The impact of “scientific misinformation” on other fields: Philosophy, theology, biomedical ethics, public policy

The impact of “scientific misinformation” on other fields: Philosophy, theology, biomedical ethics, public policy

Dianne N. Irving, M.A., Ph.D. 
Assistant professor of philosophy and bioethics
DeSales School of Theology
Washington, D.C.

“Scientific misinformation” or inaccuracies are problematic within the field of science itself. However, perhaps few scientists are aware of or concerned about the possible impact which scientific misinformation apparently has on several other seemingly unrelated fields – philosophy, theology, biomedical ethics, and public policy. To demonstrate such an influence, I will take only one issue currently debated in these other fields – the biological “marker events of human personhood” during human embryogenesis, and trace the impact that seemingly contradictory scientific claims have had on the theoretical structures and practical conclusions of the several interrelated fields. Concern is expressed about the serious need for more accurate scientific input into these discussions and issues, and for scientists to help sort out which scientific data and theories are actually the most accurate and scientifically acceptable.

Keywords: Scientific misinformation, philosophy, theology, biomedical ethics, personhood, public policy, professional expertise.


To paraphrase an old addage, “A small error in the beginning leads to a multitude of errors in the end” (Aristotle, De Coelo, in McKeon, 1941). Similarly, at times the use of scientific information, e.g., scientific data or theories, can dramatically impact other fields seemingly far removed from the scientific community itself. Scholars and public policy developers from innumerable fields rely on the accuracy and objectivity of the information developed within and passed on by that scientific community. Today more than ever, scientific “facts” are often the starting point for, or the major premise, in the development of theories and arguments in fields other than science itself.

When such scientific information is incorrect, highly questionable, or misapplied even within the field of science, then it becomes problematic. It becomes scientific “misinformation” instead, expanding inaccuracies, becoming imbedded within the theoretical structures of those other fields, and possibly misguiding public policy officials who rely on scientific experts.

The aim of this paper** is to suggest to the scientific community the theoretical and practical consequences of such scientific misinformation on the fields of philosophy, theology, biomedical ethics and public policy.

The method will be to take only one major current issue, which has its source in scientific data and argumentation, and trace the impact of that scientific “misinformation” on those other fields. To narrow the issue I will trace scientific misinformation concerning human embryogenesis – specfically, exactly when, during human embryogenesis, is there present a human being or a human person?

I want to emphasize that this paper is not about describing methods of data auditing (although, it would support the need for such important procedures). Nor is it about proving or disproving when fetal “personhood” takes place. That issue has already been discussed at great length in the references provided. Rather, regardless of one’s own position on fetal personhood, the aim of this paper is to identify the science actually used in these arguments, consider the apparent contradiction of this science with that stated by other scientists, and trace the impact of the science actually used on the theories of other fields.

In addition, since the philosophy and the science used in the arguments of fetal “personhood” are often complexly intertwined, I will resort, at times, to clarifying at least some general philosophical concepts in order to make the scientific problems inherent in these arguments coherent. Because most of the arguments are in fact drawn from writers who cross interdiscplinary lines, the categories of “philosophy,” “theology,” “biomedical ethics” and “public policy” can only be roughly drawn. The point is to see how scientific data and arguments stated by scientists find their way into current arguments in those others fields.


I. Philosophy/Theology/Biomedical Ethics: “Early” Embryonic and Fetal Development

The field of philosophy is difficult to define. Unlike science or mathematics, there is no general agreement on what its subject matter is, or on its methodology. It is agreed – at least by those philosophers who have studied the whole history of philosophy – that there are many different schools of philosophy, each characterized by certain different basic presuppositions and explanations of the world. The philosophy of science is no exception. As in all other sub-fields of philosophy, the philosophy of science embraces all of the very different and often contradictory schools of thought, such as monism, dualism, rationalism, empiricism, scholasticism and realism. Even these very terms are defined differently by different schools. There is, then, no such thing as a “neutral” philosophy, a “neutral” ethics,” or even a “neutral” logic.

For most realistic schools of philosophy, to which this writer subscribes, it is critical to obtain the most accurate scientific data and theories about the physical world as is possible, as these scientific facts and theories are the starting points for all other philosophical endeavors. There are many important technical philosophical terms whose definitions are derived from and refined by scientific data – even for example, the seemingly vague philosophical term “being.” For present purposes, a “being,” generally speaking, is a subsistent substance of a particular kind whose nature determines its kind, and causes certain specific kinds of functions and activities. There are many different natures or kinds of beings, and thus many different specific kinds of functions and activities. For example, fish can swim but trees cannot; frogs produce frog enzymes and proteins, but tomato plants or giraffes cannot. A being also sustains typical secondary or accidental modifications. For example, a mushroom is a particular kind of plant-being; and it can be modified accidentally by being white or black, small or large, edible or poisonous. Again, a horse is a certain kind of animal-being; and it can be modified accidentally by being of a solid color or spotted, roan or bay, short or tall. Mushrooms and horses are examples of substances or beings. White, black, edible, poisonous, spotted, roan and tall are examples of accidental modifications of those beings. Changes in accidental modifications do not change the nature or kind of being it already is. (For example, an apple can change from green to red, but it is still an apple).

Not only do scientific observations of the world lead us to specific definitions of each of the many different natures or kinds of material beings in the world; they can also lead to analogous definitions of properties which are “common” to all beings whatsoever. All of these definitions should “match” as closely as possible that scientific data from which they were drawn – otherwise we are not theorizing about the real world at all (Irving, 1992). Obviously, if there is an error in the scientific observations or data, then our concepts about the real world, which are drawn from and represent to us those scientific observations, are in error as well. A realist’s philosophical concepts and theories, then, must match the best and most accurate scientific data and theories about the real world.

Another general technical philosophical term whose definition is impacted by scientific data is the term “individual.” Speaking generally an “individual” is that which is essentially unified, and one with, or the same as, itself. For example, a horse is an individual being; a herd of horses are many individual beings. In contrast to the “accidental” modifications above, “individuality” is such a “common” technical term defining an essential and non-accidental attribute of a being. That is, a being cannot be a being unless it is “one” being. Needless to say, if the definition of “being” is incorrect, the definitions of “human being” and “material being” are also incorrect – and the definitions of “ethics” and of “science” will be incorrect as well.

