1/26/13

"Life begins at conception"

 
Mary Elizabeth Williams declares herself a pro-choice liberal, but wants to concede that "life begins at conception". To her, this is undeniable common sense. But in fact, there is actually a very solid reason to doubt that any human's lifespan starts as early as conception.  At conception, what exists is a single-celled zygote.  That zygote contains the makings of not just the embryo (fetus, etc.), but of all the structures that will support the embryo (fetus, etc.)--the placenta, amniotic fluid, etc.  Imagine (only somewhat analogously) a very full box you take off the shelf at Ikea (with great effort!). The box contains the makings of a bed, but also instructions, tools, packaging, styrofoam, etc.  You take it home and put together the bed, discarding everything else.  Would you say the bed started its lifespan as the full box? No, of course not.  There is no bed until a bed has started to take form and become separate from everything else that was in the box.  And at the point, it really makes no sense to say "the bed was once the full box."

Likewise, once an embryo has become differentiated, a few weeks into gestation, it would make no sense to say it started its lifespan back when there was just a zygote. The zygote is analogous (somewhat--this is not a perfect analogy) to the full bed-box. It's a forerunner of the embryo and all the support structures.  I think the very common idea that life could start at conception stems from ignorance about what a zygote is.  It's not an embyronic human being yet.  It's a kit for making a human being, including components for housing, protecting, feeding, etc.  You might be able to convince yourself that you were once an embryo (I think this is an intelligible position), but it really makes no sense to think you were once a zygote--a people-kit. No you weren't!  You came from a people-kit, but you weren't one.  It's much like in the bed/box example: the Ikea bed came from the  box, but beds don't start their careers being boxes.  No equal sign would make sense up there, between the box and the bed, and no equal sign would make sense between a zygote and an embryo (or fetus or baby).

1/22/13

Beyonce Lip Synced Anthem?


Uh oh, it seems Beyonce lip-synced the national anthem yesterday.  Here's what USA Today is reporting--
Master Sgt. Kristin DuBois, spokeswoman for the President's Own United States Marine Band, confirms to USA TODAY's Maria Puente that Beyoncé was lip-syncing.
It's standard operating procedure for musicians to pre-record crucial music such as Hail to the Chief and The Star-Spangled Banner. "You can't have a presidential inauguration and not have Hail to the Chief and Star-Spangled Banner," she says.
And it's not unprecedented to use the pre-recorded track, as Yo-Yo Ma did last time, classical instruments being delicate in cold weather. But the band performed live for the entire ceremony, except for Beyoncé.
Somehow this next part makes it worse--  
Washingtonian's Sophie Gilbert writes, "To press seated just below the podium, in front of the 'President's Own' Marine Corps Band, it was evident that the band wasn't actually playing during the song — even though band director Colonel Michael J. Colburn was conducting energetically and the band members mimicked blowing into their instruments." 
Fake conducting? Fake trumpet playing?  It so happens my class on contemporary moral problems is discussing deception and when/whether/why it's morally problematic.  Looks like we have another interesting example to discuss.

PS:  It gets worse! "Sources also tell Fox News that Beyonce was a no-show at the inauguration performance rehearsal on the Capitol steps."  This is a little sad, considering that the crowd around us was mad about Beyonce.  They groaned with disappointment every time someone else talked or performed (apart from Obama). They wanted Beyonce!  Singing, I think, not just appearing to sing.

50 Years Later

50 years ago I went to the March on Washington with my family. I am told I was there for Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech. So when my son said he should get to see Barack Obama inaugurated on Martin Luther King day, I could see his point.

Standing for hours in the cold with a million Obamaphiles turned out to be wildly fun. Who knew? What exultation and camaraderie! Here are some sample screams--first is for Joe Biden, second for Barack Obama, third for Michelle. 


1/13/13

What is a placenta? (And why does it matter?)

credit: www.birthingfromwithin.com
Norman Ford's book When Did I Begin? is a treasure trove of information about fetal development, plus some very interesting reflections on how the biological facts bear on whether each of us was once a zygote or once a fetus. This is a matter of pure metaphysical interest but also with possible ethical implications.  Ford offers several reasons to doubt that my history goes back as far as the very earliest zygote stage (before implantation).  Obviously, I "come from" a zygote, but (he argues) it's not the case that I once was a zygote, in the sense that I was once a child. Each reason is rather subtle and disputable, but here's one that's been rolling around in my mind--

A single-celled zygote (on day one of fetal development) is the precursor of a baby and the precursor of the placenta that will support fetal development.  Thus, if we say the single-celled zygote is identical to the much later baby, we'd have equal reason to say the zygote is identical to the later placenta.  But then, because of the transitivity of identity, we'd have to say baby and placenta are identical.  So each of us was once a placenta!  But no--that's surely absurd.  So it cannot be true after all that the single-celled zygote is identical to the later baby (or placenta).  The earliest that an individual (like you or me) comes into existence is when sufficient differentiation has taken place so that an entity exists that's the precursor of a baby and not the placenta. That time is at least several days after conception--when a blastocyst has become differentiated from the rest of the cellular material.

