Bill Nye’s Big Lie and Science’s Bigger Problem

DID YOU KNOW THAT…? Embryology has clearly established that, biologically speaking, human life begins at conception. NOW YOU KNOW.

As a child, I was a religious fan of Bill Nye The Science Guy’s PBS show.  I watched every episode, and, as a result, I didn’t actually need to pay attention in science class until about the middle of 6th grade.  On a few occasions, I even corrected my teachers with information gleaned from his program!  I wanted to be a scientist when I grew up, and that was largely thanks to The Science Guy.  (I did end up a computer scientist, technically, but, with a mere B.A., I’m really a tradesman.)  Nor are Bill Nye’s talents limited to explaining science to children: his episode of Stargate: Atlantis was one of the best things that ever happened to that franchise.  My faith in Bill Nye was not extinguished by growing up.  When I saw that Nye had come out in favor of anthropogenic climate change, that was (more or less) when I stopped seriously arguing the point.  As the old saying goes, “Nye locuta est; causa clausa est.

I’m reconsidering that decision.

Bill Nye put out a video last week arguing for abortion rights.  I’ll let you watch it.

You watched it?  Good.  Then you noticed that the entire video only includes one scientific claim, at the very start of the video.  And that claim is clearly, indisputably false.  Nye says:

Many, many, many, many more hundreds of eggs are fertilized than become humans. Eggs get fertilized, and by that I mean sperm get accepted by ova — a lot.  But that’s not all you need. You have to attach to the uterine wall, the inside of a womb, a woman’s womb.

Wrong.  Once an egg has been fertilized by a sperm, it ceases to be an egg or a sperm.  (Both egg and sperm are destroyed by the process of fertilization, which includes the first mitotic cell division.)  What is left behind is a human organism – specifically a very young human organism called a zygote.

How do we know a zygote is an organism?  Because it fulfills the six criteria of life.  You all know these because they (or some close variation) are in the first chapter of every ninth-grade biology book printed during your lifetime, but, if you want a refresher, you can find them here:

  1. Response to the environment: Zygotes immediately begin interacting with their environment.  Like any single microorganism, their interactions don’t have a big impact at the human scale, but they immediately begin absorbing and expelling chemicals in their environment.
  2. Growth and development: Zygotes grow and develop.  They start at one cell, then multiply to two cells, then four, and so on indefinitely, passing through other stages of the human lifecycle.
  3. Reproduction: Zygotes reproduce.  We’ll come back to this.
  4. Homeostasis: Zygotes maintain stable internal conditions.
  5. Complex chemisty: Zygotes are highly organized, coordinated structures with an unimaginably complex unified metabolism… like any multicellular organism.
  6. Cell-based. Zygotes are composed of one or more cells.

Great.  So we know zygotes are organisms.  But how do we know they’re homo sapiens?  What distinguishes a human zygote from a grown duck?  Or a duck zygote?  Or a bacterial colony?  Or a human toenail?

For the first three, biology supplies an easy answer: human zygotes have the DNA of homo sapiens, while the others do not.  But the fourth is harder.  What actually distinguishes a human zygote (or, for that matter, a human eight-year-old) from a human toenail?  Or even a human cancer?  All appear to be alive, and all have human DNA.   Let’s point to two key differences: growth and reproduction.

Toenails grow.  So do eight-year olds.  But what do they grow into?  If properly nourished, eight-year-olds will grow, of their own accord, into adults of the species homo sapiens.  Toenails, if properly nourished, will grow, of their own accord, into… longer toenails.  This is a strong indication that eight-year-olds are homo sapiens, while toenails are not: you cannot grow into an adult homo sapiens unless you are already a child belonging to homo sapiens.  Is everyone okay with this claim?  Good.

Cancers grow.  So do zygotes.  But what do they grow into?  If properly nourished, zygotes will grow, of their own accord, into adults of the species homo sapiens.  Cancers, if properly nourished, will grow, of their own accord, into… more cancer.  This is a strong indication that zygotes are homo sapiens, while cancers are not: you cannot grow into an adult homo sapiens unless you are already a child belonging to homo sapiens.

