Genetics and the Book of Mormon

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The Book of Mormon, one of the four books of scripture of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (see Standard Works), is an account of three groups of people. Two of these groups, according to the Book of Mormon, originated from Israel. There is generally no support amongst mainstream historians and archaeologists for the historicity of the Book of Mormon.

Since the late 1990s and the pioneering work of Luigi Luca Cavalli-Sforza and others, scientists have developed techniques that attempt to use genetic markers to indicate the ethnic background and history of individual people. The data developed by these mainstream scientists tell us that the Native Americans have very distinctive DNA markers, and that some of them are most similar, among old world populations, to the DNA of people anciently associated with the Altay Mountains area of central Asia. This conclusion from a genetic perspective supports a large amount of archaeological, anthropological, and linguistic evidence that Native American peoples' ancestors migrated from Asia at the latest 16,500–13,000 years ago. (See Settlement of the Americas and Genetic history of indigenous peoples of the Americas).

The mainstream scientific consensus about the origin of the ancient Americans and peoples is apparently at odds with the claims put forth in the Book of Mormon, though Mormon apologists have made efforts to reconcile these apparent contradictions.

Overview of the genetic challenges to the Book of Mormon story[edit]

The genetic challenge[edit]

The understanding of Joseph Smith, and, traditionally, of Mormons in general, is that the Book of Mormon indicates that the Amerindians include, among their ancestors, Lamanites, descended from Lehi, and are therefore a "remnant of the House of Israel". This traditional understanding was compounded by the wording of the preface to the Book of Mormon from 1981, although it was not part of the actual text and the wording was updated in 2007 to clarify the issue.

LDS researchers compare existing genetic evidence with the Book of Mormon story[edit]

LDS/Mormon researchers such as anthropologist Thomas W. Murphy and former-LDS plant geneticist Simon Southerton state that the substantial collection of Native American genetic markers now available are not consistent with any detectable presence of ancestors from the ancient Middle East, and argued that this poses substantial evidence to contradict the account in the Book of Mormon. Both Murphy and Southerton have published their views on this subject (Southerton 2004). The arguments of both Murphy and Southerton were disputed by David G. Stewart in a 2006 edition of FARMS Review.[1]

Followup of genetic claims in the media[edit]

Southerton's work was later used as a source for an article written by William Lobdell and published in the LA Times on 16 February 2006, which contains the following. “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.”[2]

Lobdell's article prompted a response from Latter-day Saint supporters, including several articles referenced on the official LDS web site (see external links below).

The origin of groups described in the Book of Mormon[edit]

Statements regarding the Hebrew ancestry of Book of Mormon people[edit]

An introductory paragraph added to the Book of Mormon in the 1981 revision states in part: "After thousands of years, all were destroyed except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians."[3][4] That addition from 1981 was changed in a 2006 edition, that stated only that "the Lamanites ... are among the ancestors of the American Indians." This change, church leaders said, was in harmony with the claims of the Book of Mormon itself, and what some Latter-day Saints had long perceived.[4] For instance, in 1929 Anthony W. Ivins, of the LDS Church's First Presidency, cautioned church members: “We must be careful in the conclusions that we reach. The Book of Mormon teaches the history of three distinct peoples … who came from the old world to this continent. It does not tell us that there was no one here before them. It does not tell us that people did not come after. And so if discoveries are made which suggest differences in race origins, it can very easily be accounted for, and reasonably, for we do believe that other people came to this continent. A thousand years had elapsed from the time the Book of Mormon closed until the discovery of America, and we know that other people came to America during that period.”[5] Spencer W. Kimball of the Council of the Twelve Apostles said in October 1959 at General Conference, "Millions of you have blood relatively unmixed with Gentiles. Columbus called you "Indians," thinking he had reached the East Indies". "The Lord calls you "Lamanites," a name which has a pleasant ring, for many of the grandest people ever to live upon the earth were so called. In a limited sense, the name signifies the descendants of Laman and Lemuel, sons of your first American parent, Lehi; but you undoubtedly possess also the blood of the other sons, Sam, Nephi, and Jacob. And you likely have some Jewish blood from Mulek, son of Zedekiah, king of Judah (Hel. 6:10)". "You came from Jerusalem in its days of tribulation. You are of royal blood, a loved people of the Lord. In your veins flows the blood of prophets and statesmen;" .[6] Spencer W. Kimball said in April 1971 at a Lamanite Youth Conference, "With pride I tell those who come to my office that a Lamanite is a descendant of one Lehi who left Jerusalem six hundred years before Christ and with his family crossed the mighty deep and landed in America. And Lehi and his family became the ancestors of all of the Indian and Mestizo tribes in North and South and Central America and in the islands of the sea".[7] Ted E. Brewerton of the First quorum of the Seventy said in October 1995 "Many migratory groups came to the Americas, but none was as important as the three mentioned in the Book of Mormon. The blood of these people flows in the veins of the Blackfoot and the Blood Indians of Alberta, Canada; in the Navajo and the Apache of the American Southwest; the Inca of western South America; the Aztec of Mexico; the Maya of Guatemala; and in other native American groups in the Western Hemisphere and the Pacific islands".[8]

