Misquoting Science

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I had a chance to share few thoughts about the current status of DNA research in the Americas at the recent FAIR LDS conference in Sandy, Utah. The title of my presentation was “Book of Mormon Genetics: A Reappraisal” and it began with a slide showing a quote that appeared in the June 2012 issue of Sunstone magazine:

“Unfortunately, Vinson has not kept up with advances in population genetics, where scientists like Theodore Schurr (University of Pennsylvania) now utilize nuclear DNA (SNPs), which no longer leave open a possibility that a small, successful and genetically unique group could be introduced into a larger population without detection. According to the scientists, Native Americans are exclusively Siberian. There is no longer anywhere for a successful population of Middle-easterners to hide in the Native American family tree. (Zegura et al., ‘High-Resolution SNPs,’ Molecular Biology and Evolution, 2004.)”

The purpose of this blog post is to provide a written source of what I said at the beginning of my presentation pertaining to this quote. My goal is not to attack anyone in particular, but to promote greater awareness about poorly developed statements that may have the appearance of being professional and objective, but in reality are loaded with errors and biased misconceptions.

I am in the process of working on a full transcript of my presentation that will eventually be available elsewhere. Here, I will simply address this specific comment from Sunstone and provide my own insights from the field of population genetics and Native American origins and how they may (or may not) relate to the study of the Book of Mormon.

The Sunstone author mentions a previous article by Michael Vinson, quickly pointing out that Mr. Vinson did not keep up with the advances in the field of population genetics. Such introductory statement would imply that the writer is actually in a better position to access and process such information. However, the rest of his comment clearly demonstrates his limited level of understanding about this particular field of science. Mentioning an expert like Theodore Schurr in his statement does not provide the necessary credentials in the field of population genetics and Native American origins that the writer purports to have.

Dr. Schurr is definitely one of the world’s experts and a prolific researcher, having written numerous key peer-reviewed papers on the origin of Paleo-Indians from a genetic viewpoint. He is also the National Geographic’s Genographic Project in-house scientist for sample collections and DNA studies regarding America’s indigenous people. His work and contribution to the field is valued and admired among his peers, myself included.

However, mentioning Dr. Schurr in the Sunstone statement is, in my opinion, out of place because the author of the comment makes particular mentions of recent nuclear DNA studies through the means of SNP data analysis. During the past 20 years, DNA studies involving world populations, including Native Americans, focused almost exclusively on the uniparental markers Y chromosome (inherited along the paternal line) and mitochondrial DNA (which follows an unbroken maternal line). Dr. Schurr has published extensively on the DNA of Native Americans using these two methodologies; however, as far as I know, he has not yet produced a single paper on Amerindian autosomal DNA (the nuclear DNA from the recombining 22 chromosome, thus excluding the sex chromosomes and the mitochondrial genome).

The author then goes on with an interesting observation, stating that the use of nuclear DNA SNPs “no longer leave open a possibility that a small, successful and genetically unique group could be introduced into a larger population without detection” (emphasis added). Signature Books at some point produced a quick survey among population geneticists not involved with the Book of Mormon issue about the question “What happens genetically when a small population is introduced into a larger one?” The consensus was that you would not expect to find Semitic DNA in the Americas if the group that arrived to the New World was very small compared to the hosting population. This is a natural process referred to as genetic drift, which applies to both uniparental markers, as well as autosomal DNA.

Simply stated, the DNA of a small group of colonizers would quickly disappear within a few generations when assimilated within a much larger hosting indigenous population. However, in the current comment from Sunstone, DNA from the small group of migrants should be detected when using the new technology available, dismissing the fact that experts have already expressed their opinion that none should be found, regardless of the approach employed. Adjectives like “successful and genetically unique” are a clear attempt to emphasize that this group was made of no ordinary people, and commonly-accepted population genetics principles such as genetic drift or population bottlenecks (i.e. the natural loss of genetic signatures following events like disease and warfare) did not apply to them.

I am assuming that for “successful” the author intended that Book of Mormon migrants were efficient in establishing a civilization that would also have had an impact on the genetic landscape of the Americas. In my mind this is a bit of a stretch due to the fact that it is well proven that culture and language propagation does not always reflect genetic dissemination. For example, the expansion of the Roman Empire and Greek philosophy in many Old World countries about two millennia ago was more drastic than the spread of Roman and Greek genetic profiles in the colonized countries.

