Scientists have discovered a wonder: at the moment of conception, a shower of sparks is emitted from the fertilized human egg. Light is the sign of a new life.
To be exact, the sparks recently discovered at the moment of human conception aren’t peculiar to human beings. They were first seen in regard to mice, and presumably, occur in all mammalian conception. But the point is the same: a flash of light marks the creation of new life. And that is a real marvel, a wonder.
This light does have a chemical source, billions of zinc atoms released at the moment of conception. The ovum, the egg, has some 8000 pockets (or vesicles), each filled with about a million zinc atoms. The well-timed release of 4-5 waves of “zinc sparks” during the first two hours of life orchestrates the amazing development of a new living creature, from a single cell to a super-complex, multicellular boy or girl embryo developing in the womb.
Each of our lives began with this spark of light, a metaphorically rich origin that suggests a kind of parallel to the beginning of creation as captured in Genesis.
It should fill us with awe, a kind of hushed respect for a miracle written into the chemistry of creation. What a genuine surprise, or more properly, a wonder.
And the scientists who discovered it are indeed filled with wonder, and rightly so.
“We discovered the zinc spark just five years ago in the mouse, and to see the zinc radiate out in a burst from each human egg was breathtaking,” said Teresa Woodruff, one of the authors of the study. Co-author of the study, Thomas O’Halloran, was equally full of awe: “On cue, at the time of fertilization, we see the egg release thousands of packages, each dumping a million zinc atoms, and then it’s quiet. Then there is another burst of zinc release. Each egg has four or five of these periodic sparks. It is beautiful to see, orchestrated much like a symphony.”
But Woodruff’s very next words revealed a much more utilitarian urge, changing from wonderment into the desire for mastery and manipulation.
“The amount of zinc released by an egg could be a great marker for identifying a high-quality fertilized egg, something we can’t do now. If we can identify the best eggs, fewer embryos would need to be transferred during fertility treatments. Our findings will help move us toward this goal.”
The upshot? “This means if you can look at the zinc spark at the time of fertilization, you will know immediately which eggs are the good ones to transfer in in vitro fertilization. It’s a way of sorting egg quality in a way we’ve never been able to assess before.”
In other words, human conception is no longer a holy act, a union of a man and a woman that creates a miraculous third life, another human being. Rather, conception is an occasion for manipulation in a laboratory, for sorting through several lives just begun, deciding on which have the most value, and discarding the rest.
We really need to think about this utilitarian turn. If human life does indeed begin at conception—at the recently discovered shower of sparks—then we are not talking about sorting through “high quality fertilized eggs,” as Woodruff puts it. We are sorting through human beings, keeping some, and discarding others.
This is a very worrisome turn, both in regard to the loss of natural wonder and the loss of our moral compass that goes with it. In the face of astonishing evidence of life—an observed qualitative change in the “materials” that occurs at the moment of conception—the “scientific” discussion immediately shifts to how we can exercise human mastery over the outcome, as if we were still dealing with mere lifeless matter. The initial natural awe evoked at how much we clearly haven’t known and still don’t know about the mystery of life is quickly extinguished so that we can play God, and with presumed greater wisdom and technical skill sort out which lives are worth living.
When we lose our wonder at the miracle of life and focus only on the material, then we soon enough start treating human life as material for manipulation, putting ourselves in the place of God, defining good and evil according to our desires and even whims.
While the technology that discovered the sparks at life’s origin is new, the utilitarian mindset that extinguished the natural wonder isn’t. Several centuries ago, there arose a new way to approach nature (and hence, human nature). On this new view, nature was not, as it had been considered with Christianity, a wisely made and beautiful interconnected order with its own integrity that stretched from non-living to living things culminating in human beings. Rather, all of nature, living and non-living, human and non-human, was reduced to mere lifeless matter. This lifeless matter could therefore to be treated as clay in the human potter’s hands, to be molded as we wished.
The goal of this new self-consciously materialistic philosophy was (if we might borrow one of its main architect’s words) to “make ourselves…masters and possessors of nature.” These are the words of the famous French philosopher, René Descartes (1596-1650). His intellectual mentor, Francis Bacon (1561-1626), initiated the project to master nature. For Bacon, the Promethean “goal of the sciences is none other than this: that human life be endowed with new discoveries and powers,” so that “man [may] endeavor to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe” in an “empire of man over things.”
And one of those things was…man himself. In Bacon’s words, when man finally masters himself, and his own nature is entirely under his technological control, “man is a god to man.”
That is precisely the utilitarian turn, and there is no turn more dangerous for man than when some men assume the mantle of gods.