Not even individual sperm and egg cells will grow, on their own, into adult humans; they will merely undergo meiosis.  Only by combining the two, destroying them in the creation of the new zygote organism, will you get an entity that is destined to become an adult human.

Let’s now consider reproduction.

Do toenails and cancers reproduce?  No.  (Cancers metastasize, but that’s not the same thing as reproduction.)  This means that neither toenails nor cancers are actually alive, much less living human beings.  (Individual toenail and cancer cells are alive, sure, but, all together, they do not form a living organism… because actually living things, by definition, can reproduce themselves.)

Do eight-year-old human children reproduce?  No, not yet. However, they are developing the capacity to reproduce, a capacity written into their genetic code.  When they eventually hit puberty, finish growing up, and get married, most eight-year-olds will reproduce.  And to what will they give birth?  Tiny members of homo sapiens, of course.  A good rule of thumb in biology: if your babies are horses, you’re probably a horse.  If your babies are human beings, you’re probably a human being.  Today’s eight-year-old kids will give birth to tomorrow’s human beings.  This implies that the eight-year-olds themselves are human beings.

Do zygotes reproduce?  No, not yet.  However, they are developing the capacity to reproduce, a capacity written into their genetic code.  When they eventually hit puberty, finish growing up, and get married, most zygotes will reproduce.  And to what will they give birth?  Not horses.  Not toenails.  Not gametes.  Babies.  Today’s zygotes will give birth to tomorrow’s human beings.  This implies that human zygotes are themselves human beings.

Of course, many zygotes die before they become adults.  However, many eight-year-olds also die before they become adults.  This does not make them less human.  It just makes them less fortunate.

So we see that, as a simple matter of fact, any egg that has been fertilized by a sperm has become a human organism.  Biologically speaking, you and I both began to exist at our respective conceptions.  But don’t take my word for it!  Take Science’s:

Zygote. This cell, formed by the union of an oocyte and a sperm, is the beginning of a new human being.  The expression fertilized ovum refers to a secondary oocyte that has been impregnanted by a sperm; when fertilization is complete, the oocyte becomes a zygote.” —Moore and Persaud, Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects, 7th Edition. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2008. p.2.

In that fraction of a second when the chromosomes form pairs, the sex of the new child will be determined, hereditary characteristics received from each parent will be set, and a new life will have begun.” —Kaluger and Kaluger, Human Development: The Span of Life. St. Lous: C.V. Mosby, 1974. p.28-29

“Although life is a continuous process, fertilization (which, incidentally, is not a ‘moment’) is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte.”  —O’Rahilly and Müller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd Edition. New York: Wiley-Liss, 2001. p.8.

But don’t take Science’s word for it! Take abortionists’!:

“We can accept that the embryo is a living thing in the fact that it has a beating heart, that it has its own genetic system within it. It’s clearly human in the sense that it’s not a gerbil, and we can recognize that it is human life of a sort.  But the point really is not when does human life begin, but when does it really begin to matter?” –Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS, the largest abortion provider in the United Kingdom, Abortion: A Civilized Debate, 5:48-6:10

“I think we have deluded ourselves into believing that people don’t know that abortion is killing. So any pretense that abortion is not killing is a signal of our ambivalence, a signal that we cannot say yes, it kills a fetus.” –Faye Wattleton, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 1978-1992, in “Speaking Frankly,” Ms. Magazine, May / June 1997, Volume VII, Number 6, 67. 

That last one was by far the hardest quote for me to confirm. I had to actually go the library and look it up on microfiche.  While over there, I found that the article contained a few other gems:

“It makes sense to do this in the most humanitarian way possible, but there’s nothing especially humanitarian about death.  If we shrink from that, then I think we really lose.” –Adrienne Ashe, former NARAL board member, ibid.

“The way in which the arguments for legal abortion have been made include this inability to publicly deal with the fact that abortion takes a life.  There are real reasons for that, because if you say, ‘abortion takes a life,’ large numbers of people interpret this as ‘abortion takes the life of a person who is the moral and legal equivalent of the woman.'” Frances Kissling, Founder, Catholics for a Free Choice, ibid.

The purpose of abortion is to terminate the life of the fetus. –Catherine Albisa, “human rights lawyer” formerly with the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health, ibid.

