Thursday, September 30, 2010

Wrap-Up, Rational Thought @ UCSD Talk

Last night Professor Emeritus of pathology Stephen Baird, MD talked to us about the origin of our modern conceptions of the fetus and the definition of human life. His talk took a turn I hadn't really expected. His presentation went into great detail on laws from Hammurabi and before, stating clearly that the fetus had a monetary value. Almost identical versions of these same laws are included in the Old Testament. What's so interesting is that in all cases, the fines and punishments for causing the loss of a fetus are less than the punishment for causing the loss of an adult human life. In other words, in the Bible, killing a fetus is clearly not equivalent to killing a human being; it's not murder. The Old Testament, as it turns out, is not pro-life!



The Code of Hammurabi. Writing systems are like rock band albums: the early ones are always cooler.


One of the assumptions implicit in Dr. Baird's talk is that if you consider people with differing opinions to be reasonable and sincere adults (which I try to), you take their beliefs seriously, and you can follow through on their implications in good faith, pun intended. In this case: if someone believes that the soul enters the embryo at conception, then there's a problem. Every day on this planet, many many times, an already-growing embryo splits in two to produce identical twins. Do twins have only half a soul? Or can a second soul sneak in there after the fact? It seems that even for a pro-lifer, if you abort the non-ensouled embryo soon enough after the fission it wouldn't be murder; and how could you tell which is which anyway? Is there a machine that can show us the difference between the ensouled and non-ensouled embryos? If not today, could there be, even in principle? Don't let pro-lifers tell you this is ridiculous. Twins happen all the time. These are their beliefs, and if they really took them seriously, they would be trying to figure out the answer.

While we're on that topic, another question Dr. Baird asked: if you look early enough in the development of an embryo, each cell is identical to every other one. That is to say, there's a point at which the cells' fates are decided (this one will be a leg, that one will be in the brain) but before that, they're all equivalent. If you remove some, the rest of the embryo is unaffected (they "fill in the gaps"). And if you re-implant the removed cells, they will eventually become a genetically identical child. These totipotent cells are what give the pro-lifers fits, because they're each capable of becoming a human life. Again, here are the moral dilemmas: if we're able to take a skin dermal cell from you, and de-differentiate it so that it's a totipotent stem cell - exactly the same as that newly fertilized embryo or the removed stem cells in terms of its potential to produce another human life - is it murder to destroy that cell? If not, why are sperm-and-egg derived cells special? If so, then there's an even bigger problem. If the technology to turn skin cells into totipotent stem cells ever exists, and it's murder not to implant such a skin cell-turned-totipotent stem cell to give it a chance at life, isn't it at least manslaughter not to do so with every cell you can scrape off your body? You're denying all those cells the right to life! Every time you scratch your arm and don't collect the skin cells it's like watching a million people get run over by a car and not doing anything about it! (Speaking of a "right to life", the Bible is silent on this question, but it does recommend modest monetary fines for destroying a fetus, as mentioned above.)

None of this should be surprising; ask those who claim that abortion is murder what should be done to women who get abortions, and typically the answer is something about "that's between her and God"; not the answer that most people, religious or otherwise, would have for a mother who paid someone to kill her five-year-old daughter. Why the difference? Again, it certainly seems exactly the behavior you'd expect of someone who didn't really believe what they professed to believe.

I should also point out that Dr. Baird independently produced an argument near and dear to my own heart; namely, that the purpose of origin stories in organized religion is to give credibility to the self-appointed moral authorities who write religious scriptures. That is, how in the world did whether I believe in evolution and the Big Bang ever get connected to whether it's okay to steal or lie? The connection seems strange once you've asked the question and you realize it's not at all a necessary one. I imagine a theist might agree (at least about other religions) that if a would-be moral authority were actually just an unscrupulous con-man, he might purport to represent the deity that made the world and to have special knowledge about how the world works, in order to get people to listen more closely. Especially in the Bronze Age. (Even a trial lawyer couldn't get away with that now. So why grandfather in trial lawyers from before?)

Perhaps most interesting of all was when Dr. Baird shared his experience as a physician and researcher, including one rather chilling call he received one day fifteen years ago from a Senator Helms, concerning some stem cell research Dr. Baird had done. Senator Helms pointed out not at all ominously that Dr. Baird's institution was funded by the Federal government. I'm sure that there was no attempt to intimidate anyone there. Dr. Baird confirmed that Asia and Europe are ahead of the U.S. in this technology as a result of this political interference in science and medicine. The point is that irrationality has direct and concrete effects on prosperity and happiness, and in this case it's hurting the American biomedical establishment. American strength and competitiveness is an issues which social conservatives feel strongly about. Miss no opportunity to point it out to them.

All in all, fun evening. Next event: Sam Harris, October 27! Get your ticket! (If it's not already sold out!)

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