Discussions of Mormons and Mormon life, Book of Mormon issues and evidences, and other Latter-day Saint (LDS) topics.

Sunday, October 03, 2004

DNA Update: We're All Closely Related

The prestigious scientific journal, Nature, has published an article suggesting that humans share a common ancestor just a few thousand years ago. It is based on an improved statistical model that takes into account how genes flow through marriage and travel. Though there are some assumptions in the model that can be challenged, I think the statistical model used in this work is one that demands more attention. The reference is D.L.T. Rohde, S. Olson, and J.T. Chang, "Modelling the Recent Common Ancestry of All Living Humans," Nature, Vol. 431, No 7008, Sept. 30, 2004, p. 562. It has been the subject of much publicity (see a sample press release).

Here is the beginning of the paper (Rohde et al., 2004):
If a common ancestor of all living humans is defined as an individual who is a genealogical ancestor of all present-day people, the most recent common ancestor (MRCA) for a randomly mating population would have lived in the very recent past. However, the random mating model ignores essential aspects of population substructure, such as the tendency of individuals to choose mates from the same social group, and the relative isolation of geographically separated groups. Here we show that recent common ancestors also emerge from two models incorporating substantial population substructure. One model, designed for simplicity and theoretical insight, yields explicit mathematical results through a probabilistic analysis. A more elaborate second model, designed to capture historical population dynamics in a more realistic way, is analysed computationally through Monte Carlo simulations. These analyses suggest that the genealogies of all living humans overlap in remarkable ways in the recent past. In particular, the MRCA of all present-day humans lived just a few thousand years ago in these models. Moreover, among all individuals living more than just a few thousand years earlier than the MRCA, each present-day human has exactly the same set of genealogical ancestors.
Please note that finding a common ancestor is a much easier task--and one that requires less digging into the past--than finding a common ancestor along purely maternal or purely paternal lines, the kind that are analyzed using mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome tests.

The implications for the book of Mormon, as I discuss on my Mormon Answers page about DNA and the Book of Mormon, is that it is entirely possible for the majority of Native Americans to be direct descendents of Lehi with some of his DNA, even though there may not be anyone with his Y-chromosome or with Sariah's mitochondrial DNA. Lehi may be a common ancestor for most Native Americans without requiring that they all have clearly discernible "Jewish DNA."

There are also implications for the issue of race. It is very likely that we all share some African DNA. The old Mormon folklore about blacks being descendants of Cain - and white "Gentiles" or House of Israel members not having a drop of that blood - was simply an attempt to resolve questions about race and the limitations on priesthood and has no doctrinal basis. Alma Allred devastates those old myths in his chapter, "The Traditions of Their Fathers: Myth versus Reality in LDS Scriptural Writings" in the outstanding new book, Black and Mormon, edited by Newell G. Bringhurst and Darron T. Smith (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 2004, 172 pages). Tomorrow or later this week I'll dig into the issue and the fascinating topic of Abraham 1 and the patriarchal privilege of presiding called the "right of priesthood" that was denied to Pharaoh, not the ability to hold the priesthood at all.


T said...

I would think that most Christians would be slapping their heads saying, "Well duh we have a common ancestor! What do you think Adam and Eve are?" That's kinda what I was thinking, I'll admit.

ed said...

Interesting article. I've tried to make this exact point on mormon blogs before, but nobody ever seems to think it is interesting for some reason. You are absolutely right: if Lehi was a real person living somehwere in the New world, it is QUITE LIKELY that he is an ancestor of all modern American Indians.

DNA can only help answer the question of whether BOM peoples were the "principle ancestors" of the American Indians.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I am American Indian and Since Lehi was a Hebrew, and my DNA shows a direct link to East-Asia no Hebrew link at all, your DNA theory doesn't hold water. A better question in all this is at what point did the Spirit reveal to the leadership of the church that they were allowing unworthy people to hold the priesthood? Hmm. As a current LDS I would really like to know, especially since my elders quarum leader/young mens leader was just exposed for being gay and the leadership who gave him his calling under the power of the H.S. didnt have a clue. This appearant ignorance in issues that are supposedly laid down under the power of this priesthood is a real issue for me. I am a current LDS and have not left the church, but I am seriously considering some major problems with past and current leadership within the church. This is supposed to be the most correct church on earth with the most correct book... all the words of the prophets are supposed to be taken as scripture directly given by God... What's up with all the denial and coverup of what they have taught us? Doesn't anyone wonder?I am praying for answers.

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