I received an email from one of the readers. (Evidently, my spam program diverted it.) I make it my usual policy to only respond to reader’s comments on the blog, but I won’t post his name, since he chose not to post it here.
Here’s the body of his message, and my reply:
Dear Beverly Nuckols,
life n. pl. lives (lvz) The property or quality that distinguishes living organisms from dead organisms and inanimate matter, manifested in functions such as metabolism, growth, reproduction, and response to stimuli or adaptation to the environment originating from within the organism.
homo sapiens n : the only surviving hominid; species to which modern man belongs; bipedal primate having language and ability to make and use complex tools; brain 1400 ccLife begins with consciousness. If the cells are not conscious, how can we call them Homo sapiens? After all,humans have this innate intelligence, which is how we intelligently define ourselves. Single cells lack the neural capacity to be conscious and cannot define themselves. Therefore how can you say that single cells are alive, feeling, thinking Homo sapiens? Women should have the right to birth control, and whether or not that baby is born. The line, I feel, should be drawn at the point at which the baby can survive on its own, not as an embryo. I look forward to your intelligent response.
The disciplines of taxonomy, embryology, comparative anatomy and embryology, and common experience affirm that that whatever you are now began as an embryo of the species, Homo sapiens, and that at no time were you other. You were never not-Homo sapiens and you were never not-alive.
I will agree that some living members of our species do not think, feel, act consciously or with intelligence. However, that does not make them of another species, it does not make them not-alive. Not every member of a species will display all of the traits of the species, most certainly not all the time. And, of course, we are not all intelligent or conscious throughout our lives.
The definition of “Homo sapiens” which you give is not only not based on taxonomy, it defies common experience. Even a three year old cannot “define himself.” Most adolescents would have trouble meeting this definition of “human.”
As you said, the capacity for intelligence is innate in human beings. As you imply, the innate intelligence and consciousness of human beings is what separates us from those beings which will receive less protection from the governments and societies of human beings. (Although we don’t encourage the abuse and exploitation of non-human beings without responsibility for suffering. We teach our small children not to hurt animals, for instance.)
We should not allow our feelings to make policy that will result in the creation and killing of members of our species. Since we are apparently the only ones having this conversation, we should welcome all who might join in, whose parents, brothers and sisters are “like us.” If nothing else, using the lowest common denominator for inclusion – a living organism whose parents were members of the species – will ensure that none of “us” are harmed and provide the most protection derived from our collective individual human rights.
The dangers of utilizing your criteria are (at the least):
1. Who gets to decide how intelligent is intelligent enough to be protected?
2. How will intelligence and consciousness be measured?
3. Will “human-enough” be determined by democratic means as it was in the Slave States of the US?
4. What happens when the power to protect falls into the hands of those with whom we disagree if the power to define intelligence determines who will be protected?
Will we repeat the history of Stalin’s government, where those who dissented were not given the protection of human rights?
Or – again as in Stalin’s USSR and repeated in South Korea in the last two years – will we allow nationalistic pride and political power to allow the redefinition of human for current faddish science that can’t be replicated in any other labs?