To the point, two other philosophical terms have recently been affected by the scientific evidence presented in the literature – the terms “human being” and “human person.” Many articles have been written addressing the question of when during human embryogenesis is there present a human being? And is a human being the same as a human person – or does a human person come later in human embryogenesis than a human being?

For purposes of laying out how others have addressed the issue, and to provide several references to which one might turn to obtain a more detailed treatment of the arguments, some writers will use scientific information to argue that a human being is simultaneously a human person – they cannot be separated (Lejeune, 1989; Irving, 1991, 1992; Fisher, 1991; Ashley, 1987; Klubertanz, 1953; Carberry and Kmiec, 1992; Howsepian, 1992; Moraczewski, 1983; Barry, 1979; Daly, 1987; Werner, 1974; Wertheimer, 1971; Brody, 1978; Santamaria, 1982; Grisez, 1970; Iglesias, 1984; Quinn, 1984; Commonwealth of Australia, 1985; Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, 1986; Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, 1987). Their arguments claim that functionally, genetically and biochemically it is clear that a new unique living individual human being, who simultaneously is a human person, is present at some point during fertilization, at least by the point in fertilization called “symgamy” – that moment in time and space during the process of fertilization when there is the last crossing-over of the maternal and paternal chromosomes. It is at that moment when substantial change has taken place. That is, when the “23” chromosomes of the human ovum and the “23” chromosomes of the human sperm have combined to form a human zygote with “46” chromosomes (generally the number and combination of the human species) then a change in natures has taken place. The nature of the sperm and the nature of the ovum have changed to the nature of the embryo – as one can determine scientifically by the differences in biochemical and biological functions and activities of the sperm, egg, and zygote. Certain realistic philosophical schools of thought, which always use the scientific facts as their starting points in conceptualizing the real world, are often evoked which seem to “match” this biological data. This data grounds the argument that from the moment of syngamy there already exists an individual human being with the “potency” (or nature) to develop continuously through the later stages of human embryogenesis and adulthood. Thus embryological development – in contrast to fertilization – is identified as an example of accidental change – the nature does not change but the accidents do (Irving, 1991, 1992; Klubertanz, 1953).

“Potency” is a realist philosophical term used to designate an already existing nature of a particular kind of thing which already has the present capacity or power to direct the development of itself throughout its accidental developmental stages. In current discussions this term is constantly corrupted and construed to mean “potential” or “possibility,” implying that the nature in question is not there yet, but might be there sometime in the future. For purposes of correctly understanding the realist argument on fetal personhood, it is critical that these three terms – “potency,” “potential,” and “possible” – are correctly defined, understood and not equated. A human being with a human nature or potency is already a human being with a human nature. It is not a “potential” human being somewhere down the line. And it is not a “possible” human being such as in the case when the woman decides not to abort, or the IVF technician decides to implant it). As with accidental change, external circumstances do not change the very nature which is already possessed by a thing.

Unlike several other philosophical schools of thought, this realistic philosophical argument formally defines a human being as including human matter and human powers in that definition. It thus rejects any real split between a human being and a human person. A “person” is part and parcel of the whole complex, concrete human being – including the human body. “Rational attributes” are descriptive of only one of many integrated powers of that human being. Further, the “soul” is not a thing or substance on its own; nor does it reside in the brain, or the heart, but in every part of the whole embodied human being. It understands that “personhood” as defined by other philosophical systems confuses “person” with “personality”; that it is theoretically indefensible and leads to rather startling conclusions (Irving, 1991, 1992; Doran, 1989; Wilhelmsen, 1963; Barry, 1979).

Yet other scientific arguments are presented in which real existential distinctions are variously made between a human organism, a human being or a human person (Hare, 1988; Buckle, 1990; Dawson, 1990-A, 1990-B; Bedate and Cefalo, 1989; Suarez, 1990; Bole, 1989, 1990; Grobstein, 1985; McCormick, 1990; Ford, 1988; Coughlin, 1988, 1989; Wallace, 1989; Lockwood, 1988; Jones, 1989; Sass, 1989; Singer, 1981, 1985, 1987, 1989; Kuhse, 1985, 1986; Engelhardt, 1985; Goldenring, 1982, 1985; Kushner, 1984; Shea, 1985; Tooley, 1974; Tauer, 1985; Bennett, 1989).

For example, it is argued that at some embryological “marker event” post fertilization a human “person” is present; before that time there is only a human “being” present (at best). Bedate and Cefalo, for example, have submitted sophisticated scientific arguments that at fertilization there is not even a genetic individual present, much less a human being; “personhood” is not present until at least 14 days. Others (Grobstein and McCormick) have argued scientifically that at fertilization there is present a “genetic” individual – but that “genetic” individuality is not sufficient for the presence of an individual human “person.” What is also needed, they argue, is the presence of a “developmental” individual, and that does not take place until about 14 days. Only a “developmental” individual can be a human “person.”

If a writer is arguing scientifically for any kind of a real existential distinction between a human being and a human person, it should be pointed out that that science contains very specific philosophical presuppositions like scholasticism, dualism, rationalism, or empiricism. For example, any real distinctions empirically made between a human being and a human person contain what is known in philosophical anthropology as a “mind/body split” – an historical remnant of a Platonic/Cartesean dualism grounded in a very rationalistic school of philosophy. I will not go into the fascinating historical interplay between the reciprocal conceptual impact of philosophy and empirical science, although many have treated this matter elsewhere (Irving, 1991, 1992; Gilson, 1949; Crombie, 1959). Nor will I elaborate on the history or the disasterous consequences of the theoretical problems inherent in a scholastic, rationalistic, empiricist or dualistic mind/body split in philosophy (Irving, 1992; Fox, 1989; Doran, 1989; Gilson, 1963; Eslick, 1963; Coppleston, 1963; Wilhelmsen, 1956; Meilaender, 1987, 1989). Suffice it to say that philosophically a mind/body split implies the presence of not one but rather two or more independent substances which go to make up a single human being (or a single human person). One of a number of the theoretical problems is, of course, that if these substances are really in fact separate and independent, absolutely no interaction is possible between them. There is literally no way that so-called “rational attributes” (consciousness, self-consciousness, autonomy, relating with the world around one, desiring, willing, loving, hating, etc.) can concretely connect with the physical “body” which is supposed to be supporting such “rational attributes.” Virtually all of the writers I will address in this paper do make such a distinction between a human being and a human person – most of them based on these types of theories of philosophy (whether acknowledged or not).