The very first sentence of Bill Nye’s science video about abortion, which happens to also be the only scientific claim Bill Nye makes in the entire science video, is demonstrably false.  Authorities across the ideological spectrum concur that it is false.  The facts permit no wiggle room, no shades of gray, no space for objections.  What Bill Nye said is indisputably false.

In truth, all eggs that complete the process of fertilization are human.  Every single last one of them.  By the very fact of having completed fertilization, they are human.  (Whether they are rights-bearing persons is, as Francis Kissling points out, a separate question.)

Having butchered science, Nye goes on to make a very brief argument – not a scientific argument, but an ethical one – about why killing a human zygote through abortion is not wrong:

If you’re going to say when an egg is fertilized, it therefore has the same rights as an individual, then whom are you going to sue, whom are you going to imprison, every woman who has had a fertilized egg pass through her? Every guy whose sperm has fertilized an egg and then it didn’t become a human, have all these people failed you?

Mollie Hemingway refuted this argument in the space of a single tweet:


Yes, Bill, zygotes die.  In fact, every zygote dies, because every human being dies, and zygotes are human beings.  It’s just a question of when: humans can die an hour after conception or a century after conception, or anywhere in between.  The difference is intent.

We don’t charge mom with murder if Grandma dies in her sleep; that would be insane.  We do charge Mom with murder if Grandma dies because Mom stuck a shotgun in her mouth and pulled the trigger.  If an embryo can’t quite implant and fails to survive, we’re not going to go down to Planned Parenthood and clamp their staff in irons for failing to somehow magically save this very young human being; that would be insane.  But if a member of Planned Parenthood’s staff reaches into the uterus and kills that human being by tearing her apart, limb from limb, yes, of course that staffer is responsible for that child’s death, and of course he can be held accountable for his actions!

Let’s recap: in the only matter of empirical, scientific fact in Bill Nye’s science video, Nye is wrong.  During the process of fertilization, a human life is created.  “Pregnancy” may not technically begin until implantation, but you cannot change the fact that human life begins at human conception without throwing out a century of embryology and the very words “organism” and “species.” Those are the facts.  And Science has nothing further to say on the subject.

Which is not to say that the conversation is over.  There is still a philosophical and ethical argument to be had about whether or not a human child, immediately after conception, is (metaphysically speaking) a human person, bearing human rights, and subject to legal protections.  But that argument is not a scientific one, and so, as soon as Nye tries to make it, he falls flat on his face.

The balance of Bill Nye’s video is an old man ranting about how stupid everyone is who disagrees with his demonstrably wrong science and poorly-formed ethics.

He accuses his opponents of scientific ignorance.  Except, on the only scientific matter in the video, his opponents are indisputably correct.

He accuses his opponents of being mostly men of European descent.  Now, I can’t help noticing that Bill Nye is himself a man of European descent.  And I can’t help noticing that the majority of the pro-life movement is female.  Pro-choicers always try to cast the issue in terms of women’s rights, but let’s remember that, as Andrea Dworkin pointed out, male abortion-rights advocates are not exactly white knights standing up for women:

It was the brake that pregnancy put on fucking that made abortion a high-priority issue for men in the 1960s – not only for young men, but also for the older leftist men who were skimming sex off the top of the counterculture and even for more traditional men who dipped into the pool of hippie girls now and then.  The decriminalization of abortion – for that was the political goal – was seen as the final fillip: it would make women absolutely accessible, absolutely “free.”  The sexual revolution, in order to work, required that abortion be available to women on demand.  If it were not, fucking would not be available to men on demand.  Getting laid was at stake.  Not just getting laid, but getting laid the way great numbers of boys and men had always wanted – lots of girls who wanted it all the time outside marriage, free, giving it away. (Dworkin, Right-Wing Women, 95)

He accuses his opponents of trying to impose the text of a “5,000-year old book” (the Epic of Gilgamesh? He can’t mean the Bible, which is at most 3500 years old) on everyone, despite modern “scientific knowledge.”  Except, of course, the Bible does not make a particularly strong argument against abortion (nor does Gilgamesh), and a great many pro-lifers are secular.  One does not need to be religious to oppose murdering innocent human beings.  Aren’t agnostics always telling me it’s possible to be moral without religion?  Being an Aristotelian, I’ve always thought so, but “opposing the murder of innocent children” is a pretty good test of whether that’s actually the case, and way too many agnostics like Bill Nye fail it.**

He accuses his opponents of taking away time, attention, and resources from “more important issues.”  (He doesn’t name any.)

