after the fall but again we know nothing about him. Because the author is not interested in, really not interested in the history of the Lamanites and the structure of Lamanite society, excepting insofar as that it hinges on a Nephite story.

And so I think it is really useful to keep in mind the notion that John Sorenson has proposed which is that the Book of Mormon is a lineage history. It's a history of a particular line, a very, very small line. But the other lines, including other lines of Lehites, of other people connected with Book of Mormon story in some way are really of no interest to the Book of Mormon authors. But that curse may have been something as simple as simply inter-marrying with darker skinned populations which obviously could have genetic implications.

Q:  Dr. Shades who often posts at www.exmormon.org: In the beginning of Second Nephi there is a scripture, and I hope I am not butchering it. Lehi is blessing his sons. He says, "It is wisdom in the Lord that this land should be kept from the knowledge of all other nations for if the Lord had not kept knowledge of this land from other nations, that other nations would overrun this land." So why would we assume other native populations being here when Lehi pretty much says the exact opposite?

Dr. Peterson: Well we know an exception to that already when the Mulekites show up. Lehi knows nothing about them and yet they are there. Whatever Lehi may have thought, there were other populations there. The Mulekites came, the Jaredites came. They didn't know about the Jaredites. They only encountered them somewhat later. So, the idea that the Lord is somehow in control of who comes is not necessarily the same notion that there simply is nobody else there. Lehi at that point knew of noboby else and presumed from his own experience of being led there by the Lord, everybody else was. It may well be true. But there definitely were other people there. There had been other people beforehand and there were other people afterwards. So I don't think we can draw the conclusion from that particular passage that there is nobody else there, only the Lehites. The Book of Mormon itself makes it clear that that is not the case.

Absolutely clearly in the archaeological history of the New World is such that there are things going on before the Book of Mormon period opens and things going on well after the Book of Mormon period closes. But that is not in inconsistent with the certain reading of the Book of Mormon text which I think can be justified in the text or at least reconciled with it.

Q: (unknown person) Is fruit fly DNA the same as human DNA? (audience laughter) Summary of lengthy panel commentary: The structure of DNA coding is the same in all organism and can be studied and analyzed with the same techniques.

Q: (unknown person) We talked about how complicated it would be to get together a provable scientific structure. What Iím wondering is has it ever successfully been done? Where youíre dealing with source population from the past, colonization group from the past and youíre trying to describe what happens in the present. Has it every successfully been done?

A: Dr. Crandall: Yes, we do that all of the time, through genes.

Q: (unknown person) So, what was the question?

A: Dr. Crandall: The question is, as Dr. Whiting presented at the end of the talk, the difficulty of reconstructing the evolutionary history of a bunch of DNA sequences inferring for example a colonization of where these colonizers actually come from and the question is, ďHas that successfully been done?Ē And indeed it has. We do that all of the time, thatís what we do in our labs. We explore the evolutionary histories of various organisms trying to reconstruct those, part of which has a geographic component of where these things come from, where is their source. We do that in my lab with particular infectious diseases. Where do these diseases come from?

For example, the hot one these days is the West Nile Virus. When it was first introduced in New York it killed a number of people. They mis-diagnosed it. It wasnít until they sequenced DNA and did an evolutionary analysis to compare to other sequences out there that they identified it as West Nile Virus. So, yeah, we do that all the time.

Dr. McClellan: Let me add that there is really no way to prove anything with science. What we do is present a hypothesis and then the evidence either supports or rejects that hypothesis. You canít prove anything. Itís a fundamental, philosophical point, you know, that all science is based on. I think thatís one of the misconceptions that the public has about science.

Q: (unknown person) How many effective Book of Mormon generations are involved in this issue?

Dr. Crandall: Well if you take Dr. Whitingís figure of 1600 years and assume an average generation time of, I donít know, twenty years, divided by whatever average...(voice from audience: ďYouíve got to tack another millennium on here to include Lehi.Ē) [Several people spoke over each other to the point that the audio transcription at this point became muddled.]

Dr. Whiting: There are certainly theoretical population genetic models that you can incorporate generation time, times into incorporate effective population sizes into a look at coalescent times and see if, in fact you would still expect to have any information from that many generations in the past. Or if you would expect that all of your alleles, all of your DNA sequences would coalesce with a common ancestor at some point beyond more recent than the time period that you are trying to observe.

Q: (unknown person) I am intrigued by the fact that we Mormons seem to paint ourselves into culturally narrow boxes of our own choosing. Why do we presume that the Book of Mormon necessarily took place in the New World? It seems to me that there is very little evidence within the text itself starts where the longitude and latitude was. Substantively it is based on Moroniís comments to Joseph Smith that itís the record of the inhabitants of this continent. If Moroni was ;pointing to the equivalent of computer screen showing a vision, this could be anywhere in what was represented on the heavenly equivalent of a computer screen in a vision. If Joseph Smith was caught away to a far mountain, it could be anywhere in the world. Why do we necessarily find ourselves having to prove that it is the New World?

