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DAVID S. ODERBERG
Abstract: I rejoinder to Ingmar Persson’s reply to my paper ‘The Metaphysical Status of the Embryo: Some Arguments Revisited’. I argue that Persson, having conceded a large part of my case, has still misunderstood or not fully appreciated the force of that case when he claims the arguments I criticize still make it reasonable to think that a human being does not come into existence at fertilization. In addition, his appeal to the totipotency argument as remaining unscathed by my critique does not succeed.
1. Introduction Ingmar Persson concedes much of my case to the effect that two of the three arguments I addressed in my original paper by no means conclusively show that the human being does not come into existence at fertilization.1 He does, however, insist that it is still ‘at least as reasonable’ (2009: 371) to hold on the basis of these arguments that human beings do not come into existence at fertilization (he insists on syngamy, but let us leave that aside) as it is to hold the opposite. He also claims that the third argument, from totipotency, shows ‘conclusively’ (2009: 377) that human beings do not come into existence at fertilization. Taking his main points in the order in which he presents them, I will argue that Persson has failed to make his case.
2. Some dialectical issues In my original paper, my intention was not merely to cast some reasonable doubt upon the three arguments commonly used to show that the human being does not come into existence at fertilization, but to show that the arguments fail to make their case altogether. For Persson to insist upon some dialectical flexibility by retreating to the weaker position that 1
at least the first two arguments (embryoblast/trophoblast and twinning) are reasonable if not conclusive seems motivated by the desire to hold onto a pre-conceived position about how things must be. If the arguments fail to make their case, they should be discarded. Or perhaps Persson, leaving aside what he conceives to be the ‘conclusive’ third argument, should declare agnositicism about the ontology of the embryo. But to talk of what is ‘reasonable’ does not facilitate progress in the debate. In addition, Persson takes it as ‘common ground’ (2009: 371) that the embryo has no consciousness, as if the defender of the humanity of the embryo would never reasonably appeal to such a claim. Although I do not in my original paper, I categorically deny such common ground. Does Persson mean dispositional or occurrent consciousness? If the latter, I agree that the embryo lacks it. If the former, I hold that the embryo possesses it, and is (disanalogies notwithstanding since not relevant) ontologically on a par with a sleeping or heavily inebriated adult human being.
3. The potential of the embryo Persson, like many who espouse his view of the ontology of the embryo, raises general doubts about what kind of thing the embryo could be. My claim is that the embryo is a human being simpliciter, i.e. that kind of entity which, in virtue of its morphology, is a member of the natural kind human being. Now, the strongest evidence for this is, of course, that if it develops normally the embryo will, via a continuous process of maturation within which there is no arbitrary ontological cut-off point, become a mature human being. In other words, it will take on the characteristics of a mature human. Persson worries that any human being might lack one or more of these ‘features or faculties that more developed or mature human beings have’ (2009: 372). He need not worry, since the relevant features are not such ones as ‘being [occurrently] conscious or having two legs’ (2009: 372), but the essential properties, many of which are dispositions or powers, that belong to the kind in question. These cannot be lacked by any human being without its ceasing to exist. Now if 2
Persson wishes to deny that there are any such essential properties – in particular, rationality (understood dispositionally) and having a human body plan – then he owes us a theory of natural kinds, or perhaps a theory as to why there aren’t any.2 If he believes human being is a natural kind, then he should tell us what exactly characterizes such a kind such that the embryo cannot be characterized as a member of it. As an addendum to his remarks about potential, Persson claims that the zygote ceases to exist on division into two cells (understood here as cleavage, not twinning) since it could not be identical to either or both of them. This is metaphysically and biologically weak. The zygote does not divide like an amoeba into distinct daughter cells with lives of their own and no further interaction. The daughter cells of the human zygote are, like the zygote itself, surrounded by the zona pellucida, which is more than a mere container for the cells within it. The zona does not disintegrate until several days later, by which time a blastocyst of up to around 150 cells exists. There is simply no ‘fission problem’ for human zygotes (twinning aside, which is not the present issue); their development is altogether distinct from that of amoebae or bacteria. To insist that the zygote ceases to exist on division is also questionbegging, when the issue at hand is precisely whether the zygote is a single cell or is rather constituted by a cell, as I claim (where constitution is not identity). If constituted, it no more ceases to exist on division than a teenager ceases to exist when she turns twenty; she ceases to be a teenager, though, just as the embryo ceases to be a zygote when it reaches the two-cell stage.