The logic here certainly makes  sense. If a certain block of wood is a precursor of both a toy duck and a toy dog, it's not true that the duck is the same entity as the block of wood.  You can't assert that identity, since there's equal reason to say the dog is the block of wood, and then you're faced with the absurd conclusion that the duck is the dog. 

If it worked, the placenta argument would have some very important real-world implications, like forcing Catholic hospitals to change their policies on the morning-after pill for rape victims.  They would have to admit that, for the first few days of development, the zygote is an entity in the same category as an egg or a sperm--a precursor of a baby but not the same entity as any future baby.  Catholics will want to resists mightily, of course.  They might say ... what?

What you might say is that a placenta is just a part of a fetus--essentially an organ, but one that happens to be (a) external and (b) temporary.  A zygote is a precursor of a whole baby, but (of course!) also the precursor of the baby's parts.   If we said the zygote is identical to a certain baby, we certainly wouldn't have equal reason to say the zygote is identical to the baby's liver, or heart...or whatever. The part-whole relationship between individual organs and whole baby blocks those identities.  Likewise, arguably, for the placenta. It's just another organ, you might say, so a part (though external and temporary).

If we gave that response, would we just be making things up?  Does it really make sense to think of the placenta as a part of a fetus? Is it more aptly thought of as a part of the mother?  What is a placenta, really? It's curious that such an arcane biological-metaphysical question could have any bearing at all on what hospitals should permit rape victims to do.  Surely there are many far more important ethical considerations. I certainly think so, so I'm talking about this issue merely "ad hominem" (in the technical sense, not the "street" sense), i.e. as relevant just to those who do oppose abortion on grounds that a baby starts to exist at conception.

If a placenta is a separate entity from a fetus, and not a fetal part, then thoughts about zygotes, placentas, and identity could show, quite decisively, that the very earliest conceivable start to any individual human being's existence is a little bit later--at least a few days after conception.

1/5/13

Big Exit

Ironically, it happens my current favorite song sounds like what must be playing in Sam Harris's head this week. Wish I had time to say more about his gun screed, but I don't.  Suffice it to say, I actually think the New York Times is quite a bit more "enlightened" than the NRA on the topic of guns. Funny that he thinks otherwise, and yet further proof (as if more was needed) that just because you're right about atheism doesn't mean you can think cogently about everything.



1/3/13

Life Extension? No Thanks

Would it be good if the average human life-span were not 75 to 80, but 150? 500? 1000?  Peter Singer raises the question in this online editorial. To get the ball rolling, let's ponder three mini-worlds.  The first world is more or less like ours, while the second and third involve longer life-spans.  In "30-90" people on average have a child at 30 and die at 90 (couples have two children).  So, starting with two people, A and B, here's how things look over time--

30-90 WORLD

year      people
0     A B
30   A B C D  (A and B have C and D)
60   A B C D E F (C and D have E and F)
90   A B C D E F G H (E and F have G and H; A and B die)
120  A B C D E F G H I J  (etc)
150  A B C D E F G H I J K L
180  A B C D E F G H I J K L M N
210  A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P
240  A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R

Population density stabilizes at: 6 
Total people who exist in 240 years: 18


Now picture a world with longer average lifespans--say, 150 years--but the same average age of reproduction.

30-150 WORLD

year    people
0      A B
30    A B C D
60    A B C D E F
90    A B C D E F G H
120  A B C D E F G H I J
150  A B C D E F G H I J K L
180  A B C D E F G H I J K L M N
210  A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P
240  A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R

Population density stabilizes at: 10
Total people who exist in 240 years: 18


In 30-90, people are replaced by their great-grandchildren.  In 30-150, by contrast, they're replaced by their great-great-great-grandchildren.  You can picture this vividly by imagining someone on their deathbed. In 30-90, at most there will be two generations of descendants on hand.  In 30-150 there could be 5 generations of descendants.

30-150 is an environmentally problematic departure from our world.  The increased population density means greater strain on resources.  We get something--longer life--but at a high cost.  For this reason (I imagine) Singer adds delayed child-bearing to the picture.  Now suppose people give birth at 90 and die at 150 (these mini-worlds are my invention, not his)--

90-150 WORLD

year    people
0      A B
30    A B
60    A B
90    A B C D
120  A B C D E F
150  A B C D E F G H
180  A B C D E F G H I J
210  A B C D E F G H I J K L
240  A B C D E F G H I J K L M N

Population density stabilizes at: 6
Total people who exist in 240 years: 14


90-150 is no more environmentally burdensome than 30-90, since population density stabilizes at the same level.  But fewer people exist in 240 years--4 fewer than in the other two worlds.

1/22 Thanks to a commenter I see I've made a mistake here.  I've got only the first generation reproducing at age 90. Will fix when I have a moment....

1/23  Upon further reflection--to maintain the same population density, we just need to maintain the same ratios.  People need to reproduce 1/3 of the way into their lives, as in 30-90. So we need to look at a 50-150 world.  (If people lived to 900, they'd have to reproduce at 300, etc. etc.)

