Responding to Wilcox #4: Eggs & Chickens, Acorns & Oaks, Embryos & Humans

Responding to Wilcox #4: Eggs & Chickens, Acorns & Oaks, Embryos & Humans May 8, 2020

This is the fourth piece in series debating Clinton Wilcox at the Life Training Institute (a pro-life organisation) with the following chronology:

JP: Abortion: The Human/Human Being Distinction

CW: About the Alleged Human/Human Being Distinction

CW: About the Alleged Human/Human Being Distinction, Part 2

JP: Pro-Life Debate: Answering Criticisms on the Human/Human Being Distinction

JP:Responding to Wilcox: “An Embryo Is an Innocent Human Being”

JP: Responding to Wilcox #3: Human, Humans, Human Beings, the Sorites Paradox & Identity

This piece is arguably the most important so far because it underwrites the main analogies I have so far used to illustrate the language and category problems that Wilcox is falling prey to.

Here is Wilcox’s point:

3. Language is important. An egg is not a chicken nor is an acorn an oak tree. With this paragraph it’s just starting to get embarrassing. Pearce isn’t the first philosopher (if he is such a thing) to make the elementary mistake of comparing the acorn:oak tree relationship with the fetus:human relationship. Judith Jarvis Thomson, in fact, makes this same comparison early in her famous essay defending abortion. [2] The issue here is that, despite his repeated insistence to wanting to use language properly, he is making a mistake in describing the reality of these three entities (the chicken egg, the acorn, and the embryo). A chicken is not an egg, because the egg is a different substance than the chicken. But the chicken embryo inside the chicken egg is absolutely a chicken, and it is the same adult chicken it will eventually grow into. An acorn is not a mature oak tree, but it is an oak at a very early stage in its development. The acorn will develop into a mature oak tree, but it is the same oak at every point in its life. In the same fashion, the embryo (or blastocyst, as he seems to want to fixate on) will develop into a mature human being because it is an immature human being. So Pearce is simply making a false analogy here. The analogy isn’t acorn:oak tree as embryo:human, it’s actually acorn:oak tree as embryo:adult. This clarifies what Pearce is confusing.

Ah, the old condescension move. It’s not embarrassing on my part, it’s embarrassing to read the justifications.

Same same but different

A chicken is not an egg, because the egg is a different substance than the chicken. But the chicken embryo inside the chicken egg is absolutely a chicken, and it is the same adult chicken it will eventually grow into.

Let’s look at the last claim first. Intuitively speaking, this is most plausible and it is how we conduct ourselves pragmatically about society. However, philosophically (God, how I love his trash-talking about my philosophy when he appears not to do any proper critical philosophy himself!) speaking, this is a fully unresolved issue in philosophy. He said the egg “is the same adult chicken” it will grow into and what he means is that the entity maintains the same personal identity, if you will. What is it that makes that chicken the same chicken from embryo through to adult? This is Ship of Theseus territory. Now, being a chicken, I doubt Wilcox will assert a soul; we could just an acorn -> tree, or another animal. So identity is carried by something else. All of its consistent parts (cells etc) change over time. Is it, then, what it looks like? No, this changes. So is it DNA? Well, this DNA is carried by the egg, and Wilcox admits the egg isn’t a chicken, but a developing embryo is. And DNA changes over time, too and can be modified by environmental influences. This also provides another problem: a demarcation problem from egg to embryo via blastocyst etc. He happily says an embryo is a chicken, but what about a blastocyst or a zygote?

If I placed a chicken zygote, chicken blastocyst or chicken embryo on his plate, will this suffice as a chicken?

He needs to be very clear about what carries or constitutes the identity here over time, because it is important for various reasons. If that identity can be ascribed to the egg or the acorn, then his argument falls apart.

I could write a book on personal identity and identity over time; suffice to say that you, dear reader, can go and read until your heart’s content elsewhere.

Different substance and cunning language

Wilcox tries to argue on the one hand that developmental stages keep identity, but then on the other that certain stages don’t, due to being different “substances”.

A chicken is not an egg, because the egg is a different substance than the chicken. But the chicken embryo inside the chicken egg is absolutely a chicken, and it is the same adult chicken it will eventually grow into. An acorn is not a mature oak tree, but it is an oak at a very early stage in its development. The acorn will develop into a mature oak tree, but it is the same oak at every point in its life. In the same fashion, the embryo (or blastocyst, as he seems to want to fixate on) will develop into a mature human being because it is an immature human being.

