Pharyngula

Science doesn’t say that!

Have you ever noticed how the religious regard ‘scientism’ and ‘reductionism’ and demands for concrete evidence as barely a notch above obscenities? That is, until they need to reduce complex issues to simplistic claims and don the mantle of Science to support their beliefs. Then they become Holy Writ.

You can really see this behavior in the abortion debate, where suddenly anti-choicers decide that humanity is defined by a particular arrangement of alleles in the genome. Case closed, they say, Science has spoken! Unfortunately, they get the science wrong, and we know their commitment to the authority of sacred science will be discarded the instant a scientist says something they disagree with…like, say, there is no soul and the mind is a product of the brain, or you are an evolved variant of an ape, or maybe, just maybe, genes aren’t the magic ju-ju beans you think they are.

A classic example was published in the Independent. Look how Declan Ganley bows and scrapes to the authority of science, multiple times!

Of course, the only way to guarantee that the law protects all individual members of the human species equally, is that at a minimum, from the moment that a member can be identified as such, the law insures immunity from deliberate bodily destruction.

This moment of identity is unequivocally known today as conception (as indeed the word itself suggests), when the DNA of a new member of the human species arises. It is scientifically indisputable that the DNA discovered here by science is that of a unique individual distinct from their biological mother, and that this DNA is the unique and irreplicable identifier of a unique member of our species.

So the question is not whether we know when the human individual is first created (this is unequivocally proven by science), but rather whether an individual’s right to life can be made subject to another and one individual human can be fully owned by another to the point where their very life is subject only to the whims of another.

None of us are created in the fullness of our potential, but science has shown us that human life is a journey, not a static moment. Our potential is gifted us at our conception – our appearance, talents and very fingerprints are hardcoded, and the rest is up to us. We are all conceived with the destiny to be born, grow, mature, slowly fade and die. The deliberate and targeted interruption of this process at any point is the ending of a single, unique, never-to-be-replaced human existence, and is the most base form of discrimination. That is why we make killing another human the most serious of all the crimes.

I’ve got news for you, Ganley. Science does not have such unambiguous answers as you claim; human-ness is an emergent property of a gradual process of development, and no one is going to ever be able to say, “Here, right here, is the magic instant in which an embryo becomes fully human.” That’s because “human” as used in law and sociology and philosophy and even theology is something complex and very, very hard to define, so looking for a mathematically precise and sharp boundary in the vagueness of complexity is a contradiction in terms.

You can try to do it by putting on blinders and pretending that the genetic sequence of an individual is sole criterion, and that it is well-defined and unambiguous, but it isn’t. It just creates more problems.

Genetically, we’re nearly identical to chimpanzees. They have the same genes in roughly the same organization on their chromosomes; they have some novel variants, or alleles, but every newborn chimp also has a “unique and irreplicable” arrangement of alleles. Why aren’t you declaring their lives precious and demanding protection? Why not say the same for cows and ears of corn? They are also genetically special.

But, you will say, they are uniquely human. And I will ask what that means. If I have a mutant gene (and I do! On average, I’ll carry a few hundred novel mutations relative to my parents) that isn’t shared between me and all other humans, am I still human? If I have a cytologically detectable chromosomal rearrangement, am I still human? How many differences are allowed between two genomes before you can say one is not of the same species as the other? Is an embryo with a unique deletion in one chromosome still human? If an embryo has a unique mutation that makes it infertile as an adult when interbreeding with other members of the species, is it still human?

That magic line in development should be getting a bit smearier in your head about now. Conception isn’t necessarily associated with the generation of a unique person.

I’m glad that he noticed that science sees development as a journey, but a little disappointed that he couldn’t see that that actually contradicts his claims about conception as a singularity. Just the genetic complement is not enough. A blastocyst, a hollow ball of cells with an inner mass that will become the embryo proper, has exactly the same genes as a five year old person or an octagenerian. But it doesn’t have limbs or eyes or brain, it doesn’t think or feel, it doesn’t dance or learn. It is…a hollow ball of cells. It’s got cilia and might spin in place. That’s about it. It’s human only the most trivial, reductionist sense.

That should tell you something. There has to be something more. There has to be a complex history of epigenetic interactions that set up tissue domains and generate morphology and trigger physiologically functional activity in different cells. That isn’t there yet. That history is a significant part of what makes you what you are right now, and it’s absurd to pretend that that doesn’t matter and that everything is plainly established at the moment of conception.

And of course, he’s factually wrong. To claim that “appearance, talents and very fingerprints are hardcoded” is not true, and all you have to do is look at identical twins to see that it is false. There is a good similarity in appearance, but if you know any identical twins at all well, you know that you can tell them apart…and that their differences increase with age. I’ve known a few elderly identical twins, and you wouldn’t know that they were identical unless you’d been told so, because variation accumulates. “Talent” is also meaningless; there is evidence that some broad characteristics (musical ability, for instance) are heritable, but so much of what we call “talent” is not intrinsic, but the product of hard work and discipline.

Also, fingerprints are not hardcoded. Identical twins have general similarities in the arrangements of whorls and loops, but are readily distinguishable in the details.

Science would not belittle the significance of all the essential changes that go on after conception, so I think Mr Ganley was a bit premature in claiming its authority for his dogma. How about if we recognize instead that science actually tells us that the process, that journey he regards as so vital, is the interesting part, and that imposing arbitrary dividing lines on a continuum is a silly exercise that he’s trying to use to put boundaries where there are none?

