Digging Deep Ditches: Blog Post #11 August 22, 2015

Before I get into the main subject of this blog, I want to acknowledge and thank several readers for their previous input.  It is a long introduction, but please be patient. I think you will enjoy “digging deep ditches” when I finally get there.  🙂

First, I thank Bonnie Heidenreich (co-grandma with Gina and me of our Heidenreich grandkids). Bonnie pointed out that the maternal mitochondrial DNA passed on to her daughters by Ishmael’s wife came from a completely unknown background.  Those daughters of Ishmael’s wife passed their DNA along through Lehi’s sons (and through Zoram, who married the oldest daughter of Ishmael’s wife) to their grand-daughters, and their grand-daughter’s daughters.  Thus Ishmael’s wife is really, really important to any conclusions relative to the historicity of the Book of Mormon that we might want to draw from maternal mitochondrial DNA analysis of aboriginal Americans. And we know nothing at all about Ishmael’s wife, not even her name.  Thank you, Bonnie.  I have revised my post on forensic DNA because of your input.

Second, I want to thank my friend Cindi Martineau for challenging me a bit about my remarks on evolution when I was quoting Bertrand Russell. I explained to Cindi that I was not attacking Darwinian evolution in my quoting of Russell, only that Russell had concluded from his own analysis of evolution that: 1) “evolution” as Russell understood it was almost certainly correct and 2) as a result, Russell concluded that all of humankind and all human achievements are destined for extinction and nothingness. Thus we can only build our lives on a “firm foundation of unshakable despair” (Russell’s words).  Not a very cheerful conclusion.

Well, I come to a much different, much more hopeful conclusion than Mr. Russell.  I think that biological evolution is an observed fact, supported by abundant evidence. By “biological evolution” I mean this and only this: over time, living creatures change and become more fit for their environments.

We don’t live on a young earth—one that is only a few thousand years old as some have interpreted the Scriptures.  This earth is billions of years old and life has changed over this vast reach of time.  In fact, over time, living organisms have shaped the world around us to make it more suitable as a home for even more creatures.  For instance, us oxygen breathers (people and fish and birds and millions of other critters) wouldn’t have a breathable atmosphere without the hard work of all those itty bitty, blue-green algae (cyanobacteria) several billion years ago—which work they continue to do even today. So let’s not, for their sakes, and especially for ours, keep polluting the oceans where the algae live.

Darwinian evolution has been used by some to attack faith in God as the creator. In my view, some scientists and some religious people have overstated what the Scriptures do tell us and what science is able to tell us about the details and timing of creation.  I am accumulating more knowledge about evolution and expect to write a blog post on it when I think I have something useful to say.  In the meantime, what I do know of biological evolution and the prior chemical evolution on which biological evolution depends fill me with gratitude for the wisdom and power of God.  For those who may not have heard of chemical evolution, I will just say that biological evolution depends on first having at least one living cell with characteristics that can be inherited by its offspring on which the process of natural selection can operate before biological evolution can proceed and species can originate.  You can’t have Darwinian evolution until first you have at least one living cell to evolve.  So where did that first living cell come from?

The current scientific hypothesis is that the first living cell arose through “chemical evolution”—but students and the general public hear a whole lot less about chemical evolution than they do about biological evolution. Had you ever heard of chemical evolution until you read this blog?  Most people haven’t.  I think there are good reasons for that fact. “Evolving” the first cell by a series of random chemical reactions, starting from simple chemical compounds, is very, very much harder than it is to evolve a cockroach from that first cell.

So I am studying chemical and biological evolution, and will write a related post or two when I think I have something useful to say.  It may be awhile.  I read quickly, but I think and write slowly.  🙂

Finally, I thank my beautiful, talented, gracious, kind and articulate daughter Rebecca Dale Winder for her input.  (Every one of those adjectives is true!  I am a proud dad but (I hope) also an honest one.  :))  Becca has raised, among other questions, questions about Mesoamerican archaeology and the Book of Mormon and the witnesses of the Book of Mormon.  I am currently reading Dr. John Sorenson’s 800 plus page book (at page 465 right now) entitled “Mormon’s Codex”, in which Sorenson summarizes the “correspondences” (as he terms specific points of evidence) between the Book of Mormon and what we know of Mesoamerican geography, archaeology, languages, agriculture, political institutions, social structures, etc. And also their patterns of warfare…more about that below.