It might be curious to scientists to see where such a rationalistic philosophy takes one even in the field of science itself. For example, historically, one of the major philosophical sources of a mind/body split was Rene Decartes – who was both a scientist (physicist) and a philosopher. Descartes (Edwards, 1967) defined a human being as composed of two independent substances – “Mind” and “Body” (or “Extension”). Ultimately he defined a human being as “a thinking thing” – thus one source of the so-called “rational attributes” used in many of the arguments I will address below.

Descartes also defined the material world in terms of only one of those two substances, i.e., “extension.” Because of this definition of the material world, and because he rejected the existence of a void, Descartes’ philosophical theories impacted mischieviously on his own theory of physics and his ability to even do science. For example, because he rejected the existence of a void, the material substance of the world was therefore continuous. This had serious consequences in his scientific theory of the vortex. The material world is not composed of ultimate atoms, but only of volumes, which must then move as a whole, i.e., a simultaneous movement of matter in some closed curve. Planetary motion, then, is defined as one infinite three-dimensional continuous and homogenous extended body.

If there is only one continuous extended substance, then he can only distinguish one body from another body in terms of differential volumes and secondary qualities. Therefore he cannot have a definition for density, or for viscosity. Descartes also omits “matter” from his definition of motion. Motion = speed x size – but “size” for Descartes is a continuous volume of body. Therefore his own physical Laws of Impact are actually, empirically, in error. He also cannot isolate a particular force (like gravity) in terms of how a body would move if it were free from resistence, because to imagine it moving without resistance is to imagine it in a void – the existence of which he had rejected.

Also, Descartes concluded (based, again, on his theory of “being,” or “substance”) that animals have no minds, no pineal glands (the physical organ in humans where somehow, unexplicably, the Mind and the Body are capable of interacting), and no souls. Therefore they cannot feel any pain or pleasure, or any other kinds of sensations (sensations were only mental “modes of thought”). Since animals are only bodies, i.e., “machines,” the only sense in which they can be hurt is to “damage” them.

This rationalistic philosophical system was eventually discredited and discarded by most of the scholarly community – yet, incredibly, remnants of it remain today. I would argue that such a rationalistic philosophical system contains such severe theoretical problems that it actually precludes one from doing either philosophy or science. And if applied to the current issue of human embryogenesis, it is clear that such a “theory” is grossly inadequate to explain either the philosophical theories or the biological phemonena which need to be addressed. It is clear that one cannot explain any interactions between the mind (or “soul”), and the body (or brain) of the developing human being -since they are two different substances which are separate from each other. There can be no connection between those “rational attributes” and the “body” (or brain). Nor can it explain the complex mechanisms of motion involved in the genetics, biochemistry and organogenesis so characteristic of human embryological development. Nor can the embryo’s or fetus’ body be distinctively its own, but must be shared quantitatively with the rest of the material world. Needless to say, however, this rationalistic philosophical theory is still used – often as paired with apparently erroneous scientific “data” – as demonstrated in many of the articles below.

Bedate and Cefalo: Using genetics and molecular biology, Bedate and Cefalo claim that there are erroneous empirical presuppositions in the “fertilization argument.” Specifically they claim that the human zygote does not contain all of the information necessary to produce the specific biological character of the future adult (Bedate and Cefalo, 1989). Although their arguments contain major logical, philosophical and scientific problems (Irving, 1991), I give only two examples which are particularly misleading conceptually as well as empirically incorrect.

The development of the human zygote, they claim, depends on:

1. the actualization of pieces of information that originate de novo during the embryonic process – “positional information.” In support of this claim they produce the following scientific facts. The human zygote does possess some of its own genetically coded information but not all of the molecular information needed for embryological development. Some information is given in time through interaction with other molecules which were not coded in the genome.

2. exogenous information which is independent of the control of the zygote, – molecular information from the mother. In support of this claim they state that information about differentiation does not exist in the original genome. The human zygote contains only enough genetic information to proceed through the blastocyst stage, and does not contain the information for the process of differentiation. Rather, the information for the process of differentiation is determined and derived by an exchange of information originating in the mother. There would seem to be several problems with their first claim. First, there is an equivocal and misleading shift in their use of the critically important term “information.” “Information” can mean genetic information, or molecular (“positional”) information. The fertilization argument is not a claim that virtually all of the information – genetic as well as molecular – is present at fertilization. Neither at fertilization nor at the age of 45 years do any of us contain all of the molecular or positional information we will ever have. But that is not the point. At fertilization a human zygote does contain virtually all of the genetic information the human being ever will possess. No new genetic information is gained during embryogenesis – and none is lost. As Jerome Lejeune, the internationally recognized developmental geneticist, has put it for the non-scientific audience:

…each of us has a unique beginning, the moment of conception… As soon as the twenty-three chromosomes carried by the sperm encounter the twenty-three chromosomes carried by the ovum, the whole information necessary and sufficient to spell out all the characteristics of the new being is gathered… (W)hen this information carried by the sperm and by the ovum has encountered each other, then a new human being is defined which has never occurred before and will never occur again… [the zygote, and the cells produced in the succeeding divisions] is not just simply a non-descript cell, or a “population” or loose “collection” of cells, but a very specialized individual, i.e., someone who will build himself [i.e., possesses the nature or potency] according to his own rule. (Lejeune, 1989) (emphasis added)

Lejeune’s description is likewise expressed in more scientific terms in virtually all embryology and genetic text books known to this writer.