Dr. Whiting: That sounds like a question for Dr. Peterson. (audience laughter) Iím glad you came today. (audience laughter)

Dr. Peterson: I think I actually have seen a Book of Mormon geography that tried to locate it in the Philippines so there are creative thinkers out there. Well, and Asian. There is one on sale currently arguing that the book is an African book. I remain to be convinced. So, yeah go ahead and think wildly. Wild thoughts sometimes come up with interesting things.

Q: (unknown person) Are the conclusion you draw the same for the mtDNA and the chromosomal DNA?

A: Heath Ogden: There is definitely a difference between tracking the phylogeny through mtDNA and nuclear DNA.  However, a lot of the problems that Dr. Whiting alluded to such as genetic drift and founder effects and some of these other problems are a problem for both of the nuclear and mtDNA. Introgression is not as common in mtDNA but it does happen and it can happen. There are many cases of where they have found pieces of nuclear DNA getting in to the mtDNA or even pieces of male mtDNA also getting into the mtDNA. So itís not always a clear case, but itís a fairly good system to track human genealogy. The problem is that the mtDNA really only gives you one history. And as Dr. Whiting also poses, the gene is wrong. So what happens if your mtDNA history DNA is wrong?  Wrong means itís not really representing the real organismís history, alright. Itís own history is correct. (audience chuckles)

Dr. McClellan: Let me also say mtDNA is maternally inherited and as we know Laman and Lemuel were not female. So that would make it kind of hard if they preferentially inter-married with the native population.

Q: (unknown person) Well didnít they bring wives with them?

Dr. McClellan: Well , we donít know if thatís the only source they had for repopulating the area.

Q: Jose - native Peruvian: Dr. Whiting referred to the statement in the preface to the Book of Mormon that the Lamanites are the principal ancestors of the Native Americans, I thought somewhat condescendingly, a mere commentary. I want to know exactly what the weight of the scientific evidence does to that statement. Does it support that statement? Does it contradict that statement? With the state of the science right now should there be a different statement?

It seems to me, I'm left with the impression that it contradicts that statement and if that's the case will you join me in requesting the Church leadership to remove that statement from the Book of Mormon? Because it is now as we speak being used in the entire American continent as a missionary tool to lure members into the Church, perhaps under the mistaken impression that they are the descendants of Lamanites.

I am Peruvian. I grew up believing that I was a Lamanite. I am now overwhelmed with the surprise coming from the science, coming from the archaeological evidence. We don't know where the Book of Mormon took place. We don't know where the Lamanites are. If we don't know who the Lamanites are how can the Book of Mormon promise to bring them back?

It's an identity crisis for many of us that has to be understood. If it's misunderstood then it's going to come back to haunt the Church, in my opinion.

A: Dr. Whiting: At this point I would agree that the current scientific evidence suggests that the Native Americans have the Asia genetic ancestry. I am not in a position right now to argue that point. In regards to will I write a letter to General Authorities? I don't think I will but I think you are certainly welcome to, uh, welcome you to.

Q: (unknown student) The notion that there was an ancestral population in the Americas before the Book of Mormon came about...what sort of implications will that have for other kind of ideas that are in the Church? A world wide Noahic Flood, Adam and Eve existing four or five thousand years before Christ and the Garden of Eden is in Missouri?

Dr. Whiting: Wow! (audience laughter) Uh, so basically all the other difficult issues you want me to address? (audience laughter) I still have to write you a letter of recommendation, so we better move on. (audience laughter)

Q: (unknown person) I read an article in Discover Magazine four or five years ago talking about mtDNA and its sources, of Asian sources, of one source that was perhaps fifteen percent that was closest relation to western Europe. Do you think this article was worthwhile reading like me?

Dr. Whiting: I have not read that article. I mean you have to appreciate that the field of human evolutionary biology. Itís a very hot and dynamic field. In the advent of the genomic era where DNA sequencing and DNA genomic DNA scans has really opened up a whole new realm of data. And there are a lot of groups that are currently collecting these kinds of data. Newspapers come out everyday on analyzing these new kinds of data. But the data in general still strongly support for origins of peoples from North and South America coming from migrations through, from Siberia across the peninsula through Alaska and down. There is some debate about how many waves that have occurred. The current dogma is three. And the timing of those waves from thirty to twenty to fifty thousand years ago. But you know this is dynamic research so the Discovery Channel is a good way to catch up on whatís been happening and to get a nice summary of the current state of the science.

Q: (unknown person) I think it's a little unfair to leave this fellow in the back of the room (referring to Jose from Peru) hanging. (audience applause) One of the things that is unfair to me, maybe you can comment on it, Dan or someone else, is who are the Lamanites? Because we have to have a definition of who the Lamanites are, before we can throughout the statement that they are not the principal ancestors of the American Indians. If the Lamanites are by a broader definition are everyone who is not a Nephite, in the Book of Mormon, then there is no problem with that statement. Do you have any further insight on this?

