An Apologetics Shipwreck
Response to Dr. Ryan Parr by Dr. Simon G. Southerton
In his review of my book, Losing a Lost Tribe, Dr. Ryan Parr suggests that studies of mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) inheritance in the fish species Poeciliopsis, a minnow from the Sonora Desert of Northwestern Mexico, has some relevance for understanding human population genetics.1 Due to a quirk of sex determination, the hybrid offspring of crosses between P. monacha females and P. lucida males are always female. The major findings of the paper were (1) that the frequency of paternal “leakage” of P. lucida mtDNA to the hybrid offspring is extremely low or absent and (2) that each successful hybridization “fixes” or adds another P. monarcha mtDNA genome in the hybrid populations. It is difficult to imagine how such dated (1987) research in hybridogenetic fish is relevant to the application of mtDNA analysis to human genealogy, a field of research that traces its genesis to the same year.2
Extinction or coalescence?
Parr cites this research to document a concept he considers to be central, that of coalescence, which he nevertheless misunderstands. Notice his frequent references throughout his review to the coalescence, or what he calls “loss,” of DNA lineages:
Indeed, over time, the fate of most Y and mtDNA lineages is extinction through coalescence.3
This natural elimination of “foreign” mtDNA haplotypes would accelerate mtDNA coalescence.4
At the conclusion of the fourth generation, 13 of 18 Y-haplotypes would have coalesced, or become extinct.5
Reasonably, the migratory groups described in the Book of Mormon are genetically lost through integration, selection, migration, coalescence, and the effects of time.6
In population genetics, the term “coalescence” refers to the fact that DNA lineages in living populations “trace back, or coalesce, to common ancestors at various depths of times in the past.”7 Lineages do not coalesce forward in time, through extinctions, to a smaller number of living lineages. Given such an error, it is ironic that Parr felt it necessary to attack me personally where I wrote that “whether or not Jews . . . found their way to the New World is susceptible to examination using DNA technology,” a concept Parr considers to be outrageous and an indication of “ignorance” on my part of “the complexities of population dynamics.”8
What Parr is trying to establish here is that if there were Jewish inhabitants in ancient America, as he believes there were, we would not expect to find DNA evidence for them. Where Parr writes about coalescence, it is to emphasize the process of lineage sorting, or “lineage extinction,” which he illustrates by reproducing an mtDNA tree from Avise.9 Parr is fond of this illustration because it shows an unbelievably high rate of lineage extinction over the space of twenty generations. Starting with eighteen unique mtDNA lineages or names, the tree shows that by the twentieth generation, only two would survive and sixteen would go extinct. This is the foundation for Parr’s primary argument that the vast majority of the DNA lineages of the founding Book of Mormon people would be expected to become extinct soon after their arrival in the Americas, making it unlikely they would be found today.
In his haste to emphasize the high probability of lineage extinction, Parr fails to mention that the Avise mtDNA tree was generated on the assumption that each female in the population would have, on average, only one daughter.10 Not only does this theoretical population not grow in size, in each generation about 37 percent of the females fail to produce any female offspring at all.11 Is this representative of any typical human population, let alone the highly fecund Book of Mormon lineage history? It is, in fact, a gross simplification, constructed for the purpose of taking a theoretical look at a strictly hypothetical situation. In the instance of the Book of Mormon population, we are told that soon after their arrival in the Americas, they “multiplied exceedingly and spread upon the face of the land” (Jarom 1:8). By about 46 BC they had spread until they “covered the face of the whole earth, from the sea south to the sea north, from the sea west to the sea east (Hel. 3:8).
Consider the more real possibility that a woman might have on average two daughters, and the probability of lineage extinction in each generation drops from 37 to 13.5 percent. For an average of three daughters, it falls to just 5 percent. However, there is another more important detail which Parr overlooks completely. Each woman almost invariably shares an identical mtDNA lineage with many of her living female relatives including her sisters and the female offspring of her maternal aunts and half of her maternal great aunts. If she fails to have a daughter, these female relatives are very likely to vicariously pass an identical lineage on to future generations. Taking into account vicarious transmission and underestimates of fertility, the likelihood of lineage extinction is vastly lower than Parr suggests.
