Dear Issues Etc., Pastor Wilken and Prof. Koukl,
I agree that Bill Nye lacks philosophical sophistication and did not argue well. This is in part because he did not manage to articulate his arguments clearly. Greg Koukl makes some good points, but he often does not respond to the best argument Nye may have intended, let alone the best argument that could be made on his behalf, and Koukl makes some howlers of his own, sometimes committing the very same kind of error he accuses Nye of.
Greg Koukl and Bill Nye share a common fault. Both illegitimately invoke the authority of science to support conclusions which in fact rely on their own philosophical points of view.
Eggs and Human Beings
When Nye says “many many many many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans,” he is presupposing that fertilized eggs are not humans. Koukl proceeds to dispute this – and even the existence of fertilized eggs – quoting an embryology text, invoking the full authority of science, and concluding that “Bill Nye the Science Guy has gotten his embryology flat out wrong from the very first line of his critique!” This is just as illegitimate as Nye’s conclusion that when people disagree with him about the humanity of the zygote, “It’s just a reflection of a deep scientific lack of understanding.” (It may be that in part, as I will argue, but not completely.)
The nouns ‘human’ and ‘human being’ are not scientific, technical terms. They belong to common parlance, and because of that they have all kinds of implications and connotations. Even their primary meanings are disputed by the two sides, because these different meanings belong to different worldviews.
When we say “All men are created equal,” do we mean by “men” women also? Should we? Do we mean men of all races? Should we? Do we mean zygotes and embryos and fetuses too? Should we? These are not scientific questions. They are not questions of empirical fact, although empirical facts may be brought to bear in answering them. The honorific ‘human being’ is like ‘men’ in this respect. (And so are ‘baby’ and ‘child’, by the way, when applied to the unborn.)
So when Nye implies that fertilized eggs are not yet “humans”, clearly he is using ‘human’ to refer to something more restrictive than “any organism of the species homo sapiens at any stage of development.” Koukl uses ‘human’ and ‘human being’ to mean something different. (Perhaps: “any whole organism of the species homo sapiens at any stage of development,” but also “a person”, “a life” and “a being with full human rights.”) Science cannot answer or dictate what we should mean by these non-scientific terms. It is not an empirical question.
Eggs and Metaphysics
But Koukl takes a different view. He begins by making the ridiculous assertion that there is no such thing as a fertilized egg, and claims that this is a scientific fact, one that Nye gets wrong. This, I will argue, is not a fact at all, but merely a conclusion dictated by Koukl’s pre-scientific metaphysics.
(The metaphysics I refer to is Aristotelian. Its tenets are assumed by most pro-life apologists working today. They are usually just treated as simple logic, never spelled out in detail, and sometimes actively concealed, perhaps because of their Catholic Thomist credentials. (I’m thinking here of Voldemort... I’m sorry, I mean Robert P. George, or Robbie, as Koukl calls him.)
When I buy eggs at the grocery store, I have the choice of buying “fertile eggs”. These are chicken eggs that have been fertilized. You can find videos on YouTube of chickens hatched from store-bought fertile eggs. So these are eggs that can, under the right circumstances, develop into chickens. But according to Koukl’s logic, and contrary to common sense, they are not eggs, they are chickens – unless Koukl believes that human embryogenesis proceeds fundamentally differently from that of other animals. But such a belief certainly could not be claimed to be a scientific fact.
Koukl says “eggs do get fertilized, but when they’re fertilized, they’re no longer eggs that are fertilized, they’re human beings! And that is basic, foundational science. It’s basic embryology.” As proof he quotes from an embryology text:
(Both chicken and human fertilized eggs are surrounded by a shell – in humans called the zona pellucida. In both, development initially takes place inside the shell, and if this continues, both eventually “hatch”. As a matter of fact, reference to fertilized eggs in embryology texts, including human embryology texts, is common.)
But how, Koukl might ask, could this still be the egg but also be “a new organism”. If this is a new organism, doesn’t that mean, as he says, that “the egg is gone”?
