I have seen quite a bit of discussion in the blogosphere about scientific evidence either for or against the Book of Mormon. I have participated in some of the discussion—more about that below. People use this or that bit of scientific evidence to either “prove” or “disprove” the Book of Mormon. This post addresses those whom I think are reading too much into scientific findings, one way or the other. Science is an important tool in the search for truth, but it is only one tool, and it is a much more limited tool than people usually realize.
What Does “The Church” Teach?
Before I talk about the scientific evidence, I need to address one misconception right up front. That is the question: “What does the Church teach?” That is, what things are accepted by Mormons as binding doctrine and truth? For both the DNA and the archaeological evidence, I think many Mormons and non-Mormons mistakenly assume that the opinions and writings of church members and leaders are the “official” position of the Church. In my opinion, both Mormons and non-Mormons misread or misunderstand or over-interpret the scriptures or what they think are accepted LDS teachings. They then point to this or that piece of scientific evidence that seems to support or contradict the “Church position” and conclude that that evidence “proves” or “disproves” the Book of Mormon, the Church, etc.
It makes me dizzy. 🙂 Mormons and non-Mormons (most of them non-scientists) using “science” (which is always incomplete and imperfect), with mistaken assumptions about what the “Church” believes to prove/disprove the Church. That seems to me to be a shaky foundation for arriving at sound conclusions.
I will try to be clear without being offensive, but this point is so important that I have to be clear, even if it seems harsh. Individual members and leaders are free to write and publish what they please. They can say just about anything they want. So what?
All that I am obligated to accept as binding truth is what is contained in the scriptures. That is why we call the scriptures the “Standard Works”. The scriptures are the standard by which we are to judge all other teachings, including church members and leaders—even the prophet. Joseph Smith said repeatedly that a prophet was only a prophet when he was acting as a prophet. He never claimed infallibility, quite the opposite. He called himself “a rough stone rolling”. Mormons should not claim for Joseph what he never claimed for himself—infallibility in his statements and writings.
As for the modern church, we have a very clear way of adding new scripture to our Standard Works. The Council of the Twelve Apostles and the First Presidency will unitedly accept a new doctrinal teaching and then present it to the Church in General Conference for the sustaining vote of the whole Church. Only then does some piece of writing become a part of the Standard Works, binding on the whole Church. Period. This process has given the Church new scripture three times in the roughly 50 years of my membership in the Church: Doctrine and Covenants Sections 137 and 138, and Official Declaration 2.
Everything except the Standard Works that is written and said by Church members and leaders is their opinion or best understanding. It may well be true, but that is not the issue. The issue is what is binding on the Church as our doctrine—and that is the Standard Works. We are reminded of the importance of the Standard Works in the Holy Temple.
I am well aware that LDS leaders and members have said and written many things about Lamanites and Nephites, dark skins and white skins, Native Americans as descendants of Book of Mormon peoples, archaeological “evidences” for the Book of Mormon in Palenque and elsewhere, and on and on. Those are their opinions—no matter what their status in the Church. I am not obligated to accept any of those teachings as official Church doctrine. None of them. Neither are you; neither should you.
I am not obligated to accept anything but the scriptures. The fact is: these other folks might be wrong, I might be wrong, we both might be partly right and partly wrong or we may just be ignorant. (Always a strong possibility. :)) These LDS leaders and members are all human beings like me, fallible, ignorant, prejudiced by our experiences and education and prone to mistakes of all kinds. They are free to publish their own thoughts and ideas, to make mistakes and to be corrected and learn.
I would frankly be astonished if some or many of the things that have been written or taught by church leaders and members were not untrue or at least incomplete. So what? I do not mean that in a confrontational way but rather in a matter-of-fact way. What church members and leaders have taught in the past may be mistaken. What they teach in the future may also be mistaken. Or again, I may be mistaken in my understanding and they may be right, or at least partly right and partly wrong. I welcome it when honest discussion and study reveal my own mistakes or the mistakes of others. That is the only way I know to progress.
OK, now on to science and the scientific method.
