Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Religion vs. Science, the Vast Gulf Part Eight: Where Babies Come From

The most widely and deeply held conviction of religious conservatives is that life begins at conception. They believe that the Bible says so. Of course, it does not. The reason is that, back then, and for over a millennium after the Bible was written, nobody knew about sperm and eggs. Everybody thought that babies grew from the man’s “seed,” which is the literal meaning of “sperm,” which he planted in the womb of a “fertile” woman, as a farmer plants seed in a fertile field. When spermatozoa were first observed under a microscope, scientists imagined they contained little humans (homunculi). Since many ancient people had actually seen spontaneously aborted fetuses, they knew that a developmental process occurred, under the direct control of God (“He knit me together in my mother’s womb,” Psalm 139:18). (We will leave aside the question of whether it is literally a process of knitting.)

I tell my biology students that science cannot tell them when life begins. There isn’t even a “moment of conception.” There are three: when the first sperm penetrates the egg membrane; when meiosis is completed; and when the sperm and egg nuclei join. And then everything that we associate with human physiology (brain activity, heartbeat, etc.) begins at a different time during fetal development. If you want to believe human life begins at conception (perhaps the third moment of conception), no scientist can prove you wrong. But if we had only the information in the Bible to go on, we would not even be having the discussion.

It is tragically humorous that religious conservatives seem to have a self-imposed vagueness about where babies come from. It is not exactly a well-taught part of home-school science. Young teenage girls are taught to not sleep with their boyfriends, as part of abstinence-only education. But the Bible belt leads the nation in births to unwed teen mothers. Rick Perry’s protestations aside, abstinence-only education does not work. I heard that one Texas teen said she did not know how she became pregnant because she only had sex with her boyfriend; she did not actually sleep with him. (This story may be apocryphal; but the statistics are not.)

By now everyone has heard about Rep. Todd Akin’s statement that during “legitimate rape.” He said that in certain instances, such as legitimate rape, a woman’s body can shut down a pregnancy. While many people, including myself, ridiculed Akin’s statement, let me stick up for him in just one small way. He was probably remembering, back during a biology class somewhere, the Bruce Effect. This occurs when a pregnant female, exposed to the hormones of a new male, spontaneously aborts the fetus sired by a previous male. Many rodent and primate species do this. According to a recent paper in Science, spontaneous abortion in one monkey species benefits the female as well as the male, assuming that the alternative is that the new male would kill the babies, which is the brutal truth for many species such as lions. So maybe Akin was remembering more of his biology class than most other elected representatives. (A little learning, said Alexander Pope—not to be confused with Pope Alexander—is a dangerous thing.)

Clearly people back in Bible times considered the development of a baby in the womb to be miraculous. Modern physiology is a threat to Biblical literalism because it says otherwise.


  1. Nowadays, everybody knows that life begins when two gametes join. Nevertheless, so far even scientists do not know when a human being starts to live. In other words, is the zygote, which is fruit of the union between male and female gametes, a living being endowed with soul or it is just flesh?
    According to all religions human beings are not made just by flesh; they have a soul inside. Some religions, for instances Buddhists, prefer call mind the energy or mental continuum which is inside human body, but despite different wording, every religion recognizes that man is not just flesh, for something immaterial makes its abode inside him. The soul or mind is supposed to be a kind of energy or entity which is immortal, without beginning or end.
    Now, by modern technologies it is possible to freeze embryos which at the right time are implanted into a uterus. It is possible to keep the embryos frozen for long time, theoretically forever. That means that the immortal soul or mind which is inside the embryo is frozen as well?
    The inference is just one: either the soul does not exist at all or, if it exists, it enters the body not at the time of conception but at birth. Nobody knows the truth. As for me, I strive to understand the meaning and aim of our precious human life.
    Ettore Grillo author of The Vibrations of Words