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2004-2005 Brown Bag Discussion of "Science's Audiences"
April 8, 2005

Scott Gilbert (Swarthmore, Biology)

The Human Embryo and its Popular Audience: Fictions and Fetuses

Powerpoint Presentation

Prepared by Anne Dalke
Additions, revisions, extensions are encouraged in the Forum


Scott's general topic was the relation of the public to embryology, and he began the discussion by evoking two biological images of enormous power: the human fetus and the double helix. Scientists have not agreed when human life begins. Four areas have been discussed as possibilities:

  • the day of fertilization: a unique genome is formed
  • gastrulation (day 14): pluripotentiality is sacrified, as the embryo gets individuated
  • acquisition of an EEG (weeks 22-24): if the loss of a pattern of brain activity defines death, its acquisiton could be used to "define life"
  • birth: perinatal viability (which may depend on "how good your hospital is").
There are also "more emotional" views about when life begins: when the heartbeat is detectable (weeks 5-6), when the eyes "come front," and the fetus "begins to look human" (7 weeks) ; quickening.

Although scientists do not know when human life begins, images of the fetus are manipulated in the popular press in ways that coerce us into believing that it is autonomous. "There is a public fetus": it is presented at 6-7 weeks as a "free-floating extraterrestial," with no life support system (no umbilical cord or placenta). These images are incredibly important. They are repeatedly used in demonstrations and have, at times, been mandated to be shown to women considering abortions. When the work of the Swedish photographer Lennant Nilsson was used on the cover of Time magazine in 1990, it illustrated the creation of a new individual. The same year, Nilsson used the same photographs in a book, to illustrate the creation of a family. (The fetus was always pictured in context, with pregnant women struggling to get out of bed, zip up their clothes, etc.) A similar misrepresentation occured when Robert Wolfe's 1972 image of a fetus (which had been removed in an ectopic pregnancy) was described as a "tiny pre-born baby in an unruptured amniotic sac."

Scott also showed us the evolution of the cover of his book on Developmental Biology. The publisher's criteria were

  • an entire embryo, not a portion
  • a visually stunning image
  • an organism at the forefront of interest among developmental biologists
  • a demonstration of new technology.
Scott added two more criteria:
  • the incompleteness of development and
  • the maternal context.
The final image was "incredibly socially constructed." It is technically "not easy" to get an image of a fetus; it has to be manipulated. As, too, is "sacred DNA"--now represented to the public in rhetoric that resembles early medieval descriptions of soul: as what determines behavior and can be resurrected after death, as the "essence" of self, a metaphor for our "core." (Consider, for instance, the 6/2/03 Philadelphia Inquirer article about the "worrier" vs. the "warrier" gene, which juxtaposed the "fretful" Woody Allen against the "forceful" Arnold Schwartzenegger.)

The way we think is channeled by the similes, metaphors and analogies we use. A simile describes a "rational similarity," and an analogy states the similarity explicitly. But a metaphor "hides the source of the identity, and so heightens emotion and undercuts rationality." The essence of a metaphor is understanding one kind of experience in terms of another, and the fit is always going to be inexact. We really don't know the relations between a blastocyst and an atom: does it dock? is it implanted? does it invade? Metaphor is important precisely because it hides the logic of association (think of all the words which imply that "argument is warfare," or "argument is a path"). Metonyms offer a "different way of thinking."

The convergence of the autonomous fetus and sacred DNA in popular culture produces the "secular equivalent of ensoulment." The individuated fetus "gets soul" when its social and biological "personhood" begins. "Life" and "human life" are conflated (aren't the ovum and sperm "already alive"?) Public imagery involves intentionally misleading attempts to humanize the fetus. Pictures of the autonomous fetus (in Wittgenstein's terms) "hold us captive." It was suggested in discussion that the "problem can be laid at the feet of the biologists," who are at fault for describing DNA as "the blueprint of life" (rather than, more accurately, as "a structure which interacts with other structures to bring into a new structure into being"). The genome project also contributed mightily to the public conception of "genetic materialism."

