An anti-ID biology professor who doesn’t even know the facts of life, let alone evolution
|August 30, 2012||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. You wouldn’t expect a biology professor, of all people, to get the facts of life wrong. You wouldn’t expect a man whose specialty is genetics to overlook the most basic facts about how evolution works. And you certainly wouldn’t expect a scientist who declares that “it is necessary for schools to teach biological evolution” to be ignorant of the key events in human evolution. “Surely,” you might say, “that could never happen.” And yet it did. When? Just last week. (Lydia McGew has an excellent article about the whole episode here.)
The man I’m talking about is Greg Hampikian, a professor of biology and criminal justice at Boise State University, who received his Ph.D. in Genetics from the University of Connecticut in 1990. Since I believe in giving credit where credit is due, I should mention that he’s also the director of the Idaho Innocence Project.
Professor Hampikian’s evolutionary credentials are impeccable. As one of 26 scientists and educators on the University System of Georgia Biology Academic Advisory Committee in 2003, he signed a public declaration that gave a ringing endorsement to “biological evolution” while delivering a broadside at Intelligent Design, which it derided as an idea “outside the scope of science.” The declaration cited the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Academy of Sciences, so it would be sensible to assume that it endorses the same kind of “evolution” that those two scientific bodies endorse: Darwinian evolution. After all, the AAAS’s own journal, Science, has used the term “Darwinism” no less than 774 times in its published articles, and the National Academy of Sciences has actively promoted Charles Darwin’s work, declaring: “The ideas of Charles Darwin and the concept of evolution by natural selection continue to have a profound influence on modern biology – they permeate almost every area of scientific exploration.” I think we can safely assume, then, that Professor Hampikian is not only a critic of Intelligent Design, but also a card-carrying Darwinian evolutionist.
Professor Hampikian’s Egregious Errors
So how did Hampikian make such a public spectacle of himself last week?
In a short article in The New York Times entitled, Men, Who Needs Them? (25 August 2012), Professor Hampikian managed to make three basic scientific howlers. First, he declared that an immature human ovum is a human individual, decades before it gets fertilized by a sperm cell. Second, he asserted the human species could survive perfectly well even if all men on Earth died tonight, thanks to frozen sperm and human cloning, which is “just around the corner.” Third, he claimed that children grow up just as well without fathers, after controlling for poverty, despite the fact that the female sociologist whom he quoted in support of this view, sharply disagrees with him!
Professor Hampikian compounded his scientific errors with an egregious linguistic error that would have made a schoolboy of 50 years ago blush with shame. He evidently believes that the Latin word homo means a man, and in his article, he chided 18th century scientists for their “masculine bias” in giving our species the name, Homo sapiens. But the word homo doesn’t mean “man.” It means “human being.” The Latin word for man is vir (as in virile).
Allow me to quote the relevant passages from Professor Hampikian’s article, Men, Who Needs Them? Here’s his schoolboy error regarding the name, Homo sapiens:
[T]the genus name for human beings, Homo, reflects an 18th-century masculine bias in science…
And here’s Professor Hampikian’s ridiculous pseudo-scientific claim that “you” existed, decades before you were conceived inside your mother’s body:
Your life as an egg actually started in your mother’s developing ovary, before she was born; you were wrapped in your mother’s fetal body as it developed within your grandmother.
After the two of you left Grandma’s womb, you enjoyed the protection of your mother’s prepubescent ovary. Then, sometime between 12 and 50 years after the two of you left your grandmother, you burst forth and were sucked by her fimbriae into the fallopian tube. You glided along the oviduct, surviving happily on the stored nutrients and genetic messages that Mom packed for you.
Then, at some point, your father spent a few minutes close by, but then left. A little while later, you encountered some very odd tiny cells that he had shed. They did not merge with you, or give you any cell membranes or nutrients — just an infinitesimally small packet of DNA, less than one-millionth of your mass…
Here’s Hampikian’s publicity-grabbing statement that the human race no longer needs men:
If all the men on earth died tonight, the species could continue on frozen sperm. If the women disappear, it’s extinction.
