November 23, 2021 | Jerry Bergman

Using Race to Identify Skeletal Remains

Should forensic anthropologists use race to help identify persons
from skeletal parts? The debate goes on and gets weirder.

 

by Jerry Bergman, PhD

When teaching college-level forensics, I showed a film on how a murderer was identified and convicted in court from a skull and a few remnants of clothing. To explain how the forensic anthropologist worked, the film showed in detail how the entire face was constructed from the skull which they estimated had died about 5 years ago. Markers were used to determine the thickness of various skull parts to help place the correct amount of clay that represented muscle tissue on each section of the skull. Then, using the skull to determine probable racial traits, such as eye and hair color, the head was finished in such detail that it looked like a photograph of the deceased person, which was confirmed when the murdered woman was found.

The next step was to display the finished product on local television, and when this was not successful, to display her likeness on television in other areas of the country. Soon, a state away, a person identified the woman as the wife of her neighbor who disappeared five years earlier. The husband claimed his wife went back home to live with her family in Cambodia, leaving the husband and their two children in the states. Airline records failed to support his story, and an examination of the family’s basement found blood stains and evidence that her husband murdered her. He went on trial and was convicted of second-degree murder. In short, identification of the woman’s race was critical in alerting the neighbor who contacted the police to do a complete investigation. Other similar cases were covered in my course, illustrating the fact that racial traits were critical in solving each of them.

From my experience teaching forensics, it is ironic that some persons are grappling with the propriety of using race to help identify the victim from the remains of a body, primarily the bones. If experts are not able to use race to help identify the person from a few bones, not much is left except possibly sex, age, and height, assuming enough bones were located. This is why race is included in missing-persons reports, police case-files, and in most every other description of a person. Matching a person to a body is a major issue given that, in the United States alone, over 20,000 cases of missing persons and nearly 14,000 cases of unidentified bodies exist.

Creationists prefer not to use the term ‘race’ because there is only one race, the human race. The preferred term is ‘people groups.’ In the case outlined above, we could substitute the word ‘race’ with the term ‘people group’ and arrive at the same conclusion. Actually, people group is a better term because Cambodians are not regarded as a separate race but a people group.

Ghosts from the Past

The concern of those who do not want to use race in matching bodies with persons is that enormous harm has come to large numbers of people based on the use of race to classify humans as an inferior, or a less-evolved, race, as was once common. Supporters of banning the use of race in forensic anthropology argue that, for this reason, racial (or people group) designations should not be used, even by forensic anthropologists in ancestry estimations. Some even claim that ancestry estimation contributes to ‘white supremacy.’ The main concern is that determining the race of a murder victim

remains dangerously tangled up in its racist roots. Many of today’s forensic anthropologists were trained to identify race using the same techniques earlier generations of scientists employed to argue for biological differences and hierarchies among races in the “race science” of the 19th and 20th centuries. Today’s anthropologists now know those scientists were wrong both biologically and ethically. But translating skeletal data into race, a socially determined category, still reifies the erroneous notion that race is biological, Bethard and DiGangi argue. “Ancestry estimation is race science, pure and simple.”[1]

To what extent is race a biological category? How about ethnicity?[2] The effect of the attempt to ban the use of race in ancestry estimation is illustrated by a case history.

A Modern Case History

When unidentified body parts are brought to the laboratory of forensic anthropologist Allysha Winburn, “She measures the length of the limb bones to estimate height and examines the bones’ development to estimate age at death. She studies the shape of the pelvis for clues to the person’s likely sex.”[3] She in the past measured

skull features including its overall length and the width of the nasal opening, to do what forensic anthropologists call ancestry estimation. By statistically comparing the measurements with those from skulls with known identities, she could predict the continental ancestry—and the commonly used racial categories that may correspond to it—that a person likely identified as when alive. In other words, she could predict whether they identified as Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American.[4]

