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The fetus is a parasite, abortion is like plucking out a hair: how much does Jerry Coyne really know about biology?

If I hadn’t read it myself, I would never have believed that a professor of biology could have written this:

“A liver cell cannot survive on its own except in the body (or a Petri dish), and a fetus cannot survive on its own until well into pregnancy. So if other cells are parasitic on the organism, and have DNA, and that DNA could potentially produce an entire person, why aren’t all of our cells ‘persons’? Is it not murder to pluck out a hair?”

Jerry Coyne is a Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago. On December 27, he wrote a post entitled, Vatican scientist claims that “reason was created by God”; gets muddled about accommodationism, in response to an interview given by Bishop Marcelo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. It was in this post that Professor Coyne made the above comment on the fetus as a parasite, and compared abortion to plucking out a hair.

Now, I have to say that I disagree with practically everything the good bishop was reported as saying, in his interview with Christopher Dickey of The Daily Beast. The interview only served to confirm my long-held belief that the Catholic Church would do well to abolish the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and start afresh. I’ll say more about that anon. In the meantime, I’d like to address Professor Coyne’s abysmally ignorant remarks about fetal biology.

Is the fetus a parasite?

In his post, Professor Coyne compared a fetus, which “cannot survive on its own until well into pregnancy,” with a liver cell, which “cannot survive on its own except in the body (or a Petri dish),” and then rhetorically asked why, “if other cells are parasitic on the organism,” the killing or removal of these cells isn’t accounted as murder, whereas the killing of the fetus is. In making these remarks, Coyne was implicitly assuming that the fetus is parasitic upon the mother.

The notion that the embryo/fetus is some sort of parasite was decisively refuted forty years ago in an article titled, Why the Embryo or Fetus is Not a Parasite by Dr. Thomas L. Johnson, Professor Emeritus of Biological Sciences, Mary Washington College, Fredericksburg, Virginia. Professor Johnson has identified no less than eight significant differences between an embryo/fetus and a parasite. I’d like to quote a few brief excerpts from the article (with acknowledgements to Libertarians for Life and to Professor Thomas L. Johnson):

1. a) A parasite is defined as an organism of one species living in or on an organism of another species (a heterospecific relationship) and deriving its nourishment from the host…
b) A human embryo or fetus is an organism of one species (Homo sapiens) living in the uterine cavity of an organism of the same species (Homo sapiens) and deriving its nourishment from the mother…

2. a) A parasite is an invading organism — coming to parasitize the host from an outside source.
b) A human embryo or fetus is formed from a fertilized egg — the egg coming from an inside source, being formed in the ovary of the mother…

3. a) A parasite is generally harmful to some degree to the host that is harboring the parasite.
b) A human embryo or fetus developing in the uterine cavity does not usually cause harm to the mother…

7. a) A parasite is generally detrimental to the reproductive capacity of the invaded host. The host may be weakened, diseased or killed by the parasite, thus reducing or eliminating the host’s capacity to reproduce.
b) A human embryo or fetus is absolutely essential to the reproductive capacity of the involved mother (and species). The mother is usually not weakened, diseased or killed by the presence of the embryo or fetus…

8. a) A parasite is an organism that, once it invades the definitive host, will usually remain with host for life (as long as it or the host survives).
b) A human embryo or fetus has a temporary association with the mother, remaining only a number of months in the uterus.

Summing up his findings, Professor Johnson concludes:

A parasite is an organism that associates with the host in a negative, unhealthy and nonessential (nonessential to the host) manner which will often damage the host and detrimentally affect the procreative capacity of the host (and species).

A human embryo or fetus is a human being that associates with the mother in a positive, healthful essential manner necessary for the procreation of the species.

I hope that Professor Coyne will now concede that his “parasite” analogy was poorly chosen.

What’s the crucial difference between the embryo/fetus and a cell in the human body?

Professor Coyne also asks why, if the fetus is a person, all of our cells aren’t also persons, since they, like the fetus, have DNA which could potentially produce an entire person. “Is it not murder to pluck out a hair?” he sarcastically quips.

First of all, the scientific claim made by informed embryologists is that the embryo/fetus is a human being. The additional claim that each and every human being is a human person is not a scientific claim, but a philosophical (and hence a moral) claim, which I’ll defend below.

Second, the vital difference between the embryo/fetus and a cell in the human body is simply this. A cell in the human body has been rendered incapable of growing into a whole organism by the deactivation or silencing of its genes. It is no longer totipotent. As Dr. Dianne Irving, M.A., Ph.D. a former career-appointed bench research biologist/biochemist, NCI, NIH, philosopher and medical ethicist, puts it in her article, A One-Act Play: “Crippled Consciences and the Human Embryo” (page 2):

For example, in sexual reproduction, this new single-cell human being contains all of the genetic information it will ever need. No genetic information is lost or gained during growth and development; this information is only turned on or turned off, depending on what products are needed. This process is called “methylation”, and the more specialized or differentiated a cell becomes the more methylation of the DNA has taken place. The products formed by means of the genetic information in each cell then cascade down throughout the life of the organism. This is “zipping up”…

In a-sexual reproduction, such as cloning, many of these processes operate in reverse. One begins with a specialized or differentiated cell, in which some or even most of the DNA in that cell has been “silenced”, and then the methylation bars on that DNA are incrementally removed – eventually resulting in, e.g., a new, single-cell zygote, an organism, an embryo, a human being. This is “zipping down”, and roughly what happened with the production of Dolly the sheep.

Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah School of Medicine, addresses the question of why a human embryo is a human being while a human skin cell is not, in her online White Paper (Volume 1, Number 1, October 2008), When Does Human Life Begin? A Scientific Perspective (published by The Westchester Institute for Ethics and the Human Person):

A human skin cell removed from a mature body and maintained in the laboratory will continue to live and will divide many times to produce a large mass of cells, but it will not re-establish the whole organism from which it was removed; it will not regenerate an entire human body in culture. Although embryogenesis begins with a single-cell zygote, the complex, integrated process of embryogenesis is the activity of an organism, not the activity of a cell.

Based on a scientific description of fertilization, fusion of sperm and egg in the moment of conception generates a new human cell, the zygote, with composition and behavior distinct from that of either gamete. Moreover, this cell is not merely a unique human cell, but a cell with all the properties of a fully complete (albeit immature) human organism; it is “an individual constituted to carry on the activities of life by means of organs separate in function but mutually dependent: a human being.” (p. 7)
[The quote is taken from the National Library of Medicine's definition of an organism - VJT.]