Dr. Whiting: Probably not. (audience chuckles)

Dr. Peterson: Yeah, the question is, how can we be so sure that people are not Lamanites? Not of Lamanite descent? The term "Lamanite" changes meaning even within the Book of Mormon itself. At first they are simply the descendants of Laman and Lemuel. I suggest that within a generation or two that is no longer true. It looks to me that they must have inter-married with other populations. But then there are several combinations and re-combinations. I mean at one point Lamanites disappear effectively and then they become almost an idealogical term after that. To my point of view, what the Book of Mormon says is that everybody out there is sort of a undifferentiated Lamanite and so it's not clear to me, that we can say with confidence that we can say that somebody is not a Lamanite. And especially if you have this disappearance of this specific Laman gene, whatever it would be or the Lehite gene. You might even have people who really are descendants of people of that population group but it wouldn't be detectable genetically, I suppose. And so I am not comfortable saying that people in Peru, for example are not Lamanites.

If there was, we know that there was plenty of trade going. We're learning more and more about that. I'm not a specialist in pre-Columbian American archaeology, but we know there was a fair amount of trade. In my background in ancient studies generally we know that people got around a little bit more than we once suspected they did. Even China was not hermetically sealed off from Egypt. You find Chinese pottery in Egypt. You find, this particularly shocked me, you find Buddhist missionaries in the courts of Tolemese in Alexandria. I mean people got around.

So to me, when we finally figure it all out, when it's finally shown to us, it will be a very complicated thing. So I don't think it's necessarily wrong of modern day leaders of the Church to talk about Lamanites in places like Peru and elsewhere. They may well be descendants, but not genetically determined to be descendants of Lehi.

Well, I don't know it means. I don't even know if Lamanites is a genetic term in the Book of Mormon itself.

Q: Brent Metcalfe webmaster of Mormon Scripture Studies: The other gentleman made a very good point ... that ... classifying and identifying what constitutes a Lamanite is a huge issue. ... [T]he Book of Mormon ... is very specific on this. ... [I]t does in fact make very specific biological sorts of claims. For example, in Nephi's vision in 1 Nephi chapter 13 one of the things that [Nephi] is told by God ... [is] that the seed of his brethren will be preserved; that they will exist on into the last days, so that the Gentiles can bring them the Book of Mormon and tell them of their heritage -- their noble Lamanite heritage. But then Nephi is specifically told that a mixture of his seed would also be preserved. Now that makes absolutely no sense to me because basically what we are arguing is that Lamanites can be anything -- it can be anything that is non-Nephite -- because Nephi is being told that his own seed will in fact be preserved in the last days, so that they will ... discover their original identity, and that they are Israelites, effectively. That to me is a huge statement that I see ... being glossed over. I don't know any of your genetic backgrounds. I don't know how many of you are Amerindian or not (up on the panel), but I do think that this gentleman had a good point and it doesn't deserve to be just glossed over. (audience applause)

Dr. Whiting: Are you asking me as a scientist, is there a hypothesis? What is the hypothesis that you want me to ask? What is the experimental design? (some talking over each other)

Brent Metcalfe: Science is very specific on this point. Here we have the Book of Mormon, a revelation from God, where effectively what weíre being told is that the Lamanites ... in the last days [are Lamanites] not simply because they are non-Nephites; but to identify their noble and elect heritage. Then we have God coming to Joseph Smith in 1830 telling him to go send out the missionaries to the Lamanites, who were who? According to Oliver Cowdery, in his own description, they are the Delawarean tribe of Lamanites. They are going to the Delaware Indians! [And] they believe that they are going to ... teach them, according to D&C 3, who they are and from whence the came. Thatís a testable hypothesis in my mind.

John Tvedtnes of FARMS: There is archaeological evidence for ties between Meso America where most of this took place, the story of the Book of Mormon and South America as well as the Mississippi and Ohio River valley and the Southwestern United States. There were ties there and there were people who made them and they left lots of things and some genetic material, undoubtedly. But I believe also that we can not be sure exactly if one of the people who lives in the New World is a genetic descendant of Lehi or his group. (Dr. Crandall, who is non-LDS) said something to the effect: "But there's no genetic support for that.") But still you do have those ties mostly in post Book of Mormon times. I mean there are ties there.

Dr. Whiting: I do think that you can reject the hypothesis that all (unclear word or two) (over voice Ė ďYes, I would reject that.) Because the genetically pure are before the majority of Amerindians of Asian descent.

Q: (unknown person) What does ancient DNA add to this question, the ability to go back and find sources of ancient DNA and include that information in the analysis? Well, I have a project in my lab where we are actually taking a look at ancient fleas. We have an ancient flea project going on where we have a post-doc looking on fleas which are on mummies from a couple of thousand years ago. And what this does is add time component to the research which you canít get otherwise. And it also allows you to rule out the introgression of genes from the point after the DNA line. So I think there is a potential for ancient DNA to have some, but I think that most of the people who work on ancient DNA recognize in most cases that itís sort of hit and miss. Youíre lucky if you can get the right samples, youíre lucky to get them to work, and youíre lucky if you can make it repeatable.

Dr. Whiting: I think we have another class coming in now. Have a good day. (audience applause)


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