Disclaimer: I have no expertise in DNA of any kind, so I will not be discussing the legitimacy of certain scientific assertions. I do, however, know how to check sources against how they are being used, which is the focus of this post.
Recently, Simon Southerton, a DNA scientist and former Mormon, posted some thoughts on the state of DNA evidence for or against the Book of Mormon. In response, someone referred to a FAIR article by David Stewart, an orthopedic surgeon, entitled DNA and the Book of Mormon.". I will say up front that I have had no interaction with David Stewart, and he is only known to me for his epic debate with DNA researcher “The Dude” on the now-defunct “Mormon Apologetics and Discussion Board.”
Stewart begins by discussing the “traditional LDS position” regarding Native American ancestry before discussing Thomas Murphy’s “challenge” to that position.
He begins by telling us that “Critic Thomas Murphy” is hanging his hat on two types of evidence: Native American mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA), which is passed through females, and Y-chromosome “Cohan Modal Haplotype,” which is passed through males. Stewart says, “Murphy writes that ‘some of the most revealing research into Native American genetics comes from analyses of mtDNA,’ and presents mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) data to support his conclusion that Native Americans could not possibly have an origin in ancient Israel.” The direct quote is accurate in that Murphy right says that mtDNA has revealed a great deal about Native American genetics. That said, Murphy does not conclude that “Native Americans could not possibly have an origin in ancient Israel.”
Here’s what Murphy actually says. In the first cited article, Murphy writes:
Quantitative scientific methods can now test the claims of an Israelite genetic presence in ancient America. So far, they have demonstrated that nearly all Native Americans can trace their lineages to migrations from Asia sometime between 7,000 and 50,000 years ago. Latter-day Saints who prematurely pointed to haplogroup X as the best hope to salvage Mormon claims were mistaken—indeed, the timing and destination of that migration is inconsistent with either a hemispheric or limited Mesoamerican geography for the BoMor. Moreover, the most recent studies have identified haplogroup X in Siberian populations which share a common ancestry with Native Americans. While molecular anthropologists have demonstrated a technological capability to use DNA to identify descendants of ancient Hebrews, no such evidence has turned up in Central America or elsewhere among Native Americans. Ultimately, as Sorenson has noted, these findings may not matter to Latter-day Saints who have a spiritual witness of the “truth” of the BoMor, yet they caution against confusing a spiritual witness with scientific evidence. Spiritual witnesses may reach beyond science but they should never be confused with it.
Note that Murphy acknowledges that evidence of Hebrew origins “so far” has not “turned up in Central America or elsewhere among Native Americans” and nowhere insists that such evidence cannot possibly be forthcoming.
In the second cited piece (a PowerPoint presentation, I might add), he states:
Lamanites could not possibly be “the principal ancestors of the American Indians” as claimed in the current introduction to the Book of Mormon.
This is hardly controversial, as the church itself has changed the wording of the introduction to “among the ancestors of the American Indians.” More importantly, however, Stewart dramatically exaggerates Murphy’s statement to make it seem as if Murphy believes that the case for Nephite migration is over and has been, metaphorically speaking, pretty much thrown into Mount Doom, with Mount Doom being then dropped under the continental plates. With this strawman firmly in place, Stewart takes on mtDNA evidence.
Over 98% of Native Americans tested to date carry mitochondrial DNA haplogroups A, B, C, or D. Outside of the Americas, these haplogroups are most commonly found in Mongolians and south Siberians, and are rarely found in modern Jews. Another 1% carry haplogroup X, which is found in south Siberian, European, and Near Eastern populations.
So far, so good. We know that these haplogroups appeared in the Americas some 16,000 years BC, indicating that nearly all Native Americans originate in south Siberia or Mongolia some 18,000 years ago, at least.
Murphy’s arguments are based on the assumption that modern Jewish mtDNA accurately represents the mtDNA of ancient Israel.
