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The genetics of the Book of Mormon
By Orson Scott Card July 9, 2008

I keep hearing from ex-Mormons or wavering Saints that their testimony problems come from "science." Yet when I hear which particular scientific point is causing them problems, I realize they're suffering from a serious misdiagnosis.

It isn't "science" that's causing their doubts. Rather, their doubts are causing them to seize on science -- or what they think is science -- as an excuse.

I'll begin with an old example -- John C. Kunich's "Multiply Exceedingly: Book of Mormon Population Sizes" from the June 1990 Sunstone. With a great show of scholarliness, Kunich compares the population figures deducible from the Book of Mormon text and compares them with the estimated global population growth for the period of about .04 percent per year.

Simple arithmetic then shows that the Book of Mormon population could not possibly have derived from the original settlers -- Nephite or Mulekite.

Let's just ignore the obvious fact that an estimated global population growth rate reflecting general trends across centuries is hardly applicable to any local population.

The global rate has to take into account plagues, famines, and devastating wars; the actual growth rate when such things are not happening is always higher.

We hardly needed his elaborate figures to see the biggest problem. Within a single generation of arriving in the new world, the Nephites have enough population to build a temple and to wage war -- and enough women that there is a problem with men practicing polygamy.

Instead of Kunich's misused science, we can derive a much simpler answer from the text itself. Obviously, there were indigenous people with whom both the Lamanites and Nephites mixed. They are not mentioned because this is the story of the people God led to the Promised Land -- not of the locals who joined them.

But such a joining would be almost inevitable. If a high-tech, metal-tool-making, alphabet-writing group entered a population that lacked these skills, the less-advanced group will either accord high prestige to the newcomers -- or slaughter them.

For whatever reason, apparently the Nephites and Lamanites weren't slaughtered. Instead, the populations joined, each one taking on the name of the high-prestige group that led them.

Others have elaborated on other Book of Mormon examples of groups changing their names and forming themselves into new tribes at will. I will, however, point out that seen in this context, Nephi's racism begins to take on a different meaning.

"After they had dwindled in unbelief they became a dark, and loathsome, and a filthy people, full of idleness and all manner of abominations," said Nephi, reporting on his vision of the future of his people (1 Ne 12).

Jacob and Enos echo his attitude (Jacob 3:5, Enos 1:20), and even Mormon, writing in his abridgment of the book of Alma, says, "And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren" (Alma 3:5-6).

This is Nephi's story, and Mormon is sticking with it. But what was actually going on when, near the end of his life, Nephi wrote his account on the small plates?

Suppose that when the Nephites and Lamanites divided, the Lamanites immediately intermarried (or took concubines) from among the indigenous population. The Lamanites might also have adapted to the indigenous lifestyle -- which makes perfect sense, since the locals already knew how to live in this place.

From what we see of Nephi's character, however, it would be nearly impossible for him to compromise on any of the customs or practices of the Jews he had lived among in Jerusalem. He would have insisted that his people adopt none of the "lazy" and "filthy" practices of the locals. He might even have tried to keep them from intermarrying.

What looks like racism to us might well be Nephi trying to preserve the purity of Jewish culture in a strange land. It is no surprise that he seized upon the darkness of skin as well as the cultural shortcomings (as he saw them) of the locals in order to condemn the Lamanites, if they were the first to bring forth a mestizo generation.

By Jacob's time, though, the need for exogamy must surely have come into play -- which may be part of what was going on with the polygamy. Presumably, the population they intermarried with would have converted to their religion as well -- complete with the law of Moses and a temple like Solomon's.

Ultimately, the racial distinction is completely erased -- probably long before the time of the first King Mosiah -- but the formulaic language denigrating the Lamanites remained. (If there were racial distinctions, Amulek probably would not have to have told anybody he was a descendant of Nephi.)

My point is not that we can prove this, though this interpretation (especially as buttressed by better scholars than I) does a good job of accounting for the text. Nor is this an "all things are possible with God" explanation -- it is culturally plausible in every way -- including Nephi's nonmention of indigenous people.

Once you allow the possibility that implied populations in the Book of Mormon include recruitment of and intermarriage with indigenous populations, which are then viewed forever after as "Nephite" and "Lamanite" on political, cultural, or religious grounds, rather than genetic or racial, Kunich's problem simply disappears.

If the text fought against this interpretation, there would still be a problem. But it does not. Instead, this interpretation illuminates other portions of the text, unrelated to population.

But let's step back and look at what Kunich's article actually shows about Kunich and those who thought his article was publishable.

It should have been rejected by a serious editor because of its absurd misapplication of an estimated global population growth rate. Why wasn't it?

The science is not only unconvincing, it's obviously so, because of the false premise Kunich's entire argument is based on -- i.e., that local populations cannot grow markedly faster than the (estimated) global growth rate.

