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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 I was told by an apologist that these two papers were not peer reviewed, even by other apologists!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.


  1. Thanks for writing this blog and informing us what is going on in this area.

    Every time I see a new entry, I know I'm in for some insightful reading.

  2. You do realize you have a picture of Nibley, not Sorenson, right???

  3. Anonymous - thank you for pointing out my error. Fixed it now. I've never seen either man in the flesh. Nibley must be so famous that when you search for an image of John Sorenson his face comes up more often than John's.

  4. John L. Sorenson also collaborated with another non-LDS academic (very important for propaganda purposes), Carl L. Johannessen, in putting forth some "remarkable" claims about "biological exchanges" they surmise took place between the Old World and the pre-Columbian Americas. They are referred to as "hyper-diffusionists," and their views have been roundly and universally rejected by mainstream archaeologists and anthropologists everywhere. Here's a sample of the "evidence" they offer:

    The object being depicted is almost certainly a mythical fruit fruit bearing pearls known in Sanskrit as “Muktaphala " (Payak and Sashan, 1993). The size is such that to identify it as corn or maize would require it to be a modern hybrid, a biological impossibility in the 13th Century. Corn cobs dating to that period in North America found in ruins belonging to the Anasazi and other native peoples in the Americas were much smaller.

  5. Oh, thanks for this! The long-ass article by Sorenson an Johannessen was used as a reply for a statement I made about "The Cocaine Mummies" making the Tumblr rounds, and I could hardly find any discussion of it, let alone criticism (and the thing made me cross-eyed, like trying to read one of those "Magical ways to use turmeric and vinegar to cure cancer big Pharma doesn't want you to know!" shaft articles than anything else (and I've read some dense-ass shot as a North American archaeologist). This dissection really helped me find out more and see the document more clearly.

  6. Such a biased approach.

  7. You must be evolutionist to believe those studies about men travelling over the bering street 60'000 years or longer. Conerning the DNA studies: There has been other studies been made, which show clearly that native american also originated from the Far East palestinian area
    To cover the mass murder of the native american population, officials covered up archaeological information and thousands of evidences for pre columbian high developed and with approx 100 mio people populated the american heartland, speaking 5000 different languages. Today it is absolutely evident, many different cultures travelled with boats from Europe to the East Coast of America long before Colombus. The Book of Mormon story migth be fake, but the todays facts legitimate the story a 100%. Interestingly enough the fact, the the Book was published in time, when scholars didn't even have a clou about all that.
    I am not going to post any links for articles unless you really want it. Whosever wants to believe the Book of Mormon was fake, will still believe it, when an angel appears to him an shows him the plates. A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.

    1. Anyone can say anything in the name of God, anyone can write anything in the name of God and anyone can claim anything in the name of God because God never shows up to contradict anyone.

  8. Hi Anonymous,
    I accept evolution because the evidence in support of it is overwhelming. Well over 99% of life scientists accept it as well (even at BYU) for the same reason. It is the best explanation for the facts that surround us.
    There is currently very little if any evidence of Europeans migrating to America prior to Columbus apart from a small group of Norse sailors who didn't stay long. The DNA backs that up.
    This is what the current evidence suggests. Sorry, I don't believe in American conspiracy theories about evidence cover ups.

  9. What of the Haplogroup X present in many of the Algonquin speaking native Americans, doesn't that give credence to the idea that European did at some time come to North America.

  10. I am an anthropologist that just happens to be LDS and I have a specialty in Native American Studies. I could care less about whether DNA verifies or rejects DNA origins of the Native populations that live here, or even how they got here. I am intrigued with the cultural similarities and differences that make up the current peoples that are here. There is a mix of all kinds of people within the cultures and what they are today is a mishmash of everyone. Dr. Sorenson, who I know, has always had his own opinion and is entitled to it. His opinion should be put along with everyone else's, and this allows me to read and enjoy learning from many of the apologists of LDS beliefs and culture both positive and negative.

  11. Haplo group X2a and X2g are both Native American lineages, they are not found in Europe. They oldest and most basal X2a was found on the west coast in Washington and was 9,000 years old, found in the remains called Kenniwick Man. There is no way these mythical Israelites brought X2a , when it had never been found anywhere else but America, it's the same age as all other founding haplogroups,.

  12. Does anyone know how to contact Dr. Sorenson? I have questions regarding his work with Barry Fell.

  13. Mormon Apologists / Mormon Scholars, do more harm for the Church than good. It’s difficult to find a real Scientist to even talk about the Book of Mormon because it is so obviously a work of fiction. Why doesn’t the church invest some of their millions of dollars in LiDar Technology to find the great Nephite Civilizations in the Book of Mormon? MORMONS!! Stop trying to make the BOM fit. We know enough now that it is unethical and dishonest to continue to try and prove the Book of Mormon is Historical.