50-150 WORLD

year    people
0         A B
50       A B C D
100     A B C D E F
150     A B C D E F G H
200     A B C D E F G H I J
240     no change

Population density stabilizes at: 6
Total people who exist in 240 years: 10

Will make changes below so that I'm comparing 30-90 to 50-150.

So which is the best world?  Singer seems to be open to the possibility that 50-150 could be best. There are fewer deaths from old age per unit time.  People spend less time fearing death, since the end of life is further in the future.  One downside he mentions is "the missing people"--O, P, Q, and R in my mini-model.  They exist in both 30-90 and 30-150, but not in 50-150.  We shouldn't be concerned about them, Singer seems to say--
One reason for thinking it better to have fewer people living longer lives is that only those who are born know what death deprives them of; those who do not exist cannot know what they are missing.
I'll buy that we haven't mistreated O, P, Q, and R by not creating them.  We haven't done them any personal harm, since they aren't around to harm.  But that's not the worry I would have about the 50-150 world. My worry is  about the people in 50-150, not the people left out.

But first, a word about delayed reproduction.  Singer and other life-extension advocates seem to think delayed reproduction might be in the cards. He writes--
contrary to what most people assume, success in overcoming aging could itself give us breathing space to find solutions to the population problem, because it would also delay or eliminate menopause, enabling women to have their first children much later than they can now.
I don't really understand this.  In what sense would people in 50-150 be better positioned than people in 30-90 to solve the population problem?  (Indeed, what population problem?  Population density is no greater in 50-150 than in 30-90.)  In any event,  my understanding is that menopause is not a product of aging.  A fascinating article Jared Diamond published a couple of years ago says menopause is actually adaptive.  Women go through menopause because it helps them have more descendants if they function as grandmothers instead of adding to their existing offspring.  So anti-aging research isn't going to eliminate or delay menopause. Only anti-menopause research is going to eliminate or delay menopause.

But OK, suppose we undertake both.  So we are biologically able to shift from 30-90 to 50-150.  Would we really want to? I have three misgivings--

(1)  Delaying child-bearing until 50 sounds about like putting off sex until age 50, or romance, or reading novels, or drinking coffee.  The good stuff in life shouldn't get postponed 50 years! I don't see the proposed trade here (early reproduction for delayed death) as a terribly attractive one.

(2) I think life extension advocates are mistaken about the psychology of death in old age.  They see 50-150 as preferable because, though there's just as much living going on in 50-150  (there are just as many person-hours) as in 30-90, there are fewer deaths in 50-150, and fewer hours of apprehending death.  But how do people feel as they approach death?  Surprisingly unbad. It's intriguing that positive psychology shows, quite consistently, and all around the world, that happiness over time fits a U-shaped curve.  We are happier as we  leave middle age and get closer to the end of life. My experience spending time with very old people is that they're remarkably cheerful. They are masters of black humor, and don't worry over much about impending death. So 50-150 solves a problem that may not really exist to begin with.

(3) My most serious worry is about the lower total population of 50-150.  10 people wind up existing in 240 years, in contrast with 18 in 30-90.  The reason this troubles me is not because I'm concerned about the four missing people. They are not harmed by not coming into existence.  The reason why 30-90 seems better is because it has greater human richness.  It's more diverse because eight more people come into the world, and that diversity has advantages for the people who exist in that world. Greater human diversity goes along with more intellectual and technological progress, or so it's been hypothesized by authors as diverse as Matt Ridley (the Rational Optimist), Toby Ord (see this short post, watch this video, and Cass Sunstein (Infotopia: How Many Minds Produce Knowledge).  They hypothesize that the huge current population of the world is one reason why we are at a point of unprecedented development in many areas.  More people means more specialization, more minds working on problems. The crucial thing here is not just how many people exist at a time, but how many exist over time.  Arguably, 30-90 is better than 50-150 for the reason that more people are around to contribute to the human enterprise in 30-90 (though the same number exist at one moment in time).

Now, the progress we get from large populations comes at an environmental cost.  So nobody's saying "the more the merrier (period)".  But the extra diversity of 30-90, compared to 50-150, has no environmental cost at all.  The population density of the two worlds, at any moment in time, is identical.  So by transitioning to 50-150 we'd be giving up human diversity (with probably loss of progress), and gaining nothing, environmentally speaking.

People do fear death and want more years of life, of course, so there's something attractive to most of us in the idea of anti-aging research. The talk of human diversity and progress doesn't have any power to help us face death. It's all abstraction and speculation, no consolation.  Or is it?   I actually do find some consolation in the notion that new people make the world a better place.  It would not have been for the best if our ancestors in 1500 had discovered a longevity pill, allowing them to live for 1000 years.  The cast of characters on the human stage would have been much reduced and that would have been for the worse.  I think we can take comfort in the idea of a new cast of characters coming into existence, especially if we live in such a way that we identify strongly with future people.  That way we will one day be out with the old, but we'll also (in various attenuated senses) still be in with the new (see Mark Johnston's interesting book Surviving Death for thoughts along those lines).   I think 30-90 is OK, if not perfect, and possibly quite a bit better than 50-150.