So much, then, for the common retort that if a one-cell embryo is a human person, then so is every skin cell I shed (Sam Harris).

Exactly when does the life of a new human being begin?

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.)

What I am arguing here is that 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 typeb> (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.)

To sum up: the verdict of science is in, and it’s unambiguous. A one-cell embryo is a human individual, no ifs and buts about it.

Why should every human being be considered a human person

I have argued in defense of the personhood of the embryo/fetus in my online book, Embryo and Einstein: Why They’re Equal. First, a human embryo is a complete organism, embodying a developmental program by which it directs and controls its own development into a rational human adult, and in addition, it has already started assembling itself into a rational human adult. A human adult is not merely something the embryo/fetus is capable of becoming, in a passive sense; rather, it is the mature form of the organism that the embryo/fetus is currently assembling itself into, by executing the instructions contained in its developmental program, which has already started running. (In this respect, the embryo/fetus differs vitally from a potential king, who is legally incapable of doing anything to make himself king, and who has none of the rights that properly belong to a king. Hence the tired old pro-choice argument that an embryo is no more a person than Prince Charles is a king, completely misses the point.)

Second, I contend that nothing is acquired by an embryo, fetus, newborn baby or child in the course of its development which would add to its inherent moral value in any way; hence a one-cell embryo must be just as valuable as you or I. (The organs which it subsequently acquires, including its brain, do not add to its value, because the genetic instructions for making these organs are already up and running in the body of the embryo. also argue that sentience is a totally inadequate criterion for deciding when and whether the fetus has a right to life, and I also critique the “personist” view, according to which the capacity for an autobiographical concept of self and the capacity for rational thought are the criteria that determine whether an individual has a right to life.) I therefore conclude that it is reasonable to regard any biological organism which is currently assembling itself into a rational human adult through a process which is under its control, as being just as valuable as the adult it will become, and as therefore having the same right to life as an adult.

Bishop Sánchez’s muddled interview with The Daily Beast

In the course of his interview with Christopher Dickey of The Daily Beast, Bishop Sánchez made a number of assertions which can only be described as highly tendentious.

Bashing America

First, Bishop Sánchez took a sideswipe at America, saying that “Some say America is an oligarchy for the multinationals,” adding that in America, “[t]he poor people pay for the rich people.” What are the facts? Let’s look at multinationals, first. According to an article by Columbia University economist Jagdish N. Bhagwati, titled, “Do Multinational Corporations Hurt Poor Countries?” (American Enterprise, June 2004, pp. 28-30):

There is a fierce debate today between those who consider globalization to be a malign influence on poor nations and those who find it a positive force. This debate focuses not just on trade, but also on multinational corporations. The hard evidence strongly suggests that the positive view is more realistic. There are many reasons to believe that multinationals in particular do good, not harm, in the developing world…

Good empirical studies have been conducted in Bangladesh, Mexico, Shanghai, Indonesia, Vietnam, and elsewhere. And these studies find that multinationals actually pay what economists call a “wage premium,” that is, an average wage that exceeds the going rate in the area where they are located. Affiliates of some U.S. multinationals pay a premium over local wages that ranges from 40 to 100 percent.

Bhagwati is one of the world’s leading experts on international trade.

What about the poor paying too much in taxes? According to the latest Congressional Budget Office report, the top 40 percent of wage earners in America paid 106 percent of the individual income taxes paid in 2010, while the bottom 40 percent paid negative 9 percent. The top 20 percent paid 92.9 percent of the taxes, while the next 20 percent paid 13.3 percent. Jane Wells summarizes the report’s findings:

How does someone pay negative taxes? The CBO’s formula offsets whatever taxes are paid with “refundable tax credits.” Some of these are due to “government transfers” of money back to the taxpayer in the form of social security and food stamps…

The report shows the lowest-paid Americans earned on average $8,100 in 2010 but received nearly $25,000 in government aid. You begin to see how “transfers” create a negative tax burden.

But wait, there more. The CBO says about a quarter of the lowest earning group actually paid negative 15 percent of all individual income taxes. Contrast that with the combined share of the wealthiest two groups, which totals more than 100 percent.

Fair or not, I will let you be the judge.

People who make more should pay more, generally speaking. In America, they are. Yes, the rich (and almost rich) are getting richer. When it comes to individual income taxes, they’re also covering the entire bill. And leaving a tip.

Now, I don’t wish to deny the need for welfare spending, and I’m well aware that while people on low incomes may pay no income taxes, they still pay some combination of state, local, sales, gas and property taxes, as well as payroll taxes. But to say that in America, “the poor people pay for the rich people” is so wide of the mark that it’s positively embarrassing. So my advice to Bishop Sánchez would be: if you’re going to criticize America’s economic system, that’s fine, but at least, do it intelligently. Ill-informed, off-the-cuff remarks really don’t help matters.

Creation and evolution: complementary?

When addressing the topic of creation versus evolution, Bishop Sánchez insisted that there was no opposition between the two:

“The notion of creation is completely different from the notion of evolution,” said Sánchez. “Creation is a philosophical notion that comes from The Bible. It says that God, from nothing, created being.” That is the central concept, he said, and science has no real explanation for how that might happen. But evolution is different. There is a great deal of evidence, he said, that there is evolution in nature and that species evolve.

First, I would like to applaud Bishop Sánchez’s forthrightness in publicly declaring that the notion of ex nihilo creation comes directly from the Bible, given that some scholars have recently denied that the doctrine is in the Bible at all. Dr. Paul Copan mounts an excellent defense of the view that creation ex nihilo is Scriptural, in his article, Is Creatio Ex Nihilo A Post-Biblical Invention? An Examination Of Gerhard May’s Proposal (Trinity Journal 17.1 (Spring 1996): 77–93).

Second, Bishop Sánchez is quite correct when he says there is evidence of evolution – if he means common descent. But that, by itself, does not imply a purely natural mechanism. Indeed, there are excellent reasons for thinking that even the transition from one species to another – which one might think was simple enough – requires intelligent guidance. Dr. Branko Kozulic makes a very persuasive case that species changes require intelligent direction in his 2011 article, Proteins and Genes, Singletons and Species. The probability calculations at the end of his article seem to leave little room for doubt. Bishop Sánchez could have added that a considerable number of biologists are convinced that there is a pronounced discontinuity between microevolution and macroevolution, and that while the former is well-understood, the latter is not. (See my post, A world-famous chemist tells the truth: there’s no scientist alive today who understands macroevolution.)