Science: a Very Limited Tool
I have spent my life in scholarship in my field of engineering and science. From this experience, I know this statement to be true: there is almost always some capable scholar or scientist somewhere who will disagree with the findings of any other scholar or scientist, no matter how capable he or she is. Scholarship and science always consist in:
- making assumptions,
- gathering evidence based on these assumptions,
- reasoning from that evidence (and the underlying assumptions)
- to arrive at tentative conclusions and then
- openly and completely disclosing that work for the scrutiny of other scholars.
Notice how many interdependent pieces there are to the scientific or scholarly process. Notice how much can go wrong–or at least differently. Very, very often, other scholars in the community will apply other assumptions, other evidence and different reasoning to arrive at different conclusions. That is how science progresses, not to “ultimate truth”, but to improved, but still incomplete understanding. I repeat: science by its nature cannot arrive at ultimate truth.
In the words of Karl Popper, the Austrian-born philosopher of science “Every statement of science is forever tentative.” In other words, science does not deal in finality…it deals in the next question to be asked. Popper said so many good things about science and the scientific method, that I will just provide some quotes from him to drive home the very limited nature of science and the scientific method. Here are a few of Popper’s relevant quotes:
“Whenever a theory appears to you as the only possible one, take this as a sign that you have neither understood the theory nor the problem which it was intended to solve.”
“Our knowledge can only be finite, while our ignorance must necessarily be infinite.”
“Science may be described as the art of systematic over-simplification.”
“There can be no ultimate statements in science: there can be no statements in science which cannot be tested, and therefore none which cannot in principle be refuted, by falsifying some of the conclusions which can be deduced from them.”
OK, I hope that is enough repetition from Dr. Popper- I could provide many more in the same vein. Science does not give ultimate answers–although some scientific principles are on very, very firm ground. Many others are on much less firm ground. Science cannot provide ultimate answers and still remain science. Science is and must remain open-ended, always eager to be proven wrong, or at least incomplete.
Most scientists remember this and are careful not to overstate their conclusions. They usually understand the limitations of their assumptions, data and reasoning and therefore they usually remain open to correction and discussion. Without wishing to give offense, I have observed that it is usually non-scientists that are most likely to overstate or misinterpret scientific evidence. This is what I have observed in the debates about DNA evidence regarding the Book of Mormon, and also about the archaeological evidence, both for and against.
Before I discuss the DNA and archaeological evidence issues, I want to make what I think are two important points about science and evidence.
First, absence of evidence that something did happen cannot be taken as evidence that it did not happen. The fact that no DNA evidence has yet turned up unambiguously supporting an “Israelite” ancestry of aboriginal Americans cannot exclude the possibility that some such evidence will turn up. It is illogical to say that because something has not yet happened, it will never happen. It is illogical and unreasonable to say that because I have not yet found evidence, that no such evidence exists.
Likewise, absence of any current definitive archaeological “proofs’ supporting Book of Mormon archaeology cannot reasonably be interpreted as meaning that no evidence will ever be found. This is the well-known problem of trying to prove a negative. Second, and this is a corollary principle to the first point, no scientific arguments can be advanced based on information or evidence that has not yet been obtained. You cannot base scientific arguments on conjecture, only on real evidence.
Unfortunately, both of these points about evidence are often violated in discussions of the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
After examining the assumptions, the DNA evidence and thinking about these issues, I believe that DNA evidence cannot currently either confirm or refute the historicity of the Book of Mormon.
First, the DNA evidence. By way of background, the bulk of the forensic archaeological DNA evidence comes from mitochondrial DNA, inherited exclusively through the mother’s line. I mention this point here because of the importance of the maternal inheritance lines in the Book of Mormon. I will discuss this more below.
The Book of Mormon records three migrations from the Old World to the New World. But it certainly does not rule out other migrations not recorded in the Book of Mormon and it does not rule out survivors from one migration remaining even if their societies are destroyed. To say that a society is destroyed (a frequent result in the many wars recorded in the Book of Mormon) does not require that every individual in that society perish. Many individuals may have, and probably did live on, and perhaps lived to pass on their DNA.
