Sunday, March 12, 2006

The world wide web of fallacies, or: It doesn't logically follow, Ian.

Moxie has written a number of posts so far about the issue of abortion law, both within New Zealand and overseas. As a modern feminist, it is easy to see why she is becoming increasingly frazzled with the current state of the law: the 'pro-choice' side is steadily losing. We're not just talking about the march of the unnatural neo-conservative/neo-liberal hybrids, insidiously encroaching throughout the United States like some bizarre bible-wielding zombies; in our own country the heretofore-assumed-moderate-liberal George Hawkins has been calling for changes to our abortion laws, much to the chagrin of those within his own party (including Moxie)...

Over at Sir Humphrey's the usual debate has started on a number of posts, with stock-standard visceral name-calling and stock-standard stretched analogies of Bush and Iraq, Al Qaeda, Hitler and The Jews et cetera (they should make a song called "Hitler and The Jews" to the tune of "Pinky and The Brain", and just pull it out as a stock standard argument whenever tired and intractable moral flame-wars arise; it might just save a little more bandwidth.). It's not very helpful in the abortion debate, and even less relevant or logically justified.

I'm not particularly qualified to talk about abortion. I'm not biologically female, and I don't have sex with females (even if I did, I still don't think it would be a good qualifier). I will never to have to consider having an embryo or foetus removed from my uterus, I will never have to make the decision. I don't believe that any man has the right to tell a woman, either by personal force or through legislation, what they can do with their bodies. In fact, another woman justifiably has no right to tell a woman what to do with their own body. I am not 'pro-choice'. I am 'pro-butt-the-hell-out-of-my-business'.

As an interesting aside, it is profoundly ironic that those creatures who normally occupy the 'less government meddling' part of the socio-political landscape are just so keen to make an exception in the instance of abortion law. These are the people who, in many states, have 'reformed' welfare systems to ensure that people exhibit personal responsibility to lift themselves out of the situation that are, of course, entirely of the person's own making. These are the people who advocate personal responsibility when it comes to raising a number of children on a single income, who advocate choice when it comes to whether state funds are poured into religious education programs, who advocate choice when it comes to employers' rights to discriminate on the basis of gender or sexual orientation. There is a great espousal of an individual owning his or her life, and choices about that life, without 'big government meddling'

Should, however, an individual choose to exercise personal responsibility, or choice, when it comes to owning her own reproductive life, it is entirely consistent and justified for these moralisers to advocate full and invasive state regulation into that person's life. We're not just talking abortion law here either, but also access to contraception, or even just good sexual education that would, in many cases, make the issue of abortion almost irrelevant. The hypocrisy is breathtaking, but seems to slip out of these people's mouths without them appearing to even take one. The great neo-con/neo-lib chimera, a walking ideological contradiction, positively oozes hypocrisy. It would be funny if it didn't ruin lives.

Anyway, back to the web based fallacies, rather than the living breathing life-ruining ones. One of the debates over at SH, specifically this one entitled "When do you BELIEVE a fetus/child gains full rights to life?", appeared to be going relatively well, in that it was on-topic and marginally cogent, until Ian Wishart turned up with with some real doozies:

I argue Conception for the following reason.

Science, despite billions of dollars in effort, has been unable to grow life from inanimate matter.

It therefore follows that until such time as it can be proven otherwise, it should be assumed that life begins at conception, it doesn't magically grow at some point of fetal development.

It may not bear physical resemblance that early to the human form, but in sharp contrast to a slab of meat those cells are alive, not dead. The life force in a fertilised egg is the same life force that will drive that person for the rest of their lives.

What Ian is essentially arguing is that because we haven't yet replicated, in the laboratory, how life first arose on earth some 3.5-4 billion years ago, a woman does not have the right to an abortion.

Oh Dear. Oh Dear, indeed.

Lets lay this out logically.

1. According to Ian, a human being gains full rights to life at conception. This is because, at conception, that is fertilisation, the particular cellular phenomenon occuring in utero becomes "alive".

2. Ipso facto, Ian is arguing that before fertilisation occurs, both sperm and egg are unequivocally not alive.

3. Ipso facto, it follows that Ian is arguing that the process of fertilisation is equivalent to either or both of abiogenesis, the process of primeval earth in which 'non-living' organic molecules developed into 'living' ancestral cells or spontaneous generation, the archaic belief that held that rotting meat produces maggots.

