Tuesday, August 7, 2007

DNA Evidence and the Book of Mormon

One of the hottest criticisms of the Book of Mormon that has emerged during the past decade or so has centered on the so called DNA research, supposedly disproving the claims of the Book of Mormon that the aborigines of the American Continent were of Israelite descent. There are two possible ways of answering that criticism: one is from a purely scientific angle; and the other is from a theological one. Of course, science and theology are not mutually exclusive. There is a slight overlap between the two. But the overlap is sufficiently small that it can be ignored, and the two can be regarded as two separate disciplines. To address the subject form a purely scientific point of view, one needs to be a scientist in this field of study, which I am not—and interestingly, neither are the critics! The science of genetics, from what little I have studied, is not such straightforward subject. There are some serious complexities involved that are best left to the experts to fathom. How the critics of the Book of Mormon, none of whom appear to be experts in this field of study, can feel that they can use this discipline so confidently to attack the Book of Mormon claims, is a question best left for them to answer. I have yet to see any of them actually producing a research paper written by an eminent scientist, and approved by peer groups, showing the results of serious scientific investigation intended to test the validity of a scientifically worked out hypothesis designed around validating the claims of the Book of Mormon. Luckily, however, there are good LDS scientists who are very knowledgeable, and have expertise in this field of study, and they have given their responses. Dr. Michael Whiting is a good example. You can watch his interesting video presentation here. He has also written an interesting article (PDF format) which you can read here. Jeff Lindsay seems to have read a lot of this kind of literature, and summarized his findings in a lengthy article which I haven’t read, but appears well written and interesting, which can be read here.

Unlike the critics, however, I for one don’t intend to take the risk of appearing like a fool by talking about something that I know very little about! My aim here is to address the subject from a theological point of view, and leave the scientific answers to the scientists. The critics have left themselves vulnerable to attack on two fronts: one is scientific and the other theological. On the scientific front, they have left themselves open to attack because in the main they are not scientist themselves, and basically they don’t know what they are talking about! That means that a good LDS scientist who knows his stuff can easily debunk their claims, because their science, like their theology, is badly flawed. On the other hand, their position is also a theological one. They claim to be true Christians; and the purpose of their attack, as they claim, is to expose the falsehood of Mormonism. But their theology is just as flawed as is their science, which leaves them equally exposed on the theological front. My aim here is to address the issue from a theological point of view—although the scientific terminology and concept to some extent necessarily enters into the equation.

The Book of Mormon is essentially the story of a miracle. It is the story of divine intervention in human history. It is the story of a group of people who under divine guidance, by miracles, heavenly visions, and angelic ministrations, were led by the Lord from their ancestral lands in Palestine to cross the ocean and come to the New World; where the history of their development likewise followed a miraculous course, filled with accounts of miracles and divine intervention. When you are faced with such a claim as the Book of Mormon presents, you have basically two choices to make: you can either reject it outright, and say that God does not intervene in human affairs in this way, and therefore the whole story is fictional and cannot be true; or else, if you are going to accept the possibility of such an intervention taking place (which the critics do accept, because that is also the story of the Bible, which they claim to believe in literally), then you must also be prepared to allow for the possibility of other unexpected events or changes to have taken place by the same process (i.e. divine intervention) which renders the experience no longer amenable to a scientific investigation.

Science assumes that natural law remains unchanged during the course of an experiment. It assumes that if you let go of a piece of stone in your hand, everything else being equal, that stone will always fall down, not go up. It cannot allow for the possibility that on occasions the stone may change its mind and decide to go up instead of falling down! If that were to be the case, then the basis of any valid scientific investigation would disappear. Similarly, in a situation where you are going to allow for divine intervention to alter or intervene in known laws of nature, then the basis of your scientific investigation disappears. That is the situation which we encounter in the Book of Mormon. For example, the Book of Mormon informs us that the Lamanites (who according to the Book of Mormon are the principal ancestors of modern American Indians) were cursed with a dark skin by an act of God—i.e. by divine intervention. Now we know that skin color is genetically determined. The only way that God could have done that would have been by altering their genetic makeup miraculously; that is, by directly intervening to alter the course of nature which otherwise would have followed a different course. That renders the process no longer amenable to a scientific investigation.

