The Restoration of Christ's Church

OK people, put your seat-belts on because we’re about to embark on a complicated journey through the world of population genetics as we explore what DNA evidence has to say about the historicity of The Book of Mormon.

Here’s the deal. The Book of Mormon tells the story of a family from ancient Jerusalem that crossed the ocean and colonized somewhere in the Western Hemisphere where they started an entire civilization. With that as a foundation, the Church has taught for a long time that many Native Americans were, naturally, descendants of that family. So from a genetic perspective, you’d think that some portion of Native Americans should have heritage in the Middle East.

And here’s where things get sticky for a lot of people. DNA research on Native American origins shows that their ancestry is largely Asian—Not Middle Eastern. To a lot of CSI fans, that’s all the evidence they’d need to cause them to chuck their Book of Mormon out the window. But I’m afraid it’s not nearly that simple.

It’s important to separate the research from our assumptions about the research. The research says that Native Americans, at least whatever sample they drew from, have a heritage in Asia. I’m not disputing that. The assumption critics pull from that is, therefore, Lehi isn’t real and The Book of Mormon is false. Here are just a few reasons why that’s not a safe assumption you can make:

First: The Book of Mormon only tells the story and history of Lehi’s family and descendants. But it does not say that Lehi’s people were the only people in the Western Hemisphere, or the first people, or the largest group of people. In fact, The Book of Mormon also tells the story of two other migrations. And science indicates there were obviously others as well. And no matter what assumptions people, even Church leaders, made about this in the past, the idea that there were other people in the Western Hemisphere when Lehi arrived is totally consistent with the text of The Book of Mormon. In fact, one could say that the population growth described in The Book of Mormon necessitates the presence of other people. 

So that’s one factor to consider. It’s not a problem that DNA from other parts of the world show up because people from other parts of the world were there. But then, where the heck did the Middle Eastern DNA go? DNA doesn’t just disappear.

Well, actually, due to a few different factors, it can. Changes in a gene pool over time is known as Genetic Drift. There are generally two main kinds of genetic drift. First, there’s the Founder Effect. So imagine you’ve got a bag of Skittles, OK? You’ve got several different genetic profiles in there … red, green, yellow, blue, etc. You dump out a couple of Skittles. These Skittles then migrate to a new land to start their own Skittle civilization. But wait, coincidentally they both happen to be green Skittles … Which means all of their descendants are going to be green Skittles, which is not at all representative of the Skittles they came from. So one of the problems with saying that there’s no Israelite DNA in Native American populations is that we don’t know what DNA we should be looking for, and Lehi and Sariah’s DNA may not be representative of so-called “Israelite DNA.” That’s the Founder Effect.

A second factor contributing to Genetic Drift is called Population Bottleneck. Essentially, this is when a catastrophic event simply wipes out DNA profiles altogether. So in our Skittles example, now we’re in the Americas, and we’ve got Lehi and his greens, along with all these other Skittles. Unfortunately, your great-aunt Debra discovers the bag of Skittles and eats almost all of them. Only a few are left in the bag. But they’re reds and yellows. Blue and green were all devoured. 

Can you think of any examples of the bottleneck effect in Native American history? How about when Europeans arrived bringing along smallpox and wiping out up to 95-percent of the population? Or the many bloody battles between Native Americans and the European colonizers? If you want to hear it from people smarter than me, read these quotes… On top of that, we read in The Book of Mormon about cataclysmic natural disasters and massive wars that took countless lives. In Mormon 8:

“The Lamanites have hunted my people, the Nephites, down from city to city and from place to place, even until they are no more; and great has been their fall… And behold also, the Lamanites are at war one with another; and the whole face of this land is one continual round of murder and bloodshed; and no one knoweth the end of the war.”

Now, a population bottleneck doesn’t necessarily mean there are no descendants of these people left, it just means the genetic evidence is gone, phased out, or diluted. And that can be true regardless of what genetic marker you’re trying to find. 

Geneticist Ugo Perego said it best: “Population Genetics is a fascinating field with the objective of providing glimpses in the remote past, but it is a complicated discipline with several limitations and the conclusions are limited to the data that could be gathered and analyzed, leaving plenty of room for additional studies and perhaps more accurate results.” 

There are perfectly reasonable scientific reasons why Middle Eastern DNA doesn’t show up in modern Native Americans. In fact, this kind of scenario has happened before. I’ll put a link in the description to a case described in The Guardian where historians agreed that black Africans lived in ancient Roman-Britain, but their DNA is absent in modern Great Britain. The author goes over the same stuff we’ve just been over and even more factors we haven’t been able to get to.

At this point DNA evidence simply cannot disprove or prove the historicity of The Book of Mormon. If anyone tries to tell you differently in either direction, be very skeptical. Now, I am not a geneticist, but if you want to hear a population geneticist give you the long version of what I just said, check out the links in the description and have a great day. 

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