There really is something charming about Bill Nye the Science Guy. I’ve never been a fan by any measure: for one thing, I’m too old. But Nye’s screen persona has genuine appeal, and he really did help a generation of American kids develop an interest in science. So I was a bit upset when he committed cerebral suicide on a video designed to defend the abortion industry. Nye doesn’t say so, but it’s obvious that he’s responding to revelations about Planned Parenthood’s massive marketing of baby parts.
I learned of this embarrassment on the Huffington Post—where an opinion babe practically trumpeted Nye’s video as definitive proof that life did not begin till a child received his or her engineering degree. The general idea was that, if Bill Nye said it, it must be true. And Bill Nye was saying that pro-life views were based on “ignorance.” He was pretending to debunk the idea that life began at conception. Indeed, according to the Huffington babe, he said that such an idea was 5,000 years out of date.
Was there any embryology at all 5,000 years ago? None that we know of. Because the Huffington Post took great joy in this aspect of Nye’s presentation, I was eager to see the video and learn of long-forgotten embryological secrets. Perhaps these were manifested by visiting space aliens….
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
Sign up to get Crisis articles delivered to your inbox daily
No such luck. As it turned out, Nye based this particular assertion on the idea that abortion opponents derive their embryology principally on the Bible. It’s a mistaken idea. The Bible contains a few references to received ideas about life in utero, but it presents no systematic embryological theories. Clearly, Nye’s analysis was just a reflex developed during his long defense of Darwinian evolution. Creationists get their ideas from the Bible. So pro-lifers must get their ideas from the Bible, too. Right?
Wrong, Bill. You really should skim some material on the abortion controversy so you get up to speed. Then, if you want, make a new pro-abortion video.
The substantive history of embryology really goes back to Aristotle. Bill Nye may remember the name. Aristotle was, among other things, the teacher of Alexander the Great—who, at Aristotle’s request, as the Macedonian armies went conquering eastward, shipped specimens back, preserved in wine. Among the specimens that Aristotle especially sought were miscarriages, complete with notations as to approximate gestational age, as reported by the mothers. By examining a huge number of these—remember: with the naked eye alone!—Aristotle determined that the embryo acquired a specifically human form by the gestational age of forty days. The final point to be observed was the development of genitalia.
This then, was the point at which ancient science fixed the beginning of the individual human life. In making this determination, Aristotle was not saying anything about abortion, early or late. After all, he did not recognize the sacredness of human life.
For the longest time, Aristotle’s theory concerning the beginning of human life—known eventually as “mediate animation”—was the controlling view. It influenced St. Augustine and St. Thomas. It was the best science available—and Christian thinkers were very interested in using such science in the service of moral reasoning. As a consequence, the majority opinion was that abortion constituted actual homicide only after forty days. Earlier abortion, though still a sin, was classified either as contraception or as “anticipated homicide.”
Then, in the modern era, things changed. As Bill Nye himself points out in his pro-abortion video, science developed microscopes and directly observed the union of sperm and egg. I think Bill means to hint here that we should supply lots of baby body parts to laboratories the world over so that microscopes can see even neater things. But what he’s really establishing is that the life-begins-at-conception theory, known as “immediate animation,” was strongly supported by science in modern times. Aristotle did the best he could with the naked eye. But the microscope—and later developments, including modern genetics—proved him wrong. The unique genetic inheritance of an individual biological entity fit the Aristotelian definition of human form. In practical terms, immediate animation had won the day.
And religious authorities reacted. Canon law was revised so that all induced abortion was henceforth treated not as a personal sin but as a grave crime, for which automatic excommunication was an appropriate penalty. Far from being “anti-science,” far from rooting all their reasoning solely in revelation, canon lawyers and the higher clergy were zealously committed to applying the latest science to moral and ethical questions.
I concede, by the way, that I have simplified the history of this dispute. Aristotle actually set forty days as the point of animation for a male, eighty for a female—due not to intrinsic Aristotelian discrimination but to relative visibility of male and female genitalia at early gestational ages. And, while Christian thinkers followed Aristotle, they added a transcendent dimension, maintaining that the rational soul, which made an organism human, was an immortal and immaterial substance directly infused by the Creator. The point is that they were willing, even eager, to alter dominant systems of reasoning on the basis of scientific evidence. They had no trouble accepting the discovery that life commences at fertilization.
Only Bill Nye is still holding out.
