An academic's ludicrous reason why fertilization doesn't begin life

Once upon a time, the University of Texas at Austin was a highly reputable institution.  However, if Sahotra Sarkar, a professor of philosophy and integrative biology, is an example of its intellectual quality, save your money and read some really good books instead.  I say this because Sarkar has made the absolutely ludicrous argument that, while human life can begin at many times, it almost certainly doesn't begin at conception.  The reasoning behind this statement is so simplistic that only a leftist could have thought it up.

Sakar is a highly credentialed man.  He got a B.A. at Columbia and an M.A. and Ph.D. at the University of Chicago.  He taught at McGill University and was a fellow at the Max Planck Institute and at MIT.  He's published lots of articles and books.  All of them are written in the turgid, cant-filled language so beloved in academia, which uses five-dollar words to convey five-cent thoughts.

When it comes to Texas's law, Sarkar's premise is that it's invalid because there is a difference between being human and being a valuable life:

Philosophers such as the late Bernard Williams have long pointed out that understanding what it is to be human requires a lot more than biology. And scientists can't establish when a fertilized cell or embryo or fetus becomes a human being.

In much the same way, in the 1930s, Nazis carefully debated the Jews' humanity.  After all, if conception is a meaningless biological process with those incipient life forms having to earn their humanity, you really must have a lengthy debate before disposing of lives that fail to earn their place in the hierarchy of being worthy.  Please note that I am not calling either Sarkar or Williams Nazis.  I'm just noting a similarity in their approach to placing a value on human life.

What triggered Sarkar's concern about reading humanity into a fetus was an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court regarding a stringent pro-life law in Mississippi.  As part of that brief, a University of Chicago graduate student named Steven Andrew Jacobs conducted what Sarkar calls "a problematic piece of research" that he'd like the Supreme Court to accept as verifiable fact.

Jacobs conducted a survey that found that most people believe that biology determines when human life begins, as opposed to the opinions of religious leaders, voters, philosophers, or Supreme Court justices.  Jacobs, therefore, sent a questionnaire to 62,469 biologists asking them when life begins.  Of those, 5,502 responded, with 95% of them saying that life begins at fertilization, when a sperm and an egg meet for the first time.

Sarkar is correct that the fact that the biologists who responded were self-selected makes the survey statistically meaningless.  However, he goes farther to say that the whole premise that biology matters is meaningless.  When it comes to Sarkar's disdain for Jacob's reasoning, I feel compelled to point out that the whole climate change debate has been predicated on the claim that 97% of scientists support climate change.  In fact, only a minute number of self-selected scientists supported the madness of anthropogenic climate change.  The study asserting that 97% number was deeply dishonest.  (Here's another article explaining the con behind assertions about scientists and climate change.)

Sarkar is apparently unperturbed by the fact that no majority of scientists believes in deadly, anthropogenic climate change because he is totally on board with climate change.  But back to the main point.

According to Sarkar, there are five points at which life can be said to begin.  In addition to fertilization, there is gastrulation, which occurs two weeks after fertilization, when the embryo can no longer form a twin.  The third stage comes at 24–27 weeks, when human brain wave patterns emerge.  (He likes this one's symmetry because the lack of brain waves is the standard for death in already born humans).  Fourth is viability.  Fifth is birth.

It's Sarkar's dismissal of that first metric — fertilization — that reveals just how vapid and illogical his reasoning is:

The first of these stages is fertilization in the egg duct, when a zygote is formed with the full human genetic material. But almost every cell in everyone's body contains that person's complete DNA sequence. If genetic material alone makes a potential human being, then when we shed skin cells — as we do all the time — we are severing potential human beings.

Perhaps Sarkar hasn't noticed that no skin cell has the potential to develop into a fully realized person.  Skin cells are a waste product.  The zygote, however, is the start of a process that, unless interrupted by nature (miscarriage) or man (abortion), will inevitably yield a fully developed a human.  Therefore, human life begins with that zygote.

If Sarkar really wants to get into the business of determining when that life is allowed to survive, that is indeed a philosophical question.  And as I noted above, while I would never call Sarkar a Nazi (I'm sure he's a nice man), he's getting into bed with the Nazis when he announces that philosophy, not biology, determines when a human life deserves to be protected.

Image: A six-week-old embryo with fingers and toes (cropped).  Dr. Vilas Gayakwad.  CC BY-SA 3.0.

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