Genealogy and Genetics

BYU took advantage of me at a time in my life when I would have done almost anything for 10$.

We were a starving student family living in California and I was spending a few days at BYU for the CES Conference. I saw a little flyer all over campus announcing a DNA/Genealogy project: Donate a little blood, get 10$, and help turn the hearts of the fathers to the children. Sign me up. That 10$ pretty much covered the cost of the Hebrew flash cards that I had been lusting after at the BYU Bookstore. (And I don’t really blame BYU for taking advantage of me. I’m rather certain I mindlessly signed a consent form somewhere in there.)

But then, and now, I wonder whether using DNA data for genealogy is a good thing. On the one hand, I have felt the spirit of Elijah as I have done family history, and I have also felt quite a different spirit when I’ve hit a dead end. It seems that we should do anything we can to get past those dead ends–it means liberating the captives if we can perform ordinances for our own.

On the other hand, the promise made to every girl 50 or 100 years ago that she could move on with her life and start over after giving her baby away is now about to be violated. Every man who stiffened his lip and raised a baby who wasn’t his–because of adultry, rape, who knows–will now have his secrets told. Every woman who raised another’s as her own will now be revealed. And what do we do with DNA-derived genealogical information, anyway? If the line I find in a musty registar differs from the string of letters and numbers from a lab, which names do I seal?

42 comments for “Genealogy and Genetics

  1. Kevin Barney
    June 28, 2006 at 10:35 am

    I think whatever you did at the Y has now been rolled into the Sorenson Molecular Genealogy Foundation database. See

  2. DHofmann
    June 28, 2006 at 12:16 pm

    Currently, DNA information can only prove or disprove other evidence of a blood relationship. It can’t stand on its own. If an adopted child knows the last name of his father or strongly suspects someone close to him is his father, a Y-DNA test will prove or disprove it. But since you can have DNA matches between unrelated people, you can’t just search a big global database and pick out a match at random and conclude that the two people are related. So the privacy of parents who give their baby up for adoption is still intact.

    On the other hand, the adopted child can use DNA information to determine whether he or she was adopted. Hopefully the child already knows by that time. But again, that information alone isn’t enough to find the parents.

  3. Johnna Cornett
    June 28, 2006 at 1:43 pm

    I’m with you, Julia. Actually, I’m even creeped out by some of the papertrail work. I have a great great grandmother who was raised by a couple who never adopted her. We know who her biological father was, but not her biological mother (yes: exactly backward of what you’d expect.)

    Why is it any of our business who her mother is? I’ve been called to work in the Family History Centers lately, and any trainer who gets a peek at my chart develops enthusiasm to solve this mystery, which just irritates me.

    Due to recent changes in procedure, we were able to seal this dear ancestress to her foster parents, and that’s won’t disallow sealing her to bio parents later if information comes out. There was a desire in the family to seal her to some family of origin.

    Between this and the question of whether to someday seal my husband’s ancestor to his divorced parents by eternally reuniting them after death (yuck!), the whole concept of binding families is giving me a bad taste in my mouth.

  4. elizabeth
    June 28, 2006 at 2:08 pm

    Julie is this for real is the lds church participating in this dna genelogy work ?

    This to me is sickning and we in Holland as members have not heard anything about it.
    So please tell me some about it

    Elizabeth ( from Holland Europe)

  5. Ana
    June 28, 2006 at 2:18 pm

    “On the other hand, the promise made to every girl 50 or 100 years ago that she could move on with her life and start over after giving her baby away is now about to be violated.”

    You could also say that the gifts — of life, and better life — given by those girls and women are about to be acknowledged. (Oh, except for what DHofman said!) It’s generally acknowledged that all that secrecy didn’t turn out to be such a wonderful thing and that moving on proved to be a lot more difficult than anyone told those birthmothers. (I like how you used the very outdated term “giving her baby away” to describe old-fashioned adoptions.) Even LDS Family Services does open adoptions now, and you can bet the Church is not exactly just riding every trendy wave in that arena.