Second, this original genetic information in the human zygote will itself specifically direct the formation of virtually all of the molecular or “positional” information necessary for the continuous development of the human zygote to the human adult. This is explained empirically in part by the process of methylation, a process which is itself encoded in the original genetic information of the human zygote. Methylation is one factor which explains why some genes are “silenced” and other genes are “turned on” during development (Lejeune, 1989), producing what Lewin describes as a process of “information cascading” (Lewin, 1983; Emery, 1983). These processes – which continue into adulthood – help to explain both genetic as well as molecular levels of developmental control.

In describing the process of cascading, Lewin explains how information is transmitted from the human zygote to virtually all of the later stages of development:

“We view the development of an adult organism from a fertilized egg as following a predeterminedpathway, in which specific genes are turned on and off at specific times… (W)e see that the product of one gene may control another gene. A cascade of control ensues when a series of such events are connected so that the gene turned on (or off) at one stage itself controls expression of other genes at the next stage” (Lewin, 1983). (emphasis added)

In addition to gene control, cascading also accounts for molecular control. For example, Lewin states, products of genetic instruction, such as protein molecules, carry within themselves certain “instructions” by virtue of the kind of molecules they are. Thus proteins exhibit a diversity of forms. There are primary, secondary and tertiary forms of a protein. There is also, we know, a relationship between the structure of a protein and the way it functions (Lewin, 1983). How do these different conformations of a protein come about?

As Lewin further explains in his text, it is a “fundamental principle that higher-order structures are determined directly by the lower-order structures. This means that the primary sequence of amino acids carries the information for folding into the correct conformation.” And this control continues in a “sequential folding mechanism” through the higher-order levels of organization. “All the information necessary to form the secondary structures resides in the primary structure” of the protein. And the primary structure of the protein is determined by the genetic information in the cell. Lewin continues that the “structural, catalytic, and regulatory activities of the proteins of a cell are responsible, directly or indirectly, for creating its ultrastructure and interconverting the small molecules… Obeying the laws of physics and chemistry, together these macromolecules are responsible for the survival of living cells (Lewin, 1983).

Thus – if this scientific account is correct – the claims of the fertilization argument would seem to be correct, and Bedate and Cefalo’s scientific claims would seem to be incorrect. All of the genetic information is present at fertilization which is needed to produce the specific biological character of the future adult, including specifically human “positional” molecules, as well as specifically human tissue and organ systems. This genetic information controls both genetic and molecular information which “cascades” throughout all of a human being’s development. Later “positional” molecules, reactions and organ formations of the developing human being are not random or independent of the human zygote’s genetic content and structure, but are ultimately generated, controlled and coded by that very genetic information present in the original human zygote.

Bedate and Cefalo’s second argument, that the development of the human zygote depends on “exogenous” information from the mother which is independent of the control of the human zygote, is likewise conceptually misleading and, it would seem, scientifically incorrect. First, I again point out their equivocal use of the term “information.” Their argument is about molecular information – not genetic information. And, as implied above, even the use of exogenous “positional” information is pre-determined by the genetic information in the original human zygote. Second, their claims that the human zygote only contains enough of its own genetic information to proceed through the blastocyst stage, and that the process of differentiation is not coded in the genetic information in the human zygote but rather is determined by “information” from the mother also seems to be scientifically incorrect. It would appear clear from Lejeune, Lewin, Emery and most other well-established and respected scientific authorities that the original human zygote does indeed contain all of the genetic information needed for all of the processes of human development – including those of cleavage, cell differentiation, and implantation. Furthermore, there are many recent experiments, especially those involving transgenic mice, which would refute Bedate and Cefalo’s empirical claim that the process of differentiation is determined by the mother (Mavilio, 1986; Hart, 1985; and Holtzer, 1985; see also Suarez, 1990; Szulmann, 1978; Moore, 1982; Wimmers, 1988; Lawler, 1987; Martin, 1980; Alberts, 1983).

Also, it would seem that Bedate and Cefalo’s claim about the source of the information for differentiation is closely connected to another error, i.e., a misconception about human “development.” Their implication is that human development is somehow informationally and physically discontinuous. It would seem that human development is controlled essentially at one time by “information” from the zygote, embryo or fetus, and at another time by “information” from outside and independent of the developing human being. But the most reliable scientific sources indicated above claim that the essential nature and genetic information of the product of fertilization, i.e., the human zygote, itself determines continuously the essential course of human development. Exogenous molecules contribute only accidentally. There is, scientifically, no controlling informational or physiological break from the original human zygote during all of human development.

Thus, according to this science, the human zygote is by nature and by definition a human being, possessing “46” chromosomes and the active genetic capacity (including mitochondrial DNA) to change itself over time in accidental – not essential – ways. There is no biological, genetic or informational break in this developmental continuum. Exogenous molecular information – even from the mother – does not actually change the very nature of the developing human being, i.e., change it from one kind of thing into another kind of thing. Empirically we know that that is not what happens -all we have to do is look at the number and kinds of chromosomes present from the beginning and throughout human development. An embryo does not have the number and kinds of chromosomes as a tomato plant; nor does the fetus have those of a giraffe. Maternal molecules do not determine the very nature of the developing human being nor the nature of its processes. Maternal molecules are only used in non-essential accidental processes of human development; and that use is itself dictated ultimately by the genetic and molecular information in the human zygote, embryo or fetus.

There is also the implication by Bedate and Cefalo that “development” is restricted to the embryonic and fetal stages. But unrefuted work by the embryologist Moore – among many others – would reject such speculations concerning this and the above points. Unless the text books of Moore, Lewin, Emory and other well-known and generally accepted and acknowledged scientists, as well as multiple recent works in journal publications, are grossly incorrect, the most accurate and reliable description of embryological development is as follows (and I quote from Moore):

Human development is a continuous process that begins when an ovum from a female is fertilized by a sperm from a male. Growth and differentiation transform the zygote, a single cell formed by the union of the ovum and the sperm, into a multicellular adult human being. Most developmental changes occur during the embryonic and the fetal periods, but important changes also occur during the other periods of development: childhood, adolescence, and adulthood… Although it is customary to divide development into prenatal and postnatal periods, it is important to realize that birth is merely a dramatic event during development resulting in a distinct change in environment. Development does not stop at birth: important developmental changes, in addition to growth, occur after birth… Most developmental changes are completed by the age of 25. (Moore, 1982, p. 1) (emphasis added)

And finally, Bedate and Cefalo have argued that the developing entity is not predetermined to give rise to a human being, since it can give rise to biological entities that are not human beings, i.e., hydatidiform moles and teratomas. However, as Suarez (1990) correctly points out, the empirical implication in that argument is that hydatidiform moles and teratomas develop from biologically normal embryos – but that scientific implication is apparently scientifically incorrect.

