While two different LDS scientists have said that DNA research discounts the Book of Mormon as an ancient, historical document, a researcher told participants Saturday at the Book of Mormon Lands Conference that such claims are faulty when the details and capabilities of DNA "gene mapping" are understood.
Brant Gardner, a software consultant with training in Mesoamerican studies and anthropology, told about 200 people gathered at the Red Lion Hotel that a lack of DNA evidence showing American Indians are of Hebrew descent is "the most important non-issue we have in modern Mormonism."
Claims in recent years by LDS anthropologist Thomas Murphy and former LDS molecular biologist Simon Southerton regarding the lack of genetic connection to Hebrew blood have caused spirited debate in some quarters about the origin of the Book of Mormon, which Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints founder Joseph Smith said was translated from gold plates given to him by an angel from God.
Southerton, a former bishop, was excommunicated from the church after his writings appeared. Murphy was threatened with church discipline over his writings.
Members of the LDS Church believe the record is an account of some ancient inhabitants of the Americas who descended from the family of a man named Lehi who lived around 600 B.C. His voyage to the Americas from Jerusalem with his family is chronicled in the book.
Gardner said Murphy's claim that the book is "a piece of 19th century fiction" is based less on his own scientific research than on his own preconceived notions about it. "He didn't believe in the book before and went off looking for things that would support his view. He gives us information about what science is doing, but he is making a conclusion that supports what he had already decided."
He said neither Murphy nor Southerton understood that LDS scientists have known "for 50 years" about DNA evidence linking American Indians to Asian ancestry rather than Hebrew blood. "For some reason, these two men think this shocked us. It's been something we've been dealing with for a very, very long time."
Publicity surrounding the writings of the two scientists has created doubt for some Latter-day Saints, Gardner said. "Some people I've talked to are ready to leave the church over this."
Yet Gardner said that response can be attributed to what he called "the 'CSI' effect," referring to the popular TV series that depicts forensic scientists solving complicated questions about crime scenes using DNA evidence. Based on those fictional depictions, "One of the things we all know is that DNA proves pretty much everything," when in reality, there are major limitations on what it can define about family lineage.
Because most genetic mapping is done through mitochondrial DNA, which tracks only the female line, Gardner said the category of people excluded from being linked to a living person by genetic testing going back several generations is huge. "Most tests trace only a few of a person's ancestors and a small portion of their DNA."
He also referred to what is known to researchers as a "genetic bottleneck," where "only a few people survive" some major cataclysmic event "and we end up with only the DNA of the survivors and not the rest of the population. It's entirely possible other people were here that had different DNA, and we can't find it because they never made it through the 'bottleneck event."'
DNA tests also may report false positives or false negatives, he said, and there are many historical scenarios where physical evidence of things that are known to have occurred doesn't match what researchers expected to find using DNA evidence.
Latter-day Saint scientists never have disputed the movement of large groups of people from Asia to the Americas, he said, though many LDS members have grown up believing that the only people who ever migrated to the Americas descended from Lehi's family in the Book of Mormon.
"We're often trying to compare our traditions versus science, but what does the Book of Mormon actually say? ... No matter how many opinions someone might have about the Book of Mormon, if the opinion is wrong, it's the opinion that's wrong and not the book," Gardner said.
"What we know today about the Book of Mormon is more right than what we knew 10 years ago, and what we knew 10 years ago had some misconceptions. Our opinions will continue to change in the future, but that doesn't change the truthfulness of the book."