Ultimately the question is, does “mankind” really need men? With human cloning technology just around the corner and enough frozen sperm in the world to already populate many generations, perhaps we should perform a cost-benefit analysis.
And here’s his confident assertion that children can be raised perfectly well without fathers:
Fortunately, the data for children raised by only females is encouraging. As the Princeton sociologist Sara S. McLanahan has shown, poverty is what hurts children, not the number or gender of parents.
Dads Do Matter
I’m going to tackle the errors in reverse order. Just three days after the publication of Professor Hampikian’s article, Professor McLanahan wrote a letter to the New York Times, protesting that her work had been mis-represented by Hampikian. The letter is so telling that I’m going to quote it in full:
The Importance of Dads
To the Editor:
Two recent opinion articles cite my research to support their claims that fathers aren’t necessary for a thriving household (“In Defense of Single Motherhood,” by Katie Roiphe, Aug. 12, and “Men, Who Needs Them?,” by Greg Hampikian, Aug. 25). That does not fairly describe my work.
Income security is very important. But fathers in most cases are critical contributors to family income. And income security is only half the story.
Emotional security — which children develop from living in stable families where they can form lasting relationships with adults who stick around for the long run — is also important. Stable homes with one parent are rare. More often in single-mother households, children meet, attach and then say goodbye to men who are only temporarily connected to the family.
Two parents committed to each other and to raising a child together are more likely to provide the economic and emotional security children need. That large numbers of fathers cannot provide economic and emotional security constitutes a serious social problem.
Princeton, N.J., Aug. 28, 2012
Sara McLanahan is a professor of sociology and public affairs and director of the Center for Research on Child Well-Being at Princeton University.
Need I say more?
Marriage – it’s what made us human, literally!
Actually, there is more that I’d like to say. If Professor Hampikian knows anything at all about human evolution, he should know that fathers who made monogamous life-long commitments to their wives and children have played a vital role in human survival for the past two million years. He should also know that fatherhood is part of what differentiates us from the other great apes. Chimpanzee fathers don’t care for their children. Human fathers do.
In their paper, Grandmothering and Female Coalitions: A Basis for Matrilineal Priority? (in Allen, N. J., Callan, H., Dunbar, R. and James, W. (eds), Early Human Kinship: From Sex to Social Reproduction, Blackwell Publishing Ltd., Oxford, UK, 2009), Kit Opie and Camilla Power identify four distinct stages in hominid evolution. In the first stage, energy requirements were relatively low, and mothers were self-sufficient foragers:
“Among early hominins prior to 2 Ma [million years ago – VJT] who retained significant climbing abilities, brains and bodies were relatively small, with high size dimorphism between sexes.” (2009, p. 181)
In the second phase, as babies’ brains grew bigger and required more energy, mothers required the assistance of grandmothers, in caring for their infants. Here we see the beginnings of sustained female co-operation, between two generations. However, they would have still been able to care for their babies without paternal assistance:
“From about 2.5 Ma [million years ago – VJT], these species began to encephalize while bodies remained quite small and apparently still highly dimorphic (McHenry, 1996). This suggests increasing costs for females, indicating more pressure for female-female co-operation, while males still had high body-size costs and were less likely to be co-operative.” (2009, p. 181)
In the third phase, with the emergence of Homo erectus, adults (especially females) had considerably larger bodies, with much higher energy requirements. By now, the contribution of a father who was committed to the care of his offspring had become a practical necessity:
“These encephalized early Homo species led to the emergence of early African Homo erectus after 2 Ma., the first hominin with body proportions like ours, bodies that were bigger and designed for walking not climbing (Wood and Collard 1999). Sexual size dimorphism had been reduced, largely because female H. erectus increased body size proportionately more than males (McHenry 1996). With female costs rising relative to males, significantly more co-operation by males with females can be expected from this time. But this is based on the prior evolution of inter-female co-operation.” (2009, pp. 181-182)
In the fourth and final phase, with the emergence of Heidelberg man (who was as tall as we are and who had a brain capacity averaging around 1250 cc.), the human brain finally reached a size that fell within the modern range of 1000 to 1500 cc. The bigger brains of children placed an even greater load upon mothers, who would have been utterly unable to provide for their infants without the presence of a committed father. As Opie and Power put it:
“In the final phase of encephalization, from 500,000 years ago among H. heidelbergensis, female costs again rose steeply as mothers had to fuel the energy-hungry, larger brains of their offspring.” (2009, p. 184)
Opie and Power also contend that grandmothers (who first appeared in the second phase of human evolution, about 2.5 million years ago) played an essential role in shaping human evolution and creating matrilineal kinship systems. However, they go on to argue that with the emergence of Homo erectus 2 million years ago, mothers came to rely on both grandmothers and fathers in order to care for their offspring. They base their claim on their estimates of the daily energy requirements of Homo erectus mothers with young infants. Using highly plausible estimates for the age at the first birth of a child (16.8 years), age at last birth (33 years) and total lifespan (45 years), Opie and Power demonstrate that even with an interval of five years between successive births, mothers of Homo erectus infants would have been unable to raise enough offspring to replace the population and provide for their infants’ energy needs on a day-to-day basis without assistance from other adults. They calculate that neither a grandmother nor a father could have supplied enough food on their own; both would have been required.
