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August 9, 2005

Seeing the Adult in the Embryo

It's been interesting to read John Podhoretz take on the brains at National Review on the matter of when life begins. (Read up from this Robert George post.) In doing so, it has seemed to me, he is offering most concisely an example of the preordained, gut, decisive feeling on which people attempt to layer explanation in related debates.

Note that I don't think this observation supports his apparent thesis that "the presumption that embryos are human beings cannot be proved by science and logic alone." That statement — somewhat ironically — is true only for those who wish to deny what science and logic (and a large swath of the world's religious thinking) conclude.

In this context, something in his final post on the matter strikes me as significant:

An embryo is not a fetus. For that matter, a fetus is not a baby. They exist on a continuum, but they are different -- in a way that say, a baby is not different from a child and a child is not different from an adult.

Mr. Podhoretz, as regular readers of the Corner will know, is a relatively new father. In other words, he has not had that moment, which arrives all of a sudden, at which the toddler is suddenly visible within the baby. Some time later, to my experience, comes another moment when the little boy or little girl becomes visible in the toddler.

No doubt Podhoretz would agree with me that these are magical moments rife with meaning-of-life type stuff. But his rhetoric excluding embryos and fetuses from status as "full human beings" could apply to them, as well.

Just as the adult is visible in the teenager, the teenager visible in the child, the child visible in the toddler, and the toddler visible in the baby, so too is the baby visible in the fetus and the fetus in the embryo. As Podhoretz writes, a human life is a continuum. The problem in his treatment of that continuum is that it leaves the value of the particular human life up to others to determine based on their knowledge and capacity for imagination — for seeing the adult in the embryo. Perhaps as he watches the stages unfold in the development of a human being for whom he has a father's love he will come to understand what it means to say that a child — a human being — is the whole of his or her present, past, and future.

Posted by Justin Katz at August 9, 2005 6:26 PM

Mr. Podhoretz does not seem to be a person given to long, deep thoughts. He's clearly been out of his depth in this debate on NRO's "corner" from the start. Whether he's a parent or not may or may not make a difference; I know some atheists who are devoted to their children, yet who are also devoted to abortion as a right. It can be interesting listening to the roundabout rationalizations that they deploy, but not relevent to this thread.

One thing that has become clear, Mr. Podhoretz doesn't appear to take contradiction very well.

Posted by: notdhimmi at August 9, 2005 9:49 PM

The funny thing about the exchange was Pod's argument that science & logic can't decisively settle the question - which is true to the extent that people don't want to or are unable to understand the relevant biological facts. He thus demonstrated the truth of his statement by completely ignoring the scientific facts himself!

Unfortunately, we are going to face a lot more of this kind of thing on many fronts as our technology gets ever more sophisticated, but our analytical skills become ever more atrophied.

Posted by: Mike S. at August 10, 2005 11:44 AM

You've got me curious now. What analytical skills would those be that you think are becoming more atrophied?

Posted by: smmtheory at August 10, 2005 12:20 PM

I'm not Mike, and don't play him on TV, but from my limited perspective too many people can't think abstractly. They get all bound up in details and are unable to step back and see a given problem or situation without the clutter. That's one problem; training or experience, nature or nuture, I don't know, but it seems to be getting worse.

Another problem is simpler: too many people do not understand the scientific method. They can't explain why an hypothesis is weaker than a theory, they can't explain how you get from an hypothesis to a theory, they don't know elementary logical fallacies (and thus often can't avoid them), they don't even have the ability to form a multi-step logical chain of inferences.

Lastly, a lot of people cannot write or read above the 8th grade level. That's a big problem, and it is not mitigated by ever more sophisticated video techniques; you can't cram a textbook into a video presentation without leaving things out!

How this relates to the now-defunct NRO debate is pretty simple: JPod never really seemed to understand what his debate opponents were saying (reading ability), he didn't seem to really understand the biology involved (scientific method) and he didn't much care for being told he was wrong (immaturity).

Anyway, that's part of my set of observations. I'm sure Mike has his own.

Posted by: notdhimmi at August 10, 2005 6:08 PM

Actually, you expressed my thoughts pretty well, notdhimmi. The cause of the atrophy is complex and related to long-term cultural changes, but there are two main immediate culprits - the media and entertainment world, and the educational system.

I generally like Podhoretz and his writing, and he's clearly capable of making & defending rational arguments. That's partly why it was interesting to see him retreat into the "it's all a big mystery" argument regarding embryos. I don't blame Ponnuru for getting exasperated with him.

Posted by: Mike S. at August 11, 2005 1:02 PM

It is very good to see another post for you, Justin, and friends.

Posted by: Chairm at August 13, 2005 12:44 AM