What is “human?”

Today, I’m going to start off as an intellectual feather-weight and deal with the absurd position that a fetus is a human to get it swiftly out of the way.

I’ve often pondered the “pro-life” anti-choice position and tried to make heads or tails out of it with some insight into reality. It’s very difficult to do since the anti-choice stance is intrinsically dualistic, and based upon religious grounds, rather than argued through evidence. A select few incorporate straw men into their arguments (abortion=eugenics, or so forth), but the dualistic ones have the following premises:

  1. All humans have souls
  2. It is a soul which makes humans worth special treatment
  3. Souls are injected at the time of conception
  4. Therefore: destroying a human fetus, blastula, gastrula, or or zygote is murder.

There are, however, some non-dualistic arguments regarding anti-choice, as I have previously mentioned, but most of these pseudorational arguments are easily seen through as poorly veiled attempts at ad-hoc rationalization, and tend to contain these same premises in a euphemistic form. Those that do not, however, are the “risky behavior” arguments. It is interesting that these are mostly risks of infection (4% is a rather high estimation for this) and damage to future chances of pregnancy. These occur exclusively in surgical abortion procedures. Pharmacologically induced abortions typically have no major side effects. The surgical techniques sometimes (less than 10%) have complications (such as perforated uterine walls, scar tissue development, etc.) which can cause future fertility issues. Arguing that abortion is risky ignores the fact that pregnancy is also risky. The comparative risk between abortion and full-term pregnancy (if you include psychological issues) is about the same; while infection rates are higher for abortion than for childbirth, it does occur in both; perforated uteri are also slightly more frequent in surgical abortion procedures, but does still occur in childbirth (natural and c-section). Psychological trauma is less frequent in abortions than in child birth (4% vs 5.9%) and this difference does seem to be statistically significant (P<0.05). It’s ironic to use the “risk” argument for abortion and not use it against pregnancy in general, for this is how it works best.

Even if we agree that humans have a dualistic nature (euphemisms=special, unique, etc.) AND it is the soul which qualifies a human for special treatment (euphemisms=more intelligent, morally aware, etc.), we are left with the absurd position that millions of “special and morally aware fetuses” die yearly, in the form of environmentally induced miscarriages, non-implanted embryos, and genetic-abnormality-induced terminations, not to mention the math doesn’t make sense. It is ironic to use the idea of “conception” being the magic moment at which a soul gets injected, but a bigger problem is that it’s never explained what one means by “conception.” Is it the moment in which the gametes fuse? Is it the moment in which the embryo implants into the uterine wall (at least in placental mammals)? Where along the evolutionary history of our species did a soul first get injected? I mean, obviously there must have been a “first” when dealing with the existence of contra-causal non-material agency–unless one adds the additional stipulation that souls evolved, too, and that would just make the argument hilarious. Condoms are certainly is not abortion in the “implantation-soul,” nor are most contraceptive pills (including emergency contraceptives-i.e. “morning after pill”–a misnomer, but it’s what most people have heard of it as); the latter only are abortion if you are one of the individuals claiming fertilization is the moment at which a soul gets stuffed into that embryo, in which case, in that small percentage of the time, when an egg is released, will it be fertilized (a smaller number), and of those, nearly all will not implant. As far as the mathematics of souls goes, if fertilization is the moment when a soul appears, do identical twins have the same soul? What about conjoined twins? Want some serious fun, ponder genetic chimeras (where two fertilized eggs produce a single individual).

These dilemmas are precisely what led me away from dualism and religious ideas. It serves as an introduction into my “what does it mean to be ‘human'” series. I began with the abortion notion to get the idea that humans are “special” quickly out of the way (i.e. to remove the soul from the equation) and to demonstrate why it doesn’t work. This is not to say that humans are not unique among animals, and the following will show how we are unique.

The next in this series will be a look into the naturalistic view of what humans actually are and how we got here. I will then delve into Neil Shubin’s “Your Inner Fish” as well as specifics of comparative anatomy excluding human neurology. Following that will be some relatively recent history and discussion of social interactions. Lastly, while I’m not precisely knowledgeable enough about human neurology to discuss get into the details, I will make an honest attempt at such in the final part of this series. This will mainly focus on several regions: Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas, the superior frontal gyrus, and cerebellum.


9 Responses to “What is “human?””

  1. 1 Pliny-the-in-Between
    April 14, 2010 at 1:37 pm

    I’d put in a plug for you to go into the developmental regulatory gene network concepts that seem to be confusing. It seems hard enough for most to handle straight forward inheritance let alone this critical layer of developmental regulation. It’s all running together, but I believe Shubin’s book covers that at least at a high level (I may be wrong of course)

  2. April 14, 2010 at 2:21 pm

    How many “pro-life” people do you anticipate finding and reading your blog? Of those, how many do you think will be open to a change in their position based on your well presented and well reasoned arguments?

    The few women I know who have had abortions did so due to some deep and intense emotional conflicts, compounded by the real-life complications of having a baby at that time. Of the few men I have known who have (indirectly) had abortions, they have simply said, “That sure saved my ass.”