But our intrepid apologist goes further to advance this narrow model of population genetics, claiming it to be a universal rule for predicting the survivability of DNA lineages in any population. For instance, he applies this assumption in interpreting the population dynamics on the Polynesian island of Rapa, concluding that after four generations, 74 percent of the Y chromosome lineages (Native American and European) introduced by the slave ship Cora would have gone extinct.12 This overestimation of the rate of lineage extinction leads Parr to believe that the “Cora incident is not the only explanation” for the high frequency of Native American DNA lineages among Rapans and that other migrations may have occurred. He overlooks the fact that the slaves from the Cora introduced disease to the island that caused catastrophic population decline among the native Polynesians. While the slaves carried the disease, it is very likely that they also carried a measure of resistance to it, giving their offspring a decided survival advantage.
Parr also brings his fatalistic assumptions to his discussion of the Lemba people in Zimbabwe, who in his words are “currently winning the genetic lottery.” 13 Lemba males largely descend from a small number of Israelite males who were probably shipwrecked on the east coast of southern Africa roughly 1,000 years ago. About 17,500 Lemba males (70 percent) possess an Israelite Y chromosome; however, because 30 percent possess Bantu Y chromosomes, Parr predicts that with time “all traces of Israelite paternity” will be “lost.”14What Parr overlooks is the fact that mixing between the Lemba and Bantu was likely a two-way street. As the Lemba mixed with neighboring Bantu populations, the frequency of Israelite Y chromosomes would have increased in the Bantu. As this mixing continues, increasing frequencies of Israelite Y chromosomes will begin flowing back into the Lemba and eventually strike a balance where lineage proportions are relatively stable. The Lemba example is not a case of winning against the odds. It is exactly what we would expect in adjacent, intermarrying populations.
And yet, Parr is far from finished with his miserly predictions. To eliminate any lingering doubts that might exist in anyone’s mind, he identifies various sundry challenges that maybe, just might have plagued the Lehite founders. For instance, since the group was “kin-associated,” disease-linked genes may have become so prevalent that it led to their extinction.15 In a further stretch, he posits that Israelite mtDNA may have been wholly uncompetitive in the New World, citing a recent study that found evidence of adaptive selection of mtDNA lineages.16 However, the study in question found changes in the frequency of particular DNA lineages, not wholesale extinctions, and the changes in frequencies occurred over much greater lengths of time than those relevant to the Book of Mormon. In any case, the Book of Mormon says its seafaring immigrants fared very well in the New World.
After grossly inflating the likelihood of DNA lineage extinction, Parr raises the bar further by imposing an unassailable technical constraint. DNA tests would only be of value if they were conducted on archaeologically well-defined ancient populations representative of the groups intended for comparison.17 Here Parr is insisting that we have ancient DNA from Israelites and Native Americans from the correct locations 2,500 years ago. Since we don’t know where the Lehites were supposed to have lived in the Americas, Parr knows he is asking for the impossible. However, Mormon apologists have not required this level of evidence to be convinced that Native Americans are overwhelmingly descended from Asians.18 Even Parr himself is persuaded on the basis of DNA comparisons between living Asians and Native Americans.19 To date, no DNA tests have been carried out on 15,000-year-old ancient bones from either continent.
Practicing Christians in the pre-Christian era
According to Parr, I lack “practical wisdom” and the “ability to reason, think, and ponder,” which drives my misunderstanding of the Book of Mormon and my “unwillingness” to see the limitations of the science. In Losing a Lost Tribe, I note that the Book of Mormon people “were practicing Christians centuries before the birth of Christ.” Parr is “astonished” that a former member of the church could exhibit such “myopia.”20 He provides no evidence to the contrary, apparently on the assumption that my statement is so obviously false.21 So, what does the Book of Mormon say about Christian worship centuries before Christ?