I am also reading Dr. Michael Coe’s most recent work on the Maya (I have it with me today as I write these words in my hotel room in Campinas, Brazil, in August 2015). Dr. Coe is a skeptic of the historical validity of the Book of Mormon, especially as it relates to Mesoamerica and possible relations to the Maya.

In other words, Dr. Coe doesn’t think the Book of Mormon represents real history, and particularly that it doesn’t relate to the Maya.  I believe the history recorded in the Book of Mormon is true; but I don’t know about its connection, if any, to the Maya.  In part, that is why I am reading his book—to try to have a more informed opinion on that issue.

I have also just finished rereading Richard L. Anderson’s book “Investigating the Book of Mormon Witnesses”.  This book is a well-reasoned and evidence-based treatment of the lives and testimony of the eleven Book of Mormon witnesses. Three men testified that they had seen the Book of Mormon plates in the presence of an angel and heard the voice of God declaring that the book was true. Eight more men saw the plates, and handled and examined them, but without any divine participation in that particular event—just a straightforward, sober account of what they had seen and done with the plates.  I first read Anderson’s book many years ago, and was glad to reread it during the past few days.   When I think I have something useful to say, I will write a blog on the Witnesses.

I expect to occasionally update and revise past blogs.  In reading Richard Anderson’s book “Examining the Book of Mormon Witnesses” I learned (page 131) that John Whitmer, one of the witnesses, said that the plates were engraved on both sides.  So I will assume that both sides of the sheets of the gold-copper alloy (“tumbaga”) on which the Book of Mormon was written were engraved.  In reading John Sorenson’s book “Mormon’s Codex” I found (page 340) that Mesoamerican craftsmen could produce high quality metal sheets 0.2 millimeters thick by successive hammering and annealing.  Finally, I have a plausible thickness for the Book of Mormon plates, a piece of data that I was missing!   So I will assume that the sheets on which the Book of Mormon was engraved were 0.2 millimeters thick or 0.00787 inches thick.  Furthermore, I decided to assume that the plates were a mixture of 50% copper and 50% gold, so that the density of the material would be the average of the density of gold and that of copper, or 1206 plus 559 divided by 2 equals 883 pounds per cubic foot.

With those new numbers, how many square feet of surface would be available for engraving the Book of Mormon?  Well, each plate (8 inches tall by 7 inches wide by 0.00787 inches thick) would weigh 0.225 pounds. Assuming again 20 pounds of plates for the unsealed part of the book, that is about 89 sheets. Each sheet would have two sides for engraving, so there would be 8 x 7 x 2 equals 112 square inches or 0.778 square feet per sheet or 69.2 square feet total for both sides of the 89 sheets.  I estimated in Blog Post #2, based on the text of the Koran, that somewhere around 23 square feet would be required to engrave the Book of Mormon. So my previous estimate of 12.4 square feet and the current estimate of 69.2 square feet of plates available to engrave the Book of Mormon nicely bracket the 23 square feet figure.

Now, on with the subject of this particular blog “Digging Deep Ditches”.  Notice that it only took me four pages to get through my introduction. 🙂   (And you may well be saying, “Well, at last—this guy is a true professor, he can digress at the drop of a hat!).

I will write a blog or two on the subject of Mesoamerica, the Maya and the Book of Mormon when I have read and digested Sorenson’s book “Mormon’s Codex”, Coe’s book on the Maya and perhaps one or two additional, relevant books.  In the meantime, I couldn’t resist sharing with you something I found on pages 408-410 of Mormon’s Codex.

As the principal editor of the book, Mormon had hundreds of times more source material on which to draw than he could possibly include in the Book of Mormon.  And so he selected what he thought was most useful for all of us…his readers centuries in the future.  But Mormon was a human being.  He couldn’t help revealing his own experiences and interests in the material he selected from to produce the Book of Mormon.  And Mormon was deeply involved in the wars of his people almost all his life, from age 16 when he first led his people as their general, until their last battle when he perished at age 74 and his people were destroyed—almost 60 years of thinking about, preparing for or participating in war.

My point is that Mormon could no more keep himself from including some military information in his book than I could avoid putting in details of interesting chemical processes that might have showed up in the Nephite records. For me, that is yet another piece of evidence that the Book of Mormon is what it claims to be. The authors/editors show their individual personalities and backgrounds all the time, as does Mormon in this specific case.