Third, Bishop Sánchez is right to point out that creation is compatible with evolution. But what kind of evolution? Guided or unguided? The Catholic Church teaches that the emergence of human beings was intended by God, and that if the human body arose through an evolutionary process, it must have been a Divinely guided one. Compare this with the following statement from the Nobel Laureates Initiative, organized in 2005 by the Elie Wiesel Foundation for Humanity, which consisted of a petition (available online here) that was sent by 38 Nobel Laureates (most of them scientists) to the Kansas Board of Education on September 9, 2005, asking the Board to vote against the inclusion of intelligent design in the academic curriculum. The petition contained the following statement:

Logically derived from confirmable evidence, evolution is understood to be the result of an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection. (Italics mine – VJT.)

Sadly, this is the version of evolution that millions of high school students around the world are taught. One might have hoped that Bishop Sánchez would have raised his voice in protest against this mass indoctrination.

I might add that high school students are also indoctrinated in materialism: the capacities of the human mind (including the intellect and will) are assumed to arise naturally from our brains and nervous systems, leaving no room for the infusion of a spiritual soul and blurring the distinction between humans and other animals. I was very much heartened to see that Bishop Sánchez declared in his interview that reason was created by God – an assertion for which Professor Coyne sharply criticized him, asserting that non-human animals were capable of reasoning too. (Here’s a hint for Professor Coyne: when you’re reasoning, it isn’t enough that you arrive at the right answer; you also have to be able to justify yourself, and explain how you arrived at that answer – which is precisely what other animals cannot do.)

The point I’d like to make here is that in most Western countries around the world, it would now be illegal to teach Bishop Sánchez’s view that reason was created by God, in public high schools. Such a view would of course be strictly taboo in the science classroom; and even discussing it in other classes would be tricky enough. My guess is that many teachers would simply decide to avoid the topic altogether.

There’s more. On the standard materialist view, which is the only view that most students in Western countries are exposed to at school, the very notion of a first man and woman, or even a first group of human beings, no longer makes sense. As Darwin memorably put it in chapter seven of his Descent of Man, “In a series of forms graduating insensibly from some ape-like creature to man as he now exists, it would be impossible to fix on any definite point when the term ‘man’ ought to be used.” (London: John Murray, 1871, Volume 1, 1st edition, p. 235.) And without a first man, of course, there can be no Fall – and no Redemption.

What I’m trying to say here is that the version of evolution that the Catholic Church declares itself comfortable with is strikingly different from the version taught across high schools in the Western world today. Indeed, the philosopher Daniel Dennett has derided it as “mind creationism.” One therefore wonders why Bishop Sánchez is so eager to make peace with evolutionists. The Bible tells us that there is “a time for war and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:8). The truth which the bishop needs to face is that there can be no peace with the “evolutionary establishment,” and that scientists who scoff at the arguments of both old- and young-earth creationists are equally dismissive of the Catholic Church’s watered-down version of evolution. We are already in the middle of a war – a war for souls. For my part, I regard the differences between old- and young-earth creationists, Intelligent Design theorists and believers in God-guided evolution such as Simon Conway Morris as trivial and insignificant, compared to the yawning intellectual chasm between scientists who believe in libertarian free will and an immaterial human soul and those who dismiss both notions as hogwash.

Proving God with science

Bishop Sánchez is also wary of scientific proofs of the existence of God:

The great confusion comes, according to Sánchez, when people try to use science to prove or disprove the existence of God.

But at least one Pope has tried to do just that. On 22 November 1951, in a speech (see here, pp. 130-142, for the English version) before the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Pope Pius XII offered his enthusiastic endorsement of attempts to prove God scientifically: “It would seem that present-day science, with one stroke across the centuries, has succeeded in bearing witness to the august instant of the primordial Fiat Lux, when along with matter, there burst forth from nothing a sea of light and radiation, and the elements split and churned and formed into millions of galaxies.”

The Pope went on to conclude that Big Bang helped to prove the existence of God:

“What, then, is the importance of modern science in the arguments for the existence of God drawn from the mutability of the cosmos? By means of exact and detailed investigations into the macrocosm and microcosm, it has widened and deepened to a considerable extent the empirical foundation upon which the argument is based and from which we conclude a self-existent Being immutable by nature. Further, it has followed the course and direction of cosmic developments, and just as it has envisioned the fatal termination, so it has indicated their beginning in time at a period about five billion years ago, confirming with the concreteness of physical proofs, the contingency of the universe and also the well-founded deduction that about that time the cosmos came forth from the hands of the Creator. Creation, therefore, in time, and therefore a Creator; and consequently, God! This is the statement, even though not explicit or complete, that we demand of science, and that the present generation of man expects from it.”

The effort to enlist science in the cause of theism continues in Catholic circles, down to this day. Here, for instance, is a 2-hour talk by Fr. Robert Spitzer, S.J., titled, “The Evidence for God from Contemporary Physics.” Fr. Spitzer is the retired President of Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington, and the author of several books, including, New Proofs for the Existence of God: Contributions of Contemporary Physics and Philosophy (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).

For my part, I believe that science can establish that not only the universe, but also the multiverse itself, was intelligently designed, and I’ve argued my case in a recent article here. However, while I believe that science can take us to an Intelligent Creator beyond the cosmos, I also believe that science cannot establish whether this Creator is simple, or infinite, or interested in the affairs of human individuals.

A very muddled pro-life argument

At the same time, advances in biology have expanded the definition of life. In the past, says Sánchez, the church considered that an embryo did not have human life until it began to take on something resembling human form, about 40 days into a pregnancy. “Now we say if the first cells [after fertilization and conception] have DNA, the genetic coding for human beings, then they have life.”

I applaud Bishop Sánchez for his pro-life stance, and he is quite correct in saying that medieval theologians (including Aquinas) held to a theory of delayed ensoulment, because of their poor understanding of human biology, as I describe in detail here. However, Bishop Sánchez seems to be somewhat confused in saying that the existence of DNA in a one-cell embryo is what makes it a human life. After all, a sperm and an ovum have human DNA. So does every skin cell that is shed by my body. As the foregoing quotes from Associate Professor Condic demonstrate, what makes the one-cell embryo a unique human being is that it is executing a new developmental trajectory, different from that of the sperm and egg which preceded it – while a human skin cell will never develop into a human body, as it has been rendered incapable of growing into a whole organism by the deactivation or silencing of its genes.