4. Embryoblast/trophoblast Persson offers little in defence of the reasonableness of the argument from lack of differentiation. He claims that ‘common sense does not treat the extra-embryonic structures as parts of a child on a par with the tail of a boxer’ (2009: 374). Why not? First, they connect the foetus to its mother. But of what relevance is that? Secondly, they soon become redundant for the foetus. Well, my appendix is always redundant, and a newborn baby soon 3
sheds much of its body hair; what does becoming redundant have to do with the issue? Thirdly, the embryo does not sense these structures (or so Persson claims) as it senses the rest of its body. Again, I have no sensation of my fingernails; are they not part of me? Fourthly, monozygotic twins share the same placenta. Does Persson wish to suggest that distinct individuals cannot share a part, or that the putative part is not a part of either of them?
5. Twinning Persson’s argument for the claim that the embryo for which twinning is possible is not a human being seems to involve the thought that that ‘[t]here are no paradigmatic or undisputed specimen [sic] of this kind [human being] which could in the course of nature split into organisms of their own kind’ (2009: 374). This, and the remarks surrounding it, seem to me an exercise in begging the question. Twinning might not be common, but that does not make it either unreal, or disputed, or not paradigmatic as a process by which new human beings are generated from a previously existing embryonic human being. It is not a paradigmatic form of reproduction, to be sure, and I would hesitate to call twinning a process of reproduction at all: the mother reproduces the twins, the dividing embryo generates them (or some other such term could be chosen). We are fully familiar with twinning in other species. We know the basic biology. That basic biology is present in human monozygotic twinning. Had the embryo not split, it clearly would have continued to exist and to mature into a developed human being (ceteris paribus). So it is not clear what about this Persson finds questionable. Moreover, he does not address the principal point in my discussion of this issue (2008: 268-9), which is that the mere fact that twinning is possible does not undermine the thought that the pre-twinning embryo is a human being. It is a secondary question as to what, if twinning does occur, existed before it happened. I say a human being; Persson
denies this. But it was not the main point of my addressing the argument from twinning, and nothing Persson says weakens the force of that point.
6. Totipotency Here, Persson believes he has a ‘conclusive’ argument against the proposition that the embryo is a human being. Nothing he says, in my view, establishes such conclusiveness. His initial description of what totipotency amounts to is simplistic: each of the blastomeres has ‘the potential to develop into a (paradigmatic) human being’ (375); but not, he fails to mention, without being inserted into a zona pellucida and without all of the necessary culture required for embryogenesis. I address this at length in my original paper (2008: 271-2), giving evidence that the philosopher’s appeal to totipotency is something of a delusion. That aside, all Persson does is revert to his question-begging position that the zygote or multi-cellular ‘cluster’ ceases to exist whenever its cell/s further divide, and hence that none of these ‘clusters’ can be identified with a persisting human being. He even, in passing, suggests that all there is at any one time is a ‘set’ of cells, which on the standard conception of a set as an abstract object is bizarre. He reiterates his point further on (2009: 376), claiming it to be ‘evident’ that the zygote does not outlive its cleavage, the presupposition being, as before, that the zygote just is a cell rather than a persisting human being constituted, at this stage, by a single cell. I do not in my original paper address at length the issue of the organizational and functional unity of the cells constituting the embryo (but see some of the data in section 2 of that paper), such that what is present can clearly be shown to be a persisting entity with the ‘right identity conditions’ to be a human being. The empirical evidence for such unity is, however, abundant.3 One simple question to ask is: if the blastomeres are so disunited and independent, and are apparently ‘totipotent’, why do they not each regularly undergo their own independent embryological development? Why are there not human beings ‘breaking out all over’ within the uterus of a pregnant woman? Clearly this is because, within the 5
