An LDS DNA difficulty

3 minute read

The LA Times is carrying a story by writer William Lobdell about the apparent conflict between the Book of Mormon and DNA evidence for New World settlement.

For Mormons, the lack of discernible Hebrew blood in Native Americans is no minor collision between faith and science. It burrows into the historical foundations of the Book of Mormon, a 175-year-old transcription that the church regards as literal and without error.
For those outside the faith, the depth of the church's dilemma can be explained this way: Imagine if DNA evidence revealed that the Pilgrims didn't sail from Europe to escape religious persecution but rather were part of a migration from Iceland -- and that U.S. history books were wrong.

The point at issue -- described at length in the article -- is the proposed history of New World populations as descendants of ancient Israelites. But some propose an alternate reading:

The latest scholarship, they argue, shows that the text should be interpreted differently. They say the events described in the Book of Mormon were confined to a small section of Central America, and that the Hebrew tribe was small enough that its DNA was swallowed up by the existing Native Americans.
"It would be a virtual certainly that their DNA would be swamped," said Daniel Peterson, a professor of Near Eastern studies at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, part of the worldwide Mormon educational system, and editor of a magazine devoted to Mormon apologetics. "And if that is the case, you couldn't tell who was a Lamanite descendant."

The LDS church has <a href=,15331,3885-1-18078,00.html">a short response</a> to the article, including:

Recent attacks on the veracity of the Book of Mormon based on DNA evidence are ill considered. Nothing in the Book of Mormon precludes migration into the Americas by peoples of Asiatic origin. The scientific issues relating to DNA, however, are numerous and complex. Those interested in a more detailed analysis of those issues are referred to the resources below.

The resources include several papers from the journal Journal of Book of Mormon Studies.


I'm posting this because I think it gives an alternative picture of how genetics is affecting our interpretation of history and religion. Genetics must be consistent with human evolution -- otherwise there would be no explanation for it at all. And of course there are many stories of human origins that don't jibe with evolution or genetics.

But to a degree that has always been true -- the fossil record clearly isn't consistent with most origins stories, independent of anything we know about genetics.

So it's interesting to me that genetic research seems to have caused a deeper crisis than Darwinism alone ever did. Maybe this is because genetics is fundamentally more intrusive -- it deals directly in blood (figuratively if not literally), and requires the direct participation of living people. If you want to know about the origins of the Maori, you have to sample the Maori. I would also guess that a big part of the perceived importance of genetics is result-oriented -- genetics promises to find out who will get what diseases, and actually has had predictive successes. Genetic research just seems to articulate more with life than paleontology does.

And genetics is just more detailed than fossil evidence -- traces of the ancestors of New World populations must lie in their descendants. This evidence may still leave out many details, but it fills out a much fuller picture than even hundreds of bones could do.

It's also interesting to see the varied way that religious traditions respond. Some simply deny the relevance of science, of course. Others differentiate the subjects into categories appropriate to science (history of life) and religion (morality).

The LDS response quoted in the article has a great deal of genealogical sophistication -- it is much like the way that anthropologists argue about the persistence or swamping of Neandertal DNA, for example. Definitely different traditions respond to scientific insights in different ways!