“Life Begins at Conception”


I found myself recently in another one of those online religion-vs-atheism arguments, this time following the controversial Twitter remarks of Richard Dawkins on the morality of allowing a Down Syndrome foetus to run to a full pregnancy term, rather than terminating it in favour of a ‘healthy’ pregnancy.  Of course, despite Dawkins’ attempt to explain his position thoroughly and apologetically, the holier-than-thou brigade have continued to demonise him and ignore the logic of his explanation.

However, the core topic of that particular discussion is not what this post is about.  Rather, I want to focus on a related issue that came up in the course of the ‘debate’, which was basically about abortion.  Much of the religious opposition to Dawkins was concerned with the dogma that any deliberate termination of a foetus was immoral because it equated to the taking of another human life.  It is this point that I took exception to, because there is no universally-agreed moment at which a human life begins.


In terms of defining when legal abortions can take place, this varies among western countries.  It is subject to debate, informed by scientific and medical experts primarily on the basis of how mature and responsive the central nervous system is at any given stage. Of course, a particular stage of development of the brain and nervous system does not provide any basis for marking where a human life begins.  Instead, it provides at least a guideline for scientific and medical experts to make a judgement about what kind of pain or suffering could be experienced by a foetus. This in turn allows law-makers, and society-at-large, to draw a (somewhat) arbitrary line at a particular stage of foetal development, up to which they are mostly ‘comfortable’ with elective terminations.

However, defining ‘human-ness’ is even harder than this. 

Prenatal “Human-ness”

Few would likely argue that a healthy newborn isn’t fully human.  It has all the physical features of a human and it is recognised, loved and valued as such by its family. But the newborn is not likely to be self-aware in the same sense that an adult or even an older infant is.  It has no conscious concept of the human society that it has just been born into. It has no ability to formulate or enact decisions and is totally dependent on others for its survival. Despite this, we generally accept that a baby is fully human – a legitimate member of our society.

One could argue that until a baby has been born alive that it is not yet human, because it is not a participant (not even passively) in any human society.  However, most folks would reject this, particularly an expectant mother, who might claim that they have already been bonding with their child while it is still in the womb.  Furthermore, there is not a great deal of physical difference between prenatal baby in the final weeks of pregnancy and postnatal one. Hence an argument that “human-ness begins at birth” is not one that will ever likely find universal agreement.

I argue that ‘human-ness’ isn’t a quality for which we can have any kind of useful scale.  While we can identify stages of prenatal development and reasonably describe various features and functions as being more developed, there is no point in talking about a foetus being ‘more human’ according to this timeline.  The pro-life / anti-abortion movement will probably agree with me on this point.  However, this is likely where our agreement will end if they choose to claim that a human life begins at the moment of conception.


The term ‘conception’ has been used and defined, primarily by Christians and more specifically by Catholics, as the moment when a human life begins in utero.  And this is indeed a convenient and intellectually satisfying label, because it refers specifically to the fertilisation of the mother’s egg by the father’s sperm.  The combining of the separate DNA of two people to create the new and different DNA of a new individual.  It’s not possible to have a more specific start-of-life-defining-moment than this, right?

Furthermore, modern science has even helped us to define this moment – after all, it is only relatively recently in human history that we’ve had the techniques and the understanding to recognise what genetic material is and how it combines during sexual reproduction.  We now know that a zygote is uniquely different to the individual gametes from which it is formed.

But let’s step back from this apparent physical reality for just a moment, and at least recognise that this claim is more a philosophical than it is a practical one. As well as providing us with the knowledge of gametes and zygotes, modern science and medicine also tell us that between one third and one half of all fertilised eggs are lost spontaneously (aborted) early in the first trimester of pregnancy and often before the woman even knows that she is pregnant.  Spontaneously aborted embryos are almost never (as far as I know) mourned as losses, either by the mother or by society at large. These types of losses can be reasonably characterised as ‘biologically natural’ – in fact they are often due to chromosome abnormalities or other biochemical factors that are just not compatible with a healthy pregnancy or offspring.