As Suarez argues, hydatidiform moles do not develop from something which is normal, but from biological entities which carry gross chromosomal aberrations, and thus possess no capacity at all to function biologically as a human being or to develop into normal human beings. Hydatidiform moles of the complete type (CHM) arise from androgenic eggs (i.e., eggs with two paternal nuclei). The usual mechanism is the fusion of an egg and sperm followed by duplication of the sperm genome and loss of the female nucleus. Sometimes the mechanism is due to dispermy (i.e., two sperms enter the egg at fertilization) with the loss of the female nucleus. Either way, Suarez explains, hydatidiform moles do not originate from normal human embryos, but rather from entities containing either no maternal chromosomes or from entities containing two paternal chromosomes.

Suarez also points out that ovarian (gynogenic) teratomas can arise from parthenogenesis. That is, without fertilization by a sperm, an egg in the ovary can cleave spontaneously, and progress to form a morula and then a blastocyst. But it then becomes disorganized and divides into a tumor. Male (androgenic) teratomas can arise spontaneously from only the male germ cells in the testes. The empirical point is that in neither the case of the formation of a hydatidiform mole nor of a teratoma did these biological entities arise from a genetically normal human embryo to begin with.

Grobstein and McCormick: These writers (Grobstein, 1985; McCormick, 1990) argue that a human person can be present only if there is a “developmental” individual, rather than simply a “genetic” individual. The 5-6 day stage of embryological development is significant for them because at this point they claim that they can demonstrate scientifically the presence of “only a genetic individual” (i.e., not a “developmental” individual) – a non-person. They will term this entity a “pre-embryo,” implying it is a “pre-individual,” or a “pre-human being.”

These writers state that at the 5-6 day stage, two cell layers are formed – the trophoblast or outer cell layer, and the blastocyst or inner cell layer. McCormick, following Grobstein, makes this empirical argument:

I contend in this paper that the moral status – and specifically the controversial issue of personhood – is related to the attainment of developmental individuality (being the source of one individual)… It should be noted that at the zygote stage the genetic individual is not yet developmentally single – a source of only one individual. As we will see, that does not occur until a single body axis has begun to form, near the end of the second week post fertilization when implantation is underway. (McCormick, 1990) (emphasis added)

These early cells, they claim, are really only “loose collections” of undifferentiated, “totipotent” cells, and they name them, or designate them collectively, as only comprising a “pre-embryo” (a term which is not used by other embryologists, but only by philosophers, theologians and bioethicists).

The scientific facts which they give to support these claims are the following. They state that only the cells from the inner layer, the blastocyst, eventually become the adult human being. The cells from the trophoblast layer, they write, are all discarded after birth as the sac and the umbilical cord, etc. Thus, developmentally, the implication is that we are not dealing with a developmental individual, or only with those important cells which will become the adult human being, i.e., the blastocyst, but rather a mixture of “essential” (blastocyst) and “non-essential” (trophoblast – will all be discarded after birth) cells, i.e., a PRE-embryo. A pre-embryo, then, is not a human being or a human person, yet:

This multicellular entity, called a blastocyst, has an outer cellular wall, a central fluid-filled cavity and a small gathering of cells at one end known as the inner cell mass. Developmental studies show that the cells of the outer wall become the trophoblast (feeding layer) and are precursors to the later placenta.Ultimately, all these cells are discarded at birth. (emphasis added)

These scientific facts would seem to be incorrect, and would necessarily lead to incorrect philosophical concepts, as well as erroneous ethical judgments. It is scientifically incorrect to state that all of the cells from the trophoblast layer are discarded after birth. As can be found in virtually all embryology texts, including Moore’s text from which they quote, many of the cells from this trophoblast layer become an integral and essential part of the constitution of the fetus, newborn and adult human being. For example, the cells from the trophoblast layer known as the yolk sac cells become part of the adult gut. And cells known as the allantois cells become part of the adult ligaments, blood cells and urinary bladder (Moore, 1982; Chada, 1986; Migliaccio, 1986). Unless these latter sceintists are incorrect, empirically these claims by Grobstein and McCormick cannot be scientifically sustained, since many of the cells from the trophoblast layer are developmentally and genetically continuous with the adult human being. The 5-6 day stage human embryo, then, is both genetically and developmentally individual and one with the future human adult. It would seem that their term “pre-embryo” and what it implies can not be sustained with the scientific information which they have stated to support their claim. It would also seem that the moral status to which they refer should be the same for the 5-6 day embryo as the adult – since they are both developmentally individuals and in fact are literally the same individual organism at different accidental stages of development.

It is interesting that they agree that the early cells up to the 14 day stage (the “pre-embryo”) do comprise an “individual” – albeit, only a “genetic” individual. Why does this “genetic” individuality not suffice for characterizing it as a “being” or substance? They simply posit that before a human “being” can become a human “person,” it must be the source of only one individual, and developmentally that “oneness,” they say, is not guaranteed until after 14 days.

But why should “being the source of only one individual” be such a critical criteria for moral status? One could argue that first there is one individual worthy of moral status, and if twins or triplets result later, then there are two or three individuals worthy of moral status. If it is an individual, it is an individual. Also, since virtually all of the “developmental” stages are normal processes programmed by the genetic information in the original human zygote, what would make the developmental stage of “implantation” (which they designate as that stage where the developing human embryo can now be “the source of only one individual”) any more significant than any other developmental stage? Indeed, as others will argue below, why not call the developmental stages of “sentience” or of “whole brain integration” the morally relevant stage? Others have argued convincingly against McCormick’s and Grobstein’s interpretation of and arguments for such a concept of “developmental” individuality (Fisher, 1991; Howsepian, 1992). But empirically, is implantation really in fact such a definitive developmental stage such as to preclude “the source of more than one individual”?

