Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I, Zygote

Note: I first posted this in May of 2005, but though it was worth re-posting in light of recent developments.

When did I start being me? And when did you start being you?

Timely questions, since the ethics of embryonic stem cell is much in the news. I, and you, were once embryos. The pivotal question, of course, is who or what we were when we were embryos, and what rights (if any) accrued to us then: all the debates about whether it's permissible to create, use, and destroy human embryos for purposes of medical research flow from this.

Let's not consider -- yet -- what benefits might come from such research. No doubt many wonderful medical advances would be gained by expanding the pool of of research subjects and organ donors to include involuntary participants like convicted felons or the mentally debilitated. But respect for the rights of those potential subjects keeps us from extracting almost-certain medical benefits from them, and from censuring the defenders of their rights as anti-technology bio-luddites.

So, back to the question. When did I start being me? Well, some of the things that make me who I am are my inherited traits, which include not only eye color and hair color, but also, apparently, higher-level traits like personality and sexual orientation. Twin studies seem to bear out the idea that personal identity is intimately intertwined with genetics.

Then when did my personal genome come into being? My high school biology tells me that it happened when a sperm cell from my father fertilized an egg from my mother, and they shared genetic material. Thus my personal genetic code had its first, distinct instantiation in a zygote.

At that point, things started happening pretty fast, if I understand this article properly (and I'm not completely sure I do). I think it says that my genes started the process of expression -- that is, putting my genetic information into action, into the building of a mature human being -- right away, even before the zygote implanted itself in my mom's uterine wall some days later.

Was I "being me" at that point? Certainly not as fully as I am "being me" now. But my personal genome -- an unmistakably human genome, and the same one that I have now -- was working furiously to become what I am now, and that continuous, unbroken process has been going on for almost 50 years.

So if I wasn't "me" then, at what point did I become "me"? I certainly became more "me" every day. Some of my genetic traits (such as those controlling my fetal growth pattern) were expressed quite early, some only much later. Important cognitive abilities developed only long after my exit from the womb; apart from my physical appearance, I think there was little in my very early years that would distinguish me from other advanced primates. I can find no distinct point on this continuum of development to which I can point and say that before it I was "not me," and after it I was "me."

Thus it seems that when I was a zygote, I was (1) distinctively human, (2) genetically myself, and (3) actively expressing my distinctive humanity. After all, a golden retriever zygote cannot implant itself and grow in a human uterine wall. I "knew" how to do that because I was being human. Acting human. I was mostly a potential "me," but also, to some (growing) extent, an actual "me." That zygote contained, and was actively in the process of expressing, billions of bits of genetic information that contribute to my identity.

OK, then, what were my rights at this point?

Hmmm. That leads to a bigger question: whence do my rights derive?

One hears commonly that an embryo is "just a lump of tissue," and therefore not deserving of rights. But we know that it's a living, genetically distinct lump that is packed with information gleaned from millions of years of human evolution. In fact, it is precisely the lump's humanity that make it useful for research into human disease. Otherwise we could get those stem cells from some other species' lumps, no?

Some have proposed that zygotes, and their more advanced brethren, embryos, have no claim to the rest of their lives because they lack nerves, brains, consciousness, etc. But we perform painful and death-dealing experiments on all sorts of creatures (e.g., rats, rabbits, primates) that are fully sentient, and perhaps self-aware. Yet we do not perform them on infant humans, whose cognitive development (or lack thereof) would put them on a par with many primate subjects. If sentience is the relevant criterion, I can't see how this makes sense.

Peter Singer, the renowned Princeton philosopher, proposes to resolve this problem by stopping experimentation on all creatures that can suffer: their right to physical integrity, he argues, derives from this capacity. But he also proposes that people should have the option to euthanize handicapped babies or incapacitated adults, because, for him, the right to life derives from the ability to plan and anticipate one's future.

Singer's argument is coherent, but his starting point for the right to life seems to me rather arbitrary. If it's OK to euthanize an infant who turns out to have a serious genetic disorder, why not one whom you just don't want? Or why not a 20-year-old incurable schizophrenic whose future life is almost certain to be extremely painful to himself and others? I've no doubt that mental hospitals could arrange gentle and painless deaths for such unlucky people. Still, I don't assent to such practices, and I doubt most people would.