This invites the obvious question: how did men and women make such co-operative arrangements in the first place? For men, a long-term investment of care for an infant would have made no biological sense without a reasonable degree of certitude regarding paternity – which in turn presupposes a public commitment to long-term monogamy on the part of both partners. However, making such a commitment would have required the use of symbolic language. This is one major reason why Dr. Mathias Osvath and Professor Peter Gardenfors argue, in their paper, Oldowan culture and the evolution of anticipatory cognition (Lund University Cognitive Science, 122, 2005), that Homo ergaster and Homo erectus were rational beings with an ability to anticipate and refer to long-term future events – an ability which is known in scientific circles as anticipatory cognition. As Osvath and Gardenfors point out, language is only required for effective co-operation between two individuals if the common goal they are working to achieve is distant in time or space. In their words: “symbolic language makes it possible to co-operate about detached goals” (2005, p. 11). They argue:
“For many forms of co-operation among animals, it seems that representations are not needed. If the common goal is present in the actual environment, for example food to be eaten or an antagonist to be fought, the collaborators need not focus on a joint representation of it before acting. If, on the other hand, the goal is detached, i.e. distant in time or space, then a common representation of it must be produced before co-operative action can be taken. For example, building a common dwelling requires coordinated planning of how to obtain the building material and advanced collaboration in the construction. In general terms, co-operation about detached goals requires that the inner worlds of the individuals be co-ordinated.” (2005, p. 10)
Osvath and Gardenfors then discuss an interesting proposal originally put forward by Professor Terrence Deacon, that marriage agreements between prehistoric men and women constituted the first form of symbolic communication. First, they argue that both sexes had good evolutionary motives for establishing a long-term bond:
“To show the evolutionary importance of cooperation for future goals, Deacon (1997, pp. 385-401) suggests that the first form of symbolic communication is marriage agreements, that is, deliberate commitments to pair bonding. The ecological conditions of the early hominids made meat a prominent part of their diet. At the same time, a nursing female hominid, with a baby that is much more dependent on its mother than those of the other primates, cannot efficiently participate in hunting and scavenging. A female who cannot count on at least one male supplying her with meat, will suffer from a high probability of losing her children. On the other hand, a male who cannot be reasonably sure that he is the father of the children he is supporting, runs a serious risk of investing in the genes of other males. Thus both sexes have evolutionarily motivated reasons for establishing a long-term bond between woman and man.” (2005, pp. 10-11)
Next, Osvath and Gardenfors contend that for long-term pair-bonding agreements to work, there must be a way of publicly referring to an agreement, either by symbolic miming or by speech, in order to remind individuals of its binding nature and in order to justify sanctions directed at individuals who cheat on their partners:
“Deacon (1997, p. 399) argues that for these reasons there was strong evolutionary pressure in hominid societies to establish relationships of exclusive sexual access. He says that such an exclusive sexual bond ”is a prescription for future behaviors.” Even if we do not know of any evidence that marriage agreements was the first form of symbolic communication, we still find this example important in the discussion of early anticipatory cognition. A detached pair-bonding agreement implicitly determines which future behaviours are allowed and not allowed. These expectations concerning future behaviour do not only include the pair, but also the other members of the social group who are supposed not to disturb the relation by cheating. Anybody who breaks the agreement risks punishment from the entire group. Thus in order to maintain such bonds, they must be linked to social sanctions. With the aid of some form of ritual, one can mark out a loyalty bond for the rest of the group and that the appropriate sanctions are now at function. It should also be noted that episodic memory is required to be able to refer to the established loyalty bond later on, by miming or by speech, and to remind group members of the sanctions (Atran, 2002, pp. 159-160).” (2005, p. 11)
An interesting picture now emerges: at some stage in human evolution, our ancestors would have needed to make long-term commitments for the purpose of raising offspring. This capacity presupposes not only the ability to plan for the long-term future but also the ability to use symbolic language to refer to abstractions like the marriage bond. Osvath and Gardenfors (2005) agree with Opie and Power (2009) that the emergence of Homo ergaster/erectus, approximately 2,000,000 years ago, marks the most likely date of this important social transition.