He points out that we wouldn’t have knowledge or images of the conception and pregnancy process without scientists “who are actual medical professionals.”  Um… okay.  True.  And?  “And so then to claim to know the next step when you obviously don’t… you have to respect the facts.”  Yes.  Yes, you do have to respect the facts, Bill.

He opposes abstinence-only education, stating that the evidence doesn’t support it.  That’s… fine, I guess, and may even be true, but has nothing to do with whether or not abortion is ethical.  All this suggests is that Andrea Dworkin was on to something.

He asks his opponents to look at the facts, and to embrace a “fact-based” position on abortion.

I have.  When will Bill Nye?

This is a shameful four minutes.  It is at the Todd Akin level of scientific illiteracy.  For any person claiming to be a public intellectual for the promotion of science, this video ought to be a career-ender, just as it was for Akin.  After thorough excoriation by his peers, Bill Nye should be forced to spend a few years out of the public eye, maybe doing some actual research for a while, as penance for his sins.

But this will not happen.  Bill Nye knew it would not happen.  That’s why he felt empowered to be so careless and ignorant and pompous. A great many modern scientists (more than enough to form the scientific establishment) have decided that their skill in science makes them qualified philosophers, too.  They are not.

Scientists are experts in gathering empirical data in their respective fields of expertise, analyzing that data, and drawing inductive conclusions from that data.  Typically those conclusions pertain to the efficient or material causes of a substance (or class of substances), and, while always subject to revision (as is the nature of inductive reasoning), science as a whole has done an incredible job explaining the efficient and material causes of practically everything that is immediately accessible to human senses (and quite a bit besides).  The data and reasoning that support (for example) the theories of gravity and evolution are as solid as anything mankind has ever built.  Three cheers for science!

But science is not philosophy.  It does not come equipped with the tools to do philosophy.  It never could, because science is grounded in certain philosophical claims.  Scientists dissect the world on the basis of sense-data; they are in no position to question (for example) whether, in what sense, and by what mechanism the sense-data is true.

I can hear a physicist reading along asking, “What do you mean, a mechanism in virtue of which certain data is true?  Data simply is true or false.  How could such a mechanism even possibly be conceived?”  This is exactly my point: the scientist’s entire analytical toolbox is so dependent on certain pre-existing philosophical conclusions (these days, often some flavor of logical positivism) that it is incapable of doing even fairly primitive materialist metaphysics.  That is fine.  It is not their field.

One might then expect scientists to adopt the maxim of one of their positivist forebears, Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.”  Scientists: keep analyzing being as chemical (chemistry), being as motion (physics), being as light (optics), and so forth, and let your poorly-funded, poorly-paid colleagues in the other building work on the analysis of being as being (ontology), and the difficult questions that flow from it (metaphysics, and ultimately ethics).  Everyone is happy.*

The argument over abortion and unborn rights is a factual argument: ethical and metaphysical facts are not empirical facts, but they are still (putatively) facts.  However, Bill Nye is about as qualified to make grand pronouncements on ethical facts as I am qualified to make grand pronouncements on the validity of the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.  I don’t want Copenhagen to be factually true, just as Bill Nye might not want it to be the case that unborn humans are, factually, rights-bearing entities, but I’m in no position to say it isn’t, and neither is he.

It would be one thing if Bill Nye were simply offering his two cents on a subject where he knew he was no expert; we all do that all the time in politics.  (We have to make a lot of snap judgments in a democracy.  It’s one of the weaknesses of the system.)  Indeed, there are some fairly respectable, sophisticated ethical arguments in support of abortion rights.  A humble attempt on Bill Nye’s part to articulate those arguments, without claiming the mantle of an argument from authority, would have been personally disappointing to me but basically inoffensive.

