Church put to DNA test
Seattle Post-Intelligencer, Jan. 13, 2003
By M.L. LYKE
LYNNWOOD — The unassuming instructor with the soft voice holds a phone to each ear, juggling cell and land lines. The desktop in his office pings with endless incoming e-mails. One may laud him as intellectual dissident, another rip him as religious heretic. He apologizes for the interruptions.
“The phone hasn’t stopped ringing,” says landed him in hot water with his church and thrown his name into headlines across the country.
Not that it has cramped his style. “I think it’s fair to conclude that the Book of Mormon is a work of fiction,” he states, flat as fact.
Murphy, 35-year-old chairman of the Edmonds Community College Anthropology Department, contends DNA analysis contradicts Book of Mormon claims that American Indians are descended from ancient heathen Israelites, an argument he will outline in a 1 1/2-hour talk today at the University of Washington.
He’s out to expose what he calls “racism” in scriptural texts. “The Book of Mormon assumes that dark skin is a curse for wickedness. I’m trying to examine where that idea came from,” he says.
His stand could make Murphy the first Mormon in church history to face excommunication for publishing conclusions on the basis of genetic research.
In December, the local stake of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints scheduled a disciplinary council and informed Murphy he faced the possibility of excommunication, or expulsion from the church. But the president of the stake — a district made up of a number of wards — indefinitely postponed the council after the debate hit the press and supporters staged rallies across the country.
Their signs said, “Proud to be a DNA Mormon,” “You can’t excommunicate facts” and “No, God didn’t curse the Indians.”
Murphy says he was shocked at the postponement. “I was convinced I would be excommunicated.”
He wants to take the postponement as a positive sign: “My hope is that it means the church will be more willing to tolerate open discussion of the Book of Mormon and the problems associated with it.”
But he is also on guard. “I still face expulsion,” he says. “They could hold the court at any time.”
Church representatives did not answer calls about Murphy’s status Friday.
The seeds of dissent
In lab class B212, Murphy measures words as carefully as he measures the dark liquid squeezed into a petri dish. The class, co-taught with biologist Jenny McFarland, is “On Becoming Human.” The experiment is DNA extraction. The implications of it could be revelatory for students, who will take their own DNA and compare it with that of other humans in the world, ancient Neanderthals, apes and other animals.
Thomas, who is one dissertation away from getting his doctorate in anthropology at the UW, knows the statistics: Humans and apes share at least 95 percent of their DNA. With chimpanzees, the percentage is more than 98 percent.
He also knows that showing beats telling.
“They don’t have to take my word. They can test it for themselves,” says the quiet man with the neatly gelled dark hair and boyish good looks.
The importance of evidence hit home with Murphy when he joined the high-school debate team in Pocatello, Idaho. At the time, he was a devout Mormon who had been voted “most spiritual” in his Mormon seminary program.
“That changed when I entered the debate program and had to argue both sides of a position,” he says. “All of a sudden the black-and-white world I grew up in started to get really gray.
“Suddenly, I had to test ideas.”
As a University of Iowa undergraduate and enlistee in the Army National Guard, he was called into action in the Persian Gulf War, and he began testing rules, too.
Ordered to burn up cases of food his company was abandoning at a Safwan refugee camp, he found himself staring at three hungry children on the other side of the wire boundary. Against regulations, he lifted one case of Campbell’s soup and handed it to them, then another and another.
“I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t burn the food in front of starving children,” he says.
After testing ideas, and testing the rules, testing Scripture — and the church — came naturally.
Taking on the church
“Sin, Skin and Seed: The Mistakes of Man in the Book of Mormon” is the title of Murphy’s talk today at the UW, scheduled for 3:30 p.m. at Denny Hall, Room 401.
The “seed” in the lecture reflects patriarchal Mormon beliefs about procreation — the idea that a male implants his seed in a woman, whose role is that of an incubator, or “soil.” That, says Murphy, implies that the child essentially comes from the father, a biologically flawed premise.
The “sin” and “skin” in his lecture refer to Scripture linking skin color and behavior. The Book of Mormon states ancient Israelites came to the Americas about 600 B.C. and divided into two groups: the light-skinned, civilized Nephites and the dark-skinned, corrupt Lamanites, who eventually defeated the Nephites. These Lamanites, according to the modern introduction to the Book of Mormon, are the principal ancestors of Native Americans.
In fact, says Murphy, DNA data, as well as anthropological studies, indicate American Indians are descended from Northeast Asians who migrated across the Bering Sea between 7,000 and 50,000 years ago.
The stir over his findings began when he published them on a Web site run by Mormon intellectuals and in a collection of essays on the Book of Mormon called “American Apocrypha.” The subsequent threat of excommunication catapulted his story into prime-time news.
Murphy was frankly pleased with the publicity and subsequent response. He’s received more than 500 e-mails, letters and messages, including missives from Native Americans who say they’re happy to finally see someone addressing the issue of racism in Mormon text.
“I think it was important to go public with the story,” he says. “The best way to combat what I call ecclesiastical abuse is to expose it.”
That didn’t sit well with some traditional Mormons. Some questioned his methods — and his motives. The Foundation for Apologetic Information and Research, a group that responds to criticism of the church, claimed Murphy was using the media to further his own agenda, and claimed his conclusions were “simplified and flawed.”
Critics also questioned how “good” a Mormon Murphy is.
Murphy nods his head when asked. “I’m a Latter-day skeptic,” he says. “But I think skepticism is good for Mormon culture. We need critics in any cultural system to help us recognize our strengths and our weaknesses.”
With his wife and 16-year-old daughter, he attends The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints irregularly, but is active in the Mormon intellectual community.
A turning point in his relationship with the church occurred when his daughter was young, Murphy says. She had been told in a church class that dark skin was a curse for wickedness.
“She said her best friend from Venezuela was not wicked,” Murphy says.
“We told her that we did not believe those things.
“She said, ‘If you don’t believe it, then why do you attend?’ “
But Murphy still considers himself a Mormon.
“It’s my family,” he says. “It’s my community.”