The origin of the Jaredites[edit]

According to the Book of Mormon, the Jaredites were a group of people that left the Old World after the fall of the Tower of Babel, but does not give any information that would allow conclusions to be drawn about their genetic or genealogical background. Jaredite survivors of the concluding war described in the Book of Ether could be ancestors to some Native Americans. This theory is advocated by several LDS scholars due to a variety of contextual clues.(Sorenson 1992) This is where some writers believe that the Lamanites get their Asiatic heritage.(Nibley 1988, p. 250)

Nephites and Lamanites in the Book of Mormon[edit]

According to the Book of Mormon, the terms "Nephites" and "Lamanites" actually lose their original significance pursuant to the visitation of Jesus Christ to the American continent after His resurrection; His coming ushers in a period of peace in which the two conflicting nations merge into one, in which "There were no robbers, nor murderers, neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of -ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God." (4 Nephi 1:17). But later on in the narrative, as members of the unified nation fall away from the faith, the term "Lamanite" comes to signify wickedness (rather than blood heritage), whereas "Nephite" comes to signify a follower of Christ, both terms alluding to the previous nations' predominant moral tendencies. Eventually, however, even the righteous "Nephites" grow proud and fall into wickedness comparable to that of those termed Lamanites, though they retain the now rather hypocritical distinction "Nephites." The Nephites do battle with the Lamanites perpetually, until finally around 400 AD the Nephites are said to have been annihilated by the Lamanites in epic battle involving about two hundred thousands Nephites (and possibly larger amount of Lamanites) near hill Cumorah. The nation of the Lamanites is understood to have continued on beyond the close of the Book of Mormon.

Response to the genetic challenge from Book of Mormon defenders[edit]

Book of Mormon population models[edit]

Defenders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints have made arguments in return, generally centered on the idea that the Book of Mormon peoples from the Middle East formed only a small contribution to the population of the Americas, so that their genetic heritage may have been diluted beyond what can now be detected. The Limited Geography Model of the Book of Mormon (accepted by most LDS scholars) supports this position. This geographical and population model was formally published in the official church magazine, The Ensign, in a two-part series published in September and October 1984.[9]

Critics of the limited geography model say that the Book of Mormon does not make clear reference to any other people groups that may have existed in the Americas that would account for the dilution of the Middle Eastern genetic markers in the New World.{[10]} Therefore, it is argued, a "traditional reading" of the Book of Mormon suggests that "most, if not all," the ancestry of the pre-Columbian inhabitants of the Americas came from this Hebrew migration in ancient times (Southerton 2004, p. 156).[11]

The Book of Mormon makes reference to groups from "other countries" that could be brought to the New World. In 2 Nephi, Lehi states "the Lord hath covenanted this land unto me, and to my children forever, and also all those who should be led out of other countries by the hand of the Lord" (2 Nephi 1:5). Mormons have taught since the time of Joseph Smith that this is in reference to the European colonizers of the Americas.[citation needed] It is subsequently stated that allowing too many other people in the land would cause them to "overrun the land, that there would be no place for an inheritance" (2 Nephi 1:8). Later, however, "other nations" would have power to "cause them (the Lamanite remnants) to be scattered and smitten" (2 Nephi 1:11). Lehi said further that the remnants would not "utterly be destroyed" (2 Nephi 3:9).

According to the limited geography model proponents, the most direct evidence of prior inhabitants was when Lehi's party found domesticated animals when they arrived in the Americas (1 Nephi 18:25). This was part of the story line, however, and does not support the limited geography theory, since the Book of Ether says these animals were brought by the Jaredites.

LDS advocates of the mound builder setting for the Book of Mormon, maintain that native peoples of Central and South America are predominantly of Asiatic origin.[12] Mormon tradition, and not LDS scripture, has over generalized the use of the term “Lamanite” in identifying these peoples.