The three migrations referred to in the Book of Mormon include the Jaredites, the Mulekites and the Lehites. The Jaredites probably came from central Asia—a very long time ago. All we know about them is contained in less than 30 pages of the Book of Mormon. Much of the 30 pages deals with their dissensions and wars with each other. The Jaredite people were always fighting about who was going to be the boss, splitting off and founding new colonies in the New World. So we can’t rule out the possibility that some Jaredite colonies survived the war of mutual extinction that finally ended the only Jaredite colonies that we do have record of. If some such colonies survived, then, according to the Book of Mormon we probably have quite old central Asian DNA in the original New World genetic material, not just “Israelite” DNA.
We know even less about the Mulekites. Their own oral history, which we have no way of checking, said that they came from Jerusalem around 600 B.C. They did not keep written records, as far as we know. But we don’t know what the genetic makeup of the Mulekite immigrant group was, so we can’t even begin to tell what they might have contributed to genetic background of Native Americans, if they did. When these Mulekites mingled with a small portion of the Lehite group in about 130 BC in a city/area/land they called Zarahemla, they were much more numerous than the Lehites, thereby diluting the Lehite genetic inheritance.
Finally, who were the Lehites? They were the principal record keepers who gave us the Book of Mormon. According to the Book of Mormon, in about 600 BC, a prophet named Lehi led his wife (Sariah) and sons (no mention of any daughters in that family) and another family headed by a man named Ishmael (mostly daughters, apparently), Ishmael’s wife and a former servant/slave named Zoram out of Jerusalem. Israelites were forbidden by the Mosaic Law to make slaves of other Israelites, so it is likely that Zoram was not of Israelite descent. Thus Zoram probably had some other genetic background, but we don’t know what it was. The descendants of Zoram figure prominently in the Book of Mormon.
Lehi was a descendant of Joseph through Manasseh. Manasseh was the son of Joseph, the husband of Asenath, the daughter of the high priest of On (Heliopolis) in Egypt. Asenath was therefore a full-blooded Egyptian and may have passed maternal mitochondrial DNA unlike that of other “Israelites” down to her descendants, including Lehi. We don’t know the ancestry of Lehi’s wife, Sariah. Presumably she was “Israelite”. But we don’t know that for sure. We also don’t know what “Israelite” DNA was like in 600 BC. That is a really big problem, actually it is an insuperable problem, for drawing any conclusions from DNA evidence.
We don’t know Ishmael’s ancestry, but his name strongly suggests at least some Arab/Bedouin progenitors. Ishmael is the father of the Arabs and therefore “Ishmael” is probably not a name that a good Jewish mama in 600 BC would have given her boy. 🙂 (Yes, the Arabs and the Jews were also fighting each other back then—some things don’t change. Sigh…) Perhaps most importantly, we don’t know anything about the ancestry of Ishmael’s wife, and her crucial maternal mitochondrial DNA that would have been passed down to her daughters and then to her grand-daughters, the daughters of Zoram, Laman, Lemuel, Nephi and Sam, at the least.
The Lehite colony divided itself into two groups (called Nephites and Lamanites) shortly after arriving in the New World. These two groups were political/religious, not ethnic, and there were many dissensions, mixing and wars between them until the visit of Jesus Christ to the American continent ended their conflicts and gave whoever those people were at that time a century or so of peace. After this peaceful interlude, the Lamanites and Nephite groups formed again along religious/political lines and started warring again. The Lamanite group destroyed the Nephite group about 400 AD, ending the record keeping that gave us the Book of Mormon.
Again, “destroyed” means that Nephite society was unmade, it does not mean that all Nephites were killed. In fact, we are informed in the Book of Mormon that some of these Nephites deserted over to the Lamanites. Thus we have no idea what genetic lines were lost from the initial Lehite colony in almost a millennium of warring (600 BC to 400 AD).
We also don’t know what happened to the surviving Lamanite group in the 1000 years plus between the end of Book of Mormon history and the arrival of the Europeans. We don’t know if they intermarried with subsequent migrations, or with previous migrations not mentioned in the Book of Mormon. We don’t know how much of their own DNA pool they destroyed in the small and large scale wars that we know were a continuing, constant feature of aboriginal American life prior to the Conquest.
We do know that the European conquest of the New World led to an enormous extermination of Native American peoples through “guns, germs and steel” as documented by Jared Diamond. It has been estimated that the population of the Native Americans was reduced by well over 90% during the three centuries or so of the European conquest of the Americas. This was genocide on a truly enormous scale and therefore loss of DNA on a huge scale. Losing that DNA means that that genetic evidence was also lost.
