Why the Lamanite-DNA Question is Irrelevant (and why this means you should believe in evolution)

I find the Lamanite-DNA question, like, sooo boring.

Consider this : You are only related to your children by half. They only share a half of your DNA. Your grandchildren, half of that again or about a fourth. You loose your genetic contribution to the future at a rate of about 2^N where N is the Nth generation down your line of descendents. So after about 25 generations, or around 625 years, your contribution is only about 1/33,000,000. Because our DNA has about 3,000,000,000 base pairs, and only 0.1% of that varies among humans (the rest are the exact same sequences (which is why we all sort of look alike)). This implies that you will have descendents with no detectable signature of your varying DNA. In population genetic science, this is related to what they call ‘coalescent theory’ in which genes from previous generations become identical by descent. Meaning that if you go very far back into the past at all, the people (or organism of any kind) with that particular gene, got it from the same ancestor. But much of that DNA gets lost rather than passed on. Lots and lots of your real ancestors don’t make much of a contribution genetically to you at all. Entire villages of your ancestors have disappeared from contributing to your varying DNA.

In Mitochondrial DNA it’s worse. You are looking at a single line of your many branching tree of ancestors. Go look at your genealogy chart hanging there on the wall of your frontroom, trace back your mother’s mother’s mother’s . . . etc. How many of those branches in the big branching tree of your ancestors are missing from that line? Hello, all but one.

Bottom line: a very small population of your actual ancestors give you the DNA you’ve ended up with, and its signature. So there could be loads of people descended from Lamanites without a lick of their DNA.

Population genetics can never touch the absence of a DNA as evidence. If they find some fine, but that they don’t is not really a big surprise. The Book of Mormon is ever, and always will be, safe from claims about the expectation of finding certain kinds of DNA signatures in a population. This is not a sampling problem, even if we sample every human alive, we still don’t know what’s missing, only what has survived a massive selection process. The fact is, most of your ancestors’ DNA aren’t present in your genome. As pointed out above after a few generations your contribution to a decedent’s DNA is minuscule, but that does not make you any less their ancestor. (Now this actually gets a little complicated, because in finite populations there loads of ways that inbreeding complicates this process as your DNA loops among your decedents marrying each other, but the basic concepts hold. But I am not dealing with that complexity in this blog.

Most of the people working in population genetics are studying the DNA actually present in populations of organisms and are not thinking about what’s missing, hence all the talk about haplotypes in the apologetic’s (and non’s) literature. I’m talking about what’s not there. (I once tried to get funding from BYU to explore this missing DNA stuff because I can do computer simulations (which is what I do scientifically) of this process and put a number on just how large of a population can disappear in this way. This is a great scientific question and not just apologetics. But no one would fund it here, so I’m here in Vienna doing Tseste fly population genetics—Maybe after I retire.)

Anyway in Southerton’s parlance (Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA, and the Mormon Church by Simon G. Southerton), losing a lost tribe just isn’t that hard. (Technical note for those who care: I’m not making a small population argument—for example, the argument that Lehi’s genetic signature was swamped because it was small, or that it was the result of a bottle neck. I’m arguing from a Galton-Watson stochastic branching process theory perspective, i.e. that the long-term probability of any DNA sequence being represented in a distant descendent is zero).

Now here is my real punch. You see this space for Lamanites requires the Limited Geography Model (LGM)—the idea that there were other human migrations to the America than Lehi’s and the Jaredite’s. The DNA Lamanite criticisms have been dealt with aplomb by a number of faithful geneticists (See some of the FAIR stuff from BYU’s Whiting and McClellen et al.) so Southerton repeatedly cues in on the claim that we members can’t credential the LGM because Joseph Smith said that all of the Americas were covered top to bottom with only Lehi’s descendents. If we believe in him at all, we have to believe, like he did, that the entire Native American population came out of these migrations alone. He also quotes prophet after prophet, apostle after apostle, who honestly and quite sincerely believed that all of the Americas were covered head to foot with Lamanties. Those are the only peoples that lived here (here being America—I’m in Vienna so by ‘here’ I mean ‘there’). But they were wrong apparently. Should we be surprised? Surprised that Apostles and Prophets are children of their times? That they assumed unscientific population genetics (which was just being developed by Fisher and Wright in the 30’s and 40’s?). Heavens no.

