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Meldrum and Stephens, "Who are the Children of Lehi? DNA and the Book of Mormon" Options · View
jeffneedle
Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2008 9:45:35 PM

Rank: Moderator

Joined: 10/21/2007
Posts: 1,244
Points: 2,089
Location: Chula Vista, CA
Review
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Title: Who are the Children of Lehi? DNA and the Book of Mormon
Author: D. Jeffrey Meldrum and Trent D. Stephens
Publisher: Greg Kofford Books
Genre: Non-fiction
Year Published: 2007
Number of Pages: 144
Binding: Hardback
ISBN: 978-1-58958-048-0
Price: $29.95

Reviewed by Jeffrey Needle

I risk redundancy here at the outset of this review by telling a story I know I've told before. Forgive me if this is a repeat.

About a dozen years ago, I was on a flight from Salt Lake City to my home in San Diego. I don't recall the reason for my Salt Lake visit -- very likely a Sunstone symposium. I had picked up a copy of "Mormon Neo-orthodoxy" by Kendall White, and was deep into it (if you haven't read, it's worth pursuing) when my seat mate, a lovely young lady, made mention of the Mormon title. She asked me if I was Mormon. I said I wasn't. She said she was. So far, so good. When she asked what the title meant, and I explained that it explored new theologies within Mormonism, and the impact of leadership in the suppression of these new ideas, she simply froze, turned around, and remained silent for the rest of the trip.

I really didn't mean to offend. In retrospect, I realize I should have stated the content of the book a little diplomatically, but I think her reaction typified how many Mormons today deal with the shifting sands of Mormon thought. Since its inception, Mormonism has been a religion marked by the fractious meeting of unquestioning faith with its antipode, scientific and empirical fact. This is not to say that science cannot support faithful belief. It is only to observe that such is usually not the practice. Religion makes claims that are simply not testable using the scientific method. Angels don't come from test tubes; Nephites are not tested in the flames of a bunsen burner.

There was a time when the Christian faith essentially demanded an acceptance of the historicity of the Christian Bible. Adam, Eve, Cain, Noah, Enoch -- these were all real people, who existed in history, and who did what the Bible says they did. If you denied this, you were sent to the edges of the Christian community. This became even more forceful as the Church became the spokes-institution for all things factual, whether religious, political or scientific. Witness Galileo's harsh treatment at the hands of the Catholic hierarchy, for which that same hierarchy, centuries later, was forced to apologize and try to set the record straight. Of course, such adherence to historicity is no longer the gold standard of Christian belief.

There is so much in Mormonism today that has raised questions in the minds, not just of those outside the Church, but among even the best and the brightest within the communion. We have seen, in our generation, the rise of the "New Mormon History" -- a pivotal event in the Mormon story that has caused some to go back and re-study, and clarify, the official record.

Of late, of course, the issue of DNA and the Book of Mormon has dominated the discussion in many quarters. Several authors have published extensive and comprehensive studies of how no evidence has been found amongst the populations assumed to be the descendants of the Book of Mormon peoples that supports a Semitic origin. These have been answered by experts on the other side of the issue who claim that these DNA studies are not determinative at all.

I believe that Mormonism has three major divisions, easily identified. There are the true believers, those who accept the tenets of the faith without question, and who are not dissuaded one bit when empirical evidence is provided to suggest that their beliefs may be false. You then have the radical accomodationists, those who have settled into the idea that the religion is false, yet remain because their lives are so inextricably interwoven into the sectarian lifestyle that leaving it would cause more pain than staying in it.

The third division -- a vast middle -- is segmented into two large populations. In the first, a member remains apart from the controversies because he simply doesn't care, and is comfortable within the denominational walls. The other fears looking into the controversies, and simply backs away, leaving the battles to the experts. I have come to the conclusion that my pretty lady on the airplane falls into this middle ground, although I'm not sure which compartment she fits into.

Meldrum and Stephens, the authors of this most recent study of the subject of DNA evidence and the Book of Mormon, take a unique view of the subject. If I were to summarize their underlying message, it might be something like this: "Okay, everyone, take a breath, settle down, and let's talk. The evidence is not all in. Neither side has an absolute claim to having the final answers. Let's wait and keep our minds open." Ha. Easy for them to say. Passions run high on both sides of this issue. Getting people to sheathe their rhetorical swords and come to the peace table is not an easy task.

I give them a lot of credit for at least trying to do double duty in this contentious area of Mormon studies: to explain, in layman's terms, how DNA research is carried out, while at the same time suggesting that one will likely not find the answer to the DNA problem in the studies themselves. It's a fine line to walk, but they manage it very nicely.