That line of attack against the Book of Mormon would equally undermine the validity of the Bible, because the Bible also follows a similar course (and more strongly so). If DNA analysis is a reliable test of determining population origins in this way, then all mankind’s DNA should be traceable to one man, Noah. According to the Bible chronology, the Flood occurred somewhere between 4,000 and 5,000 years ago, and the whole of the human race descended from one family Noah since that time. That is less than twice as long as the family of Lehi immigrated to, and began to populate the American continent. They immigrated to America in 600 BC, which is 2,600 years ago. That means that from Noah until today is less than double the length of time of from Lehi until today. So if the DNA profiles of modern day descendents of Lehi should be genetically traceable to that of the ancient Jews (or indicate descent from them), then all mankind’s DNA should equally easily indicate direct descent from Noah. But it does not! On the contrary, one observes enormous genetic diversity among human populations.

How do they account for this diversity during such a short period of time? According to modern geneticists of course that would be impossible! They believe that it occurred over millions of years of evolution. So the critics have to make up their minds on which side of the fence they want to jump, Creation or Evolution. They can’t have both hats on, and swap hats whenever it suits them. If they are going to be on the side of Evolution, then that knocks down the Bible as much as (if not more so than) the Book of Mormon. If, on the other hand, they are going to be on the side of Creation, then they have no choice but to accept that if God was able and willing to directly intervene in various human populations to cause such wide genetic variations among them (for whatever reason) in so short a time since the Flood; that He would be equally able and willing to cause the same genetic diversity (for whatever reason) among the Nephite populations that immigrated to the Americas, so as to differentiate them from their Hebrew ancestors. Here are some possible reasons why, from a theological point of view, God may have wanted to intervene directly in the genetic makeup of human populations:

1. Diversifying the gene pool to avoid genetic degradation which takes place when a small genetic population interbreed among themselves (e.g. the Tsarist royal family of Russia). Anybody who has bred animals knows the importance of that.

2. To adapt various human populations to various climatic conditions; such as the Tibetans to the high altitudes of Tibet, the Africans to the hot and humid climates of the tropics, and the Caucasians to the cold climates of northern Europe.

3. A deliberate decision to introduce genetic change for any possible specific reasons, such as giving the Lamanites a dark skin color to distinguish them from the Nephites.

Genetics may be an exact science when trying to solve a crime scene; but it is not so reliable when dealing with large population movements across continents spanning many centuries—except perhaps for making the most general of inferences. There is no reason to assume that the Israelites all had a uniform genetic profile. According to the Bible account, a lot of intermarriages took place between them and their Gentile neighbors. Ignoring what was said above for the time being, the only way that we could authenticate the genetic descent of the Lamanites back to Lehi would be if we knew exactly what Lihi’s DNA looked like; and we have no way of determining that.

Ultimately, we come back to the same principle I had mentioned in my blog on “Archaeology and the Book of Mormon”. Religion is a matter of faith, not of archeology or science. The things of God are spiritual, and they are “spiritually discerned,” as Paul has said:

1 Corinthians 2:14 “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned.”

Elsewhere Paul adds:

1 Corinthians 1:23 “But we preach Christ crucified, unto the Jews a stumblingblock, and unto the Greeks foolishness;”

Why was the doctrine of Christ “foolishness” to the Greeks? Because they had the same kind of mindset as the Book of Mormon critics do. They didn’t know anything about DNA; but they had the same kind of mentality. They were looking for some kind of a “rational argument” or “logical/scientific proof;” hence the doctrine of Christ, and “Him crucified,” appeared “foolishness” to them. Likewise the doctrine of the Book of Mormon appears “foolishness” to LDS critics. But the things of God are communicated to those who are prepared to receive it by power of the Spirit of God—the gift of the Holy Ghost. This is how Peter knew that Jesus was his Lord, not by “DNA analysis”:

Matt. 16:17: “And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.”

And this is how God has always made Himself known to sincere seekers of truth. There is no “scientific proof” in religion. You either believe it or you don’t. It begins in faith and ends in faith, and that is all there is to it.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Just a reminder... there is only a strict dichotomy between evolution and creation between mainstream scientists and fundamental christian creationists who take a "literalist" interpretation of the Bible.

Catholics generally have no problems in these areas. I reccomend the book "Chance or Evolution" by Cardinal Schoenborn to dive deeper into all the little differences and distinctions of evolution and creation--there are many!