Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Why DNA and BOM Don't Mix

DNA will probably gain a better reputation among Mormons now that the Cohen modal haplotype has been found in Colombia, Brazil and Bolivia. (see this article in yesterday's Mormon Times.) But I've never had much faith in the possibility of proving that the people of the Americas descended from the Old World Israelites by DNA testing. The science of DNA continues to evolve, and thus far many theories coexist. There are several possibilities why DNA evidence to prove or disprove the Book of Mormon is not reliable.

Let's take Lehi's ancestry as our first example. We learn in the Book of Mormon that Lehi's biblical ancestors were Joseph and his son Manasseh. If you will recall, Manasseh is one of the ten lost tribes, who disappeared from the Biblical account after the Kingdom of Israel was totally destroyed, enslaved and exiled by ancient Assyria. We are not sure where the descendants of Manasseh ended up, and thus we are not sure where to find their DNA, to match it with Lehi's. Lehi's descendants would certainly have very different DNA than the modern-day Jews, who are descended from Judah, were taken into captivity and intermarried with many different peoples.

Thus far, DNA studies of American Indians have shown that they are related to populations of Asian heritage. But Michael Whiting, assistant professor of integrative biology at BYU believes that genetic drift and the Founder's Effect are two theories that can account for the loss of genetic markers within the "Lamanite" population. These two factors were probably at work over the last 1,600 years since Lehi and his family came to the American continent, he says. Genetic drift produces random changes in the frequency of traits in a population. The changes produced in any one generation by drift and natural selection are very small. But these differences accumulate with each subsequent generation and over time substantial changes occur. The Founder's Effect is a change in the gene pool of a colonizing population because it is founded by a limited number of individuals from a parent population.

Many Latter-day Saints believe there is much to suggest that Lehi and his family were absorbed into a larger group of people already living on the American continent. This is supported by the population increase which is described in the Book of Mormon itself. Scott R. Woodward, executive director of Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation, has explained that when a small group of people intermarry into a larger population, the DNA markers that might identify their descendants could entirely disappear even though their genealogical descendants could number in the millions.

The state of DNA research is such that there are limited conclusions that can be made about human populations. Research teams who identified and sequenced all 20,000-25,000 genes as part of the historic Human Genome Project in 2000 declared that their studies showed that "race" was not a valid scientific concept. The genetic difference between two individuals of the same race can be greater than those between individuals of different races. Much controversy continues to be seen among genetic scientists on this issue. Scholars agree that cultural, ethical, social, and philosophical challenges are raised when DNA is relied upon to resolve questions of history and identity.

For many reasons, DNA studies and the BoM do not fit. There are too many things about the genetics of the Book of Mormon peoples that we just don't know. It remains doubtful that even the sealed portion of the scriptures would contain the things we need to know to make conclusions about racial issues. DNA studies are still in their infancy. While there are some areas in which it can be useful, I do not see Book of Mormon studies to be one of them.


BHodges said...

If anything, the recent (and moderately overplayed) article on MormonTimes demonstrates the shakiness involved in DNA studies. I fear that members may be too eager- perhaps as much as critics- to grasp the slippery evidence of DNA.

M said...

I find it interesting that the DNA of Native Americans bears resemblance to those of Asian descent; didn't the lost tribes go to the "north?"

Either way, I'm always astounded at how quick Protestants are to point out every supposed conflict between the BOM and science and yet state that the Bible and science mesh perfectly. There's a reason why all of this is called our *faith*.

I think the information can be interesting to read, but at the end of the day, what do we base our testimony on - the findings of man or the whisperings of the Spirit?

Jacob J said...

One of the good things about the DNA debate is that it has caused more people to read the BofM closely for what it says rather than what we have assumed it to say. If nothing else it has gotten the word out to a lot of Mormons about the limited geography theory and the other migrations alluded to in the BofM.

Clair Barrus said...

According to scholars, the ten tribes were assimilated into the middle eastern population to the north of Israel. It was a common practice for conquering nations to relocate some of the population to other providences. This made rebellion less likely.

Also, it is probable that the nation of Israel emerged from the indigenous population of the area.

In other words, the peoples of the middle east, Jew, tribe of Joseph and others could be genetically related and share many of the same genetic markers. It would be interesting to know what research has been done in this area.

Now, if the entire area share some common, identifiable genetic traits, then those traits could be searched for in the new world.

Anonymous said...

Amen BIV,
While the hoopla over the latest DNA marker is largely a reaction to the vastly overstated DNA case against the the Book of Mormon, the fact remains none of this proves anything. It really doesn't even give solid evidence of everything. It is kind of sad how we have turned DNA into Magic. Population genetics is a vastly misunderstood field by most.

Anonymous said...

Great minds think alike! I just posted something about this too.


I don't know if you are aware of a DVD called "Quest for the Lost Tribes" by Simcha Jacobivici. He believes he has found the lost tribes. They are located in Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Afghanistan, China, India, Burma, Iran, and Burma (I'm sure I'm leaving some out.)

Anyway, what's interesting to me is that Jacobovici claims that the Tribe of Manasseh (Lehi's tribe) is in Burma. There is a theory out there at http://www.mormonlocations.com/ that claims the Book of Mormon took place in Burma (actually the Malay Peninsula), and it is intriguing to me that there is a possible DNA link to this theory.

Some will call this junk science, or wild speculation, but it is interesting....

Bookslinger said...

Biv: thanks for the layman's explanation of how the DNA argument against the Book of Mormon is pretty much a strawman.

Allen said...

We now have scientific evidence that DNA from immigrants can disappear from the DNA pool of later inhabitants of the area. Click here.