Grobstein and McCormick will provide more scientific evidence in order to ground their claim that at 14 days a “developmental” individual, i.e., a person, is finally present. It is impossible, they claim, for a human person to be present until at least the 14 day marker event (implantation), at which point the primitive streak forms in the embryo. The philosophical significance of this marker, they state, is that until the formation of the primitive streak it is possible for twinning to take place. The totipotent cells “do not yet know whether to be one or two individuals.” After 14 days, they claim, twinning is not possible, and thus the organism is finally determinantly one individual – an essential pre-requisite for “personhood” (McCormick, 1990).

But again this science seems to be incorrect. As Karen Dawson (1990) and Moore (1982) point out in these debates – and as is found in every human genetics textbook (unless they are wrong) – it is possible for monozygotic twinning to take place after 14 days and the formation of the primitive streak. For example, fetus-in-fetu twins can be formed up to 2 and 3 months after fertilization, and Siamese twins even later. It is also known that “twinning” is sometimes genetically determined and coded in the original single-cell human zygote (as, indeed, is totipotency, differentiation and implantation).

And is it empirically true that these totipotent cells “do not yet know whether to be one or two individuals” yet? Is it that they are traumatically so “undecided”? Of course if a totipotent cell is teased apart (mechanically or from natural circumstances) from the early developing human being, it can develop into an adult-stage human being. But this phenomenon is normal! That is, totipotency is programmed into the single-cell human zygote just as all of the characteristically human developmental stages are. According to nature, during totipotency these cells are supposed to be totipotent. It would not seem to have anything to do with these cells being somehow “unnatural,” “unhuman” or confused and undecided.

Thus Grobstein and McCormick’s scientific claims to ground both the presence of a pre-human, pre-person, pre-developmental “pre-embryo” at 5-6 days, as well as a 14 day implantation stage of “personhood,” seem to be scientifically incorrect. And so also must their philosophical and moral claims about individuality and “personhood” which are grounded on the science they used to support their claims.

Just as empirical data can impact on philosophical concepts and moral judgments, such philosophical concepts and judgments (containing scientific statements) can impact on theology. Specifically, many theologians require “individuality” as a prerequisite for “ensoulment.” Such, in fact is the case with McCormick. In what follows I will address several other theologians whose concepts and arguments for ensoulment have been grounded in what seems to be incorrect scientific facts.

Suarez (1990), for example, argues that ensoulment must take place at the 2-cell stage, when there is the completion of the first cell division, as well as the completion of the genetic input. However, we know scientifically that the completion of the genetic input is at the single-cell zygote stage, and that that genetic imput is what directs cell division to begin with. Thus, based on these scientific facts, Suarez should be arguing for ensoulment at the zygote stage, rather than at the 2-cell stage.

Ford: Based on the science of Grobstein and McCormick, Ford (1988) also argues for ensoulment at the 14 day stage (although, before the advent of Grobstein and McCormick’s scientific arguments, Ford had argued for ensoulment at fertilization – Ford, 1987). Before 14 days, Ford explains, there is only a biological individual; after 14 days there is an “ontological” individual, i.e., when differentiation is completed and there is a “distinct individuality.” But aside from the apparent problems with the science of Grobstein and McCormick, as well as their conclusions about “individuality,” we know scientifically that complete differentiation does not actually take place until well after birth (Moore, 1982). Certainly a 14 day embryo is definitely not completely differentiated.

Bole: Bole (1989, 1990), contra Suarez, accepts the scientific data as offered by Bedate and Cefalo. He agrees that the zygote is not yet an individual, is not specifically human, and is not responsible for developmental or differential information. He also accepts their conclusion that the human zygote cannot be a human being, and therefore it cannot be a human person. Thus he makes a distinction between a mere “biologically integrated whole” (a non-person) and a “psychologically integrated whole” (a person). Ensoulment, for Bole, cannot take place until there is an appropriately organized body – a criteria which is not met by a mere “biologically integrated whole.” Only a “psychologically integrated whole” can be an ensouled human person (Bole, 1990). But what, for Bole, is a human person?

To answer this, Bole (1990) moves into the philosophical arena, searching historically for a philosophical system (or any parts of philosophical systems) which would match the scientific arguments of Bedate and Cefalo. I will not expand on his interesting historical search, other than to relay Bole’s conclusion, that a “person” is to be defined much as Engelhardt has defined a “person,” i.e., as that which can:

…unify experiences as its own and reason about connections not only between experiences and their unifying self and between action and goals, but also about the connections between actions, whether to or by this person, and the personal agent to be morally blamed or lauded for them. Such a person might begin to be instanced in a young child who can use “I” and can blame those who would injure it. (Engelhardt, 1985) (emphasis added)

Thus, convinced of the scientific arguments of Bedate and Cefalo, and finding a “match” with the rationalistic philosophy of Engelhardt, Bole concludes that the term “person” would be applied to competent adults, and younger human beings who can sufficiently use languages, i.e., “can unify their experiences in self-consciousness as their own, and reason about connections between actions and ends.” A fetus or a normal young infant is only a biologically integrated whole. They are not “persons.” They are only “substances.” And a human zygote is not even a human substance – although, he claims, that it is a human being (Bole, 1990).

Without going through all of the philosophical details, it is important at this point for the scientific community to understand what is at stake, i.e., what are the conceptual and very real consequences when a human “person” is defined only in terms of reason or “rational attributes,” such as is found in Bole (1989, 1990), Engelhardt (1985), Singer (1981, 1985, 1989), Kuhse (1985, 1986), and Tooley (1974). If only a “person” is due moral, social and legal protections and priviledges, and if a “person” is defined only in terms of the actual exercising of “rational attributes,” then the majority of human beings are not persons, and therefore are not protected. That is, the mentally infirm, drunks, alcoholics, drug addicts, Alzheimers and Parkinsons patients, stroke victims, the depressed, etc. are not “persons,” and therefore bear no moral, social or legal rights or protections of their own. Even the killing of normal healthy human infants and young children (infanticide) is morally acceptable to these writers. As Singer, the animal rights theorist, has put it:

Now it must be admitted that these arguments [about abortion] apply to the newborn baby as much as to the fetus. A week-old baby is not a rational and self-conscious being, and there are many non-human animals whose rationality, self-consciousness, awareness, capacity to feel pain (sentience), and so on, exceed that of a human baby a week, a month, or even a year old. If the fetus does not have the same claim to life as a person, it appears that the newborn baby is of less value than the life of a pig, a dog, or a chimpanzee. (Singer, 1981)

Such are the very real and serious consequences of accepting this rationalistic definition of a human person.