But Winburn now wonders if she and other forensic anthropologists should attempt to determine if the victim was Black, White, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American. In the case cited above, the ethnic identity of the victim was central to solving the crime. By ignoring this critical information, likely many murderers will escape punishment and some will continue to murder again. Thus, some believe that ignoring this vital step in forensic evaluation will not only allow murderers to escape punishment, but will enable them to murder again. Those who oppose the use of race in forensic identification[5] are appealing to the forensic anthropology community in the United States to stop using

the long-standing practice of ancestry estimation….  we urge an immediate moratorium on the use of morphoscopic cranial traits (skull traits used to identify the race of the victim) in the estimation of ancestry given the lack of comprehensive inquiry into why the traits exist and the fact that their use serves to bolster the debunked biological race concept.[6]

Of course, measuring bones with the aim of solving a murder does no such thing. The technique helps to identify the victim, and thus helps greatly to identify and convict the murderer. Anthropologists can acknowledge their forerunners’ historical acceptance of racism without discarding the importance of determining facial traits, and thus the ethnicity, in order to help identify the victim. The fact is

the estimation of ancestry has figured prominently in our methodological toolkit. It has been accepted as fact that estimates of “race,” “ancestry,” “population affinity,” or “bioaffinity” (hereafter ancestry) are compulsory for the process of human identification, in concert with other parameters such as age-at-death to include or exclude possible missing persons in cases when unidentified human remains are recovered.[7]

The authors added, in respect to concerns over the use of race, that “it is time to rethink the forensic anthropological canon and critically evaluate why we have relied on traits that we do not understand.” The concern is not understanding traits, but measuring them to determine the ethnicity of the victim. The authors recognize the fact that

part of contemporary forensic anthropological practice is a throwback to an earlier time when ideas about biological determinism and essentialist aspects of the races were taken as gospel truths and used to justify racialized hierarchies leading to both overt and covert structural inequities which continue today…. The idea that morphoscopic traits can adequately be used to place decedents into discrete groups has been perpetuated . . . without any deliberate appraisal of the underlying assumption that a finite number of groups exist; or critically, acknowledgement of the harm of connecting social race to skeletal traits insofar that it only serves to sustain the falsified biological race concept and misinforms the public, to include law enforcement and the medicolegal community, about human variation.[8]

These authors not only fail to recognize the Darwinian source of the racism they condemn, but actually believe that the cause of the problem is also the solution to the problem. They write that a “major concern is that studies involving these [morphological] traits have generally not been conducted through the lenses of evolutionary theory.”[9] Confusion over terminology and remorse over historical faults should not hinder honest attempts to solve crimes. The reality is that only one race exists, the human race, but many people groups exist, a fact that largely solves the problem, but is ignored in the article.

Does Racial Bias Hinder Identification Efforts?

How “racial bias on the part of investigators may hinder identification efforts when a major goal of forensic anthropology is to help get people identified” is never explained.  Forensic anthropologists have the job of identifying a body often only from parts of a skeleton brought before them to examine. In most all cases it does not matter if they dislike Cambodians or people of color. Their job is identification only and from my experience most forensic anthropologists focus totally on this major concern.

Bethard and DiGangi correctly observe that “past contribution to racist systems and structures persisting today…  have led to the premature deaths of countless people of color (ironically, a large number of whom become part of our forensic caseload).” To this they then add the irrelevant claim that the problem is

we have failed scientifically to even attempt to discover the evolutionary and ecogeographic histories of morphoscopic traits. It is only with acknowledgement and reflection on this context that productive conversations can ensue.”[10]

How evolution can help solve this problem was never explained, nor was the major contribution of evolution to the problem mentioned.

The Importance of Racial Identification

A very small percent of the population commit the vast majority of serious crimes. When a person is identified as a murderer, often numerous other murder cases are “cleared,” meaning that the convicted person very likely committed many murders. We also know that an arrest and conviction often result in the end of a set of murder cases in which the perpetrator used the same modus operandi.  Modus operandi (MO) refers to a pattern of criminal behavior so distinctive that separate crimes are recognized as very likely the work of the same person.