We need to "turn such metaphors into similes," to be careful of the metaphors we use, to call attention to the ones we are using, and to stop using the misleading ones. Is it preferable to describe the "long and perilous journey of the sperm," or--following feminist complaints about the depictions of passive ovum and active sperm--represent the the ovum as an "alluring, unfaithful Helen of Troy"? We need both to recognize the hidden logic of such images, and learn to undermine it--then "ensoulment" will collapse of its own weight. (We might, for instance, explain that "we are all mutants," who lack the ability to make ascorbic acid, and therefore need "replacement therapy" from the outside.) It is not possible to remove metaphors from the teaching of science, but we can review the metaphors we use. Scott described, for instance, the metaphors he uses in his own book: they are "cooperative," with ovum and sperm activiating and completing one another. Gametes are presented as "marriage partners," and the similarity between molecules is emphasized. Families need to have such processes explained to them; sonograms, for instance, are "negotiated places between public and private"; ultrasounds need interpretation.

Individual rights far outweigh community in the U.S., and the biologists can also be faulted for this. Their descriptions of evolution emphasize the "survival of the fittest" (consider, for instance, all the predator programs featured on the Discovery Channel), rather than the "cooperation" that is necessary for life to begin. But if the earlier images of the fetus "convey a sense of autonomy which isn't real," descriptions which emphasize its "sociality" are valorizing a different dimension: a sense of context which (since all fetal images are aborted ones) is also false. (Fetal surgery textbooks also "remove the mother.") Even to get the photographs, the metonymic relations between mother and child have to be destroyed: we have to "get rid of the context to get the image" in the first place.

Biologists can recognize that all metaphors are limited, and challengeable, but there are still legal decisions to be made about when (for instance) abortions are acceptable. If past metaphors have been misleading, what useful lessons can biology now offer the public? We could, for instance, explain the "impossibility of answering the question of when an embryo becomes human." But what better question can we replace it with? The age of viability keeps dropping; how aggressive should we be, and how much money should we spend, in keeping children alive who will have severe developmental problems? Although it is not the business of scientists to tell parents what to do, "biology is either relevant or irrelevant" in the contexts of these political problems. What should we say?

We should "lay out the science," the way a genetic counselor would, giving parents the "straight facts" in terms of percentages and statistics. But the same facts can be used and interpreted differently. Perhaps the most important thing a biologist can do is make the point that humans are diverse, that human development is diverse, and that--given such diversity--there is no clear "right or wrong" in any of these cases. But can such decisions really be individual choices that do not take the community into account? What of the larger social--especially the economic--factors involved? The cost of keeping premies alive is enormous. Should the decision to do so be a private one?

Although "no self-respecting scientist" would ever push a decision on parents, the message from science should be that there is no single criterion for making such a decision. It is "messy" for parents when their "image of the future" has been destroyed, and some very hard decisions can come well after birth (active euthenasia, or making death less painful, is not an option, but refusing treatment can be). But why are we so afraid of dying? Is the "sin" of biology overvaluing life? Mention was made of "pathologies of hope," the refusal to let go of treatment, at a time when it is increasingly clear that we cannot support a health system that "keeps everyone alive."

Scott closed with an image of the "first public image of a blastocyst": Klimt's 1907 Danae. We ended with two conclusions: that

  • biologists can contribute knowledge to enable people to make their own decisions, while making clear that life consists of a high level of diversity; and that
  • people need to be helped to understand how difficult prediction is. There is no genetic determinism.
The question of "making policy"--which is currently "led by images and metaphors, a convergence of the autonomous fetus and sacred DNA"--is still an open one.

Further discussion of such questions is invited to continue in the on-line forum.

The semester's series will continue next Friday, April 15, when Laura Blankenship of Information Services will lead a discussion on "Blogging Science: How Science gets Spun in the Blogosphere." With the increased politicization of science and a lack of in-depth coverage in the media, getting more information out to the general public is more important than ever. Many scientists have taken up blogging as a way to "correct" misinformation in the media and to attempt to de-politicize science and bring it back to being about evidence and process instead of politics. Laura will discuss the phenomena of blogs and how it applies specifically to science blogs. She will address such questions as: Why should scientists blog? Why does science blogging matter? Who is the audience for science blogs and can scientists reach a wider audience through blogging?

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