Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Why Embryos Don't Seem Human [SK]

Amidst all the political propaganda coming out of big bio-tech, it's easy to lose sight of the core reason destructive embryo research seems plausible to many Americans. The reason, as philosopher Richard Stith points out, is simply this: Most people think an embryo is constructed piece by piece rather than something that develops from within.

Consider a car, for example. When does the car come to be? Some might say it’s when the body is welded to the frame, giving the appearance of a vehicle. Others insist there can be no car until the engine and transmission are installed, thus enabling the car to move. Others still point to the addition of wheels, without which a vehicle cannot make functional contact with the road.

But no one argues the car is there from the very beginning, as, for example, when the first two metal plates are welded together. After all, those same metal plates can be used to construct some other object like a boat or plane. Only gradually does the assemblage of random parts result in the construction of a car.

According to a 2005 New York Times op-ed piece cited by Stith, most Americans see the fetus exactly the same way—as something that’s constructed part by part. It’s precisely this understanding, writes Stith, that renders pro-life arguments absurd to so many people. As they see it, embryos are no more human beings in early stages of their construction than metal plates are cars in the early stages of theirs.

Journalist Michael Kinsley is a case in point. He writes that pro-life arguments for the humanity of the embryo are “absurd” and can only be defended with an appeal to faith. “A goldfish resembles a human being more than an embryo does. An embryo feels nothing, thinks nothing, cannot suffer, is not aware of its own existence.” For Kinsley, we each start out as something less than human and only gradually become so.

But as Stith points out, the construction analogy is deeply flawed. Embryos aren’t constructed piece by piece from the outside; they develop themselves from within. That is to say, they do something no constructed thing could ever do: They direct their own internal growth and maturation—and this entails continuity of being. Unlike cars, developing embryos have no outside builder. They’re all there just as soon as growth begins from within. In short, living organisms define and form themselves. An oak tree is the same entity that was once a shoot in the ground, years before it had branches and leaves.

Stith illustrates the difference between constructing and developing this way:

Suppose that we are back in the pre-digital photo days and you have a Polaroid camera and you have taken a picture that you think is unique and valuable – let’s say a picture of a jaguar darting out from a Mexican jungle. The jaguar has now disappeared, and so you are never going to get that picture again in your life, and you really care about it. (I am trying to make this example parallel to a human being, for we say that every human being is uniquely valuable.) You pull the tab out and as you are waiting for it to develop, I grab it away from you and rip it open, thus destroying it. When you get really angry at me, I just say blithely, “You’re crazy. That was just a brown smudge. I cannot fathom why anyone would care about brown smudges.” Wouldn’t you think that I were the insane one? Your photo was already there. We just couldn’t see it yet.
Likewise, whenever critics of the pro-life view describe the embryo solely in terms of its appearance, they fall into a constructionism. It’s an easy error to make. Our intuitions are not immediately impressed by the image of an eight-celled embryo with its dynamic self-directed development obscured.

However, our initial intuitions about the embryo can change dramatically upon reflection, as Stith explains:

When we look backwards in time or otherwise have in mind a living entity’s final concrete form, development becomes intuitively compelling. Knowing that the developing Polaroid picture would have been of a jaguar helped us to see that calling it a “brown smudge” was inadequate. If we somehow had an old photo taken of our friend Jim just after he had been conceived, and was thus just a little ball, we'd have no trouble saying, "Look, Jim. That's you!" Thus the most arresting way to put the developmental case against embryo-destructive research would be something like this: “Each of your friends was once an embryo. Each embryo destroyed could one day have been your friend.
To sum up, human beings develop. To say they are constructed is simply false. Nevertheless, the construction view remains intuitively plausible to large numbers of Americans eager to support destructive embryo research.

In other words, pro-lifers have their apologetics work cut out for them.


  1. People don't think human embryos "look human" because they're not accustomed to seeing human beings that age. An embryologist would have no trouble whatsoever with identifying the embryo as human.

    There was a time when White people thought Blacks didn't look "human" -- they were used to people with pale skin, different hair texture, different shaped facial features, etc. Since they weren't accustomed to seeing the full variety of human form, they didn't recognize Africans as human.

    Imagine a crew of Earth astronauts encountering an alien race. The aliens would see the adults and see them as representative humans. Would these aliens be able to immediately recognize a human infant as human, this big-headed, toothless, bald, speechless, helpless creature?

    I had a Korean student tell me that I had cat eyes, that human eyes aren't supposed to be green. My eyes didn't look human to her because she hadn't been exposed to humans who looked like me.

    So there's a lot to be said with how informed and experienced the beholder is when observing who "looks human".

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  3. First of all, GREAT POST.


    "Thus the most arresting way to put the developmental case against embryo-destructive research would be something like this: “Each of your friends was once an embryo. Each embryo destroyed could one day have been your friend."

    Doesn't this statement wander into the "Furture like ours" argument? Maybe I am a little rusty from focusing on the baby, but if I read that right I disagree with his assessment that this is the most arresting argument.

    Otehrwise I love the overall point being made. That is why I cringe a bit when people show graphic images without a strong base of logical argument. I abhor the idea that abortion is wrong because the unborn look like little babies. That is great for abortion but works against embryo destructive research.

  4. jay,
    Good question regarding "the future like ours" and I actually thought that myself, but changed my mind upon further reflection. The reason is that Stith says up front "each of your friends was once an embryo," meaning we are identical to our embryonic selves. (Don Marquis, with his "future like ours" argument, more or less denies.) The key distinction, I think, is between the embryo existing and the embryo one day becoming your friend. Existence for that embryonic human being is immediate. Friendship with that same human being is in the future.

  5. Excellent post, and excellent point. I will definetely incorporate this into my apologetic against abortion and destructive embryonic research.

  6. Excellent post Scott.

    Besides getting basic factual information in front of the public, it's a challenge to convey it in a way that both makes sense and is authoritatively acceptable.

    It would seem that the way to do this would be at a very early age, where children don't have many preconceived notions. Unfortunately, the schools are playing interference with even basic human development. They are systematically removing it as a subject in all areas - including sex-ed, says my high school senior daughter. (That may be beneficial, because taboo topics are usually pursued by the curious).

    Language use is also complicit - the construction view falls in line with the term re-"production" as opposed to the term "procreation". In some of the newer dictionaries if you look up procreation, it simply says reproduce, as though humans are simply products.

    The incremental changes have been broadly systemic. If you're addressing things at the apologetic level, it may be too late.


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