Wednesday, January 30, 2008

When does human life begin?

I have often wondered whether trees, flowers and grass, or even bacteria and the like may have some form of consciousness so primitive we cannot even concieve of it. It seems like a basic property of life--and one would imagine varying degrees of conciousness, decending in order from humans and perhaps dolphins to say, monkeys, dogs, then lizards, insects, etc. Might not even a lowly amoeba have some vague, undeveloped form of consciousness?

So, perhaps "life" starting at conception--or before--is a real possiblity, though it would be impossible to understand or define. Such a weak and primitive "consciousness" would only gradually begin to resemble something we could recognize--as the brain and spinal cord developed--and there would be no clear defining moment at which a developing embryo or fetus became "a human life"--it would be something more like that paradox about the ship that was replaced plank by plank, which never at a single moment could be said to have changed from "the old ship" to "the new ship."

Anyway, just some thoughts.


Miranda said...

Interressant. Although it strikes me a little like the opposite extreme to Peter Singer's ethics, which has some serious consequences for the sanctity of human life. What do you see as the resulting moral obligations toward people/animals/plants?

Virgiliana said...

Resulting moral obligations: I think as a rule it's good to avoid killing any living creature, but clearly we prioritize the needs and even just the desires of organisms with higher forms of consciousness--e.g. killing parasitic worms that live in a dog--the dog is more important than the worms, not just because the owner enjoys the dog more, but because the dog is a higher life form.

When it comes to manipulating embryos, I don't think my idea about different levels of consciousness could prevent it.

But personally, I feel that manipulating embryos is wrong on the same level as the stuff in the Levitical holy code. It's just not right. It may not "hurt" anyone, but it violates some difficult to define moral principle which is more felt than rationally understood.

BenjyWay said...

If the argument is that a conscious fetus counts as a human life (as opposed to human grouping of cells), then life could probably be said to begin when the brain starts showing activity, which is apparently somewhere around 40 days from conception.

As for the consciousness of non-human entities, a tree would probably be about as conscious as your feet; bacteria probably less so. But why stop there? Perhaps molecules (not to mention their component parts)themselves have a smidgen of consciousness in them!

Also, I think the most intelligent creatures on the planet are probably squid, as they have the largest
brain cell : other cell
ratio of all. Of course, we'll never know since they don't talk...
That is, if there's such a thing as "most intelligent." Obviously, a squid has a very different range of concerns and focuses than a human, so it would be very hard to compare them at all outside of raw computer power.