DNA and the Book of Mormon Update: Science Warns of Limitations on DNA Testing

ScienceDaily.com reports on an article on DNA testing to be published in the prestigious journal, Science. Its warnings on the limitations and misapplications of DNA testing have implications for the DNA attacks on the Book of Mormon. Some critics rail against the Book of Mormon because DNA testing of modern Native Americans does not appear to point to the Middle East as the primary ancient source of early Americans. Such attacks rely on outdated and overly simplistic assumptions that are not supported by the text itself.

Excerpts from the summary about the Science report follow:

Genetic Ancestral Testing Cannot Deliver On Its Promise, Study Warns

ScienceDaily (Oct. 20, 2007) — For many Americans, the potential to track one’s DNA to a specific country, region or tribe with a take-home kit is highly alluring. But while the popularity of genetic ancestry testing is rising – particularly among African Americans – the technology is flawed and could spawn unwelcome societal consequences, according to researchers from several institutions nationwide, including the University of California, Berkeley.

“Because race has such profound social, political and economic consequences, we should be wary of allowing the concept to be redefined in a way that obscures its historical roots and disconnects from its cultural and socioeconomic context,” says the article to be published in the journal Science.

The article recommends that the American Society of Human Genetics and other genetic and anthropological associations develop policy statements that make clear the limitations and potential dangers of genetic ancestry testing.

Some of the tests’ limitations identified by Bolnick and her co-authors include:

  • Most tests trace only a few of your ancestors and a small portion of your DNA,
  • Tests are unlikely to identify all of the groups or locations around the world where a test-taker’s relatives are found,
  • Tests may report false negatives or false positives,
  • Limited sample databases mean test results are subject to misinterpretation,
  • There is no clear connection between DNA and racial/ethnic identity,
  • Tests cannot determine exactly where ancestors lived or what ethnic identity they held. . . .

“While some companies carefully explain what genetic ancestry tests can and cannot tell a test-taker, other companies provide less information about the limitations and assumptions underlying the tests,” said Deborah Bolnick, assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Texas and lead author of the article.

For example, there are mitochondrial DNA tests, which trace the mother’s lineage, and Y-chromosome tests which track paternal ancestry. The test-taker swipes the saliva inside his or her cheek, and sends the swab to the lab. The DNA is extracted and compared to samples from a reference database of haplotypes – a set of inherited, linked genetic markers – to see if there’s a match.

Because these tests trace only one bloodline, however, they exclude most ancestors. Moreover, they cannot pinpoint where these ancestors lived. “Each test examines less that one percent of the test-taker’s DNA and sheds light on only one ancestor each generation,” the study says. . . .

Publication date in Science, October 18, 2007.

These warnings about the limitations of DNA testing have been made by LDS researchers for some time. Some unqualified critics have twisted such warnings to suggest that they were attacks on the scientific quality of DNA work itself. Far from it. Real science requires constant caution and consideration of the assumptions being made, the limitations of a method, and the range of what can and cannot be determined from any given experiment. And when we apply that kind of scientific rigor to DNA testing and the Book of Mormon, we have to conclude that it is simply unreasonable to expect to find definitive traces of Lehi’s or Sariah’s unknown genetic haplotypes among modern Native Americans 2600 years later, when they may have represented an easily lost drop in the bucket of incoming DNA in the ancient Americas.


Author: Jeff Lindsay

14 thoughts on “DNA and the Book of Mormon Update: Science Warns of Limitations on DNA Testing

  1. Listening to Book of Mormon critics when it comes to DNA is like listening to Creationists that usually those same people bash. Both of them are so sure of themselves when other evidence to the contrary is ignored.

    (i.e. Problems with DNA studies and the actual Book of Mormon text for the former. Biological and fossil studies for the latter.) I have been trying to understand a way for the critics to at least know the “apologetic” responses. Instead the plugging of the ears seems more important to them than actually confronting problems with their own oh so perfect theories.

  2. Except that many of those who criticize the Book of Mormon on grounds of DNA are also believers in Creationism and a young earth. Interesting how they convienantly accept all scientific research that they can twist to support their positions, and ignore any that opposes it.

  3. Note the next to last line in this article:

    The AncestryByDNA test also reads certain markers found in people from the Middle East, India and the Mediterranean region to be diagnostic of Native American ancestry, for which there is no historical, archeological or genetic evidence, according to the study.

  4. If
    Laman and Lemuel could have come from another mother even another mother and father of African/Asian decent and the Jardites came from
    African/Asian decent this to would account for the Olmec stone heads
    to look African/Asian but no longer appear to be found in
    the Mayan population of today. (Books on Africans and the Olmec are on the internet.) I also think pottery that looks like it came from Japan has been found in Mesoamerica.

  5. This sounds so much like the barley affair. Barley is mentioned in the Book of Mormon, but was not known to exist in the Americas when Europeans came. This was one of the apparent or seeming anachronisms of the Book of Mormon.

    Well, eventually archeologists found barley in some ruins. It wasn’t the exact barley we have today, but it’s close enough to still legitimately be called barley.

    There used to be a regular commenter here whose handle was “Byu_gestapo”. He was big on DNA, and he put it forth as one of the reasons for disbelieving. I hope he’s aware of this.

  6. Barley? That’s almost as bad as saying that Egypt had tons of corn during Israel and Joseph’s time…or was it maize?…I get so confused when it read that O.T. account…

  7. “Corn in English refers to the cereal grains most common in a given region, such as wheat in England, oats in Ireland and Scotland, or maize (Indian corn) in Australia, Canada, and the U.S. Thus “ears of corn” in the English of the KJV would be called “heads of grain” in the United States. Indian corn (maize) was known and used only in the Western Hemisphere prior to the discovery of America; it is not the corn of the Bible.”

  8. An interesting report in the Christian Science Monitor makes similar point. Below is the link, the report title and a quote.


    Mixed roots: Science looks at family trees

    “Sometimes, the tests raise more questions than answers. Richards’s wife, Laurie, who also took the test, found that her ancestry was 13 percent native American, 87 percent European. That was odd because she traced her ancestors back to Poland and Ireland and had no knowledge of any native Americans in the family tree. It led her to interview older relatives to try to solve the mystery. The case also illustrates the limits of DNA testing, says Mark Shriver, a professor of anthropology at Penn State and a
    consultant for DNAPrint. Native Americans are believed to have immigrated from central Asia thousands of years ago. These same central Asians also migrated into eastern Europe, meaning that her “native American” DNA could have come from there, he says. Greeks and Ashkenazi Jews also may show significant percentages of “native American” ancestry for the same reason.”

    After I read this, I sent an email to Dr Murphy asking what he thought of this. He emailed me back saying that the woman was probably X lineage. This is a laugh because you can’t be 13 percent X. Such is the credibility of our critics.

    1. Many gaps. DNA testing still leads to puzzling results that are hard to sort out even when we are dealing with recent generations and are confident of what we are testing. Trying to infer the presence of specific ancient infusions into a population from modern DNA testing is much more fraught with uncertainty.

    1. This is a good question. Some critics are applying DNA results to rule out the possibility of Lehi and his family having come to the Americas. Those efforts are misguided and overlook what the Book of Mormon actually teaches. There is no reason to believe, based on the Book of Mormon, that all Native American’s should have DNA that can be identified as ancient Jewish DNA>

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