Consider these words from Nephi approximately 550 years before Christ’s birth:
… we talk of Christ, we rejoice in Christ, we preach of Christ, we prophesy of Christ, and we write according to our prophecies, that our children may know to what source they may look for a remission of their sins (2 Ne. 25:26).
… if ye shall follow the Son … repenting of your sins, witnessing unto the Father that ye are willing to take upon you the name of Christ, by baptism—yea, by following your Lord and your Savior down into the water, … then shall ye receive the Holy Ghost … (2 Ne. 31:13).
Nephi’s younger brother Jacob made similar exhortations.
Wherefore we labored diligently among our people, that we might persuade them to come unto Christ, and partake of the goodness of God, that they might enter into his rest … (Jacob 1:7).
The Book of Mormon records that in 147 BC Alma baptized Helam and together they baptized numerous people who, via their baptism, joined the “Church of Christ” (Mosiah 18:13, 17). By 74 BC members of this church were referred to as “Christians” (Alma 46:13-16). King Benjamin’s address on Christ and the conditions of salvation in approximately 124 BC had such a powerful effect on those in attendance that they covenanted to be called the “children of Christ” (Mosiah 4:3; 5:7-8). Parr needs to explain why he thinks these Book of Mormon passages don’t support my original statement.
Feelings over facts
Parr claims that in Losing a Lost Tribe I criticize members of the LDS Church for using their feelings as a criterion of belief.22 What Parr interprets as criticism is simply a description of how Latter-day Saints determine truth. No criticism is leveled at ordinary members of the church. Latter-day Saints have feelings attached to many beliefs, which are difficult to distinguish from what they understand to be revelation received from the Holy Ghost. As a consequence, these beliefs are deeply entrenched in the church and show little sign of slowing, given that all prophets, including the recent leadership, have endorsed them.23
In his review, Parr totally overlooks the fact that for the last 175 years, the Book of Mormon has been presented to Native Americans and Polynesians as a history of their ancestors. The Book of Mormon has frequently been used to convince native investigators of their Israelite ancestry and played a major role in their conversion. Apologetic arguments that Lehi made an essentially undetectable contribution to the gene pool in the Western Hemisphere may make stimulating apologetics, but they trivialize the feeling-based beliefs of the wider Mormon community.
Official versus widespread church views
In Parr’s view, I am wrong to assert as official church policy that Native Americans and Polynesians are exclusively descended from Book of Mormon people.24 I have not made this claim, and I go to considerable lengths to note the reluctance of church leaders to make any official statements concerning the whereabouts of the Lamanites.25 My only reference in my book to an official position is that “no one knows exactly where the events narrated in the Book of Mormon occurred; only that it occurred in the Americas.”26
Conveniently overlooked are my three chapters wherein I document the far-reaching support for the common belief among Mormons that Native Americans and Polynesians are largely descended from the Lamanites.27 The limit of Parr’s acknowledgement of the common mythology is to quote from the introduction of the Book of Mormon: “The Lamanites are the principal ancestors of the American Indians.” This statement has not been the reason Mormons hold these beliefs, but it is indicative of how pervasive the myth is due to its reinforcement by statements from the church’s presidents and apostles. Parr believes that church members do not “read the Book of Mormon for nuances and echoes of population demographics and population genetics.”28 It remains for Parr to explain an alternate theory for the origin of this myth if not derived from a plain reading of the Book Mormon and from the prophetic statements of the church’s leadership.