And fathers played a vital role in this transition. Does anyone still think they’re redundant?
Are men biologically redundant?
Professor Hampikian’s assertion that men are no longer biologically necessary for the survival of the species is equally ridiculous. He writes that “If all the men on earth died tonight, the species could continue on frozen sperm.” First of all, half of those sperm cells would still have a Y-chromosome, which means that if women used them to create a child, men would be back with a vengeance. So let’s do a proper thought experiment, shall we? Let’s suppose that all the men on earth died tonight, and all sperm cells containing a Y-chromosome as well, so that only women could be born from now on. How long would the human race last then?
The critical question is: how long do frozen sperm remain viable? It is widely claimed that frozen semen could potentially remain viable for 10,000 years (see here, here, here for examples), but I have yet to see a scholarly source for this estimate.
It is certainly true that a baby was born earlier this year who had been conceived with semen that was frozen 25 years previously. However, Jessica Hobby, the writer of an article on Wisegeek entitled, How Long Does Frozen Semen Stay Viable? adds a note of caution to her optimistic assertion that frozen semen will generally remain viable for an extended length of time as long it is frozen properly to begin with:
Although scientists have been able to freeze semen since the 1950s, modern methods were only really developed in the 1960s, so it is difficult to predict how long correctly frozen and stored semen will remain viable. Some experts recommend frozen sperm be used within 12 years, however, for the best chances that it will be viable….
Additionally, each man’s sperm will react differently to being frozen; up to 20% of men have sperm that does not freeze well, and which will not survive being frozen. Once thawed, some sperm will remain strong while others may decrease in health and become less viable.
But let’s be generous. Let’s assume that some men’s frozen sperm actually do remain viable for 10,000 years, as popularly claimed. The problem is that 10,000 years isn’t very long, from an evolutionary perspective. Our species, Homo sapiens, has already been around for 200,000 years. 10,000 years is just 5% of the period during which Homo sapiens has lived on Earth.
Professor Hampikian is a biologist. He really should have known that.
What about cloning? Let’s assume that the technology is indeed “just around the corner” for human beings, as Professor Hampikian claims. Even if it becomes available for human beings, cloning is fraught with problems, as the Institute For Ethics and Emerging Technologies’ Managing Director Hank Pellissier notes in an article on the IEET Website (February 2, 2011) entitled, Ova-Fusion and the Elimination of the Male:
Cloning has also proved abysmal for procreation – creatures derived from this method have shortened, wretched lives due to hepatic failure, broad necrotic lesions, and immune collapse.
Professor Hampikian really should have known that, too.
Hank Pellissier favors another technique for doing away with men: ova-fusion. Strangely, Professor Hampikian never even mentioned that one in his article. It works as follows:
In 2004, the first bi-maternal mammal was artificially created in Tokyo via parthenogenesis, a process in which an altered ovum, acting like a sperm, attached itself to another ovum to form an embryo that successfully matured.
