"But Tantalus, are you saying there are individuals who have more humanity than others?!" - Evolution News & Views

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"But Tantalus, are you saying there are individuals who have more humanity than others?!"

Tantalus Prime and I have had a discussion about the moral status of abortion and the scientific status of the human embryo (shorthand for human zygote/embryo/fetus).

Tantalus has expended quite a bit of effort to deny that human embryos are human beings. My recent post pointed out the absurdity of asserting that human embryos are anything but human beings. And I asked Tantalus this question:

What is a human embryo?

My question is a scientific question, not a moral question (yet). The assertion that human embryos aren't human beings leads to all sorts of scientific nonsense. For example, if human embryos aren't human beings but rather, say, a part of the mother's body, then in each gestation a genuine human being arises spontaneously at some point from the mother's body, like budding. This is of course biological nonsense. The only biologically coherent understanding is that a human embryo is a human being (a homo sapien).

Why would a scientifically literate person (Tantalus appears to be a neuroscientist of some sort) deny the obvious biological fact that human embryos are human beings? For ideological reasons, of course. Recognition of the humanity of unborn children is anathema to supporters of abortion. Dehumanization of children in the womb makes abortion easier to accept morally.

Tantalus, in an effort to circumvent the biological fact that a human embryo is a human being, engages in a bit of deconstruction:

Mr. Egnor has asked me a single question: What is a human embryo? Now, I must stop there because this is really two questions. The first is "What is an embryo?" I hope we can safely set aside the question of what an embryo is. Let's say a group of two or more dividing cells that, in placental mammals, is between the zygotic and fetal stages. I don't believe it is the question Mr. Egnor wants answered though. That means there is something about that dangling modifier "human". That would make the second question "What is a human?" Now, perhaps I am wrong, but I believe this is the key question Mr. Egnor wants answered. If that is the question to be answered, why not simply ask that question outright? Only Mr. Egnor knows why. So let me try rephrasing the question to better capture what I believe is being asked. "Is an embryo human?" That, is better, but I'm fairly certain that embryos associated with other animals aren't to be included, only those embryos undergoing gestation in an adult female of the species Homo sapien, commonly referred to as human. So lets use the word human in its common form to distinguish what class of embryos we are discussing. "Is a human embryo human?"

Well, this can't be right. Instead of trying to prove the unborn is fully human, such a question simply assumes the proof is true. This logical fallacy is called, of course, "begging the question". I'm sure such an outcome was unintentional.

I didn't ask a linguistic question, or a rhetorical question, or a logical question. I merely asked a biological question. If I were to show Tantalus a human embryo, and ask him "what is this", meaning in a biological taxonomy sense, the only correct answer is that it is a human being- a homo sapien. There is no debate about this. It is analogous to showing Tantalus my dog, and asking him what this is, in a biological-taxonomy sense. There is only one answer: Canis lupus familiaris. A domestic dog. That's it. It's not a cat or a tree. There's no debate. There are no opinions, only correct answers and incorrect answers. Failure to answer correctly is evidence of ignorance or dishonesty.


Now, some will say that I have significantly altered the question. I disagree based on the potential answers offered (especially answer 5 [i.e. a human embryo is a human being])."

Tantalus admits basing his scientific opinion on the philosophical and ethical implications of the science. He admits misrepresenting the science in order to protect his ideological presuppositions. Why can't he just acknowledge the science-- a human embryo is a human being-- which is uncontroversial, and then contemplate the philosophical implications of accurate science?

Tantalus next raises a series of casuistic objections to defining a human embryo as a human being:

1) Monozygotic twins - Identical twins (or triplets, etc.) arise from a single fertilization event but result in two individuals. Since life begins at fertilization and the separation resulting in twins occurs after this, this must mean that one of the twins did not arise from fertilization and is therefore not human. No doubt such a conclusion makes people uneasy. To resolve this dilemma there are a few solutions. One could concede that fertilization is not the starting point of life. Alternatively, one could maintain that fertilization does give rise to multiple lives in the sense that each cell division creates another potential life. This creates the greater problem of reconciling the fact that each adult human is made up of billions of potential lives. In fact, one could scrape one's cheek with a swab and remove several cells with the potential for life with the express intent of preventing them from reaching such potential. In fact, I just did so and, by the rationale above, performed an abortion. Of course this is ridiculous but it is the logical conclusion using the stated definitions. One potential work around is to claim that fertilization gives rise to multiple lives but that these potential lives lose their potential after a set period of time, let's say after the first six cycles of division. This of course raises even greater problems. Where did the lives go to? Were they the unfortunate victim of spontaneous abortion (aka miscarriage)? If a drug were available that would suppress the the development of monozygotic twins (not a drug that leads to the induced abortion of one but that only suppresses the splitting of one zygote into two) then wouldn't such a drug be morally equivalent to abortion? Alternatively, if possible, wouldn't forcing split eggs back together also be morally equivalent to abortion?
Twinning raises no problems for the taxonomical classification of an embryo as a member of its species. The fact that a human embryo is a human being isn't refuted by the observation that each human embryo is at least one human being. Sometimes the human embryo is more than one human being. The argument relevant to the abortion controversy is that a human embryo is never less than one human being. Twinning, despite raising interesting biological and philosophical questions, does nothing to advance the argument that a human embryo isn't a human being. The argument advanced by twinning is that sometimes a human embryo is more than one human being, but never less than one.

