Marked for Lives

Ian Stevenson. Where Biology and Reincarnation Intersect. Praeger, 1997.

A summary for the general public of Stevenson's long awaited study of cases where birthmarks or congenital deformities on a child appear to coincide with wounds on the body of the alleged previous personality. As Stevenson warns that proper evaluation of individual cases should be based on the full two volume monograph, not to hand, and unlikely, owning to its price unlikely to be bought by many people, or to be available on the shelves of public libraries, and such evaluation is not something which I would be competent to give, I will confine myself to general impressions.

This is clearly a study in a different league from the popular literature on reincarnation and one which sceptics will have to address with something more than a sweep of the hand. There are however a number of hints that their task may not be an impossible one.

My attention was caught by the large number of cases in which the previous personality (alleged) died in violent and dramatic circumstances of the sort which would give rise to gossip and rumour, which may reach wide audiences, it may well be that Stevenson coming from a relatively impersonal mass culture underestimates the role of gossip and story telling in predominantly face to face societies. There are also a number of cases from India where the child claims that the previous incarnation was a member of a higher caste, allowing them to express disdain for their current parents. In a more general sense reincarnation beliefs seem to allow for children to behave in inappropriate manners, not showing the correct customary respect for their elders, for example, or for girls to act as tomboys.

It is difficult to know how to interpret the birth marks. As physical evidence for paranormal events there are clear parallels with the marks claimed by UFO abductees, and abduction books, like this one does, may show photographs of marks as proof. I imagine that the response of most sceptics would be to argue that what is involved here in coincidence, that someone will have had wounds that coincide with any birth mark. I'm not sure that such an explanation would be totally adequate.

Stevenson's reincarnation hypothesis is not trouble free, apart from contradicting a huge mass of contemporary biological thought, it leaves much unanswered. Stevenson coins the term psychosphore to denote the entity which carries the memory and
personality from one incarnation to the next, but makes no attempt to define what it is. As it is supposed to produce physical results in the form of birthmarks, by definition in most be physical, it most also be able to encode information, again, by definition, physical.

Where in physics could it lie. The answer least incongruous, but not much, to modern science, would be to imagine that memories could somehow be downloaded onto individual atoms or molecules, which then become ingested by the mother and pass into the foetus. I have never heard such a theory proposed, not least I suspect because it is not ethereal enough to appeal to the sort of people who believe in dualism.

Stevenson notes that some societies seek to experimentally test for reincarnation by making marks on the body of the deceased, and seeing if they appear as birthmarks in a child. Perhaps members of the SPR ought to mutilate themselves in the interests of experimental science and see if their mutilations appear in children. On the other hand not only would that be cruel to the child, but their estates could face some very novel law suits. As some of the cases come from native American communities in litigation-loving North America, perhaps some smart lawyers will already have their eyes on a new markets. -- Peter Rogerson, from Magonia 62, February 1998.

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