Tuesday, 18 February 2014

DNA Essay Exposes Mormon Doublethink


In late January 2014, the LDS Church responded to challenges to Book of Mormon historicity from DNA science in an essay entitled “Book of Mormon and DNA Studies”. I have previously commented on the scientific content of the DNA essay on my blog, but this essay raises another important issue. In their hour of need church leaders have turned to LDS evolutionary biologists to help defend the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The principal scientist used to defend the Book of Mormon (Ugo Perego), and essentially all of the other LDS scientists who have written DNA apologetics, are committed evolutionary biologists. They accept evolution as a fact. Yet these same evolutionary biologists have been the subject of ridicule by senior church leaders from the pulpit at General Conference. It is also particularly disingenuous to suddenly expect ordinary Mormons to be satisfied with the DNA essay when those very members have been conditioned by their leaders to believe evolution is one of the most evil concepts ever taught. It is not only mixed messages about evolution the essay conveys; the essay reveals that Church leaders have been giving mixed messages about scientific discoveries that challenge other key LDS beliefs.

A Hidden Book of Mormon Geography  

An anonymous Mormon recently commented on my response to the LDS.org DNA essay.  Brother Anonymous helps us to see why the church is in such a difficult situation with regards the historicity of the Book of Mormon. 

“You do know that plenty of LDS leaders and members believed the hemisphere was inhabited by a lot of other people when the Lehites arrived before your book, right? The church has not "changed it's tune" as a result of any DNA research. The limited geography model, or something like it, was first proposed back in the 1840s. There have been many, many statements from leaders of the church over the last 100 years that state that there were plenty of other people here when Lehi arrived. These authors include Sjodal, Nibley, Sorenson, Smith, Reynolds, and many others, including members of the First Presidency. It is very irritating to see you so consistently act as if your book shook the church from any consistent belief about the Book of Mormon events. I suggest a look into the history of the limited geography model and the research from other sources.” 
– Anonymous 

I can understand Brother Anonymous’ irritation, but since when have Nibley et al. been installed as church leaders? I have never heard the authors he names speaking or being quoted by church leaders in General Conference. Their work is rarely acknowledged in official church literature and they have never published anything on behalf of the church. More importantly, I have heard numerous conference talks by apostles and other church leaders that clearly support a hemispheric view. Why should I take any notice of unofficial writings of Mormon apologists, especially when they don’t square with what church leaders publicly teach? 

The vast majority of ordinary Mormons believe the Book of Mormon is hemispheric, meaning its people arrived in a vacant Promised Land prepared for them and went on to inhabit most of the two continents. That’s why we have the descendants of Lehi mentioned in many dedicatory prayers of temples in Central and South America and Polynesia, some as recently as last year. And it’s why we have thousands of “Lamanites” receiving patriarchal blessings telling them they are members of Lehi’s tribe, Manasseh. Hemispheric views have been widely taught in seminary and institute classes and promoted in the Ensign and New Era for decades. These views are openly taught in Sunday School, Institute of Religion, and LDS Seminary classes and by proselytising missionaries preaching throughout the world. Church leaders have been reluctant or powerless to curtail these beliefs which are woven into the fabric of the faith. From the security of the pulpit at General Conference church leaders have preferred to teach these very traditional views to the broader membership because they know that's what they want to hear. 

LDS scholars, however, believe in a very different Book of Mormon narrative to ordinary Mormons. They have known for decades the hemispheric model is simply not possible given the abundant evidence about America's true founders from a range of disciplines including archaeology, anthropology, linguistics, geology and genetics. Given their impossible situation they have had little choice but to shrink the geographical claims. This is why the limited geography model appeared several decades ago. When the DNA evidence arrived it placed severe limitations on an already strained model, to the point where a vanished model is now the most harmonious explanation for the evidence.
However, church leaders have rarely given clear public support for anything LDS apologists have said. This, I believe, goes to the heart of the problem with the essay. Out of sight of the general membership, the church has supported a small army of LDS scholars whose job has been to fend off attacks on the church and the authenticity of LDS scripture. Church leaders must have known the difficulties these scholars have been dealing with, yet they have rarely acknowledged them publicly. Yet when a member raises difficult questions with their ecclesiastical leaders, they are now invariably referred to these apologists. Consequently, the public words of the leaders do not align well with less publicised views of LDS scholars. The LDS.org essay exposes a kind of corporate doublethink that has been going on for decades.