This is another misstatement. Here’s Murphy’s discussion of “Israelite DNA”:
Researchers have uncovered distinctive genetic markers on the Y-chromosome that can be useful in establishing linkages between ancient Hebrew and contemporary populations. Within the modern Jewish religion there are three patrilineal castes that genetic anthropologists Neil Bradman et al. describe thus: “the Priests (Cohanim, singular Cohen), non-Cohen members of the priestly tribe (Levites) and Israelites (non Cohanim and non-Levites).” As they use the term Israelite, it constitutes a subgroup of Jews “who are neither Cohanim nor Levites.” While Cohanim and Levites are present in most Jewish communities, one becomes a Jew through matrilineal heritage (being born to a Jewess) or through conversion. Thus “Israelite” haplotypes are very diverse, with only the Cohen modal haplotype appearing more frequently than 0.1 (14 out of 119). The Cohen modal haplotype is much more frequent in both Ashkenazic and Sephardic Cohanim (0.509, n = 54) and relatively rare in Levites (0.037). Despite different understandings of the terms Jew and Israelite than those commonly held among Mormons, Bradman and colleagues date the origin of the Cohen modal haplotype to 2,100 to 3,250 years ago (putting it within the historical range of alleged Lehite and Mulekite migrations to the New World). They conclude that it may “be useful for testing hypotheses regarding the relationship between specific contemporary communities and the ancient Hebrew population.” Markers on the Y Chromosome are not the only genetic linkages between descendants of ancient Hebrews. Numerous nuclear DNA polymorphisms and various types of mtDNAs have been used to cluster and chart genetic relationships among Jews in Europe, Asia, and Africa. They have even provided evidence of Jewish connections among probable Spanish American descendants of conversos (Spanish Jews forcefully converted to Christianity in the 15th century). Yet, they consistently fail to produce the linkages one would expect to find if Native Americans descended from ancient Hebrews as the BoMor suggests.
Once again, when Murphy does mention mtDNA, it is simply to note that mtDNA has been used successfully to “cluster and chart genetic relationships among Jews in Europe, Asia, and Africa” and point out that there are no such linkages among Native Americans.
Next Stewart tells us that “Findings that Jewish groups share little mtDNA commonality, but closely reflect the mtDNA of their host populations, flatly contradict Mr. Murphy’s assumptions. Mitochondrial DNA studies have had little success in linking different Jewish groups, leading geneticists to discount mtDNA as being notoriously unreliable in ascertaining ‘Jewish’ roots.” Does the cited study suggest that? Here’s what it actually says:
Previous low-resolution RFLP studies of the maternally inherited mtDNA of Jews, using five or six restriction enzymes, have also revealed patterns interpreted both in terms of common origin and local admixture. Ritte et al. (1993b) found that genetic distances among seven Jewish communities and Israeli Arabs were comparable to those found among five globally dispersed populations, with Ethiopian Jews appearing more as an outgroup than Israeli Arabs. Tikochinski et al. (1991) and Ritte et al. (1992) found that genetic diversity within Jewish populations was generally lower than in populations with a geographically extensive distribution, such as whites, Asians, Australians, and Africans, but was greater than that found in geographically restricted populations such as New Guineans, a pattern they attributed to an unusually polymorphic ancestral Jewish population, a high rate of growth in Jewish populations, or introgression events from neighboring populations. Ritte et al. (1993a) compared mtDNA and Y-chromosome haplotypes in six Jewish communities and found consistently lower genetic diversity in the mtDNA than in the Y-chromosome haplotypes, although differences in mutational processes between these two marker systems make it very difficult to ascribe such differences with certainty to demographic effects.
mtDNA is used in the study cited to show that groups of diaspora Jews tend to have descended from a small group of presumably local women. However, this does not apply to groups such as the Samaritans, who can be traced geographically and genetically (using mtDNA) to ancient Near Easter sources. So, the similarity of the mtDNA to local host populations is irrelevant, as I will discuss.
The University College London study found that that while separate Jewish communities were founded by relatively few female ancestors, this “process was independent in different geographic areas” and that the female ancestors of different communities were largely unrelated.