    Most of the politicized Christians I know who are still actively opposed to abortion focus largely on the sanction of the act through legislation and the public funding through government programs. The issue is the sanctity of the nation, and the threat/promise of God’s judgement if such practices are embraced by the nation as an entity. It is a moral issue, not open to debate.

    Since some morally reprehensible politicians utilize this one-issue voting group to pull anti-abortion voters on-board for less-than-moral purposes, I think this form of thinking is far from wise. Perhaps abortion (and a lot of other decisions) is better left in the realm of personal decisions. Opponents may thus seek to influence others through advice, education, advertising and other modes of communication, and allow wisdom to guide in the political arena.

    Of course, that still doesn’t address the question of “What is ‘human’? The question is a larger one than the issue addressed here, and one worthy of contemplation regularly by anyone who claims “human” as one of their titles. There is much room for discussion of this larger aspect of the question.

  3. 3 jaredcormier
    April 14, 2010 at 7:58 pm

    Pliny, Shubin’s book doesn’t cover it too in-depth, for that I’ll be pulling from some of the books and research Shubin actually references as well as several research papers.

    Michael, more pro-life people read this blog than you might think, they just usually don’t say anything. I know the actual act of getting an abortion is more complex than the arguments for its legality, and I am being careful not to tell someone what they should do here.

    Also, I know the title was misleading, it was not intended as such; I initially began talking about primate behaviors, but I had to get the dualism problem swiftly out of the way.

  4. April 14, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    Nondualist arguments can be made that are less problematic. In particular, it is only in a dualist world where souls are meaningful that you actually get a clear dividing line. But, if one isn’t a dualist then the line at which point an embryo crosses the stage at which it has its own rights is potentially fuzzy. In that circumstance, it isn’t unreasonable to consider those potential rights important enough to restrict abortion after a certain phase. The Atheist and Agnostic Pro-Life League and a number of similar organizations (the AAPLL may be defunct now. I’m not sure) are based around this sort of logic or logic very similar to it.

    (Incidentally, also just read Your Inner Fish. Loved it).

  5. 5 jaredcormier
    April 14, 2010 at 10:53 pm

    It is quite a good book, I’m currently finishing up a reread of my marginalia on it. I’ve always found the “embryo has rights” argument so fascinating, but never really heard it spelled out; usually they just leave it at “it’s a living thing and shouldn’t be killed” without really explaining that; it’s a lovely catch-phrase, but ultimately meaningless like so many of them.

  6. April 14, 2010 at 10:56 pm

    Yeah, I’ve never understood the “living thing so no killy” sort or argument. Under that sort of logic we shouldn’t use antibiotics because we kill whole populations of living things. And our immune system functions daily killing all sorts of microorganisms that aren’t cooperating. The most interesting argument I’ve heard from a non-dualist against abortion was against abortion after the fetus visually resembles a baby. The argument there boiled down almost explicitly to the fact that at that point she emphasized with the entity in question.

  7. 7 jaredcormier
    April 15, 2010 at 11:16 am

    Aww, it looks cute; I actually don’t think babies are cute, I find them rather hideous and revolting little things until about age 2. Since it looks like a ball of cells until day 15 when it begins looking like a coffee bean. By day 20, it looks like a deformed coffee bean with ripples on the sides. Around day 30, it looks like a little pink fish. By day 40, it looks remarkably like Rodhocetus gone wrong with flippers, a tail, and a rather pointed head. So I’m guessing the time at which they think it should not be killed is around the beginning of the second trimester, at which point the eyes, head, and limbs are fairly defined. What is fascinating is that such an entity is not even remotely close to an infant in terms of neurological, musculoskeletal, cardiopulmonary, or digestive development. It just superficially resembles a baby.

  8. 8 Pliny-the-in-Between
    April 15, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    On the topic of abortion, I find that a lot of so called ‘pro lifers’ ( I hate simplistic labels like this) really are situational ethicists. If you believe human life is sacred then taking of any human life under any circumstance is wrong – period. That includes the death penalty, collateral damage, police work, self-defense, and war fighting. If you make allowances for any then you are making arbitrary judgments which means that it just comes down to a personal comfort zone with respect to killing. In other words it comes down to choice about where the line should be drawn, not a natural law. If it’s not a natural law argument then restricting the freedom of an individual to manage their own body is anathema to our system of laws.

    As a side light it’s also interesting to consider that Christianity values souls differentially, at least historically (I admit I don’t know what the current doctrine on this is is.) Unbaptized infant souls went to Limbo if Roman Catholic, for example – before Limbo was closed. Since neonatal death would seem to be the epitome of innocence it always struck me as odd that a merciful deity would want them segregated from the holy.

  9. April 15, 2010 at 12:29 pm

    Jared, yes. I have to wonder if such a person would object to someone damaging a sufficiently life-like doll.

    Pliny, I don’t think that that sort of pro-life requires situational ethics necessarily. To touch on the most obvious example you give, that of the death penalty, they could easily distinguish between innocent life (the unborn baby) and the non-innocent (the adult). (It does however seem that people who are nominally pro-life are at least often strongly pro death-penalty which is a harder combination to reconcile).

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