CHILDREN WHO REMEMBER PAST LIVES: BIRTHMARK AND DEFECT CASES
Extract from Chapter 2 of The Big Book of the Soul
© Ian Lawton 2008
There is a subset of Stevenson’s cases that, if fully authenticated, would provide quite astonishing evidence of reincarnation, which is why he devoted a considerable amount of time to their investigation and documentation. They involve children who have birthmarks or other physical birth defects that appear to correspond to the fatal wounds of the deceased person whose life they remember. He collated over two hundred such cases and they are all reported in detail in his lengthy medical monograph Reincarnation and Biology, the two volumes of which deal with birthmarks and defects respectively, while over one hundred of them are summarized in the shorter Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect. All of these books were published relatively late in Stevenson’s career, in 1997.
Most skeptics do not pay much attention to these cases because they have already concluded that the conventional ones are deficient. But in his 1967 paper Chari expressed doubt about the validity of the small number of early birthmark cases. Meanwhile in Reincarnation Edwards critiques one of the early cases, that of Corliss Chotkin.[i] This is an easy target because both child and deceased came from the same family, as is usual with the Tlingit, although his selection was limited because Stevenson’s specialist books on this topic had not been published at the time. In any case Edwards’ main objection is the ‘modus operandi problem’ – that we do not know the scientific mechanism by which such birthmarks and defects could be transferred from one body to the next.[ii] Of course this is just as narrowly materialist as his aforementioned objection that we do not know the exact mechanism by which a soul might reincarnate in the first place.
However he does present one other argument, which was speculative at the time given that he had only studied one case, but which arguably turns out to be pretty accurate when the full set of cases is examined:[iii]
What happens is that when a child is born with some birthmarks, the parents or other interested parties try to remember or look for somebody who died fairly recently and of whom it was known that he had wounds whose location corresponded to the location of the birthmarks of the child.
Edwards is assuming here that such cases always come from cultures with an existing belief in reincarnation, and this does seem to be true because there are very few if any from Western countries.[iv] To make matters worse Stevenson admits, without apparently seeing it as a major problem, that certain cultures do exactly what Edwards suggests:[v]
Much depends on the care with which they examine the baby. This, in turn, varies with the importance they give to identifying the baby as a particular person reborn. Some cultures, such as those of the Tlingit of Alaska and the Igbo of Nigeria, attach great importance to such identification. In those cultures, if you had been, for example, a famous warrior or even a successful trader, you can pick up some of your previous prestige as you are reborn – provided, that is, that your parents recognize you for who you were.
Elsewhere we find that the Burmese too regard birth defects as stemming from a previous life:[vi]
Burmese people call birth defects and wounds… ta-gyun-nar, which means an affliction from a previous life. One treatment consists in applying to the wounds a paste made from a human bone, or perhaps bamboo or other wood, from the cemetery.
Stevenson also discusses cases that involve what he calls ‘experimental’ birthmarks:[vii]
These involve the marking of a dying or recently dead person with some substance, such as charcoal. The mark is put in a particular location, and later-born children (of the extended family or area) are examined to see whether they have a birthmark at the site of the marking.
Not only this, but we have already seen that the general cases from Burma, Thailand, Nigeria and Alaska always involve the same broad family, and the birthmark and defect ones follow the same rule. Meanwhile in most of the rest of these cases from other countries or cultures the two families are still from the same village or area. Indeed in virtually all of them there is some degree of prior acquaintance, unlike in the more conventional cases in which at least a substantial minority – including those of Swarnlata and Gopal, for example – do not suffer from this drawback. What all this means is that there does appear to be a far greater likelihood of widespread self-deception, and even on occasion of fraud, with birthmark and defect cases.
