An anthropologist who used population genetics to question the Mormon church's teachings on the origins of Native Americans has narrowly escaped excommunication. He alleges the church is intolerant of dissent, but other members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS) suggest he is distorting the church's views to stir up controversy.
The Book of Mormon claims that descendants of ancient Israelites called Lamanites immigrated to the Americas starting around 600 B.C. Most LDS church members and officials interpret this to mean that Native Americans are largely descendants of the Lamanites. But studies of mitochondrial DNA of Native Americans support no such history: These genetic sequences fall into either one of four groups that occur only in the Americas, or into another group that is widely distributed around the world. Similarly, Y-chromosome DNA from Native Americans lacks a known middle-eastern signature, including the "Cohen modal haplotype," which has been used to demonstrate Jewish ancestry in other populations.
Thomas Murphy, an anthropologist at Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood, Washington, and a graduate student at the University of Washington in Seattle, wrote a review of that evidence for American Apocrypha, a 2002 collection of essays on conflicts between Mormonism and science. Local church authorities scheduled a hearing for 8 December on what they called Murphy's "apostasy," which Murphy said would have likely led to excommunication. It was indefinitely postponed in the wake of intense media scrutiny. Murphy says the hearing was part of a pattern of intellectual intolerance and hopes the reversal is a sign that the church might change its ways.
Another Mormon scientist says that the genetics data don't necessarily conflict with church teachings. "Murphy has grossly simplified the narrative in the Book of Mormon in such a way that he can claim that this is a scientific test," says evolutionary biologist Michael Whiting of Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. He says the Lamanites could have been a relatively small population whose genetic signature was lost in a larger resident population. This interpretation is not widely accepted within the church and would be difficult to test, he admits, but neither does it contradict the official church position.
An earlier version of Murphy's essay