The ancient Spartans had an even more utilitarian view than Singer's. A person's right to life was, in practice, pretty much determined by his or her usefulness to the state, and the Spartans took care that non-useful people either wouldn't be produced, or would be eliminated in fairly short order. According to Plutarch, Lycurgus, the (perhaps mythical) founder of the Spartan constitution, arranged the Spartans' sex lives so as to optimize their chances of producing strong offspring, and made provision that weak or unhealthy babies should be disposed of outside the city walls. Training for Spartan youths was so rigorous that it tended to kill the weak; Plutarch records that he himself witnessed several Spartan boys being whipped to death during a particularly brutal trial of strength.

Like Singer's, the Spartan view has a certain cogency, but I have a feeling it would be pretty universally denounced by most Americans.

Thus if my claim to the rest of my life doesn't derive from sentience, or from my ability to anticipate the future, or from my utility to the state, then where does it come from?

Two options seem most salient.

The first is that I simply have no such claim, and never did. I didn't have it as a zygote, or as an embryo, and I don't have it now. I may be granted certain rights by the state that I live in, but those are more or less arbitrarily assigned according to the sentiments of my time and place. And if history teaches us anything, it is that moral sentiments are in constant flux, and that moral sympathies can be extended or withdrawn quite whimsically. Thus for millennia slavery was almost universal, with hardly a scintilla of the moral revulsion it arouses today; thus Babylonian potentates killed their political enemies by impaling them anally over the course of several days, but the EU now considers torture and capital punishment to be barbaric; thus infanticide is both widely practiced and widely reviled; thus Soviet sympathizers applauded Stalin when he wiped out millions through collectivized farming; thus millions of Europeans assented to the hunting down of European Jews, then regretted it, and now are reconsidering; thus I myself felt murderous hatred toward Palestinian women dancing in the streets on September 11, though no doubt their children love them dearly.

In this view, the rights of this or that group may be asserted, but they have no real existence; they are social conventions, which are themselves nothing more than collectively-defined preferences. Concepts of "good" and "evil" would also be mere conventions. In this view, though I myself would probably adhere to the conventions of the day, I'd be hard pressed to say why. And as for embryonic stem-cell research -- why not? Maybe someone to whom my sympathies happened to extend would benefit from it. But then why not do research on anesthetized, unwanted babies (who would then of course be painlessly euthanized)? They could be a great source of organs for wanted babies. What criterion -- besides convention or fickle moral sentiment -- could I adduce to object to such a practice? I can't think of one.

But I don't really like this option.

Rather, I adhere to the view that human life has intrinsic value, quite separate from convention or moral feeling, though convention and feeling may (and should) recognize that value. Because of that intrinsic value, I bridle at the merely instrumental use of a human being -- whether as a slave, or as a research subject, or even as the fulfillment of a parent's ambitions.

The creation of a human life as an instrumentality, or the reduction of it to such a state, even if it is only embryonic, is deeply troubling to me. Painful, too -- because to some extent my moral sympathies do extend to such human beings. Not because they suffer, but just because they are.

It is also painful to be confronted with horrifying diseases and disabilities like Parkinson's and Alzheimers along with the admonition, if only you'll let us experiment on these embryos, great good will come of it. No one will suffer! No one will be missed! It sounds wonderful.

But no one would suffer if we made full use of Peter Singer's unwanted babies, either. If we can experiment on them painlessly at 6 days of embryonic development, and do the same at 6 months post partum . . . why shouldn't we?


Joe Guarino said...

Very nicely done, David. Thank you for taking the time to write this. The arguments in favor of ESCR just don't stand up to this type of logical and ethical scrutiny.

Brian said...


Thanks for taking the time to weave this together. Masterfully done, but I was left wanting in the end.

You answered part of the question - that we as humans do actually have intrinsic rights. But without answering the other part of the question - from where do our rights derive? - our "intrinsic rights" have no foundation and are merely "arbitrarily assigned." In other words, you adhere to the view that human life has intrinsic value, but someone else adheres to the view that human life has no intrinsic value. Neither view has a foundation, and we're left to decide the issue "according to the sentiments of my time and place."

