No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues
is a recently published volume (2011) by Brigham Young University Religious Studies Center, and edited by Dr. Robert Millet, former Dean of Religious Education at the same university. It is a collection of articles written by scholars from diverse fields and addressing topics that have been used by critics of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to attack the Church, its history, or doctrines. I was asked to write an essay on the issue of DNA claims with regard to the historicity of The Book of Mormon, which during the past decade has been used both against and in favor of such argument. In one sentence, my conclusions could be summarized with a simple: "You cannot use genetic evidence to conclusively support whether The Book of Mormon was historical in nature, or not." What I mean with "conclusively" is that you cannot state that genetic evidence is sufficient to close the matter once and for all, one way or the other.
I recently found an online review for No Weapon Shall Prosper
by Richard Packham, which included a section about my essay "The Book of Mormon and the Origin of Native Americans from a Maternally Inherited DNA Standpoint." (An earlier version of this article was published in FARMS Review
in 2010).I have posted the full text of the review pertaining to what I wrote below, with the objective of addressing Mr. Packham comments, section by section.
PACKHAM: Ugo Perego, a geneticist at BYU, authored the article on how DNA research impacts the message of the Book of Mormon. Perego frankly admits that current DNA research on the origin of Native Americans cannot confirm the Book of Mormon by showing Israelite ancestry for them (p 182). He confirms the view generally held by authorities in the field that DNA research shows an origin for them in the area of Mongolia, and that they began to migrate to the Americas thousands of years before Book of Mormon times. Perego acknowledges that the entire human race is descended from a single woman who lived in Africa about 200,000 years ago (p 170).
PEREGO: For the record, I am not a geneticist at BYU. I received a BS and MS at Brigham Young University, but I have never been part of their faculty. I received a PhD in Genetics and Biomolecular Sciences, with an emphasis on population genetics, at the University of Pavia (Italy) under the mentorship of Professor Antonio Torroni. I have worked for the past decade in the private industry for the non-profit Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation and taught Human Biology at the Salt Lake Community College as an adjunct faculty (both institutions located in Utah). A simple internet search would have provided this information.
The purpose of my treatise in No Weapon Shall Prosper
was not to discuss the impact of DNA research on the message of The Book of Mormon, as stated by Mr. Packham, but on the misuse of genetic data in linking the origin of Native Americans with the historicity of The Book of Mormon, two topics that in my mind have to be addressed separately and with proper understanding of fundamental population genetics principles. Mr. Packham is obviously familiar with the topic, but he is definitely not an expert in the field of population migrations and genetics. He makes a couple of common misstatements at the beginning of his review that are often spelled out by those that have a superficial understanding of this topic: 1. A large subset of Native American lineages share a common ancient ancestry with Asian populations, which is substantially different from stating that they originated from Central Asia. In my article, I also explain that the currently accepted molecular clock for mitochondrial DNA allows for the splitting of deep lineages (i.e. ancient migrations that took place tens of thousand of years ago), but this instrument is often not adequate to successfully detect migrations that occurred in a relatively recent past (i.e. the last couple of millennia). Such a research as not yet been designed with the objective of studying lineages with no Asian affinity in the Americas, although there have been several instances in which additional, more recent pre-Columbian migrations to the Americas, including interesting DNA markers that could have a non-Asian origin, have been reported in the past. 2. Mitochondrial DNA evidence does not claim that all humanity descends from a single woman, but that all mtDNA lineages eventually coalesce in a single female ancestor. This is just one of the many ancestors modern humans have. Both of these points are extensively discussed in my essay, but have been ignored in Mr. Packham's review.
On a shorter note, Mr. Packham, as many critics of The Book of Mormon, enjoys dwelling on the fact that I have openly admitted the lack of Israelite DNA in the Americas. At the same time, he purposely neglects that in other parts of my essay I emphasized that we don't have a reference to be used when searching for Lehi's party DNA in the Americas and the many reasons why it would be nearly impossible to detect such a genetic signal even if we knew what we were looking for.
PACKHAM: In defending the Book of Mormon against the implications of these facts, Perego makes some astonishing claims. He claims that the Book of Mormon says nothing about "whether other populations were already established in the land" (p 163). He appears to want to ignore what God said to Lehi (2 Nephi 1:9) that Lehi's people would go to a land where they would be "kept from all other nations." Or God's assurance to the brother of Jared (Ether 2: that the land they had been promised would be preserved for them alone, so long as they remained righteous.