Now, if you have been reading this blog at all, you know where this is going. Those who quote endless strings of anti-evolution statements from the general authorities are using the same tactic as the DNA-disproves-Lamanites crowd in dismissing the Book of Mormon. To make his DNA argument stick, Southerton, has to say it’s impossible to believe in Joseph Smith (or others) and not accept that the Book of Mormon implies only Lehi’s immigration came to the Americas. Southerton demands that we have to take everything the Apostles and Prophets say about the American Indians as literal or we don’t believe that they are divinely inspired. That’s just not the case. We can look at the science of the day and see that they were mistaken and, despite not taking their science at face value, take nothing away from their mantle as God’s servants.

Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, typical of people from their time, thought that the moon was inhabited by an agrarian society—something along the lines of luner Quakers. (Of course, we know about this belief only from third-hand accounts, but being a scientist I believe that third-hand is as good as hearing it yourself, so I believe they believed it. (Plus, my belief in DNA as the carrier of genetic information is really only third hand too, so there you go)). It was not uncommon in the late 19th century to find patriarchal blessings promising that people would preach the gospel to the inhabitants of the moon. No surprise really, many people at the time thought such a thing was, not only possible, but quite likely. Sort like a belief in Bigfoot today. Consider, the words of 17th century French popularizer of the idea of other inhabited worlds, Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle:

“When I say to you that that the moon is inhabited, you picture to yourself men made like us, and if you’re a bit of a theologian, you’re instantly full of qualms. The descendants of Adam have not spread to the moon, nor sent colonies there. Therefore the men in the moon are not sons of Adam. Well, it would be embarrassing to theology if there were men anywhere not descended from him, it’s not necessary to say any more about it; All imaginable difficulties boil down to that, and the terms that must be employed in any longer explication are too serious and dignified to be placed in a book as unserious as this. Perhaps I could respond soundly enough if I undertook it, but certainly I have no need to respond. It rests entirely upon the men in the moon, but it’s you who are putting men on the moon. I put no men there at all: I put inhabitants there who are not like men in any way.”
Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle

What a delightful fellow. Joseph Smith’s opinion was like that of one of many of his contemporaries. It wasn’t well-grounded scientific thinking, even given the science of the times, (Oh don’t go stamping your foot and saying John Herschel the famous astronomer believed in moon people, true enough, but he was going against majority opinion, it’s kind of like quoting Patrick J. Michaels to support the fallacy that most scientists don’t believe in global warming (and not believing in human caused climate change today is analogous to believing in moon men in the nineteenth century)), but it’s not surprising. The folks at many of the world’s observatories at the time could have given a much better take on the moon. But so what if the prophet of the restoration was not all that scientifically informed when it comes to the moon, (This despite Widtsoe’s Joseph Smith as a Scientist), or population genetics, or evolution? That was not his calling. He was called to bring about the Restoration, not investigate the natural world. Leave that to Darwin.

“Gasp and Horrors,” some so-called defenders of the faith will cry. “You found a fault with the prophet! You are claiming he was not a scientist!” Get over it. It turns out he wasn’t. He had complex beliefs informed by his time and culture. Like me. Like you. Like all humans. And guess what? There is nothing wrong with being a child of your times. If that’s a fault I don’t know anyone that has escaped it.

And besides Joseph F. Smith said it better:

It makes no difference what is written or what anyone has said, if what has been said is in conflict with what the Lord has revealed, we can set it aside. My words, and the teachings of any other member of the Church, high or low, if they do not square with the revelations, we need not accept them. Let us have this matter clear. We have accepted the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks, or balances, by which we measure every man’s doctrine. You cannot accept the books written by the authorities of the Church as standards in doctrine, only in so far as they accord with the revealed word in the standard works. ( Doctrines of Salvation 3:203)

And dare I paraphrase, “if what has been said is conflict with the facts, we can set it aside.’

I recognize this is a slippery slope, but sometimes, especially if you are a roofer, you have to navigate slippery slopes. Here is some advice for such a ‘roofer’. There is something right about the late evolutionary biologist, Steven Jay Gould’s take that religion and science are different ‘Nonoverlapping Magisteria’ They have different roles—and each is very good at what they do. ‘Good fences make good neighbors,’ says the poet. Let’s walk down the side and mend the fence rather than squabble about which tree the wall should go around. When it comes to ethics, morality, and spirituality, the prophets and apostles are where to go. When it comes to the bruit facts of the world, that’s science’s domain. Not that there are no overlaps, mind you, but it is a nice rule of thumb.

