Book Review

Alejandra Manjarrez

Rebecca Gowland and Tim Thompson:
Human Identity and Identification.

Paperback: 233 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1 edition (January 17, 2013)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0521713668
ISBN-13: 978-0521713665
Price: 21.82 $ (Paperback), 26.19 $ (Kindle Edition)

Photo: NIH

Our Identity: from Skin to DNA

How does our body define us? How does it connect with our environment and influence others’ perceptions of us? What role does it play in human identification in the context of forensics and archaeology? Two English scientists explore these and similar questions.

Who are you? What gives you your identity? Is it the DNA that you inherited from your parents? Or your brain, which is in charge of recording what happens in your life? As you probably guessed, the answer is not that simple. Although DNA affects how you look and behave, and your brain charts your daily experiences, the many other parts of the body, taken together, comprise the person you are and influence how you live your life and build an identity.

Rebecca Gowland, an archaeologist at Durham University, and Tim Thompson, an anthropologist at Teesside University, wrote a book about this relationship between body, identity and society. Through Human Identity and Identification they travel inside and outside of our bodies and explain their components’ influence in understanding individuals in biological, medical, social, forensic and even anthropological contexts.

Rebecca Gowland, lecturer in bioarchaeology at the University of Durham, is doing research on skeletal remains discovered in Rome. Her new book examines the relationship between social identity and biological tissues.

Gowland and Thompson explore the body in its different layers. They start with the skin, discussing its role in identification (just think of fingerprints, palmprints, footprints and, yes, you heard right, earprints). Later they look deeper into what lies beneath: the skeleton, blood, guts and body fat. They tackle and discuss many forensic techniques, including the most conventional, such as fingerprints, analyses of blood stains, and the study of the isotopic composition of tissues, which is helpful when guessing what an individual has ingested (a procedure that has been used for forensic cases but which is particularly common in archaeological research).

Finally, they review the biomolecular machinery involved in our identity. DNA, for instance, which has also played an important role in forensic identification in recent decades. Interestingly, in this same chapter the authors review more recent advances, such as the study of bacterial and other microbial communities that can help in forensic cases associated with terrorism or bite marks. These new developments in microbiology, including the potential understanding that the study of microbiomes can give, also open a door to using the microscopic communities in our bodies as determinants of identity.

One of the main aims of the authors is to look at the human body not only from the biological and physical perspective, but including the social boundaries, discontinuities and tensions associated with it. Each body part is placed in its social and historical context.

Authors Rebecca Gowland and Tim Thompson organise courses in forensic science, studying and practising techniques of body location, recovery and analysis. Photo: University of Durham

Forbidden interaction with blood

The concept of blood is an example of a body component that not only has an enormous role in forensic identification, but also carries a highly emotional definition and has been the subject, as the authors recognise, “of mythologies, hate (and) religious fervour”. Religious identity influences how a person takes decisions regarding his or her blood in a medical context. In some religions, such as amongst Jehovah’s Witnesses for instance, interaction with blood is forbidden, which also affects whether an individual is allowed to receive blood transfusions and whether he or she pays a moral cost in order to get them.

In summary, Human Identity and Identification discusses the role of the body in human identity, providing an update on current methods in forensic science. It is therefore recommended to readers involved or interested in this field, with the caveat that it offers a good introduction to the topic rather than highly specialised content.

Additionally, both forensic scientists and laypeople will be encouraged that the discussion is taken from both a biological and a social viewpoint, aiming to better clarify how the body influences identity. This book will provide answers to all those curious about how each of our body parts can say something about us and how society has perceived individual traits throughout human history.

Letzte Änderungen: 05.02.2015