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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Defending the Book of Mormon: The DNA Rebuttal

In the past year, a number of religious, scientific and historical skeptics have come forward with new evidence that they believe completely and utterly destroys the validity of the Book of Mormon. This new evidence, which centers on several DNA studies, states that the claims made in the Book of Mormon, particularly regarding the origins of Native Americans, is completely and utterly bogus. Now, as most religious people are aware, one cannot prove the validity/invalidity of the Book of Mormon (or any scripture for that matter) purely with science. Scripture, and religion in general, are matters of faith which transcend the physical world. As a result, any person of faith (from almost any religion) will tell you that a spiritual conversion is paramount to understanding matters of faith. And as our missionaries have been stating for over 100 years, one needs to pray sincerely and with real intent to the only source (God) that can give your soul clarity on such issues.

With all of that aside, I want to focus on these alleged "smoking gun" discoveries that supposedly shed "irrefutable" doubt on the validity of the BoM.

First off, as some of you probably already know, the Mormon Church recently made a one-word change to the introduction of the BoM. The old version read:
After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principle ancestors of the Native Americans (my emphasis).
The new version reads as follows:
After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and thy are among the ancestors of the Native Americans (my emphasis). "After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are among the ancestors of the American Indians."
So why the change? First off, let's keep in mind that this is NOT the first time that the Mormon Church has made changes to the BoM. There have been literally hundreds of changes over the years. Unlike many Evangelical Protestants, we as Mormons do not accept the doctrine of Sola Scriptura -- i.e the infallibility of scripture. We accept that ALL scripture (including the BoM) is written by man, and therefore subject to human error. Even the Title Page of the BoM reminds us of this:
And now, if there are any faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God, that ye may be found spotless at the judgement-seat of Christ.AndAnd now, if there are faults they are the mistakes of men; wherefore, condemn not the things of God...
This simple fact helps us understand the change. The Mormon Church has always tried to update and correct its doctrine/scripture when necessary.

Now, skeptics will claim that these changes are the symptom of a church cover up. They will say that these recent DNA discoveries have forced the Mormon church to change fundamental doctrines in an effort to appease the scientific community. They are mistaken. The Mormon Church has never EVER claimed that our scripture was perfect. In fact, the very man who translated the BoM made such a claim:
"I told the brethren that the Book of Mormon was the most correct of any book on earth, and the keystone of our religion, and a man would get nearer to God by abiding by its precepts, than by any other book."
Nowhere does Joseph Smith say that the BoM is infallible. Instead, he says "most correct." This still allows for human error to occur, but does not take away from the book still being the "most correct" of any on earth.

Now, this whole controversy over one stupid little word is the result of some recent scientific discoveries. In 2006, around the same time that the change to the BoM introduction was made, scientists were testing the DNA of several old Native American tribes that were still in existence. Their results: the DNA of Native Americans IS NOT Jewish/Hebrew/etc., but instead is ASIAN. As a result, Mormon skeptics have literally pounced on this proclamation and declared it to be proof-positive that the BoM is/was a fraud. After all, how can one refute DNA evidence? Isn't this the same evidence that is declared to be 99.8% accurate in a court of law? Case closed, right?

Not so fast.

There are a few factors that we must take into account before we simply declare this study to have closed the book on the BoM case. Here are four key issues that all of us (including the Mormon faithful) need to consider:

#1: New World Colonization
From all credible archaeological and historical accounts, the "New World" was populated with between 300 and 400 million native inhabitants. As we all know, after Christopher Columbus "sailed the ocean blue in 1492" and discovered the New World, a literal fever of exploration, colonization and conquest caused the Spanish, French, Dutch, English, Portuguese and others to stake their claims in these strange lands beyond the Atlantic. And as history shows, the European conquest was a huge success, a success that inadvertently caused the literal genocide of the vast and diverse Native American population. Between the early years of Columbus' discovery (1492) and the onset of the American Revolution (1776) most experts estimate that the amount of death (caused primarily by European disease) took the lives of over 80% of all Native people. In other words, 8 in 10 Native Americans were dead before the United States ever became a nation.

So what does this mean for the BoM? Simply put, the DNA samples taken from these various ancient tribes is only indicative of 20% of all Native Americans. In other words, the test conclusively proves that 2 in 10 Natives don't match what is preached in the BoM.

But it gets worse.

#2: Mitochondrial DNA
As most laymen (or women) know, DNA are the basic building blocks of life that is past on to offspring through sexual contact. Both male and female chromosomes combine to create a new life form, whose genetic makeup is a mix of both paternal and maternal DNA (I realize that as a novice in science I have no right to make any profound comments on DNA research but I think my very simplistic explanation is sound for this topic).