Heaven and Hell: where are they?

In the interview, Bishop Sánchez declares his belief that Heaven and Hell aren’t places but states:

Over the years the progress of science has caused many in the Catholic Church to rethink what they thought they knew, like the location of Heaven and of Hell. “In the past, we said they are [physical] places,” Sánchez explained, as if they could be pinpointed on a map of the cosmos. But that was back in the Middle Ages when people believed the universe was organized in spheres with Earth at their center, then the sun and the moon and the stars, and beyond them, Heaven. Hell was under the ground in the center of this planet. Now Paradise and the Inferno are understood philosophically as states of being, not places on a chart.

“All these questions of physics and metaphysics have changed because physics have changed,” says Sánchez.

This is mistaken on several counts. First, the Catholic Church has never claimed to know the location of Hell. As The Catholic Encyclopedia declares in its 1910 article on Hell:

The Church has decided nothing on this subject; hence we may say hell is a definite place; but where it is, we do not know. St. Chrysostom reminds us: “We must not ask where hell is, but how we are to escape it” (In Rom., hom. xxxi, n. 5, in P.G., LX, 674). St. Augustine says: “It is my opinion that the nature of hell-fire and the location of hell are known to no man unless the Holy Ghost made it known to him by a special revelation”, (City of God XX.16). Elsewhere he expresses the opinion that hell is under the earth (Retract., II, xxiv, n. 2 in P.L., XXXII, 640). St. Gregory the Great wrote: “I do not dare to decide this question. Some thought hell is somewhere on earth; others believe it is under the earth” (Dial., IV, xlii, in P.L., LXXVII, 400; cf. Patuzzi, “De sede inferni”, 1763; Gretser, “De subterraneis animarum receptaculis”, 1595).

Second, the idea that it was the progress of science that caused Catholics to rethink the location of Hell is utter nonsense. As late as 1910, The Catholic Encyclopedia was still defending the view that it was inside the Earth (note: I’m not defending this view myself; I’m just saying it was widely held, even by theologians, as recently as 100 years ago):

The Bible seems to indicate that hell is within the earth, for it describes hell as an abyss to which the wicked descend. We even read of the earth opening and of the wicked sinking down into hell (Numbers 16:31 sqq.; Psalm 54:16; Isaiah 5:14; Ezekiel 26:20; Philippians 2:10, etc.). Is this merely a metaphor to illustrate the state of separation from God? Although God is omnipresent, He is said to dwell in heaven, because the light and grandeur of the stars and the firmament are the brightest manifestations of His infinite splendour. But the damned are utterly estranged from God; hence their abode is said to be as remote as possible from his dwelling, far from heaven above and its light, and consequently hidden away in the dark abysses of the earth. However, no cogent reason has been advanced for accepting a metaphorical interpretation in preference to the most natural meaning of the words of Scripture. Hence theologians generally accept the opinion that hell is really within the earth.

Now, it was commonly known by 1910 that the Earth had a hot iron core. Whatever changed the theologians’ minds in the 100 years since that article was written, it wasn’t physics. The real reason for the change, I suspect, was simply the prevailing Zeitgeist: the skeptical spirit of the twentieth century.

For a balanced perspective on the location of Hell, here is an article by Christian apologist (and former atheist) Richard Deem, who dismisses the notion that Hell is located under the Earth as an atheist’s myth, without any basis in Scripture. Deem’s view is that Hell is “probably separate from the universe, since the entire universe will be destroyed and replaced with the new creation.”

But wherever it is, the real reason why Hell cannot be merely a state in Catholic doctrine is that it will be inhabited by people with bodies. The same logic applies to Heaven, too. As The Catechism of the Catholic Church declares (Part One, Section Two, Chapter Three, Article 12) puts it:

1042 At the end of time, the Kingdom of God will come in its fullness. After the universal judgment, the righteous will reign for ever with Christ, glorified in body and soul. The universe itself will be renewed…

1033 … To die in mortal sin without repenting and accepting God’s merciful love means remaining separated from him for ever by our own free choice. This state of definitive self-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed is called “hell.”

1034 Jesus often speaks of “Gehenna” of “the unquenchable fire” reserved for those who to the end of their lives refuse to believe and be converted, where both soul and body can be lost…

The long and the short of it is that according to Catholic doctrine, Hell is both a place and a state.

The Star of Bethlehem, and myths about the date of Christmas

Bishop Sánchez talks about Christmas, too, in the interview:

He tends to agree with scientists who think the Star of Bethlehem that guided the three kings of Asia to the infant Jesus was really Halley’s Comet. Other theories hold that it was a supernova or an alignment of two or three planets. “Of course, it might have been a complete miracle,” said Sánchez. “God can suspend natural laws.” But the bishop prefers to associate those sorts of miracles mainly with the story of Jesus…

As to the timing of Christmas, there’s not much doubt in the bishop’s mind that the date is not really Jesus’s birthday. Nobody really knows when Jesus was born (we won’t get into the debate about whether he ever was born at all). Many historians agree that December 25 was chosen because it coincided with the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, which came in the depth of winter and looked forward to the renewal of the cycle of life in the months ahead. Feasts were held and gifts were given.

But as physicist Dr. Aaron Adair demonstrates in his recent book, The Star of Bethlehem: A Skeptical View (Onus Books, 2013), all naturalistic explanations of the Star fail to account for one singular fact: the Gospel of Matthew says that the Star rested over the house where Jesus was (Matthew 2:9). A comet could never do that. (See also this interview here with Dr. Adair, and see his online articles here.) What’s more, as Adair convincingly demonstrates, the general belief of the Church Fathers down the ages was that the Star of Bethlehem was a miraculous phenomenon.

As for the Three Kings, well, the Bible never mentions them. (To be fair, I don’t know whether Bishop Sánchez actually called them that, as Christopher Dickey doesn’t quote his exact words at that point in the interview.) What the Bible says is that there were some wise men (we don’t know how many).