The small black mouse was named “Kaguya-hime” after a mysterious baby girl in a 10th century folk tale who was discovered inside a bamboo stalk. Developed by Tomohiro Kono, Manabu Kawahara, and their research team, the little mouse Kaguya lived a healthy, normal life, procreating naturally as an adult….
Eggs-acting-like-sperm supply as much genetic range as the actual masculine goo, plus they subtract the genetic liabilities of the male.
And yet the article goes on to admit:
When Dr. Kono was asked if parthenogenesis could be used to replace men, he unequivocally replied, “This is not realistic.”
Wise words. There’s just one little fact that Pellissier forgot, that ruins every scenario for doing away with men: humans evolve. (I’m talking about micro-evolution here.) And the pace of evolution is increasing at a break-neck pace. As University of Wisconsin anthropologist John Hawks put it recently: “We are more different genetically from people living 5,000 years ago than they were different from Neanderthals.”
Think about that. The Neanderthals died out about 30,000 years ago, and they broke away from the lineage leading to Homo sapiens around 600,000 years ago! That’s a lot of evolution in the last few thousand years.
So, how much has the pace of evolution accelerated? 100-fold, according to a press release on December 10, 2007 by the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
In a study published in the Dec. 10 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a team led by University of Wisconsin-Madison anthropologist John Hawks estimates that positive selection just in the past 5,000 years alone – around the period of the Stone Age – has occurred at a rate roughly 100 times higher than any other period of human evolution. Many of the new genetic adjustments are occurring around changes in the human diet brought on by the advent of agriculture, and resistance to epidemic diseases that became major killers after the growth of human civilizations.
“In evolutionary terms, cultures that grow slowly are at a disadvantage, but the massive growth of human populations has led to far more genetic mutations,” says Hawks. “And every mutation that is advantageous to people has a chance of being selected and driven toward fixation. What we are catching is an exceptional time.”
As Hawks noted, mutations are what has made the rapid increase in the pace of human evolution possible. And what has all this got to do with men? As R. Alan Leo notes in an article on the Harvard Medical School Website, Most Mutations Come from Dad:
Humans inherit more than three times as many mutations from their fathers as from their mothers, and mutation rates increase with the father’s age but not the mother’s, researchers have found in the largest study of human genetic mutations to date.
Of course, most mutations are deleterious. A few, however, are beneficial. Doing away with the sex that gives rise to the vast majority of mutations might not be a good idea, in a rapidly changing world where people need to evolve quickly so that their descendants can adapt to unforseen environmental transformations.
I say “unforeseen” because if there is one thing that characterizes scientific and technological progress, it is unforeseen consequences. Hence the idea that we will one day be able to engineer our own evolution in response to environmental changes is pure hogwash. It’s retroactive. Natural mutations, by virtue of their glorious diversity, prepare us for the unforeseen. I should add that the natural mutations that drive evolution are not random, as geneticist James Shapiro has pointed out in his book, Evolution: A View from the 21st Century.
Finally, I should add that no species of mammal reproduces asexually. That’s right: not one. Asexual reproduction has been observed in some reptiles, but as the Wikipedia article on the subject notes:
A complete lack of sexual reproduction is relatively rare among multicellular organisms, particularly animals. It is not entirely understood why the ability to reproduce sexually is so common among them. Current hypotheses suggest that asexual reproduction may have short term benefits when rapid population growth is important or in stable environments, while sexual reproduction offers a net advantage by allowing more rapid generation of genetic diversity, allowing adaptation to changing environments…
Molecular evidence strongly suggest that at least two species of the stick insect genus Timema have used only asexual (parthenogenetic) reproduction for one million years, the longest period known for any insect.
Some scientists, however, regard evidence for long periods of asexual reproduction in multicellular species with skepticism.
The only animals known to have survived for tens of millions of years without sex appear to be creatures called bdelloid rotifers (a class of wheel animals), which have been asexual for the last 40 million years or so. But it’s a giant step from an invertebrate organism less than a millimeter long to a human being.