Tantalus proposes several other philosophical dilemmas (genetic alterations, taking cells from frozen embryos, cloning, etc), none of which have any particular relevance to status of a human embryo as a human being.

Hypothetical stories about chimeras and clones are irrelevant to the biological fact that human embryos are human beings. The taxonomy of human clones or human-mouse chimeras will be an interesting question if such science ever becomes reality (I pray that it won't ), but I point out that the mere concept of 'human clone' or 'human-mouse chimera' presupposes that the cloned human embryo or the human embryo to be fused to the mouse embryo is .. human.

Tantalus finally exhausts his rationalizations, and says something honest:

It seems that to avoid this dilemma, we must rethink what we mean by Homo sapien.

...So let's try redefining these terms in a way that removes such a dichotomy.

Homo sapien - an individual, from the zygotic stage on, with genomic content generally common to the hairless, social great ape originating on the planet Earth

Human - An individual Homo sapien with certain cerebral abilities believed to be unique to Homo sapiens including, but not limited to, abstract thought, language, and reasoning.

Person - A human who is entitled to certain rights, usually by virtue of maturation or reaching a certain age

Again, incomplete I know, but good enough for the present purposes and much closer to my personal beliefs... I have also removed rights from 'Homo sapien' and placed it under 'person' to permit denial of rights to human cells with the potential to be cloned but which are not undergoing the cloning process. I also redefined human to make it a continuous variable rather than dichotomous.

"But Tantalus, are you saying there are individuals who have more humanity than others?!" Yes. I'm sorry if that makes you uncomfortable, but it is not me who is saying this.

So Tantalus isn't the one saying that not all human beings are fully human! Other people tell him:
It is assumed in society's everyday vernacular. People anthropomorphize their pets, calling them their children and ascribing them human characteristics. Many have no problem calling mass murderers and suicide bombers "less than human". When children misbehave, we say they are acting like animals. We dehumanize our enemies in war to make it easier to kill them. Brain dead individuals are called "vegetables". In the few recorded instances of feral children, such individuals have been said to behave more like animals then humans. Phineas Gage suffered a horrible accident that caused damage to his frontal lobes and while he lived a decade beyond his accident friends recognized that Gage was "no longer Gage".[my emphasis]
Bottom line: Tantalus Prime denies the mundane scientific observation that human embryos are human beings (Homo sapiens) and he asserts that not all people are fully human because... he's heard people using slang and figures of speech. My head is spinning. In the pantheon of idiot atheist/materialist arguments, this is the most witless I've read.

So what is a human being? Aristotle defined human beings as rational animals. But he recognized that rationality was human potency, and not always human actuality. Aristotle understood that rationality is characteristic of our species ('species' in the classical sense), but not necessarily characteristic of all individuals. Not all humans are rational, no human is rational all the time, and no human is completely rational. Yet we remain human throughout. We are not rational when we sleep, or when we act out of intense anger, or when we are in the womb, or when we are young children. But we are human, always.

If irrationality-- the absence of Tantalus' criteria of abstract thought, language, and reasoning-- diminishes our humanity, then is our humanity diminished in sleep? Is homicide less culpable if the victim is killed in sleep, when he is not rational and by Tantalus' criteria not human? In Tantalus' taxonomy, how does the humanity of a child in the womb differ from that of an adult taking a nap?

But the napping adult is only temporarily non-rational, Tantalus might assert. The gestating embryo is only temporarily non-rational, I would reply. But a napping adult was rational before the nap, unlike the gestating embryo, Tantalus might assert. I would reply that by Tantalus' criteria a corpse is fully human, because past rationality, not present or future rationality, is decisive. But Tantalus might assert that past and future rationality, not present rationality, is what makes us fully human. I would reply that rationality is an odd criterion for humanity if it is always irrelevant to humanity now.

Is actual rationality really the pinnacle of what it is to be human? Is a logician more human than an athlete? A neuroscientist more human than a taxi driver? A taxi driver establishing criteria for humanity might choose skillful driving and quick reflexes, rather than abstract thought and reasoning.

Others might propose different criteria for full humanity-- being God's chosen people, or having poverty of spirit, mournfulness, and meekness. Another might choose recitation of five daily prayers, or fasting for a month, or a once-in -a-lifetime-pilgrimage.

And of course throughout history many have chosen other criteria for being fully human, such as being a member of the victorious army and not a member of the vanquished civilian populace, or being a vanguard of the proletariat, or being Aryan and non-semitic, or being Hutus and not Tutsi, or being caucasian and not African. If we deny full humanity to all, then the only consistent historical criterion for 'full humanity' is 'us, not them'. Notice that all of the criteria that Tantalus proposes to measure humanity are criteria presumably possessed in abundance by... Tantalus.

Tantalus fashions his scheme for human sifting as 21st century avant garde cutting edge science that eclipses medieval theolgy. But dehumanizing other men who don't share the traits of the select is the oldest system of taxonomy, older and less honorable than the oldest profession, and older than any monotheism. It is the source of rivers of human blood. There is only one remedy for it: the unwavering insistence that all human beings are fully human, and all have the right to life.

If we insist on defining humanity as an achievement test, rather than an affirmation of what we are, why would Tantaulus presume that he gets to set the criteria? I might suggest measuring humanity as the refusal to measure humanity in others. But that would make Tantalus less than human, and that is not true.