So what's the missing piece? God. If we're a cosmic coincidence, derived by chance from the matter of the universe, then it only makes sense that we have no intrinsic value. If we're a cosmic coincidence then it's foolish to claim we have intrinsic value. There's no basis for it. We can have a sentimental attachment to ourselves and others like us (some define "others like us" as members of our own race, or all healthy humans, or all humans, or all animals, or all sentient beings - and none of those definitions have any more authority than the other definitions), but it's nothing more than a sentimental attachment. There's no value that crosses time and culture. Nothing intrinsic.

Unless we were created. Unless we have the divine image in us. Unless Someone beyond us caused us. Then (and only then) can we claim intrinsic value that crosses time and culture. So this is the crux of the issue. We must resolve the question of God in order to determine the intrinsic value of humans. And everything else flows from that question.

David Wharton said...

Brian and Joe, thanks for your nice words. Of course I'm a theist and a Catholic Christian, so I assent to many of the things you say, Brian.

But you needn't be a theist to assent to the proposition that human life is a continuum in time and space, and that respect for the life of more mature humans implies the same for less-developed ones.

Nat Hentoff is a famous atheistic proponent of this position.

It's consistent, but as you say, also somewhat arbitrary.

Roch101 said...

Great post, David. Very thought proviking. I too was left wanting at the end though. (I guess I wanted your definitive answer.) Maybe you'll continue to think and write about this.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I am, well, speechless, almost. Excellent piece - just a well thought out argument. But why in the comments the sense that the end is lacking? I think it is just right. It seems to me that Mr. Wharton is saying that just as it would be unthinkable or wrong or inappropriate to experiment on a baby painlessly at 6 months post partum, it would be the same at six days of embyonic development. This is the point he has already made. Well, that's how it came off to me. Anyway, excellent piece.

D. Hoggard said...

I disagree, Brian.

I have intrinsic value because of who and what I am - not just because I am.

Anonymous said...

Brian, I think there is a difference in the argumnet for the ultimate intrinsic worth of human life, which I agree must be bequeathed to us from outside of us, and the proposition that human life is a continuum in time and space as Mr. Wharton puts it, a proposition upon which he bases his argument so eloquently. There is a non theist argument against embryonic stem cell research, and Mr. Wharton has nailed it. Unless I thought that maybe we were dealing with different definitions of intrinsic worth, which we must be, I hope, Mr. Hoggard's statements would scare me silly. They would make me think I must bow before him if he walks by. Is he saying that his unique genetic make up gives him intrinsic worth, his collections of experiences, his character to date, a little of all. I just hope we're dealign with varying difeintions of intrinsic worth. At any rate, the notion of intrinsic worth was NOT the basis of Mr. Whartons's fine analysis, but a loop opened by Brian's thoughtful reflection, and Mr. Hoggard's reply to that, but it is an interesting loop, maybe for another time.

D. Hoggard said...


Didn't mean to scare you, and bowing before me would be kinda wierd. (but if you must, I will touch you on the noggin as you do so)

I was speaking of the definition of intrinsic vs extrensic value, which has been debated forever, and you are correct, that argument may be for another time/thread.

Brian said...


Thanks for your thoughts on my comment. I agree that there's a difference between the argument for intrinsic value and the argument for human life as a continuum. My comment was primarily directed at the former, not the latter.

David wrote two full paragraphs rightly discrediting the view that human life has no intrinsic value, but spent only one sentence claiming adherence to the view that human life does have intrinsic value, without presenting any logic or evidence in favor of his adherence. The following sentence then assumed the intrinsic value to be true: "Because of that intrinsic value..."

We're then left with this conclusion: all human life from conception to death is a continuum and has equal value at all times. David believes human life has intrinsic value, and that value is inviolable. Someone else believes human life has no intrinsic value and no claim to any transcendent rights, and we should expiriment on embryos and babies and teenagers and adults. David believes one thing, someone else believes differently. And since David didn't give any evidence for his belief in the intrinsic value of human life, his belief (as presented in this post) is on the same level as social convention or moral feeling or his personal preference. There's nothing transcendent about his belief, because he merely stated it as his belief without any logic or proof.

That, for me, ultimately undermines the rest of the (masterful) argument.

