My family converted to the LDS Church in Sydney in 1970 when I was 10 years old. I was a fully active and faithful member of the Church for 30 years and served a two-year proselyting mission to Melbourne in the early 1980s. Soon after returning home I married Jane in the New Zealand Temple and we are the parents of five children. I served in numerous leadership positions in the church including ward and stake Young Men’s president, stake high council, counsellor in several bishoprics, and two years as a bishop.
I am a scientist by profession. I obtained a Bachelor of Science degree and a PhD (1985, 1989) from the University of Sydney and worked in the field of plant molecular genetics for 30 years. For the last 20 years I worked for Australia’s national research organisation, CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation), where I led the forestry genetics and genomics research for almost 10 years. I have published genetics research in international journals including Plant Molecular Biology, Genetics, Plant Physiology, New Phytologist and the Plant Journal. In 2014 CSIRO closed its forestry genetics research and in partnership with my brother, I started the spin off company Gondwana Genomics that now commercialises the research I was leading in CSIRO. I retired from Gondwana Genomics in 2017.
While serving as a bishop in 1998 I came across DNA research that challenged my faith and changed my life. The research showed clearly that Native Americans and Polynesians did not have Israelite ancestry. Everyone I knew in the church believed, like me, that Native Americans and the Polynesians were descended from the Lamanites, who in turn were descended from Israelites who sailed to the Americas over 2,600 years ago.
I resigned as bishop in August 1998 because I could not reconcile what I believed from my understanding of the Book of Mormon with what I had just learned from DNA science. I soon became acquainted with LDS apologetics and was immediately branded a critic of the church by LDS apologists (scholars who defend the church) at BYU, in particular men at FARMS (Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies). This was despite the fact that I was still attending church, teaching a Primary class and dealing with the pain and loss of my faith.
It would be another 2 years before I dared to publicly question the historicity of the Book of Mormon. The destructive personal attacks of FARMS apologists and their strained limited geography reinterpretations of the Book of Mormon to accommodate the science, prompted me to post a personal story of my encounter with the DNA science and to eventually write Losing a Lost Tribe: Native Americans, DNA and the Mormon Church, which was published by Signature Books in 2004.
Several Mormon apologists (most with no scientific training) have criticised my work on the basis that I allegedly don’t understand population genetics. These criticisms reveal a lack of understanding of forest genetics. At the population level, forest trees are remarkably similar to humans—more similar than most domesticated plants and animals. Humans and trees species both live in very large populations that carry enormous amounts of genetic diversity and they tend to mate with unrelated individuals (outcrossing). This results in unique features of their genomes that enable scientists to use the same approaches to explore their genetic variation. A forestry geneticist, by definition, must have a good understanding of population genetics in order to carry out research. Many of my forestry research papers involved population genetics and I authored the chapter “The human colonization of the Americas: Population genetics” (Chapter 9) in the The Encyclopedia of Global Human Migration, (Blackwell Publishing, 2013).