Now, when testing the descendants of a particular individual/race/civilization, scientists are not able to simply take a regular DNA sample. Instead, they must look to MITOCHONDRIAL DNA. The Mitochondria is often referred to as "the powerhouse" of the human cell. And for some reason, it contains its own DNA that can be traced back thousands of years to determine one's origins. From all scientific standards, the testing of mitochondrial DNA is foolproof and considered a solid scientific practice. As a result, any assault on the testing of mitochondria, from the perspective of accuracy, would be futile. HOWEVER, there is one key element to mitochondrial DNA that does shed doubt on the DNA testing of Native Americans. Mitochondrial DNA is MATERNAL. In other words, a male cannot pass on his genetic material into the mitochondria of his children. Only the female can accomplish this.

So what does this mean for the DNA testing of Native Americans? It means that the results are a representation of FEMALE genetic origins. And since men account for roughly 50% of the human population, we are forced to omit 50% of all Native Americans from this test. So, we take our 20% of surviving Native Americans and divide it in half, which gives us roughly 10%. Simply put, the DNA testing of living Native Americans proves that only 10% of all Native Americans are of Asian decent.

Hence the reason for the change in the BoM intro. The testing clearly proves that 1 in 10 Native Americans do not fit with the BoM story. So, in an effort to reflect this reality, the Mormon Church has made the change..."AMONG the ancestors of the Native Americans."

#3: Reading the BoM the Right Way
This probably sounds conceded. I'm not suggesting that I know the right way to read the BOM. That's a personal decision. Instead, I am suggesting that we get rid of an old but persistent myth when reading the BoM. For too long, members (and non-members alike) have assumed that the BoM is the story of three separate migrations to the New World: the Jaredites, Lehi and his family, and the people of Mulek. The BoM mentions these three, AND ONLY THESE THREE independent migrations. For some reason, it is assumed that these parties arrived to a virgin land, vacant of any other human life, and that somehow these relatively small migrations multiplied until they became large enough to fill all the lands from Canada to the tip of South America.

My question: where does it say ANYTHING to this effect in the BoM? Why do we insist that Nephi, Lehi, Bro. of Jared, etc. were the ONLY people living here? Isn't that quite presumptuous? For one thing, the wives/daughters of Lehi, Nephi, Laman, Lemuel, etc. would have had to give birth to HUNDREDS of children each in order to hit the numbers that Columbus and other explorers encountered in 1492. Physically speaking, this was impossible for women of the ancient world.

Perhaps the following analogy will help make sense of this. When we read the records of the Puritan settlers of Massachusetts, they often make it sound as though they stumbled upon a fresh, untouched, virgin land just waiting for them to colonize. As we know this wasn't the case. Literally thousands of Native Americans lived in and around the region, not to mention the fact that a dozen or so European ventures had already been in the area. The Puritans didn't discover a virgin land and neither did Lehi, Nephi, etc.

#4: What Tribe Were They?
Last point. Remember what tribe Lehi was from? He was the son of Joseph, who was sold into Egypt (1 Nephi 5: 14-16). And as we know, Joseph had two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh. Now, we have no way of knowing which of the two Lehi came from, but it is at least very likely that they came from Manasseh. Why? Manasseh was a nomadic, wandering tribe that was heavily involved in shipping, trade and sheep-hearding. And if you recall, Nephi, Laman, etc. were unfamiliar with Jerusalem when asked to return to the city by Lehi. I find it interesting that Nephi keeps calling Jerusalem the "Land of our Inheritance" instead of "Home." Could it be that they were hardly ever there? Wandering about as Manasseh had always done? As quasi-nomads?

And then there's the case of Lehi. Isn't it amazing that he had no problem wandering in the "wilderness." It was almost as if he had done it before...lots of times. Could he have been a trader? How did he and his kids learn Egyptian?

And remember Ishmael? Back in Lehi's Day, "Ishmael" was a VERY popular name among...not Jews...but the ARABS! Why would Lehi be friends with an Arab?

Of course this is all speculation, but the evidence seems to support it. And here's one last thing to consider about Manasseh: Since they were a wandering tribe, that meant they were regularly in contact with other civilizations. In fact, national identity in the ancient world was nothing like it is now, and as a result, the intermixing of blood was common. Could Manasseh have incorporated some Asian blood? Oh, and keep in mind that the Assyrians conquered and led away the tribe of Manasseh during their conquest of Jerusalem. It wouldn't be hard to see how intermixing could have taken place at that time as well!

In conclusion, the so-called "smoking gun" evidence provided by DNA testing is anything but. Fortunately, we don't have to rely on that.  In the end, The Book of Mormon, like any book of scripture, requires faith.  Science, history, etc. have their roles but so does scripture, and for that I am glad we have the Book of Mormon today.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Well said.