Bill Nye talks about the realities of reproduction, and the right wing completely loses its shit.
It is not Nye at his most eloquent, but…he’s actually right about everything important. Read this title for an example of the inanity of far right responses, titled WATCH: Bill Nye, Science Guy Makes An Idiot Of Himself On Reproduction. Nye is clearer and more correct than whoever wrote that, making it particularly amusing. It makes a lot of claims.
Not that this writer had all that great an affinity for Bill Nye anyway, but the video below has to be the most smug, snide, atheistic diatribe displaying outright willful ignorance and leftist talking points to grace youtube at least since Hillary Clinton talked about this subject.
No, no…that’s my schtick. How can you watch that video and come away thinking Nye’s attitude is offensive? Probably the same way one can watch it and think he got everything wrong.
Over at National Review, a trio of physicians pick apart the arguments using actual peer reviewed medical journal articles, but we can sum up what they have to say pretty easily.
When a single sperm fertilizes a human egg, the resulting zygote – the one cell being – has its own unique DNA.
Life begins for any one human being at that moment of conception when this fertilization occurs.
Errm, if you look at the National Review article (which I’ll return to shortly), it’s by two authors, a lawyer and a bioethicist at a Catholic university; there are several other articles by a Fellow of the Discovery Institute. This isn’t exactly a stellar, well-qualified lineup.
Their first point is a non sequitur. Fertilization produces a new unique genetic combination, but so what? This is the case in every organism — we don’t swoon in awe at the fact that fertilization in zebrafish produces a new combination of DNA. We don’t declare meiosis a privileged, protected state because it produces gametes with a unique set of genes. We don’t look at the immune system and decide that antibody producing cells are human beings because they reorganize their genomes into a unique arrangement during maturation.
Their second point is a standard elision: the process that will eventually produce a human being begins at fertilization, just like the process that will produce a chair begins when a tree is chopped down. We can apply the same adjective to both the tree and the chair — “wood” — but it doesn’t make them synonymous.
This is the pure science of when human life begins. It is true that not every time an egg is fertilized it implants, and babies are lost due to natural causes every day. This is called an act of God, or if one is not religious, Mother Nature. Mr. Nye’s statements on that topic calling for the prosecution of women whose fertilized eggs do not implant in the uterine wall are patently stupid on their face.
It’s a distortion and over-simplification of the “pure science”. When Nye talks about prosecuting women whose eggs fail to implant, he’s pointing out the fucking absurdity of such an argument, but if you’re going to call them patently stupid, say it to lawmakers in Indiana and Georgia and many other places that want to criminalize contraception. How can you not know that one of the grounds for hating some forms of contraception is the idea that they prevent implantation?
“You wouldn’t know how big a human egg is if it weren’t for microscopes.” Uh, Bill…the human ovum is the only sort of cell in a woman’s body that can be seen with the naked eye.
It is true we would not know the gory details of the beauty of human reproduction without medical doctors putting cameras in some pretty private parts of women, but that does not cancel out the actual science itself that tells us a human being is created at fertilization.
That was written by a guy who’s never had to find an ovum. They weren’t even discovered in mammals until the 1830s. Identifying one relatively large cell in a tissue populated with trillions of cells isn’t easy, and while mature follicles are even larger and easier to spot, it’s still non-trivial to identify them without some magnification. I’ve got slides of ovaries in my lab, all nicely stained to make it even easier, but still…a dot that’s only 100-150µm in diameter (a tenth of a millimeter) isn’t something you’ll be able to spot without a microscope.
Bill Nye might be a science guy (engineer, actually), but he’s no more an expert on human reproduction than Todd Akin is. What Nye is is a leftist tool who is spouting the feminist line that simplifies down to stupidity the excuses the left offers for why abortion should be tolerated in polite society, and why abstinence is undesirable as a way to prevent pregnancy when it is really 100% reliable as a way to do so. Without medical intervention, so far as we know, only one child was ever conceived without his mother knowing man. That has to say something for God.
At least we get an admission that Akin isn’t an expert on human reproduction! But the rest is an evasion. Why shouldn’t abortion be tolerated? He doesn’t say. And the reliability of not having sex to avoid pregnancy is not under debate; it’s that human beings are not reliably abstinent. We should endorse methods that allow people to be sexual beings without requiring them to be saddled with an unwanted pregnancy.
