by Scott Johnson
(As appearing in the Fall 2004 edition of The Fieldworker)
When the video DNA vs. The Book of Mormon was released in March of 2003, the LDS Church was only beginning to wrestle with the implications of DNA research that posed serious challenges to the historical validity of The Book of Mormon. If the findings and the conclusions of the research are correct, then the entire Mormon belief system is based on a lie. It comes as no surprise, then, that the LDS Church has scrambled to provide answers to their followers, and by extention, counter-arguments to their detractors.
Because these counter-arguments are proliferating, we felt it necessary to address the more common ones, in order to equip those who are using the DNA video as a ministry tool, to be able to continue using it with confidence.
Some of the counter-arguments come from official sources (e.g., missionaries, bishops, and stake presidents), and others from LDS academic institutions (e.g., FARMS, FAIR, and BYU) as well as self-appointed apologists, such as Jeff Lindsay. The thing to keep in mind is that these are hardly unified voices; often these differing factions, and their answers to the DNA issue, directly contradict one another.
The arguments that they put forth are either patently absurd non-sequiturs, or they invoke a slough of arcane and irrelevant data that might sound scientific but really have nothing to do with the issue at hand. They become nothing more than a smokescreen, designed to confuse. The one thing these counter-arguments have in common is that they belie a belief system in crisis, that is grasping at straws to come to grips with the devastating evidence against their foundational scriptures.
Most of these challenges are dealt with either in the DNA video itself, or in the supplementary interview footage on streaming video from scientists such as Dr. Simon Southerton, Dr. David Smith, and Dr. Thomas Murphy (from whom these answers are primarily derived.) This, along with more detailed information about these challenges can be found on our website, www.mscbc.org.
The “Top 10” LDS counter-arguments to the DNA challenge are as follows:
1. “God changed the DNA of Native Americans.” This argument is often heard from the official LDS sources, and many Mormons themselves recognize this as a completely inadequate response. The obvious reaction is, “Why would God stoop to such trickery?” The argument sometimes tries to justify itself by saying that when, according to the Book of Mormon, God cursed the Lamanites with dark skin, that He had to change the DNA structure. Without getting into the racist implications of this statement, there are numerous examples of people groups, most notably the Lemba in southern Africa, who have been positively identified (using DNA testing) as having Hebrew ancestry, even though their skin color and physical features are like those of other Africans in their area. Similar examples have been found in Southeast Asia. A change in skin color or other physical attributes does not hide genetic ancestry.
2. “Archaeology supports the Book of Mormon story.” Such claims tend to be obscure and anecdotal, and come with no authoritative support. These supposed findings often appear a bit like grasping at straws; nevertheless, they spark a great deal of interest among those trying to prove the Book of Mormon true. No objective academic institution, however, has identified any Old World or New World find as supporting of the Book of Mormon account. Some have come forth (most notably the Smithsonian Institute) and specifically discredited the Book of Mormon account from an archaeological perspective. (Check out www.irr.org/mit/smithson.html for this statement.)
3. “We don’t know what Lehi’s genes looked like, so how can we presume to identify his descendants?” The fact is, if Lehi did exist, then we would know what his genes looked like--the Book of Mormon clearly states that he was Israelite. The genetic testing on Native Americans would have revealed Near Eastern DNA, which would have included all Semitic peoples—Jews, Israelites, even Arabs. If the “principal ancestors of the Native Americans” were truly Lamanites, which according to the Book of Mormon are a remnant of the house of Israel, then there would by necessity be at least some surviving Hebrew or Semitic DNA in a statistically significant population sample, yet none has been found.
4. “DNA science isn’t sufficiently advanced to make such conclusive statements.” This argument is ridiculous, especially when you consider the irony that LDS researchers have happily been using genetics in their geneological studies for years. In many ways, population genetic studies (such as those done on Native Americans) are more straightforward and reliable than the genealogical studies, because they examine the non-recombinant mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA, which remain intact and unchanged from generation to generation.
