"The Impact of 'Scientific Misinformation' on Other Fields: Philosophy, Theology, Biomedical Ethics, Public Policy"

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, e.g., "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, e.g., 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:

...[E]ach 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)

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 predetermined pathway, 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).

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)

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)

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.

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 scientists 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 input 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)

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 privileges, 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, Alzheimer's and Parkinsonian 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?

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