Here, Wilcox is referring back to his fast and loose use of language we saw in the previous post. He is careful enough to say an acorn is an oak, but not an oak tree. By doing this cunning little switch, he is really just saying the acorn is of the oak species, but is not an oak tree.

Well, said like this, this agrees with my conclusions from the previous post. A human embryo is of the homo sapiens species but is not a human (oak tree).

To continue, a car chassis on a car factory assembly line will develop into a car with the correct external inputs, but it is not yet a car. It is not the same car, because it is not yet a car. It is a car in its developmental stages. Same for acorn, chicken egg, chicken embryo and chicken blastocyst.

Wilcox doesn’t do any work to establish that it is meaningfully a different substance and what this actually means. It (acorn, blastocyst, zygote?) carries the same DNA and the required materials to build the next stage given external inputs, and is at a given stage where, as long as it gets those right external inputs (and the same can be said for human zygotes or cars), it will develop into a particular adult human or car. This is because of the DNA (car plans/assembly line programming) and given environmental influence. There is no substantial difference between acorn and germinating seed, seedling and tree, or with egg to adult chicken in the way that Wilcox wants. All of these stages are not the final product until they are the final product; but before then, they are developmental stages that require given inputs.

At each of these stages, if the entity doesn’t get the external inputs, it will not continue to develop, whether car, human embryo or chicken zygote. But arguing a human embryo is the same substance as an adult human is bizarre, and I don’t think it can work on any level. It is missing some “substances”(?) an adult will have whilst having some others. What are the essential substances that count?

You might actually argue that a chicken egg is actually more self-organisational or independent than a human embryo since it is not connected by (a mammalian) placenta and requires fewer inputs but it will still need warmth and appropriate conditions. A human embryo is far more dependent on nutrients and substances that come in through the umbilical cord that a seed or a chicken zygote will not need.

In other words, one can argue against Wilcox’s position that a chicken egg developing is less of a substantial change, but that a human embryo is more parasitic on its mother in utero.

Therefore, despite his protestations, Wilcox does not establish that this is any meaningful way a disanalogy.

Animal welfare

At the egg/zygote/blastocyst/embryo stage of chicken development, it is perhaps pertinent to note that the entity does not legally count as a living animal in most cases, and in protected animals, embryos in the last third of gestation only receive some protections.

This is perhaps an indication of the value of these different developmental organismal stages. Which reminds me of what Andreas Schueler wrote here some time back:

Embryos and burning buildings

Here are some little scenarios that should lead you to properly question the idea that embryos and fully-fledged humans have the same value, and perhaps the same rights.

1. You are in a burning fertility clinic and you can either save the fifty-year-old janitor who lies unconscious on the floor, or you can save a box with a hundred human embryos ready for implantation, you only have the time to save one. Do you, or do you not, choose the box and let the janitor die? Would it change your answer if I multiply the number of embryos in the box by 10? Or by 100?

2. Similar to #1, but now you have to actively destroy the box with the human embryos yourself (instead of just passively letting it burn in the fire). Imagine you are carrying the unconscious janitor and the box with the embryos blocks your way, flames are all around you and you can only move forward by kicking the box to the side right into the fire. Would you kick the box into the fire to save the janitor, yes or no?

3. Your only way out of the burning fertility clinic is through the parking garage. You have the keys for two of the cars that are parked there – an old company van that has a cooling box with a human embryo ready for implantation in it, and your brand new shiny $250,000 Porsche. You have no special connection to the embryo (i.e. this is not an embryo derived from an in vitro fertilization of one of your wife’s eggs and the two of you have been trying for years to have children without success or something like that – it´s just one of many embryos derived from IVF of some egg and sperm donors you don´t know). The company van is farther away than your Porsche, and getting to it poses a very small but non-negligible risk of dying (let’s say about an about 1 in 10,000 chance). Which car do you pick, knowing that the other one will be destroyed by the fire?

Conclusion

Wilcox wants a human embryo, and then I assume zygote and blastocyst, to have the same…

  1. personal identity
  2. value
  3. substance
  4. semantic quality and definition
  5. and therefore rights

…as a human adult. I hope to have shown that this is not the case, and if he wants to make it the case for any of these, he will have to do a boatload more philosophy to do this, not least establishing ontological realism of abstracts for a start.

But, I guess I’m just a “confused” “philosopher”.

 


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