Multiple millennial stroll
During his undergraduate and graduate studies, Parr would have become aware of the considerable archaeological, anthropological, and now molecular evidence that the North American continent was widely populated at least 13,500 years ago and that the original Asian ancestors arrived in the continent in excess of 15,000 years ago.29 Because of Parr’s church experience, he will also be aware that many readers of the FARMS Review are unprepared to accept such early dates for the colonization of the Americas. Consequently, this is the extent of Parr’s description of the scientific view of the initial discovery of the Americas:
It is not difficult to imagine a multiple millennial stroll across the Bering land bridge, mostly because this idea is part of the “contemporary wisdom” that anthropologists have professed and to which they have adhered for some time; however, the associated archaeological clues do not offer the requisite breadth and detail to reconstruct more than broad generalities of this ancient process.30
Parr deftly avoids mentioning the presence of people in the Americas as long as 13,500 years ago, an admission that would only raise further questions among many Latter-day Saint readers. While the details of this colonization are unlikely to ever be known, there is essentially a consensus among scientists that it was a very ancient process, and describing the original colonization as a “multiple millennial stroll” conveys no insight into the depth and breadth of scientific understanding of New World colonization. Few LDS apologists are prepared to be up front about their acceptance of such an early arrival in the New World, and Parr joins the ranks of the circumspect. It is disappointing that he, as a molecular anthropologist who is well informed about America’s prehistory, would choose to conceal rather than enlighten.
A “curiosity” of my book, in Parr’s view, is my failure to address the evidence of “widespread human movement across the Pacific, attested by the distribution of cultigens and crops.”31 Parr includes a table listing thirty-eight plant species for which he claims there is “decisive evidence of transoceanic movement” between the Americas and Polynesia/Asia.32 The list was compiled by Carl L. Johannessen and FARMS scholar John L. Sorenson, well known in the archaeological community for their rigid support for pre-Columbian transoceanic voyages across the Pacific.33 Few of the tabled species, however, provide “decisive evidence.” In fact, there is very little evidence to support general human movement between Polynesia and the Americas. The assembly of questionable botanical lists in support of widespread cultural diffusion is symptomatic of a wider problem that has plagued Pacific archaeology for decades, as noted in a recent American Antiquity article by Terry Jones and Kathryn Klar:
Theories of transoceanic diffusion, of course, have been the scourge of anthropological archaeology for nearly half a century—largely for good reason. The “literature” of transoceanic contact consists primarily of a profuse amalgam of wild, ill-supported theories mostly proposed by self-trained archaeologists. … Most archaeologists have shunned these discussions because they often incorporate archaeological information in questionable ways and, even more commonly, border on the absurd.34
Any list or assemblage of a dozen, or even a hundred, unsubstantiated claims may make for relaxing bathroom reading, but it is foreign to the scientific approach. Before a plant can be a candidate for pre-Columbian transfer, there should be reliable historical accounts and/or linguistic evidence that suggest their occurrence in both Polynesia and the Americas at the time of first European contact, and there should be archaeological evidence of pre-contact cultivation. Unless these criteria are met, one has to assume the crops moved around the Pacific after European colonization in the mid-1500s when there was substantial movement of cultigens. The only plant species in the Parr table for which there is widely accepted evidence that it “diffused” across the Pacific prior to Columbus is the sweet potato. The only other species seriously considered by Pacific archaeologists as possible evidence of human contact are the bottle gourd, the soapberry, and coconut.35
In Losing a Lost Tribe, I explore in detail the origins of the sweet potato. At the time of the first European contacts, it was an important crop “deeply embedded in tradition and ritual,” and archaeological evidence of fossilized tubers occurring prior to European colonization has been found.36 Most Pacific scholars believe the sweet potato arrived in Eastern Polynesia in about AD 1000 via a return voyage by Polynesian sailors who reached the coast of Peru or Ecuador. Recent molecular studies suggest that the story may be more complicated. Polynesian sweet potato varieties tend to be more closely related to varieties found in Mesoamerica rather than South America.37 Similar molecular studies on the bottle gourd have revealed that New World gourds are closely related to Asian gourds. The bottle gourd was widely used in the Americas at least 8,000 years ago. It is now believed that the bottle gourd and the dog, two “utility” species, were domesticated before food crops or livestock species, and that both were brought to the Americas by the earliest settlers.38 DNA tests suggest Polynesian bottle gourds are similarly related to Asian gourds with a possible small contribution from South America. Work is in progress on ancient Polynesian gourds in order to determine their genetic origins. 39
Interestingly, the recent report in American Antiquity by Jones and Klar suggests that Polynesians reached southern California some time around AD 400-800. They found evidence that the Chumashan and Gabrielino tribes suddenly began using elaborate, composite-style, bone fishhooks and sewn-plank canoes in the Santa Barbara channel.40 Both the fishhooks and the canoes are remarkably similar to those used by Polynesians at the time they reached Hawaii in about AD 800. Three Polynesian words referring to boats have been observed in the languages of these two tribes. These findings suggest that soon after colonization of Hawaii, Polynesians completed a voyage to mainland North America.
