LIC Blog

How do we determine identity?

It is an old adage that fossils are dated by the rocks in which they are found and the rocks are dated by the fossils inside them. It is a flaw and difficult to overcome. Our preconceptions colour our conclusions and we are fools to think it is otherwise.

The evidence from Leicester today raised one problem in my mind: did preconceived ideas contribute to the conclusions?

If DNA is accurate enough to produce a reliable conclusion, then why were other factors so important? Why were the age of the bones, the height of the man and the presence of the curvature necessary to provethe identity of the remains as King Richard III. The answer of course is that the DNA tests are not sufficient.

99.9% of the DNA from two people will be identical. The 0.1% of DNA code sequences that vary from person to person are what make us unique.

BBC Science

Now the presentation by the University of Leicester was interesting. The academics presented two samples of DNA to compare against the DNA of the remains. But what would a strand of DNA from an unrelated person look like? How would it compare? Surely if the DNA of two people who are unrelated can be 99.9% the same, then any curve on a graph would look the same as that of the remains? In fact, the DNA of a chimp would look very similar too.

And that is not all:

It is easy to tell if DNA from two biological samples does not match. But a match doesn't make you totally certain that the two samples come from the same person.

BBC Science

In other words, the DNA testing is not adequate proof. Itcould be, we are told:

Forensic DNA tests usually examine six to ten markers.

BBC Science

The DNA test was done by triangulation. How many markers were there?

The problem is that the DNA test will be taken as Gospel truth, and everything else will fall into place. But since the academics have asserted that they used other things to determine identity, then surely those questions must themselves be questioned. Dr. Appleby asked three things:

1. Did the skeleton fit with age, sex and physical appearance?

2. What was the nature of scoliosis? How did it affect him in life?

3. What were the wounds? Were there more?

The sources of evidence for King Richard III's physical appearance are notoriously suspect. Age can be determined (by the professor's admission, the remains come from 1455 to 1540). Sex ought to be easily determined. But were the academics looking for scoliosis as proof of identity?

The fact that King Richard III was a brave and courageous warrior and at 17 was put in charge of the right wing of the army for Barnet and the left wing at Tewkesbury by Edward IV ought to be a significant fact in the determination of identity! Is it possible for someone with such a deformity to be so strong in battle and to overcome larger men? Why would his family have put him in such an important position? Why would they not have encouraged him into the church instead?

Are we identifying the remains by our preconceptions and confirming our preconceptions by the remains?