01/21/2013 10:30 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

The Quest for Answers

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

Congratulations to Alexander Tsiaras for communicating the beauty and complexity of fetal development. But the message he delivers -- "it's a mystery, it's magic, it's divinity" -- is mistaken.

Just watching a fetus develop, though a vital first step, can't by itself tell us how development comes about. In fact relying on visual appearances, as Tsiaras does, can be misleading. For example, the video states that the sex of the fetus is not determined until after 12 weeks, when you can actually see the difference between the male and female genitals. Yet the fetus's sex is already determined at conception -- by whether or not it inherits the sex-determining gene SRY, which is located on the Y chromosome. This discovery has made possible the use of IVF technology to implant, say, only female embryos -- a life-saving procedure if a couple's male offspring are at risk of some genetic disorder.

In fact -- although you'd never guess it from the video -- a great deal is already known about the actual mechanisms of development. Many Nobel prizes have been awarded for discoveries in this field. Molecular geneticists have identified genes that guide development, as well as their mechanisms of action and their evolution from similar genes in simpler organisms. Experimental embryologists, by transplanting cells or tissues from one bodily location to another, or from one animal to another, have deduced organizational rules by which tissues form. Many of the chemical signals and hormones and receptors that execute these rules have been identified. And contrary to Tsiaras' assertion that development lies beyond the possible comprehension of mathematicians, theoreticians (starting with Alan Turing) have developed computational models to explain how complex biological patterns and structures are organized.

Tsiaras is right when he says that the fetus' movements play a positive role in its development. But when he shows the emerging baby as launching itself from the birth canal with a forceful kick of its legs -- and already having jettisoned its umbilical cord -- he's presenting outright fantasy as fact. It's as if he wants to make a fetus the conscious captain of its own destiny, which it's not. In fact, calling a one-cell embryo a "baby," as Tsiaras does, projects his notion of conscious personhood back to the very day of conception.

When we gaze at the wonders of the natural world, be they growing fetuses or the scenery of Yosemite Valley or the stars over our heads, we should indeed be filled with awe. How could all this amazing beauty and complexity come about? Tsiaras believes that divine guidance must be at work. He not only says so in words, he also reinforces this message by his choice of religious music to accompany the video.

Fetal development is not completely understood, but much is known, and the rest is knowable, and none of it requires divine action. Does it diminish our admiration of Yosemite to know how cyclical changes in Earth's orbit brought on ice ages and glaciers that then carved out those spectacular cliffs? Does it make the night sky less radiant to know how gravity draws clouds of gas and dust into spinning balls of matter hot and dense enough to ignite nuclear fires? On the contrary, understanding how they came about makes them even richer objects of our admiration.

So it is with our own development as living, conscious beings. I hope that Tsiaras's beautiful video, rather than reinforcing religious teachings, instead spurs enquiring young minds to join the scientific quest for answers.

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