If American Indians migrated into the Pacific, as Parr apparently believes they did, they made essentially no impact on Pacific societies. The molecular, anthropological, archaeological, and linguistic evidence from the Pacific suggests very little if any interaction between Polynesian and American Indian societies. At the very least, if Eastern Polynesia was settled by Native Americans around AD 800 (when C14 dates say the east was settled), why did they not bring their pottery technology with them, or maize, beans, squashes, guinea pigs, and llamas, or Amerindian languages?41
Of science and faith
Parr enters the debate long after most LDS scholars have already conceded an Asian origin for Native Americans and admitted the absence of any trace of a presumed progeny of Lehi. Parr holds a doctorate in biological anthropology from the University of Utah and has studied prehistoric populations in the American Southwest.42 He is the first Latter-day Saint scientist with experience in human molecular genetics to publish a response to the DNA-based criticisms of the widely held beliefs about the Book of Mormon. He accepts the Asian origin of ancient Americans and argues that we should not expect to find evidence of Hebrews in the Americas. In that, we are in agreement. But his attempt to turn the absence of evidence into a hint of positive evidence is less than satisfying. He writes that “the fate of most individuals and events is lost through time. For example, the presence of the children in Israel in Egypt is not found in Egyptian records.”43
He begins from a position of faith, telling readers that DNA is “the divinely sculpted biological inheritance of the human family.”44 He suspects I place faith in science ahead of religious faith and believe that faith must be preceded by “scientific proof.” In fact, I believe that faith can flourish only when people are told the truth from whatever and all available sources. It makes no sense to insist on a belief in the unbelievable. There is an important difference here. In my case, for thirty years my religious orientation was accompanied by a distorted understanding of the true history of America’s past. Not only did I know little of the science that was applicable to this issue, I accepted without question the widespread urban legends in the church, one being that BYU scholars had found archaeological evidence in Mesoamerica that supported the Book of Mormon, another being that the Smithsonian Institution had used the Book of Mormon as a guide in some of their research. Scientific truth exposed my faith in a book that has no historical connection with the ancestors of the Polynesians or Native Americans. In the final analysis, this really has very little or nothing to do with the larger question of religious faith and much to do with conservatism, literalism and theological calcification.
7. John C. Avise, Molecular Markers, Natural History, and Evolution, 2nd ed. (Sunderland, MA: Sinauer, 2004), 284. See also Mark A. Jobling, Matthew Hurles, and Chris Tyler-Smith, Human Evolutionary Genetics: Origins, Peoples and Disease (New York: Garland Science, 2004), 183, 500.
16. Ibid.; see Eduardo Ruinz-Pesini, Dan Mishnar, Martin Brandon, Vincent Procaccio, and Douglas C. Wallace, “Effects of Purifying and Adaptive Selection on Regional Variation in Human Mitochondrial DNA,” Science 303 (2004): 225.