Speaking of interesting chemical processes, I wish the Book of Mormon talked about “nixtamalization”. That is the process by which corn grain is treated with dilute alkali (lime water) to improve its protein quality and dough-making ability.  Now you know the root of the word “tamales”.  (See all the useful information you can get by reading this blog?  :))  But the Book of Mormon doesn’t and so I can’t, sniff…..  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nixtamalization

Mormon even named his son Moroni because (I think) of his admiration for a great general of the Nephite people named Moroni (“war chief” is probably a more accurate description than “general”).   This earlier Moroni lived almost four centuries before Mormon and became the war chief of his people at age 25, much as did the young Mormon.   So Mormon was really impressed by the life and abilities of the earlier Moroni.

Here is what Mormon had to say about the military innovations instituted by Moroni, who, like Mormon, was vastly outnumbered by his enemies and had to excel in defensive warfare.   (And, boy, did he ever excel.)  In Alma Chapter 49 (about 72 BC) we read about the fate of the unlucky Lamanite warriors attacking Moroni’s new city defenses.

But behold, how great was their disappointment; for behold, the Nephites had dug up a ridge of earth round about them, which was so high that the Lamanites could not cast their stones and their arrows at them that they might take effect, neither could they come upon them save it was by their place of entrance.  

18 Now behold, the Lamanites could not get into their forts of security by any other way save by the entrance, because of the highness of the bank which had been thrown up, and the depth of the ditch which had been dug round about, save it were by the entrance.

 19 And thus were the Nephites prepared to destroy all such as should attempt to climb up to enter the fort by any other way, by casting over stones and arrows at them.

22 Now when they found that they could not obtain power over the Nephites by the pass, they began to dig down their banks of earth that they might obtain a pass to their armies, that they might have an equal chance to fight; but behold, in these attempts they were swept off by the stones and arrows which were thrown at them; and instead of filling up their ditches by pulling down the banks of earth, they were filled up in a measure with their dead and wounded bodies.

Mormon continues this description of these fortified cities in Alma Chapter 50:

 And now it came to pass that Moroni did not stop making preparations for war, or to defend his people against the Lamanites; for he caused that his armies should commence in the commencement of the twentieth year of the reign of the judges, that they should commence in digging up heaps of earth round about all the cities, throughout all the land which was possessed by the Nephites.

 And upon the top of these ridges of earth he caused that there should be timbers, yea, works of timbers built up to the height of a man, round about the cities.

 And he caused that upon those works of timbers there should be a frame of pickets built upon the timbers round about; and they were strong and high.

 And he caused towers to be erected that overlooked those works of pickets, and he caused places of security to be built upon those towers, that the stones and the arrows of the Lamanites could not hurt them.

 And they were prepared that they could cast stones from the top thereof, according to their pleasure and their strength, and slay him who should attempt to approach near the walls of the city.

Finishing the story of Moroni’s defensive innovations in Alma 53, Mormon records what Moroni did:

And he caused that they should build a breastwork of timbers upon the inner bank of the ditch; and they cast up dirt out of the ditch against the breastwork of timbers; and thus they ….had encircled the city of Bountiful round about with a strong wall of timbers and earth, to an exceeding height.

Obviously, Mormon was pretty impressed with Moroni’s military innovations described here. These innovations include a very deep ditch/dry moat surrounding the Nephite cities, with a single entrance to the city, and strong works of timbers on top of the banks of earth above the moats/ditches. From these tall banks of earth and timbers above the banks, and the even taller towers built on the timbers, the defenders could rain down arrows and especially rocks, on their attackers. And their attackers couldn’t effectively get at the defenders.

Now, nothing spreads as fast as an important military advance—from nuclear weapons, to tanks to better helmets to better cooking pots for the soldiers. So we would expect this innovation that gave defenders such an advantage over attackers to be copied widely.

Fast forward to the time of the Spanish conquest of Mexico, the year 1525 AD.  Conquistador Hernan Cortes described fortified cities in the Maya lowlands as quoted by Dr. David Webster of Pennsylvania State University.  (David Webster: “The Not So Peaceful People: A Review of Maya War” Journal of World Prehistory Vol. 14, No. 1 (March 2000), pp. 65-119.  See page 80).  Here is Cortes’ description of the defenses he encountered among the Lowland Maya.

