This article is a repost from indieskeptics.com.
Lately, I’ve been doing a lot of researching on mummies for a project that I’m working on. This researching has branched off in several directions and
resulted in me learning some fascinating things. My research on mummies has a lot to do with hygienic and medical histories of the remains of ancient cultures and, totally coincidentally, io9 recently published this article: Do we have the right to violate King Tut’s privacy?
The article argues that even though mummies come from a time so far removed from our own that current ethical concerns about remains don’t apply, that because we might be looking at medical histories of the long-dead, including King Tut’s, for attention and because we don’t want our own remains treated the way we treat mummies, then we should respect their medical histories as we do modern patients.
This isn’t the first time I’ve seen concerns like this expressed. Various groups have raised similar concerns and it is a tough set of questions to address. First, I want to mention a few things about why we study the medical history of mummies and other remains from ancient cultures.
Who Owns History?
Essentially, history is painted for us by the victors of the past, sometimes, and sometimes it is painted for us by what little we find that is left behind. Our history tells us a lot about human behavior and so by looking into the past, we gain knowledge about ourselves. If we ignored history or hid from it, we run the risk of viewing ourselves through a lens that is so distorted, we might repeat past mistakes or ignore the needs that we currently have.
Imagine, for a moment, that we forgot how we think the Black Plague was spread through Europe. We think, currently, that it was spread through the fleas which lived on the rats which were common amongst the people at the time. What would happen if we weren’t aware of not only that, but other cases of how disease has spread in history? How would that affect how we view disease today?
Who Owns Medical History?
Essentially, we gain by knowing about the medical histories of those who died in the past. While we may create headlines by announcing that King Tut had an STD, it is also the case that knowing he had an STD might tell us something about STDs in his time, especially if we learn about other mummies who had them. I know you’re probably aware that we have current medical studies that we also rely on in order to benefit ourselves, but conditions now and conditions in history are different and even the illnesses that we are concerned with now are not always the same as they were in the past; neither are the environmental and social conditions. That doesn’t mean that we have left those elements behind, completely, though, or that we gain nothing by examining events that happened in those different contexts.
In order to approach this matter practically, and to consider it rationally, it may be important to look to the ways that related issues have been addressed in the more recent past. Let me take a detour for a moment and talk a little about the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act.
The Native American Graves and Repatriation Act
Back when the Americas were first being colonized, there were already people here. The colonists, though, didn’t see the people here as being the same as them and they often treated them horribly, denied them rights, stole their land and even made them slaves. Alongside this, the remains of the people who lived in the Americas were also often disturbed. The colonists sometimes saw the remains as novelties, searched them for valuables and even used whatever they found for trade. In order to address the ethical questions surrounding older remains, like those of King Tut, I will compare them to some reasons that NAGPRA was created.
Probably the most important reason for NAGPRA is for the protection of Native American rights equal to the protection of the rights of the other cultures and social groups in the United States. From the onset of colonization until only a few decades ago, the Native American population’s rights that seemed so basic to the invading cultures were not respected. Property rights and inheritance concerns were primary battles for Native Americans who witnessed the graves of their relatives being dug up and looted. NAGPRA was supposed to help change all that by criminalizing the looting of the graves of Native Americans and taking Native remains. This didn’t necessarily put Native Americans under the same legal umbrella as the rest of the country, but it attempted to give them equal footing within cultural settings, history and social situations that were unlike their own.
The First Amendment was also a central point to the creation of NAGPRA. Death itself is viewed, across cultures, as having religious significance. How we deal with the dead within that context varies from one religion to the other and great pains are taken in order to respect the religious wishes of the dead and their remaining relatives. Because of the religious significance of deaths and burials, NAGPRA is considered a protection of Native American religious rights that reinforce the First Amendment, the same law that grants people the right to perform religious ceremonies in prison and to publicly protest.
Human Rights — For the Dead?
NAGPRA was developed in the interest of human rights that were bestowed upon the United States by our adherence to the constitution. While mummies are not privileged enough to have the rights granted by the constitution, it is worth noting that the ethical concerns that grant those protections should be considered when regarding the remains of other cultures. Certainly, due to the laws regarding lineage in NAGPRA, should any of the remains we receive from other countries be remains that can be traced to living family and the family does not grant permission for scientists to examine those remains, the most ethical action to take would be to return the remains. This is because the part of NAGPRA which is concerned with lineage is based on basic principals supported by many bioethicists. In fact, that is where we should look next in order to consider the fate of remains like those of King Tut:
Bioethics, naturally, is a complex field of study. Any place where ethical concerns have vast gray areas, where each side has a valid complaint, is going to be a difficult field for someone to not only learn, but to navigate. That being said, bioethics experts have still managed to come up with some basic things to consider whenever they are addressing an issue in the medical or scientific world. In case you want to enrich your knowledge about these matters, I highly encourage you to look up the Belmont Report the following comments are based on it.