PEREGO: My "astonishing" claims are quite simple to understand in the context I originally made them. First of all I explain the vastness of the American double-continent and how The Book of Mormon states to be just a summary of several records spanning a period of 1000 years. Therefore, I am not surprised that such a volume does not mention clearly and unequivocally about other populations. The rate of population growth though is somewhat surprising and the fact that the faction labelled as Lamanites is growing considerably faster in number than their counterparts, the Nephites (given an equal rate of reproduction for both groups) would imply that in one case there could be rapid admixture with surrounding native populations, while the latter group attempted to remain homogeneous and keep things within the "covenant". Extensive warfare between the two factions during the same generation of their arrival to the New world would also imply recruitment of indigenous populations. Perhaps one of the strongest argument in favor of local inhabitants is found in the very book of Jacob, when Sherem stated that he "sought much opportunity " to speak with the leader of the Nephites (Jacob 7:6). Or when Mormon feels the need to state that he is "a pure descendant of Lehi" (3 Nephi 5:20). These and other statements in The Book of Mormon leave the door open to the possibility that other groups might have been present in the land. As Mr. Packham acknowledges (but also ignores in his review), the concept of inheritance of the land was tied to the righteousness of the people, which neither the Jaredites nor the Nephites kept as a standard of living until the end. Additionally, the concept of land could be referred to a geographic area either small or large. I have no preference in the geographic setting of The Book of Mormon and I leave it to others to discuss about a limited or continental setting for the events narrated in such volume, however, being The Book of Mormon a summary of a 1000 year history in just few hundred pages and due to the size of the American continent, I have no problem in considering that the record keepers and the man that claimed to have made a summary of such records left out many details about the population dynamics of their and other possible groups in the land. It is also plausible to interpret that "the other nations" from which our protagonists would be kept from were those that were a treat to them (the story tells of the destruction of Jerusalem and the persecution of Lehi as a good reason to leave their hometown and for the Jaredites it was the unrighteousness that reigned in the land at the time of the building of the Tower of Babel). This is very much in line with what motivated the first pilgrims to leave Europe in search for a place where they could exercise religious freedom and avoid persecution "from other nations" (the European ones).
PACKHAM: Perego gives no explanation for the fact that the Book of Mormon text makes no mention of encounters with people already there. When the Mulekites are discovered (Omni 1:14) there is a great todo, and the encounter is recorded. But that's the only such encounter or mention of other peoples. Compare that with the Israelites, who also were led to a "promised land." Their history repeatedly mentions their neighboring peoples, their wars with them, their victories over them, their intermarriages with them. Why - if a similar situation really existed with the Book of Mormon peoples - is there nothing of that nature? Perego comments that the Book of Mormon is a "sacred and religious history," but so is the Old Testament.
PEREGO: In my treatise I explain that the distance from Alaska to Tierra del Fuego is greater than that from Portugal to Japan. Considering the fact that The Book of Mormon states to be an abridgment of the most important events, it seems normal to me that there are no too many details about other populations and that not all the people that could have lived during that time and over the entire Western Hemisphere landmass were the object of the Nephites' record keeping. It is the story of the glass half empty or half full. In my mind, the fact that a group is mentioned (the followers of Mulek and a Jaredite survivor) is proof that other people were there and so could have been others. The comparison with the Israelite biblical record is somewhat not proper since Israel is only 8,000 square miles in size (compared to the 16,428,260 square miles of the combined North, Central and South America continent). Israel could fit into Florida 8 times being only 263 miles long and between 9 and 71 miles wide. Also, the Old Testament text does not claim to be an summary of other records, but a full account. The Nephites would have had an impossible task to fill if they wanted to include all the events of the Americas in their records, more so in the abridgment that was made by a single individual.
PACKHAM: Perego attributes the belief that the Book of Mormon should be seen as a history of the origin of ALL Native Americans to "a common sentiment" and "speculation" by both Mormons and non-Mormons. He seems to be unaware that the same "sentiment" was shared by the Angel Moroni and most Mormon prophets from Joseph Smith through Spencer W. Kimball. Did not Moroni say (JS-Hist 1:34) that the gold plates gave "an account of the former inhabitants of this continent and the source from whence they sprang"? Perego (and many other modern Mormon apologists) apparently read that as "an account of a tiny percentage of the former inhabitants of a little corner of this continent before they were swallowed up without a trace."
PEREGO: First of all, to be genealogically related is one thing and to carry the genes of our ancestors is another. I mention in my article (and it is an accepted principle in population genetics) that the genes of a colonizing groups have a close to zero chance of survival in future generations when competing with those of the hosting population. Additionally, it is also a matter of determining which groups survived, what happened to them after the end of keeping the records, and what dynamics were involved. The Book of Mormon is not a complete record when it comes to the history of these people and their genealogies. The Angel Moroni spoke of the "former" inhabitants, which means that they no longer exist. If they don't exist, then their DNA should not be easily detected in the modern native population. Apparently, this is a concept that Mr. Packham has a hard time accepting as it would not support his position.
PACKHAM: Perego concludes with the assertion that "Anyone using DNA to ascertain the accuracy of historical events of a religious nature - which require instead a component of faith - will be sorely disappointed." How is the origin of Native Americans a religious question? Only because the Mormons have made it so. Yes, if one wants to believe something which is unsupported by historical or scientific information, a large component of faith is required. Faith apparently always trumps science (a common theme in this collection). But DNA is used every day in criminal cases to determine the accuracy of facts.
PEREGO: The religious question is obviously not about the origin of Native Americans, but about the historicity of The Book of Mormon, which in my mind is not a record with the objective to provide a detailed and complete origin of these people. How is that science could support unequivocally the truthfulness of a religious volume? What kind of evidence would provide such proof as to convince those that cannot rely on faith, prayer or personal revelation (the common standards for most religious practices) that an an ancient record is divine in nature and not man-made? What type of DNA testing or research design would provide the accuracy of facts that are described in The Book of Mormon or in the Biblical text (or other religious records for that matter) from a DNA viewpoint? As a retired lawyer, Mr. Packham should know that in a criminal case, to reconstruct the accuracy of facts you would need both the DNA of the perpetrator and at the same time the DNA of a list of suspects in order to find a match. What was the DNA of the people in Lehi's party and how would we conclude that it is what we think it could be without a chance to actually test it? How could a case be closed if we are missing the very genetic evidence that we need to ascertain whether these people actually existed? Either Mr. Packham is oblivious about genetic testing for population studies, or he is so biased about Mormonism as to fail to accept the very principles that govern such science.