Revolving Views on Evolution

The essay takes ordinary Mormons into the scientific world of human molecular biology and population genetics (often referred to as human population genomics). This is a scientific field that is built on a foundation of evolutionary theory. Without the explanatory power of evolutionary theory a population geneticist just sees mountains of meaningless data. However, the Mormon Church has a long history of double-dealing with members about evolution. The overwhelming majority of public statements about evolution by church leaders are highly critical. As recently as 2012, apostles have publicly ridiculed evolutionary biologists at general conference.
“Yet some people erroneously think that these marvellous physical attributes happened by chance or resulted from a big bang somewhere. Ask yourself, ‘Could an explosion in a printing shop produce a dictionary?’ The likelihood is most remote. But if so, it could never heal its own torn pages or reproduce its own newer editions.”
— Apostle Russell Nelson LDS General Conference April 2012

It is inexcusable for a man in Nelson's position, with his level of medical training, to display such ignorance, particularly when his audience is prone to accept every word he says without question. The tradition of mocking evolution by LDS leaders has had a major impact on what most Mormons believe. The Mormon Church is now arguably one of the most anti-life science institutions in the United States. We can see the impact of the Church's doublethink in levels of public acceptance of evolution in Utah. The state ranks 47 out of 50 in the United States, beaten to the bottom by Tennessee and Arkansas. These are statistics that church leaders should view with shame because they are largely responsible for them. To make matters worse, the United States ranks 33 out of 34 western countries (beaten to the bottom by Turkey). 

At the same time as it publicly lampoons evolution, the church funds entire academic departments at BYU whose research is based on evolutionary theory and it pays the salaries of dozens of evolutionary biologists. Perhaps the apostles should get out of their sheltered Church Office Building and see where church money is being spent. For a start they could visit professors and scientists in the College of Life Sciences at BYU. Here, they would meet many members of the church who fully accept evolution. The vast majority of LDS life scientists accept evolution and many apply its principles and concepts in their research. These are Mormons who know enough about the topic to make an informed decision about its validity. In contrast to General Authorities, the statements made by LDS scientists in support of evolution are expressed timidly. The most widely known contemporary LDS defence of evolution was expressed by Henry Eyring, father of current apostle Henry B. Eyring:

  "God has left messages all over in the physical world that scientists have learned to read. These messages are quite clear, well understood, and accepted in science. That is, the theories that the earth is about four and one-half billion years old and that life evolved over the last billion years or so are as well established scientifically as many theories ever are.
  We should keep in mind that scientists are as diligent and truthful as anyone else. Organic evolution is the honest result of capable people trying to explain the evidence to the best of their ability. From my limited study of the subject I would say that the physical evidence supporting the theory is considerable from a scientific viewpoint. 
  In my opinion it would be a very sad mistake if a parent or teacher were to belittle scientists as being wicked charlatans or else fools having been duped by half-baked ideas that gloss over inconsistencies. That isn’t an accurate assessment of the situation, and our children or students will be able to see that when they begin their scientific studies."– Henry Eyring, Reflections of a Scientist 1998

It is a sad mistake that LDS General Authorities continue to belittle evolution and evolutionary biologists. Michael Whiting, a current BYU professor of evolutionary biology and active Mormon gave an excellent lecture to students at BYU where he explains the reasons why he fully accepts evolution. 

“Scientists embrace evolution because it is the central underlying concept in all of biology, and it provides us with an extensive set of tools to address real-world problems such as devising strategies to rescue threatened species and protecting humans against infectious agents. There are few scientific theories that have so successfully summarized such an abundance of observations with such an economy of descriptive processes. This is why evolutionary theory is unabashedly not just good science but great science.”

