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Sunday, 4 August 2013

John Sorenson Changed His Mind About DNA

John L. Sorenson is an emeritus professor of anthropology at Brigham Young University and the author of An Ancient American Setting for the Book of Mormon, a seminal apologetic work. Sorenson founded the anthropology program at BYU in 1958 and lead anthropology research at BYU for 14 years before retiring in 1986. From 1986 to 2008 he carried out full time research and writing on ancient American civilizations and the Book of Mormon for the Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS). Sorenson has published some 200 books and articles. He is arguably the most passionate and persistent Book of Mormon scholar the LDS Church has produced.

John Sorenson

Sorenson has championed the Limited Geography Theory for decades. He is convinced that the events described in the Book of Mormon took place in a small region of Mesoamerica. Sorenson was clearly heavily influenced by the famous diffusionist Thor Heyerdahl who sailed from South America to the Society Islands (after being towed 50 miles into the west flowing Humboldt Current!) on the balsa-log raft Kon-Tiki, in 1947. Like Heyerdahl, Sorenson believes that the Polynesians are the descendants of Native American (Lehite) sailors.

First Impressions

Given Sorenson's point of view, and his status in LDS apologetic circles, it is revealing to take a look at his reaction to the arrival of DNA research. Sorenson's first thoughts on DNA appear in two papers published by FARMS in the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies in 2000. You wouldn't know Sorenson was the author of the two papers because the journal doesn't reveal that. The fact that Sorenson authored both papers was revealed to me by LDS apologist John Tvedtnes. Both papers were published under the heading "New Light". At the time Sorenson was essentially running the journal and published whatever he liked. I was told by an apologist that these two papers were not peer reviewed, even by other apologists!
New Light: Paper 1

In the first paper we see that Sorenson was very optimistic about the capacity of DNA to trace genealogical and evolutionary relationships in global populations. In the first paper (Sorenson 2000a), readers are given an up beat report on a research paper by University of Hawaii researcher Rebecca Cann (Lum et al. 1994). Sorenson deduced that the “genetic ties linking the two areas is now hard enough to support a picture of substantial historical connections between Polynesian and American groups.” 

Rebecca Cann

It now appears that Sorenson didn't even read Rebecca Cann's paper. Rather, his information came largely from a popularized account of Cann’s research published in the Hawaii Magazine. The journalist writing the story found it interesting that "a genetic marker that distinguished the Polynesian sub-groups was also found in some Native Americans". Sorenson then spun this throw away line by a journalist into an upbeat story of evidence for the Book of Mormon. Sorenson not only neglected to look at Cann's original research paper, he also overlooked Cann's other published work which had revealed virtually exclusive genetic ties between Polynesia and the Far East (Lum and Cann 1998, Lum et al. 1998). Cann's research had actually shown that Polynesians and Native Americans are not closely related.  

The lineage in question is the B lineage and it arrived in the Americas about 15,000 years ago. The Polynesian B lineage arrived from South East Asia in the last 3,000 years. 

Second Impression

New Light: Paper 2

In the next issue of the Journal of Book of Mormon Studies, Sorenson's earlier enthusiasm about DNA has evaporated. In his second "anonymous" New Light article in a year, Sorenson gives a scathing assessment of the “new toy in human biology and anthropology” for determining issues of human history (Sorenson 2000b)He predicts that the usefulness of DNA research would run a “life cycle” from seeming to “sharply modify the conventional picture” to being relegated to its more rightful place somewhere in the grab bag of scientific tools. Clearly something Sorenson had read had struck a raw doctrinal nerve. The DNA research at that time had not sharply modified the conventional picture of human origins or theories concerning the origins of Native Americans or Polynesian. So what was bothering Sorenson? It appears he had got around to reading some original molecular research and found that it threatened his conventional LDS views.

"the new toy in human biology and anthropology”

Sadly, Rebecca Cann has now fallen out of favour with the apologist. Sorenson takes aim at “enthusiasts without adequate critical acumen” in an unsavoury attack on Cann, the scientist he had previously praised for her work on Polynesians. In Cann's ground-breaking study of the mitochondrial DNA of 147 women from four continents, Cann had concluded that women can claim a common mother from sub-Saharan Africa who lived about 200,000 years ago (Cann et al. 1987). The offending paper was published in Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals in history.  