But Nye doesn’t do that at all: he wraps his utterly unscientific opinion, which is just poor ethical reasoning built on a foundation of a single, provably false scientific claim, in the robes of scientific authority and claims everyone else should listen to him because he is an Expert (while everyone who doesn’t is an ignoramus).  I’m not angry because Nye uses his authority as a scientist to disenfranchise (and dismember) the unborn; I’m angry because his actions would be a gross abuse of scientific authority even if he were on my side!  Ethicists can pretty much just point and laugh at this travesty of an ethical argument, then go back to the adult conversation they were having before Bill Nye made an ass of himself; Nye’s foolishness is no skin off their nose.  But scientists should censure Bill Nye for making claims far beyond his competence and claiming scientific authority for them, because stunts like this don’t just degrade Bill Nye; they degrade the entire scientific project, dragging it into disrepute.

But that won’t happen, because Bill Nye is far from alone.  Richard Dawkins should have been laughed out of every university in England following his absurdly poor chapter in The God Delusion covering philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God.  Dawkins got them all wrong, both the arguments for and the arguments against.  The man could not handle even the first page of Aquinas without melting down into a puddle of misunderstandings and non sequiturs!  But Dawkins came through not just unscathed, but bigger than ever.  So why would Nye expect otherwise?  Scientists as a whole have not only forgotten what they don’t know, but are loudly declaiming about what they don’t know they don’t know (or at the very least silently allowing their colleagues to do so).  For philosophers, that’s very irritating.  For scientists, however, left unchecked, it is fatal, both to public support for science and the very possibility of doing good science.

For the moment, I think I’m going back to climate agnosticism.  Maybe 97% of climatologists are right about anthropocentric climate change.  Or maybe they’re motivated hacks who have built an academic structure of institutional oppression to suppress dissent and ignore inconvenient evidence on behalf of an unscientific ideology.  Bill Nye was a trustworthy lodestar I could rely upon to sort out the scientists from the hacks… but now I know the man who fostered my appreciation for science is just a motivated hack himself.  And the scientific establishment has given me no reason to believe that science is in any way “self-correcting” once politics are in the mix.


*Note that that three-word sentence, “Everyone is happy,” is perfectly inexplicable in scientific terms.  You may be able to point to a brain-state upon which the experience of “happiness” is correspondent, or even supervenient – sup, Minsky? – but mere supervenience is hardly sufficient explanation of the subjective and immaterial phenomenon of happiness.  Direct analysis of experiential data as such (as opposed to sense data) is simply a black box for science, and thank God we have philosophers to work on the problem instead.  Meanwhile, he subject of the sentence, “everyone,” at least appears to imply the intelligibility of a real universal (persons), which immediately presents problems of composition.  And that “is” – oh, man, let’s not even get into what the meaning of “is” is.  Ask a scientist to provide a definition sometime, and don’t let him refer to the concepts of “being” or “existence” without providing definitions for them as well.  Fun times!  What we have here is a sentence that every scientist understands, but which which he is entirely unqualified to analyze.

**For the record, insofar as the Bible defends abortion, the Bible is in error.

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  • James J Heaney

    Comments are open.

  • Cornetto

    Thank you for clarifying the obvious. (I’m not being sarcastic; it seems more and more now people cannot see things for what they are and as a result deception/confusion wins the day)

  • Todd

    Whether to define a sperm, ovum, zygote, embryo, fetus, etc as the beginning of being classified as human appears to be more semantics and opinion than scientific fact.

    That being said in weighing the competing opinions Bill Nye seems to be more correct on this one. The logic and evidentiary facts in the linked paper below are superior to those in this blog post.

    • BCSWowbagger

      This blog post restricted itself to logic and evidentiary facts that are scientific.

      This blog post clearly stated that “there are some fairly respectable, sophisticated ethical arguments in support of abortion rights.” But, this blog post made clear, all respectable arguments for abortion are based on metaphysics, not science, and can only be made authoritatively by philosophers, not scientists. The point of this blog post is that, scientifically speaking, the zygote is a human being, and that Bill Nye, as a scientist, cannot use science to refute that scientific fact.

