In yet another skirmish in the continuing debate over DNA and the Book of Mormon, the Signature Books website recently posted a Ron Priddis response to Blake Ostler's reply (here and here) to Tom Murphy's article "Lamanite Genesis, Genealogy, and Genetics," chaper 3 in American Apocrypha (2002, Signature). [An earlier version of Murphy's paper is available online here. Also, Ostler has now replied to Priddis here and here, with some additional exchanges between the two later in the thread.] I will summarize these articles and add some commentary.
What Thomas Murphy Said
Murphy was actually fairly restrained in his general statement of what the data do or don't show:
[G]enetic data have confirmed that migrations from Asia are the primary source of American Indian origins. ... While DNA shows that ultimately all human populations are closely related, to date no intimate genetic link has been found between ancient Israelites and indigenous Americans, much less within the time frame suggested by the Book of Mormon. ... I have concluded that Latter-day Saints should not realistically expect to find validation for the ancient historicity of the Book of Mormon in genetics.
The last sentence in the quote gives the impression that Mormons do expect genetics to validate Book of Mormon historicity claims. I don't, and I frankly don't know any Mormons who do. Most Mormons aren't familiar enough with genetics to expect anything; those who have some familiarity know better than to expect validation of Book of Mormon historicity from external evidence. So I think Murphy is holding out his article as a refutation of beliefs or expectations that Mormons don't actually hold. [Although for an alternate view of what Mormons think, see the D. Michael Quinn note included with Ostler's May 2005 article.]
Murphy also quotes the unfortunate "Lamanites ... are the principal ancestors of the American Indians" line from the Introduction to the 1981 edition of the Book of Mormon, arguing that the genetic data refute that claim. I agree, and whoever put that line in the Introduction should be reassigned to other duties, but it's not really the veracity of the 1981 Introduction that is in question. If Murphy is comparing his data with LDS claims, he really ought to be engaging the scaled-down limited geography hypothesis that present-day LDS scholars are working with, not the outmoded continental or hemispheric model (what he calls the "traditional Book of Mormon view").
Murphy next presented, in five or six pages, summaries of genetic studies grouping mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome variation into distinct "haplogroups," arguing that this data provides no evidence of ancient Israelite or Near East contribution to the early American gene pool. There's nothing wrong with Murphy's summary of the literature, although I confess he lost some credibility for me when he cited (in footnote 3) to material posted at exmormon.org. He then discussed a study that linked "ancient Hebrews to the modern population of the Lemba, a black, south African Bantu-speaking population with oral traditions asserting a Jewish ancestry," inferring that if there were Israelite contact with the Americas, similar results should be forthcoming. Well, if there were modern populations of Nephites claiming a Jewish ancestry, a similar study could be run. I suppose ancient Nephite DNA would make for some interesting tests, too. But we don't have any Nephites on hand, ancient or modern, so I don't see that there's an actual claim for the data to test and reject. One might criticize LDS scholars for failing to come up with a testable claim, but that's a different argument that has nothing to do with genetics.
What Blake Ostler Said
In his December 2004 article, Ostler recasts Murphy's arguments in terms of formal propositions and conclusions, then attacks them. I don't think Murphy made a deductive argument, he just offered inductive reasoning of the sort framed by Ostler on page 71. Ostler disputes M2, the second inductive proposition he attributes to Murphy ("If there had been people of Semitic descent in the ancient Americas, then it is highly probable that genetic evidence showing such Semitic descent would appear among the DNA samplings that have been collected so far."). But I think the Lemba study and other sources cited by Murphy support the idea that a modern Nephite population with Israelite ancestry could be linked back. The problem isn't that Murphy's argument is framed incorrectly, it's that there is no modern Nephite group making a claim of Israelite ancestry similar to the Lemba claim (and no specific group on whose behalf LDS scholars are making such a claim). You can never be certain that a broad sample, however large, contains items from an unidentified and unspecified group, which makes Ostler's critique of his M2 true in a trivial sense. But the real flaw isn't in Murphy's inductive approach, it's in the absence of an identified group with a claim to test.
I think Ostler's May 2005 article moves the discussion forward nicely. It really hammers home the idea that if you're going to represent that you are testing a text like the Book of Mormon using genetic or other real-world data, you had better get the text right. I think few critics care to spend the time with the Book of Mormon required to get it right. Ostler also notes, "We Latter-day Saints are entitled to read the text in light of the best scientific evidence we have available." How else would a reasonable person read it? Why is it that those espousing straight scientific worldviews hold out their ability to update beliefs in response to new data as a virtue, but these same folks portray religious worldviews that are updated in response to new facts as somehow breaking the rules?
I find Ostler's willingness to attribute a limited horizon to the implied authors of Book of Mormon narratives to be refreshing but problematic. Even if the Book of Mormon made continental claims, that "would have to be read in light of the practice of hyperbolic overstatement." Furthermore, "we must keep in mind the extent of the geographic knowledge it would have been possible for the Nephites to possess." But second-guessing the narrative based on our 21st-century knowledge seems like a pretty long slope once you start sliding. If one doesn't find simple observational reports in the text of the size and distribution of the Jaredite population to be reliable, how does one weigh reports of the supernatural Liahona? Or the Nephite interpreters? Or visions? This topic deserves more discussion.
What Ron Priddis Said
This is Signature channeling FARMS (which hopefully compliments both organizations). Priddis discusses sources that were allegedly misconstrued or misquoted. He chides Ostler for using uncivil terms when referring to Sunstone authors and subscribers and for displaying "feigned impatience" (I'm trying to grasp how a person could feign impatience without actually crossing the line and becoming sincerely impatient -- maybe it's easier in print). He suggests those who say "the Book of Mormon reflects an underlying Hebrew linguistic and cultural environment" are ignoring the fact that it is obviously and most often "a Christian text." He accuses Ostler of using a "blizzard of misplaced lawyerly rhetoric," which was probably intended as a cut but personally I kind of enjoy misplaced lawyerly rhetoric. Maybe I would call Ostler's style a "parade of lawyerly rhetoric." Everyone loves a parade.
Priddis does get around to the DNA stuff, emphasizing how important is the distinction between individual DNA comparisons and the population-level sampling and comparison that is the subject of the studies discussed by Murphy and others. I'm hoping some of the other DNA articles in my stack give more attention to the difficulties of doing population studies as opposed to individual DNA matching of the sort that gets innocent people out of prison.
Update: At Messenger & Advocate, Guy collected links to about fifty prior posts on the DNA issue at various blogs, including five posts at DMI and fifteen at Mormanity. Wow, it's suprising how much material the Bloggernacle (and other sites) manage to publish. Included in the M&A list is a link to a list of FAIR articles and a list of FARMS articles on DNA topics. And LDS Science Review posted Nephite Genetics with some interesting comments.