unified entity that is the embryo, the cells communicate with each other, both suppressing each other’s potentialities and activating other potentialities all in the service of what, absent twinning or any abnormality, will become a mature, individual human being. That said, my response to the totipotency argument (2008: 271) appealed to the metaphysical thought that the mere possibility that parts of an individual could be turned into new individuals of the same kind did not undermine the individuality of the original object. Persson seems to accept my general point, but then seeks to make distinctions that rule out embryo individuality all the same. First, he points out that plant cuttings and the like need culturing before they can acquire the capacities of the original plant. But so do human blastomeres, as I pointed out: there is no disanalogy there. If the need for plant cuttings to be cultured is supposed to point to their prior integration with the original plant, why not say the same for blastomeres and the embryo from which they are derived? Secondly, claims Persson, plant cuttings before removal are ‘well integrated parts’ of the original plant, whereas the integration of blastomeres is ‘more or less non-existent’ (2009: 376). Again, this view of blastomere integration simply flies in the face of the empirical evidence. The fact that removing a blastomere, at least in the first few days, makes ‘virtually no functional difference’ (2009: 376) is no evidence against unity. All it shows is that, for good reason, redundancy is built into the embryo, as it is in the adult human: we can lose parts yet still develop and function. In fact, the embryo’s capacity here might be akin to that of certain animals that can regenerate limbs; yet we do not say the limbs are not integral parts of the organism. Thirdly, Persson suggests certain types of sea sponge offer a better analogy than plants. I am grateful that he assists my case, but I cannot see how it advances his. If a sea sponge is a better analogy then it too can be used in my response to the totipotency argument. It might be more easily divided than plants yet still be a single organism. That its parts might be more integrated than embryonic blastomeres4 is of no consequence; it does not mean that the blastomeres are not integrated. The fact that they need delicate culturing 6
before having even a remote chance of beginning their own embryological development only serves to show that the totipotency appealed to in the ‘argument from totipotency’ is weak; arguably it is a mere bioethical invention.
7. Conclusion Persson ends with two points, one disturbing for anyone, let alone an ethicist, to make, and the other an oft-repeated point that can equally none too often be refuted. First, he asserts that ‘as long as something is only a borderline case of an organism, it is as reasonable to deny that it is an organism as to afﬁrm this’ (2009: 377). If, however, the consequences of ascribing or denying humanity to the embryo as ‘borderline human’ involve experimentation, including destruction, why is the benefit of any doubt not given to the embryo? The practical consequences of decisions on (alleged) borderline cases can make such decisions anything but innocuous. (Recall what I say at 2008: 268.) Secondly, Persson tells us that ‘it is even more reasonable to deny that it [the embryo] is an organism of the kind human being, since it is so far from being a paradigmatic human being’ (2009: 377). To which I reply: and what, exactly, is a ‘paradigmatic human being’? An adult? If so, then it is a mere tautology to deny that the embryo is an adult. Of course the embryo neither looks like, nor should be expected to look like, what it will look like in its mature form. But as an immature but developing member of its kind, the embryo is as paradigmatic a human being as you can hope to get at that stage of development.
‘The Metaphysical Status of the Embryo: Some Arguments Revisited’, Journal of Applied Philosophy 25, 4 (2008): 263–76 (page references prefixed by ‘2008’ refer to this paper); ‘The Origination of a Human Being: A Reply to Oderberg’, Journal of Applied Philosophy 26, 4 (2009): 3718 (page references prefixed by ‘2009’ refer to this paper).
For my own, see Real Essentialism (London: Routledge, 2007).
See the very useful discussion in P. Lee and R.P. George, Body-Self Dualism in Contemporary Ethics and Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008): 119-30.
Which I merely suppose for the sake of argument.
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