    That said, I share your discomfort with DNA genealogy. We of all people should know that’s not what it’s all about.

  6. Mark Butler
    June 28, 2006 at 2:50 pm

    I think the attitude her so far betrays too much culturally inherited distaste for the divine design. Anything pertaining to genetic relationships is sickening? Why not put all babies up for a lottery then, so we can make sure fathers and mothers share no common genetic inheritance with their children?

    First of all, genealogical DNA testing is usually used to research diseases and genetic disorders. It is suggestive for some genealogical purposes but rarely conclusive. No one is going to be sealed to another based on a DNA test alone. Even then our attempts to seal people together are null and void if we do not get it right. God is not an idiot.

    Secondly, there are an abundance of scriptures relating to the patriarchal priesthood that suggest there is more than a little merit to the idea of relationships by natural lineage, even though exceptions are made by adoption for obvious reasons.

    No one likes to talk about this, because of the association with eugenics, and false ideas of genetic determinism, but it is all over the scriptures, and not going away. Indeed quite the opposite – the patriarchal (family) order is the society of heaven, and family extends backward into clan, tribe, nation, and sometimes even (horror of horrors!) race.

    That doesn’t mean that all those cannot intermarry or be adopted, in fact intermarriage is criticial for social, and arguably heavenly unity, or that there is any necessary taint associated with being born in any family, clan, tribe, nation, or race, it just means that is the natural order of things as God intended for the salvation of the human family. In fact if you take away the family order, exaltation is impossible.

    The idea that members of the same family should share common culture and values is not something to be feared, but in righteousness to be celebrated, and we cannot wipe out genetic influences simply by denying their existence. They are a fact – sometimes good, sometimes evil, but almost certainly preserved by divine design. Should we all become genetic clones instead?

  7. Melinda
    June 28, 2006 at 3:05 pm

    elizabeth in Holland – I don’t think you’d need to worry about ending up in a study. Europe has MUCH stricter data privacy laws than the United States. I doubt the church would even think about collecting DNA from European members because of the data privacy laws.

  8. June 28, 2006 at 3:06 pm

    Sorenson’s foundation is not the only game in town. There are other companies offering genetic genealogy services, so this really isn’t an exclusively LDS thing.

    By the way, wouldn’t all of those family secrets eventually come out anyway–if not in this life, then the next?

  9. greenfrog
    June 28, 2006 at 6:09 pm

    More information is better.

  10. pjj
    June 28, 2006 at 7:23 pm

    As Jared said, Sorenson’s foundation is not the only one doing this, and it’s not even the largest. Family Tree DNA is a for-profit company, and has sold something like 120,000 testing kits. (I forget the exact figures.) If you go to, you’ll find several very active email lists about DNA and its use in genealogy. Sorenson Molecular is a non-profit, but they also have a commercial lab, relativegenetics. I heard that BYU dropped the project because of some of the controversial aspects of it (BOM claims and DNA, and evolution), but I don’t know if that’s correct. It might have just been money problems. Sorenson is a wealthy LDS man, who’s interested in this enough to put some money behind it. I think that there are a lot of thorny problems to be worked out about sealings, but many of those are there even without DNA research. I do think that there are a lot of positive aspects to this. It helps some people work out their genealogy, further back that they were able to with just a paper trail (but that does not apply to everyone who tries it, or even most). More importantly, it gives people who have no knowledge of their ancestry some idea of where their ancestors came from– if you were adopted and had no knowledge of your ancestors, wouldn’t this be interesting to you? Also descendants of former slaves who can’t trace their ancestry back far on paper can at least find out what part of Africa their ancestors came from. ( PBS had a great documentary on this, African American Lives, and it might be out on DVD now.)

  11. heironymus potter
    June 28, 2006 at 7:41 pm

    Nice post. Brave New World?