Coupled with the statement that “the female ancestors of different communities were largely unrelated,” Stewart makes it appear that, because the “founding process” for Jewish communities was “independent in different geographic areas,” one cannot possibly use mtDNA to trace Jewish ancestry.
Next Stewart quotes a summary of the UCL study by New York Times reporter Nicholas Wade:
Nicholas Wade wrote: “A new study now shows that the women in nine Jewish communities from Georgia… to Morocco have vastly different genetic histories from the men…. The women’s identities, however, are a mystery, because…their genetic signatures are not related to one another or to those of present-day Middle Eastern populations.”
This sounds pretty devastating to the suggestion that Jewish ancestry can be traced through mtDNA. But here Stewart ignores a key finding in the UCL study:
We have analyzed the maternally inherited mitochondrial DNA from each of nine geographically separated Jewish groups, eight non-Jewish host populations, and an Israeli Arab/Palestinian population, and we have compared the differences found in Jews and non-Jews with those found using Y-chromosome data that were obtained, in most cases, from the same population samples. The results suggest that most Jewish communities were founded by relatively few women, that the founding process was independent in different geographic areas, and that subsequent genetic input from surrounding populations was limited on the female side.
The last part is important. The study is talking about the founding of a Jewish community outside of Israel/Palestine. An “earlier study, led by Dr. Michael Hammer of University of Arizona, showed from an analysis of the male, or Y chromosome, that Jewish men from seven communities were related to one another and to present-day Palestinian and Syrian populations, but not to the men of their host communities.”
So, what this study shows is that Jewish males (probably traders) settled in non-Jewish communities, and of necessity married local women. However, because the Jewish communities are traditionally insular, further intermarriage with locals was, in the words of the study, “limited.” According to Dr. David Goldstein, one of the study’s authors:
The men came from the Near East, perhaps as traders. They established local populations, probably with local women. But once the community was founded, the barriers had to go up, because otherwise mitochondrial diversity would be increased.
This is important because, according to Mormon proponents of a limited geography theory (LGT) of Nephite/Lamanite population, intermarriage with existing Native American populations caused the genetic traces of Middle Eastern ancestry to vanish with time. There are a couple of differences that are worth noting:
1. The study shows that these diaspora communities were founded by men, who intermarried with local women, thus the lack of Middle Eastern mtDNA, but
2. The Book of Mormon emigrants were both male and female, and there are three separate migrations from the Middle East mentioned. Thus, unlike the diaspora communities studied, there should be both mtDNA and Y-chromosome evidence of Middle Eastern ancestry among Native Americans.
Moving on, Stewart states
Dr. Mark Thomas and colleagues reported: “In no case is there clear evidence of unbroken genetic continuity from early dispersal events to the present…. Unfortunately, in many cases, it is not possible to infer the geographic origin of the founding mtDNAs within the different Jewish groups with any confidence.” (MG Thomas, ME Weale, AL Jones, et. al. “Founding mothers of Jewish communities: geographically separated Jewish groups were independently founded by very few female ancestors.” American Journal of Human Genetics, 70:6 (June 2002), 1411-1420.)
The statement before the ellipses (mind you, the ellipses represent four pages in the original) makes it appear that a scientific study found no “clear evidence of unbroken genetic continuity” from early Jews to today’s Jewish population.
Is that what the original source claims? Here is the citation in context, which is an introduction discussing the difficulty in establishing historical evidence to substantiate claims of descent from Israel and Judea (you can find the entire article here):
Before the Second World War (1939–1945) and the founding of the modern state of Israel (1948), there were many long-standing separate Jewish communities in Europe, North Africa, and Asia. All of them claimed an origin in one or another dispersal from Israel and Judea.However, the origins of small minority communities founded before the 16th century are rarely well documented. For some Jews (e.g., the Babylonian Jews and modern Iraqi Jews), evidence exists of ancient Jewish communities in the same locations as in present times, but gaps often exist in the records of intervening centuries (Rejwan 1985, p. 143). In no case is there clear evidence of unbroken genetic continuity from early dispersal events to the present (de Lange 1984, p. 15; Encyclopaedia Judaica 1972).