In chapter 11, the authors give a pretty good summary of the problem:

"Much of the present contention and confusion surrounding the question of Book of Mormon historicity reduces to the observation that there is no evident support in the DNA data for the Mormon beliefs linking Native Americans to Ancient Israelites. This statement is apparently accurate, but it is not a scientific refutation of the historicity of the Book of Mormon. Science makes a testable prediction and then searches for observations that refute the hypothesis. The absence of evidence cannot directly refute or falsify a hypothesis, especially under circumstances and conditions that offer little assurance that we can expect the determining evidence to be present. In this case, the hypothesis is that a small population of ancient Israelites colonized a limited region in the Americas and contributed in some, almost certainly small, way to the gene pool of the indigenous population." (p. 105)

The authors go on to report the findings of a BYU geneticist who, after studying the challenges of finding such a small sample in such a large populations, proclaims that "[i]t may be impossible to recover the genetic signature of Lehi." (p. 105)

Should we then just give up and stop looking for it? I don't think that's the answer. Will this "genetic signature" ever be found? I don't know.

How does this quest affect the kinds of believers I've described above? To the true believer, science is nice but it's not necessary -- testimony triumphs over everything. To the radical accomodationist, it is assumed that such evidence will never be found, since the Book of Mormon story is mythical and fictional. To those in the center? That's more difficult. Those who fear honest inquiry will simply ignore the ado and find comfort in the warm embrace of Mother Church. Those who don't care, well, I guess that sums it up -- they just don't care.

But to nearly everyone who will read this review, there is an interest in this quest for clarity. To some, the absence of DNA evidence has caused them to lose their testimony. To others, it has caused them to stumble and re-think their commitment to Mormonism. And then there are those who aren't moved one bit in their dedication to the testimony they believe comes from the Holy Spirit.

The authors leave no doubt as to where they stand:

"Ultimately, we have concluded that the fundamental question of the veracity of the Book of Mormon claims lie [sic] beyond the ken of modern DNA research. The necessary experiment is a very personal one. The final implications of the book, as a witness of the prophetic calling of Joseph Smith and as another testament of the divinity of Jesus Christ, remain squarely, and perhaps appropriately, within the realm of faith and individual testimony." (p. 12cool

Oh great. Another book on DNA and the Book of Mormon, and no final answers yet. So why read this book at all? My judgment: I've read nearly everything to come off the presses on this subject. This volume clearly explains the mechanics behind DNA research, the limitations of science and of faith, and why we need to understand both. Instead of arguing for one side or other, the authors place the discussion squarely in the realm of individual testimony framed within the larger context of history and science.

Some may think they're taking the easy way out. I don't agree. The conclusions they reach will, in the end, please neither the true believer nor the radical accomodationist. Instead, it tries to transcend the petty squabblings of the extremes and appeals to the reader to rely on the genuine testimony of the Holy Spirit, regardless of the (always) tentative findings of the geneticists.

Mixed into the discussion in this book are some views of how science is now approaching the idea of how humans migrated to the American continent, and an extended discussion of cultural transmission of traits as opposed to the genetic transmission we have studied so deeply. Some will dismiss this as wishful thinking. I think the idea merits further thought.

"Who are the Children of Lehi?" is a good addition to the corpus of knowledge and study of the DNA issue. No matter how you come down on this, it's a worthwhile read. And it may just cause you to think a little harder on the subject.



Jeff Needle
Association for Mormon Letters
jeff.needle@gmail.com
<www.aml-online.org>
<www.LDSBookLovers.com/Needle.html>

Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury
Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2008 10:25:03 PM


Rank: AML Member

Joined: 9/12/2007
Posts: 115
Points: -69
Location: Utah
Jeff, I consider myself a member of a fifth group (and I suspect that there are other groups besides). I have a scientific background and I consider myself a true believer who accepts the tenets of the LDS faith in spite of the questions. I neither remain apart from the controversies nor do I back away from them. I, like the authors of this book, believe that we (meaning science or LDS members) don't have all the answers, and I don't think they or I are unique in believing that.

President Spencer W. Kimball's wife, Camilla, often taught that there were things she didn't know the answers to, but she did not back away from them, neither did she not care. She would "put them on a shelf" and wait, and, as your summary of Meldrum and Stephens's message goes, she would encourage others to do the same: "wait and keep our minds open..." and "rely on the genuine testimony of the Holy Spirit...."

I don't thinks she was unique either.

Thank you for reviewing this book. It sounds like one very worth having, but please don't think that Meldrum and Stephens are the only LDS people around with that particular approach to science or to LDS beliefs.
jeffneedle
Posted: Sunday, March 16, 2008 11:00:22 PM

Rank: Moderator

Joined: 10/21/2007
Posts: 1,244
Points: 2,089
Location: Chula Vista, CA
Thanks, my friend, for the good words. Another reader already caught my little blunder. When I said their approach was "unique," I didn't mean to say that it was unique among Latter-day Saints. My meaning, and it was not at all clear, was that it was unique among the several books I'd already read on the subject. They tend to be either altogether pro-Mormon or altogether dismissive of Book of Mormon historicity. These authors took a middle road, one most welcome to this old reader.

Thanks for the reply!
Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury
Posted: Monday, March 17, 2008 2:37:02 PM


Rank: AML Member

Joined: 9/12/2007
Posts: 115
Points: -69
Location: Utah
Thanks for the clarification, Jeff.