Factors affecting DNA composition of the New World population[edit]

LDS scholars also say that the DNA taken from modern-day Israelis has been intermixed with DNA from many other nations, thus they do not contain the same traits that Israelites had when Lehi left Israel (Stubbs 2003). Also, modern Native Americans have intermixed, which has changed their DNA from that of their ancestors' as well. It is also noted by LDS researchers that another factor affecting genetic diversity of New World inhabitants is the fact that 90% of the population died as the result of disease introduced by the Spaniards and others after their arrival (Coe 2002, p. 231).[13]

Michael F. Whiting, director of Brigham Young University's DNA Sequencing Center and an associate professor in BYU's Department of Integrative Biology, concluded in his article "DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective" that Book of Mormon critics attempting to use DNA "have not given us anything that would pass the muster of peer review by scientists in this field, because they have ignored the real complexity of the issues involved. Further, they have overlooked the entire concept of hypothesis testing in science and believe that just because they label their results as "based on DNA," they have somehow proved that the results are accurate or that they have designed the experiment correctly. At best, they have demonstrated that the global colonization hypothesis is an oversimplified interpretation of the Book of Mormon. At worst, they have misrepresented themselves and the evidence in the pursuit of other agendas." Additionally, although he admits the usefulness of population genetics and of DNA in inferring historical events, he contests that, "given the complexities of genetic drift, founder effect, and introgression, the observation that Native Americans have a preponderance of Asian genes does not conclusively demonstrate that they are therefore not descendants of the Lamanite lineage, because we do not know what genetic signature that Lamanite lineage possessed at the conclusion of the Book of Mormon record." Lastly, he concludes, "[There is] a strong possibility that there was substantial introgression of genes from other human populations into the genetic heritage of the Nephites and Lamanites, such that a unique genetic marker to identify someone unambiguously as a Lamanite, if it ever existed, was quickly lost." and that, "There are some very good scientific reasons for why the Book of Mormon is neither easily corroborated nor refuted by DNA evidence, and current attempts to do so are based on dubious science" (Whiting 2003, pp. 24–35).

Murphy responded to Whiting's comments as follows: "While Whiting, in his presentation for FARMS at BYU, exclaimed delight at the prospect of evolutionary biology coming to the defense of the Book of Mormon, he offered no scientific data to substantiate an Israelite origin of indigenous peoples anywhere in the Americas. In fact, he conceded, 'current genetic evidence suggests that Native Americans have a genetic history representative of Asia and not the Middle East.'". Murphy further states "One of the most surprising critiques to emerge was the false allegation that I am evading peer review or that the research I reviewed would not stand up to peer review." "the article ("Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics") was a summary of genetic research on Native American origins, nearly all of which had been subjected to peer review prior to publication in leading scientific journals such as American Journal of Human Genetics, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and American Journal of Physical Anthropology." "Whiting's and Lambert's claims are little more than an inaccurate projection of the inadequacies of LDS apologetics onto my publications." (Murphy, p. 113)


  1. ^ Stewart, David G., Jr. (2006), DNA and the Book of Mormon, FARMS Review (Provo, Utah: Maxwell Institute) 18 (1): 109–138 
  2. ^ Lobdell, William. "Bedrock of a Faith Is Jolted", Los Angeles Times, 16 February 2006
  3. ^ Stack, Peggy Fletcher. "Single word change in Book of Mormon speaks volumes", Salt Lake Tribune, 08 November 2007
  4. ^ a b Moore, Carrie A. "Debate renewed with change in Book of Mormon introduction", Deseret News, 08 November 2007
  5. ^ Anthony W. Ivins, Conference Report, April 1929, p. 15
  6. ^ Spencer W. Kimball, ["To You...Our Kinsmen"], Conference Report, pp 57-62, October 1959.
  7. ^ Spencer W. Kimball, "Of Royal Blood", Ensign, July 1971.
  8. ^ Ted E. Brewerton, "The Book of Mormon: A Sacred Ancient Record", Ensign, Nov 1995.
  9. ^ Sorenson Sept. 1984;Sorenson Oct. 1984
  10. ^ Murphy, Thomas (2003). "Simply Implausible: DNA and a Mesoamerican Setting for the Book of Mormon". Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36 (4): 109–131. 
  11. ^ Regarding the hemispheric geography model, Southerton states: "Since the traditional geography model most closely aligns...with an uncontrived reading of the Book of Mormon, it is not surprising that it is still the most widely accepted view in the church."
  12. ^ Olive,P.C.
  13. ^ Referring to the introduction of smallpox, influenza and measles, Coe states that "It is generally agreed among scholars that these produced a holocaust unparalleled in the world's history: within a century, 90 percent of the native population had been killed off, including that of the Maya area."


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