Back to Science Class for the Science Guy
By Robert P. George & Patrick Lee
Bill Nye is supposed to be “the science guy.” Recently he published a video on YouTube purporting to inform viewers of what science tells us about abortion. Nye claims that laws against abortion reflect “a deep scientific lack of understanding.” But it turns out that it is Nye himself who doesn’t understand the science. “I really encourage you to look at the facts,” he says. But then he misrepresents the facts from top to bottom in an embarrassingly transparent effort to hijack science in the cause of pro-abortion ideology.
Nye’s video is so breathtakingly arrogant and incompetently argued that it is hard to know where to begin. He opens by saying: “Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized, and by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova — a lot.” The fact he is pointing to here — the high rate of pre-implantation spontaneous abortions (estimates range from 45 percent to as high as 70 percent) — is the only bit of science Nye ever mentions in the video. But he thinks one can infer from it that a human being does not come to be until the embryo implants on the uterine wall: “[The sperm’s joining the ovum] is not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb.”
But that is easily exposed as a non sequitur — a logical fallacy, the conclusion does not follow from the premise. The fact that many human embryos die at an early stage of development (pre-implantation) provides no evidence whatsoever for the proposition that they are not embryonic human beings — no more than comparable high rates of infant mortality in most places before the 20th century showed that infants were not human beings.
Oblivious to this glaring error of logic, however, the “science guy” pushes on:
But if you’re going to hold that as a standard, that is to say, if you’re going to say when an egg is fertilized, it therefore has the same rights as an individual, then whom are you going to sue, whom are you going to imprison, every woman who has had a fertilized egg pass through her? Every guy whose sperm has fertilized an egg and then it didn’t become a human, have all these people failed you?
Readers will have no difficulty perceiving the new fallacies Nye piles on the original non sequitur. His basic argument is this: If human beings came to be at fertilization (the union of the spermatozoon and oocyte), then our laws against induced abortion would apply to all parents whose children died, from whatever cause, before implantation. Of course, this is utter nonsense: The fact that early embryos frequently die from causes other than induced abortion or parental negligence does not imply — nor does anyone claim — that parents should for that reason be imprisoned or sued. Mr. Nye is here making himself look more foolish than the fundamentalist rubes he delights in ridiculing.
Nye wants his viewers to believe that moral and legal disagreements about abortion stem from a clash between science and religion, and that those in favor of abortion are on the side of science, while pro-lifers have nothing more than “deeply held beliefs,” based on some sacred text. That false — and, let’s be blunt, silly — pre-conceived narrative is behind the following remarkable plea:
Sorry, you guys. I know it was written — or your interpretation of a book written 5,000 years ago, 50 centuries ago, makes you think that when a man and a woman have sexual intercourse, they always have a baby. That’s wrong, and so to pass laws based on that belief is inconsistent with nature. I mean, it’s hard not to get frustrated with this, everybody.”
What is actually frustrating, however, is encountering such condescension from a self-proclaimed “science guy” as he reveals himself to be an ignoramus.
What is frustrating is encountering such condescension from a self-proclaimed ‘science guy’ as he reveals himself to be an ignoramus.
The book Nye says was written “50 centuries ago” is the Hebrew Bible — but the oldest parts of that were written at most 35 centuries ago. That, however, is a trivial error. The howler is that nowhere does the Bible assert — or remotely suggest — that every act of sexual intercourse creates a baby. Indeed, no one who is actually familiar with the Bible would dream of attributing to it any such nonsense, because it prominently includes stories of married couples (such as Abraham and Sarah) whose desire for children is frustrated by infertility until old age when miraculously their conjugal relations result in the conception and birth of a child.
So Nye makes a hash of Scripture as well as logic. That means he has one thing left to botch. Yes, you guessed it, the thing he’s supposed to be an expert on: science.
Admittedly, embryology is not the field in which “the science guy” was trained. He studied engineering. But the basic facts of human embryogenesis and early development are not difficult to discover. And they are not in dispute. So, hey, Bill, “We encourage you to look at the facts.”
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).
If three major scientific sources are not enough for Mr. Science Guy, we’ll be happy to provide several dozen more. If he wants to stand his ground, perhaps he could provide the public with a few equally credible sources claiming that a new living member of the species Homo sapiens comes to be only at implantation. Heck, we’ll settle for a couple — or even just one.
But the truth is that Nye won’t be able to produce even one. The authorities all agree because the underlying science is clear. At fertilization, a spermatozoon (a male sex cell) unites with an oocyte (a female sex cell). When these gametes successfully unite to produce fertilization (something that does not always happen — certain types of failures of fertilization can result in the formation of non-embryonic entities such as a teratoma or a complete hydatidiform mole), each of them ceases to be, and a new entity is generated. This new entity, initially a single totipotent cell, then divides into two cells, then (asynchronously) three, then four, eight, and so on, enclosed all the while by a membrane inherited from the oocyte (the zona pellucida). Together, these cells and membrane function as parts of a whole that regularly and predictably develops by an internally directed process to the more mature stages of a complex human body.
From the zygote (i.e., single-celled) stage onward this new organism is distinct, for it grows in its own direction. It is human — obviously, given the genetic structure found in the nuclei of its cells. And it is a whole human organism — as opposed to what is functionally a part of a larger whole, such as a cell, tissue, or organ — since this organism has all of the internal resources and active disposition needed to develop itself (himself or herself) to the mature (i.e., adult) stage of a human organism. Given its genetic constitution and epigenetic structure, all this organism needs to develop to the mature stage is what human beings at any stage need, namely, a suitable environment, nutrition, and the absence of injury or disease. So it is a whole human organism — a new human individual — at the earliest stage of his or her development.
Clearly, implantation — the embryo attaching himself or herself (sex is determined from the very beginning) to the uterine wall of the mother’s womb — is only an important stage in the life cycle of the already living and internally self-directed growth of a human being. This stage does not create any fundamental change in the direction of growth of the embryo. From Day One, the embryo has been preparing for this interaction. The uterus provides a suitable environment, nutrition, and disposal of waste, but not a new program or instructions for a new trajectory of growth — the instructions for his or her full self-development to the mature stage of a human organism have been present within the embryo’s genetic and epigenetic constitution from the zygote stage (Day One) on.
At several points in his video, Nye expresses frustration with people who don’t share his support for the moral and legal permissibility of abortion. One can, perhaps, be forgiven for indulging a chuckle at his exasperation, given the level of scientific ignorance on display from a guy whose whole message to those he disagrees with is “Listen to me, you rubes; I know the science.”— Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University and author of Conscience and Its Enemies. Patrick Lee holds the John N. and Jamie D. McAleer Chair of Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville and is co-author with Robert George of Conjugal Union, What Marriage Is and Why It Matters.