So I have to ask: if Professor Hampikian really thinks males are redundant, then how does he account for the fact that not one species of mammal has ever gone down the asexual path? Could it be that the process by which Nature produces a mammalian embryo is a lot more complex than he imagines, and that science has only begun to scratch the surface of this complexity? Could it be that sex is a vital part of the way in which mammals have been intelligently designed? But I mustn’t even ask that question: according to Professor Hampikian, Intelligent Design is “outside the realm of science.” Really?
The Facts of Life
As we’ve seen, Professor Hampikian doesn’t appear to know much about biology or evolution. Even more astonishingly, he’s ignorant of the facts of life: he believes that “you” began decades before you were conceived. Evidently, he believes that an oogonium, or a primordial oocyte in a female fetus (that’s an immature human ovum in lay parlance) is a human individual. This, I have to say, is utter nonsense, and I can quote a dozen eminent embryologists to prove it. A new human individual comes into existence at fertilization, period. If Professor Hampikian doesn’t know that, then he really doesn’t know the facts of life.
One often encounters the pro-choice argument that a human ovum and a sperm cell are both human and alive, so it is wrong to claim that human life begins at conception. Equally common is the tired objection that human life is an unbroken continuum, with no “magic moment” at which a new human life appears.
Both of these objections are flawed, insofar as they overlook the vital distinction between “human life” and “the life of a new human being.” This distinction is carefully explicated by Dr. Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D., a former career-appointed bench research biologist/biochemist, NCI, NIH; philosopher and medical ethicist, in her online article, When Do Human Beings Begin? “Scientific” Myths and Scientific Facts:
[T]here is a radical difference, scientifically, between parts of a human being that only possess “human life” and a human embryo or human fetus that is an actual “human being.” Abortion is the destruction of a human being. Destroying a human sperm or a human oocyte would not constitute abortion, since neither are human beings. The issue is not when does human life begin, but rather when does the life of every human being begin. A human kidney or liver, a human skin cell, a sperm or an oocyte all possess human life, but they are not human beings — they are only parts of a human being. If a single sperm or a single oocyte were implanted into a woman’s uterus, they would not grow; they would simply disintegrate.
Indeed, there is a very high degree of agreement among embryologists that fertilization normally marks the beginning of the human being as an individual organism, and that the sperm and oocyte (unfertilized egg, in popular parlance) which exist prior to that point are human cells, but not human organisms. The following selection of statements from embryology textbooks should suffice to refute the pro-choice canard that “life is a smooth, unbroken continuum”:
“Human development begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm … unites with a female gamete or oocyte … to form a single cell [embryo]. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marks the beginning of each of us as a unique individual. (p. 18) … The usual site of fertilization is the ampulla of the uterine tube [fallopian tube], its longest and widest part. If the oocyte is not fertilized here, it slowly passes along the tube to the uterus, where it degenerates and is resorbed. Although fertilization may occur in other parts of the tube, it does not occur in the uterus. … The embryo’s chromosomes sex is determined at fertilization by the kind of sperm (X or Y) that fertilizes the ovum; hence it is the father rather than the mother whose gamete determines the sex of the embryo.” [Keith Moore and T.V.N. Persaud, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology (6th ed. only) (Philadelphia: W.B. Saunders Company, 1998), p. 37].
“Human pregnancy begins with the fusion of an egg and a sperm. (p. 3); … finally, the fertilized egg, now properly called an embryo, must make its way into the uterus (p. 3); … The sex of the future embryo is determined by the chromosomal complement of the spermatozoon … Through the mingling of maternal and paternal chromosomes, the [embryo] is a genetically unique product of chromosomal reassortment …” [Bruce M. Carlson, Human Embryology and Developmental Biology (St. Louis, MO: Mosby, 1994 ), p. 31; ibid, Carlson 1999, pp., 2, 23, 27, 32].
“In this text, we begin our description of the developing human with the formation and differentiation of the male and female sex cells or gametes, which will unite at fertilization to initiate the embryonic development of a new individual. … Fertilization takes place in the oviduct [not the uterus]… resulting in the formation of an [embryo] containing a single diploid nucleus. Embryonic development is considered to begin at this point…” (p. 1). [William J. Larsen, Human Embryology (New York: Churchill Livingstone, 1997), p. 17].