Aristotle vs. Democritus
When Koukl, speaking of the true fact underlying Nye’s account, said that his real point was that “many hundreds of eggs are fertilized that do not survive” he was unconsciously caught in the kind of difficulty the understanding of change as substantial change leads to. For according to Koukl, NO eggs survive fertilization. So we have difficulty even referring to any entity that spans the fertilization event under Aristotle’s scheme. I have even known pro-lifers to claim that the egg dies at fertilization. This seems wrong. Life is continuing; it is thriving; it is not ending. It is natural to think and to say that eggs survive fertilization: they survive as something changed, something new. But this is not compatible with the substance view, which recognizes only one substantial form at a time, and no possibility of continuity across a change of substance. (Actually it is a doctrine of Aquinas’s – the unity of substantial form – which insists that a material body can have only one substantial form. Some of his contemporaries objected that this would mean that saintly relics had never actually been parts of the saints’ bodies, since substantial change meant at death the body ceased to exist. Just as Koukl says “The egg is gone.”)
Here is Patrick Lee, in a rare acknowledgement of the source of the view Koukl is expressing:
A standard pro-life argument claims that stage of development is irrelevant to moral status. This is made to seem obvious with examples like comparing a toddler to a teenager or an adult. Surely, then, stage of development does not affect one’s right to life, it is argued. But, while there are important changes that occur in the transition from childhood to adulthood, these are not the kinds of drastic reorganizations which can be compared to the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. They are not metamorphoses. But the change from a fertilized egg to a blastocyst is such a metamorphosis. So is the transformation of a blastocyst to an embryo, and from an early embryo to a fetus. Embryos are far more like embryos of other species at similar stages than they are like adults of their own species, just as a caterpillar is more like caterpillars of other species than it is like a butterfly of its own. A non-expert would be hard pressed to identify an early human embryo from among those of other mammals. So is it really so obvious that moral status is unchanging? Why shouldn’t it reflect such drastic metamorphoses? Why should we insist on calling an organism before it undergoes metamorphosis by the name of a much later and much different stage of its life cycle, and why should we regard these as moral equals?
This is not the picture that modern biology gives. Science has discovered that life arises out of matter, and reaches deeply into it. Life is a physical process which never (since the beginning) ever simply begins. It always continues; it is always passed on. The life processes in that egg cell never stop. Metabolism continues. Complicated life processes merge the two genomes into one, and install it into the new nucleus of the surviving egg cell. That is why there is no scientific research on “when life begins” – because it doesn’t! ‘Life’, for modern biology, is a mass noun, like water, not a count noun, like a glass of water. Life is a process found in all living things. To refer to a person or an organism as ‘a life’ is not a scientific way of talking. Science does not count lives. It does not ask, in a multicellular organism, whether each cell is a life, or whether there is only one life, belonging to the organism as a whole. It does not ask whether there were two lives or only one in a human zygote before it split into twins. These are not scientifically answerable, empirical questions – there are no experiments that could be done to answer them – because there is nothing in biology corresponding to this meaning of “a life”. (“A life” can refer to a life story, a biography, or its subject, a connected series of events centering on one individual, but that is a completely different connotation.) Moreover, there is nothing unique, morally or otherwise, about the processes that take place in human cells as opposed to other cells. They are mostly the same in an amoeba and a man. But those processes just are life. In this respect, according to modern biology, there is no such thing as “human life”. There is just life, found in everything that is alive. So how could “human life” confer value or rights?
This may have been what Bill Nye was alluding to when he made the point that
Koukl counters by equating Nye’s claim about attachment to the uterine wall to a claim about location, and then dismisses it, since change of location is not known to change moral status. The point about location is a standard pro-life argument used to dismiss location inside or outside the womb as morally irrelevant. But Nye is not saying the embryo needs to be next to the uterine wall (or, as Koukl says, “domiciled” inside the womb). He is saying it needs to attach to it. This is not simply a matter of location. Attachment to the uterine wall is a complicated process of chemical signaling by which drastic and important changes are triggered in both the embryo’s and the woman’s bodies, a process called implantation. There is no dispute that implantation is a necessary condition of further development. The question is, how does this affect the argument from potential?
I suspect that the concept of the zygote’s potential is normally fused in pro-lifers’ minds with their notion of ‘life’ as beginning at conception and as the true subject of moral status. But let it be granted, for the sake of argument, that the zygote’s only moral status is a consequence of its potential to develop into some other kind of being, which intrinsically deserves moral status. Then does the zygote have moral status prior to implantation? I can imagine arguments on both sides.