Okay, that’s it. That is what the Book of Mormon says about the genetic background of its three migratory groups and the possible survival of the DNA of such groups. We have the Jaredites (central Asian, unknown DNA survival), the Mulekites (unknown genetics, unknown DNA survival) and the Lehites (likely Arab, Egyptian, unknown DNA from Zoram, unknown DNA from Ishmael’s wife, Israelite DNA…whatever Israelite DNA was in 600 BC, and also unknown DNA survival).
With this background, can anyone seriously claim they know what the genetic endowment is of the three groups of people mentioned in the Book of Mormon?
And if we don’t know that initial DNA endowment, we don’t know what to look for in the DNA of Native Americans. If we don’t know what we are looking for, how are we going to know when we have found it? Making matters even more difficult, the Book of Mormon does not preclude other migrations to the New World and it does not preclude intermarriage between these three migratory groups (Jaredites, Mulekites and Lehites) and other groups not named in the Book of Mormon. It does not preclude the possibility that there were other unmentioned peoples in the New World when these different groups arrived. In fact, I think it is almost certain that such pre-existing groups were here. More about that in a later blog.
Thus, among other problems, we simply don’t know what our “control group” is. “Control group” is scientific language for the question: “What is the DNA endowment brought to the Americas by the three migrations mentioned in the Book of Mormon against which we are to compare Native American DNA and thereby test the historicity of the Book of Mormon?” At the risk of being repetitive, at least for the present, I can’t answer that question and I don’t think anyone else can. And if the question cannot be answered, then we do not know what to look for in the DNA of current Native Americans or Paleo-Indians. We cannot test the historicity of the Book of Mormon on DNA evidence.
This issue of the DNA control group was part of an online discussion I had with Dr. Philip Jenkins of Pennsylvania State University and Baylor University in the online journal Patheos. Dr. Jenkins is a distinguished professor of history and had written an article about the Book of Mormon that I thought was overstating (to put it mildly) the DNA and other evidence “against” the Book of Mormon. Here is the link to his article. (All the comments on the article should still be available.)
A week or so later, Dr. Jenkins wrote another article about the Book of Mormon that I also found deficient.
So I entered into a long discussion with Dr. Jenkins that ended with this interchange.
Me: So I am going to ask you one more time directly: where is the scientific study that tells me what Central Asian DNA was like around the time of the tower (Jaredite DNA)? Where is the scientific study that tells me what the DNA was for the tribe of Manasseh about 600 BC (Lehi’s people)? Where is the study that tells me what the DNA of Ishmael’s people was like? Since the Ishmaelitish women contributed their mitochondrial maternal DNA to Lehi’s grandsons, that is a key point. Where is the scientific study that tells me what the Mulekite DNA was like? Oh…wait. We have no idea who the Mulekites were or what their DNA was like. Since we have no idea how much DNA these different groups contributed to the Native American DNA pool, we have no way of proving or disproving the Book of Mormon based on current DNA evidence.
The Book of Mormon makes certain claims about the genealogical background of the three migrations it describes. One of those migrations was from the tower–therefore Central Asian DNA. If you want to discount that story then tell me if you believe there was a Manasseh, son of Joseph by Asenath? Can you tell me what Lehi’s DNA or Ishmael’s DNA or Zoram’s DNA or the Mulekite DNA was? Because if you can’t do that, you don’t know what DNA markers you are looking for in the New World. And therefore you have no way of disproving (or proving) the historicity of the Book of Mormon on DNA evidence. That is the “control group” problem that I have mentioned several times and that you continue to evade or avoid in your replies. The Perego and Akins article makes the same point, and other key points as well. The DNA evidence is simply not up to the burden of proof you are placing on it.
Dr. Jenkins: I don’t want to get into a point by point argument about this, but I will answer the key control group question: Middle Eastern populations of Syro-Palestine and neighboring regions of the Levant and Arabia.
Me: Thank you, Dr. Jenkins. The control group DNA that you assume for the Book of Mormon peoples is not the control group DNA it claims for itself. Therefore, the reasoning and conclusions based on your assumption are not valid. I trust your integrity that you were not deliberately engaging in straw man argumentation.