To be sure that this is not an unduly harsh judgment we should examine a few of what might be thought of as the stronger cases in each category. If we start by considering those involving birthmarks we should first appreciate that, although almost all of us have them, they usually only take the form of small areas of increased skin pigmentation or moles. By contrast Stevenson insists that most of his cases involve ‘hairless areas of puckered, scarlike tissue, often raised above the surrounding tissues or depressed below them’, and also usually more than one mark.[viii] There is therefore some validity to his claim that they are unusual as birthmarks, but the problem is that they also tend to resemble the sort of scars that arise from common injuries. So Stevenson is almost always relying on uncorroborated family testimony that the marks were there at birth. That is not to suggest that fraud is widespread in these cases, merely that there can easily be confusion between marks existing at birth and those arising from typical childhood knocks. However in the worst-case scenario, as distasteful as it may be, it is not impossible that in certain cultures a family with a strong motive for making an identification with someone who was powerful or wealthy might have deliberately manufactured appropriate scars on their child.
Our first example of this type of case is that of Chanai Choomalaiwong.[ix] He was born in central Thailand in 1967, apparently with one small, round mark on the crown of his head and another larger and more irregular one above the hairline on the left. These did roughly correspond to the mode of death of the previous personality he claimed to have been, a schoolteacher and minor gangster called Bua Kai who was shot in the back of the head – although there was no postmortem report to establish the exact location of his wounds. Moreover Chanai apparently made a number of correct statements and recognitions, in addition to adopting a fatherly attitude to Bua Kai’s children. On the other hand, although the two relevant villages were some fifteen miles apart, the grandmother who brought Chanai up was at least ‘casually acquainted’ with Bua Kai. There is certainly nothing in this case to overtly suggest fraud but, given the element of prior acquaintance, self-deception is surely a possibility. Much hinges on the statistical likelihood of such birthmarks, if that is what they are, and it is not easy to form an objective judgment about this.
By contrast there is every reason to suppose our next case involved self-deception at the very least, because it was apparently preceded by an ‘announcing dream’. This is a reasonably common occurrence among several of the cultures that Stevenson investigated, and particularly in birthmark and defect cases. In this example he reports that the night before Cemil Fahrici was born in Antakya, Turkey, in 1935, his father dreamed that a distant relative, Cemil Hayik, would be reborn as his son.[x] Hayik was a local hero, a bandit who had only recently killed himself by firing his shotgun from under his chin when his hideout had been surrounded by the occupying French police. Apparently the baby Cemil was found to have a prominent scarlike birthmark under the right side of his chin, about two centimeters long and one wide, and then from the age of two he made a number of accurate statements about Hayik’s life. But Stevenson himself admits that nothing the boy said was not already well known after recent and prominent reporting, on top of which the two parties were distantly related. The boy supposedly had nightmarish dreams about the police, and identified with Hayik so much that he insisted on being called Cemil even though he had been christened Dahham. But, unlike the often somewhat obscure behaviors encountered in more conventional cases, these are obvious reactions if from an early age he had been encouraged to believe he was the heroic Cemil Hayik reborn.
On the face of it this case is strengthened when we find Stevenson reporting on something that transpired some years into his investigation. When he found that the decisive bullet had exited through the top of Hayik’s skull, he was also able to establish that the younger Cemil – albeit that he was by now thirty-five years old – had a linear hairless area about two centimeters long and two millimeters wide at the top of his head. But on further reflection something does not sit quite right here. Apparently the younger man immediately pointed to it when asked, so he himself knew it was there; and so, surely, must his parents and others. So why had it never been mentioned previously? Doubts about this second mark are not improved when we find from Stevenson’s more detailed report that witness testimony about whether or not it had been there at birth was extremely varied and unreliable. Given the popularity of the supposed former personality, and the very late stage at which Stevenson became involved, it is not impossible to conceive of fraud playing a part in this case.