“There is only one level entrance, the whole town being surrounded by a deep (dry) moat behind which is a wooden palisade as high as man’s breast.  Behind this palisade lies a wall of very heavy boards, some twelve feet tall, with embrasures through which to shoot their arrows; the lookout posts rise another eight feet above the wall, which likewise has large towers with many stones to hurl down on the enemy…indeed, it was so well planned with regard to the manner of weapons they use, they could not be better defended”

Dr. Webster also wrote an interesting study entitled “Defensive Earthworks at Becan, Campeche, Mexico: Implications for Maya Warfare” (publication 41 of the Middle American Research Institute, Tulane University, New Orleans, 1976). Here are some of Dr. Webster’s findings from pages 95-96 of his study regarding the dry moat or defensive ditch that surrounded the city of Becan, in the Yucatan Peninsula of southeastern Mexico:

“The ditch and parapet derive their main defensive strength from sheer size.  What I call the “critical depth” of the fortifications (the vertical distance from the top of the embankment to the bottom of the ditch would have averaged something over 11 meters (about 36 feet)… The steep angles of the inner ditch and wall and parapet slope could not have been climbed without the aid of ladders; an enemy force caught in the bottom of the ditch would have been at the mercy of the defenders, whose most effective weapon under the circumstances would have been large rocks…To throw “uphill” from the outside is almost impossible.  Defenders… could have rained long-distance missiles on approaching enemies using spear throwers and slings.”

OK, so we have the Maya at the time of the Spanish Conquest using the same kind of city defense that Moroni had used about 1600 years earlier, namely:

1) a single entrance to the city,

2) deep ditches around the city,

3) banks of earth built above the ditches,

4) strong works of timbers built on top of these banks of earth above ditches and

5) even taller towers built on the timbers.

From these works of timbers and from the towers, the defenders could rain down arrows and especially rocks (a cheap but effective weapon), on their attackers. And the attackers couldn’t effectively get at the defenders—so they were slaughtered.  Ouch.

So Joseph Smith was either a military genius himself.  Yes, a 24 year old farm kid from upstate New York invented this superb defensive military arrangement totally unlike anything in the warfare of his time, and which so impressed an experienced soldier like Hernan Cortes.  Or he guessed it.  Yup, he guessed it in all this detail.

Or….Joseph Smith did translate an ancient record, as he said he did. And that ancient record, the Book of Mormon, describes in spectacular detail these fortified cities in a way that fits exactly with defensive warfare as it was actually practiced in Mesoamerica.

Oh, that clever kid.

Oh That Clever Kid-My Debt of Thanks to Dr. Hugh Winder Nibley: Blog Post #10 August 1, 2015

Shortly after we were married in 1973, Gina gave me my first book written by Dr. Hugh W. Nibley. The book was “Since Cumorah”.  Since then, I have read nearly everything Nibley has written. I have also listened multiple times to every one of his recorded lectures I have been able to find (235 in total).  Friends have sometimes pointed out to me that I often sound like Nibley.  I plead guilty as charged.  It would be strange if I had not picked up much of his vocabulary and ideas.  If I fail to quote him properly, it is a sin of omission, not of commission. And Nibley would not care a bit.

Anyway, the only remaining Nibley book that I have not read is his book on the Joseph Smith papyri, which he subtitled “the Egyptian endowment”.  I tried that book decades ago and got terminally bogged down about half way through. But it is time to try again. After six years of service in the Detroit Temple, perhaps I understand the temple a bit better and can try again to understand that particular book.  So if you will excuse me a moment, I will visit Amazon.com and order the only Nibley book I have not read.

OK, thanks for waiting. 🙂  Now I will be able to take the book with me when I attend the Quilt Show in Grand Rapids with Gina in a couple of weeks.  When I have enough of looking at quilts for a while, then I can dive back into the book. Life doesn’t get any better.

So, anyway, Dr. Nibley would often lecture on some specific aspect of the Book of Mormon and then comment on how that aspect lined up with some piece of evidence that had been uncovered well after the Book of Mormon was printed or that was so esoteric that Joseph would very likely not have known it.  And then Dr. Nibley would say “oh that clever kid”, referring to Joseph Smith.

So I have named this blog “ohthatcleverkidjosephsmith.com”.  Now you know why.

Like Hugh Nibley, I accept, with all my heart and mind, the Book of Mormon as the real history of a real people.  And if it is real, then it should have, and it does have, many testable points of evidence. Dr. Nibley has shown me many of those points, many others I have found on my own, or because of other people. For example, Dr. John Welch discovered the existence of chiasmus in the Book of Mormon. Thank you, Dr. Welch.