Lost embryos and zygotes are not considered to be human deaths by most people and by society at large. We do not hold funerals for them, and don’t recognise them as ever truly being human.  Hence the claim that a zygote (the scientific label given to the result of a conception) is a human is at best a philosophical claim only, not one that applies in practice.  Let’s return to this point later.

 The (Abridged) Biochemistry of Conception

If we’re going to rely on the moment of conception as our definition for the start of a given human life, then we should understand this as clearly and as specifically as possible.  As described above, the ‘pro-conceptionists’ will claim that they’ve got this pinned: The combining of the separate DNA of two people to create the new and different DNA of a new individual.

However, this description is not a single event. It is a process – a cascade of numerous, complex events that really have no specific beginning or ending.  When we use a word like conception, we need to understand that this is an artificial label that we apply, with some arbitrariness, to the events that start with approximately the time that a sperm enters an egg, and ends approximately with the formation of a zygote before it divides into the so-called daughter cells of the new embryo.  These events are not exact, unless one can give a very precise – in fact, an infinitesimally precise – definition to the specific biological events involved.

In particular, consider the (approximate) moment when a sperm cell bonds to the cell membrane of the unfertilised egg.  Do we have a new human life at this point? Most will argue no, because the key criterion in defining life from conception was concerned with the combining of the separate haploid chromosomal complement to make the diploid complement of the resulting zygote. Technically, this combination happens as the in-process zygote is preparing biochemically for its first mitotic division.

Despite the animated descriptions in various youtube videos of the fertilisation process (and there are some good ones out there), the combination of the sets of DNA is not a temporal singularity. In other words, it is not an instantaneous event – it takes some time, even though it may be short, for that to occur.

 How Much Genetic Material has to Combine?

If you’re going to insist on calling ‘conception’ the unique new-human-moment, you need to ask yourself if this process were to be halted after, say, 10% of the separate DNA material was combined, would you have lost a life at this point?  Surely it makes no sense to think of this moment as being only 10% of a new human life.

What about if it reaches just over 50%?  Does a half round up to the full?  An undergraduate biologist will be able to tell you that 50% of a chromosomal complement is a long way from compatibility with life, and if this were indeed the biological result, the outcome would be one of those spontaneous embryonic abortions referred to earlier.

Well, what about at 100% combination then?  Again, no, because a diploid complement that was missing a very small proportion number of chromosome pieces here and there – depending on which ones they were, could certainly be compatible with life.  This is not uncommon in fact, because bad genes on one chromosome are frequently compensated for by those on the ‘good’, matching chromosome.

The problem with this proportion-of-DNA-combination approach is that there is no number that can apply in any given case, because it all depends on which pieces of DNA combine successfully. One only has to extend this understanding to recognise that there are no unambiguous biological criteria for defining the instant of when not-a-new-human-life material switches to become definitely-a-new-human-life material.

Therefore, if one persists in saying that conception is the moment, because that’s when maternal and paternal DNA is combined into a new cell, then one is still equivocating on the precise, singular moment of human-ness. The process of conception actually occurs within a smear of time, with no specific beginning and no specific end.

And so we come full circle to Richard Dawkins, who has described other natural processes in similar terms in his 2011 article on The Tyranny of the Discontinuous Mind.

A Philosophical Argument

There are two objections I’ve encountered to this observation. The first is that this argument doesn’t matter, because even at the moment of the sperm meeting the egg, or upon penetrating it, we already have a potential new human anyway.  However, this counter-argument misses the key point that one’s decision of when a potential new human begins is still entirely arbitrary. With this viewpoint, one could say that they were a potential human as soon the gametes within their own parents’ cells were formed, or even trace a pointless regression back through one’s ancestral genetic formations to the very beginning of life on earth.

The second objection I’ve heard is that biochemically dividing up the events at conception like this is ‘splitting hairs’, with a reference to Zeno’s paradox thrown in. (I had never heard of this before, so I had to look it up before I could determine that it was (or rather, they were) irrelevant to the issue).  Superficially, this objection seems to have merit. Because yes – in dissecting the process of human fertilisation down to tiny time slices, in which we could hypothetically observe the progressive appearance of diploid DNA, we’ve gone beyond the practical definition of conception and the practical account of what makes one human.  However, when we’re dealing with biology on the scale of ‘conception’, as discussed above, we’re no longer in the realms of practicality. We’re in the murky, ambiguous, equivocating and unresolved depths of philosophy.