18. See Dean H. Leavitt, Jonathon C. Marshall, and Keith A. Crandall, “The Search for the Seed of Lehi: How Defining Alternative Models Helps in the Interpretation of Genetic Data,” Dialogue: A Journal of Mormon Thought 36 (Winter 2003): 133–50; D. Jeffrey Meldrum and Trent D. Stephens “Who Are the Children of Lehi?” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12 (2003): 38–51; David A. McClellan “Detecting Lehi’s Genetic Signature: Possible, Probable, or Not?” FARMS Review 15 (2003): 35-90; and Michael F. Whiting, “DNA and the Book of Mormon: A Phylogenetic Perspective,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 12 (2003): 24-35.
20. Louis Midgley, in the editor’s introduction (“The First Steps,” FARMS Review 17/1 ), introduces Parr’s review of Losing a Lost Tribe under the heading “Secular Anti-Mormon Mockery Exposed.” According to Midgley, what the FARMS Review has “provided and promoted are more richly detailed, carefully written, fully documented accounts of the crucial texts and events in the Mormon past (xvii).” “The growth of an obviously faithful and sophisticated literature on Joseph Smith and the Book of Mormon, much of it published in this Review or elsewhere under the FARMS imprint, has led to considerable dissonance among dissidents, cultural Mormons, and anti-Mormon zealots. Critics respond to this scholarly literature with vilification, animosity, and acrimony, with slurs, name-calling, and unseemly personal attacks.” But as anyone familiar with the discussion knows, it is precisely in the FARMS Review, most notoriously from Midgley himself, that one can most reliably expect to find name-calling and personal attacks.
29. See, e.g., Francis Jennings, The Founders of America: How Indians Discovered the Land, Pioneered in It, and Created Great Classical Civilizations (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993); Michael H. Crawford, The Origins of Native Americans: Evidence from Anthropological Genetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998).
32. Ibid., Table 1, 105-06. Several of the plant species listed are flowers, weeds, or grass species of no economic importance. Hibiscus tiliaceus occurs widely throughout the tropics on beaches and is likely to be indigenous to both Polynesia and the Americas.
33. John Sorenson was serving an LDS mission in the Cook Islands at the time Thor Heyerdahl sailed the famous Kon-Tiki raft from Peru to the Tuamotus in 1947. He has been convinced, ever since, that there has been widespread diffusion of human cultures across the Pacific. See “An Interview with John L. Sorenson,” Journal of Book of Mormon Studies 11 (2002):80-85. Carl L. Johannessen, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Geography at the University of Oregon, is best known for his published claims about the identification of maize (corn) in ancient statues in India. Most archaeologists believe the depictions represent some other plant such as pearl fruit because, to date, no botanical evidence of pre-Columbian maize agriculture has been found.
34. Terry Jones and Kathryn Klar “Diffusionism Reconsidered: Linguistic and Archaeological Evidence for Prehistoric Polynesian Contact with Southern California,” American Antiquity 70 (2005): 457-484.
35. Chris Ballard, Paula Brown, Michael Bourke, and Tracy Harwood, eds., The Sweet Potato in Oceania: A Reappraisal, Oceania Monograph 56 (Sydney, Australia: University of Sydney, 2005), 7, 60-61, 185.
36. Southerton, Losing a Lost Tribe, 113. See also James Coil and Patrick Kirch, “An Ipomoean Landscape: Archaeology and the Sweet Potato in Kahikinui, Maui, Hawaiian Islands,” in Ballard, et al., Sweet Potato in Oceania.
37. Dapeng Zhang, Genoveva Rossel, and Albert Kriegner, “From Latin America to Oceania: The Historic Dispersal of Sweet Potato Re-examined Using AFLP,” Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution 51 (2004):115-20. Chris Ballard and Roger Green have both criticized the selection of sweet potato lines in the Zhang study, which included few samples from Eastern Polynesia. See Ballard, et al., Sweet Potato in Oceania, 7, 44.
38. David Erickson, Bruce Smith, Andrew Clarke et al. “An Asian origin for a 10,000-year-old domesticated plant in the Americas.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 102 (2005): 18315-20.
41. Pottery was commonly used in the Americas but was not found in Eastern Polynesia, personal communication with Dr. Peter Bellwood, Australian National University.