A worse problem arises when we find in this same more detailed report that there was at least one other child in the vicinity, born several years later, who apparently had a birthmark on top of his head and was identifying himself as Cemil Hayik reborn. Stevenson did not learn about this until some time after his own visits, and the details of this other case were sparse. But what we might justifiably consider his far greater impartiality when dealing with more conventional cases seems to go out of the window with this one. He ruminates about the high likelihood that both of these cases might have been manufactured given Hayik’s popularity but then, with no additional justification, comes to the following conclusion:
My own opinion is that Cemil Fahrici had memories of the life of Cemil Hayik and that if anyone should be regarded as the reincarnation of Cemil Hayik it is he. If this is correct, then the case of Sabri Aynaci [the other claimant] belongs in the category… of cases developed by self-deceiving parents.
Birth Defect Cases
If we turn now to birth defects, it seems that they originally caught Stevenson’s attention during his medical training and played a significant role in his future career development. He wondered how they could be fully accounted for by purely physical phenomena when, for example, genetic and hereditary factors alone cannot explain why only one twin in an identical pair sometimes suffers from a defect. It was undoubtedly this conundrum that caused him to devote so much time and energy to these cases. In addition, by their very nature it is virtually inconceivable that those involving birth defects would involve deliberate fraud. So do these fare any better when put under the spotlight?
From a physical correspondence perspective one of the more impressive cases appears to be that of Semih Tutusmus.[xi] His birth in Sarkonak, Turkey, in 1958 was supposedly preceded by his mother dreaming that a man called Selim Fesli would be ‘coming to stay’ with her and her husband. In the dream his face was covered in blood, and he said he had been shot in the ear. This was accurate in that only shortly before this same man, a local farmer well known to Semih’s father, had been shot in the side of the head while dozing in a field and had succumbed to his injuries in hospital several days later. A neighbor had been accused of his murder, but he pleaded that it had been a hunting accident and only received a two-year jail sentence.
Again the identification of the newborn Semih with the deceased was strengthened when he was found to have only a linear stump where his right ear should have been, and the right side of his face was markedly underdeveloped. We are then told that from an early age he made a number of accurate statements and recognitions relating to Selim’s life and death – but again none that he could not have obtained by normal means, while there were virtually no independent witnesses who could testify to their authenticity. From a behavioral point of view he apparently showed intense hostility towards the man accused of his murder, which continued up until his late teens, but this would be a rather obvious reaction if he had always been identified with the deceased.
Although there is nothing to suggest a strong motive for self-deception in this case – apart from Semih seeming to enjoy the attention of Selim’s family during regular visits to their home – once more if we ignore his defects it is not a strong one. But do they force us to rethink? Stevenson reports that studies show the incidence of microtia with hemifacial hypoplasia as something like one in every three-to-five thousand, which is not especially rare. Far worse, however, is that again we find two rather damning pieces of additional information in his more detailed report. Not only were Semih’s parents cousins, although they did not seem to know to what degree, but his mother had taken some form of abortifacient during her pregnancy. As Stevenson himself admits in the small print, both of these factors significantly increase the chance that Semih’s birth defect had an entirely natural explanation.
Another interesting birth defect case is that of Ma Htwe Win, who was born in Upper Burma in 1973.[xii] During pregnancy her mother supposedly dreamed that a man walking on his knees, or perhaps on stumps, was following her and she could not shake him off. Then at birth she was found to have, among other things, partial constriction rings just above both ankles and a severe one around the middle of her left thigh. Stevenson reports that her parents did not understand any of this until Ma Htwe Win started to talk, when she said she had had a previous life as a man called Nga Than, who had been attacked by three other men and then dumped, still partly alive, in a well. She also said he had been placed in a sack and his lower legs tied up behind his thighs to reduce space. This story did correspond rather well with the life of a man called Nga Than whose wife had encouraged his murder to continue a long-standing affair with one of his assailants. Then some time later they quarreled and a neighbor overheard them discussing the murder and the location of the body. The police duly found it in the well.
This sounds rather impressive, but it is aided by the order in which Stevenson presents the events. It is only towards the end of his summary account that we establish, somewhat in passing, that in fact Ma Htwe Win’s mother had walked past the well just as the police were bringing up the body. Stevenson says that she ‘glanced at the body and ropes and went on her way’, but we then find that this made enough of an impression on her that the aforementioned dream occurred that night. Meanwhile, of course, the murder would have been reported in the papers and thoroughly discussed, and then Ma Htwe Win was born some six months later with defects that appeared to correspond well with those of the murder victim – into a culture that, remember, deliberately looks for past-life explanations for such defects.