Bishop Sánchez is perfectly correct when he remarks that we don’t know the time of year when Jesus was born. But the suggestion that the early Christians borrowed the date of December 25 from the pagans is almost certainly wrong. For one thing, the belief (among some Christians) that Jesus was born on this day goes back to December 25 goes back to 200 A.D. – long before the pagan feast of Sol Invictus was introduced by the Emperor Aurelian in 274 A.D., to top off the mid-winter Roman festival of Saturnalia. Also, the earliest Christian celebrations held on December 25 that we know about (c. 250–300) come from a time when the Christians, who were still being periodically persecuted, were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions. Finally, the real source of the belief that Jesus was born on Christmas Day seems to have been an old calculation that the Jewish Passover on which Jesus died fell on March 25, coupled with the belief (first expressed by Tertullian in 200 A.D. and later echoed by St. Augustine) that He must have been conceived and crucified on exactly the same day – which would make his date of birth nine months later, on December 25. For those readers who are interested in pursuing the matter further, I would strongly recommend Andrew McGowan’s article, How December 25 became Christmas (Biblical Archaeology Society, December 7, 2012).

Why I think the Pontifical Academy of Sciences should be abolished

I’d like to conclude this essay by explaining why I believe that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has outlived its usefulness, and should be abolished. One reason why I believe the Academy needs to be disbanded is that its membership now includes a sizable number of people whose outlook is fundamentally at odds with not only Catholicism, but a Judeo-Christian worldview: for example, a significant number of atheists and agnostics (including physicist Stephen Hawking, and quite a few scientists who hold similar views), and scientists who publicly support abortion. These scientists report directly to the Pope, on a whole host of controversial topics in which science and religion both have a stake: including historical questions such as, “How many people did the human race descend from?” and also practical questions, such as: “What’s the maximum number of people that the Earth can sustainably support?”

The point I’d like to make here is that scientists who approach these questions from a purely naturalistic perspective will come up with one set of answers, while scientists who are open to the ideas of supernatural intervention and the guiding hand of God in history will come up with a different set of answers.

Take the size of the original human population. Although it has been argued by Intelligent Design proponents that science has not decisively ruled out monogenesis (belief in an original human couple – see part (1) of this post for references), there can be no real doubt that a scientist without any religious views, evaluating the DNA evidence under the assumption that the human species was the product of natural selection, would conclude that in all likelihood, the ancestral human population had never fallen below 1,000 at any time in our past. And that would be a rational conclusion, given the underlying naturalistic assumptions. But the whole point about Intelligent Design is that it is much more like artificial selection than natural selection. Obviously, under such a scenario, the same rules no longer apply – especially when it is God Who is doing the selecting, as many people of a religious persuasion believe to have been the case.

Or take the size of the maximum sustainable human population. If you’re a secular humanist, you will tend to view ecosystems as delicate things which humanity interferes with at its peril. In order to minimize human interference, you will want to keep the human population as low as possible. You may even view human beings as a toxic life-form, parasitizing the resources of the biosphere – which may lead you to the gloomy conclusion that the world would be better off without humanity altogether.

If, on the other hand, you believe that God put us on this Earth for a reason, and that He fully intended us to explore every nook and cranny of the Earth in order to subdue it (as Genesis declares), you will be inclined to believe that He also anticipated our technological needs at various stages in human history, and that He gave us the wherewithal to satisfy those needs. Faced with the problem of bringing down CO2 emissions, your natural response will be: “Well, God must have put the solution to our problem within our reach, so it must be there somewhere.” (The recent discovery that algae can be converted to oil in 30 minutes vindicates the payoffs of this kind of “never-say-die” thinking.) If you believe that human beings have an important role to play in the Earth’s biosphere, then you will be more inclined to persist in seeking solutions to ecological problems that do not force us to shrink our population back to 2 billion, just because a bunch of doomsayers thinks that’s all that the Earth can support.

So let’s assume there are two factions of scientists on the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. Who’s going to dominate? You might think that scientists of a Judeo-Christian persuasion would, because there are more of them. But as any jaywalker can tell you, it doesn’t happen like that. Once you get a critical threshold of people – usually as little as 10% – who are prepared to flout a rule or norm of any sort, the other people will come to feel self-conscious about keeping that rule. Thus members of the Academy who may have felt uninhibited in appealing to a shared religious worldview in discussions with their colleagues twenty years ago may well feel too embarrassed to do so now, when there is a significant number of vocal skeptics on the Academy. Once the critical threshold is reached, what will happen is that ethical and policy-related matters will be discussed in a clinical atmosphere in which the dreaded “G-word” is seldom used, and arguments which cannot be supported by experimental evidence will be excluded as scientifically irrelevant. The eventual upshot is that discussions will be couched in increasingly secular terms.

Another, related problem is scientific “group-think.” The problem here is that eminent scientists who are of a religious persuasion are few and far between, and it is the irreligious majority who edit the journals and apply peer review standards who get to define what scientific views count as respectable and what views don’t. Thus views that may have been freely discussed a few decades ago may come to be seen as “insane” or “beyond the pale,” not because new scientific facts have come to light, but simply because the scientific mood has hardened. In the 1960s, for instance, thinkers such as the economist and statistician Colin Clark (1905-1989) felt free to defend the view that the Earth could easily support 50 billion people. No-one would dare make such a claim today; they would be howled down immediately. And yet they would be right: for those who are interested, I’ve amassed evidence (presented in my e-book, Embryo and Einstein: Why They’re Equal) showing that the Earth could easily support a much larger human population, without undergoing massive species extinction or habitat destruction.

What I suspect, then, is that the presence of even a few atheists and agnostics on the Pontifical Academy of Sciences will have a distorting influence, in the long-term, over what advice it offers the Pope.

I should add that despite the fact that the Pontifical Academy of Sciences has no authority whatsoever in doctrinal matters, it wields considerable influence in shaping popular Catholic opinion on scientific matters touching on Catholic doctrine, such as human evolution, and it has direct links with the Pope.

Finally, I note that even scientists on the Academy who call themselves Catholics hold views that are anything but Catholic:

What Murray thinks is essential to the effectiveness of the dialogue between religion and science is humility. “There’s no question that a lot of scientists are arrogant,” he said. “But sometimes theologians should keep their mouths shut, too. Bishops are sometimes too quick to give definitive pronouncements on scientific affairs.” Murray cited artificial insemination and the handling of frozen embryos as examples. “I’m a little disappointed that some Church leaders will come down hard on artificial insemination as if we scientists are playing God. We aren’t. We’re just working with the tools God gave us,” he said.