While the brief discussion on NAGPRA already touches on this concept, it is a vital concept when it comes to bioethical concerns. Justice is an ambiguous term whose definition swings wildly within each society. In one society, cutting off the hand of a thief may be considered ‘justice,’ while, in another, justice may be only the containment of those who might do harm to others. But justice is not just about punishment, it can also be about the distribution of resources or the way we acquire authoritative positions within a group. So, the question that has to be asked, and that is being asked in the above linked article is, has the treatment of King Tut’s remains and those of other ancient people caused them an injustice?
Autonomy, in this case, is the allowance of an individual to make decisions for themselves. If you or I are autonomous individuals, then we are people who are considered capable of making our own decisions. Not everyone considered capable of this task, though, and it is frequently the case that some parts of the population are disallowed to make decisions for themselves. For example, children, the mentally insane and, oftentimes, the dead.
In the case of King Tut, he clearly isn’t capable, in his incapacitated state, to make his own decisions. In his lifetime, the possibility that people would be attempting to examine his medical history a few thousand years into the future, was not really something anyone considered. As such, the King was not even capable of granting his permission or stating his wishes in case something like this were to occur. King Tut was, then, and is, now, incapable of making a decision for himself. When someone in our own time is incapable of making decisions for themselves, those decisions fall to their immediate family. If the family is unavailable, it is then a decision that is turned over to the closest reliable people who are the most informed. This means that the scientists dealing with Tut have to make his decision for him.
This seems like it shouldn’t be such a big deal. We make decisions for the dead all the time. We decide if they should be buried or cremated or if they should be tossed into the ocean or turned into fertilizer. So, what’s so different about King Tut? Well, King Tut is King Tut. The reason we raise concern about King Tut and not the many other corpses that we make decisions for is because King Tut was once someone very important and now he is a gateway of information that lets us look far into the past. But the issues surrounding Tut are not just about decisions regarding his grave. Instead, they’re issues surrounding privacy, to which the same applies. We do very little to respect the privacy of our dead. Instead, the privacy of our dead is one of the first things we violate once they die. We sell their stuff, we investigate their financial and medical issues and, if they’re someone important, we broadcast it across the world, just in case anyone else wanted to know about it.
Autonomy only seems to exist for the dead if the deceased planned far enough ahead.
The idea that each individual deserves a certain level of respect and ethical treatment is another concept that comes rolling through the debate on how to treat ancient remains. In the case of King Tut and other remains that we allow scientists to evaluate, it seems like their preservation and the effort put into learning their stories is the absolute highest amount of respect that we could possibly give them. Ensuring that they are not smashed about and ground up into some sort of silly compound by some health quack and not leaving them out in the elements to be swallowed back up by the Earth is also, very likely, the best we can do to ensure that the remains are treated in an ethically sound manner.
5) Beneficence and Non-Maleficence
Sometimes, it is important to do something for the good of the individual and sometimes it is important to do no harm. The problem is, sometimes doing no harm means not doing what is best for someone and sometimes doing something for the good of the individual is extremely harmful. The King Tut dilemma seems to boil down to this point. What we gain, overall, from the study and sharing of information of King Tut and other ancient remains stands to benefit our society as a whole. The overall benefit far outweighs the tiny cost that a man that died so long ago may not have liked what we’re doing to his corpse.
I can’t possibly give a completely objective answer to all the questions surrounding human remains and their treatment by science, since there are so many hazy areas to roam through, but I do hope that the added information helps people make some conclusions of their own. My own stance, I think, is a fairly pragmatic one, involving a basic concept of what I think is for the greater good. But first, let me address the main conclusion of the original article that inspired this trail of thoughts.
The author of the io9 article suggests that we use what we know of how we want our remains to be treated in order to make decisions for King Tut. The problem is, there is tremendous variation, even today, in how people want their remains to be treated. Contributions to science does happen to be one of those options. Sure, as living creatures that rely so much on our social links to survive and who have been taught to be embarrassed about things such as STDs (and we happened to have one), we would be horrified if we found out that once we died, billions of people would have access to our medical records. When we’re dead, though, we would hardly have a reason to worry about it.
Doing the Greater Good
It is often said, when someone dies, that the funeral is not for the dead, it is for the sake of the living. It is the living who can measure what they have lost; it is the living who need answers and who seek closure. It seems to me that no matter how long someone has been dead, the most ethical decision to make regarding their corpse is to be as attentive as possible to the needs of the living – to do the greater good. That’s why we have funerals and why NAGPRA exists and why we learn about King Tut and share his story with the world.