For $100, you can learn your ancestors’ migratory history on the earth. National Geographic’s Genographic Project is seeking to learn more about human migration by analyzing the DNA of people around the world, including National Geographic readers who are interested in submitting their own cheek swab and in return getting a map of either their patrilineal or matrilineal migration pattern out of Africa.
The idea that all humans derive from a group of people in Africa who began their diaspora about 60,000 years ago is a well-accepted scientific idea, and the Genographic Project is expected to add detail and close gaps in our knowledge of this migration. But in hearing LDS friends’ and relatives’ opinions on it, they are interested in finding out where their DNA derives from (who loves geneaology more than Mormons?), but dismissive of the idea that the starting point was in Africa. Putting aside the debate about whether Adam and Eve were historical or non-literal figures in the Judeo-Christian creation myth, science suggests that there was a small group of people (the smallest possible group being two) that gave rise to modern humanity. The fact that not a few Mormons are uncomfortable with the idea that this group was from Africa most likely stems from Joseph Smith’s belief that the Garden of Eden was near Independence, Missouri. This idea is so thoroughly accepted by some that I’ve heard said that if only anthropologists would start digging in Missouri, all their questions about human migration and evolution would be cleared up.
In looking for the source of the Garden in Independence notion, the clearest statement I could find on the matter came from Heber C. Kimball in The Life of Heber C. Kimball. Kimball said:
” The Prophet Joseph called upon Brother Brigham, myself and others, saying, ‘Brethren, come, go along with me, and I will show you something.’ He led us a short distance to a place where were the ruins of three altars built of stone, one above the other, and one standing a little back of the other, like unto the pulpits in the Kirtland Temple, representing the order of three grades of Priesthood; ‘There,’ said Joseph, ‘is the place where Adam offered up sacrifice after he was cast out of the garden.’ The altar stood at the highest point of the bluff. I went and examined the place several times while I remained there.”
Orson Pratt also offered a translation of Adam-ondi-Ahman to mean “Valley of God, where Adam dwelt.” (Journal of Discourses, 26 vols. (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-1886), 18:343.)
So why is Joseph Smith’s statement about the Garden of Eden’s location taken so seriously by Church members so as to cause them to reject all the scientific research that’s being done on human migration? A relative of mine said that he thinks scientists came up with the out-of-Africa hypothesis first and are force-fitting the data to that model. In reality the data so far has pointed to Africa, and it’s understood that further data will either confirm or deny that hypothesis. What my relative fails to appreciate is that data which confirms a previously held hypothesis or theory is usually not nearly as interesting (or career-making) as data that denies it. Science papers are full of straw-men – previously held hypotheses that the current investigators then brilliantly overturn. If the data from the Genographic Project point anywhere but Africa, it would be big news, not something scientists would hide out of some secret agenda.
I find a schizophrenic approach to science in some of my Mormon friends – an admiration for medical science and certain findings (like that all men share DNA on their Y-chromosomes, pointing to a “scientific Adam”), and an almost cavalier dismissal of scientific ideas that don’t fit with their religious ideas. But it’s not intellectually honest to have it both ways. Faith may be needed at times when science produces ideas that seem to contradict fundamental religious doctrines, but re-evaluating our folk doctrines may also be needed in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. I’d suggest the Garden in Independence notion belongs in the folk-doctrine dustbin.