The church is quietly releasing articles on difficult subjects via their LDS.org website under the Gospel Topics section. The latest is titled, “Book of Mormon and DNA studies.” Similar to other subject specific articles, it acknowledges some modern viewpoints of LDS beliefs that go against various older, but very entrenched cultural beliefs; incorrect beliefs that are often perpetuated by well meaning local church leaders, apostles and prophets. Because of my passions for evolution and watching sociological trends of the Mormon Church, I got very excited for this article.
My passion for evolution came while at BYU where I majored in Zoology in preparation for dental school. A better title for my major would have been Evolutionary Biology, especially considering that was the name of the capstone class you take at the end. Despite the College of Biology’s back and forth with the Religious College I don’t think they wanted to push too hard and put the “E word” in the name of their most frequently taken major. Either way, we had quite a few classes that went into depth on subjects discussed in this article such as Founder Effect, Genetic Drift and Population Bottlenecks.
There is a long history of statements being made by church authorities saying that all Native Americans are descendants from the three small groups that migrated from the ancient world to the Americas as described in the Book of Mormon. DNA evidence now shows that this isn’t true and that evidence is causing people to doubt their previously held beliefs in the book. Combating this problem is the purpose of the article and why it goes into great depth on the scientific processes of genetics.
“Some have contended that the migrations mentioned in the Book of Mormon did not occur because the majority of DNA identified to date in modern native peoples most closely resembles that of eastern Asian populations.”
While the explanation of those processes is completely accurate and sound, it is misleading in three ways. One, they are glossing over the history of mistakes in a sentence or two, therefore ignoring 98% of the problem. Conversely, they are putting forth several detailed paragraphs about science in an effort to look like they are being complete and thorough on the subject. Finally, this long, detailed explanation is not arguing against the main complaint of the opposition.
The articles takes the stance as if the opposition is against what the text of the Book of Mormon says, when in reality it is against the 150 years of statements from prophets and apostles referring to all Native Americas (AKA Lamanites) as being descendents of Book of Mormon peoples. In my opinion an honest argument against the opposition would say, “We (prophets and apostles) have made incorrect assumptions and statements about the origin of the Native Americans because of our excitement for the Book of Mormon. While DNA evidence proves that those statements were incorrect, it doesn’t disprove what the book actually says on the subject within it.” Another example of this is how the church recently changed the wording to the introduction of the Book of Mormon. It used to say all the people in the book “were destroyed, except the Lamanites, and they are the principal ancestors of the American Indians,” but now it says the Lamanites “are among the ancestors of the American Indians.”
All of the genetic principles discussed in the article are solid. I believe they had a BYU genetics professor or someone with a similar background write the parts that explain how a small population could easily lose its genetic markers as it blends with a larger population. I also believe they then handed it off to correlation to add on the beginning and ending apologetic paragraphs.
Curiously, the article’s long and very detailed scientific explanation gives a tacit approval to the foundation of genetics, which is evolution. This is evident in the argument’s supportive statements, such as, “The ‘molecular clock’ used by scientists to date the appearance of genetic markers is not always accurate enough to pinpoint the timing of migrations that occurred as recently as a few hundred or even a few thousand years ago.” Unfortunately evolution has been made into a bad word because of statements from Joseph Fielding Smith and Bruce R. McConkie. Ironically, Elder McConkie was told by the First Presidency to not publish his views because they would be seen as the official stance of the church due to his position of authority. Especially considering that leaders like B. H. Roberts, James E. Talmage, Hugh B. Brown, John Widtsoe, Henry Eyring and Joseph F. Merrill all supported the biological principle of evolution. He nevertheless went against the First Presidency’s wishes after the prophet’s death and their fear, as we can clearly see today, became a reality.
The science of genetics has caused the church to quietly change its positions (as generally taught previously) but it is done without admitting anything was previously wrong. Many people like myself applaud these changes, but feel like the church isn’t being honest in its attempts to discuss these difficult subjects like Polygamy and Priesthood. Rather than admit mistakes and publicly apologizing as a public entity for the pain those mistakes have caused, they quietly put the corrected version on their website without discussing the main points that are creating doubt and disillusionment. This feels dishonest and further increases the very problem they are trying to combat. It even seems dishonest by the church’s own definition of honesty…“We can also intentionally deceive others by a gesture or a look, by silence, or by telling only part of the truth.” Gospel Principles, Chapter 13).
The biologist in me gets excited by the way this article embraces scientific truth. It is definitely a step in the right direction, away from the science-phobic statements of an outspoken few church leaders in previous generations that influenced the church culture at large. Hopefully this trend will open up the way for more truth, transparency and straightforwardness about our history and doctrine from church leaders in the future.
Finally, I can’t help but point out how I disagree with a quote by Elder Oaks.
“It is our position that secular evidence can neither prove nor disprove the authenticity of the Book of Mormon.”
I don’t know about you, but I think if a secular scientist found a 1900 year old metal sign that said, ”Welcome to Zarahemla, the city of the prophet of Jesus Christ, namely Nephi, a descendent of Lehi” then I think we would say that secular evidence has now proved the BOM true!