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29 Responses to Why the Lamanite-DNA Question is Irrelevant (and why this means you should believe in evolution)

  1. J. Stapley says:

    Nice write-up. Just one quibble though, The evidence for Joseph believing in moon-quakers is from Huntington, but I am trying to think off the top of my head where evidence for Brigham comes from and I can’t think of any. Sun-people, sure, but moon people?

    Related to this, patriarchal blessings that mention preaching to other planets are, in every case I can remember, from Joseph Smith Senior, and really are therefore quite uncommon.

  2. S.Faux says:


    I am pretty much with you. The Book of Mormon does NOT make DNA predictions. Therefore, it is absolute nonsense to do a DNA test and conclude the Book of Mormon is not supported.

    I like Gould’s term nonoverlapping magisteria. My life benefits greatly from both science and religion. I am pained when I have to listen to adherents from either side attack the other.

    The battle against evolution is a COMPLETE waste of time. There are more important issues, like how to spread the gospel to remote countries.

    Conversely, I am pained when people like Dawkins make evolutionary arguments in order to convince others of a godless universe. Again, this is a COMPLETE waste of time.

    It is best if science and religion stay within their own domains of expertise, otherwise the red herrings start flying all over the place.

  3. Quick tip Steve: “lose” (as in misplace or cease possessing) is spelled with one S. I have seen that misspelled a few times on your blog, including in the title of a post (!)

  4. steve says:

    Thanks Carl, I cannot edit my own stuff.

    S.Faux, I agree. I attack Dawkins in my Zygon article (on the panel right). These atheist attacks are decidedly not science.

    Many thanks J.Stapley. I think you are likely right about this. All my sources are back in Provo and so in Vienna I’m likely not as careful as I should be. Thanks for keeping me straight!

  5. Dave says:

    Nice post, Steve. For anyone who is interested, I’ve got links to Gould’s “Nonoverlapping Magisteria” paper and comments on how similar that view is to some published LDS statements here:


  6. steve says:

    Thanks for the link, that’s a nice post!

  7. Bob V says:

    Question: Would the implication from Galton-Watson also apply to the Hemispheric model of the Book of Mormon? Assuming the Lamanites were the “principle ancestors” of the modern Native Americans; given the 1600 years and several known immigrations from Asia into the New World genetic pool; if I am understanding your point (and I am no geneticist, so I really am just feeling my way along here), wouldn’t there be nearly no possibility of finding “Lehite DNA” among a the Native American populations some 80-generations after the last of the Nephites were destroyed, and 130 or so after Lehi himself?

  8. BHodges says:

    The Brigham Young comments regarding the sun can be found in JD vol. 13 pg. 271.

  9. Pingback: Why the Lamanite/DNA Question is Irrelevant : Mormon Metaphysics

  10. Clark says:

    Actually JD 13:271 seems to have Brigham believing in moon men as well as sun men.

    One thing to keep in mind is that Brigham thought suns were celestialized earths. So he tended to take the metaphors of celestial, terrestrial, and telestial glory rather literally. That’s clear in this sermon as well.

    On the other hand he does admit to ignorance before launching into this speculation. While it’s clearly his belief I don’t think one could say he’s presenting it as doctrine. At least here.

  11. bfwebster says:

    Great post; it’s a significant addition to the DNA discussion. I think that the arguments of Southerton et alis fail on several fronts, and you’ve added a new one. Have you considered submitting a write-up of this to FAIR?

    As for Joseph Smith and ‘Quakers on the Moon’, his (purported) beliefs were mild compared to the Yale professors and students who fell for the New York Sun’s “life on the Moon” hoax in 1835. In fact, Joseph’s own beliefs could well have been influenced by that same hoax (the YWJ reference cites 1839 for Joseph’s earliest statement on the matter). ..bruce..

  12. bfwebster says:

    Oops! That should have read “the YWJ cites 1837 for Joseph’s earliest statement on the matter”. Sorry. ..bruce..

  13. Jared* says:

    Not that I would know how to do it, but I have thought for a while that computer simulations would be helpful to give us a sense of the plausibility of different scenarios.