So the Academy has Catholic members who think that artificial insemination is OK, and that theologians should learn to keep their mouths shut? With friends like these, who needs enemies? In the light of statements like these, methinks the Academy has already moved too far left. I would suggest that it is time to close the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and found a new academy of eminent scientists who subscribe to the Judeo-Christian worldview and uphold the sanctity of human life. And that’s my controversial idea for the day.

Over to you.

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12 Responses to The fetus is a parasite, abortion is like plucking out a hair: how much does Jerry Coyne really know about biology?

  1. vj
    It quite impossible for a casual commenter to read all that you have written but there a couple of things I would like to respond to.
    1. I don’t think Jerry Coyne’s point was that a foetus is parasite.  He wrote:

    So if other cells are parasitic on the organism, and have DNA, and that DNA could potentially produce an entire person, why aren’t all of our cells “persons”? Is it not murder to pluck out a hair?

    It maybe that the word parasitic is a poor choice but his main point was surely that a liver cell is just as dependent on the rest of the body as a fertilised egg cell.  The thing he is bringing out is the similarity of the relationship not whether that relationship is parasitic or not.
    2. In an attempt to pin down the vital difference you write:

    cell in the human body has been rendered incapable of growing into a whole organism by the deactivation or silencing of its genes. It is no longer totipotent.

    What do you mean by incapable? Human embryos have been successfully created from adult human skin cells although they were not allowed to develop for ethical reasons.  It would be very rash to suppose that it is not possible to create a human being from any adult cell using current to future technology.
    3. You write:

    Equally common is the tired objection that human life is an unbroken continuum, with no “magic moment” at which a new human life appears.

    There is nothing tired about this objection at all. It is key and rests on the distinction you make between human being and human person. Embryologists indeed recognise that fertilisation is the beginning of a unique human being. That is a scientific discovery that that is the point where the genome for the future human being is unique and the biological system begins to act as a coherent whole. However, as you say, whether this is now a person and thus has rights etc is a philosophical not a scientific issue.  Among other things, at this stage the single cell could easily develop into many human persons – so which one of them is it at fertilisation?  As you know the philosopher Mary Warnock chaired an extremely expert committee on the ethics on embryros in the 1990s – recognised that there was no universally accepted answer but recommended the 14 day rule as one that could be practically accepted. This has worked extremely well in subsequent decades.

  2. Hi Mark Frank,

    I only have time for a quick response. I”m well aware of the philosophical distinction between a human being and a human person, which is why I included a section in my post, in which I argued that any human individual is also a person, and linked to critiques of the sentientist and personist views.

    Re your objections on cloning, twinning and so on, you’ll find them all addressed here: http://www.angelfire.com/linux.....ife.html#B . I’m quite willing to allow that human beings could be created from adult skin cells, given enough tampering; that’s quite different from saying that a skin cell which I shed is already a human being. Cheers.

  3. Abortion is “like plucking out a hair”? Is this true in the case of late-term abortions (done through the 8th month of pregnancy) where the fetus bears resemblance to a human being?

    And with respect to pregnancy, the growing embryo in the mother’s womb is a body with a genetic makeup different from hers. Normally her body rejects foreign tissues, such as skin grafts or organ transplants from other persons. Why doesn’t it reject this genetically foreign embryo, instead of nourishing it for some 280 days?

  4. A human being has a soul made in Gods image. That is why we are important and killing us is murder unless a good reason.
    The foundation of the pro choice movement is that the fetus is not a human being. The pro-life foundation is that IT is a kid.
    Parasites or not its about humanity killing humanity. Always looking for a excuse.

  5. I once saw a car that had two bumper stickers. One said, “Boycott Veal”, the other said, “Pro-Choice”. What?

  6. If medical science gets to the place where the unborn child can survive outside the womb just minutes after the woman is impregnated, would it still be okay to end their life?

    Abortion is about people not wanting to raise a child it has nothing to do with the woman’s body. That’s just a ruse to detract from the killing of the most innocent and dehumanize them.

    Ethicists Argue in Favor of ‘After-Birth Abortions’ as Newborns ‘Are Not Persons’

    http://tinyurl.com/blqdc9r

    It’s all about the “right” to kill our children.

    May GOD have mercy on us.

  7. VJ
      My previous comment was rushed and did not do justice to what you had already written. I still don’t have time to read your on-line book but I have at least read these paragraphs properly:

    I have argued in defense of the personhood of the embryo/fetus in my online book, Embryo and Einstein: Why They’re Equal. First, a human embryo is acomplete organism, embodying a developmental program by which it directs andcontrols its own development into a rational human adult, and in addition, it hasalready started assembling itself into a rational human adult. A human adult is not merely something the embryo/fetus is capable of becoming, in a passive sense; rather, it is the mature form of the organism that the embryo/fetus is currently assembling itself into, by executing the instructions contained in its developmental program, which has already started running. (In this respect, the embryo/fetus differs vitally from a potential king, who is legally incapable of doing anything tomake himself king, and who has none of the rights that properly belong to a king. Hence the tired old pro-choice argument that an embryo is no more a person than Prince Charles is a king, completely misses the point.)
    Second, I contend that nothing is acquired by an embryo, fetus, newborn baby or child in the course of its development which would add to its inherent moral valuein any way; hence a one-cell embryo must be just as valuable as you or I. (The organs which it subsequently acquires, including its brain, do not add to its value, because the genetic instructions for making these organs are already up and running in the body of the embryo. also argue that sentience is a totally inadequate criterion for deciding when and whether the fetus has a right to life, and I also critique the “personist” view, according to which the capacity for an autobiographical concept of self and the capacity for rational thought are the criteria that determine whether an individual has a right to life.) I therefore conclude that it is reasonable to regard any biological organism which is currently assembling itself into a rational human adult through a process which is under its control, as being just as valuable as the adult it will become, and as therefore having the same right to life as an adult.

    What surprises me about these arguments is that they are based on physical criteria. As a materialist I am all for that – but surely you as a Christian you believe in an immaterial soul? Is it not the point when a body acquires a soul that it has moral worth? And how do you know when that happens?

    Looking at it from a physical point of view. I think your whole approach of trying to identify neat necessary and sufficient conditions for moral value is flawed. For example, you dismiss sentience because there are some cases of sentience where there is no right to life  (animals) and some cases of non-sentience where this is right to life  (PVS). But while it is not a decisive criterion is a commonly accepted reason for assigning a right to life. It is precisely because some animals are sentient that we need a strong reason to kill them e.g. because of food or the suffering they might impose on us- to kill animals for whimsical reasons is widely regarded as wrong. It is precisely because we think someone in PVS is not sentient that we contemplate letting them die.  The decision about right to life is not a neat one. It is composed of a bundle of different reasons and people give different weights to different reasons.  For me the reason you give as definitive in the first paragraph is one of the weaker ones. This would imply that the right to life for embryos was something scientists discovered – and if that science was proven false (which admittedly is most unlikely) then the right to life would be removed.

