Saturday, March 17, 2012

Every Zygote is Sacred

Doonesbury has been in the news again, as various newspapers around the country refused to run a sequence on abortion -- specifically on legal requirements that a woman seeking an abortion must submit to a transvaginal ultrasound procedure.

This morning I looked at some of the entries in the "Blowback" department, where readers comment. This one, from a guy in El Dorado, Arkansas, caught my eye:
A woman who aborts is going against the evolutionary imperative of millions of years. But she is improving the human gene pool, in a Darwinian sense. It is not the government's business one way or another, unless you believe that life begins at some arbitrary point, after which it would be manslaughter. I suspect there will be no end to this controversy.
Ah, pop Darwinism; he might as well have said that abortion goes against the will of God. The closest this comes to reality is that Darwin himself opposed birth control (as well as the English poor-relief laws), but since Darwin wasn't God or the Voice of Nature, that's unimportant. Not that it would matter if he were.

The notion that abortion (or anything else) is in conflict with an "evolutionary imperative of millions of years" (which has an intriguing formal resemblance to claims about "the five thousand year old definition of marriage") is ridiculous, however often people say such things. Natural selection has no more moral authority than, say, the Bible.

It's especially curious that people should talk as though preserving every individual life is an evolutionary necessity, given the popularity of self-congratulatory memes like The Darwin Awards, which eke comedy from the notion that some people are too dumb to reproduce, or even to live. Half of the theory of natural selection is that some individuals are removed from the playing field. (Notice too the commenter's claim that a woman who gets an abortion is "improving the human gene pool, in the Darwinian sense", presumably forgetting that women who get abortions are usually mothers and already have done their Darwinian duty. Those who aren't already mothers will have children in the future.)

In "Nature," infanticide is far from unknown. And this may be a good time to quote again an excerpt from Marlene Zuk's Sexual Selections (California, 2002) about the results of forced copulation among zebra finches:
These matings never resulted in any offspring, which is interesting by itself. Even more interesting, though, was that 28 percent of chicks in the aviaries were from the remaining 20 percent of EPCs that were not forced, an astounding success rate. What were the females doing to influence the fate of sperm from different males? No one knows. The cloaca of female birds is clearly capable of some sophisticated maneuvering; in several species, females have been observed ejecting sperm after a copulation. The organ’s structure and function has, however, been relatively little studied by scientists [84-5]
Females in any species are not obligated by evolution or nature to accept insemination, carry offspring to term, or allow their offspring to survive infancy. Their refusal to do any of these things is part of the "evolutionary imperative," not defiance of it.