Pharyngula

Among my usual flood of daily email, I frequently get tossed onto mailing lists for conservative think tanks. Why? I don’t know. I suspect that it’s for the same reason I also get a lot of gay porn in my email: not because I follow it or asked to be added, but because some tired d-bag with no imagination thinks its funny to dun me with more junk. The joke’s on them, though: I might keep it around and skim the stuff now and then to get inspiration for a blog post, and then click-click — a few presses of a button and I add the source to my junk mail filter, and never see it again.

No, I didn’t get inspired by gay porn today, but by drivel from some freakish conservative think tank called the Witherspoon Institute, about which I know next to nothing except that they’re another of those organizations that cloak themselves in the Holy Founding Fathers of America to promote illiberal non-freethinking anti-government BS. This latest is by a philosopher criticizing a book about modern reproductive biotechnologies. He doesn’t like ‘em. Not one bit, no sir.

But you know an essay from a philosopher is going to be pretty much worthless when it opens and closes with references to… C.S. Lewis. I don’t know why that man gets so much happy clappy press from believers. I suspect he must have sold his soul to the devil.

Anyway, the bizarre part is in the middle, where Justin Barnard is poleaxed by the author’s, Steven Potter’s, willingness to destroy human embryos. Potter apparently considers several of the sides of the debate, but fails to come down on the side of the Religious Right, that is, that embryos are absolutely and undeniably full human beings from the instant of fertilization, instead espousing the dreadful notion that the definition of personhood falls into a huge gray area.

Potter’s own attempt to wrestle with the morality of destroying human embryos is philosophically, if not biologically, confused from the start. He begins by claiming that “each egg and sperm has the potential to make a person.” Biologically, this is simply false. Gametes, by themselves, have no intrinsic developmental potential for human personhood. Of course, Potter knows this. So his use of “potential” is likely more latitudinarian. Still, three pages later, Potter describes the zygote as having “remarkable potential.” “It can,” he explains, “turn itself into a person.” Ironically, Potter fails to recognize that this potentialist understanding of human personhood is at odds with his rather surprising admission of the embryological facts. Potter writes, “Of course we all began as a zygote. Everyone does.” What is shocking about this concession is what it so obviously entails–an entailment that seems lost on Potter. If I, the human being I am today, “began as a zygote,” then the zygote that began the-human-being-I-am-today was me–i.e., it was a human person. It was not merely a cell with “remarkable potential” to become me. It was me.

If anyone is confused here, it’s Barnard. Of course each egg and sperm has the potential to form a person, especially when we throw biotechnology into the equation, as the book he’s reviewing explicitly does. We already have techniques to revert and differentiate a sperm cell into an egg. For that matter, given time and research, we’ll be able to reprogram just about any cell into a totipotent state, and clone someone from a cheek swab. Does Mr Barnard regard every cell he sheds as a potential person?

Perhaps he wants to argue that a sperm or egg cell doesn’t have the potential for personhood without a human assist. But then by that limitation the zygote has to be excluded as well — no human zygote can develop to term without the extreme cooperation of another individual. Try it; extract a fertilized egg and set it in a beaker by your nightstand, and wait for a baby to crawl out. Won’t happen. A uterus and attendant physiological and behavioral meat construct, i.e., woman, is also an amazing piece of biotechnology that is a necessary component of the developmental process.

But the real blow to this whole “potential” argument is damaged irreparably by Barnard’s last few sentences — was he going for a reductio here? Is the entire essay an exercise in irony? ‘Cause that dope was dumb.

Yes, Mr Barnard began as a zygote. That does not mean the zygote was Mr Barnard. My car began as a stack of metal ingots and barrels of plastics; that does not imply that an ingot of iron is a car. My house began as a set of blueprints and an idea in an architect’s mind; nobody is going to pay the architect rent for living in his cranium or on a stack of paper in a cabinet. The zygote was not Justin Barnard, unless Justin Barnard is still a vegetating single-celled blob, in which case I’d like to know how he typed his essay.

Since Barnard claims to be a philosopher, I’ll cite another, a guy named Aristotle. This is a quote I use in the classroom when I try to explain to them how epigenesis works, in contrast to preformation. Aristotle did some basic poking around in chicken eggs and in semen, and he noticed something rather obvious—there were no bones in there, nor blood, nor anything meatlike or gristly or brainy. So he made the simple suggestion that they weren’t there.

Why not admit straight away that the semen…is such that out of it blood and flesh can be formed, instead of maintaining that semen is both blood and flesh?

Barnard is making the classic preformationist error of assuming that everything had to be there in the beginning: I am made of bones and blood and flesh and brains and guts and consciousness and self-identity, therefore the zygote must have contained bones and blood and flesh and brains and guts and consciousness and self-identity.

It didn’t.

Why not admit straight away that the zygote is such that out of it selfhood may arise, rather than maintaining that the zygote is the self?

In that case we have to recognize that the person is not present instantaneously at one discrete moment, but emerges gradually over months to years of time, that there were moments when self was not present and other moments when self clearly was present, and moments in between where there is ambiguity or partial identity or otherwise blurry gray boundaries. This is a conclusion that makes conservative ideologues wince and shy away — I think it’s too complicated for their brains, which may in some ways be equivalent to the gormless reflexive metabolic state of the zygote — but it is how science understands the process of development.