Do mummies have a right to privacy? Halloween seems a good time to ponder such questions, so last week I had a talk with medical historian and writer Howard Markel, who thinks about such things. The interview ran at the Responsibility Project. In the excerpt below, Markel notes that when we dig up a mummy, we have most definitely violated the wishes of the person who once inhabited that body. We also discuss whether genotyping mummies — as researchers recently did with King Tut, revealing that his parents were incestuous siblings — carries that violation further.
Dobbs: Why do researchers want to study the DNA of mummies and other old bodies?
Markel: Mummies offer a unique quarry for paleopathologists and historians: well-preserved, albeit long dead, bodies and organs. Ordinarily, after less than a hundred years, there’s not much left to a body other than the skeleton. You can find out a lot from bones through carbon dating and so on. You can also use DNA analysis to search for infectious agents that may have spread to that corpse’s bones. But it’s nothing like the wealth of pathological material you can extract from a preserved body. And the mummification process developed by the Egyptians was remarkably good at preserving human organs and tissues. You can do a better examination on a mummy than on any other human remains I can think of, unless, perhaps, a body frozen in permafrost.
Today, genetic tools let us find out even more. In King Tut’s body, for instance, the DNA analysis showed that he had one of the earliest recorded cases of malaria and an inherited bone disorder. This is valuable health and historical information. The researchers were also able to better establish the lineage of the pharaoh’s family, which is of great importance to Egyptologists because it helps tell us how the pharaohs’ preserved political power and conducted their personal lives.
So analyzing the DNA can increase our knowledge about medicine and diseases. And it can increase our knowledge of the historical record, sometimes in a way nothing else can; all that is of real value. But it’s not free and clear. We all have to ask whether the value we get from such bodily intrusions transcends the ethical, moral, or religious compromises we must make. You have to balance public good against individual privacy rights and considerations.
Dobbs: Did you have any qualms about whether the benefits outweighed the privacy violations in the King Tut case?
Markel: I think with Tut the benefits outweighed the compromises. Moreover, the researchers conducting this study took great pains to consult ethicists and policymakers. That said, I remain of mixed mind about the growing enterprise of exhuming bodies for research.
To start with, digging up bodies automatically gets you into murky territory. Unless they’ve willed their bodies to science, most people expect their bodies to be left alone. And we know the mummies especially expected that. They made those tombs difficult to get into for a reason: They did not want to be disturbed as they went on to the River of the Dead and the afterlife. But we found them, and we have disturbed them repeatedly.
Dobbs: So we have violated their wishes. How do we justify this?
Markel: In Tut’s case, that cow left the barn back in the 1920s, when his tomb was discovered. His remains have been examined numerous times over the past 90 years, and his possessions have been the stuff of museum shows for decades.
But we also have to acknowledge that Tut’s privacy desires have been repeatedly overridden in the name of research and exhibition. Intellectuals want answers to their questions. Historians dig into the past. We love to read other people’s mail; we read their diaries. Sometimes people have given their letters or diaries to posterity, so there’s no gray area. Other times, we are required to weigh the privacy of the dead against the need or desire to extract meaningful historical information. Looking at DNA is essentially an extension of these sorts of incursions.
Read the whole thing here.