David Wharton said...

Brian, I appreciate the thought you've put into analyzing my post. Here are a few additional clarifications.

The primary aim of my post was to show that "who says 'A', must say 'B'." That is, if you value human life at 6 years or 6 months, it's very hard to find a reason not to value it as well at 6 days or 6 minutes. I hoped this would be persuasive, because I know that most people do value human life at those later stages, and I wanted them to think about the consequences of that. Also, I wanted to show that opposition to stem-cell research need not be a form of "religious fanaticism," as my friend Jay Ovittore has argued.

But both you and Roch seem to want me to provide a definitive proof of human life's intrinsic value, and at this point, I simply don't think there is one.

If, as you argue (and as I believe), human value derives from an act of divine creation, then a proof of human value must depend on proof of the existence of a certain kind of God -- i.e., a loving, Judeo-Christian one, or one something like him, such as the one which Jefferson's deism presupposed when he wrote "all men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." And there is no such proof.

Rather, I aimed only to show that I have "warrant" (in the sense developed by Alvin Plantiga) to value human embryos, and that that warrant is quite strong.

In ethical argument, I think that's ususally the best you can do.

Brian said...


You did what you set out to do with great logic & eloquence and very persuasively. Thanks again for the post.

Erin said...

I tend to avoid such political/moral argument, and will do so here too, but I did want to say that this is really a well written, evocative write up.

Anonymous said...


I am very late to this thread, having found it via Dawn Eden and then staying around to peruse your site.

I find your post very well considered, and in a dispassionate, philosophical sense, I find little with which to quibble. In a political vein, however, we live in a country whose principal founding document, the Declaration of Independence, makes clear claims about rights and their origin. They most certainly do not originate with the state. They are endowed by our Creator; however one wishes to construe the language, it is clear that the claim is that rights come from a Being greater than any man, or any government.

So, to put your musings in a political context, it seems to me that those who do not value human life in utero have to make the argument that these entities, biologically (scientifically? reality-based, to use the lefty jargon?) human beings, do not qualify under the "endowed by our Creator" language for a right to life.

PS: I do not "believe" that human life is present at conception. I know this as a fact of biology. I don't qualify my cosmology with "I believe the Earth is round", and I refuse to qualify biological fact with such nonsensical phraseology. Whether one wishes to extend constitutional protections to human beings at early stages of development is an acceptable way to frame the issue; to say "I don't believe life begins at conception" is not.

Anonymous said...

Several issues;

1. I'm not sure I buy the 'unique genetic code' argument, which I've heard repeated many times. There is virtually nothing in the history of law or religion which equates individual human identity with genetic code. If there are two twins and you kill one, you have comitted murder even though an individual with the same genetic code lives on. Likewise, if you kill an individual but keep some of their stem cells alive we can still agree, I assume, that an individual has been killed and not simply assaulted. Even if we gained the capacity to clone some of the individual's cells, that answer would remain the same. The only legal systems that I can think of which seeks to preserve genetic code rather than individual life are those which take an essentially familial view to law and rights rather than one based on the rights of the individual. Under the law of some greek city-states, a father could 'expose' his children, killing them, without any consequences. American law is typically opposed to such a setup, focusing on adult individuals and totally ignoring their genetic makeup (except in cases of familial obligation such as paternity suits.)

2. When are cells individuals? Most can probably agree that drawing blood is not a moral wrong, even though some cells die in the process. (Some orthodox Jews would condemn this action, unless it was medically justified.) Individuals are discrete entitites. I am one person, never two or three or four. Stem cells are potentially any number of individuals, or none. They are a mass of cells. It isn't until the embryo attaches to the cell wall that it gives up its totipotency and becomes a set number of individuals. Under this logic, stem cell research and drugs which prevent implantation would be acceptable, because these actions don't kill an individual, they kill cells.

David Wharton said...

I did not argue that a genome is an individual( since my genome obviously exists in every cell of my body).

I argued that the particular genome that contributes to my individuality was present and functioning at my zygotic stage and not before, and that it was functioning in a distinctly human way even at that stage of my development.

I haven't heard that stem cells have the powers of zygotes. I do know that the pluripotency of naturally-occurring embryonic stem cells is channelled into particular human organs, etc. by the guidance of an individuated functioning genome.

