01/24/2013 11:36 am ET Updated Mar 26, 2013

Science, Religion and Embryos


A friend of mine is in the late stages of a tragic pregnancy that will lead either to a stillborn baby or, at best, to a baby that will struggle for a few hours and die. The prognosis was made early on and the decision to take the baby to term was made. The story is heartbreaking but reveals something powerful about our species and how we think about new life.

We know a lot about how babies develop and what can go wrong in a process that is unimaginably complex. Fortunately the process works perfectly most of the time, which is why news of a pregnancy is most often greeted with a chorus of congratulations -- and problems are viewed with such concern.

One of the most extraordinary insights we have into the development of new members of our species is the actual visualization of the physical process. We have had these for quite some time, but I was reminded of just how powerful they are when I -- along with millions of others -- watched Alexander Tsiaras' talk on "Conception to Birth -- Visualized."

As the title suggests, the talk lets the viewer watch a fast forward "short film" in which a glob that we are told consists of human cells morphs smoothly into a embryo we can tell is at least a primate, and then into a recognizable human baby.

Much of the science of the last half-century has focused on illuminating this process -- how eggs get fertilized and implanted, how DNA codes work, how cells copy and differentiate, how symmetry and asymmetry are initiated and maintained, how the signal to start the birth process is launched. The transformations visible in "Conception to Birth" are at least partially understood, and nothing looks inexplicably mysterious from a purely scientific perspective.

What is deeply mysterious, however -- and I was struck by this as I watched the video -- is the emergence of an overwhelming sense of intangible value in the developing embryo. The glob of cells became a person and in doing so acquired astonishing value -- a value that some say is actually infinite. Some social theorists even argue that ascribing an infinite value to human life is the "central moral intuition" of Western civilization -- albeit one handled quite clumsily much of the time.

The emergence of this value -- however we measure it -- reveals the vast chasm between science and religion. Science provides so much insight into the material dimension of what is going on in a mother's womb, and so little -- perhaps none -- into the significance of that process. Watch the "Conception to Birth" video while taking your emotional pulse. Notice how hard it is not to start smiling as the human form of the baby matures. Notice an emerging hope that everything is OK; watch for an intuition that something grand is happening. Notice how hard it is not to view the developing embryo as having rights. And, in the context of our difficult conversation about abortion, notice how much harder it is to keep viewing the circumstances of the embryo as simply an issue of the mother's health.

I don't think for one minute, of course, that these transcendent mysteries are dispelled by religion. No simple religious commitments make complete sense of what is going on. But at least the mysteries are acknowledged and embraced and not "explained away" as nothing more than incidental artifacts of a natural selection that rewarded tribes that valued their young. The traditional Christian claim that humans are created in God's image and loved by their creator at least opens the possibility that the values we intuit are indeed real.