I would like to quote a few passages from the Preface to “Since Cumorah”, and let Dr. Nibley speak for the both of us about testing and “proving” the Book of Mormon.  I will add a few of my own comments in italics and in parentheses. Here goes:

“The purpose of this book (and my blog) is to call attention to some points on which the main hypothesis of the Book of Mormon (and the prophetic credentials of Joseph Smith) may be tested. The hypothesis is that the Book of Mormon contains genuine history, and with it goes the corollary that the work was divinely inspired (and that Joseph Smith was a true prophet).   Because of that corollary no serious attempt (by critics of the Book of Mormon) has been made to test the main hypothesis; for to test a theory means to take it seriously if only for a little while, to assume for the sake of argument that it may conceivably, however absurdly, be true after all. That is a concession no critic of the Book of Mormon has been willing to make.”

Things haven’t changed much from the time when Dr. Nibley wrote these lines, almost 50 years ago. The learned men and women of the world, and most of the unlearned ones too, simply refuse to admit the possibility that the Book of Mormon might be true after all. Without admitting the possibility, you can never honestly test the hypothesis:  “Is the Book of Mormon true?”

From my own limited experience in the blogosphere and my much larger experience in science, I know Nibley’s next statements to be true:

“Instead of the vigorous onslaught that the Book of Mormon hypothesis invites and deserves, it has elicited only a long monotonous drizzle of authoritarian denunciation, the off-hand opinions of impatient scholars whose intelligence and whose official standing will not allow them to waste a moment more than necessary to write off an imposture so obviously deserving of contempt.”

“But today it is being pointed out in many quarters that authoritarianism is the very antithesis of true science, and that the best scientific theory is not the sane, cautious, non-committal one, but the daring and revolutionary one.”  “A theory which asserts more,” says Karl Popper, “and thus takes greater risks, is better testable than a theory which asserts very little.”

In science, as I have said in a previous blog, the best hypothesis (or theory) is the one that is easiest to prove wrong. But to do so, you must assume it to be true. If you assume it to be false, then there is no need to test it, which is convenient and a real time saver, but also a total abdication of your responsibility as a scientist and an honest human being.

Instead, in science, we do the best we can to prove a theory wrong by first assuming it to be true and then seeing if it passes tests to prove it wrong. If a theory successfully survives many tests to prove it is wrong, we then accept it as tentatively true.

Well, the Book of Mormon takes great risks and asserts a lot. The theory that the Book of Mormon represents real people and real history is the best kind of theory—it should be easy to prove it wrong. Instead, what we find in point after point, is that the predictions made by assuming the Book of Mormon to be true are actually supported by the evidence.

Again, I am not going to argue with anyone in this blog, as tempting as it is to do that. Unfortunately, I am inclined to be argumentative–a bad habit I am trying to correct. Instead, I will cite the evidence that seems so compelling to me, reason from the evidence and then let others decide for themselves if they are convinced by the evidence and the reasoning.

But all of us should recall that calling upon academic or scientific or political or any other kind of authority is NOT evidence and that, to  quote Nibley, “name-dropping is as futile as name-calling”. Whatever authority I have as a Ph.D. and a scholar in my own field is NOT evidence—and the same thing applies to anyone else. Authority is not evidence. Only the facts matter.

So I invite any discussions based on evidence. And, by the way, to the person or persons who have tried to hack my blog website (I can only assume with the intent to shut me up), if your evidence is so strong, why not have a respectful discussion on the points of evidence instead? We both might learn something.

One last quote (for now) from Dr. Nibley from his Preface to “Since Cumorah”, once again with my additions in parentheses:

“Which brings up an important point: we are not going to prove anything in this book (meaning the book “Since Cumorah”). The evidence that will prove or disprove the Book of Mormon does not exist. When, indeed, is a thing proven? Only when an individual has accumulated in his own consciousness enough observations, impressions, reasonings and feelings to satisfy him personally that it is so.”

So I thank Hugh W. Nibley for all I have learned from him in more than 40 years studying his works.

I long ago accumulated far more than enough knowledge, impressions, observations, feelings and reasonings to know that the Book of Mormon is true and thus that Joseph Smith was a prophet and thus that the church founded by Joseph, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is indeed the only true and living church upon the face of the earth.

I do know these things and I so witness.