      The article you posted proves my point: it is a metaphysics paper written by a philosopher. Dr. Burgess has no scientific credentials, and his argument is ontological, not scientific. He cannot dispute the fact that the zygote is, by any scientific standard, a human being, so he attempts to introduce ontological objections. This is fine, serious work — metaphysics and ontology are a lot more than the mere “semantics and opinion” you make them out to be (which is a weird thing for you to say when you’re citing a metaphysician!) — and I take those objections seriously.

      However, the validity of the objections goes beyond the scope of this blog post, which is strictly about the science of embryology, not the metaphysics of it.

      Incidentally, though, and just because metaphysics interests me, let me call your attention to a few intriguing features of Dr. Burgess’s paper, which you may or may not find attractive.

      (1) He himself maintains that metaphysical “personhood” or “ensoulment” occurs with the nascent human life just six weeks after conception, before most abortions occur.

      (2) His objection to the full-starter position that personhood occurs at most a few days after conception is based on his assertion that the logical consequences for twinning are, quote, “creepy.” Suffice to say that I do not find this objection compelling, and have held the precise position he calls creepy for quite some years — and, moreover, it’s a position I learned from practicing philosophers at my university, so it’s not like it’s some outlier view.

      (3) His objection to the full-starter conceptionist position that all zygotes and all humans have rights and all this metaphysical debate about personhood is a bald cover for brutal oppression is based on what I consider a rather facile interpretation of conceptionists’ understanding of placentae.

      (I could be misreading him — this is a good metaphysics paper, honestly, and I respect it — but it seems to me that, on Page 65, he commits an error when he states that, on the conceptionist view, A = B. No: on the conceptionist view, it seems to me, B is part of A, C is part of A, and A is a human being, at least at this time [which we may call time t1]. At some future time [t2, which I need not identify precisely here], B will still be part of A, and it is even possible that A = B at t2, but C will no longer be part of A. As an example, I was born with baby teeth — they were part of me — but they are no longer part of me — they fell out and the tooth fairy paid me for them. This is a very brief sketch of a reply, and, should Dr. Burgess happen by, I’d be happy to give it some further thought, particularly if I’ve overlooked or misstated some component of his argument.)

  • Kragnorak

    Honestly I could care less about this argument. At 7 billion organisms strong and no natural enemies except ourselves, we are spreading across the planet like a cancer to the detriment of most species of plant and animal including… us! (Evidence: see the latest rage in the U.S because there are more people than jobs needed)

    So humanity needs to be put in check humanely. Abortion of a first trimester fetus is more ethical than abortion of a 2nd trimester fetus which is more ethical than bringing an unwanted and unsupported child into the world which is more ethical than harvesting such children to feed the military which is more ethical than police shooting them summarily in the street which is more ethical than Nazi death camps.

    My preferred method of culling the human herd is to simply provide women with education and abortion rights and grant them free will. Studies show that educated women have many less children than oppressed women.

    • BCSWowbagger

      I’m pleased we agree on the science, and I’m pleased we agree that what Bill Nye said was false.

      You and I have a significant disagreement, however, about ethics. I agree with the consensus of our civilization that human beings have a right not to be killed unjustly. Anyone who deliberately kills an innocent human being is guilty of murder; any nation which does the same (or permits the same) is guilty of genocide. You make it clear that you do not share this belief, and, indeed, that you would do whatever is necessary to “cull the human herd.”

      This is an idea that is worth debating; however, I don’t think the comments of a post about science are the right place to have that debate. With old-school lebensunwertes leben eugenics coming back into vogue on both the Left (which favors reducing certain groups of people for environmental reasons and “compassion”) and on the Right (which favors reducing certain groups of people for racial and economic reasons), I should probably write a post about it, and I’d be happy to hear your thoughts and engage with them then.

      For now, I am content that we agree on the scientific issue.

      (N.B.: A sperm is not a human being and can be killed freely. Ova are also not human beings and can be killed freely.)

  • Kragnorak

    “Great. So we know zygotes are organisms. ” Actually, that’s not usually disputed. I thought that the main distinguishing point is that zygotes and fetuses are not VIABLE organisms. If they were, the ones brought out of the womb would be super-preemies, not abortions. There’s a reason that only insane people weep for all the sperm that fail in their life’s goals.