Science and the dilemma of death: Examining the 200-year-old DNA of Jeremy Bentham

Science and the dilemma of death: Examining the 200-year-old DNA of Jeremy Bentham

Uri Inspector reports on UCL’s What does it mean to be human? exhibition featuring Jeremy Bentham’s severed head whose DNA is being examined for autism.

For the past month the preserved head of UCL’s spiritual father has been on display at the Octagon gallery and since its reveal it hasn’t failed to spark intrigue or thrilled disgust from passing students. The What does it mean to be human? exhibition in the Wilkins building has seen the authentic visage of the Utilitarian thinker put on public presentation for the first time since 1975. Abounding myths of theft by students, “alternative” football games or kidnap and ransom may explain why the head, which until forty years ago was kept at the foot of the auto-icon in the South Cloisters, has been stored in a secure room every since.

A revolutionary thinker, Bentham advocated for women’s rights, the abolition of slavery and the decriminalisation of homosexuality at a time when very few discussed these issues. Condemning church teachings as “nonsense on stilts” may have been one reason why he refused a traditional burial. As the exhibition shows, his “Greatest Happiness Principle,” dictating that morally good actions are those which generate the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest amount of people, may also have been a motive in donating his body to medical research.

Famously a lifelong eccentric, as revealed through writings by illustrious friends such as J.S Mill and William Hazlitt, Jeremy asked that his auto-icon to be brought out at parties in case his friends were missing him. Indeed, his reclusive lifestyle, behavioural irregularities and odd habits – such as naming his walking stick “dapple” and using expressions like “antejentacular circumgyration” to mean a pre-breakfast walk – lead to the publication of a 2006 report by two Psychologists at UCL’s Bentham Project, which claimed he may have had Asperger’s Syndrome.

The exhibition, which runs until February 28th next year, also has a scientific sister project. A team of geneticists at UCL, lead by Professor Mark Thomas, Dr Elizabeth Dobson-Jones and the exhibit’s co-curator Lucy Van Dorp, aim to extract human DNA from Bentham’s 200-year-old head and “use this as a platform for exploring more about the man genetically.”

Through his genome, the geneticists hope to determine Bentham’s ancestry, as well as basic traits such as hair and eye colour. The main goal, however, is to educate a wider audience on the process of examining DNA from ancient specimens, with Bentham’s genome as a reference for future generations. Indeed, the Wilkins exhibition also showcases the famous genetic research carried out in the 1990s, which managed to sequence DNA from the bones and tissues of several 50,000-year-old Woolly Mammoth specimens.

Although many news outlets tied a too simplistic link between the Autism report and the Bentham genetics project, Van Dorp says that this is just one possible direction of the research:

“The current knowledge on the genetics underlying Autistic disorders is complex” she told Pi Media. “At best we could say Bentham had some variants that have been associated with people who have had autism, but we won’t be able to say anything conclusive. That’s because we don’t understand the genetics of autism well enough, making it difficult to answer if sequencing the genome of someone alive today, let alone Bentham’s degraded, ancient DNA.”

The team’s pilot study sampled DNA from Bentham’s tooth, and found that much of the material sequenced was bacteria from the philosopher’s mouth, rather than human DNA, a result often found when researching human remains. The project is still going, with plans underway to recover DNA from a limb bone, which it is believed will be of higher quality due to how the body was treated after death.

After his death, the initial preservation of Bentham’s head was unorthodox to say the least. He had asked a friend, Thomas Southwood Smith, to use traditional New Zealand Maori methods to protect his head from decay. This wasn’t as successful as he had wished, turning his facial skin a volcanic brown colour, as can be seen in the Octagon today.

Genetic testing is no longer the preserve of labs and has now become widely common, with many ordinary people able to find out genetic information about disease risk and ancestry for around $100 through companies such as 23andme. Sequencing an entire genome, however, costs more, and the Bentham genetic project is predicted to cost around $1,000.

Research into ancient DNA is also expanding into other areas. In addition to Bentham, UCL’s Professor, Mark Thomas, is working on the genetic sequencing of the remains of Richard III as well as those of the “Irish giant” Charles Byrne. These projects could prove instrumental in enlarging what is able to be known about the dead, thus revolutionising the sphere of genetic science.

Image Credit: Wellcome Collection

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