I want to emphasize that Dr. Jenkins and I parted respectfully from each other. In fact, he is going to send me a book he wrote on the religious foundations of the First World War, something I have always been interested in. But after all my discussion with him and all the reading and thinking I did on the subject of forensic DNA in general and DNA of the Book of Mormon peoples, I came to the following conclusion:
After considering the evidence and the arguments, I think that current DNA evidence simply cannot be used to either confirm or deny the migrations described in the Book of Mormon. The data are not adequate to the task. This often happens in real science—we simply don’t know enough to arrive at any conclusion.
This is the same conclusion that Dr. Ugo Perego and Ms. Jayne Ekins came to in their study of DNA and the historicity of the Book of Mormon that I suggested Dr. Jenkins read. Here is the link to the Perego/Ekins study.
Here are the qualifications of Dr. Perego and Ms. Ekins (pasted from their article).
“Dr. Ugo A. Perego has a PhD in Genetics and Biomolecular Studies from the University of Pavia in Italy, where he studied under the mentorship of Professor Antonio Torroni, who was part of the team of scientists to first identify genetic diversity among Native American populations in the early 1990s. Dr. Perego was a senior researcher for the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation for 12 years, where he contributed to the building of one of the world’s largest repositories of combined genealogical and genetic data. He has published and presented extensively on DNA and its application in populations, forensic, ancestry, historical, and genealogical studies. He currently resides in Italy, where he is the director of the Rome Institute Campus and a visiting scientist at the University of Perugia.
Jayne Ekins has 15 years of experience in the field of genetic genealogy. She has lectured throughout the United States and international venues on the applications of molecular biology to elucidating ancient and recent genealogical connections. She has authored and co-authored several peer-reviewed scientific publications as well as general articles on genetic genealogy”.
I recommend reading the whole paper to get a deeper understanding of the problems in using the DNA evidence to evaluate the historicity of the Book of Mormon, but if anyone wants to skip to the conclusions of the Perego and Ekins article, here they are. Please pay close attention to the remarks of Professor Meltzer and Dr. Crawford, non-Mormon scholars and forensic DNA experts in this excerpt below.
In commenting on a recent article published in the scientific journal Nature and dealing with the number of original migrations by Paleo-Indians, Professor David Meltzer of Southern Methodist University said, “Archaeologists who study Native American history are glad to have the genetic data but also have reservations, given that several of the geneticists’ conclusions have changed over time. This is a really important step forward but not the last word.” On the same occasion, molecular anthropologist Michael H. Crawford added, “The paucity of samples from North America and from coastal regions made it hard to claim a complete picture of early migrations has been attained.”
These and other comments from experts in the field of ancient American history provide further evidence that DNA is a valid tool to study ancient and modern populations, but they also remind us to be careful about drawing absolute conclusions based on the genetic data. Can genetic testing and science honestly answer any of the following questions?
- What did the DNA of the Book of Mormon people look like?
- Was it the typical DNA found in the population of Jerusalem in 600 BC?
- Can their DNA be differentiated from that of Europeans arriving after 1492?
- Is the current molecular clock adequate to discern pre- from post-Columbian genetic contributions to the New World within the last three thousand years?
- What degree of mixture did the Nephites and/or Lamanites experienced with local natives?
- How long were the Nephites and/or the Lamanites an isolated population after their arrival to the American continent?
Obtaining answers to these questions would enable the design of research that could contribute to our understanding of the Book of Mormon as a historical record from a scientific approach. Without such information, we risk forming conclusions based on personal interpretation and biased assumptions. As outlined in this paper, the problems and limitations with attempting such an investigative approach are significant and cannot be overlooked by those honestly seeking for answers about the Book of Mormon through DNA.
