An elusive illusion
A scientific exhibition examines what makes human beings individuals
WITH the construction of the railways in the 19th century, a new sociological phenomenon was born: the travelling criminal. Until then, police had relied on local communities to recognise a bad apple in their midst, but now the felons were on the move, wreaking havoc in communities which had no knowledge of their past and hence no reason to be wary. For law enforcers trying to contain the problem by sharing descriptions of known recidivists, it became imperative to answer one question: what is it that identifies someone as a particular person?
This question has long troubled humanity, of course, and it is explored in all its facets in a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection in London. One practical application lies in the forensic arena. The first solution offered, branding, was simple and effective. But even in a society that preferred to believe that criminals were born and not made, this was soon deemed unacceptable. So there was a need to find something innate to human beings that remains constant from the cradle to the grave, and that is sufficiently differentiated in the population to make it useful in identifying individuals.
Alphonse Bertillon, who appears in one of the identity cards he invented, came up with a system that combined photography (the profile and face-on photos that police still use today) with a range of bodily measurements. His system was widely taken up until Sir Francis Galton, a colleague, rival and inveterate classifier, realised the individualising potential of fingerprints. These held sway for a century until, in 1984, Sir Alec Jeffreys of Leicester University stumbled on an even more powerful personal barcode: DNA.
Embedded in this short history is all the elusiveness of human identity; each new advance reveals the flaws in earlier systems. Go to the website of the New York-based Innocence Project to see the latest tally of exonerations that have taken place in America, after DNA evidence showed those convictions to be unsafe. At the time of writing, the figure comes to 246. Mistaken eyewitness identification is a major culprit, but fingerprint misidentification is cited too.
Ironically, our facility for recognising faces may be to blame. The brain has evolved to look for patterns, and when one is incomplete it will fill in the gaps, sometimes leaping to the wrong conclusion, as Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer, discovered when he was wrongly implicated in the 2004 Madrid bombings on the basis of a single, poor-quality fingerprint.
So what of DNA? Within hours of reaching a crime scene, police may now have information that helps identify suspects. In the courtroom, DNA trumps all other identifiers. But it has its limitations. With ever more minute quantities becoming detectable, contamination is a serious issue. The Phantom of Heilbronn murdered her way across Europe until, last March, she was discovered not to exist. The DNA found at each crime scene actually came from a female worker in the factory that manufactured the cotton swabs used to collect evidence.
There is another problem with DNA. When the technology allows for a person’s entire genome to be read from a single drop of blood, it may well constitute a gold standard for identification. But for now analysts work with a snapshot of that genome, represented by an arbitrary number of markers spaced along it. If there are gaps to be filled, the brain will fill them, which could make it vulnerable to the same kind of errors as its predecessors.
From the very real travelling criminal, via the Phantom of Heilbronn, the Wellcome exhibition returns to the central question. Perhaps identity, like beauty, lies in the eye of the beholder, and if people want to see one and not the other, they need to invent a new way of looking.
Obituary of Earl Cooley
Earl Cooley, smokejumper, died on November 9th, aged 98
SEEN from the height of a passenger jet, the mountains of Idaho and western Montana look like the grey, wrinkled hide of a dinosaur. Closer up, from a twin-engine aircraft, those wrinkles become thousands of conifers marching over the steep and broken ground. Closer still—“My God! My chute’s not opening! Something’s wrong!”—that’s a spruce you’re plunging into, your tardy parachute lines tangling round your neck and your flailing legs kicking off branches a hundred feet above the ground. Luckily, you’re alive. Luckier still, you have a rope in your trouser pocket that lets you rappel down from the tree. And you haven’t even got to the fire yet.
Such was Earl Cooley’s introduction, on July 12th 1940 when he was 28, to the completely new science of smokejumping. After years spent trying to douse the forest fires of America’s West from aircraft—labouring skywards with water stowed in five-gallon cans and beer barrels—this was the first attempt to parachute firefighters to blazes too remote to reach by road. In the 22 years Mr Cooley was to spend doing it, it was also his closest call. He reflected later that if the spruce had not saved him, the smokejumping programme itself would not have survived—let alone become the success it is today, with 1,432 jumps made for the Forest Service last year. Back then, too many people thought it crazy. One Montana regional forester, a big-shot called Evan Kelly, had already complained to Washington that it was a waste of “honest suppression money”—dollars spent putting out fires in the old, plodding, non-flamboyant way.
Mr Cooley’s training for that first jump was minimal. He was fit enough: an outdoorsman raised in “awful” poverty in the Bitterroot mountains of Montana, after his family had lost their homestead in a bank collapse in the 1920s. From his hardscrabble boyhood he could hunt, set a trap-line, build with timber and make trails, skills he put to use for the Forest Service to see himself through forestry school. When he came to train jumpers himself, he liked to pick people who had done stints in brush camp or dealt with blister rust on pines. Once dropped to a fire, he could make his way through the mountains like a deer—a necessary skill, since smokejumpers, once the fire was mopped up, had to walk home. Digging trenches and felling trees to make breaks were second nature to him.
Aeroplanes and parachutes, on the other hand, were foreign. His teacher did no more than hang a chute on a tree and point out the parts, concluding: “We jump tomorrow.” The old Eagle parachutes, after opening with a bang that knocked your breath away, were almost unmanoeuvrable in a wind. Small wonder that Mr Cooley was sick before each training jump. But he could “rightfully say that he was greatly thrilled” to find himself, at last, floating.
Hunting the fire
The jumpers were firefighters first and foremost: young men impatient to get to a fire. Like hunters, they aimed to “catch” it before it went “over the hill”, or before it blew up from a spot fire to a raging “project fire” over 50 acres or more. Mr Cooley had a less impetuous side. For much of his career he was a district ranger as well as a fireman. Many saw him as the epitome of the old-fashioned ranger, with no graduate degree but full of knowledge from riding round his patch. He was a man of few, drawling words. Bob Mutch, another smokejumper, met him once on a mountain where his group had just landed in unseasonal August snow. Mr Cooley, from horseback, told them not to sit around too long, but to get on with mopping up the fire.
His expertise often gave him the job of spotter in a plane. He had to read wind speed, direction and drift; assess, from the speed of the lumbering Ford Trimotor aircraft and his watch, the size of the fire; find, and mark with streamers, a suitable place to drop that was free of “snags” (dead trees), felled logs, stumps or boulders; check every inch of kit and harness, every buckle and strap and pin, and then tap each man on the left leg to make him jump. Mr Cooley was not just a trainer of men (including quivering Mennonites and Quakers, conscientious objectors, who were sent to become smokejumpers during the second world war). He also felt responsible for seeing that they returned.
On one occasion, they did not. The summer of 1949 brought extreme fires to the West, and that August some of “his boys” went to jump a fire at Mann Gulch in Montana. As the spotter, he landed them safely. But the fire overran them, and 13 died. Mr Cooley, though innocent of any malfeasance, was overcome with survivor’s remorse. A quarter of his history of smokejumping, “Trimotor and Trail”, was devoted to the Mann Gulch episode. He had 13 crosses made of concrete and put them on the hillside where each body was found. Every year he would check on them. And he would look at the map again.
His pivotal place both in smokejumping’s worst disaster, and its tough beginnings, made him a living symbol of the programme. Every year, he proudly presented the jump pins and certificates to the freshman smokejumpers at his old base in Missoula. He was a legend to them, even if the stories of his jumps—“silk stories”, as jumpers call them—tended to begin with a cuss, and a crash, and himself dangling from a tree.