Comments

  1. #1 james
    Nutley, NJ
    January 25, 2013

    Amazing commentary, thank you for submitting it for public review! Really challenging and thought provoking.

  2. #2 R.C. Brush
    PA
    January 25, 2013

    Preach it, brother!

  3. #3 D. C. Sessions
    January 26, 2013

    They don’t deal well with monozygotic twins, at all (neither do I, and I’ve raised a pair.)

    For instance, ask them if ensoulment happens at fertilization. Foes that mean that one of the twins is soulless?

    If “humanness” is based on uniqueness, then is it OK to kill one of them (trust me, I’ve been tempted) because you still have the unique human?

    If “humanness” depends on the ability to eventually become an adult human, then does that mean that all those stem cells are also human? Is it murder to spill a drop of blood?

    If not, is it OK to clone someone and then render the result for organs to keep the original alive?

  4. #4 mark
    January 26, 2013

    Blah blah about abortion/creationists/souls, etc – but hey – you said you carry on average a few hundred novel mutations relative to your parents. I guess that might be true if you look all of the noncoding regions and etc, but I think the number is closer to approximately one if you look at protein coding regions. This comes from, among other sources, an exome (this is protein coding region, ie. exons) sequencing paper looking at genetic contributions to autism, in which they sequenced more than 200 trios (mom, dad, kid) and look for novel mutations in the kid. The estimate in the paper is 0.6 – 0.9 novel sequences / kid.
    interesting paper in many ways besides just a firmer number on mutation rate – its called
    Exome sequencing in sporadic autism spectrum disorders identifies severe de novo mutations
    and is at http://europepmc.org/articles/PMC3115696/reload=0;jsessionid=AhmAhMsTRq2Y4Pp1SyqM.22

  5. #5 Lenoxus
    January 28, 2013

    It’s less ethically problematic than the anti-abortioners, but the quantum woo corps does the same damn thing. “Science is often wrong, it doesn’t have all the answers, it’s a bunch of arrogant materialists, and also if you wish for things in the right way then they’ll happen, because of quantum collapse, which was proven by science.” Of course, they may turn around and call me a hypocrite for accepting all of science “except” for quantum woo. I can’t really think of a response to that without laughing up spit.

  6. #6 Julian Williams
    Pembrokeshire
    January 29, 2013

    Interesting analysis, I am am not qualified to disagree with a word. However I do feel a little uneasy that “science” becomes the arbiter on what is ethical.

    I agree that there is no ghost in a machine, but have a problem with taking this view to extremes. To use words like consciousness is little different to using words like soul. It is replacing false Gods with new idols.

    In the end I think a book is a pile of paper with patterns on it, but is might also be a much loved edition of Alice of Wonderland that my mother used to read to me. I think if you take a purely scientific point of view you end up with a conclusion. IE it is a pile of paper with patterns on it but this is only one aspect of “the truth”. That is Alice an Wonderland is also “the truth”

    One thing neuroscience has told me is that the mind is always determined to come to conclusions and then believe in them totally. But conclusions by their nature always lock out aspects of seeing things from another perspective.

    I read a lot of books for lay people about neuroscience, and find the recent developments thrilling and helpful to my studies as a artist, in fact I believe the new views on how the mind works will lead to new exciting attitudes about what the word art means which i embrace on my blog (drawingandillusion.blogspot.co.uk)

    But I like the word soul which has so much more warmth than consciousness (which you will tell me is a different concept). An whilst I know in my logical brain there is no ghost in the machine, I also know that there is a mystery, a “hard question” about how consciousness came into being inside the machine.

    I find the decision that fertilization is the beginning of a human life and sacrosanct not a bad idea, although it is not my view. It is a moral decision, that does not really require science to adjudicate on the truthfulness of that moral outlook

  7. #7 Jen
    January 29, 2013

    This is a great post showing the use of “science” by everyone wishes to use science’s authority to redefine scientific concepts to fit their own agenda. My tiny quibble would be that “A blastocyst… “will” become the embryo proper. It “may” “might” if the right conditions genetically and epigenetically occur, or it may not.

  8. #8 Magpie
    Canberra
    January 30, 2013

    Doesn’t that mean a DNA swab is a human, now?

  9. #9 David Marjanović
    Museum für Naturkunde, Berlin
    January 30, 2013

    I also know that there is a mystery, a “hard question” about how consciousness came into being inside the machine

    It’s not a thing that came into being. It’s an activity. Mind, consciousness, is what the brain does.

  10. #10 Nightjar
    January 31, 2013

    I find the decision that fertilization is the beginning of a human life and sacrosanct not a bad idea

    Not a bad idea? It’s a terrible idea! Just look at all the suffering and death directly caused by it. Unless women’s lives are somehow not “sacrosanct”, the consequences of that “moral decision” kind of should tell you just how awful an idea it is in practice.

  11. #11 mark
    February 6, 2013

    re that mutation rate – here is another trio study that shows 44 de novo mutations in a child….paper is also of note because it sequences the fetal genome *non-invasively* from cell-free DNA in maternal plasma…http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed?Db=pubmed&DbFrom=gap&Cmd=Link&LinkName=gap_pubmed&LinkReadableName=PubMed&IdsFromResult=804562