What basis does Ian have for arguing that sperm and eggs are not 'life'?

Is it because they are haploid, that is, only contain one set of genetic material? In that case, almost all life on earth, that is, Bacteria and Archaea, are in fact not life, because they too are haploid. Or indeed some worker castes of some species of ants or wasps, which are also haploid.

Is it because, by themselves, sperm or eggs are not enough to produce a living, breathing, organism, because they require another equal partner to produce life? If we were to apply that standard to its absurdly logical conclusion, then any adult human being is not alive either, because by ourselves we are not capable of producing 'life', without another equal partner, only haploid gametes. Conversely, those organisms that can produce life from gametes without a sexual partner via parthenogenesis are more alive than we are. That's right, ladies and gentlemen: the aphid has more of a right to live than you do.

There are three blatantly obvious logical and scientific absurdities here.

Firstly, fertilisation is not equivalent to either abiogenesis or spontaneous generation. This is because sperm and egg cells are living. Sure, they do not represent individual organisms, but they are living, respiring cells, just as much as (admittedly diploid) liver, muscle or nerve cells are living.

Secondly a lack of understanding about the development of living systems on earth 3.5-4 billion years ago does not provide any moral imperative to prevent the abortion of a foetus. Nor does it convey on a zygote the rights of an individual. This last one just boggles the mind, it simply does not follow.

Thirdly, Ian argues that fertilisation itself somehow 'creates' a life force that then drives the organism throughout it's life. This is argued without any real evidence for such a force (in earlier years called the 'protoplasm') or understanding of development or reproductive biology. Actually, it's argued without any real understanding of basic biological principles at all.

If Ian did know some basic things about developmental biology, he would know that the first stages of development of the embryo are not guided by the zygote's own genes at all, but rather by maternal mRNA left in the egg during its genesis in the womb. This mRNA, once translated into protein, directs the first few cleavages of the cell, as well as setting up spatial polarity within the embryo, upon which only later (4-8 cell stage) does the embryonic genome begin to lay down the body plan.

Next, Ian stumbles further down the development-of-life-on-primordial-earth-somehow-relating-to-abortion-law tangent even further, this time exposing hints of a great conspiracy to 'create life' by mad modern scientists:

The Miller-Urey experiments were a failure: the mere creation of amino acids (bricks) does not lead to the Empire State building without intervention and there's been enormous work to try and get the so-called building blocks of life to do something. Nothing happens no matter how you shake the mixture or put sparks through it.

As one of the former doyens of chemical evolution, Professor Dean Kenyon puts it: the field of chemical evolution is effectively dead.

You are being disingenuous Danyl, if you expect people to believe that science has no interest in creating life. If you can't see the "point" of experiments in that vein, then you may be lacking the genuine inquiring mind necessary for scientific advancement.

The first scientist to figure out how to create life has a commercial mortgage on the future of the planet. But it is precisely because creating the real thing is impossible that work has opened up on genetic modification instead...

Ian is right, of course, in that the formation of amino acids does not lead to the formation of life without some kind of intermediate processes. Those processes are, of course, the formation of precursor replicating molecules, most likely ancestral versions of RNA, and the process of natural selection whereby molecules which are statistically 'better' at more faithful self-replication and oligopeptide synthesis are more likely to continue propagating. Those processes are not a divine hand, but rather an artefact of physical, chemical and statistical laws acting over an early, angry tumultuous earth.

The field of abiogenesis is a young and developing one, hindered by the fact that it is very difficult to 'know' what the early earth looked like. What I can safely say is that the scientists in the field no longer run electricity through little flasks (the Miller-Urey experiments); it has progressed somewhat. We may not know a huge amount, but we have some pretty sound ideas about it.

What does all of this have to do with abortion, or the right's of the foetus?

Very little. But then, that's Ian's rhetorical style. Rather than logical substance, it focuses more on wild red herrings that beg the question, irrelevant tangents that throw the reader off and conspiratorial undertones that call on the reader to suspend their incredulity. Although this suits the hysterical tabloid media to a T, it contributes very little to reasoned, humane debate.