And thanks for all the reviews. Great stuff here.
Eric W Jepson
Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 10:08:36 AM


Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/26/2007
Posts: 158
Points: 327
Location: El Cerrito, California
.

This may well be the first book on the subject I pick up.

What is Greg Kofford Books? Is this their only book or do they publish many books of this sort?

jeffneedle
Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 11:54:06 AM

Rank: Moderator

Joined: 10/21/2007
Posts: 1,244
Points: 2,089
Location: Chula Vista, CA
It's hard to describe Kofford books, except to say that they publish some excellent titles in the LDS studies field. They are clearly NOT an anti-Mormon outfit. Their books play a valuable role in filling in some of the gaps we all have in our knowledge. Greg Kofford is a great guy, and his people are superb. They clearly enjoy what they're doing. I have yet to find a bad book from their press. I've reviewed several titles over the years, and found each to be valuable in its own way.
Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury
Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2008 6:28:54 PM


Rank: AML Member

Joined: 9/12/2007
Posts: 115
Points: -69
Location: Utah
Check out their website, if you want to see what else they publish, Eric.

http://www.koffordbooks.com/

You could also go to the list of reviews of some of their books on the AML website:

http://www.mormonletters.org/reviews/p/Greg_Kofford_Books.html
Eric W Jepson
Posted: Thursday, March 20, 2008 9:39:07 PM


Rank: AML Member

Joined: 10/26/2007
Posts: 158
Points: 327
Location: El Cerrito, California
.

Thanks, all. And I had no idea reviews were also organized by publisher. That can be handy.

Raymond Takashi Swenson
Posted: Friday, May 30, 2008 3:06:46 PM

Rank: Visitor

Joined: 5/30/2008
Posts: 3
Points: 9
Location: Idaho Falls, Idaho
I recently read the Meldrum and Stephens book. The content was comparable to the several articles that have been published in the FARMS Review, and is presented in an integrated way to help readers unfamiliar with DNA understand the terminology and what it means. They note the limits of what the technology can tell us, and explain in detail how the DNA of living people represents only a tiny fraction of the DNA heritage of their ancestors. They give examples of how comparison of genealogical records with DNA has shown that the DNA of an ancestor of hundreds of people can disappear from the DNA of most of his descendants within a few hundred years. They note that we do not have any kind of representative samples of DNA for Israelites living in Jerusalem in 600 BC, and that the modern Jews include ancestors who were converted in the Christian Era and were not of Middle East origin. They also note that these processes are all exacerbated when there is any merging with larger native populations. They conclude that there is no scientific reason to expect that modern DNA sampling could recover DNA that could be identified as having come from Lehi or any of his contemporaries.

I believe the Meldrum and Stephens book is an accurate representation of the scientific facts that apply to the controversy over DNA and the Book of Mormon. Their viewpoint represents the views of all of the other active LDS DNA scientists who have written on the topic. None of those scientists asks us to ignore the DNA evidence. Rather, they look at the DNA evidence and see that it does not, and cannot, prove that no person of Middle East origins lived in the Americas 2600 years ago. The only hypothesis that the DNA evidence COULD disprove was the hypothesis that the SOLE ancestors of ALL American aborigines was the people in Lehi's party. But that hypothesis is a misprepresentation of what the Book of Mormon says, including (a) the ancestry of the colony found at Zarahemla is not fully described, (b) the Jaredite colony was NOT semitic, and traveled through Asia en route to the Americas, so that DNA could have passed both ways between that group and the Asian population, and (c) there are indications that there were native populations already in the region aside from those specifically involved in the recorded history of a limited geographic area no larger than Palestine. Meldrum and Stephens explain clearly that what the Book of Mormon actually describes is not inconsistent with the DNA picture of modern American Indians.

What the anti-Mormon DNA arguments have demolished is simply one of those "faith-promoting rumors" that has been held by people who did not read the Book of Mormon closely enough, and often enough.

The authors are examples of a group of Mormons outside the categories listed by the reviewer. They are deeply committed to the reality of the things testified to by the Book of Mormon, including the reality of the living God and Christ. They believe that knowledge obtained through personal revelation is valid, but that it can only be the basis of inviting others to obtain the same knowledge through the same means. Like Alma, they invite those sincerely interested in the message of the Book of Mormon to carry out "an experiment upon the word" in order to obtain that knowledge. The Mormon method of obtaining spiritual knowledge has many points of contact with the scientific method of confirming or disproving an hypothesis. Mormons in this group have no fear of knowledge obtained through scientific methods, meaning critical examination of facts, and they know the difference between real scientific knowledge and simple opinions held by people trained in the scientific method. They know that the most essential aspect of science is the willingness to apply rational questions to every theory, and the willingness to have one's own theories questioned through logic and observed facts. Therefore, dogmatism that insists that a particular theory has attained the status of a "fact" and must not be questioned is a dead giveaway that the dogmatists think their theory is too weak to defend itself.

My personal observation is that every active Mormon I have ever encountered who has been trained in the scientific method is in fact in this group, for whom science is not master but servant, a human and therefore imperfect enterprise, and only one method of obtaining knowledge of reality.
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