  14. ujlapana says:

    I think the problem is that the BoM itself makes no room for anyone to arrive between the end of the Nephites and Columbus. It’s narrative seems to be completely out of touch with reality if what happened, in reality, was hordes of others came and completely swamped the heritage (blood, language, culture, technology, domestic animals, etc.) so that their would be no trace of them other than the continued use of the term “Great Spirit” and “moons” for years. Oh, and the face paint and loin-cloths. But then it starts to seem disturbingly 19th century.

    I don’t think it’s the simple lack of DNS as much as the complete DNA migration picture that we have (much like fossils and evolution) that create the challenge. If I claim that humans co-existed with dinosaurs, how is that different? The lack of fossils at appropriate strata proves nothing, using this same line of reasoning.

  15. Allen says:

    In my blog I have an example from current science that agrees with your comments on DNA. Europe today is an agricultural society. However, the original inhabitants of Europe were hunters. Later migrations to Europe brought in the agricultural society. But, DNA of modern Europeans goes back to the original inhabitants, not to the migrations that brought agriculture. That is, later migrations to Europe changed the culture but their DNA did not survive.

  16. steve says:

    Thanks Allan, that may be a good example of the complete disappearance the DNA of actual ancestors.

    ujlapana, I’m talking about a well understood mathematical principle. I’m not talking about any groundless assertion. Dawkins tries this with his ‘prove to me there is not a teapot orbiting Pluto’ tactic. I’m not saying you can prove the Book of Mormon with DNA, I’m saying if you come to the Book of Mormon from another way, (see my Zygon: Journal of Science and Religion article right for more on substantiating subjective truths) than there is no scientific reason to reject it. Allen’s example is a good one, we understand who the ancestors of the modern Europeans are from other sources (archeology/linguistics), there is no good population genetics reason not to believe it just because we can’t see a DNA signature. To argue that there is, is the unscientific approach.

    Bob V. No possibility would be a little strong, but I think the probabilities line up better with the limited geography model, or at least good-sized other migrations. It’s really a random process and the luck of the draw over the long term. The original formulation was an attempt to quiet the worries of a nobleman who wanted to see how long his family name would carry into the future. The shocking news was it would invariably disappear. However, we still have a whole world of last names. The stochastic processes described can’t pick which last names will be around in the future, just that it’s likely not yours or mine.

  17. steve says:

    And sorry my publishing your comments is so slow. I’m in a far away time zone

  18. BHodges says:

    “While it’s clearly his belief I don’t think one could say he’s presenting it as doctrine. At least here.”


  19. ujlapana says:

    The teapot analogy in this case needs to be further developed as it pertains to the Book of Mormon. Based on your treatment in Zygon, I would posit that scientists have discovered that blood rushing to the brain causes images of teapots, and probes, satellites and powerful Earth-based telescopes have all failed to locate the orbiting teapot. Now, to your point, there could still be a teapot: it is so vaguely located in space it will never be disproven. But at what point does it become irrational not to accept an alternative explanation for the teapot voice in your head, however good it feels to hear? The nice thing about subjective truths is that they can be reinterpreted as additional sujective knowledge is gained.

  20. Paul says:

    Great article. People who believe that great prophets were great scientists and that inspired writings are scientifically accurate writings are people who have faith built on a shaky foundation. Their worldview and faith survive only as long as they aren’t vigorously challenged.

    A few more typos though. “FIAR” should be “FAIR” and I think you mean “Southerton” instead of “Solomon” at one point.

  21. Allen says:


    Whether we’re looking at scientific evidence or talking about matters of faith, it’s important that we have common sense about the matter. If someone were to tell me that a teapot was orbiting out in space, my common sense would tell me that their report isn’t true (unless the teapot were space junk ejected by a space traveler). However, in the case of the Book of Mormon, my common sense tells me that the book in plausible. I’ve already documented an example from science about a later migration to Europe having a profound influence of the culture of Europe but leaving no DNA signatures that have lasted down to the current Europeans. This means that it is feasible that the Lehites could have migrated to the Americas but left no DNA signatures that are found in native Americans today. In addition, the story of the Lehites coming by ship seems feasible to me, because the Phoenicians had been sailing long distances for hundreds of years before the Lehites. That is, traveling by ship was not an unknown skill. With the help of the Lord, the Lehites could have traveled to the Americas. The Book of Mormon states that Nephi was taught by the Lord how to build a ship, using techniques that were not in common use at that time.