Trying to reconstruct and identify the DNA of these Old World migrants in the Americas is not a task comparable to that of finding a needle in a haystack. With time and diligence, the needle eventually will be found. With the Nephite record, the needle was once there, and then through population demographic pressures, such as drift and perhaps some degree of natural selection, the needle may have been removed from the haystack — with some people convinced that it is still there and therefore should be found. Consequently, these critics, rather than accepting the fact that the needle was once there and now is lost, prefer to take the position that it was never there in the first place. These are two very distinctive conclusions based on the same observations. Stating that the DNA of Book of Mormon people has disappeared or not been detected through time, following very basic and widely accepted population genetics principles such as genetic drift and selection, is much different from claiming that Book of Mormon people never existed because we failed to recover their DNA in the American indigenous gene pool.
The advances with DNA technologies have provided never-before attainable knowledge in many fields, such as medicine, criminal justice, etc., including the history of humanity. However, much more still needs to be investigated, and some information might never be fully revealed with a molecular approach.
We need to be wary about any statement against or in favor of Book of Mormon historicity based on genetic evidence and take the time to understand the difference between scientific data and claims people make about it. As with other religious texts and topics, science is often an inadequate tool to corroborate spiritual truths, morals, and ethics.
DNA is a powerful tool in reconstructing recent and ancient historical events. The large body of published work on the topic of Native American origins using genetic markers stands as witness that researchers are still tackling some fundamental questions surrounding the history of the Western Hemisphere and of humanity in general. New publications provide helpful insights into the past but often pose new questions in need of further investigation.
As extensively explained herein, there are specific limitations that cannot be ignored when using the available genetic data to infer conclusions regarding the DNA of Book of Mormon people. Such conclusions are not founded on solid science but are the interpretation of a few, as genetic data fails to produce conclusive proof weighing credibly in favor of or against the historicity of the Book of Mormon.”
OK, that’s the bottom line: “genetic data fails to produce conclusive proof weighing credibly in favor of or against the historicity of the Book of Mormon”. As a non-forensic DNA expert, but as someone who has done a lot of scholarship and reading myself, I had already come to that same conclusion.
On to the archaeological evidence.
Similar to the DNA evidence, as far as Book of Mormon archaeology in the New World is concerned, we do not know where to dig, nor what to look for when we dig. Joseph Smith never told us where in North or South America the Book of Mormon history took place. What are we looking for so that we will know it when we find it? 🙂 Even if we limit ourselves to North America, that is one very large piece of real estate. Where should we start digging—the Arctic or the Isthmus of Panama?
And what are we looking for that scholars would unanimously accept? A good scholar/scientist almost never closes doors nor do they make such definitive statements as some of the advocates for and against the Book of Mormon seem to take. The more a true scholar learns, the more he or she realizes we don’t know. Every real work of scholarship raises ten new questions for every question that it answers, always tentatively. Real scholars disagree all the time. Even if we found a building dated to about 600 BC, say in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico or near Lake Atitlan in Guatemala, with the inscription “The Prophet Lehi slept here” or “Nephi made the gold plates here” over the doorway; I am sure some scholars would question the finding. 🙂 And they should.
Back to Book of Mormon archaeology. Much of the Book of Mormon history revolves around a city called Zarahemla by its inhabitants. But we do not know where Zarahemla was. I actually think Mesoamerica is the most likely site for the Book of Mormon events and the likely location of Zarahemla, but we just don’t know for sure. That is something I think—not something I know. Unlike Jerusalem, we don’t know where Zarahemla was, so we have no unambiguous place to dig in and around.
About 25 years ago, Professor John L. Sorenson put together a persuasive but by no means overwhelming argument for a certain area around the Grijalva River in southern Mexico as the site of Zarahemla and the locus of much of Book of Mormon history. Professor Sorenson’s work and tentative conclusions are documented in a very interesting book that I have read and recommend to others.
In the process of preparing this blog, I learned about Dr. Michael Coe and his critique of Book of Mormon archaeology. He appears to be the most prominent critic of Book of Mormon archaeology. I will study his work closely and write a blog on it when I believe I understand his critiques. I have also learned that Professor Sorenson recently published a new book (800 pages long) called “Mormon’s Codex”, that updates his work on a Mesoamerican setting for the Book of Mormon. He appears to be the most prominent LDS archaeologist. I will likewise read his work carefully and incorporate my analysis in the same blog where I discuss Dr. Coe’s work.
Back to the main point: why haven’t we found an unambiguous location for the Book of Mormon location or unambiguous Book of Mormon artifacts? Again, because we don’t know where to look and we don’t know what we are looking for and we may not find it even if we do look in the right spots.
