As a teacher of both biology and bioethics, I was extremely interested in “The Good Egg,” your May cover story on the hotly debated and morally loaded question of when life begins. The article contained a wealth of scientific information and provided a fantastic tie-in to a wide range of bioethical topics—assisted reproduction, stem cells, abortion, and last but not least, the questionable role that politics sometimes plays in scientific research. Biologists may never be able to definitively answer the question of when human life begins, but I’m happy to see science weighing in on the debate.
“The Good Egg” draws a link between the viability of the egg before conception and the intrinsic value of the embryo: “If, as some ethicists argue, nascent life must be protected, how do we assess the degree of moral entitlement due a nascent entity that fails to pass nature’s own muster perhaps 80 percent of the time?” This logic is disturbing. The moral value of a human life is not to be measured by its viability. If we know that, statistically, 80 percent of people who have a certain cancer will die from that cancer, does that significantly decrease their value as human beings?
New Westminster, British Columbia
Is the implication of your article that we should accept the medieval etymology of the word conception as the true definition of the beginning of life, when the embryo is “imbraced” by the womb and therefore viable? I think you are confusing the concept of viability (ability to live outside the uterus under normal conditions) with the concept of life. I absolutely believe in a woman’s right to choose abortion, but this article clarified nothing but a concept represented by the Latin root capio. You can’t say an embryo never lived because it died before it “took hold.” It must live in order to die. What is life? Should we not define what life is before we attempt to define the beginning of it? We cannot define life as “viability.” We can predict that an infant will die shortly after birth. Can we say it never lived? The real issue is, what distinguishes the embryo from the infant?
Gallup, New Mexico
Rage Against the Machine
In response to The Cryptography of . . . Voting Machines [May]: Electronic voting may be the single worst idea associated with democracy ever considered and easily the most expensive one. Ohio could spend as much as $161 million for electronic voting machines—money that is probably badly needed for other programs. This is nothing more than money poured down a rat hole. The software is so full of bugs and the susceptibility to hacking so great that it is ridiculous to even consider it. Those who claim that paper copies of the votes would alleviate the problem seriously misunderstand the problem with copies. A computer can easily be programmed to print one result and internally record a different one. Unless all the voters stood around the polling station until the vote tabulation was completed to certify that 595 voters voted for candidate A while 294 voters voted for candidate B, paper copies are worthless. Rather than spending billions of dollars nationwide on voting systems that promise mostly chaos and voter fraud on a massive scale, the paper ballot is the way to go. And it works even when the power fails.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Dana Mackenzie reports that Diebold is “one of the three companies that dominate the electronic voting market.” It’s also known that Diebold’s chief executive is a major contributor to the Republican Party. Given the problems with the last presidential election, before November the three companies should be required to develop a system that would allow them to monitor the accuracy of the others’ vote tallies.
A Well-Respected Chimp
Your interview with Jane Goodall [Discover Dialogue, May] concluded that chimpanzees “deserve our respect” but gave no constructive way to show that respect. Chimpanzees are popular subjects for AIDS research (even though their immune system rarely succumbs to the virus) and are used in painful cancer and psychological tests, as well as for research on blood diseases and organ transplants. Because they are in short supply, captive chimpanzees are often subjected to multiple experiments, each of which can last years. As humans, we are supposed to have an expanded ethic. This, along with modern medical research tools, can allow us to give chimpanzees a kind of long-overdue respect that means something to them, not just to us.
Editor’s note: We covered this problem in an award-winning article called “An Embarrassment of Chimps,” published in the May 2002 issue. We have posted it at www.discover.com.
Nature, Red in Tooth and Fin
I think that research scientist James Estes’s theory about transient orcas laying waste to certain marine mammal populations is a bit shaky [“Wild Ones,” April]. In the flurry of new research on the rapid decline of Steller sea lions, harbor seals, and northern fur seals, I thought one of the most likely causes was a dramatic climate shift in the region they inhabit. Along with that, research from the Vancouver Aquarium has shown that pollack, the fish the juvenile Stellers eat, is not providing enough calories for the sea lions to thrive. The reasons for the decline of these stocks may be as numerous as the numbers of species involved.
VICTORIA L. KIRKLAND
Marine researchers Alan Springer and James Estes respond: For years scientists have attributed the seal and sea lion (pinniped) declines in southwestern Alaska to nutritional limitation, ostensibly the result of overfishing or climate change. The idea that sea lions cannot survive on pollack—otherwise known as the junk food hypothesis among scientists—was advanced in an apparent effort to reconcile the great abundance of fish on the one hand and the declining pinnipeds on the other. However, the present evidence, including a 2003 study by the National Research Council (www.pnas.org/cgi/reprint/100/21/12223.pdf), has cast doubt on the nutritional limitation hypothesis. Our recently published paper attributing the pinniped declines to killer-whale predation provides an alternative hypothesis that we believe is more consistent with the available data. We are reasonably certain that killer-whale predation dramatically reduced sea otter numbers in southwestern Alaska, and we know that it could easily account for the seal and sea lion declines. We hope that our work will stimulate people to open their minds to the full range of potential causes for these worrisome trends.
To read more letters (all Web-exclusive) on this month’s features and departments, see www.discover.com/letters.