Of course, when he denies that the individual life begins at fertilization, Bill is just plain wrong, and he probably knows it. The standard text in the field is Developmental Biology, by Scott Gilbert, now in its 10th edition. The fourth chapter is entitled “Fertilization: Beginning of a New Organism.” Please note that this is not a controversial assertion. It is one of the fundamental bases of developmental biology. Please note that Prof. Gilbert’s book is not an anti-abortion book and does not limit itself to the development of human creatures. It treats the biological realities that apply to all entities in which sexual reproduction is the rule. It is, as it happens, scientific—which Bill Nye’s video is not.
Bill’s tenuous pseudo-scientific argument against immediate animation is that, since many more eggs in nature are fertilized than make it to implantation, fertilization cannot be the beginning of human life. But this is abysmal reasoning. Bill: this is called natural death. Many more sea turtles hatch in nature than make it to the surf. Does that mean that they’re not sea turtles when the gulls are gobbling them up? If they’re not turtles, Bill, then what are they? Likewise, 100 percent of adult human beings die. 100 percent, Bill. Does that mean that they are not human beings? I didn’t think so.
Bill also tries to involve the viewer in what he regards as legal paradoxes. Whom shall we prosecute, he asks, for all those human lives that in nature do not make it to implantation? But the paradox just isn’t present. We don’t prosecute for natural deaths, Bill—only for homicides. We know perfectly well whom to prosecute for embryonic and fetal homicide. We prosecute the abortionist, Bill. Can you say Kermit Gosnell?
The truth is that the individual lives of all organisms that reproduce sexually begin at fertilization. Humans, hummingbirds, Komodo dragons, leopard frogs: they’re all the same in this regard. High rates of initial mortality, Bill, do not alter this universal fact, discovered by science long ago.
It’s funny that, in denying this fact, Bill Nye is denying a fundamental principle of Darwinian evolutionary theory. This is something he’s been battling for all his adult life. When The Origin of Species was first published, religious folks disputed its contentions, in part, on the grounds that it reduced the human species to just one species among many. It linked man inextricably to the lower animals—and that got under people’s skin. We all know the story of how Bishop Wilberforce asked Thomas Henry Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his mother’s or his father’s side. It is, in other words, fundamental to classical Darwinism, and to the current neo-Darwinian synthesis, that the same biological rules which apply to other species must apply to humanity.
Yet here’s Bill Nye the Science Guy, disciple of Darwin, heir of Huxley and Haeckel, saying that the same rules don’t apply. They can’t, you see, because many of the lower animals just don’t have implantation. Fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds? No implantation, Bill. In his enthusiasm for the falsehood that life begins at implantation, Nye is cutting Homo sapiens off from the universal rule and from most of the lower species. He is denying a key tenet of the system he has devoted his life to upholding.
He has killed his science brain for a pro-abortion lie.
And it was all a waste. I’m reminded here, Bill, of the first time that Khan Noonien Singh ever appeared in the Star Trek universe—in the seminal episode, “Space Seed.” Khan is trying to intimidate the crew of the Enterprise into joining his cause. He proposes to send each of them in turn into a decompression chamber. But they defy him. “It’s so useless!” cries the superman.
It’s so useless, Bill.
It’s useless because it’s unnecessary. It’s useless because it’s antiquated. Bill, pro-aborts don’t dispute these sorts of biological facts anymore. They readily admit that life begins at fertilization. They may dispute the value of nascent life. Or they may say that such considerations don’t matter because of the special power and authority of woman over child in the womb. But they don’t deny scientific realities. Get with the program, Bill.
At one point in his video, Bill even says, “Nobody likes abortion. Okay.” Oops, Bill. That’s another boo-boo. Nowadays, pro-aborts do admit that they like abortion. They start “Shout Your Abortion” campaigns on Twitter. Katha Pollitt’s book on abortion is entitled Pro because she emphasizes being positively in favor of abortion. To her, it’s not a tragic necessity. It’s a positive social good. Pollitt, to her credit, makes no Nyesque effort to deny fundamental facts of biology. I guess feminist poetesses who write for The Nation are smarter than science guys.
Still, Bill—even though your formulation is contrary to scientific fact, and even though it is explicitly anti-Darwinian, constituting a renunciation of everything you have ever stood for—even so, Bill, I am willing to work with you. I know that you’re not really as dumb as this video makes you out to be. I know that you are intentionally taking one for the team. You’ve propounded the absurd doctrine that life begins at implantation. And you’ve managed to get the pro-aborts at the Huffington Post, Glamour, and Cosmopolitan to hail your doctrine as the fruit of genius.
That’s no small accomplishment, Bill.
So, while I’m not going to slap Darwin in the face by embracing your pernicious doctrine in theory, I am willing to go along in practice. Just to make you and your pals happy, Bill, I will support legislation against abortion after implantation, when even you admit that life has already begun.
I guess we can all agree on that.