Richard Dawkins Riles the Right and Left with Titillating (Anti?) Abortion Tweets
It’s hard to tell who is more incensed over evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ recent abortion-themed tweets—the pro-life right or the pro-choice left.
Writing that “any fetus is less human than an adult pig” did a sufficient job of offending Christians. And differentiating himself from his “pro-choice friends,” writing that “fetal pain could outweigh a woman’s right to control her own body” proved equally effective in offending liberals.
This admission came as a shock to the latter particularly because of Professor Dawkins’ long history of women’s rights advocacy. He has essentially admitted that his view of abortion could change if science were capable of showing at what point a human fetus’ brain develops a nervous system capable of feeling pain.
I dare say such evidence might alter my view, as well. I wonder through what justifications it would not alter everyone’s view…
The Christian apologists’ response was slightly more comical, in part because they criticized Professor Dawkins by interpreting his tweet, much like their Bibles, literally and out of context.
Wesley J. Smith, J.D., a bioethics attorney and consultant at the Center for Bioethics and Culture, called Professor Dawkins “Idiotic” and said he would “fail high school biology” with such base reasoning. Walking the line between logical lawyer and forgiving Christian, Mr. Smith stated that Professor Dawkins “should grow up and get a life.” He described the tweet as “utter nonsense” because, as “any embryology text book” would show, “A human fetus is fully ‘human.’ ” (Others took the identical, non-idiotic approach of ridiculing Professor Dawkins for failing to understand that a pig, being a pig, could ever be as human as a human.)
Perhaps anticipating this type of response, Professor Dawkins framed his tweet with this opening admission: “With respect to those meanings of ‘human’ that are relevant to the morality of abortion….” This is what in Latin is called contextus, literally “to weave together.” Professor Dawkins attempted to illustrate his point by attributing human characteristics to pigs, also known as anthropomorphism—a tool of communication to which Christians ought by now be well accustomed. Indeed, I am surprised Mr. Smith et al. failed to see the hand of God in Professor Dawkins’ tweet, as it has the potential to realign a scientist’s views more closely with the dogmatism of Mr. Smith’s sky-god theory of life.
Cheap shots at Professor Dawkins’ understanding of embryology are just that. If Mr. Smith believes he is more learned in this particular subject, I would challenge him to try maintaining his intellectual superiority while reading chapter eight of Professor Dawkins’ book, The Greatest Show on Earth. If Mr. Smith doesn’t feel the pressure of a dunce cap upon his brow, I would encourage him to read it again in order that he may understand what he failed to understand during the first read-through.
Obviously, Professor Dawkins is aware that a pig cannot be more “human-like” than a human. (He didn’t even broach the subject of the genetic similarities between the two species, probably because he understands that it’s a pig!) That was not his point. He was arguing that—if we are to apply human characteristics to swine—an adult pig, capable of feeling pain, ought to stir in us more sympathy than an unfeeling “microscopic cluster of cells.”
This is not an original thought. In fact, Professor Dawkins made the same point in his 2006 book, The God Delusion, when he asked and answered the question, “Does the embryo suffer?”
Presumably not if it is aborted before it has a nervous system; and even if it is old enough to have a nervous system it surely suffers less than, say, an adult cow in a slaughterhouse.
Steven Pinker would agree. In The Blank Slate, he wrote that “The nervous system emerges in the embryo as a simple tube and differentiates into a brain and spinal cord.”
The brain begins to function in the fetus, but it continues to wire itself well into childhood and even adolescence. The demand by both religious and secular ethicists that we identify the ‘criteria for personhood’ assumes that a dividing line in brain development can be found. But any claim that such a line has been sighted leads to moral absurdities.
With regard to abortion as much as euthanasia and animal rights, he wrote that “We should make decisions in each case that can be practically implemented, that maximize happiness, and that minimize current and future suffering.” He added that “trying to pinpoint when the ghost enters the machine”—the centuries-old attempt to identify said “criteria for personhood”—is “scientifically untenable and has no business in guiding policy in the twenty-first century.”