The term “genetically unique” is also debatable, as that would imply that we know something with surety about the genetic affiliation of Book of Mormon people. Basically, we are assuming that the genetic make-up of ancient Israel is the same of that observed in today’s Jews from Jerusalem and that Lehi and his family were the “typical genetic representatives” of their population of origin. I am not sure how can anyone provide evidence to such statement, but I will discuss this matter more in the actual transcript that I am producing (some of this information is already available online in the article “The Book of Mormon and the Origin of Native Americans from a Maternally Inherited DNA Standpoint” published in FARMS Review, Spring 2010).[1]

But it gets worse. The assignment of words like “exclusively” Siberian and “no longer anywhere…to hide” to scientists involved with these studies is a bold statement underlining that the scientific community is done with this type of research, as all that needed to be said about the origin of Native Americans had already been said. To top it off, a reference to an eight-year old study is provided, as to confirm that the writer is not making things up, as he is backed up by science: “Zegura et al., ‘High-Resolution SNPs,’ Molecular Biology and Evolution, 2004.”

Interestingly, the paper provided as a reference does not include Dr. Schurr as one of the authors, and—most importantly—does not deal with nuclear DNA SNP analysis either. The full title of this publication is, in fact, “High-resolution SNPs and microsatellite haplotypes point to a single, recent entry of Native American Y chromosomes into the Americas,” which is a paper on Y chromosome—not nuclear DNA—variation among Native American populations. The authors reported the analysis of more than 2,000 Y chromosomes from multiple European, Native American and Asian groups and reported that, in the Americas, 96% (which is significantly different from 100%) of these lineages belonged to group C, Q and R. The authors cautiously suggested that “haplogroups C and Q were deemed to represent early Native American founding Y chromosome lineages; however, most haplogroup R lineages present in Native Americans most likely came from recent admixture with Europeans” (emphasis added).

Note the difference in expression used by the Sunstone author and the actual scientists involved in the very publication he cites. Yes, the findings of the paper strongly promote a single migration from Asia to the Americas, but the scientists also admitted that there were other lineages observed and that those with an Old World affiliation “most likely” were of European origins. Two major points must be emphasized here:

  1. It is commonly accepted by most scientists that if a DNA profile has Asian similarities, it arrived from Siberia approximately 15,000 years ago through the land bridge that once connected Northern Asia to Alaska; if it looks European, then it probably arrived after 1492 following the European colonization;
  2. The molecular clock established for genetic variation through time is better suited to calibrate events that occurred tens of thousands of years ago and is not a very accurate system to discern migratory events that occurred within the last couple of millennia. In other words, there has not been enough time to differentiate pre- from post-Columbian DNA lineages within the last two thousand years.

We tend to forget that most of the research that is taking place with regard to the origin of the ancestors of Native Americans using DNA focuses on the first main arrival(s) through Beringia and is not meant to detect minor subsequent migrations that took place in more recent times. In commenting on recent genetic analysis performed on Paleo-Eskimo remains in Greenland belonging to the Saqqaq culture,[2] Dr. Marcus Feldam, a population geneticist from Stanford University stated that “the models that suggest a single one-time migration are generally regarded as idealized systems, like an idealized gas in physics. But there may have been small amounts of migrations going on for millennia. Just because researchers put a date on when ancient humans crossed the Bering Bridge, that doesn’t mean it happened only once and then stopped.”[3] I agree wholeheartedly with this statement as I personally find it a very complex task to identify and clearly discern any non-Asian-like genetic signals in the New World that would have resulted from migrations that took place in the last couple thousands of years. I do wonder if all the R lineages observed in the Zegura et al. paper are indeed of post-Columbian origin and how would anyone be able to demonstrate otherwise.

Perhaps of more relevance to the current case is a paper that was published in July 2012 in the prestigious journal Nature. The authors Reich et al. in their “Reconstructing Native American population history” actually used nuclear DNA SNPs and the new technology mentioned in the Sunstone reply. However, in the article’s abstract, the following introductory statement is made:

“The peopling of the Americas has been the subject of extensive genetic, archaeological, and linguistic research; however, central questions remain unresolved. One contentious issue is whether the settlement occurred by means of a single migration or multiple streams of migration from Siberia” (emphasis added).

The sixty-five scientists that co-authored the article in Nature unanimously agree that the question of population migrations to the Americas is still a matter of open debate; however a single individual with no science background boldly stated in Sunstone that the matter is closed.

