Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Biology textbook writer claims we need emotion to answer "When does human life begin?"

Last Wednesday, SPL published this blog post about an embryologist who conflated a scientific question with a philosophical question. Two years prior, the writer of the college biology textbook “Life,” Dr. Ricki Lewis (PhD), wrote a stunningly similar article called “When Does a Human Life Begin? 17 Timepoints.

I want to begin by pointing out that this question absolutely has a scientific answer. Embryology textbooks state that a new human organism exists upon formation of a zygote. This organism has a continuous life cycle which will eventually end at death. You, as a human organism, were once a zygote. In a biological sense, that's when your life began. 

Or did it begin here?

So look at how Dr. Lewis begins this article. She quotes a commentator who said, "Um…when life begins is a pretty basic idea in biology," to which she replies, "Actually, no." Right off the bat, she denies the possibility that this question has a biological, scientific answer. 

She touts her scientific credentials ("I’m the author of an intro college biology textbook called 'Life,' my having nabbed that title before Keith Richards did."), and immediately after claims that the question of when human life begins is "a question not only of biology, but of philosophy, politics, psychology, religion, technology, and emotions." Yes, emotions. Apparently when human life begins is partly based on how we feel.

She also says that "textbooks list the characteristics of life, leaving interpretation to the reader."

The embryology textbooks (linked above) would seem to disagree:
This fertilized ovum, known as a zygote, is a large diploid cell that is the beginning, or primordium, of a human being
The development of a human being begins with fertilization, a process by which two highly specialized cells, the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female, unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote. 
At the moment the sperm cell of the human male meets the ovum of the female and the union results in a fertilized ovum (zygote), a new life has begun
Zygote. This cell, formed by the union of an ovum and a sperm (Gr. zyg tos, yoked together), represents the beginning of a human being
Almost all higher animals start their lives from a single cell, the fertilized ovum (zygote)... The time of fertilization represents the starting point in the life history, or ontogeny, of the individual.

There are many more, but you get the point. There absolutely is a biological definition of life with which we can confidently, factually state that a "new human life begins" as a zygote. Dr. Lewis is incorrect when she claims that the beginning of a new human life must include not only biology but also emotions, religion, psychology, etc. 

Interestingly, in any other area of the hard sciences, the notion that we need all these non-scientific fields to answer a scientific question would be laughable. If we want to find out if a woman is pregnant, we don't need to conduct a vote; we need enzyme immunoassays. If we want to find out which alleles a child carries from his parents, we don't need prayers; we need PCR and gel electrophoresis. If we want to find out the percent composition of erythrocytes in blood, we don't need to reconcile our emotions; we need centrifugation. But apparently when the question is "When does a human life begin?" things are different.   

"But how do you feel about E. coli?"

Dr. Lewis goes on to list 17 points in a human organism’s development (such as implantation, heartbeat, viability, and birth) and implies these are all valid answers to “when human life begins." She ends with this:
My answer? #14. The ability to survive outside the body of another sets a practical limit on defining when a sustainable human life begins. Having a functional genome, tissue layers, a notochord, a beating heart … none of these matter if the organism cannot survive where humans survive.
Did you catch the switch? Dr. Lewis started off claiming we're discussing "when human life begins,” but then ends by talking about when human life is sustainable or can survive independently. Those are not the same topic

"Just here to remind you that you're no longer a human life."

This problem arose when Dr. Lewis used one phrase ("When does human life begin?") to imply two very different questions. "When does a human organism's life begin?" is a scientific question that does not require philosophy. "When does a human organism's life have moral relevance?" is a more complicated philosophical question, one which science cannot answer. The question itself ("When does human life begin?") is worded perfectly as a scientific question. But people on both sides of the abortion debate assume it represents a philosophical question, without clearly articulating philosophy in the question itself with words like "personhood" or "value."

To be fair, this isn't all the pro-choicer's fault. Experience has showed me that pro-lifers often make the same mistake. Specifically, pro-lifers sometimes talk about when a human organism's life begins (scientific) and use that to imply value (philosophy) without articulating or arguing it. So perhaps Dr. Lewis is responding to these cases. However, this does not absolve her from her lack of clarity; she is still using a scientific question to make a philosophical argument. There's a difference between saying "Science can't tell us when human life begins," which is exactly what she said, and saying "Science CAN tell us when human life begins, but it can't tell us about a human's value," which is what she answered. 

I expect Dr. Lewis, like most scientists, strives to be objective, but none of us are immune to our biases—including politics. The result in this case is cherry picking. Countless scientific questions have scientific answers, but Dr. Lewis is cherry picking this particular question (“When does human life begin?”) for additional requirements before it can be answered. If she personally thinks the philosophical question “When is human life valuable?” requires emotions and religion to sort through, that’s fine. But the scientific question “When does human life begin?” doesn’t require those additional fields of inquiry. Biology has it covered.

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