Towards the end of the seminar Whiting talks about how ordinary Mormons respond when he tells them he studies insect evolution. “How can you do that at BYU? Isn’t evolution diametrically opposed to the teachings of the church?” These Mormons are surprised because the public statements of church leaders don't match the more "private" actions of the church. 

Shades of Young Earth Creationism

The low levels of acceptance of evolution by members of the church are increasingly accompanied by Young Earth Creationist beliefs that earth and all life on Earth were created by direct acts of God between 5,700 and 10,000 years ago. Many believe additional LDS scripture reaffirms these literalist beliefs in a Garden of Eden and a global Flood about 4,500 years ago. Again, members hold these beliefs because church leaders have reinforced them publicly for many years. One particularly egregious example that I was personally troubled by was an Ensign article from 1998 on the Flood and the Tower of Babel which argued that it was a poor understanding of science that led some Mormons to lose their belief in a global flood. The author, Donald Parry, is a BYU Hebrew scholar with no scientific training beyond high school. Parry was roundly criticised by several BYU colleagues for the ignorance displayed in the article. Since then Duane E. Jeffery, a highly respected BYU professor has written a much more scientifically informed article that can be found on page 27 of the October 2004 issue of Sunstone

It is likely that the church, much as it was with its past racial doctrines, is influenced by the culture in which it finds itself. Young Earth Creationism is largely an American "bizarrity" where it claims almost 50% of the population. That is a staggeringly high proportion of the population who hold on to this delusion. In the UK it is less than 15% and in Australia the figure is less than 10%. Levels of Creationist belief in other Western countries hardly merit a mention. 

Most scientists who accept evolution cannot accept that there was a Garden of Eden 6,000 years ago or a global Noahian Flood about 4,500 years ago. These two events require that the human population went through not one, but two excruciatingly narrow population bottlenecks in the last 6 to 10 thousand years. If these events had happened the signs of this have been scrubbed from the genomes of plants and animals. Analysis of human DNA using the most sophisticated population genomics methods available to us tells us no such bottleneck occurred. There is also abundant evidence from numerous other scientific fields that human beings who look just like us have lived on the earth for hundred of thousands of years. The scientific evidence for a global flood is non-existent. If there was a major extinction in the last 5 to 10 thousand years, then the biological and geological evidence has been removed. Many LDS scientists who have pondered these issues have reached the same conclusion. They believe that Noah was a real man, but the Flood was a major localized event for which there is evidence

In contrast to the LDS Church, many mainstream churches are much more accepting of evolution and the sciences in general. Consider the Catholics. The Catholic Church established a Pontifical Academy of Sciences in 1936. 

Casino Pio IV, the home of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences

The academy’s membership includes eighty eminent scientists—many of whom are Nobel laureates—from diverse disciplines, nationalities and religious beliefs. Every other year the academy meets to discuss and debate important issues such as environmental concerns, the implications of genetics, and the origins of life and the galaxies. Each time they meet, the Pope has the undivided attention of some of the world’s brightest scientific minds. Those who attend are expected to display respect for the work of the church, but speakers choose their own topics and debate issues with complete freedom. The Academy almost certainly influenced the Pope's declaration in 1996 that evolution “is more than just a theory." It's hard to imagine the First Presidency and the apostles establishing anything resembling the Pontifical Academy or seeking the advice of scientists, especially non-Mormon ones.

Corporate Doublethink

For many years the scholarship of LDS apologists has invariably been accompanied by a disclaimer that reads something like this.

The views expressed in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent the position of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

The essays on the LDS.org website do not carry this disclaimer. While unnamed scholars helped write them, and LDS apologists will debate what is and isn't official doctrine until the Second Coming, they have been approved by the highest leaders of the church. In the eyes of most members they represent the official (current) position of the church. 

While many will find the content of the DNA essay reassuring, there are others who are concerned by the further issues the essay raises. In attempting to rescue the Book of Mormon in the face of DNA evidence, the church now appears to be admitting that Native Americans occupied the New World before Adam and Eve arrived, and they avoided any global flood. If the church is now acknowledging Native Americans have lived in the Americas for thousands of years, what is the church's current position on the global Flood? Why, if the leaders were aware of the limited geography for many years, did they publicly continue to promote hemispheric views? Why, if the church employs large numbers of evolutionary biologists has it persisted in ridiculing the theory of evolution and scientists who accept it? The essay will leave many asking why they were taught one thing and now the church is saying something completely different. 

