The fertilized egg is not a human life

Posted on March 17, 2009

Science Blogs, March 17, 2009 by PZ Myers

A while back, I got a letter from a student at the University of Texas named Mark, who had been confronted by a group of those typically hysterical anti-choice people on campus. They made an assertion I’ve heard many times, and he asked me to counter it.

So there I was, walking along the University of Texas campus, enjoying an absolutely gorgeous day (it was 75 and sunny!) when all of a sudden I’m accosted by a huge structure covered with gigantic (10+ ft) pictures of 5-20 week old fetuses. Surprise! I’d forgotten all about our annual day of political theatre hosted by some pro-life group on campus. I started having a very cordial conversation with a couple of (very cute!) pro-lifers when one of them makes the astounding claim that “Every biologist would agree absolutely that life begins at conception”. I let it pass and then I call her on it after she says it a couple more times. Eventually she explains that she’s very confident in this statement because their ‘executive director” always says it, and claims that if someone proves him wrong he’ll eat the paper it’s written on.

Easy. I sent back a quick reply…I daresay that no competent biologist would take the position that these anti-choicers claim is universal among us.

Life does not begin at conception.

It’s an utterly nonsensical position to take. There is never a “dead” phase — life is continuous. Sperm are alive, eggs are alive; you could even make the argument that since two cells (gametes) enter, but only one cell (a zygote) leaves, fertilization ends a life. Not that I would make that particular claim myself, but it’s definitely true that life is more complicated than the simplistic ideologues of the anti-choice movement would make it.

I recently received more email from someone in this organization; the mail is from a David Lee, but is signed “R.”, so I’m not sure who I’m talking to. Whoever it is, they don’t quite get it, but are trying desperately to weasel out of the bargain now.

Dr. Meyers,

I’m in possession of correspondence between yourself and a University of Texas at Austin student by the name of Mark. Mark handed me a copy of his email addressed to you, and your email response addressed to him dated February 25, 2009, as citing evidence that would require me to eat the page upon which your response was printed.

Mark presented me your remarks as said evidence to be eaten because during the Justice For ALL Exhibit ( presentation at UT-Austin several weeks ago I was heard to offer to eat the page of the biology textbook in use on the UT-Austin campus that asserts that “someone having human parents can be something other than biologically fully human, at any point in their existence.”

I proffered my eating-the-page challenge that day in response to numerous students’ claim that the offspring of two human parents was not biologically human until birth (in their defense most of them were not science majors).

I did not eat the page that Mark handed me that day because it did not contain the evidence I requested. Which is why I now write to you. You claim to have knowledge of such documentation.

In fact you make the bold assertion in your correspondence with Mark that “[Human] life does not begin at conception” followed by “…There is never a ‘dead’ phase — life is continuous. Sperm are alive, eggs are alive; you could even make the argument that since two cells (gametes) enter, but only one cell (a zygote) leaves, fertilization ends a life. Not that I would make that particular claim myself… .” (my bold and italics)

I’m encouraged that you don’t make the claim that human fertilization ends a human life; however in postulating the argument you seem to grant nebulous scientific credibility to those who might make such a claim? For what purpose? Surely not to discredit my position.

Unless you believe in the possibility of an extra-physical or metaphysical existence, I seriously doubt that you believe your own assertion that “…There is never a ‘dead’ phase — life is continuous.”

On what evidence do you base your assertion that “life is continuous?” Do you believe in life after death in some physical or metaphysical sense? If you mean by your assertion that at least one human self-directing organism must contribute living genetic material in order for a new member of the human species to come into existence I quite agree.

But you have labeled my assertion “simplistic” and “nonsensical” that sexually reproduced human life — I’ll go further than that — all new mammalian species members, have a beginning, and that that beginning is the conception of the species member.

So professor, you’re on the record; from a biology or human embryology textbook in use on an accredited university campus (your own University of Minnesota-Morris campus would be fine), please cite chapter and page that unequivocally states that “human life does not begin at conception.”

I look forward to your reply. Respectfully,


Talk about complete, blind incomprehension…no, I’m not talking about life after death, since I don’t believe in that, either. I’m saying that it is absurd to talk about a life beginning at conception because it didn’t begin then: the precursors to the zygote were also alive. The only “beginning” of life that we could talk about occurred a few billion years ago, and even that wasn’t discrete, but the product of a gradual progression from chemical replicator to functioning cell, a cline upon which there was no point where one could say that everything before was dead, and everything after was alive. Life is a very fuzzy concept.

One thing you’ll notice is the frantic attempt to qualify everything by inserting the qualifier “human” before every mention of the word “life”, to the point where they are even adding it when quoting me! Alas, it doesn’t help them at all. I’m also confident that the freshly fertilized zygote is not human, either. There’s more to being human than bearing a cell with the right collection of genes.

Now this person wants a specific quote from a biology text that has the words “human life does not begin at conception” in it. That would be tough, because it’s a sentence that rather boggles the brain of any developmental biologist — we also tend not to write sentences like, “human beings are not flies”. We kind of expect that anyone intelligent enough to read the textbook doesn’t need their hand held in superfluous explications of the bleedin’ obvious. But you will find us saying simple things like that in email and conversations and even popular lectures to lay people…such as this talk by Lewis Wolpert.

Wolpert is, of course, one of the best known developmental biologists on the planet. He is also the author of a very good introductory text in developmental biology (Principles of Development(amzn/b&n/abe/pwll)
), one that I use in my classes at UMM, and in this lecture (which you really should watch and listen to in its entirety, it’s very good), he does come right out and say the bleedin’ obvious.

What I’m concerned with is how you develop. I know that you all think about it perpetually that you come from one single cell of a fertilized egg. I don’t want to get involved in religion but that is not a human being. I’ve spoken to these eggs many times and they make it quite clear … they are not a human being.

There, that should help. When you go reaching for an authority in development, a professor at a small liberal arts college isn’t the sine qua non of the field (well, unless maybe you’re talking about Scott Gilbert…), but you really can’t pull rank higher than Lewis Wolpert.