05/09/2013 10:48 am ET Updated Jul 09, 2013

H.R. 1096, S. 583, The Pauls and the Magic of Morphogenesis

While everything is seemingly being sequestered these days, there's one thing that seems not to have been entirely sequestered: HR 1096, or, the ''Sanctity of Life Act of 2011.'' Even though the Ron Paul bill died two years ago, his son, Rand Paul, has taken up the unfettered "scientific" banner with his attempt at revivifying the bill by offering his S. 583, the "Life at Conception Act of 2013." I think it's important to understand why, on the face of it, these laws were and are patently erroneous to begin with, but to do that one needs to understand a bit about morphogenesis which neither Paul seems to have studied regardless of their medical training.

Back in the '60s, I was a zoology major at Indiana University and one of the courses I had to take was titled DVA, short for Developmental Anatomy. The course was taught by Professor Theodore "Ted" Torrey, one of the premier American biologists at the time, and the text we used was his own: The Morphogenesis of Vertebrates. The text is devoted to comparative vertebrate anatomy and embryology addresses each organ system from both a morphogenesis and comparative anatomy standpoint. Without going into the details of the book the critical aspect of the text is the embryological process. Fascinating stuff, but the question is this: How does Torrey's book relate to HR 1096.

Now one of the biggest problems with HR 1096 is that those who wrote the bill, well, don't know ontogeny from a phylogeny and that's a problem. If they did know something about embryology, then they would probably have reconsidered the bill. Then again, maybe not. This is the thesis of the bill:

7 (a) FINDING.--The Congress finds that present day
8 scientific evidence indicates a significant likelihood that
9 actual human life exists from conception.

Perhaps, one can call this bill an example of ignoratio elenchi, also known as an "irrelevant conclusion" since there is no evidenced advanced by Congress to prove their point. But Torrey makes an extremely valid point when he writes,

"The succession of forms which culminates in any given structural entity constitutes the evolutionary history, or phylogeny, of that entity. By common consent the concept of phylogeny is applied either to the total body form or any part thereof. In other words, we may speak of the phylogeny of man or the phylogeny of the excretory system or the phylogeny of a single organ such as the heart. The relationships and lines of descent comprising a given phylogenetic history are establish through comparison of anatomical features, comparative anatomy... We refer to the sequence of transformations presented during the embryonic life of the individual, for the real nature of an adult part is often revealed by the developmental events that bring it into being. This developmental history of the individual or its parts is known as ontogeny."

So simply stated that even a Congressman should have figured it out.

Torrey goes on to site the principle of recapitulation, the foundation of which was established in 1891 by the German morphologist, Ernst Haeckel. Simply stated, Haeckel's principle argued that that the successive stages of individual development (ontogeny) correspond with successive adult ancestors in the line of evolutionary descent (phylogeny). In other words, "if, for instance, a series of ontogenetic stages a-b-c-produces an adult fish, the addition of new steps, making the ontogeny a-b-c-d-e, would produce an amphibian, and so on through reptile to mammal."

Now if Dr. Paul had learned his embryology he should have been getting a bit uncomfortable at this point since if we can follow Haeckel's principle (which tends to undermine the "present day scientific evidence" fabricated in the bill) "a developing mammal would first be a fish, then an amphibian, and then a reptile before it became a mammal."

As Haeckel put it, "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny." In other words, "a developing embryo proceeds towards its goal of final form by an indirect route. Along the way it exhibits conditions which are indeed suggestive of those possessed by its ancestors."

Now it gets a bit dicey for those Congressmen who believe, wrongly, that "human life begins at conception." Following Torrey, let's compare a human embryo with, say, an adult shark. He notes that in the "[human] embryo there are such features as a tail, a series of gill-like pouches in the neck region, and a layout of blood vessels -- all of which are fishlike in general appearance."

Of course, as development proceeds, the embryos of different animals become more and more dissimilar and that's obvious. But the renowned German embryologist, Karl von Baer, established two major points that were more important than even Haeckel's: "(1) Animals are more similar at early stages of their development than they are when fully formed and this resemblance becomes less as they grow older and (2) therefore, instead of passing through the adult stages of other animals during its ontogeny, a developing animal moves away from them." Torrey goes on to write, "The fact that diverse types of animals are remarkably similar at early stages of their development prompts the question: Why are they similar?" The answer lies in the even though developing embryos do proceed in parallel in some measure, there is a sequence of developmental events that is attributable to mutations.

In other words, at the time of conception the human embryo is not significantly different from a shark, a salamander, a lizard, a chicken, a rabbit or a pig. In other words, "that which we call phylogeny is thus the sequence derived from a succession of changing ontogenies." In fact, in 2011 there was "no present day scientific evidence indicates a significant likelihood that actual human life exists from conception." In fact, present day scientific evidence would indicate a significant likelihood that actual human life began more like a shark than a human and the entire notion of that bill is as specious as the people who have supported it.

But specious science dies hard and as recently as March 13, 2013, Rand Paul introduced S.583, a bill that would implement equal protection under the 14th Amendment for the right to life of each born and unborn human. The blurb at the beginning of the bill reads: "To implement equal protection under the 14th article of amendment to the Constitution for the right to life of each born and pre-born human person." This legislation does not amend or interpret the Constitution, but simply relies on the 14th Amendment, which specifically authorizes Congress to enforce its provisions. From Section 1 of the 14th Amendment: "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws."

According to Paul, "The Life at Conception Act legislatively declares what most Americans believe and what science (sic) has long known-that human life begins at the moment of conception, and therefore is entitled to legal protection from that point forward." I'm not sure what science Paul is referring to. The science that's out there in the scientific world or the science that takes up free rent in his mind. It's apparent, that not unlike his father, Rand Paul never read Ted Torrey either. Had either one of them read anything about embryology, about morphogenesis, about anything really scientific relating to developmental anatomy (most of this stuff is studied long before medical school as a pre-med), then they would have discovered that humans are much closer to sharks at conception than they are to humans and for that reason declaring that human life begins at conception is more than a bit disingenuous. But as Tina Turner might say in this instance, "What's science got to do with it."