Kinetic and Potential Life

One of the early lessons in Physics is the Conservation of Energy. Energy comes in two broad categories (forms), kinetic and potential. Energy can be in either form, and the form can even be changed. Electric utility companies like to produce energy when there is little demand, store it, and release it when demand is high and generators can’t handle the load. One way of doing this, pumped-storage hydroelectricity is to pump water to an elevated reservoir. The water at height stores gravitational potential (weight) energy. That potential is very stable, only subject to little practical things (like leakage) that change the potential energy back to kinetic energy. The big practical thing is releasing water to flow through electric generator turbines.

It is kinetic energy that gets ‘er done. Potential energy deserves a comparable respect.

The precise language of Physics sometimes uses the same words which are used rather loosely in other contexts. One such context applies the phrase ‘potential life‘ to human reproduction. We have heard this phrase repeatedly, so we know what is meant by it – or, at least, we know what we are meant to think it means. We are meant to think that it means (and here, I will attempt a precise statement of that meaning) ‘mated human gametes are capable of becoming a developmentally-complete human organism and should be regarded as equivalent to that human’.

That’s fine and dandy. Mated human gametes, with a bunch of help from the host mom, can often do that. You know the rationale attached to this: the mated gametes are to be considered morally and legally identical to an adult human. That is a logical high-jump, about which I shall defer comment to another time. What I do not see is any comparable logical gymnastics to any other ‘potential life’ or other ‘potential outcome’.

And boy, lemme tell you that there is a LOT of ‘potential life’. The armadillo inserts a multiplier into the situation. One set of mated armadillo gametes is (for some species) potentially four (4, quatre, vier, arba’a) individual, genetically-identical ‘dillo babies – not just one!

That doesn’t count the potential descendants of the armadillo.

The potential for life, for descendant individual organisms, doesn’t even depend upon sex. Yeah, maybe you thought that everything depended upon sex - but not this time. Lots of organisms reproduce asexually. ‘Budding’ can propagate yeast such as saccharomyces cerevisiae. It begins with a bump, which progresses to a distinct appendage, which separates and goes its merry way. So the bump is ‘potential life’, right? Well, I dunno.

When is it a bump, anyway? When the cell wall deviates from round by a statistically-significant amount? How “statistically significant” is significant enough? How different from other cell-wall bumps must it be?

Cavendish bananas are my favorite example of asexual reproduction. Every Cavendish banana in the world is genetically identical. They are vegetatively propagated by cuttings. That makes me wonder – if a cutting can yield an entire planet-load of organisms, does destruction of a cutting mean that the potential for millions of organisms has been destroyed?

The potential of mated gametes may be different than a potential for developing into an individual. The potential may be to spontaneously abort. Yes – this is a natural, even normal, process that happens to a statistically significant number of mated human gametes. There is also a statistically significant potential for mated gametes to kill the host mom. How “statistically significant” is significant enough? We have dead moms as the answer.

If the continued protection and nourishment of mated gametes leads to the potential to kill the host mom, do we consider only their potential for developing into an individual – an individual who will also die with the mom?

If a pumped-storage hydroelectricity reservoir has a crack, and it might collapse and destroy lives and property, do we consider only its potential for generating electricity?

We are not meant to think that ‘potential life’ means something like: ‘a bud from asexual reproduction is equivalent to a developmentally-complete organism’ or ‘a reproductively-viable organism is equivalent to generations of distinct individual organisms of the same specie’ or ‘sustenance of some mated gametes is equivalent to killing the host mom’.

We are meant to accept the aforementioned logical high-jump without questioning that its premise is actually based on the misogynistic misapplication – beginning in recent history – of a particular religion’s scriptures. No other consideration, whether religious or extra-religious, is meant to apply.

6 Responses to “Kinetic and Potential Life”

  1. October 30, 2011 at 9:10 am

    I always appreciate Carlin, Jim. If ever there was a truth-teller, he was it. When I recently posted on the subject of 8 categories of “GENIUS”, I considered him a shoo-in for the category “LINGUISTIC”. Would it not make for wry Carlin commentary to consider what strange company such categorization put him in? I would love to hear him comment on it.

    Shakespeare; Mozart (15 languages); Benjamin Franklin; Steven Douglas; Abraham Lincoln; William Jennings Bryan; Theodore Roosevelt; Father Charles Coughlin; Charlie Chaplin; Adolph Hitler; Joseph Goebbels; Jack Benny; Lucille Ball; Art Linkletter; Fred Rogers; Jerry Falwell; Carl Sagan; Johnny Carson; Jack Parr; George Carlin; Garrison Keillor; Rush Limbaugh, Barack Obama

  2. October 29, 2011 at 9:59 pm

    I am absolutely certain that (i.e., my opinion is . . .) babies are human no later than birth. I have some doubts about whether they are human around age 14-19. George Carlin has been most *expressive* in describing the contradictory attitudes about human life which certain folks espouse: “If you’re preborn, you’re fine. If you’re preschool, you’re f-cked.”