So finally, if you must insist on sticking with the label of ‘conception’ as your definition of the start of human life, you really ought to think it through. Understand that not only does your label have no practical relevance, but it is philosophically flawed as well.


Science is not a Movement: Reflections on Steven Pinker and his Critics

Until about a month ago (ie., Aug 2013), I’d never even heard of Steven Pinker. Or Leon Wieseltier, or Massimo Pigliucci, or even Daniel Dennett. I do have a background in science, in a ‘previous life’, but more than 15 years ago my career shifted sideways, via software development project management to sales and marketing (which seems to rank with used car salesmen, real estate agents, and lawyers for nobility of professions).

I’m a complete newcomer to discussions involving scholarly philosophy, having only recently joined in a handful of online debates that seemed to have drawn battle lines between scientific rationalism and theology. Nothing more (or less) than an opinionated layperson directed by a little bit of reading and some common sense.  I’ve never had any respect for religious beliefs, but have been comfortable generally to live and let live. Provided the believers don’t force their beliefs onto me, hijack our secular public institutions, or try to indoctrinate my children, they can continue to practice harmlessly whatever they want.

I had always assumed that religious beliefs were a result of a particular upbringing, combined with a tendency to superstition, a deep faith, and various other psychological factors and symptoms of ignorance. So I was surprised to find recently that there are intelligent and articulate Christians in Australia that actually believe that rational approaches, empirical evidence and science in general provide support for their beliefs in God. Indeed, in one particular Facebook debate I found myself buried in, one particular theist (apparently a PhD student in philosophy) declared that “an empirical approach [to life] should lead to belief [in God]”.

The attitudes of some of these articulate Christians is that science is not capable of providing answers to some of our most profound human questions, and in fact philosophy and theology are the only relevant tools to address such things. Some go further and assert that empiricism is a rather less important approach than is philosophy in our collective goals of learning about our universe. But more on this later.

Following an unassuming Twitter lead, I discovered Steven Pinker’s recent piece referring to scientism. Here was another ‘thing’ I hadn’t really encountered until now, but in light of the arguments I was having with theists, his essay made complete sense. In fact, I found it truly inspirational – this section in particular:

…As for literary scholarship […] Linguistics can illuminate the resources of grammar and discourse that allow authors to manipulate a reader’s imaginary experience. Cognitive psychology can provide insight about readers’ ability to reconcile their own consciousness with those of the author and characters. Behavioral genetics can update folk theories of parental influence with discoveries about the effects of genes, peers, and chance, which have profound implications for the interpretation of biography and memoir—an endeavor that also has much to learn from the cognitive psychology of memory and the social psychology of self-presentation. Evolutionary psychologists can distinguish the obsessions that are universal from those that are exaggerated by a particular culture and can lay out the inherent conflicts and confluences of interest within families, couples, friendships, and rivalries that are the drivers of plot. And as with politics, the advent of data science applied to books, periodicals, correspondence, and musical scores holds the promise for an expansive new “digital humanities.” The possibilities for theory and discovery are limited only by the imagination and include the origin and spread of ideas, networks of intellectual and artistic influence, the persistence of historical memory, the waxing and waning of themes in literature, and patterns of unofficial censorship and taboo…

It’s no surprise that Pinker’s piece would attract criticism. But what is surprising is the nature of that criticism and how aggrieved the critics seem to be with his goal of the collective discovery of truths using science as a key source of knowledge.  From Leon Wieseltier:

…Is the beauty of ancient art nullified by the falsity of the cosmological ideas that inspired it? I would sooner bless the falsity for the beauty. Factual obsolescence is not philosophical or moral or cultural or spiritual obsolescence…”

Scientists have no issue with the ‘beauty of ancient art’.  What they do have an issue with is when this is declared to be truth. Wieseltier’s attitude seems to be that the humanities, including the arts, have some grasp on intrinsic human truth that science has no access to. The suggestion seems to be that the ‘false beauty’ of the humanities is more important than the truth offered by scientific investigation. No doubt this will be a debate without end any time soon, but I have to disagree with this view with extreme prejudice. Scientists don’t claim to have all the answers, but are accused of arrogance when venturing opinions outside of their original fields of study. This attitude of keeping ‘science’ in its own well-demarcated box is classic hypocrisy by virtue of arrogance!