Similar difficult questions could be asked in response to the other essays. The fundamental problem is that leaders of the church have been giving mixed messages to the members. What the church risks losing most with the essays is the trust of its members. Many will be disturbed by the apparent doublethink at the highest levels of the church and will think twice before accepting what the leaders say in the future. 


  1. I have gradually moved my own evolutionary questions further and further back in time. I first questioned some of the conference talks, then it was changes in LDS doctrine, then it was issues related to polygamy, then things got back to Joseph Smith and the restoration.
    Before I knew it, I was questioning traditional Christianity and their conflicts with Galileo and other scientists. Then it was Biblical "history".

    I am now to the point that even the most basic beliefs of explaining Christianity don't make sense any more. They don't hold water.

    Take the traditional explanation for the need of a Savior -- to overcome the effects of a universal fall from grace. If mankind was not basically evil, if Adam did NOT bring sin into the world, if infants are not bad from birth, then what need is there for a savior? Death and mortality is not something that "was brought upon us by disobedience", but is intrinsic in the creation of life.

    I no longer "need" to believe in stories of a virgin birth, because sexual reproduction is how mammalian life came into existence. I cannot simply will myself to believe in the need for someone to even overcome death.

  2. Wonderfully written. Thanks for adding logic where so much confusion reigns.

  3. Ah but there is an easy answer j/k and the DNA scientist the church quotes gives us that answer. None of the peoples living on the earth prior to Adam and Eve had spirits - really. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Ilin4lt0nQ

    Double think indeed. Thanks for this wonderful essay - it just rings so clearly in my ears. Oh Say What is Truth?

  4. Love this article. Totally agree. One point I would add is the double think with regard to FARMS etc. There is no provision in LDS theology for 'man made' institutions mixing scripture with mans thinking. To rely on FARMS to answer doctrinally challenging issues is corrupt at every level if one accepts that God speaks through his prophets. My biggest issue with the church is its total inability to show the members or the world that we have a living prophet. The prophet and any authority he claims is made sadly scoffable by his utter silence on every important issue on the table today. Instead men mingle doctine with their own imaginations and 'talk' on behalf of God. This cannot be acceptable.

    1. Good point about FARMS. The massive reinterpretations of scripture now required to rescue the Book of Mormon are all being done by academics. Why isn't God speaking to his prophet?

  5. I read Losing a Lost Tribe as I was exiting the Mormon church. I then watched as Mormon apologists tried to both disprove you scientifically and try to demonize you personally. Both attempts from my perspective were colossal failures.

    The Mormon Church may be a fine institution as interpreted by many both inside and outside the faith. But one thing the church most certainly not about and that is Truth. Corporate Double Speak is a shameful thing and inherently dishonest. Which is enough but unfortunately it is also inherently evil because it allows people to be dishonest while appearing honest.

  6. I read about the "Book of Mormon and DNA Studies." There are artifacts with Hebrew writings and DNA evidence that are evidence to support "Hebrew People". A November article in the National Geographic Daily News states "Nearly one-third of Native American genes come from west Eurasian people linked to the Middle East and Europe, rather than entirely from East Asians as previously thought, according to a newly sequenced genome."

    1. Those "artifacts with Hebrew writings" are known hoax artifacts of the 19th century. No archaeologist supports them. The National Geographic article is about a link that dates back more than 20,000 years ago.

      Israelites descended from ancestors of Native Americans because both shared the same ancestors that long ago.

    2. That "Book of Mormon Evidence" is coming from two sources: One is Rodney Meldrum's operation (a FIRM Foundation), which is based on his "Heartland Model" of where BOM events took place. Meldrum and his group--which were featured on Glenn Beck's show--have drawn the ire of a group of archaeologists and scientists for grossly misrepresenting their views as well as featuring the frauds tapir rider points out. One of those frauds, the Los Lunas Decalogue Stone was pronounced a fraud by no less than Hugh Nibley himself.