It is completely possible for ancient civilizations to become so lost that that scholars question whether they ever existed at all. This was the case for the great Hittite empire mentioned in the Bible. That empire and civilization disappeared so completely that scholars questioned the accuracy of the Biblical account of the Hittites. Here is a pretty good reference.
If you had lived in the early 1800s scholars would have told you that the Hittite empire never existed. Well, the scholars were wrong then. They will undoubtedly be wrong again. Everyone who makes arguments based on science or scholarship should keep Karl Popper’s statement firmly in the front of their minds: “Every statement of science is forever tentative.”
And I repeat myself, science does not deal in certainties. It deals in the next question(s) to be asked.
It is also possible for important archaeological discoveries to be missed for decades…even when they are, so to speak, right next door. For example, the cliff-side caves in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were found (starting in 1947) looked down on the site of Khirbet Qumran, where archaeological excavations had been under way since about 1850. All those scientists digging on the site for almost a century, and nobody walked a few hundred yards up the (steep) hill to dig in one of those caves. So if someone had said, “There is no evidence that the Qumran community ever wrote anything down” they would have been correct…right up until the time they were proven wrong. One cannot logically take absence of evidence as evidence of absence. Critics of Book of Mormon DNA and archaeology should keep that point in mind…as should Mormons.
I think neither the DNA evidence nor the archaeological evidence are strong enough to either “prove” or “disprove” the Book of Mormon. In fact, I think scientific evidence by itself, that is, evidence gathered by and interpreted by scientists and scholars, will never be up to that job of proof for the Book of Mormon. Science is just too limited a tool. I have many reasons or evidences for the truth of the Book of Mormon, but relatively few of them are “scientific”. For me, the most compelling evidences are linguistic, cultural and especially doctrinal, such as the eternal man and eternal matter doctrines that I have discussed in previous blogs.
As far as I am concerned, the Book of Mormon must first answer the “terrible questions’, the existential questions with which I began this series of blogs: “Is this life all there is?” and “What is the purpose of my life?” It does. The Book of Mormon and the other revelations given to Joseph Smith provide me with powerful, intellectually and emotionally satisfying answers to these and other crucial questions, answers I have never found anywhere else, answers to questions that science cannot answer and other religions have not answered, at least for me.
I think Karl Popper also made this statement, but I have not been able to confirm it: “Science is the art of substituting unimportant questions that can be answered for important questions that cannot be answered.” I disagree in part. I think science can answer many important questions, but not the most important questions. I disagree that the important questions cannot be answered–it is the role of “religion” to answer them. Not only can these important questions be answered, they must be answered if our lives are to have meaning.
In a later post, I am going to talk about “epistemology”, which is basically the question “how can we or do we know things?” “Mormonism” offers me a very satisfying epistemological framework for acquiring knowledge.
Here is that framework: I am commanded by God to seek learning by study and faith. That is what I am trying to do now and what I have tried to do my whole life. But as a lifelong student and inhaler of books, and an active scientific researcher for over 40 years, I sincerely warn anyone relying on “science” to answer questions of eternal importance needs to understand what a weak foundation science is for that task. Science can never answer “why”…the best it can do is “how”. Science cannot give meaning to our lives. Science does not give final answers. It must always leave an open door for more evidence, or for mistaken assumptions and reasoning to be revealed.
When I mention pieces of evidence like stone boxes, steel bows, the phrase “and it came to pass” in Mayan stelae, I am offering what I hope are fun, perhaps useful, but certainly less crucial pieces of evidence. I stated clearly in my post about the phrase “it came to pass” that that might have been a coincidence. The undeniable presence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon is much, much stronger evidence than physical boxes, bows or carvings…or the phrase “it came to pass”. However, it is also true that the accumulated weight of many “smaller” pieces of evidence when considered as a whole becomes overwhelming…at least it has been for me. More about the accumulation of snowflakes to produce an avalanche in a later post.
So I am not very impressed with the DNA or archaeological evidence for or against the Book of Mormon, at least at the current state of my knowledge. But I will keep looking at these two issues and considering more evidence, ready to discuss anything with anyone.