  12. gst
    June 28, 2006 at 7:44 pm

    I too participated in this study. I don’t know if they found anything genealogically useful, but they did find an abundance of midichlorians, which discovery has led me to pursue a second career as a jedi knight, so I’ve got that going for me.

  13. June 28, 2006 at 9:44 pm

    Based on my recollection of a conversation I had with someone who was at BYU at the time (in the relevant department), the decision to move the work off campus was political. I think the official reason was that it was not academic research but more like running a buisness out of a university lab.

    This is my memory of second or third-hand information, so take it with a grain of salt.

  14. pjj
    June 28, 2006 at 10:27 pm

    The original project, at least as far I saw being advertised, was not a business. It was a project to gather DNA samples of people who had pedigree charts going back at least four generations for an attempt to trace how certain genetic markers were passed along. They were encouraging families to get several members to send in samples for comparison, and my cousin talked a bunch of us into doing it, but that was shortly after it was transferred to Sorenson. I didn’t see any hint of this being a business, and it still looks to me as though the business and the research project are separate. However, you can take your results from the commercial lab and search through the Sorenson database from the study, looking for similar haplotypes. But you can also do that at several other websites which come from different databases. Here are a couple of links at articles about Sorenson:,1249,510051930,00.html,4382,600138677,00.html?textfield=Sorenson

  15. Melinda
    June 28, 2006 at 11:30 pm

    Elizabeth – due to Europe’s strict data privacy laws, the chances of the church trying to collect DNA from its members in Europe is zero. I wouldn’t worry about it. The U.S. is a lot looser with personal data than Europe.

    I tried to post this comment earlier, but I think it got lost. My apologies if this is a repeat.

  16. Sarah
    June 28, 2006 at 11:31 pm

    I’ve got to be honest, I don’t see why things that families saw as shameful need to be perpetuated past the deaths of the people involved. Call the incestuous uncle evil, which he was, and never mind that the whole family was willing to hide the girl and her child in the attic for ten years — they were wrong. The girl and her baby did nothing bad, and there was far more evil in hiding and pretending and making them miserable than there was in admitting that everyone was related to a scuzzy guy who shouldn’t be allowed within twenty feet of children; it’s insane to keep with the party line out of concern for the supposed dignity of those who, I’m pretty sure, have gotten over most of it already seeing as they’re dead.

    Similarly, “Grandma Susie made a mistake when she was young that made her life pretty hard but out of that came people who did amazing things, and it’s going to be your turn to do amazing things too” is a lot better than “no, I won’t tell you who ought to go in slot #5 on your four-generation chart because there’s a deep dark secret that will require at least three words about sex to come out of my mouth with you in the room.”

    My great-great-great grandfather on one side crossed national borders illegally and changed his name to escape his past; a great-(great?) grandmother on another side was the product of an incestuous rape. I’m not nearly as distressed over either of those things as I am over the closed adoption of two of my second cousins once removed, which I’m led to believe were encouraged by state officials due to the mental capacity or limitations thereof of their mother. Those children are family, and the church has always claimed that that matters a lot — maybe not quite as much as the actions and love they get from the parents who are raising them, but it still matters. The actions of my great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers are useful to me as lessons and inspiration and just plain “this is a fun thing to know about someone who helped make you” stuff, and that’s true about the ones I’ve met as much as the ones I’ve not met.

    In any case, so long as genetic testing doesn’t become the phrenology and eugenic charts of the 1910s-1940s, I’m okay with it. As far as 50 year old secrets are concerned, I have a hard time coming up with some that still need to be kept secret. And present-day people have the discretion to reject DNA testing for themselves and their minor children unless a court gets involved. I’m not sure where the issue is. I am, however, also slightly grouchy right now.

  17. Tatiana
    June 29, 2006 at 2:32 am

    I am so surprised at the distaste people feel! As a geeky science type person, I find the whole thing fascinating, and would jump at the chance to participate. It’s your own DNA! Don’t you even want to know what’s in there? =)

  18. Mark Butler
    June 29, 2006 at 3:05 am

    I sure do. I read an article about Iceland developing a national genetic database for use in various research studies – sounds a little scary at that scale due to living person privacy issues, but no doubt a scientific gold mine.