As Professor Dawkins and others are well aware, it is only because of human consciousness that we are capable of anthropomorphism, and thus sympathy. That does not undermine the fact that, as a species, we are wired to value ourselves above other animals (if we didn’t, then we would happily give our lives and the lives of our offspring to any predator that approaches, and, in time, wipe ourselves out of existence through such acts of inter-species altruism). In this way, comparing humans to swine is biologically and evolutionarily ludicrous. Unfortunately, that isn’t what Professor Dawkins has done.
It’s worth noting that many humans so abhor what they deem the “inhumane” process by which cattle, fowl, and swine are slaughtered that they have extended their human sympathies to animals in the form of abstaining from indulgence in their instinctually omnivorous inclinations. Are vegetarians, then, guilty of the literal offense of ascribing human characteristics to animals? Somehow it isn’t so offensive. But ought it be?
I imagine the Christian would oppose any attempt to expand upon or otherwise quantify the abortion debate beyond the preferred absolutist belief that “life begins at conception.” Complexity breeds confusion, as we know, and as the Father of Protestantism stated, “reason is the greatest enemy that faith has.”
Thankfully, not everyone is a Christian. For them, is it at all unrealistic to add the concept of “pain” to the abortion debate, considering that pain, and fear of it, has shaped not only our genes, behaviors, and thoughts, but also our politics, our sense of nationalism and patriotism, our morality, our faith (through forced conversion), and our general humanity? Has pain not created kings and papacies? Does it not remain one of the few remaining motivations for many Americans to continue paying taxes—a product of our fears of murder, robbery, rape, and violence in general, assuaged, if incompletely, through the funding of police forces, the judiciary system, and national defense?
Perhaps Professor Dawkins has cast his proverbial pearls before swine.
Because Professor Dawkins is not one to leave loose ends untied, he also has written about the teleological processing of children—how they are dualistic in their tendency to ascribe benevolent purpose to the much more complex causes of nature. To use his examples, a child in the early stages of cognitive development will believe that clouds are “for raining” and sharp rocks “so that animals could scratch on them when they get itchy.” To say that a microscopic cluster of cells is a human baby, or that “life begins at conception,” is equally base. The only difference between clouds and sharp rocks, on one side, and cells and life on the other, is that cognitively undeveloped children believe the former, while full-grown adults believe the latter. Absolutist reasoning may be easier than scientific understanding, but ease and accuracy are not synonymous.
Controversially, the same could be said of certain liberals who unconditionally wave the pro-choice flag without contemplating the neurological and embryological factors of the abortion debate, or those who refuse to add them to the standard political and sociologically moralistic proofs for their position; mainly rape, incest, life of the mother, and quality of life.
Professor Dawkins may be a tad bit idealistic in expecting that a few tweets would be enough to prompt zealots on either side to consider the question of fetal pain. Obviously, the chosen medium through which he disseminated this already well-articulated view, Twitter, is not designed with patient scholarship in mind.
But is it not through criticism, controversy, and challenges to our beliefs that we are moved to research those beliefs more fully, articulate them more clearly, and defend them more logically? And is it not possible, then, to view his provocation as an attempt to arm liberals with a physiologically-based an inarguably humane defense to their arguably well-versed pro-choice stance?
It would be wise to bear in mind that Professor Dawkins is well aware of the fact that a fetus is not even a fetus “at conception.” It is a blastocyst, and before that a morula, and before that a zygote—i.e., a “microscopic cluster of cells”—that is yet without a brain or spinal cord, and therefore without nerve endings and pain receptors.
Professor Dawkins has not abandoned his pro-choice position on abortion. He has re-enforced the humanity in it, and extended that humanity to other species—mainly swine and cattle, but also the reactionary sheep on Twitter.
These terms, while politically useful, are unsatisfying as literal descriptors, because they imply that liberals, who oppose capital punishment and most wars, are anti-life, and that Christians are anti-choice. That said, a Christian who believes God created the that everything that occurs is His will, perhaps do not believe in choice.
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