Note that the first citation tells us that “gaps often exist in the records of intervening centuries” and that the last two support that original statement. None of these citations is from a scientific article: The first is from a book published by the Theodore Herzl foundation entitled “The Jews of Iraq: 3000 Years of History and Culture”; the second is from the “Atlas of the Jewish World”; and the third is from a 1972 edition of the “Encyclopedia Judaica.” None of these sources discusses DNA issues; rather, they discuss gaps in genealogical records. Stewart’s piece picks up on the word “genetics” and presents the quote as if it suggests that there is no DNA evidence of genetic continuity, which is a gross distortion of the original source.
After the ellipses–which of course suggests a relationship between the two statements–we are told, “Unfortunately, in many cases, it is not possible to infer the geographic origin of the founding mtDNAs within the different Jewish groups with any confidence.” Stewart appears to be linking gaps in genealogical records to an inability to determine the geographic origins of Jews. Again, since the study finds that the mtDNA comes from non-Jewish women, the statement is irrelevant to a discussion of Jewish mtDNA. Rather the authors suggest that “an indigenous origin is certainly possible, given the data,” and that two of the groups (Bene Israel and Ethiopian Jews) are most likely the result of intermarriage by “local recruitment.”
Next comes more from the New York Times:
Dr. Shaye Cohen of Harvard University observed, “The authors are correct in saying the historical origins of most Jewish communities are unknown.”
Again, Stewart makes it sound as if the genetic origins of Jewish communities are unknown. Here are Dr. Cohen’s remarks in context:
Most of those founding narratives do not have strong historical support. Dr. Lawrence H. Schiffman, professor of Hebrew and Judaic studies at New York University, said the new genetic data could well explain how certain far-flung Jewish communities were formed. But he doubted that it would account for the origin of larger Jewish communities that seemed more likely to have been formed by families who were fleeing persecution or making invited settlements.
Dr. Shaye Cohen, professor of Jewish literature and philosophy at Harvard, said the implication of the findings and the idea of Jewish communities’ having been founded by traders, was ”by no means implausible.”
”The authors are correct in saying the historical origins of most Jewish communities are unknown,” Dr. Cohen said. ”Not only the little ones like in India, but even the mainstream Ashkenazic culture from which most American Jews descend.”
In a recent book, ”The Beginnings of Jewishness,” Dr. Cohen argued that far-flung Jewish communities had adopted the rabbinic teaching of the matrilineal descent of Jewishness soon after the Islamic conquests in the seventh, eight and ninth centuries A.D.
One part of the Goldstein team’s analysis, that matrilineal descent of Jewishness was practiced at or soon after the founding of each community, could fit in with this conclusion, Dr. Cohen said, if the communities were founded around this time.
So, Dr. Cohen is not talking about genetic evidence but rather the “founding narratives” of these various communities; in other words, we do not know how or why these Jewish men settled in various locations, but we know they did. But Stewart distorts his source to make it seem damning to Murphy’s paper.
Next Stewart dismisses the relevance of mtDNA entirely from a study of Jewish ancestry:
Even close mtDNA homologies would not necessarily prove an Israelite origin, but the conspicuous absence of such homologies provides strong circumstantial evidence of non-Israelite origins for the mtDNA and much of the other genetic makeup of most modern Jews. With no evidence that modern Jewish mtDNA constitutes a valid control of the genetics of ancient Israel–and considerable evidence to the contrary–claims of Israelite lineage cannot be either confirmed or denied based on mtDNA data.