Like Semih she apparently retained a strong determination to take revenge on the murderers, but this is again an obvious reaction. The only information she provided that was not already well known were some uncorroborated details of the murder itself, such as being stabbed in the chest and having her hands or fingers – the reports varied – cut off. This vaguely corresponded with an extremely faint, small birthmark on her chest and some defects in her left hand. But the key fact not even mentioned by Stevenson is that he seems to have made no attempt to relate this to any sort of postmortem on the recovered body. So her own or her family’s imagination could easily have developed this aspect of the story from these defects, rather than them acting as corroboration for her supposed past-life. This leaves us with her main defects of the legs, and their statistical likelihood is not easy to establish. But there must again be a clear possibility that all this was just coincidence and that self-deception, motivated by a parental desire to explain some rather debilitating defects, played the major role.
A Question of Balance
Any skeptic reading this chapter might easily suggest that this heavy criticism of Stevenson’s birthmark and defect cases, contrasted with ongoing support for the bulk of his more conventional ones, is indicative of double standards. But it is easy to adopt a position in advance and then make selective facts fit that position, even when apparently examining the evidence thoroughly, which is what the vast majority of Stevenson’s supporters and critics do in equal measure. Whereas this evidence is so detailed and complex that to handle it reductively is a nonsense. So the arrival at a less than black-and-white conclusion may be perceived, by some at least, as a strength and an indication of reasonable objectivity.
What can we conclude, then, about where the balance really lies? It seems there are fundamental weaknesses in all of the birthmark and defect cases. It also seems that Stevenson’s objectivity was unquestionably reduced in this area of his research, and we have already seen that there were strong motivations for this – on the one hand because of his medical training, and on the other because such cases, if proven, would constitute incredibly strong evidence of reincarnation. They would also provide unparalleled support for the argument that we are dealing with the reincarnation of the individual soul, and not with subjects tapping into a universal memory or being possessed, which is particularly crucial to the general thread of this book. However our conclusion must surely be that the birthmark and defect cases so far collated really do not stand up well enough to provide such proof. That is not to suggest that our normal explanations of the specific cases discussed above are definitely correct, merely that they are at least as likely as paranormal ones, if not more so. Nor can we discount the possibility that far stronger cases may emerge in the future. But so far the evidence in this area can only be regarded as inconclusive at best.
[i] Edwards, Reincarnation, chapter 10, pp. 136–8.
[ii] Ibid., chapter 10, pp. 139–40. In his ‘Irreverent Postscript’ Edwards revisits the modus operandi problem, this time questioning how God as ‘pure mind’ could influence anything on earth, and in particular be involved in intelligent design; see ibid., pp. 301–3.
[iii] Ibid., chapter 10, p. 138.
[iv] Stevenson, Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect, chapter 1, p. 12 and Reincarnation and Biology, chapter 1, pp. 14–16.
[v] Stevenson, Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect, chapter 1, p. 4.
[vi] Stevenson, Reincarnation and Biology, chapter 19, pp. 1562–3.
[vii] Stevenson, Where Reincarnation and Biology Intersect, chapter 10, p. 73.
[viii] Ibid., chapter 1, p. 3.
[ix] See ibid., chapter 5, pp. 38–41 and Reincarnation and Biology, chapter 5, pp. 300–23.
[x] See ibid., chapter 10, pp. 74–5 and ibid., chapter 10, pp. 728–45 (see especially pp. 741–2 and 745).
[xi] See ibid., chapter 18, pp. 129–31 and ibid., chapter 18, pp. 1382–1403 (see especially pp. 1398 and 1400–1).
[xii] See ibid., chapter 19, pp. 137–9 and ibid., chapter 19, pp. 1553–65.