Finally, Bole will also redefine some important embryological terms, based on the science of Bedate and Cefalo. By the term “zygote” he will now refer to the product of fertilization to 14 days. Before 14 days the “zygote” is not a human being, since it is not a “biologically integrated whole.” The term “embryo” he reserves for the entity from 2-8 weeks. I have to wonder how many embryologists would agree with Bole’s new biological nomenclature. Given the apparent incorrectness of the scientific arguments of Bedate and Cefalo, and the massive inadequacies in the “matching” rationalistic philosophical definition of a human “person,” can Bole’s arguments or distinctions hold up?

Wallace: “Based on recent research in reproductive biology, especially on studies of cell division, twinning, recombination and implantation,” Wallace (1989), a physicist, also sees a need to up-date the scientific foundations of a scholastic philosophy of nature which can account for ensoulment (often placed at about 3 months). I would argue that Wallace sees a parallel between McCormick’s “pre-embryo” which seems to be in transition to becoming a “person” at 14 days, and what the scholastics called a “being on the way,” or a “seed.” I will present his scholastic philosophical concepts and arguments only long enough to be able to pull out a few of the incorrect scientific claims and invalid scientific analogies which he uses to make his point. Wallace, who is a physicist and a scholastic philosopher, will attempt his own redefinition of human embryogenesis.

One philosophical comment is in order to clarify Wallace’s (and others’) concern about “ensoulment.” If the “soul” is considered as a whole thing itself (i.e., a substance or a being), then a theory of “delayed hominization” (delayed “personhood”) is necessary to explain how all the different and separate component substances of a human being get put together serially somewhere down the line (an example of a mind/body split). However, if the “soul” is considered as only a principle, a power, or as a part of only one whole thing, and if the vegetative and sensitive powers of the soul cannot be separated from the rational powers but are contained in it virtually, then there is simply no need for a theory of delayed hominization. Instead, a theory of immediate hominization (immediate “personhood” at syngamy) is necessary. I point this out because, interestingly, Wallace’s and others’ rationalistic philosophical commitment requires the kind of “science” such as reported by Bedate, Cefalo, Grobstein and McCormick. Is it possible that these philosophical presuppositions are imposed on the scientific data? (The subject of another paper.)

Wallace’s project is roughly the following. First he will describe what he calls stable natures: inorganic materials, plants, animals and finally human beings. These descriptions, he says, are true only of the mature individuals – not of those individuals as they were being generated. Second he will describe what he calls transient natures, such as radioisotopes. It is the model-concept of these immature transient natures which he will use to redefine human embryogenesis. Each of the grades of stable natures will be considered (invalidly) like a transient nature during the process of human embryogenesis. They will be successively “educed” from the “protomatter” of the previous transient nature (which has eventually become stablized). This is how it works.

The “mature” stable natures are exemplified by the following. First, an inorganic nature, (a chemical element, a compound, or a mineral) is an organizing field, a force which structures “protomatter” and gives it certain qualities and powers. Second, a plant nature contains these inorganic powers, as well as its own vegetative powers, such as, nutrition, growth, reproduction and homeostasis. It is the growth power which is the developmental power, controlling cell growth and differentiation. Third, an animal nature contains the two previous powers, plus its own, like the powers of sensation and emotion. All of these lower forms are educed from “protomatter” by angelic activity and are material forms. Fourth, the human form, being immaterial, is created by God, with the powers of intellect and will. These human powers do not need any body organs through which to operate.

The “transient” natures he will describe will “explain the efficient causality we observe during fetal development.” He likens these transient natures to the “seeds” which so puzzled the medieval scholastics. He calls these natures “transient” because they have only fleeting or transitory existence. Also of importance is how these “transient natures” are generated (which he will also liken to fetal development). “Transient natures” are generated through an “eduction” of a form from something which contains many forms potentially; then it will receed back into the “protomatter,” and be replaced by another form which will be “educed.” When this happens, he explains, substantial – not accidental -change has taken place. For example, there is the generation of compounds from elements. Na and Cl combine to form NaCl. When they so combine, Wallace claims, the Na and the Cl have actually changed their natures, and have become a third nature – i.e., NaCl. Thus in the formation of elemental compounds, “when the new nature is generated the old nature ceases to be.” He will use this “model” analogously to argue for delayed hominization. That is, during early embryogenesis, there is literally substantial change taking place – i.e., a change in natures. First there develops a human “vegetative” substance or nature, replaced by a human “sensitive” (or animal) substance or nature – which is finally replaced by a human “rational” substance or nature.

However, when the reverse of such a process is explained – the decomposition of water -Wallace himself is puzzled. Why does the decomposition of water result in two hydrogens? This poses the probem of “individuation” to him (Wallace is puzzled because his philosophical definition of “natures” consists only of the universal “species” form, and thus it can not explain the materiality of the individuals which comprise the “species”). So he trys to liken the two hydrogens to identical twins – but cannot resolve the puzzle, if theoretically what is generated is the universal “species” only. He will not let this theoretical problem daunt him, however, and takes refuge in what he considers to be a chemist’s response. “For chemists it is sufficient to consider the nature apart from the individual, since in their view all hydrogen molecules are necessarily the same” (emphasis added). So Wallace is free now to consider only the nature, apart from the material individuals – a prerequisite, interestingly enough, for a theory of delayed hominization.