A couple of things:
Every study I have consulted suggests that the oldest Jewish communities, those of Iran and Iraq, which were formed around the time of Lehi (500-600 BCE) can be traced to Near Eastern origins through mtDNA analysis:
The Jewish communities of Iraq and Iran constitute the oldest non-Ashkenazi Jewish communities outside the Levant and were established during the 6th century B.C.E. For the Iranian (Persian) Jewish community sample set, we found that 41.5% of the mtDNA variation can be attributed to 6 women carrying mtDNA genomes that belong to sub-branches of Hgs H6a1b1, H14a1, T2g, T2c1, U1a1a, and J1b1 (Table 2), all known to be present in West Eurasia. In this regard, it is noteworthy that though Hg H is the dominant European mtDNA Hg (40-50%), its sub-Hgs H6 and H14 are largely restricted to the Near East and the South Caucasus . Similarly, we found that about 43% of the Iraqi Jewish community can be traced back to 5 women whose mtDNA belongs to Hgs T2c1, J1b’e/J1e, U3b1a, H13a2b and W1d (Table 2), all frequent in the Near and Middle East. Again, Hg H13 is typically the Near Eastern, not European variant of Hg H . Consistent with our findings, an independent sample of Iraqi Jews reported in a previous study , contained eleven out of 20 individuals who carry mtDNA variants, that can be assigned to the five founding lineages identified in the current study. (Behar et al., Counting the Founders: The Matrilineal Genetic Ancestry of the Jewish Diaspora, Molecular Medicine Laboratory, Rambam Health Care Campus, Haifa, Israel, 2008).
So, whether an “Israelite origin” can be proven is again, irrelevant. Jewish populations from the time period of Lehi show Near Eastern mtDNA. That Native Americans do not have such mtDNA suggests that there is no evidence for Near Eastern ancestry, Israelite or not.
Other studies have used combinations of Y-chromosome evidence, mtDNA, and identity by descent (IBD) to show that “This study demonstrates that the studied Jewish populations [“European/Syrian and Middle Eastern Jews”] represent a series of geographical isolates or clusters with genetic threads that weave them together. These
threads are observed as IBD segments that are shared within and between Jewish groups.” (Atzmon et al., “Major Jewish Diaspora Populations Comprise Distinct Genetic Clusters with Shared Middle Eastern Ancestry,” American Journal of Human Genetics 86, 850-859, 2010).
Stewart finishes his discussion of mtDNA with this paragraph:
Joseph’s wife Asenath, daughter of Potipherah priest of On, is the ancestral mother of the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (Genesis 46:20). While her genealogy is unknown, there is no reason to believe that her mitochondrial lineage or that of her descendants, including the Lehites, would have matched that of the tribe of Judah. The presence of mtDNA types in Native Americans that do not match those found in modern Jewish groups is fully consistent with both Book of Mormon and Bible accounts.
This is mind-boggling. In essence, he’s saying that, because we don’t know exactly what the mtDNA of Asenath would look like, we cannot determine a Near Eastern connection to Native Americans. As I mentioned, we know what the mtDNA of Near Eastern peoples looks like, so all it would take to make Israelite ancestry plausible would be the presence of one marker from Middle Eastern DNA. A good analogy would be to the Samaritans, who trace their lineage back to those Israelites who
did not go into exile when the Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom of Israel in 721 BC, but married Assyrian and female exiles relocated from other conquered lands, which was a typical Assyrian policy to obliterate national identities. This is in line with biblical texts that emphasize a common heritage of Jews and Samaritans, but also record the negative attitude of Jews towards the Samaritans because of their association with people that were not Jewish. Such a scenario could explain why Samaritan Y chromosome lineages cluster tightly with Jewish Y lineages, while their mitochondrial lineages are closest to Iraqi Jewish and Palestinian mtDNA sequences.
In short, the older the lineage, the greater affinity in both Y chromosome and mtDNA with other groups founded at the same time. That the Jews exiled to Iraq at the time of the Assyrian conquest are closely related by mtDNA to Samaritan communities founded at the same time suggests that we do know what kind of mtDNA evidence would support the claim that Near Eastern immigrants were assimilated into Native American populations.
This is just one section of Stewart’s paper, but it shows that Murphy’s statements are correct: so far, there is no evidence for Israelite origins among Native Americans. I could go through the rest of the article, but this ought to be sufficient to show that Stewart has built up a strawman and then manipulated sources to knock it down.
If nothing else, I conclude, first, that Stewart’s article is not a trustworthy response to Murphy, and second, that FAIR does not source-check their publications.