O’Rahilly 2001 – Table 8-1
“Principal Features of Developmental States of the early human embryo: Stage 1 – Includes penetrated oocyte, ootid, and zygote. Thus accordingly, the penetrated oocyte and the ootid (before syngamy) are characterized as an already existing human embryo at Stage 1 of development.” [Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Muller, Human Embryology & Teratology (New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001), p. 89]. (Emphases mine – VJT.)
The French geneticist Jerome L. LeJeune has stated:
“To accept the fact that after fertilization has taken place a new human has come into being is no longer a matter of taste or opinion. The human nature of the human being from conception to old age is not a metaphysical contention, it is plain experimental evidence.” [The Human Life Bill: Hearings on S. 158 Before the Subcommittee on Separation of Powers of the Senate Judiciary Committee, 97th Congress, 1st Session (1981). See Norman L. Geisler, Christian Ethics: Options and Issues (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1989), p. 149 also Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), p. 42.] (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Dr. Hymie Gordon, professor of medical genetics and Mayo Clinic physician stated:
“I think we can now also say that the question of the beginning of life – when life begins – is no longer a question for theological or philosophical dispute. It is an established scientific fact. Theologians and philosophers may go on to debate the meaning of life or purpose of life, but it is an established fact that all life, including human life, begins at the moment of conception.” [The Human Life Bill – S. 158, Report 9, see Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), p. 42.] (Emphases mine – VJT.)
Dr. Micheline Matthew-Roth, a principal research associate at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Medicine states:
“It is scientifically correct to say that an individual human life begins at conception, when egg and sperm join to form the zygote, and this developing human always is a member of our species in all stages of life.” [The Human Life Bill – S. 158, Report together with Additional and Minority Views to the Committee on the Judiciary, United States Senate, made by its Subcommittee on Separation of Powers, 97th Congress, 1st Session (1981) see Francis J. Beckwith, Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1993), p. 43] (Emphasis mine – VJT.)
The life of a new human being normally begins when the sperm penetrates the ovum (or more accurately, the oocyte). (I say “normally” because the example of human cloning shows that there’s more than one way to make a new human life.) This process take one second to occur, as Professor Maureen Condic explains in her online paper, When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (White Paper Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008, published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):
The basic events of early development are both reasonably well characterized and entirely uncontested. Following the binding of sperm and egg to each other, the membranes of these two cells fuse, creating in this instant a single hybrid cell: the zygote or one-cell embryo… Cell fusion is a well studied and very rapid event, occurring in less than a second. Because the zygote arises from the fusion of two different cells, it contains all the components of both sperm and egg, and therefore the zygote has a unique molecular composition that is distinct from either gamete.
Subsequent to sperm-egg fusion, events rapidly occur in the zygote that do not normally occur in either sperm or egg. The contents of what was previously the sperm, including its nucleus, enter the cytoplasm of the newly formed zygote. Within minutes of membrane fusion, the zygote initiates changes in its ionic composition that will, over the next 30 minutes, result in chemical modifications of the zona pellucida, an acellular structure surrounding the zygote… These modifications block sperm binding to the cell surface and prevent further intrusion of additional spermatozoa on the unfolding process of development. Thus, the zygote acts immediately and specifically to antagonize the function of the gametes from which it is derived; while the “goal” of both sperm and egg is to find each other and to fuse, the first act of the zygote is immediately to prevent any further binding of sperm to the cell surface. Clearly, then, the prior trajectories of sperm and egg have been abandoned, and a new developmental trajectory—that of the zygote—has taken their place. (p. 3) (Emphases mine – VJT.)