  19. pjj
    June 29, 2006 at 11:59 am

    The Icelandic database is particularly cool because they have records dating back 1000 years or so. It’s a relatively homogenous population so not sure how that will affect how interesting the data is, but as a somewhat geeky science AND genealogy person, I’m really sorry I wasn’t born Icelandic.

  20. elizabeth
    June 29, 2006 at 5:00 pm

    Here in Holland they want to make a DNA database of everyone that comes in contact with the police.

    I am ok with the DNA think if it is used for sientific, antropology , crimal and medicall reasons.

    Just thougthed that the church was making up a database in the VAULT and that would freak me out.

    Elizabeth( from Holland)

  21. Anita
    June 29, 2006 at 6:09 pm

    And actually, the idea that genetics might help solve genealogical mysteries is really exciting. We’ve been participating in a Wells family study for several years–they’re trying to trace the several different Wells lines that came to America in a certain time period. Because of the genetic samples, they’ve been able to make connections and eliminate others in figuring out these family lines. (Of course, they’ve also found that several participants weren’t actually fathered by Wells males somewhere along the line, which may complicate their lives/ancestral research too). We hold out hope that a distant ancestor who changed his name and thus ended our research line might someday be identified through some kind of DNA project in the future.

  22. elizabeth
    June 30, 2006 at 9:19 am

    What about DNA and the Book of Mormon ?

  23. Mark Butler
    June 30, 2006 at 11:35 am

    I don’t think DNA tells us anything interesting about the Book of Mormon except some of our largely non-textual assumptions were wrong.

  24. elizabeth
    July 1, 2006 at 5:22 am

    didn’t DNA find out that the native indians are not decendences of the book of mormon people?
    That they are from a asia decent and not from a middle east decent?

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  25. Mark Butler
    July 1, 2006 at 11:26 am

    Not quite. DNA cannot prove non-descendancy as a rule, though it can establish preponderance of descendancy, which is clearly Asian. FARMS authors have written extensively about this. The evidence does suggest that the Nephites and Lamanites were originally a minority who extensively intermarried. The Book of Mormon itself implies this in the constraints of a veritable explosion in population every early on. Hard to have much of a war between the first generation descendants of people who fit on one boat.

  26. elizabeth
    July 1, 2006 at 5:19 pm

    Sorry Mark I am not a big fan of FARMS authors.
    Are you suggesting here that the Nephites and the Laminites intermarried with the native inhabitans that were already living in the America’s and therefore there is a Asian DNA link?

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  27. Doc
    July 1, 2006 at 5:38 pm

    If you look carefully at the numbers in the first wars in the book, with the Lamanites massively outnumbering the Nephites, they are clearly impossible going chronologically if the continent was uninhabited, a point that Anti-mormons often pointed out prior to the whole flap over DNA. Intermarriage also helps expl.ain the loss of language of the Mulekites. The book also makes clear that Mormon divided the people who followed God the people of Nephi and those that left the people of Laman regardless of geneology and when Christ came they were one the children of God and had no manner of -ITES, clearly mixing the DNA further.. An asian link to DNA would make perfect sense, as would the loss of unique middle east markers from Genetic drift and founder and island effects(sorry for the jargon I was a biology major, but I promise it makes scientific sense to me). .

  28. Mark Butler
    July 1, 2006 at 6:03 pm

    Absolutely. I fail to understand FARMS animosity, by the way. Sounds like painting with much too broad a brush to me.

  29. elizabeth
    July 2, 2006 at 12:10 pm


    where can I find your conclusions in the words of the GA’s ?

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  30. elizabeth
    July 2, 2006 at 12:15 pm

    Hallo Mark, wath you say if I would have a bussines and I would conduct my own sientific research how great my bussiness is, wouldn’t that be strange.