  3. October 28, 2011 at 7:57 pm

    To both,

    When life starts is of course an age-old question. The first time I heard it from a person’s lips was when I was a Presbyterian. That was quite some time ago now. A church leader was already quite sure of the answer when he asked it, but the answer in our Sunday School class at the time was – - – silence. It is one of those concepts for which there is no rational answer of course, but then, religion is not rational. The religious answer is conception by default, biological life being a continuum starting, as Jim says, when gamete meets sperm.

    I have pondered the question anyway, and having waited in vain for help from above I decided on an answer of my own: it starts at self-awareness. When a baby looks in a mirror and recognizes herself, that is the meaningful moment. This capacity is, in my opinion, one of two that distinguish human beings from all other life on the planet. It is the capacity to know in the innermost reaches of one’s mind that we are an identity, a unique consciousness with a capacity for abstract thought and the ability to understand what “past” and “future” mean. The second capacity? Language of course, something that is enormously leveraged by the construct of writing. The latter is what distinguishes us from elephants, the great apes and porpoises.

    As Carroll says, however, this is not a provable, scientific premise. The best I can do is suggest thought experiments – in writing of course. If I am right, then babies aren’t really human life until somewhere around the age of three, they are merely biological life. And yet all the potential is there in full view. By the age of three or so, barring accident or malevolent intervention, sentient life is pretty much assured. But then, once aware, we are gradually confronted as we age by more questions than answers. The more we know, the less we know about the ultimate answer: Why? Why do we exist? What is the purpose of our being? And, how can we comprehend “not being”? And there are subordinate questions as well, questions such as how complexity can arise as entropy progresses from the origin of all energy, the Big Bang, to a total sameness of all matter at absolute zero, the ultimate and known fate of the universe.

    I am doing my best to enjoy the ride, and hoping against hope that whatever or whoever tweaked the energy journey to cause the discontinuity that is us, if any, has a plan that makes sense.

  4. October 28, 2011 at 8:26 am

    So we are not clones in that I find it difficult to tell when you are speaking tongue in cheek. Sometimes I am not sure I have a sense of humor at all. My oldest daughter, Emily, teaches autistic children and assures me that one prominent symptom of autism is the lack of a sense of humor. Maybe there’s a reason students never laugh at my jokes…Meanwhile I am late getting started on the dishes. This will never do.

  5. 5 Jim
    October 27, 2011 at 6:39 pm

    Gee, I dunno – we may be clones anyway. I largely agree with your comments. Maybe I would describe or emphasize things differently, if only from contrariness.

    This post is certifiably not rigidly logical. It is an effort to go in a different direction from my usual. Too much woo in the world hangs around because people think emotionally, not logically. So, this is an attempt to throw some things against the wall, give folks different approaches, so they can stick however it makes sense to some reader. If I have more readers than 2 or 3 !

    Sure, notoriety. THAT’s what’s missing.

  6. October 26, 2011 at 9:03 am

    You have finally done it! A well-written, intelligent post that I can disagree with. I was beginning to think we were almost clones.
    I think your objection to the pro-life argument of “potentially human therefore human” is well taken, but I think you argue against it in a strange way. The armadillo and the banana etc seem to me irrelevant. The actual question the pro-life people mean to raise, I think, is the nature of human life as something qualitatively different from animal life. Few people have moral qualms about killing an armadillo, adult or embryotic, but we all ought to be qualmish about killing a human; thus the question of when the fertilized egg has grown enough to be considered human.
    For me the main point seems to be that it is impossible logically to draw a line and say, “before this time – not human; after this time – human”. Attempts to draw such a line invariably fail, as for instance using the criteria of “viability outside the mother”. It is too vague a concept, too uncertain a criteria, and seems to gradually slide forward later and later as we allow it to. Also I feel uncomfortable with the idea that something is only counted as human if it can prove itself by surviving. Rather cruelly Darwinian. But drawing a line is imperative: surely with something as significant as a human life we need to be sure whether we are killing a person or merely removing tissue. Since the drawing of the line seems to be currently impossible in a logical non-arbitrary way and yet also a moral imperative I don’t see how we can safely do anything but start at conception. Nature, of course, does throw away many such conceived humans, but nature does many things with which I feel no need to join.
    There is also a very practical matter: the law. We only damage ourselves morally by having a vague law, in which a single act can be murder in one state, and a constitutional right in another state. Having a law that permits abortion in some cases must be clearly drawn and – we may as well go for it – rational. There is also the problem of the use of abortion to target “potential women” for destruction over “potential men”. If the fetus is not human, there is no legal or logical way to say it is inherently wrong; and yet I think we all instinctively – some of us inconsistently – feel that such targeting would be wrong. Or would it be wrong, logically or legally, to systematically abort black embryos? No one – no sane people – would argue for this and yet logically it would seem to be entailed by any attempt at drawing the line demarcating human and non-human.
    At least this is the best I can do to analyze the question in my own mind. I do agree that the argument from Scripture is an internal argument to be carried out within the Body of Christ and not an argument that should be advanced in a public and secular context.
    Thanks for giving me a chance to disagree. You do a great job on this blog, and I only wish it had a wider notoriety than it does.

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