This again?

“Life! Don’t talk to me about life!”

Marvin the robot

My day began with a woman on the radio proclaiming a great victory for life. For the first time in a long time, a world in which no unborn child got murdered looked to her like a real possibility. Her statement contained a pile of red hot words, resting on one simple word: life. Let us be as clear as possible about the definition of life, because those who have adopted the label “pro-life” will not be. When they talk about life, they don’t mean to talk about biochemistry, they mean to talk about the soul. They mean to talk about all those little souls, bearing some indefinite relationship to little bundles of cells. Via that bond, the soul somehow sanctifies an embryo, while remaining completely uninvolved with biochemistry. What follows are the familiar discontents of substance dualism.

Like most of the pro-life crowd, the woman on the radio barged past the interaction problem and its implications with loud assertions. I got the sense that she may not have fully appreciated those implications herself, and so the rhetorical bum rush may have been a means of self defense as much as it was an offensive tactic.

Poor insight is no excuse though. She deserves the heap of scorn coming her way. Yet she doesn’t bear sole responsibility for her inconsistency. She no doubt labors under the influence of a defective definition of biology. In school, she probably learned a series of rhetorical tautologies (life is organism, organism is metabolism plus reproduction) in her biology classes which amounted to saying, “life is what biologists study”. Nor is biology unique in that regard. All of the sciences have backfilled their metaphysics.

Yet, the associated metaphysics is what really interests us. Though it is fantastic to know about the microscopic structure of the wood in the ship of Theseus, what we really want to know is not the composition of the planks, but the defining relationships of those boards in context. The planks are the ship of Theseus because they floated around the Aegean trod upon by Greek heroes, not simply because the boards consist of a cellulose polymer capable of floating around the Aegean while being trod upon by Greek heroes.

Life is not the Krebs cycle or the DNA in a blastocyst’s nucleus, and it is certainly not some vital substance wafting about, indefinable in principle, and opaque in its activity. Life is what sustains defining change across circumstances. In other words, it is the fulcrum of a dynamic equilibrium. Consider a bacterium in a nutrient broth. Energy from the broth translates into new molecules like the molecules which came before in the cell wall, ring chromosome, and cytoplasm of the bacterium. Having built up enough substrate, bacterium divides, relaying its balance point on through time and space. Then someone drops an antibiotic into the broth. Energy from the broth stops flowing into new substrate and shifts to the activation of efflux pumps. That’s life.

If the organism is overcome, it becomes adrift in its circumstances. Once its equilibrium gets tipped too far, it cannot make its way through the broth or the antibiotic exposure with its causal explanations intact.It’s molecules react with surrounding molecules based on ambient energy states. It cedes all its explanations to whatever is floating around with it in the broth. It is dead.

Beyond this stark boundary between life and death, lies an expansive liveliness. There is life that sails almost where it will (humans), life within life (Portuguese man of war, bees, lichen), and life explicable only in context (prions, chlamydia, embryos).

Embryos live strictly within the lives of their mothers. Embryo explanations require mothers. Embryo explanations do not require souls. Until someone comes up with an effective description of the soul and its relationship to a little ball of cells latched onto the endometrium, the soul remains an inert addition – an epiphenomenon at best. This is a problem which the pro-life fools can’t shout down or blow past. Because the problem with epiphenomena is that there is nothing really tying them down. They don’t do anything, so they can fill in wherever. The unknowable nature of the zygotic soul can justify whatever, from bombs to prayers. It’s a wonder that something so flimsy could ground a social movement of such size. The truth is though, it doesn’t.

The target of the pro-life movement has always been the women, as one might guess given the nature of trans placental relationship.

The vacuous nature of pro-life rhetoric needs exposure, so that we can get to the real purpose of that rhetoric, which is control. People in the pro-life movement are not really interested in the biology of human development, or even bioethics. Instead, they are interested in other people’s stories. Because their own narratives, jumbled as they are with souls, sins, and angels, are so weak, the pro-lifers see divergent narratives as invalidating. Accordingly, they try to curtail divergent narratives wherever they can.

That is the motivation behind the pro-life movement. I doubt that this motive is ever articulated within the ranks. I suspect it is held more as a feeling, which makes it even more dangerous. A stated policy can be confronted, criticized, and torn down. Opposition to a feeling is personal. Furthermore, feelings tend to take on lives of their own. Clarence Thomas is already telling us what comes of persistent, unleashed insecurity. Listen to him, and the rest, and then call them out.

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