Imagine, for instance, that you’re baking bread. You have added all the ingredients, you have kneaded it, but you have not put it in the oven. Is it a potential loaf of bread? It would seem to have that potential, since the further condition of baking may yet be met, and all else is in readiness. But let’s say you have added all the ingredients except the yeast. Is it a potential loaf of bread now? Perhaps not yet. Well, how are we to regard the chemical signals that the uterus sends to the embryo that help trigger implantation? (I know very little about this subject, but here’s one reference: “Uterine Selection of Human Embryos at Implantation”, Scientific Reports 4, Article number: 3894 (2014).) Are these chemicals like the yeast, without which the dough will never become bread? Or are they like the heat of the oven, which the dough awaits in readiness? I’ve not studied the argument from potential, but I don’t find either side conclusive, and personally, I find the argument from potential itself unappealing. I think moral status should be based on what is present now, not on what may or may not come to be in some possible future. And according to that criterion, the zygote and embryo have no more claim to our moral concern than the zygotes and embryos of other animals that resemble them far more than we do.
I suspect that I don’t find ‘potential’ arguments convincing because they rely on another Aristotelian metaphysical tenet I don’t share: final causes. A typical pro-life description that tries to work final causes into a scientific-sounding account goes “the human embryo is a whole complete organism, a living individual human being, whose cells work together in a coordinated effort of self-development toward maturity.” (Kaczor, The Ethics of Abortion, p. 105.) It makes development sound purposive, end-oriented, and the product of a “self”. This is a different kind of potential than mere possibility, one that might be more convincing were it true. A materialist point of view, which is all science provides (and gets along with very well), sees atoms and molecules following the laws of physics, which do not tend to any end. But because we are the products of a long process of natural selection, those laws combine in our bodies in such a way as to preserve and develop them... unless they don’t, and we develop cancer, or a genetic variation results in early death. Explanations of these events do not require end-oriented causes, just end-neutral descriptions of physical events, though it is often convenient and perspicuous to speak teleologically, as if our bodies were trying to heal, or a disease were trying to get the better of us.
The woman’s role
The article I just cited, “Uterine Selection of Human Embryos at Implantation” throws an interesting light on this whole question. It reports that embryos give off chemical signals which the uterus responds to. If the signals reveal that the embryo is faulty in some way, the uterus rejects it, and it fails to successfully implant, but if the embryo is judged “competent”, the opposite is the case, and not only does the uterus ready itself, but it emits signals which trigger blastocyst hatching (it is hypothesized on the basis of some experimental evidence). The article concludes, “distinct positive and negative mechanisms contribute to active selection of human embryos at implantation.” Rejection is a common occurrence. The article reports that 70% of human embryos may have chromosomal abnormalities, and estimates that 50% of pregnancies end in miscarriage. Obviously, this does not include embryos that never began to implant. Failure of uterine cells to fulfill the embryo selection function is “strongly associated with recurrent pregnancy loss”, supporting the hypothesis that “active embryo selection at implantation is essential for reproductive success.”
So what is the picture we are left with? Let me try to paint a picture before attempting an argument. Imagine a forest. Animals are killing each other. There are no humans in the forest. Do the animals have rights that are being violated? The very idea of rights seems out of place here. As Nye might say, “Who are you gonna sue?” He also said that passing laws based on a Bible-based belief that “when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse they always have a baby” is “inconsistent with nature.” Koukl was justifiably upset and incredulous at this gross mischaracterization. No one believes that. But I think Nye had in mind, instead, his central theme, the contrast between the actual survival rate of fertilized eggs and the belief he attributes to pro-lifers that whenever a sperm cell fertilizes an egg cell, inevitably, or at least regularly (barring interference), a baby results, ignoring the long road in between. (In the context of the Bible he couldn’t say that because sperm and egg cells were unknown in Biblical times, so he substituted intercourse (I conjecture). That was silly and confused.) But let’s concentrate on “inconsistent with nature.” (I have to admit that I had a hard time understanding Nye’s central argument, and what science he thought pro-lifers misunderstand, so this is a bit of a stretch. But bear with me.) Nye also said that, without microscopes and scientists, you wouldn’t know the process of fertilization; you wouldn’t have that image of sperm bumping up against an egg in your mind’s eye. I don’t think he was saying, “So you should listen to scientists. They know best.” I think he was saying: this is a realm of nature, like that forest without humans, which was completely unknown to us before science. There’s a lot of death going on in that realm, which takes place naturally, and which you haven’t properly taken into account. To try to insert rights into this realm, and to protect by law an entity which is naturally subject and often succumbs to mortal dangers, is “inconsistent with nature.”