I also know that calling them "a mass of cells" is a misleading rhetorical dodge, since they are greatly desired by researchers precisely for their human potentialities.

Shylock could also have referred to the particular pound of flesh he desired as "a mass of cells."

There really isn't any question about whether a human embryo is an "individual" -- it very obviously is. The question is whether, and for what reasons, you're allowed to kill it.

Anonymous said...

I argued that the particular genome that contributes to my individuality was present and functioning at my zygotic stage and not before

Exactly. You argued that your genome contributes to your individuality. I pointed out that in American law there is no precedent of a unique genome being regarded as contributing to individuality. It contributes to your uniqueness, which is not the same thing. If genetic uniqueness underlay our individuality, twins would be less than individuals and we would be allowed to create clones of ourselves to be used as spare parts. As far as American law is concerned, inviduality is totally and entirely different than genetic uniqueness.

I haven't heard that stem cells have the powers of zygotes. I do know that the pluripotency of naturally-occurring embryonic stem cells is channelled into particular human organs, etc. by the guidance of an individuated functioning genome.

Which powers, specifically, are you refering to? Embryonic stem cells are totipotent. The cells of an implanted zygote are not. Is that what you're refering to? I'm not sure I understand where you're going with this. This seems to outline a crucial difference between the cells of individuals and embryonic stem cells.

I also know that calling them "a mass of cells" is a misleading rhetorical dodge, since they are greatly desired by researchers precisely for their human potentialities.

Of course human cells are desired for human transplants. People who get hair plug transplants use plugs from their own heads because using plugs from a foreign scalp would invoke an autoimmune reaction. Foreign cells could also transmit disease. Embryonic stem cells are desireable, in small part, for the same reasons (but also for more important ones.) Human tissue as opposed to animal tissue (not nessicarily embryonic tissue) offers a lower chance of immune rejection and a lower chance of inter-species disease transmission than animal tissue. Of course, embryonic stem cells are also desirable because they are distinctly different than the cells of an individual human being. Embryonic stem cells are totipotent, and can become any number of human beings. Cells from a zygote are not. If it wasn't for that difference, why not just use adult stem cells and avoid the whole controversy?

Shylock could also have referred to the particular pound of flesh he desired as "a mass of cells.

The Merchant of Venice is fictitious law, and irrelevant to the topic at hand. (except, of course, as a "meaningless rhetorical dodge".)

There really isn't any question about whether a human embryo is an "individual"

Then why post a blog entry? For my personal life, I'd err on the side of caution. But when we're dealing with law, the standards used as a basis for a ruling are crucial. I think that some people are so concerned with getting the answer that they want (human life beginning at conception according to the law), that they haven't stopped to consider the implications of the standards that they are arguing for.


There are a number of arguments for claiming that life begins at conception. Nearly every one of them that I've seen attempts to claim things like 'genetic uniqueness' as a basis for personhood. There are legal systems which consider the rights of genes\bloodlines and honor the rights of genes and lineage as a basis for their ruling. I don't think we should be laying down rulings which would push us in that direction, though.

Genetics and genetic uniqueness is not any kind of a basis for individuality.

Anonymous said...

>>Then why post a blog entry?

>The question is whether, and for what reasons, you're allowed to kill it.

Excuse me, you already posted your answer to that question.

David Wharton said...

Ryan, I have argued that a zygote is an identifiably human, genetically distinct, functioning organism whose activities and potentialities are such that its course of development is continuous with that of the lifespan of a normally developing person, or rather, are a continuous part of that development.

What the legal consequences of that fact are, or should be, I have not said.

Nor did I post an answer to the question of when or whether the state or an individual should be empowered to kill a zygote. I only pointed out some serious ethical difficulties with doing so.

GreensboroDailyPhoto said...

For lack of knowing where to post it, we just wanted to let the Aycock neighborhood folks know that on 3/31 (Tue.) from 5-7, the Visual and Performing arts programs at Aycock Middle School will hold an art auction and perform music at the school. This will be a good time for neighbors to walk on over to the School and show their support. We'd love to see you there!

JohnFrost said...


I wonder if you support the practice of in vitro fertilization or not?