About 24 hours later, an event called syngamy occurs: the breakdown of nuclear membranes in the one-cell embryo, in preparation for cell division. This is the last event associated with the one-cell embryo stage. After this point, the cells of the embryo start to behave in ways that are also observed in other, more mature body cells, so many people have proposed that syngamy, rather than penetration of the oocyte, marks the beginning of a new human life. Professor Maureen Condic argues that this view is profoundly mistaken, in her online paper, When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (White Paper Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008, published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):
Compared with the changes in both material composition and developmental trajectory that occur at the fusion of sperm and egg, syngamy is fundamentally an arbitrary definition for the beginning of life. From a biological perspective, the breakdown of nuclear membranes at syngamy is a relatively mundane event along an already progressing developmental trajectory. The material composition of the cell does not change from the instant prior to syngamy to the instant after it takes place. There is no substantive change in the behavior of the cell at syngamy; all the preparations for cell division (DNA replication, assembly of the mitotic spindle, chromatin condensation) are already underway as the pronuclei move together. Indeed, nuclear membrane breakdown is not a unique, “zygote-forming” event, but rather it is part of every round of cell division that occurs through life. The zygote is the same cell – and it continues doing exactly what it was doing (i.e., preparing to undergo cell division) both before and after the pronuclei come into physical proximity. The developmental program observed during the first cell cycle (including the breakdown of nuclear membranes at syngamy) is clearly initiated by the fusion of the sperm and egg, and it progresses seamlessly from that instant forward.
The assertion that the mature, diploid genome forms at syngamy is also scientifically untenable. The definitive diploid genome is formed at the completion of meiosis. As detailed above, although syngamy appears to result in the “fusion” of the two pronuclei, the maternally and paternally derived DNA interact extensively prior to syngamy. The physical proximity of the two halves of the genome achieved after nuclear membrane breakdown is biologically irrelevant to the ongoing interaction of the DNA contained within the genome. Moreover, the “mingling” of the DNA that occurs at syngamy is in some ways quite superficial. There is good evidence that full mingling of the maternal and paternal DNA strands is not completed during the first cell cycle, but rather that chromatin derived from each parent occupies distinct domains within the nucleus until at least the four-cell stage. Thus, syngamy does not fully establish the normal state of a diploid nucleus (as is seen in mature somatic cells, with random mixing of DNA strands derived from both parents), further compromising syngamy as a definition of when the life of a new individual begins.
The essential problem with the view that life begins at syngamy is the notion that a cell can change from one type (a “pre-zygote” that exists following sperm-egg fusion but prior to syngamy) into another type (the zygote that exists after syngamy) without any actual change in the material state or behavioral trajectory of the cell. This argument is simply not consistent with the scientific method. To assert that life begins at syngamy is to propose some form of mysticism: although a zygote cannot be distinguished in any significant manner from the “pre-zygote” that precedes it, the cell is now a zygote simply because one asserts that it is. (pp. 8-9) (Emphases mine – VJT.)
In a footnote (#26), Professor Condic carefully dispels the concern some authors have expressed, regarding the fact that the paternal and maternal components of the genome are still physically separate, when the sperm penetrates the ovum (oocyte). How, they ask, can the fertilized ovum be said to truly constitute a single organism (i.e. a new human life) before the male and female pronuclei have come together, or fused? Condic puts forward an interesting analogy to explain why even prior to syngamy, a one-cell embryo is still a true individual:
A good analogy for the communication between the maternally and paternally derived halves of the genome is the communication of two Internet-linked computers with different data sets that are executing a common program. The computers will transmit information and mutually modify each other’s function via electronic signals that are carried by data cables or telephone lines. The mechanism of this indirect communication will not be substantially different for computers separated by a few feet than for those separated by a few thousand miles; computers located in the same room are not somehow more “united” by virtue of their physical proximity than are computers located in different countries. Similarly, DNA communicates indirectly and remotely via DNA-binding proteins, and this communication is not dependent on physical proximity. So long as the two halves of the genome are contained within a single cell (i.e., there is a common mechanism for communication between different elements of the genome), interaction between maternally and paternally derived DNA happens indirectly through transcription and translation of DNA binding proteins, mechanisms that do not require the DNA to be “united” within a single nuclear membrane. (p. 8) (Emphases mine – VJT.)
We have seen that an esteemed professor of biology can get away with anything: getting the facts of life wrong, making wildly inaccurate statements about human genetics, and distorting research on the importance of human fathers. And for what? To create a sensationalistic headline in The New York Times.
What a wasted effort.