This may seem far-fetched and unconvincing. But let me finish my thought. Pro-lifers often say that “the unborn are members of the human community.” But before a woman even knows she’s pregnant, and possibly after that too, this research tells us that the woman’s body is acting as a gatekeeper to the human community. Embryos that would result in unhealthy infants or dangerous pregnancies are culled. The woman’s body in effect makes a decision whether it is worthwhile to continue with this pregnancy.
We love babies. We want to protect them. Nature, evolution, or God (if you like), has equipped us with this emotion, which motivates us to protect and nurture them, and thus to continue the race and pass on our genes. But nature did not give us knowledge of what goes on inside the womb before birth. We didn’t have to take the important responsibility to select which embryos should live and which should die. If such knowledge and responsibility had been given to us in the scheme of things, we would not have been given a love of embryos, because the urge to protect them unconditionally would have been counterproductive. As it is, the mother’s body performs the function on its own, without her knowledge. But now, due to science, technology and modern medicine, she has the knowledge and the ability to take on that responsibility herself. Pro-lifers, however, want to apply the ethic of baby-love not just to the infant, but at every stage, denying the woman the right to consciously participate in the gatekeeper decision, and calling the conscious decision to terminate a pregnancy “homicide”, which is a term appropriate to community, not nature.
I’ve never thought along these lines before. I’m not sure how promising it is, but it seems to me to be a perspective that deserves some thought.
The argument seems to go this way: a woman has a natural right of veto over her pregnancy. This is normally exercised without conscious will or knowledge, but given that this is a normal, natural occurrence, with a biological function, it is hard to see how participating in it deliberately could make it wrong. The imposition of an ethic based on baby-love does not recognize that there is a period of development which precedes the time when unconditional love is appropriate. It is a time for prudential judgement concerning the wisdom of continuing a pregnancy, whether this judgement is carried out physiologically or consciously.
I can see that such an argument would have little weight for someone who believes in full human rights for the unborn at every stage of development. But perhaps, for such a person, there is something to come to terms with here.
Koukl makes the valid point, in the course of attacking Nye, that “Science ... can tell you about embryology, but it cannot tell you about rights. It cannot tell you about what you ought to do with the information you have. That is a different field.” He also says, “Science is incapable of inveighing, in any discussion, regarding rights, because it doesn’t deal with those things. It deals with descriptive things, not prescriptive things.”
Somewhat more problematic, but along the same lines, he says: “So Bill Nye is off on the wrong foot to begin with, by assuming that the so-called fertilized egg, the zygote, is not a human being, when in fact embryology teaches that it is a full human being. Now what rights accrue to that human being is a separate question, but that is not a scientific question.”
As I’ve said before, since “human being” has many meanings and implications which go well beyond science, it is not a scientific term. To say that “embryology teaches” that the zygote is “a full human being” is dangerously ambiguous. Why not just say that embryology teaches that the zygote is “an organism of the species homo sapiens”? If you admit that the question of what rights accrue to this organism is a separate question from whether it is “a full human being”, why persist in using such loaded language? I think the answer is obvious. It’s because Koukl wants the loaded language. He wants to cash in on the ambiguity. Everyone agrees that human beings have value and rights. We’re human beings. We believe in equality (for people). So if the “science teaches” that the zygote is “a full human being” that must mean it has the same value and rights as any other human. Except of course science doesn’t teach anything of the kind.
How else explain the great energy Koukl expends in insisting that embryology attests to the truth that fertilization gives rise to a new human being? Koukl is outraged that Nye would claim that Bible-believing Christians believe that every act of intercourse leads to a baby. It’s ridiculous. No one believes that. But does Koukl really believe that Nye doesn’t know and agree that the union of human sperm and egg gives rise to a new organism of the human species? Does he really believe that when Nye says it takes more than fertilization to become a human, he is denying this well-known fact? It’s hard for me to believe that Koukl believes that. Koukl is invested in erasing, or at least ignoring, the distinction between the empirical description “human being” (organism belonging to the human species) and the value-laden claim “human being” (fully valuable, fully rights-bearing member of the human community). He takes offense that Nye denies the zygote is a human being in the value-laden sense, so he attacks him for getting “his embryology flat-out wrong”, and throws in the bogus fertilized-egg issue for good measure.
