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Mind your DNA

Thomas Davis (Letters, 3 February) and Adrian Bowyer (Letters, 17 February) both point out something I went to some trouble to point out in my article: that being able to identify far more of the DNA found at the scene of a crime will by itself simply enlarge the initial range of suspects, all but one or two – perhaps even all – of whom will be innocent. They regard this in negative terms, as merely sweeping more people into a net of suspicion and possibly unjust conviction. My point, however, was that insofar as this is already a risk, it affects a tranche of people unfairly marked out by having previously come to the attention of the police. As I argued, both they and the wider cohort which a full DNA register will create are entitled to rigorous protection from unfair incrimination: principally by recognising that DNA evidence by itself cannot convict anyone.

A major worry here is that juries can be seduced by circumstantial evidence which sometimes enables lawyers to put two and two together and make five. Stefan Kiszko was convicted of the murder of a child not only on his own apparent confession but on a seemingly cogent piece of corroborative evidence. The police had found in his car a piece of card on which car registration numbers were scribbled, one of them belonging to a vehicle which was proved to have been driven past the scene of the murder on the afternoon it happened. It looked damning. It was only when it became clear on quite separate grounds that Kiszko could not have committed the murder that everyone realised that what he had said all along was true: he had had a spat with the car’s previous owner at a petrol station and had scribbled its number down, as he was always doing, with a half-formed intention of reporting the driver. The car had subsequently been sold to someone else who, by pure chance, had driven it over the moors on the day Lesley Molseed was murdered.

The risk lies not in using DNA to establish who might have been present: such data would have made it impossible even to suspect Kiszko. It lies in the probabilistic world of the law, which dulls the edge of chance. Suspicion needs to be shored up by independent corroboration, but in the assessment of supposedly corroborative evidence (indeed, in the assessment of all evidence) the role of chance – the stock in trade of film and literature – deserves better recognition than it gets from the courts.

Stephen Sedley
London WC1

Tusi Tala

Andrew O’Hagan’s account of Stevenson’s final years in Samoa echoes the prejudices of the writer’s contemporaries, that Stevenson had chosen to live among savages with a wife who was little more than a savage herself (LRB, 17 February). Henry James’s description of Fanny as ‘poor, barbarous and merely instinctive’ captures something of this; Henry Adams’s – ‘her complexion and eyes were dark and strong, like a half-bred Mexican’ – even more so. O’Hagan describes the Stevensons’ marriage as ‘a swamp’. In such a place, and with such a woman, Stevenson’s talent was bound to degenerate.

It must have been difficult for Stevenson’s contemporaries to grasp the significance of his Pacific writing. It should be easier for O’Hagan. Novellas such as ‘The Beach of Falesa’ and ‘The Ebb-Tide’ should be compared with Conrad’s work, with ‘An Outpost of Progress’, Heart of Darkness and Victory, for example. O’Hagan sees Stevenson as enlarging the psychological potential of the novel but ignores the way his experience of colonialism in the Pacific could have contributed to this.

And what makes O’Hagan invoke the colonial delusion that the Samoans regarded Stevenson as ‘a king or a sort of god’? As Stevenson’s A Footnote to History makes clear, the Samoans had had too many European-imposed ‘kings’. The tales with which he fascinated the Samoans were versions of their own (‘The Isle of Voices’), or a blend of theirs and his (‘The Bottle Imp’). The latter was translated into Samoan and published in a missionary magazine that found its way into most Samoan homes. Stevenson was discovering new forms and a new audience. This is where the soubriquet Tusi Tala came from, not awe-struck reverence for a god-like voice issuing from the heights of Vailima.

Rod Edmond
University of Kent

How many grains make a heap?

Richard Rorty begins his provocative discussion of my book on analytic philosophy with a fable about a department chair facing the daunting task of persuading the dean to hire a philosopher working on vagueness (LRB, 20 January). As Rorty himself implicitly acknowledges, the candidate is not trying to become an expert on the composition of heaps of sand in order to help solve the practical problems facing civil engineers, but so as to illuminate the rules of logic and language, and their application to the world. This enterprise is one of several in which analytic philosophers are advancing by replacing Rorty’s metaphorical question – ‘Are the sentences we use to describe the world maps of an independent reality?’ – with more specific, non-metaphorical questions. Rorty’s failure to register this is connected to a broader failure of perspective arising from his disengagement from analytic philosophy in the last twenty-five years.

A case in point is Rorty’s query as to whether Ryle’s ‘anti-Cartesian polemic’ is ‘seriously weakened’ by his ignorance of the necessary a posteriori. Rorty could answer his own question by rereading my discussion of Ryle’s argument that perception is not a brain process, and that belief and desire cannot be seen as causally efficacious internal states unless one is willing to embrace the idea of a Cartesian ghost in the machine. I show how these arguments depend on the faulty assumption that since our knowledge of the connection between the mental (seeing something red) and the physical (the brain processes by which this takes place) is a posteriori, or empirical, the two are not necessarily connected, and so cannot be identified.

