Here’s a humbling thought for end of this year, and the beginning of the new one: compared to zygotes or early embryos, we are somewhat underwhelming as people. We just aren’t “all that,” as the kids used to say (what do they say now?). To understand our stunning mediocrity, consider the following facts:
DUN DUN DUUUUN: THE FACTS
In the one cell that comprises the zygote is contained all the genetic information that human being will need for the rest of her life: this includes things as important as gender (even though she has no organs), and as minor as hair color (even though she has no hair)–all of this as a promise waiting to be fulfilled. That, my friends, is the true meaning of the word “potential.” What potential do you have, honestly? Maybe the potential to grow larger, in the sense of getting fat. (Don’t get mad at me, I’m speaking truth to power here.)
Okay, fine, maybe you can “grow” in the sense of learning a foreign language or Tai chi or in some other way become a more complex individual. Chump change, my friend. Within the first week of its life, the early embryo increases to over 100 cells. That’s a hundredfold increase in complexity. Let me know when you have a week in which you get 100x more complex, and I will be duly impressed.
In fact, while increasing in complexity, the early embryo can split in two. Sometimes these two little people will then continue to develop independently–i.e. twins. In other cases, the two can recombine, and then continue developing as one person. That’s a pretty neat trick; can you do that? No? Well, too bad for you. Think of the possibilities: you could play against yourself in Halo, then recombine and claim victory no matter what!
A zygote or early embryo can exist in a petri dish, or in a womb. In fact, it can be transferred from a petri dish to a womb. You, by contrast, cannot exist in either a petri dish or a womb. You are completely helpless and nonviable if placed in either situation. Please do not attempt to prove me wrong.
The cells of the early embryo are totipotent, meaning they can develop into any kind of cell, up to and including a separate individual. That’s right, one of the cells of the early embryo could eventually become a brain, or a spine, or even another person. Your cells, by contrast, are just totally lame. They won’t try new things. They stay in their comfort zones.
THE SNARKY CONCLUSION
I could go on, but the point is made: compared to the early human embryo, you fall short. You aren’t up to snuff. If you even make the team, you sit on the bench.
THE FAILED REBUTTAL
But wait, you say, an important 50 year-old like me gets to get up and go to work everyday, sitting in the DC traffic for three hours a day while 99.1 helpfully tells him every 5 minutes that “we are seeing some heavy volume on the Beltway” . . . oh, nevermind.
AND NOW, PHILOSOPHICAL MOCKERY
Were I an evil philosopher in being formed in my mother’s womb (i.e. lots of time on my hands), I might even be tempted, in light of the amazing facts above, to advance the following argument:
“The typical 50-year-old may indeed be of the human species–that is, he or she has human DNA–but is otherwise lacking key elements of what we mean by our term ‘person.’ His cells are unfree, he lacks the potential for massive organic development, and he lacks the essential property of being able to split and recombine. In short, he isn’t a person, and therefore we are under no obligation to extend personal rights to him.
Proponents of personal rights for 50-year-olds frequently point out the fact of physical continuity: the same man who is now 50, and pathetic, was once a thriving embryonic person. It is impossible to pinpoint the exact moment he stopped being that person (was it when he was born? when he learned to speak? his first detention? his first home loan?). Given this continuity, it is said that any point we might designate as the ‘person-losing’ moment would be arbitrary.
But the fact that there is a physical continuity capable of being established between the early embryo and that 50-year-old does not logically mean that they are the same thing. An oak tree is not, after all, an acorn, even if there is such continuity. No, if 50 year olds are ‘persons,’ it can only be because we choose to treat them as such. They have no ‘right to life.’ Prohibiting their euthanasia is nothing less than state-mandated elder care.”
But I wouldn’t make such arguments, gentle readers. Here at Retrievals, we strive to be more humanly inclusive. “A person’s a person, no matter how small” . . . or old and boring.
Happy New Year!