      The recent LDS Church-approved essays claim "the evidence is inconclusive," but in fact no DNA findings, ancient or contemporary have shown any "infiltration" by Semitic people that can't be accounted for by post-Columbus contact. The same is true of archaeological events in the BOM; they evidence LDS apologists point to is the result of the achievements of Native American civilizations--which were decimated by introduced European diseases--whether they are the Hopewell Mounds in the American Midwest or the Maya cities in Mesoamerica.

  7. I took a byu biology class in 1988 where evolution was taught (as compatible with the gospel). Just sayin...

  8. Isn't it curious that most scientific and historical research seems to challenge (rather than affirm) the truth claims faith traditions? Occam's Razor...

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  10. The compatibility of evolution and science I was taught as a student at BYU is that since God created the world, scientific/natural processes were also created by him and he utilized those processes to create the earth over a long, unknown period prior to the fall. Thus, evolutionary processes could have occurred as part of the creation process. I remember recalling at the time how this was a big change from what I had been taught as a youth growing up in the church. What I see now is that the church does in fact support evolution.....evolution of its beliefs, doctrines, and teachings in response to our increasing understanding of the world. It amazes me that the church does not see how the evolution of its positions gives ever increasing legitimacy to the very ideas it is trying to neutralize. Then again, perhaps it does realize what it is doing. I suspect the church knows it is wrong on so many issues and knows it will lose some of us who can actually analyze data and think for ourselves, but is simply trying to provided enough quasi-rational pablum to feed to the general church membership so they can dismiss in their minds any logical issues we try to bring up. These church essays are nothing more than an inoculation for the bulk of the membership.

  11. Simon, I am curious as what you believe now, if you are no longer a Mormon have you chosen another religion to fill in that void or have you simply chosen to not believe in God.


  12. The individuals are often well meaning people, I've met and spoken with both mormons and church of scientologists but know more about the church of scientology. The problem with the scientologists is that their good intentions and ambition have been hijack by the church of scientology. They're taught that the only way to really help and to really progress is through the church of scientology so their idea of helping or progressing is donating to the church of scientology and paying to progress through the church of scientology. They're also taught that scientology is the only chance to save the planet and that they are on a special mission to help save the world, especially from psychiatrists who are the arch enemies of the church of scientology. The result is that while they may be nice people they believe themselves possessed of special knowledge and to be on a special mission which makes them superior to none scientologists (whom they call "wogs"). They are also taught that doubt is a crime and that only official church sources can be relied upon which makes them avoid anything critical or that differs from what the church says is true.

    The church takes up a considerable amount of their resources and time and makes them insular to any outside influences. Essentially they become worker drones supporting the church of scientology and trying to recruit others to do the same, all the while thinking they are doing good. Not sure how far the LDS church goes with respect to making their adherents insular, feel superior and giving them a mission to keep donating and recruiting for the LDS church.


  13. Dear Mr. Southerton,

    As you probably know, every individual with a genuine desire to know if the Book of Mormon is true can pray to their Heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ, and ask Him about this book divine origin. It requires a faith that cannot be proven by scientific methods, and an answer would come, which cannot be explained by scientific methods, either.
    When this happens, nothing else matters: your opinion, the supposed contradictions you find in the Church leaders' speeches, the teaching of science in BYU, etc. You know it's true, and that's enough.
    It's saddening to see a person with so many confusions and so many arguments driven just from his rational thinking. I invite you to come to Church, or return, whatever your case may be.

    1. This is intellectual dishonesty at the highest level. One needs to not only ask the hard questions, but to answer them honestly without bias to their previously held view. This and only this, is how the truth is fully illuminated.

    2. To clarify, so there is no mistaking my intent. Questioning involves hypothesis, experimentation, data analysis, summer, and conclusion as well as peer review.

    3. Transparency of the process is fundamental as well.

    4. "Doctrine and Covenants 9:7

      "Behold, you have not understood; you have supposed that I would give it unto you, when you took no thought save it was to ask me...I say unto you, that you must study it out...then you must ask me if it be right..."

    5. I asked God. God says the Book of Mormon is bullshit.

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