After waiting 9 years to get a close look at Kennewick Man, the 9,000-year-old skeleton that was found on the banks of the Columbia River in 1996 and quickly became a fossil celebrity, a team of scientists spent 10 days this month examining it.
They looked at teeth, bones and plaque to determine how he lived, what he ate and how he died. They studied soil sedimentation and bone calcium for clues to whether he was ritually buried, or died in the place where he was found. They measured the skull, and produced a new model that looks vastly different from an earlier version.
American Indian tribes in the desert of the Columbia River Basin claimed the man as one of their own, calling him the Ancient One. The tribes planned to close off further examination and to bury the remains, in accordance with a federal law that says the government must turn over Indian remains to native groups that can claim affiliation with them.
A group of scientists sued, setting off a legal battle, while the bones remained in the custody of the Army Corps of Engineers.
In 2002, a federal magistrate, John Jelderks of Portland, Ore.,
ruled that there was little evidence to support the idea that Kennewick "is related to any identifiable group or culture, and the culture to which he belonged may have died out thousands of years ago."
I'm not really sure how to feel about this. On the one hand, I'm inclined to embrace the process of scientific discovery, but on the other, I sometimes cringe at the arrogance that
accompanies it. How do you draw the line where scientific discovery is "worth" this kind of cultural insensitivity, or subjecting animals to unimaginable torture?
I think this is perhaps an inevitable liberal conflict, where reverence for Science Advancing The Frontiers Of Human Knowledge And Banishing Ignorance butts up against the instinct to respect other cultures and defend animal rights - especially in a case like this where there is no clear profit motive (unlike, say, inhumane mistreatment of livestock, or using animals to test
I suppose the question ultimately comes down to whether the ends justify the means. Is it worth defiling someone's ancestor to learn a little bit more about prehistoric Americans? Is it worth subjecting helpless animals to excruciating pain to find a cure for cancer, or a new eyeliner formula? Is it worth defiling some embryos slated for destruction to find a cure for
cancer or paralysis? Is it worth invading another country without provocation to prevent an imminent WMD attack, defeat terrorism, liberate people from oppression, spread democracy, secure an oil supply, or just so you can prance around in a flightsuit and look like a tough guy?
I think we all draw the lines in different places, but I believe conservatives are willing to embrace more ruthless means in the pursuit of more speculative (and concealed) ends than liberals are, which makes me wonder once again if those political labels are really still appropriate.