    You ofcourse are allowed to look at FARMS any way you like, I on the other hand see it as a institution that is saying that there are sientific but only study the mormon things and then they only conclude things that are positve to the church and it’s teachings.

    So therefore if they write abook about the DNA of the book of mormon people then I think it is not all trustworthy. Research like that should be done by unbiased people.

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

    ps this all is IMHO

  31. Doc
    July 2, 2006 at 2:10 pm

    GBH-” testify that the Book of Mormon is everything it purports to me”

    James E Faust- “It is important to know what the Book of Mormon is not. It is not primarily a history, although much of what it contains is historical. The title page states that it is an account taken from the records of people living in the Americas before and after Christ; it was “written by way of commandment, and also by the spirit of prophecy and of revelation. … And also to the convincing of the Jew and Gentile that Jesus is the Christ, the Eternal God, manifesting himself unto all nations.â€?

    President George Q. Cannon (1827–1901), First Counselor in the First Presidency, stated: “The Book of Mormon is not a geographical primer. It was not written to teach geographical truths. What is told us of the situation of the various lands or cities … is usually simply an incidental remark connected with the doctrinal or historical portions of the work.�

    Elizabeth, I have one question?
    Exactly who is it that is going to neutrally fund research specifically looking at the Book of Mormon and DNA from a completely unbiased point of view? I would find it fascinating if anyone could do so and still be considered a serious scientist. It is kind of a ridiculous question. If a study is not funded to specifically look at that question how is it going to tell you anything one way or the other?
    I really don’t think anything I wrote “proves” or even comes close to proving the book is true. It only shows that based on the text of the book of Mormon itself, the whole flap about DNA and the Book of Mormon is really without merit. Understand, DNA evidence of a primary migration 13,000 years ago of mankind into America over the Bering strait in no way disproves or is inconsistent with the text. In fact, I have cited simple evidence within the text to the opposite. I am just taking those who would claim to have “scientific proof” that it is false to task on their own terms. Those who took these DNA studies out of context to apply them to the Book of Mormon did not do so using GA sources and neither did I in refuting them.
    I am sorry if you feel my argument can be discarded because it is “apologetic” because really it’s just rational and my own conclusions reached without FARMS or anyone else. If one starts from the point of view that BOM historicity is not rational, well then they are going to be biased toward “proving” their point of view and weigh evidence against more than evidence for and dismiss any argument for historicity. If you are going to dismiss FARMS out of hand I might suggest dismissing the people behind the DNA claims out of hand as well with the same logic. You are welcome to your opinion but I think the whole argument is way overblown and won’t hesitate to say so..

  32. Doc
    July 2, 2006 at 2:11 pm

    correction GBH-” I testify that the Book of Mormon is everything it purports to be.”

  33. elizabeth
    July 2, 2006 at 4:21 pm

    I was only asking questions
    we in Europe do not gett enough info about all the mormon
    things like DNA etc.

    I lived in SLC when Mark Hofman was bombing the city. I was in sunday school and had people talking about the white salamender letter.
    To this day hardly any of my lds ( more that 30 years) active friends here know about these things.

    You have to remember there is a mormon world outside the States that does not know does not understand.

    I am a person that like to ask questions and do not take everyones answer a given thing ( from eiter side)

    So keep your hair and don’t come so unglued when I ask simple question.
    I really thought that blogging was a way to talk to each other and not to just sit here and say amen to each and every posting.

    Just trying to understand this DNA thing
    that is it.

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  34. Doc
    July 2, 2006 at 5:16 pm

    Please accept my apology for my overzealousness. The DNA thing is something that should be understood and not ignored. It is just that it really irks me when I see so many others use it like the ultimate trump card when careful study of the issues related to it can very definitely resolve it. I obviously made assumptions about the motives behind your question that were unwarranted. For that I am truly sorry. I hope my earlier comments were helpful for your question. I also want to let you know I am serious when I state that while a group like FARMS has an obvious bias, so do those who want scientific proof of everything before they believe. I don’t see dismissing either side out of hand without exploring what they have to say is helpful or conducive to finding greater knowledge, truth, or answers. I also apologize for threadjacking as this has nothing to do with DNA, families, and sealings..

