VERY EARLY, VERY LATE

Let’s get back to Larry, your future five-year-old. Can it really make good, sound sense to think that Larry-your-five-year-old was once a miniature embryo, the size of a coffee ground? Could the very same entity go from being coffee-ground-sized and primitive to having the size and sophistication of a five-year-old?

Well, yes. Nature is full of dramatic change. Baby birds are dependent and immobile, but then fledge and start to fly. Butterflies start off as caterpillars, and then undergo metamorphosis. Human babies are very small and dependent, unable to walk or eat solid food, unable to talk; they grow and change dramatically. Even if the abilities of mature birds, butterflies, and people are the ones we most identify with the species—birds fly, butterflies have colorful wings, and people are rational and talkative—we don’t think maturity is an ontological turning point, a time when there’s a shift in the individuals that exist. Adults are not whole new beings, replacements for immature creatures. Immature creatures become mature creatures: that is to say, one and the same thing goes through an immature phase and then comes to be mature and more typical of the species.

An embryo is arguably the extremely immature form of the very same thing that will later be an immature fetus, an immature baby, an immature toddler, an adolescent, and then a mature adult. Persistence of a single entity despite change will continue, as the mature adult becomes less physically capable and (in the event of dementia, especially) loses mental powers. In fact, you could think of the embryonic phase as the very earliest stretch of childhood, with the lines between embryo and fetus, as well as fetus and child, rather arbitrary. In humans, a twelve-month-old is a child out in the world, not a fetus any more, but only because mothers have narrow birth passages and their offspring have big heads. Immature humans develop a lot outside a woman’s body because human anatomy doesn’t allow a later birth.

The Very Early View of Larry’s inception has many adherents, many with ethical and religious motivations. The advocate I’ll be focusing on defends the view on strictly metaphysical—not religious, not ethical—grounds. The philosopher Eric Olson, in his book The Human Animal, argues that we run into some serious metaphysical perplexities if we suppose Larry’s entry into existence comes later. But some do say it comes later. Much later.

A particularly tempting Late View is that Larry comes into being at the point when consciousness emerges. Scientists say different aspects of consciousness emerge at different points, with some aspects commencing as early as nineteen weeks and others many weeks later. At around twenty weeks, the fetus can probably smell, according to one team of researchers, and around twenty-six weeks the auditory cortex responds to sounds. The fetus fairly quickly looks quite baby-like: at twenty weeks it has a baby-like shape, it weighs about ten ounces, and its crown-to-rump length is over six inches. But what exactly is a fetus feeling? A relatively cautious assessment is that consciousness doesn’t exist until between twenty-four and thirty-four weeks. Only then are there normal brain waves, as measured by an electroencephalogram; on the other hand, even at that point a fetus spends most of the time asleep.

Whenever, exactly, consciousness emerges, presumably what you’re thinking, if you think there’s no Larry until this point, is that Larry is in essence a conscious self, not just an organism. So he doesn’t exist when we can’t say any conscious self exists yet. Somewhere in the range of twenty to thirty-four weeks, Larry-the- self has come into being. And it so happens that by then he looks a lot more like Larry as a newborn and Larry as a five-year-old than any extremely young, coffee-ground-sized embryo ever did.

There are yet more positions on when Larry comes into existence. A Very Late account is supported by the philosopher Lynne Rudder Baker in her book Persons and Bodies. She thinks our per- sonhood is essential to us: when we stop being persons we won’t exist any more; when we aren’t persons yet, we don’t exist yet. Larry is a person at age five, and throughout his lifespan he is always a person. So he can’t have entered the world before we can say he has the property of being a person. But what is that property?

Baker thinks to be a person is more than to be genetically human and more than to have simple types of consciousness. It entails having a "rudimentary first-person perspective,” which includes consciousness but also two more capacities—the capacity to imitate and the capacity to be driven by beliefs, desires, and intentions. But even that isn’t enough for personhood, on Baker’s view. To be a person, one must not only have a rudimentary first-person perspective; one must also be on the way to having a full-blown first-person perspective, like older children and adults have. This is the sort of perspective you have upon gaining the ability to mull things over, decide what to do, copy the behavior of others, and the like.

The actualities and potentialities Baker focuses on mark us out as persons, because they lead to the powers we associate with personhood in the most honorable sense—reflectiveness, moral responsibility, reasoning, and so on. A human being has personhood for as long as he or she exists; by contrast, dogs, cats, and other animals never attain personhood. Though some nonhuman animals do have a rudimentary first-person perspective, none are on the way to a full-blown first-person perspective; so they don’t meet all of the requirements for being a person.

We don’t enter the world until we possess personhood, Baker thinks; we aren’t persons until we have rudimentary first-person perspectives and we’re on the way to having full-blown first-person perspectives; and that happens around the time of birth, she claims. Newborn babies do imitate others—for example, sticking out their tongues when others do—and do have very simple desires and intentions. And soon they will imitate and intend more often, and more deliberately. In essence, then, Baker supports the David Copperfield account of when Larry’s life begins: "CHAPTER I. I am horn’.’ His life starts at birth.

 
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