A minor weakness in Cann’s work, which other scientists pointed out and which Sorenson amplified, was that it focused on a small (400 base pairs of DNA) portion of the mitochondrial DNA that mutates at too high a rate to allow definitive estimates of age. Recent, more comprehensive, work on both female and male lineages has confirmed the sub-Saharan origin but predicted that our common ancestors lived there 90,000 to 150,000 years ago. These date estimates sit very comfortably with a substantial amount of archaeological and anthropological research that suggest our ancestors left Africa a very long time ago.

But the research of Cann and others didn't sit comfortably with Sorenson's fixed LDS world view so he went on the attack. Sorenson is clearly reluctant to accept such antiquity for the human race because of its menacing implications for other areas of Mormon theology. Many church members still believe we all descend from Adam and Eve who lived on the earth barely 6,000 years ago, that the flood of Noah’s time exterminated most of the human population 4,400 years ago, and that America was first occupied by Middle Easterners 4,200 years ago. Those who hold such views have difficulty with the idea of ancestors who migrated out of Africa over 60,000 years ago and who have lived uninterrupted on all major continents for the last 15,000 years. 

First impression on Native American DNA research

In his second paper Sorenson also provided what for most LDS readers was their first glimpse of DNA research on Native Americans (Sorenson 2000b). In an overtly disparaging survey, he cited one research paper where four founding female DNA lineages were described, others where seven and then nine were found, and yet another with thirty “distinct lineages.” He concluded that scientists now “choose to simplify the confusion by talking about four Amerindian haplogroups — A, B, C, D” and simply “dump” the baffling anomalies into an “other” category. 

The truth is that Sorenson didn't understand the research he was reading. Consequently he gave an appallingly inaccurate summary of the state of Native American DNA research at that time. Most readers would have been left with the impression that molecular anthropologists studying Native Americans were incompetent fools fumbling around in the dark. The truth is that by the year 2000 it was very clear to scientists in the field that Native American mitochondrial DNA fell into 5 major lineage groups. And these lineage groups did not look Jewish. Clearly, Sorenson wasn't trying to inform. He was trying to ensure that the Mormons reading his ironically titled "New Light" article would pay little attention to the DNA research because he knew it wouldn't be particularly faith promoting. 

The Wrong Impression

DNA technology is a very powerful tool that has made a major contribution to the study of not only human origins, but the origins of all living things. Sorenson was wrong about the science and his behaviour says more about him than DNA. In spite of his superficial understanding of the science and his complete u-turn on the value of the technology, he was prepared to impose his views on ordinary Mormons and completely dismiss what other LDS scholars may have thought. Sorenson changed his mind about the science because he was not prepared to change his mind about his beliefs.  


Cann, Rebecca L., Mark Stoneking, and Allan C. Wilson. 1987. “Mitochondrial DNA and Human Evolution,” Nature 325:31-6.

Lum, Koji J., Olga Rickards, C. Ching, et al. 1994. “Polynesian Mitochondrial
DNAs Reveal Three Deep Maternal Lineage Clusters,” Human Biology 66:567-90.

Lum, Koji J., and Rebecca L. Cann. 1998. “MtDNA and Language Support 
a Common Origin of Micronesians and Polynesians in Island Southeast Asia,” American Journal of Physical Anthropology 105:109-19.

Lum, Koji J., Rebecca L. Cann, Jeremy J. Martinson, et al. 1998. “Mitochondrial and Nuclear Genetic Relationships among Pacific Island and Asian Populations,” American Journal of Human Genetics 63:613-24.

Sorenson, John L. 2000a. “New Light: Genetics Indicates that Polynesians Were Connected to Ancient America,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9:1.

Sorenson, John L. 2000b. “New Light: The Problematic Role of DNA Testing in Unraveling Human History,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 9:2.