Koukl admits, “what rights accrue to that human being is a separate question... that is not a scientific question”. And it is clear how he answers that question: “Abortion takes the life of an innocent human being without proper justification, and therefore abortion itself is wrong. It’s de facto homicide,” he says. But in this interview he makes no argument for why it is wrong, and equally wrong, to kill a one-celled never-conscious organism of the human species and a many-trillion-celled large-brained conscious organism with a developed personality and a socially rich life history. Why should we apply the term “human being”, modeled as it is on the latter, familiar prototype, to the unfamiliar, utterly different, microscopic organism (albeit of the same species) which Koukl insists on calling (taking advantage of ambiguity) by the same name? And why, once it is called a human being, should we agree that “therefore” killing it is wrong? Because killing a person of the familiar type is wrong, and this organism is of the same species? And called by the same name? And if it’s lucky and lives long enough it would, after multiple metamorphoses, become one? I would need more than that.
I’m sure there are such arguments, and that Koukl knows them. It’s just that he makes such forceful passionate statements about killing innocent human beings and lost lives and comparisons with 9/11 on the basis of only the words “life” and “human being” and the supposed embryology, without a hint of any argument, which causes me to blame him for trading on the fallacy of equivocation.
Bill Nye said “Recommending or insisting on abstinence has been completely ineffective. Just being objective here.” This is clearly a statement about sex education policy. Koukl responds as if Nye had denied that abstinence itself is effective in preventing pregnancy! He attests to its effectiveness in his own case. This is just silly. Then he admits that Nye may be talking about “policy”. But then he proceeds again (purposefully?) to misunderstand, taking “policy” to mean a policy of being abstinent instead of a policy of teaching abstinence-only in the classroom, and considers how practical such a policy is. This is just as silly. Finally he gets to the issue Nye brought up, the question of whether teaching abstinence instead of sex education has been ineffective. Koukl answers: “The people who have employed this half-heartedly, they maybe haven’t gotten the results they wanted, so they abandoned it. But it’s not the case that the policy doesn’t work. It does work, OK?” That’s it. That’s his response.
Nye had said “I really encourage you to look at the facts” and take a “fact-based” approach. Unfortunately, Greg Koukl did not take this plea to heart. It is very simple to Google the answer. States with abstinence-only education have higher teenage birthrates. Although teenage birthrates have come down across the country in the last two decades, they came down slower in states with abstinence-only education. The more dedicated a state was to abstinence-only education, the higher the teenage pregnancy rate. “In 2008, the Washington Post reported on a University of Washington study which found that teenagers who received comprehensive sex education were 60% less likely to get pregnant than someone who received abstinence-only education. A 2007 federal report found that abstinence-only programs have had "no impacts on rates of sexual abstinence."” This information and quotes are fromhttp://mic.com/articles/98886/the-states-with-the-highest-teenage-birth-rates-have-one-thing-in-common. I got this from just a quick online stab at the question. I’m not familiar with mic.com, but I had heard about or read about these or similar results in the past. It certainly seems more fact-based than Koukl’s feeble jokes and anecdotes.
Koukl took a light-hearted approach to this question, but it would not be surprising to me (I don’t have the data) if abstinence-only education were not only correlated with teen pregnancy and teen birthrates but with teen abortion rates, so if you are serious about reducing the number of abortions, you should try being objective and looking at the facts, as Nye suggested, instead of believing what makes a comforting story for you on the strength of wishful thinking, ideology and anecdote.
Telling Women What to Do
Nye: “So I just really encourage you to not tell women what to do and not pursue these laws that are really in nobody’s best interest.”
Once again Koukl refutes something Nye did not intend. He says Nye is telling people what to do when he tells them not to tell people what to do, and so self-destructs. But with just a little effort and insight Koukl would have realized that Nye is not concerned with pro-lifers telling people verbally what to do. He is concerned about the long, energetic, concerted effort to use the state to tell women what they must and must not do by force of law. That’s what Nye meant. By exhorting people in this way he was not refuting himself, because he was not attempting to force anybody to do anything. Koukl accuses Nye of being disingenuous. But it is hard not to think that it is Koukl who is being disingenuous once again, by missing a very obvious point in order to score one.
I hope that, despite its length, this letter has held your interest and offered you something to chew on.