  35. Mark Butler
    July 2, 2006 at 5:29 pm

    Elizabeth, There are no unbiased people, there are only biased people (hopefully) trying to be fair.

  36. elizabeth
    July 2, 2006 at 6:16 pm

    Sorry Mark but I am the only unbiased person here on the earth!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


    ps hahaha sorry dutch humor hahahahaha

  37. Mark Butler
    July 2, 2006 at 8:58 pm

    Elizabeth, Scholarly or judicial objectivity are hats sometimes meet to wear, but (joking aside) I would normally consider any comprehensive schema not heavily biased in favor of righteousness, and preferably an idea of the ultimate unity of the faith, of all good and good people together, to be morally defective.

    The ultimate questions of epistemology are not about an unbiased determination of the way things are, they are about a jointly biased determination of the way things should be. And revelation is the only way we give normativity to that question by understanding the way things are and should be here on earth in terms of the way they are viewed in the heavens above. I say morality is indeed a social enterprise (of sorts), however we are not the legislators, but the implementors of laws long since passed.

  38. elizabeth
    July 4, 2006 at 2:34 pm

    Sounds great Mark what you wrote , but when you have time can you write it for me in simple english.

    What the heck is epistemology?
    Is that a new church?
    or desease?

    The way I read it sounds like a definition of something. Pretend that I am a child andyou try to explain your point on my level.

    Elizabeth ( from Holland)

  39. pjj
    July 4, 2006 at 4:01 pm

    Elizabeth, I’m curious about the role of the Book of Mormon in missionary work in Europe. Does anyone there even care about the gospel being preached in America? And do you think that most members of the church there have the impression that the Book of Mormon is a history of the ancestors of current Native Americans?

  40. elizabeth
    July 4, 2006 at 5:18 pm

    Do you mean do we care that the gospel was preached in the americas of the book of mormon or at our time now. Yes active members either way do care.

    As people are intruduced to the church we are all teached about the Book of Mormon. In the 70’s when I joined the church we were teached that the native americans are decendents of the book of Mormon people.

    What I notice on these blogs are that often members that have been in the church shorter then I have. do not always realized the way the church has been teaching things. I do not mean this negative.
    LIke for instance in 80’s it was still a big no no to gett a divorce the GA’s just would not talk about it . Nowadays the GA’s are more intune the things that can go wrong in a marriage and councils us that we need not stay in abusive realtionship.

    So yes most people in Europe think that the native americans are the decendants from the book of mormon people.

    You must also understand that their are hardly no scollars here writing things that could help members better understand things.
    Wilfried Decoo tried it but that was about it.( I think you should ask him this question I think he can better answer this)

    Books writtin by lds authors where hard to come by till about the middle ninethies and then they are all in English. Now with the internet and paying with a credit card we can have books shipped over but it is still expensive.
    So the general member will only read what the church publishes. The younger generation have exces to the internet etc

    Books writen by FARMS are written in way that many not always understand because their english is not that good enough

    Elizabeth ( from Holland’)

    ps I am not that young anymore to call my self a part of the younger generation but I did live in SLC in the middle eigthies and know that there is more knowledge etc to be found.
    I was living there during the white salamender and Mark Hofmann bombing period.

  41. pjj
    July 4, 2006 at 5:34 pm

    Thanks Elizabeth, I realize that this is getting to quite far off the topic, so I’ll quit– I’m just curious as to what is officially being taught in different places now. When I was in seminary in Utah, it was quite clearly taught that the native americans were literal descendants of the lamanites of the Bof M. My son was taught that at church and seminary in the last few years. It was emphasized in the missionary program when I was that age, but that was in the US, so I wondered if it was considered an important teaching for European mormons.

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