It is also textually absurd, since Nephi's account has them almost immediately engaging in wars and building temples, an obvious impossibility regardless of what population growth rate you use. The text clearly must be asserting something other than birth rate of Nephi's people to account for the population.

Kunich and those who took him seriously were not following science to its logical conclusions. They were looking for reasons to disbelieve the Book of Mormon, and seized upon a misunderstood scientific "fact" as a way to convince others to join them in their disbelief.

Their enthusiasm for the outcome ("Behold! The Book of Mormon is disproved!") keeps them from even noticing (or caring about) the borderline fraudulent misuse of science. They get just enough science to claim it as the authority for the conclusion they have already reached.

It's identical to the way people always manage to find proof-texts in the scriptures for whatever wacko doctrine they want to teach. ("If you're supposed to love your neighbor as yourself, that must mean you should love yourself first!")

The Book of Mormon asserts itself as a genuine document from another culture, translated from another language. Like most of history and science, it can't be proven true -- but we can fail to prove it false, after subjecting it to the most rigorous tests.

The July 2008 Scientific American has a wonderful article about the way mitochondrial DNA, Y-chromosomes, and haplotypes are being used to track the gross movements of populations throughout history.

Naturally, the eager-to-prove-the-Book-of-Mormon-false group will triumphantly proclaim that since the haplotypes, mitochondrial DNA, and y-chromosomes all agree that the origin of native Americans is traceable only to Siberia and/or southeast Asia, the Book of Mormon is thus proven false.

Scientists and students of science will hardly be taken in by such a claim. But many naive people who lack the knowledge or experience to recognize a pseudo-science scam when they see one may well face a completely needless crisis of faith.

I especially worry about our most vulnerable population: Young Mormons who are in an age when doubt comes naturally. They are most susceptible to such fakery, not because they "lack faith," but because they are hungry for truth, and are likely to take "facts" over testimonies.

So let me explain why perfectly good and useful science -- which the tracing of DNA in large populations certainly is -- turns into junk science when those who are committed to unbelief find a spin that serves their purpose.

1. Haplotype, mitochondria, and Y-chromosome tracking is done using tiny samples from the populations in any given area. This is necessary and perfectly acceptable, because the scientists are not trying to eliminate the possibility of intermixing of populations, but rather trying to trace the general ancestry of large groups.

2. Any variation from the predominant DNA strains will be interpreted, correctly, as "contamination" and either disregarded or removed from the study as long as it exists in only trivial amounts. The only question that would be hard for them to answer is when the contamination took place.

3. Since the dominant strain that populated the Americas shares a common ancestry with Fertile Crescent ancestors, some haplotypes that might have pointed to the Middle East are already in the entire population and therefore invisible.

4. Many of their findings deal with populations that have been tracked through history. Yet the genetic record does not account for "trivial" population movements like the conquest of India, Persia, all of Europe, and much of Asia Minor by Indo-European tribes, or repeated conquests of China by borderland nomads.

If you can't track major conquests genetically, even though we know from the historical and archaeological record that they occurred, and if small contaminations are ignored, why would any educated person expect that these methods would reveal even a hint of a group of only a few dozen culturally elite people who arrived in America 2600 years ago and (probably) almost immediately intermarried with the local population?

Also, the Book of Mormon says that 1600 years ago there was an attempt to eradicate precisely those people most likely to have maintained some genetic distinction. It is obvious that the real science on this subject simply has nothing to say about the claims of the Book of Mormon.

When unbelievers claim to have found scientific disproof of the Book of Mormon, they usually understand neither the science nor the book.

Instead, they revealed their hunger to believe in whatever will buttress their account of the Mormon religion.

That is a natural human tendency -- all religious believers do exactly the same thing. The difference is that these folks claim to be above religion; to be post-religious.

They're not. Their "discoveries" are as driven by their preexisting faith as anyone else's. They may claim to be intellectuals, but they lack the rigor to doubt their own doubts, to question their own questions.

Here is the remarkable thing: Within the Church, among believers, there are many genuine skeptics who question everything, who test everything.

We are not afraid to look at any evidence, and when we are convinced, we change our frame-of-view to accommodate the new information. At the same time, we recognize that none of our knowledge is final and might be revised -- by new evidence, by new revelation.

This is where intellectual rigor leads you -- in religion as well as science. You believe and act upon all that you now understand to be true, but you know that there will yet be revealed or discovered many great and wonderful things of which you are currently ignorant.

You don't let each new wind blow away all that you knew before. Instead, you hold all things in abeyance and take time to work them out and see what the implications might be. Eventually the religion and the science both get clearer.

Neither has anything to fear from the other -- as long as there is complete candor and rigor on both sides. They can coexist in the same mind. The only war between science and religion occurs among those who fail to understand one or the other -- or both.

Copyright © 2008 by Orson Scott Card

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