Wallace’s next example of a transient nature comes from radiochemistry. He describes the radioactive decay of one element into another. And like the human embryo, he claims, the parent isotope is “self-activating.” Here, each of the daughter isotopes is successively “educed” from within the potency of the parent isotope. Although he thinks that this model of radiochemistry is really descriptive of a stable nature, he states that he will “consider” it as a transient nature anyway, because it is useful to explain human embryogenesis.

And finally, Wallace will apply his model of “transient natures” – based on recent research in reproductive biology – to describe his own theory of human embryogenesis, or the serial generation of a plant, to an animal, and finally to a human being. Wallace’s description of human embryogenesis involves a constant progression from a transient nature to the stable form of that nature, from which is educed the next transient nature which likewise persists until the stable form of that nature appears, etc.

First, then, human embryogenesis begins with the seeds (ovum and sperm) of the human parents. These seeds combine to form an entity with a “plant-like” transient nature [he means the human zygote]. “When material defects are eliminated and twinning or recombination can no longer occur,” a new stable-like plant form is educed from the potentiality of the “protomatter,” with its own proper “plant” powers. This stable plant form persists until a new transient animal-like form is educed. Again, when material defects are eliminated and twinning or recombination can no longer occur, the new stable animal form with its proper powers is educed. Finally, when this animal “matter” is appropriately organized by the animal form, God creates the immaterial human form (i.e., the “rational” soul alone) with its own proper powers – and we now have a human being with human ensoulment completed (i.e., a human “person”).

The problems with Wallace’s redefinition of human embryogenesis are both conceptual and scientific. I will list but a few.

  1. Empirically there is no such thing as two kinds of natures of one and the same specific kind of thing. That is, there is no such thing as a “transient” nature and a “stable” nature of a plant or of an animal – nor of a human being. One only has to check the chromosomes to determine that. An acorn is genetically an oak – albeit a tiny one. That is why it can grow into the stage of a large oak tree, instead of becoming a pumpkin.
  2. It is invalid for Wallace to claim that there is an analogy between “stable” natures which are descriptive of mature individuals only, and his serial “phases” of “transient” natures during the immature stages of human embryogenesis. After going through his paradigm example of a “transient” nature, Wallace will then admit that a radioisotope is probably really an example of a “stable” nature -but he will use it anyway as a “model” of his so-called “transient” natures during human embryogenesis. If it is really a “stable” nature, how can he legitimately use it as a substitute “transient” nature in his model of human embryogenesis? He even admits the inconsistency, but decides to use the analogy anyway, without any argument – other than that it is “useful.”
  3. Relatedly, if the “rational” human nature which is infused at about 3 months is actually descriptive of a “mature” human nature, would Wallace then agree that a three month fetus which was receiving this mature human nature was actually a mature human being?
  4. Simply because Wallace’s “transient” natures (radioisotopes) have a “brief” existence does not mean therefore that they are not stable natures. An existent is an existent – no matter how briefly it exists.
  5. As a chemist, I cannot imagine any other chemist who would agree with Wallace that Na and Cl actually change their very natures when they form a compound. There is only the sharing of electrons – not protons. Nor would a chemist agree that all hydrogens are the same; chemists know about natural isotopes. The atomic weights given in the periodic chart are only an average weight for the elements. Nor would they accept Wallace’s analogy between the generation of “daughter” isotopes from radioactive “parents,” and the generation of a human zygote from two human parents. The radioactive “daughter” is a different “species” than the “parent”; the human zygote has the same number of chromosomes as the human parents and is of the same species.
  6. Wallace invalidly compares and equates several different scientific terms and processes. For example, the “nuclei” of a radioisotope and that of a plant, an animal, or a human cell are hardly equivalent. Nor is the “generation” of any of those entities equivalent. He also uses an incorrect analogy between a plant “seed” and human “seeds” (the ovum and the sperm). A plant seed already contains all of the reproductive information it needs to develop; a human ovum or sperm contains only half of the necessary information. Thus if only a sperm or only an ovum were implanted in a womb, no human being would ever result from it. The more correct empirical correlate, actually, would be between the plant seed and the human zygote after syngamy.

Wallace made a critical observation during his paper which might have kept him out of the above difficulties. He noted one of the classic insights of both bench research science and of a realistic philosophy of nature: “a quality is an attribute through which we come to know a nature. A thing’s actions and reactions enable us to ascertain its powers and from these we judge its nature.” Every bench researcher, I would argue, is quite familiar with this truth of basic research.

Had Wallace only adhered to his own astute observation it would have precluded him from developing his model of “transient” natures which he wanted to use to explain human embryogenesis. For if one looks hard at the most agreed upon scientific evidence which we do have, Wallace would have had to argue for immediate hominization. Biologically we know that at syngamy there is already a human being with “46” chromosomes; that immediately there are specifically human enzymes and proteins produced (not tomato or frog enzymes); that all of the information for cleavage, totipotency, implantation, etc., is already present; and that by “3 months” specifically human functions, reactions, tissue and organ formations have already taken place. Empirically, the formation of cabbages or giraffe tissues and organs has not taken place. There is, then, no need biologically for a “rational soul” to be infused at three months to make it specifically human and direct human formation. That work has already been done by “something” back at the human zygote stage. The 3 month fetus doesn’t need a rational “soul” (which for rationalists doesn’t even contain a vegetative or a sensitive “soul”) to make it something it already is – a human being which is functioning humanly. This biology would enable us to ascertain its human nature and would argue for immediate hominization. It compells us to reject a real mind/body split.

II. Philosophy/Theology/Biomedical Ethics: “Later” Fetal Development

Although the above writers have used scientific facts concerning cell differentiation, implantation, twinning, etc., as either an argument against syngamy or for the “earlier” marker events of “personhood,” the remaining commentators have abandoned these early stages as being insignificant. Instead they will use scientific data to argue for some sort of brain-related marker, based on the later stages of human embryogenesis. Regardless if they will argue that “personhood” requires the presence of “rational attributes,” or sentience (the ability to feel pain), the focus of their arguments is the physiological substrate which they claim is the pre-condition for either of those characteristics of personhood.

All of these writers have several problems in common, so for brevity I will state these beforehand, as they apply to all of the writers generally (see Irving, 1991).

First, many will still actually define a human “person” in terms of “rational attributes”