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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 culture"—there's an uncomfortable residue of truth in his observation that our traditional understanding of personal identity is being challenged.

That understanding, rooted in the Christian belief that human beings are uniquely created in the image of God, has been the default mode for Western culture since the time of Christ, influencing even those who did not share Christian belief. But increasingly it is rejected. A salient case in point is the philosopher Peter Singer, the subject of an article in this issue by J.L.A. Garcia ("Professor of Death").

Singer wants to "unsanctify" human life not because he is indifferent to our joys and sorrows but because he believes that humans, although more complex in certain ways, are not different in kind from other sentient animals. While he starts rhetorically with "human rights," such as the right to be free from discrimination on the basis of race or sex, proceeding to argue that such ethical sensitivity must logically be extended to nonhuman animals, other thinkers start at the opposite end of the biological continuum to argue against human uniqueness.

Consider, for example, the book What Is Life? (1995; reissued, with a glossary added, by the University of California Press, 2000) by the biologist Lynn Margulis and her son, science writer Dorion Sagan. Written to revisit, armed with new knowledge, the issues raised by physicist Erwin Schrodinger's 1944 classic of the same title, What Is Life? is as stimulating a book as you're likely to read this year—and one that is radically at odds with the traditional understanding of the place of humanity in the larger scheme of things.

This is clear at many points in the book, but perhaps most unmistakably so in a chapter devoted to fungi. It is a tour de force, and it will help me to look with new eyes when my wife and I take our daily walk on the Prairie Path through Lincoln Marsh. It is also the first thing I've read, I think, in which humans are contrasted with fungi and found wanting.

"Life creates," Margulis and Sagan write. "The global autopoietic system, Gaia, spins off creatures increasingly strange. For a while, at least, even for millions of years, the global environment will tolerate bizarre sports, rapidly spreading pioneers, opportunistic monsters. But in the long run organic beings confront the limits of their own multiplication." And lest you wonder whom or what we should have in mind as admonitory examples of those "bizarre sports, rapidly spreading pioneers, opportunistic monsters," enlightenment soon follows:

In English the word "fungus" is virtually synonymous with an unwanted, surgically expendable outgrowth. Such a meaning might apply better to the hoarding, materalistic species we have become than to the organisms that nobly serve as biospheric undertakers, investing animal waste with life and turning corpses into soil.

Well, that's life.

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