  8. Jerry Coyne could not survive without a modern society to protect him from the need to produce his own food, clothing, and shelter. That would make him a parasite on modern society, wouldn’t it? May modern society pluck him out?

  9. MF:

    As a materialist I am all for that …

    Why are you a materialist, Mark? Materialism is untestable and untenable. So why are you a materialist?

  10. Hi Mark Frank,

    Thank you for your post. As I stated in paragraphs 1 and 4 of my online essay, “Embryo and Einstein – Why They’re Equal,” at http://www.angelfire.com/linux.....olife.html, I deliberately chose to make my pro-life case on non-religious grounds, without assuming the existence of God or an immaterial soul, because I got sick of hearing atheists argue that pro-life objections to abortions are religiously motivated. But my non-religious argument for the rights of the unborn child doesn’t contradict the view that human rights are (ultimately) grounded in the human soul. What I argue in my essay is that human rights are grounded in the most fundamental aspects of human nature, whatever they may be. If you’re a physicalist, the most fundamental aspect of human nature is the human developmental program, governing our development from one-cell embryos into rational adults. If you’re a believer in an immaterial human soul, you’ll hold that even our developmental program is underlain by a more fundamental and spiritual reality. For my purposes, it makes no difference which view you adopt: on either view, it follows that the unborn child has human rights.

    You argue that grounding the right to life in the human developmental program shared by us and the one-cell embryo “would imply that the right to life for embryos was something scientists discovered” and that “if that science was proven false … then the right to life would be removed.” Scientists did discover what the most fundamental physical aspect of human nature is, but they didn’t discover human nature itself. That the embryo/fetus possessed human nature was known well before the human developmental program was discovered – which is precisely why physicians launched their crusade against abortion in the mid-nineteenth century. See http://www.angelfire.com/linux.....ife.html#J . Finally, I regard it as a strength of my argument that it is scientifically falsifiable. If (for instance) it turned out that the instructions regulating fetal development were actually controlled ad directed by the mother (instead of her body simply supplying food, oxygen and a protective environment), then my pro-life argument would collapse – as it should, for such a discovery would falsify the claim that the fetus is a human individual.

    You suggest that human rights could have multiple grounds, among which you list sentience. But as Peter Singer has noted, sentience implies nothing about the wrongfulness of killing; it is only relevant to the wrongfulness of killing in a painful manner. You suggest that a permanently vegetative patient’s lack of sentience renders his/her right to life doubtful. I would reply that if we can conceive of such a patient’s being restored to sentience as a result of (say) advanced 22nd century brain surgery, then there’s no good reason why such a patient should have any less of a right to life than a sleeping or comatose individual. Finally, if a human person’s right to life is based on multiple grounds, then not all violations of that right are objectively equally grave – which flies in the face of the age-old legal principle that murder is murder, period.

  11. VJ

    Thanks for your response. Since I wrote my comment I have had a chance to look over your book. As I have come to expect from you it is very well written and researched.  But you will not be surprised to learn that I disagree with much of it.  The Immaterial Soul

    You write in your comment:

    What I argue in my essay is that human rights are grounded in the most fundamental aspects of human nature, whatever they may be. If you’re a physicalist, the most fundamental aspect of human nature is the human developmental program, governing our development from one-cell embryos into rational adults. If you’re a believer in an immaterial human soul, you’ll hold that even our developmental program is underlain by a more fundamental and spiritual reality.

    But what reason have you for supposing that the two fundamental aspects coincide?

    The Human Developmental Program

    What is I missed was a convincing account of why this stage in human development is more fundamental or establishes the moral right to life.  Although clearly it is a very important stage in development it seems very academic (in the perjorative sense of the word) to claim it is more fundamental than say the ability to survive independently of the mother, the advent of consciousness or birth. Your case for claiming it gives moral right to life seems to be:

    1. Because a one-cell embryo is a living organism, which is currently executing a developmental program that it needs to develop into a human adult, we can legitimately speak of it as directing or controlling its bodily development into the body of a mature human adult. (Outside influences do not control the bodily development of an embryo/fetus/child. Outside sources may provide food, oxygen, and a supportive environment, but they do not supply instructions, so thay cannot be said to be directing the embryo’s development. )

    2. Any entity that is capable of controlling its development into an intrinsically valuable thing, is just as valuable as that thing.

    I would challenge both of these.

    Clearly an embryo has actually very limited control over its development. The mother can have a massive effect while the embryo is in the womb (e.g. by drinking excessively) and the whole environment will do a lot to control its development once it is born. You seem to want to give some special status over the control coming from internal instructions as opposed external influences but I can’t find a justification for making this interesting but not fundamental distinction do such heavy moral work.

    I can see no case for 2 and your examples don’t seem to prove the point. In both cases all you seem to establish is that ability to make something valuable is as valuable as the thing itself.  That is hard to dispute, in fact it may be more valuable, but that doesn’t have to be via a self-controlled development. A blueprint or recipe will do quite nicely thank you – provided it works.

    In the end I can’t see any substantial difference between your argument and the argument that killing an embryo is wrong because it can become an adult human being.

    On Multiple Criteria

    In the end all real moral decisions are made on multiple overlapping criteria. It is only philosophers who try to reduce them to neat patterns. And abortion is no exception.  The fact that an embryo can become an adult human being is certainly a reason for not killing it. But you cannot ignore other reasons such as sentience or the ability to understand its position in life.

    Peter Singer is wrong about sentience. It is wrong to kill sentient creatures whether they suffer in the process or not. To deprive a creature of sentience is a bad thing. Although to inflict suffering makes it much worse.

    Similarly it is worse to kill a creature if it is sufficiently aware to know what is happening.

    I didn’t mean to imply that a PVS patient’s right to life is doubtful (although I do sometimes believe this to be true). I said that his/her permanent lack of sentience (and awareness) is a reason for considering he/she might be allowed to die. If there is a realistic possibility of regaining sentience then that should be recognised and it is interesting that you use the possibility of sentience as a reason. Even if there is no possibility of restoring sentience there are other consequentialist considerations – particularly to do with the effect on other people and society.