5. “The DNA video does not address that the same science used to refute the Book of Mormon also challenges the Bible.” This change-of-venue tactic is hardly a valid defense of the Book of Mormon. Nevertheless, the science that disproves the Book of Mormon (population genetics) actually validates the biblical record; for example, the relatedness of Near East peoples is clearly established by population genetics studies. Sometimes this challenge focuses on the implications of the timing of the Asian incursions into the American continent, which many experts place at anywhere between 15,000 and 50,000 years ago. It should be noted that there is a significant degree of disagreement among experts about the reliability of genetics as a timing device. All that said, it was never the video’s purpose or intent to contribute to any sort of debate over this. The video’s main objective was to answer the question: What is the genetic origin of Native Americans?
6. “The producers omitted portions of the interviews that conflicted with their particular worldview.” Considering that we condensed nearly 20 hours of video footage into a presentation of less than an hour, it only stands to reason that the vast majority of the interview material did not make it into the final cut. None of the scientists we interviewed have expressed any disagreement with the science or the scientific conclusions in the video. Now the gospel presentation at the end of the video is a different story. Some of them do disagree with the evangelistic intent of the video (though that intent was made clear to them from the project’s beginning). So clearly, there are differences in worldviews; there has never been any effort to conceal that, or to misrepresent any of the scientists’ beliefs or positions.
7. “Haplogroup X demonstrates a genetic connection between Hebrews and Native Americans.” This is a typical argument that employs a great deal of scientific jargon designed to give an appearance of reason, but actually backfires when all the facts are made known. In simplest terms, haplogroup X is actually found among populations in north and central Asia, which lends further evidence to support the connection between Native Americans and Asians. More detailed information on the haplogroup X issue can be found on our website.
8. “The Book of Mormon story may have only covered a limited geography and therefore, an isolated group of people that has yet to be identified.” This is a classic FARMS answer, and contradicts the official LDS position, which is that the Book of Mormon story covers the continent, not just an isolated corner of it. Nevertheless, the argument states that some isolated indigenous tribe may yet be found that has a Hebrew connection. Aside from its contradiction of official church position and the LDS scriptures themselves, the difficulty with this argument is that it’s not an argument at all, but only hopeful and baseless speculation.
9. “It is impossible to trace DNA through many generations. After a certain number of generations, the DNA of ancestors becomes diluted beyond recognition.” This statement is untrue for mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA, which are precisely the types that have been used to determine the ancestry of Native Americans. These types of DNA are passed down intact from generation to generation, unblended, and undiluted. Mitochondrial DNA is passed down the maternal line, and Y-chromosome DNA is passed down the paternal line. The detectable variations are the result of mutations over time, and not recombination. Since there are a limited number of these variations in mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA strains, they are ideal for studying population genetics and the origins of people groups.
10. “The Book of Mormon does not exclude the possibility of other incursions, i.e., of Asians, into the Americas; therefore it is unreasonable to assume that Native Americans would all have Hebrew DNA.” This argument relies on a certain degree of revisionist history, a common (and desperate) ploy in reconciling the DNA evidence with the Book of Mormon. The mention of other populations in the Americas at the time of Lehi’s arrival is conspicuously absent from the Book of Mormon, and other passages imply an uninhabited continent (e.g., 2 Nephi 1:8, “It is wisdom that this land should be kept as yet from the knowledge of other nations.”) Even if we allow for a previously inhabited continent, the introductory pages of the Book of Mormon specifically state that the Lamanites are the principal ancestors of Native Americans, and that they are a remnant of the House of Israel. If one takes the Book of Mormon at face value (as opposed to trying to reinterpret the term “Lamanite” as some apologists have done), the Hebrew lineage of Native Americans is at the very least significant, and would certainly be measurable. Even if there were other populations inhabiting the region, and a blending of the peoples did occur, there would still have to be some traces of Near Eastern DNA in a statistically significant sample of Native Americans; and yet none has been found.
Some Final Observations
There is overwhelming genetic, biological, archaeo-logical, and anthropological evidence which has failed to produce any evidence whatsoever supporting the Book of Mormon, and a great deal has contradicted it outright. The video DNA vs. The Book of Mormon continues to represent an accurate picture of the consensus of the scientific community at large regarding the origin of Native Americans. The conclusions vis-à-vis the Book of Mormon have not provoked challenges from any scientific or academic organization outside of the LDS sphere of influence. In fact, the answers to the scientific and other challenges that we have provided here come directly from those scientists who are authorities on the relevant subjects. We invite you to click on the following link to view video clips from DNA scientists speaking on the DNA issue facing Mormonism. More detailed information about addressing the challenges is also available by clicking on the links below.