But let’s go to that National Review article with the over-hyped authorities. It’s not very good or convincing. The heart of their claim is that scientific publications acknowledge and justify that zygotes are human at fertilization.
All the texts used in contemporary human embryology and teratology, developmental biology, and anatomy concur in the judgment that it is at fertilization, not — as Nye ignorantly claims — at implantation, that the life of a new individual of the species Homo sapiens begins. Here are three of many, many examples:
“Human life begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual.” “A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo).” (Keith L. Moore, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th edition. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders, 2003. pp. 16, 2.)
“Fertilization is the process by which male and female haploid gametes (sperm and egg) unite to produce a genetically distinct individual.” (Signorelli et al., Kinases, phosphatases and proteases during sperm capacitation, CELL TISSUE RES. 349(3):765, March 20, 2012.)
“Although life is a continuous process, fertilization (which, incidentally, is not a ‘moment’) is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new, genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte” (Emphasis added; Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Mueller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd edition. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2000, p. 8).
To which I can only say: NONSENSE. “Human” in these cases is a general descriptor for the origin of the cells; it’s a statement about the type. You might as well say that that one quote about a “male and female haploid gametes (sperm and egg)” clearly states that sperm and egg are human, therefore science says we ought to criminalize menstruation and masturbation.
One other point I have to make about their sources: the Moore and O’Rahilly texts are specifically medical embryology textbooks — they are not good sources for information about general developmental biology, and are a bit blinkered in their perspective, and tend to focus on superficial aspects of descriptive morphology. That’s fine for medical and nursing students, I suppose, but if you want to actually understand the mechanics of development, they’re useless. They’re doubly useless if you read them with an agenda that refuses to be budged by the facts.
I can troll the scientific literature, too. Here are some titles.
Pass F, Janis R, Marcus DM. (1971) Antigens of human wart tissue. J Invest Dermatol. 56(4):305-10.
Warts are human! Ban squaric acid, laser surgery, and topical liquid nitrogen treatments! (Warts actually are human: they are made of skin cells stimulated into benign overgrowth by incorporation of genetic material from a virus. They also therefore have a unique genetic combination.)
Kim HB, Lee SH, Um JH, Oh WK, Kim DW, Kang CD, Kim SH. (2015) Sensitization of multidrug-resistant human cancer cells to Hsp90 inhibitors by down-regulation of SIRT1. Oncotarget. 2015 Sep 25. [Epub ahead of print]
Cancer cells are human! They are also genetically distinct from their host, with a unique molecular signature. All the arguments used by these people denying Nye’s statements can also be applied to cancer.
Finch CE, Austad SN. (2015) Commentary: is Alzheimer’s disease uniquely human? Neurobiol Aging. 36(2):553-5.
Uh-oh. Scientists refer to diseases as “human”, too? Do we need to get informed consent and a signature from neurofibrillary plaques in the brain before we can try to treat it?
My point is not that warts, cancer, or diseases need to be regarded as persons. It’s that “human” is a very broad term that is applied to a lot of kinds of cells, and it takes a particularly naive person to browse through the literature and go “A-ha! My biases are confirmed by this quote!” We clearly have an understanding of the distinction between the general term “human” and “person deserving full civil rights and the protection of society”. If we didn’t, everyone would have to go around the house collecting shed skin flakes to give them a properly reverent burial.
And please, can this fascination with genetically unique combinations just curl up and die? It’s irrelevant and meaningless. A human being is not a cell or a listing of the nucleotide sequences of their genome. We
leftist tools have a deeper appreciation of the breadth and depth of experience and information that makes us fully human than “right-wing ignoramuses”, it seems.
Wait, what about the idiot from the Discovery Institute? What does he have to say? He’s ignorable. Well, so are the other babblers at the National Review, so I’ll just mention one thing. Wesley Smith says:
A sperm is a cell, it is alive but it isn’t a living organism. Ditto an egg.
Wha…? How does he define “organism”? That statement is so stupid it hurt to read it. I would like to see his definition, because it will require some twisty ad hoc bullshit to avoid being used to claim a zygote isn’t an “organism”.
Speaking of ignorable, one thing these critics ignore is women. Everything spins around how they can redefine terms, and how they can distort the scientific literature as an authority to back them up, but the primary argument for abortion is that women — human beings that we can not dispute are fully functional, aware members of society — must have autonomy and the right to control their bodies, and that society is better for everyone when women are respected as something more than baby-makers. They don’t even try to touch that point.