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Gene-ism and the Trout in the Milk

Posted by Pete Shanks on February 19th, 2013


King Richard III of England

An ancient corpse was found buried in a parking lot in Leicester, England, and DNA identified his remains as Bad King Richard III — that's roughly the story that ran around the globe recently, and it's almost entirely incorrect. Richard Plantagenet (pictured at left) was indeed King, for a couple of turbulent years, but after he was killed in the Battle of Bosworth Field, he was demonized by the victors. (Over a century later, a playwright of genius piled on.) His remains were found last September, but the official identification was announced this month, and the genetic evidence was the least of it.

For a start, the body was found where he was buried; they were looking for it. Richard was interred without much ceremony at a small local chapel, which was destroyed about 50 years later when Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church. Archaeological work about five years ago suggested the location, now the site of a local government car park, to which the team got access. The skeleton was consistent with that of a 32-year-old man with scoliosis, whose skull had been badly cut by a sword and a halberd; contemporary accounts said his head had been "shaved," presumably metaphorically. Radiocarbon dating also put the remains in the right ballpark, though it's not very exact. Short of an ID bracelet, we can only conclude that, as Thoreau wrote, the "circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk."

The DNA evidence, in contrast, was actually rather weak. It came from a comparison of mitochondrial DNA with two living descendants of Richard's sister, and the match was described by an expert as "rare enough to be interesting, but not rare enough to be conclusive." (Scientists are now trying to amplify and match the Y chromosome as well, which requires, inter alia, heroic assumptions of marital fidelity over many generations.) But — as with the identification of Osama bin Laden — the view of the authorities seems to be that the public is so besotted with the "CSI effect" that only DNA will do.

It doesn't have to be that way. Just last week, there was another finding in England, which provoked this classic, and only slightly inaccurate, headline in the Guardian:

Missing Cornish lord found in his own grave

Sir James Tillie, who passed away in 1713, left instructions that his servants should leave him sitting by the window and supplied with food and wine "until the day of resurrection, which he expected to be imminent." After a couple of years, when neither apocalypse nor rapture had manifested, they gave up and dumped him, and probably his chair, in a vault. This tomb was recently discovered, examined, and closed again once the current owner of the property had toasted his predecessor with a glass of the estate's own sloe gin. He told the press:

"There are no plans to exhume the body or to undergo any further DNA tests. There is not really any doubt about who the remains belong to."

Ah, the reality-based community. If only the fourth estate, and those who feed them headlines, would join it.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:





Posted in DNA Forensics, Media Coverage, Pete Shanks's Blog Posts, Sequencing & Genomics


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