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John Wilson

Stranger in a Strange Land

At the end of his interesting book Suspect Identities: A History of Fingerprinting and Criminal Identification (Harvard Univ. Press, 2001), Simon Cole turns to DNA typing. Skeptical of the claims made for fingerprinting, he's not impressed by the newer method either. "DNA typing," Cole writes, "is a product of a technology that may someday undermine the identification technique itself." How so? Well, consider the prospect of human cloning: "If individuals can be cloned, then DNA typing will be of as little value in distinguishing them as it is now in distinguishing identical twins." Even at this moment, I'd wager, two or three mystery writers who've read Cole's book are already sketching the plot for a near-future story based on this premise. Was it Colonel Mustard who did the deed—or Colonel Mustard's clone!

But Cole isn't finished. He suggests that

the body itself may become a rather antiquated way of defining the individual. A wide variety of new technologies—sex reassignment, cyberspace, artifical intelligence, cosmetic surgery, organ transplantation, and so on—all point toward the demise of the nineteenth-century notion of the body as solid, stable entity and the advent of some new conception of bodies as mutable and flexible. As these technologies come to fruition, we may cease to associate individual identity so closely with the body. … and begin to think of ourselves as somewhat more ethereal entities for whom bodies and body parts are merely resources.

That will make the job of identifying criminals even more difficult. Was it Miss Scarlet in the conservatory with a knife—or merely one of her ethereal manifestations? And come to think of it, where's the body?

Yet we can't entirely laugh away Cole's speculations. Even when we've discounted all his huffing and puffing—for instance: "the equation of identity with a unique body that begins at birth and ends at death. … is a product of the nineteenth-century Western imperialist ...

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