Answers to Apologetic Claims about DNA and the Book of Mormon

The following are some of the most frequently advanced arguments from the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) and the Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research (FAIR) related to DNA and the Book of Mormon—most notably (or at least most succinctly) in the latter’s brochure, Is an Historical Book of Mormon Compatible with DNA Science? Since these claims have gained some currency within LDS circles and I am frequently asked about them by individuals who have either read my book or otherwise tried to follow developments in this area, I have concluded that it would be best to summarize my responses in an equally succinct manner. 

"However, such a scenario [as suggested by Mormon apologists] does not square with what the Book of Mormon plainly states and with what the prophets have taught for 175 years."

1. The Book of Mormon does not present a testable hypothesis.

Some LDS scientists argue that the Book of Mormon does not present a testable hypothesis and that, since other scientists are not testing the Book of Mormon directly, the data collected by non-Mormon scientists is irrelevant to the origin of Book of Mormon people. The question scientists are asking is: "Who are the ancestors of the American Indians?" In fact, about 7,300 American Indians have been DNA tested in scientific experiments aimed at discovering where their founding ancestors came from. The Book of Mormon claims in its introduction that the Book of Mormon people (the Lamanites) "are the principal ancestors of the American Indians." Most LDS adherents believe, and all the LDS prophets have taught, that Israelites are the principal ancestors of the American Indians. It is therefore absurd to claim that what the scientists are discovering about Indian heritage is irrelevant. Scientists are inadvertently asking the same question posed by the Book of Mormon, and LDS beliefs about Indian ancestry fall squarely into the scientific field of anthropology. Molecular anthropologists are uncovering evidence that is directly relevant to LDS beliefs in this area.

2. Mitochondrial DNA only tells us about one ancestral line out of many. If we go back ten generations, it only tells us about 1 in 1,024 of our ancestors. If we go back another ten generations, it only tells us about 1 in over a million of our ancestors.

On the surface this argument appears impressive; but it is an argument with little substance. The vast majority of mitochondrial lineages found throughout the world can be grouped into less than twenty-five major family groups represented by letters A, H, X, and so on. If we look at American Indians, essentially all of their mitochondrial lineages fall into one of five major families: A, B, C, D or X, none of which were derived from Israel. If we go back twenty generations, we are not talking about millions of unknowable mitochondrial lineages in an American Indian’s pedigree chart. We are talking about five lineages. All of those million-odd ancestral slots would be occupied by the same five regional mitochondrial lines. Even those that end up in males and are not passed on to the next generation came from the same five sources. It is possible that some lineages may not have been detected yet or have been lost in time through chance, but these would have been very rare mitochondrial family lines.

3. We don’t know what Israelite DNA from Book of Mormon times looks like.

We know that Lehi and his associates in the Book of Mormon were Israelites, and we know a great deal about the DNA lineages of living people whose ancestors were Israelites reaching back 2600 years ago. Israelite DNA lineages belong to the same family groups found in European populations: the H, I, J, K, N, T, U, V, W and X groups. Essentially all Europeans and Israelites possess one of these lineages. In fact, other Middle Eastern populations such as the Syrians, Egyptians, Lebanese and other Arabic groups have similar mitochondrial DNA lineages belonging to these families. There is a smattering (<0.4%) of lineages in American Indian populations that are clearly, exclusively of European origin, most probably from Spain rather than from the Middle East. However, scientists justifiably assume that these lineages represent post-Columbus intermixing. The lineages in question are most common in North American tribes that had the greatest impact with Europeans and are very uncommon in Mesoamerica, which FARMS claims is the only "plausible" site for the Book of Mormon. In addition, European mitochondrial lineages are extremely rare in Polynesia.

4. The X lineage could be evidence for Israelite ancestry.

American Indian X lineages share a common ancestral lineage with Siberian X lineages. It is also clear that American Indian X lineages have been in the New World for in excess of 15,000 years. American Indian X lineages are distantly related to Israelite or European X lineages. In fact, most Israelite X lineage are now grouped in a different family, the N family, because they are so different from Asian and American X lineages. The X line has also been found in ancient remains that pre-date the Book of Mormon period.

5. The mitochondrial DNA lineages tell us nothing about the male lineages.

This is correct, but Y chromosome studies among Native Americans show equally strong links to Asia (>90%) as do studies among Polynesians (>90%). There is a higher presence of lineages that are of exclusively European origin, but this is not surprising given that males, beginning with Spanish explorers, dominated the early European conquest of the Americas and Polynesia.

6. The wives of the early Book of Mormon colonists (Sariah and others) may have been Asian since their ancestry is not specifically mentioned, and they could have brought the A, B, C, D, and X lineages to the Americas.

It is exceedingly unlikely that Asians carrying Asian lineages traveled to Israel where they intermarried with the ancestors of the Lehites and Mulekites. If this did occur, we would expect to see (but do not see) Asian lineages among Middle Eastern populations. The amount of DNA variation found in each of the five American Indian female DNA lineage families indicates that they have been present in the Americas for at least 15,000 years, possibly longer. This predates the existence of Israel by many thousands of years.

7. The bottleneck effect, genetic drift, and other technical problems would prevent us from detecting Israelite genes.

In 600 BC there were probably several million American Indians living in the Americas. If a small group of Israelites, say less than thirty, entered such a massive native population, it would be very hard to detect their genes today. However, such a scenario does not square with what the Book of Mormon plainly states and with what the prophets have taught for 175 years.

8. When God cursed American Indians and changed their skin color, as reported in the Book of Mormon, God could have changed their DNA as well.

If so, why would God change the DNA so it matched Asian DNA? As Latter-day Saints, we have already offended Blacks and the Indians. Are we going to offend Asians now, as well?

Author’s note: I may respond to further apologetic claims as more appear.

Used by permission of Signature Books.

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