The Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 7, 2003
By Kristen Moulton, The Salt Lake Tribune
What genetic research says — and doesn’t say — about the historical accuracy of the Book of Mormon will be discussed at dueling symposiums in Utah this week and next.
The FAIR Conference — Foundation for Apologetic Information & Research — today through Friday at Utah Valley State College, will feature two scientists from Idaho State University who disagree that DNA research undercuts the Book of Mormon, considered scripture by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
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FAIR is a nonprofit organization that answers criticisms of LDS doctrine, belief and practices.
Trent Stephens, a professor of anatomy and embryology at ISU, is to talk about evolution, LDS theology and DNA today at 1 p.m. Jeff Meldrum, associate professor of anatomy and anthropology at ISU, will take up the DNA-Book of Mormon issue at 9 a.m. Friday.
At the 25th annual Sunstone Symposium, Aug. 13-16 at the Sheraton City Centre in Salt Lake City, anthropologist Thomas W. Murphy, who teaches at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Wash., will discuss why he believes those scientists are wrong. He is scheduled to speak Aug. 15.
Murphy published an essay last year, based on DNA evidence, claiming that the Book of Mormon cannot be what the LDS Church claims it is — a record of the American Indian descendants of Lehi, a Hebrew who migrated with his family to the New World in about 600 B.C.
Murphy’s stake president called, but later canceled, a disciplinary hearing over his writings last December. Murphy said Wednesday that he has not heard again from his stake president and remains a church member, albeit “a latter-day skeptic, not a saint.”
DNA samples taken from native tribes in south, central and north America have shown that their principal ancestors were from northeast Asia, not Israel — a fact conceded by both sides in the debate.
“There is sufficient evidence to draw a conclusion and that conclusion is that the Book of Mormon is not accurate historically,” says Murphy.
Meldrum, who is working with Stephens on two books about the topic, acknowledges that DNA research does not corroborate the Book of Mormon’s claim to be a historical record.
“But that’s very different from drawing the conclusion that the DNA evidence refutes the Book of Mormon,” says Meldrum.
Lehi’s descendants could have been a small group in a limited area whose genetics were swamped by the huge gene pool of other ancient Americans, he says.
Their genetics also could have been wiped out along with the tens of millions of natives who died when Europeans introduced disease in the New World, Meldrum says.
The theory that the Hebrews in the Americas were a small, isolated group has been postulated in recent decades by other Mormon scholars to explain why archaeological and cultural traces of Lehi’s descendants — Nephites and Lamanites — have not been found in central America.
Murphy and others, such as Randall Shortridge, an ex-Mormon who is a molecular biologist at the State University of New York at Buffalo, say such a scenario — extinction of all genetic traces of the Hebrews — is possible.
“What they’re saying is there isn’t any proof that some of these alternatives can’t work. So those are plausible,” says Shortridge. “That’s not an argument to say that’s what happened.”
Murphy says, “It’s possible for a small group to have not left a trace. But that’s not what the Book of Mormon describes.”
The book describes a vast Nephite civilization, and its existence until the end of time is prophesied. Moreover, church leaders, including founder Joseph Smith, taught that Lamanites are the ancestors of native Americans.
“The approach is to defend Joseph Smith by denying his prophesying,” says Murphy.
Meldrum, however, says he is not surprised that early church leaders misunderstood the Book of Mormon.
“They didn’t study the nuances and plots,” he says. “They taught from the scripture they were most familiar with, the Bible.”
Meldrum believes that Murphy and others who use DNA evidence to discount the Book of Mormon have set up a hypothesis that can’t be tested. Researchers couldn’t be sure they had DNA from the original Hebrews to match those in America, even if that people were found, he says.
“The DNA in all likelihood is not going to confirm the Book of Mormon,” Meldrum says. “It leaves the question of historicity squarely in the realm of faith. It still boils down to a question of faith.”
On that point, Murphy agrees.
“I don’t think on the basis of science or history we can abandon the idea of whether it [the Book of Mormon] is scripture. That’s personal.”