    Keep in mind, ujlapana, that we accept the Book of Mormon as a matter of faith. We don’t accept the book because of logic, debate, or scientific evidence. Unless you can look at the book from our viewpoint (i.e. you also make it a matter of faith) you won’t understand our perspective, and our acceptance of the book will look illogical to you, and the book will appear as a myth to you.

    We do believe that eventually scientific evidence will arise that will allow people to accept the book because of that evidence, but that time has not come yet.

    We support you in your right to look at the Book of Mormon and at Mormonism from a scientific view and a logical view, and we hope you support us in our right to look at the book and at our religion as matters of faith.

    We expect that you will have objections to our religion because of your perspective of science and logic. We hope that you understand that those reasons have little meaning to us right now due to our perspective of faith towards our religious beliefs.

  22. Wan Seegmiller says:

    Interesting! Sorry that you waded off into global warming. But it does illustrate that you “have complex beliefs informed by your time and culture”

  23. Andrew S says:

    Thanks for your post. I found it very interesting.

    I did have a question about your quote of Joseph F. Smith and subsequent paraphrase: “if what has been said is conflict with the facts, we can set it aside.”

    It seems that Joseph F. Smith is referring to “the four standard works as the measuring yardsticks”. When did science (which is what I assume you mean by facts) become one of the standard works? Which one has been replaced by it?

    Or, if that is not what you mean – and I don’t think that it is what you mean, do we still have a problem if ‘facts’ ARE in conflict with the four standard works? This seems to me to be the heart of the issue.

  24. Forest Simmons says:

    Nephi claims that by the time he writes, already the remnants of the House of Israel are scattered over the face of the earth.

    Surely the Siberians are more Josephite than the modern European Jews.

    Correspondence with Siberian DNA among indigeneous American groups would rather support the claim of tribe of Joseph DNA.

  25. Forest Simmons says:

    The Book of Mormon itself has the Nephites surrounded by two groups much larger than themselves, the people of Zarahemla to the North (with whom they eventually merged) and the Lamanites on the South (with whom they mixed also).

    But weren’t both of those groups basically from the same Milieu?

    I have long believed that the Lamanites got so numerous and distinct in appearance from the Nephites by mixing with indigenous people to the South of where Lehi landed. The Lamanites dominated the culture (but not the genetics) of those more primitive peoples, just as the Nephites dominated the culture (because of their books and swords) but not the genetics of the people of Zarahemla.

    Whenever some prominent person among the Nephites was an actual descendant of Nephi, it was something worthy of comment (if not bragging).

    The people of Zarahemla seemed to be a mixture of Mulekites and remnants of the Jaredites. “Destruction” does not necessarily mean total annihilation of the population. In fact, that would be a rare use of the term.

    The prominence of Jaredite names among the people of Zarahemla has been noted by Nibley and others. While reading chapter 1 of Helaman the other day I noticed that the bad guy of that chapter has the same name, Coriantumr, as the last Jaredite king, and is described as a giant of a man descended from Zarahemla, i.e. not a descendant of Lehi.

    I would be greatly surprised to find out that Zarahemla was a pure descendant of Mulek. More likely he had a lot of Jaredite DNA.

  26. tecumseh says:

    Ridiculous but WHY. I am sorry but your arguments are half baked at best. The problem is the whole point of view is clearly lets try to drive a square peg into a round hole, the whole view of the Book of Mormon and science of archeology and genetics is at odds. It is somewhat sad and pathetic to see smart people continue in the useless exercise. The very odd thing is that people NEED to believe in science AND their religion and I cannot understand this. Why not just say science is science and my religion is my religion and they disagree. Does science really have anything meaningful to tell you on how to run your life, on why we are here, on how to treat your neighbor even. NO. 200 hundred years ago science believed in ill humors controlling your body, no atomic theory, no relativity. The basic theory of Einsteins relativity theory is in conflict with quantum mechanics. So WHY do all your LDS people feel so threatened by science. Just accept two things that science will view things very different in a few hundred years and our religion is in conflict with todays science and quit this pathetic attempt of driving a square peg into a round hole.

  27. Erik Vais says:

    Surprisee Friend , i read w/ Your posting. LOL Please come to my blog

  28. Julie Selman says:

    The Book of Mormon states that a mark was placed upon the Lamanites that made them dark. Wouldn’t the DNA have to be changed to make that happen?

  29. LeNooB says:

    Stuff are mixed. But I’m sure someday, their own senses will explain everything to them.

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