Following the publication of the article in Nature, the New York Times ran a short editorial with comments from experts of the field. An extract from the newspaper included the following statements:

“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,’ said David Meltzer [an archaeologist with expertise on Native American origins] of Southern Methodist University, noting that many migrations may not yet have shown up in the genetic samples. Michael H. Crawford, an anthropologist [author of The Origins of Native Americans: Evidence from Anthropological Genetics] at the University of Kansas, said 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” (emphasis added).[4]

As a researcher in the field of Native American genetics, I am convinced that DNA data will continue to provide valuable information to our understanding of the peopling of the Western Hemisphere. Additionally, I am also convinced that most of the scientific evidence that will be produced by various experts in the field will continue elucidating the first principal migration(s) that took place at the end of the Last Ice Age, which contributed to the main DNA landscape of America’s double continent which was found also by any potential subsequent migrants upon their arrival to the New World in more recent times.

The difficulty in discerning pre- from post-Columbian Old World genetic lineages within the last two millennia, coupled with the real impossibility of reconstructing Lehi’s party original genomic data to be used as a reference for comparison within the currently known Amerindian gene pool poses significant limitations to anyone attempting to use DNA as a valid tool to determine Book of Mormon historicity. Comments like the one presented in the June 2012 issue of Sunstone are a desperate (and in this case, poorly-formed) efforts to attack the historical nature of the Nephites’ record.

DNA, when properly used, is a powerful tool to reconstruct events of the past. However, when it comes to determining the Book of Mormon’s historicity, too many variables are missing and too many factors are playing a limiting role in allowing the formulation of a research design that would satisfactory prove or disprove the existence of the people mentioned in its pages.

 


[1] An updated version of this article with the same title is also available in No Weapon Shall Prosper: New Light on Sensitive Issues, Edited by Robert L. Millet (Deseret Book, Salt Lake City, 2011).

[2] Morten Rasmussen and others, “Ancient Human Genome Sequence of an Extinct Palaeo-Eskimo,” Nature 463 (2010): 757–62.

[3] Cassandra Brooks, “First Ancient Human Sequenced,” http://www.thescientist.com/blog/display/57140 (accessed August 13, 2012)

[4] Nicholas Wade, New York Times, “Earliest Americans Arrived in Waves, DNA Study Finds,” http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/12/science/earliest-americans-arrived-in-3-waves-not-1-dna-study-finds.html (accessed August 13, 2012)

7 thoughts on “Misquoting Science

  1. TheodoreB

    “Wherefore, I, Lehi, prophesy according to the workings of the Spirit which is in me, that there shall none come into this land save they shall be brought by the hand of the Lord.” (2 Nephi 1:6)

    The Nephite Civilization was here for a thousand years. There was another thousand years before the Europeans arrived. During this period the Lord may have brought many people from anywhere. Perhaps Siberians came during this period of time rather than earlier?

  2. Pingback: 17 August 2012 | MormonVoices

  3. TheodoreB

    Here is another possibility that could explain the DNA similarity between Native Americans and Siberians.

    There is evidence that some of the indigenous Siberian Tribes are themselves descendants of the Tribes of Israel that went north from Assyria. For example, the Yakut Tribe of Eastern Siberia have a legend that very long ago a chief named Elai, son of a great leader in middle-Asia, led his people north and east until they reached the banks of the Lena River under the mountain Tatar Haia. Elai carried with him the maxims of his people engraved on a stone tablet. When they reached the Lena, Elai told his people that they had found the land they sought. (Farley Mowat, Sibir: My Discovery of Siberia, McClelland and Stewart Limited, 1973) The fact that the Yakut speak a Turkic language is supporting evidence for the legend.

    It may be that the Native Americans and the Native Siberians have common ancestors, rather than one being descended from the other.

  4. Mike Parker

    Theodore,

    There are several significant problems with your theory, including the fact that there are no genetic ties between indigenous Siberians and that DNA evidence shows that migrations across the Bering Strait took place 16,000 years ago, long before the Israelites existed.

  5. TheodoreB

    I realize, as Perego states above, that is the commonly accepted theory. I also realize that archaeology/paleontology, from whence the theory comes, are not exact sciences and are highly subjective.

    If we have no idea what Israelite DNA looked like 3,000 years ago, how do we know what Siberian DNA looked like 16,000 years ago?

  6. TheodoreB

    There is another possibility that would explain the similarity between Siberian and Native American DNA. Perhaps one or more of the indigenous Siberian Tribes came from America, rather than the other way around.

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