It's Not Rocket Science. But It Is Science.

Maureen L. Condic responds to the dim bulbs who claim "we" don't know when life begins. Ackchually, she says, We Do Know When Human Life Begins.

In a recent New York Times piece asking “When Does Life Begin?,” religion correspondent Elizabeth Dias presents multiple lines of evidence to conclude that the question is simply too complex to be answered. She relays the poignant story of a woman who is pro-choice but who experienced a 16-week miscarriage as the loss of her child, Maya. She enumerates how different states (Arizona, South Carolina), different cultures (China, ancient Egypt), and different religious traditions (Judaism, medieval Christianity) have offered different answers to the question of when life begins. She notes that defenders of the view that life begins at sperm–egg fusion often cite “Christian principles,” suggesting that this conclusion is nothing more than a religious conviction. Dias acknowledges that “more than half of American adults say the statement ‘human life begins at conception, so a fetus is a person with rights’ describes their views at least somewhat well”; yet she goes on to present contrasting views offered by biologists, physicians, philosophers, anthropologists, and clerics.

Let me be clear: Outside of a few quibbles with the biology (the embryo clearly does not arise from a “fraction” of the cells present at the time of implantation; the placenta is manifestly not “a new organ that a woman’s body makes”; and it is absurd to characterize a pregnancy as a woman’s “making a new organism with her body”), I agree with all of the evidence Dias presents and with the obvious fact that opinions on this question are both complex and diverse. What I do not agree with is the conclusion that, simply because people hold diverse opinions on the subject, the question of when life begins cannot be definitively answered.

The question of when human life begins is a matter of biology, not opinion. And the scientific facts are unambiguous: The life of a new human being initiates at the instant of sperm–egg fusion. While some individuals may deny this conclusion, it is supported by hundreds of peer-reviewed scientific papers (discussed here) and is entirely uncontested in the scientific literature. Dias accurately reports that a “scientific consensus” on this question has existed for over 150 years, ever since sperm–egg fusion was first viewed using a microscope. Amander Clark, the president-elect of the International Society for Stem Cell Research (hardly a bastion of pro-life sentiment), clearly endorses this consensus, telling Dias, “From the biologist point of view, I’d need to say life of a mammalian organism begins at fertilization.” In considering the specific question of when human life begins, the mammalian organism in question would be a human organism. And another term for “human organism” is “human being.”

You may not like the answer, but there it is. Deal.

Briefly noted:

  • Stephanie Slade ("Slade" to her co-workers, apparently) bids Goodbye, Ben Sasse.

    During his eight years in Washington (not including previous stints in the executive branch), Sasse was often a voice of civility and moderation but also of hard truth telling. In 2016, he was one of the first to say he would vote for a third party rather than support then-candidate Donald Trump. Later, he excoriated the 45th president on a range of charges, saying on one occasion that he objects to "the way [Trump] treats women, spends like a drunken sailor," and more. "He mocks evangelicals behind closed doors. His family has treated the presidency like a business opportunity. He's flirted with white supremacists," Sasse went on.

    After a pro-Trump mob invaded the Capitol in 2021 in a half-baked attempt to stop certification of Joe Biden's election, Sasse was among the handful of Republicans who voted to convict the outgoing president. He was similarly one of the small number who voted to create a commission to investigate January 6.

    Availing himself of the chance to offer farewell remarks from the Senate floor on Tuesday, Sasse twice lamented the "I alone can fix it" mentality that has arisen on the political right, a barely veiled reference to the former president.

    I don't blame him from bailing out of a plane piloted by large-egoed narcissists.

  • Jerry Coyne continues to be dismayed over a trend at a once-useful magazine: Scientific American continues its departure from science and descent into illiberal politics. He provides three recent examples, including the one that everyone else is making fun of today: Damar Hamlin's Collapse Highlights the Violence Black Men Experience in Football. (" "Come and see the violence inherent in the system!")

    But here's another example: "How Anti-LGBTQ+ Rhetoric Fuels Violence"

    The article indicts Republicans and white nationalists for their anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric and actions (e.g., banning the teaching of CRT, for example—laws that I oppose).  Of course “hate speech” doesn’t always lead to action, even at a temporal or spatial remove from the speech, and the article doesn’t give solid evidence for the connection between speech and action. Of course some killers are motivated by “homophobia” or “transphobia”, but not as many as the media suggests. Omar Mateen’s 2016 mass shooting at the gay Pulse nightclub in Orlando, for example, a horrific act that killed 49 people and injured 53, was immediately touted by the press as a likely act of homophobia, but no evidence was ever found that Mateen was motivated by hatred of gays. Rather, his motive appears to have been revenge for American airstrikes in the Middle East, and Mateen appeared not to even know that the club was gay. (He died in the assault.) The media likes what fits a narrative, particularly the progressive media—but they’re not always right.

    Coyne points out that the "evidence" cited in the article is all expressed in the form "may cause" and "can motivate". That's a thin reed on which to hang the article's headline.


John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction

[Amazon Link]
(paid link)

Personal note: I was a science fiction geek, starting (roughly) from when I was eight or nine years old, and got Robert Heinlein's Red Planet from the Oakland, Iowa public library, spurring a (so far) six-decade fandom.

I also got into Isaac Asimov, getting his classic Foundation trilogy as a teen, a mere 10¢, plus shipping and handling, as a come-on for joining the Science Fiction Book Club. And I devoured his robot stories too.

And I started reading Analog magazine (renamed from "Astounding") back in 1964, edited by John W. Campbell, Jr. I still remember the issue I picked off the rack, cover here. A few months later, Frank Herbert's "The Prophet of Dune" appeared in the mag, and well…

So even though I was a little too young to experience the "golden age" of science fiction, I was pretty well acquainted with three of the four figures covered by Alec Nevala-Lee's book. (I managed to totally avoid the œuvre of L. Ron Hubbard.) I found it to be a fascinating story, meticulously researched, full of interesting tidbits on the careers, personalities, and interactions of Campbell, Asimov, Heinlein and Hubbard.

Although at times they seem to be competing for the "Who's Craziest" title. Asimov, with his phobias of heights, open spaces, and flying? His serial philandering? Reader, he's by far the sanest one. Hubbard's nuttiness is (of course) famous for spawning the Scientology cult, which still exists today with notable celebrity adherents. Campbell was forever getting roped into pseudo-scientific bogosities, like Hubbard's Scientology precursor, Dianetics, Krebiozen, the Dean Drive, ESP, etc. (He also had nice things to say about slavery, and his views on race… well, never mind.)

And Heinlein was an inveterate nudist.

So this book might not be everyone's cup of tea, but if you're a certain age, and you've had certain reading habits, you'll probably enjoy it as much as I did.

Last Modified 2024-01-14 4:56 AM EDT