What explains Rorty’s blindness to such points? As I see it, his weary scepticism is not so much the result of Olympian detachment as the disappointment of a true believer. The analytic philosophy that both captures and limits his imagination is that of its middle period – from the early 1920s to the late 1960s – when different versions of the dream of starting philosophy anew, by identifying it with the rigorous analysis of language, competed for the honour of making the subject respectable to the modern mind. Having succumbed to this dream, and then rejected it for the wrong Quinean and Wittgensteinian reasons, Rorty cannot understand Kripke’s achievement in expanding the philosophical conception of necessity beyond the purely linguistic.

Finally, Rorty’s distrust of specialisation and his desire for a grand synthesis ignore the quality and quantity of what there is to synthesise. The value of specialisation is that it increases the chances of getting things right in each of the areas to be synthesised – something that great philosophers from Plato to Descartes, Hume and Kant have always recognised. In earlier eras, when it was not obvious that the scope of human knowledge far exceeded what could be encompassed by a single mind, the challenge of explaining how everything hung together was not so clearly unmanageable. Today, it is, and the solution is not to do badly what cannot be done, but to do well what can be: to construct a series of limited, but accurate and overlapping syntheses that together illuminate reality as we know it. This is what we should ask of analytic philosophy.

Scott Soames
University of Southern California

As a mathematician, I would say that one needs at least four grains of sand to make a heap.

Matilde Macagno
University of Iowa

Attractively Fat

Stefan Collini mentions in his essay on the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography that the historian Marcus Cunliffe is one of those described in it as ‘attractive to women’ (LRB, 20 January). The ODNB article suggests that it was not so much his good looks as his charm that women found appealing. Late in life Cunliffe apparently put on a lot of weight. When a friend of mine asked if this was troubling to him, he replied: ‘Not at all, except that when I sit down I feel as if I have a dog on my lap.’

Joseph Epstein
Evanston, Illinois

Ecclesiastical Stalinism

When I travelled through Poland as a young priest just after John Paul II’s election to the papacy, I was struck not only by the heroic stand the Church was making against the Soviet system, but also by the underlying similarity, which Terry Eagleton notes, between these two great antagonists (LRB, 3 February). It was quickly apparent that John Paul’s papacy was going to be characterised by Soviet-style double-speak and double-think: ‘renewal’ was merely the repackaging of past certainties; discerning ‘the signs of the times’ meant accepting official teaching; ‘dialogue’, even among bishops, became the ratification of preformulated conclusions. It was distressing that after a great reforming council – at which the Church decided it had had enough of autocracy – a pope had been elected whose notion of engaging with the modern world was to enforce absolute conformity to the traditional party line. The unifying theme of papal policy was the centralisation of power. In Latin America, charismatic figures were either crushed – like Helder Camara (‘I helped the poor and they called me a saint, I asked why they were poor and they called me a Communist’) – or marginalised, like Oscar Romero. Even Pedro Arrupe, the distinguished Jesuit general, was publicly humiliated.

As this papacy nears its end, it has taken on the characteristics of Brezhnev’s last days, when no one knew who was in charge or even if Brezhnev was alive or dead. Those of us who have become refusniks look forward to the future with interest.

Dominic Kirkham

Silvery Whickering

Paul Driver describes Hans Keller’s monograph on Mendelssohn’s E minor Violin Concerto as ‘mysteriously unpublished’, but the mystery is easily solved: Keller’s detailed analysis of selected passages is accompanied by a formidable array of musical examples, enough to make publication economically unviable (LRB, 3 February). No grant has yet been raised. Keller was indeed provoked by a remark of Saul Bellow’s. But rather than taking the work ‘for granted’, as Driver claims, Bellow wrote in To Jerusalem and Back that ‘for a long time now I’ve disliked it. I’m down on all this silvery whickering. It depresses me.’

Christopher Wintle
King’s College London

How Miss Shilling’s Orifice Worked

Peter Campbell asks why an Airbus’s tyres must be filled with nitrogen (LRB, 3 February). Nitrogen is inert, which is a comfort in the event of a brake fire after an emergency stop, for example, or a deflation at high speed. The disc inside the wheel is, as he suspects, a brake. He is wrong, however, to infer that the V formation of cylinders in the Merlin engine ‘replaced’ radial arrangements in earlier engines: the liquid-cooled in-line design was favoured by Rolls-Royce (less drag), but others preferred the air-cooled radial layout (less weight). Both solutions were developed until the end of the piston era, and produced equally powerful engines. Campbell also wonders how ‘Miss Shilling’s Orifice’ worked. It prevented an excess of fuel flooding the carburettor under negative G conditions (leading to a too-rich fuel/air mixture in the cylinders, cutting out ignition) by restricting the maximum flow in the fuel pipe.

J.F. Darycott
Staines, Middlesex

Preserving Turpin

David Wootton reports that Dick Turpin’s body ‘was reburied in a coffin filled with lime to ensure its rapid decomposition’ in an attempt to save it from grave robbers (LRB, 3 February). In fact lime tends to preserve the body, not decompose it.

Martin Ward