Science is concerned with the truth of nature. It can provide some insights into the aesthetics of nature and art and human reasoning, but this in no way diminishes the beauty of those things. But more importantly, it can – and should – replace any claims of the natural ‘truth’ of those things.

This ‘scientism’ thing – if it really is a ‘thing’ and not just a pejorative label – might be a movement.  I suspect it isn’t really though, despite Dr. Pinker’s embrace of the term. Science, on the other hand, definitely is not a movement.

As I mentioned previously, scholarly philosophy is something very new to me, and while I am yet to appreciate that it has a whole lot of practical value, in past few days I had started to warm to the ideas of Massimo Pigliucci. However, I have been left disappointed by the views expressed in this piece.  Here are a few selective snippets:

…Pinker seems to ignore much research in the history and sociology of science that shows that sometimes that system goes wrong, occasionally worrisomely wrong (e.g., a lot of medical research on drugs is seriously flawed, particularly – but not only – when the funding for it comes from the pharmaceutical industry).

…He also conveniently dismisses or minimizes the problems that science and technology have brought to us: it’s ok for science to take credit for vaccines (as it should), but not ok for critics to point out nasty stuff like atomic bombs and biological warfare. See, those aren’t really the results of “science,” but of bad politicians misusing science. This is such a naive understanding of human power relations, not to mention of the complex social role of science, that it is downright laughable.

…he should have acknowledged that some criticism of science is well founded and sorely needed.”

Pigliucci isn’t using the terms science and scientism interchangeably here. A distinction between these terms is implicit but clear throughout his piece. The thoughts behind these statements (and throughout the article) seem to position science as some kind of worldview, or movement, with some kind of coherent collective agenda.

Science is not a movement. It is a method. It is a collection of tools, an approach to understanding our universe and our ourselves. Science has no agenda.

While there are various processes that can help us formulate ethics, nothing can be said about the ethical accountability of the processes themselves. A process, in general terms, does not belong to any category that can have an ethical position as one of its attributes! (I learnt the language of category errors from some recent reading in philosophy.)

While science can be ‘hard’ (even according to Pinker), it is a technique accessible to anyone.  Having some formal training can make one better at doing good science. But anyone can formulate a view, test with empirical data, and form a conclusion and/or modify their original views. Here is a good summary by Richard Feynman (thanks to Prof. Brian Cox for referencing this in a recent lecture I found on youtube). This is ten minutes long, but the key part is in exactly the first one minute:

Throughout the history of scientific discoveries, the role of philosophy as an authority to explain nature, including our existence, has been edged gradually and progressively out of relevance.  This does not mean that the importance of the humanities in the large has declined. Arts, as far as I can tell, are no less valuable today than they were in antiquity. The role of ethical studies and discourse for our institutions, both public and private, may have even increased in recent times, supported strongly by empirical data.

But ‘science’ does not over-step its boundaries.  I don’t accept – and nor should anyone – that scientists shouldn’t be allowed to venture opinions outside their main field, nor attempt to apply the scientific method and conclusions to questions that they couldn’t attempt previously. Scientists deserve to attract criticism for their interpretation of the evidence and their reasoning, but not for the fact that their formal training was in a discipline outside their main area of research. Challenging arguments is valid discourse. Ad hominem (or perhaps, ‘ad communis’?) arguments are not.

Science is simply a process. It helps us discover what is true and real. It doesn’t discriminate. Science can even help us explore the realities behind ‘the beauty of ancient art’. But intrinsically, it doesn’t care whether we like those realities or not.