    Finally, if a human person’s right to life is based on multiple grounds, then not all violations of that right are objectively equally grave – which flies in the face of the age-old legal principle that murder is murder, period.

    Well I am afraid this is just true.  Even the law reduces a person’s right to life if they have committed a crime or at war. But anyway the law does not tell us what is right or wrong. With luck it reflects what is right or wrong and that is exactly why there is such a debate about what the law should be with respect to abortion, PVS, stem cells etc.

  12. 12
    Douglas Hendrickson

    http://www.thefreedictionary.com/parasite
    Biology An organism that grows, feeds, and is sheltered on or in a different
    organism while contributing nothing to the survival of its host.

    It’s hardly a legitimate argument, it’s NOT a legitimate argument, to dismiss a usage of a term by appealing to one specific narrow technical meaning.

    The more general (and yet of biology) meaning of a standard dictionary is certainly relevant if one is claiming the fetus is a parasite. Certainly if you want to deny it is such you still probably want to claim what is in the womb is an organism, when you claim it is even a human being. And certainly the pregnant woman is an organism. And certainly it grows, feeds, and is sheltered in the woman, and in no way contributes to her survival.
    It is a parasite – she is the obvious host.

    Speaking of the zygote, [supposedly in some kind of reputable medical definition]
    “Moreover, this cell is not merely a unique human cell, but a cell with all the properties of a fully complete (albeit immature) human organism; it is “an individual constituted to carry on the activities of life by means of organs separate in function but mutually dependent: a human being.”

    First of all, “fully complete (albeit immature)” is pretty much a contradiction.
    It is nowhere fully complete. It does not even look like a human being.
    (Notice how the terminology here is “human organsim” not human being; like I noted above, it is probably more or less correct to identify it as an “organism,” even when it does not include any organs. But that is not to identify it as a human being.)
    And even more obviously, the single cell zygote has no organs whatsoever, so it is a blatant falsehood to refer to it having “organs separate in function but mutually dependent.”
    **********

    “a human embryo or human fetus that is an actual “human being.” Abortion is the destruction of a human being” is not an argument.

    “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,” is not argued for . I DO NOT BELIEVE IT. NOT EVEN THAT THERE IS ANY SUCH AGREEMENT. Let alone that it is true.

    What does “individual organism” mean. Well if it is expressed this way, it must be a “human being organism.”
    So it is a claim that there is a human being from fertilization. Not an argument for.

    If it is not expressed as the beginning “of a human being” but rather as the beginning of an individual organism (which may later become and be a human being, grow to the birth of an actual person), then it is probably true. And that may be what the vast majority of embryologists understand.
    It would take a very extensive and inclusive poll with questions that are very precisely phrased to determine that, or on the other hand the claim that is made in the quote.

    Of course the “individual organism” must at least be recognized to be a parasite!
    That is, it is NOT an independent organism.

    ***********************************
    “Human pregnancy begins with the fusion of an egg and a sperm. (p. 3); … finally, the fertilized egg, now properly called an embryo…”
    This is called “human pregnancy” because it takes place in a human womb. That is the truth of it.

    “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. …”

    Talking about “the developing human… embryo”:
    “new individual” must refer to what it actually refers to, a bit of pus, an invisibility even. Far from what an actual person or human being is.
    Note that text recognizes the “developing human” to be there before conception.
    I think misconceptions like these are mostly a matter of poor writing ability, including lack of concern to get every word exactly precisely correct.

    “an already existing human embryo at Stage 1 of development” means it is the first stage of gestation of what will (if it continues to birth) become an human being.
    It is a human embryo as oppose to some other kind of animal, it is human cells. That is the truth of speaking of “human embryo.”

    “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.”

    So what is “human nature”? Is it a bit of pus that cannot do anything whatsoever except multiply its own cells? That evidence re the “human embryo” is plain and evident, and not particularly “human.” Surely human nature is something distinguished from the merest ANIMAL nature.
    And surely the mere fact a cell (or few cells) has human DNA does not give it any features or nature or ability it does not have and only might at some later time have.
    *****
    “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.

    He may think that, but it is probably only because he does not know how to seriously (philosophically) question his comments? Think of what he is saying.

    There is no new life at the moment of conception, and he simply does not understand the meaning of “life” if he says there is. (Note how this is a different question than “the meaning of life.”) The sperm has life from since some time before; the egg has life from since some time before. THAT LIFE is the life in (of) the embryo, and existed long before the embryo came into being.

    NOTE: No life comes into being at conception! None. Nada. So no new life.

    ***********
    “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
    He does NOT know what the member of a species is.
    There are no members of any speicies in any womb.
    There are only new animals (members of a species) at birth.

    ***********
    “The essential problem with the view that life begins at syngamy is the notion that a cell can change from one type …”
    There is NO beginning of life at conception. (See above)

    Details of how a sperm and egg unite have no relevance to when a human being comes into existence. A whole bunch of scientific explanation about such cell uniting is nothing about new life and what a human being is. Presented as it is here it is a pile of obsfucation.

    ************
    “To sum up: the verdict of science is in, and it’s unambiguous. A one-cell embryo is a human individual, no ifs and buts about it.”

    Again, what is “a human individual.” At this point of conception it is a cell, one invisible cell, the individuation being it has unique DNA.
    It is thus a human cell (not a monkey cell or a mouse cell). A human “organism.”
    Again, definitely not independent or autonomous.

    The truth is that the cell(s) are human. The truth is not that it is a human being.
    (Autonomous born being, actual member of the species, that and only that is a human being or person.)

    ***********
    “A human adult is not merely something the embryo/fetus is capable of becoming, in a passive sense; rather, it is the mature form of the organism that the embryo/fetus is currently assembling itself into, by executing the instructions contained in its developmental program, which has already started running.”

    The key words here are “assembling itself into.” What that actually means is it is not the end product toward which it is progressing. It is not yet a human person.

    ***********
    “Second, I contend that nothing is acquired by an embryo, fetus, newborn baby or child in the course of its development which would add to its inherent moral value in any way; ”

    Thing is, it is quite a different entity upon birth, autonomous and the actual member of a species. This adds inherent moral value, the moral difference between being an actual human being, and on the other hand being merely womb flesh headed in that direction.

    ****************
    So you see I find all these “scientific” arguments spurious and/or wanting.

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