Good That May Result From This Controversy

Some good may come out of this evaluation. The American Academy of Forensic Sciences is now working on a new standard that would direct professionals away from racial categories and move toward specific social and biological populations, such as Japanese or Hmong instead of Asian. This has clear implications for the hundreds of American forensic anthropologists that may actually produce more accurate identifications, thus improving their accuracy.

Summary

While forensic anthropologists recognize the problem of racism, the claim that “Ancestry estimation is race science, pure and simple” is inaccurate.[11] That conclusion is part of the growing social trend to label much that is not racist, such as the productive practice of using people-group characteristics to identify criminal offenders and their victims, as being racist. Is use of hair color and eye color in identifying victims of crime also racist?

Forensic anthropologists acknowledge the racism of the past, but often ignore its cause, namely rejection of the Judeo-Muslim-Christian teaching that all humans are children of our first parents, Adam and Eve, and the replacing of this belief with Darwinism. In our society I doubt that college-educated forensic anthropologists would “give less attention to remains when they are classified as members of marginalized groups.”[12] The fact is, of about 250 resolved cases in which forensic anthropologists made an ancestry estimate, they correctly identified the victim’s race about 90 percent of the time and, although not unexpectedly, were less accurate when identifying persons of so-called mixed race.[13]

References

[1] Wade, Lizzie. 2021. Forensic anthropologists grapple with identifying remains by race? Science 374(6566): 386, October 22.

[2] Wade, 2021.

[3] Wade, 2021.

[4] Wade, 2021.

[5] Bethard, Jonathan D., and Elizabeth A. DiGangi. 2020. Letter to the Editor—”Moving Beyond a Lost Cause: Forensic Anthropology and Ancestry Estimates in the United States.” Journal of Forensic Science 65(5): 1791-1792.

[6] Bethard and DiGangi, 2020, p. 1791.

[7] Bethard and DiGangi, 2020, p. 1791.

[8] Bethard and DiGangi, 2020, p. 1791.

[9] Bethard and DiGangi, 2020, p. 1791.

[10] See Leon Zitzer. 2016. Darwin’s Racism. Bloomington, IN: iUniverse. This is the definitive documentation of the major influence of Darwinism on racism in 778 carefully documented pages.

[11] Wade, 2021.

[12] Wade, 2021.

[13] Winburn, Allysha P., and Bridget Algee-Hewitt. 2021. Evaluating population affinity estimates in forensic anthropology: Insights from the forensic anthropology database for assessing methods accuracy (FADAMA). Journal of Forensic Sciences 66(4): 1210-1219.


Dr. Jerry Bergman has taught biology, genetics, chemistry, biochemistry, anthropology, geology, and microbiology for over 40 years at several colleges and universities including Bowling Green State University, Medical College of Ohio where he was a research associate in experimental pathology, and The University of Toledo. He is a graduate of the Medical College of Ohio, Wayne State University in Detroit, the University of Toledo, and Bowling Green State University. He has over 1,300 publications in 12 languages and 40 books and monographs. His books and textbooks that include chapters that he authored are in over 1,500 college libraries in 27 countries. So far over 80,000 copies of the 40 books and monographs that he has authored or co-authored are in print. For more articles by Dr Bergman, see his Author Profile.

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Comments

  • R2-U2 says:

    Jerry Bergman wrote: “Creationists prefer not to use the term ‘race’ because there is only one race, the human race.”

    I agree there is really only one race (the human race). Note that in the book of Genesis, Noah, his family and their descendants are not described in racial terms.

    But down through the centuries, various Hebrew, Christian and Islamic scholars came to believe the descendants of Ham had darker “black” skin; blackness, servitude and the idea of racial hierarchy became inextricably linked.

    And so by the 19th century, the belief that African-Americans were descendants of Ham was a primary justification for slavery among southern U.S. Christians.

    • From Dr Bergman: “R2-U2. My response is that this topic requires an entire article and I plan to work on one, so keep checking on this website for it in the near future!!
      And thanks for your comments! You have raised some very interesting thoughts. Keep up the good work.”

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