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When does a new human come into existence?

One popular view is the constructionist view of a human. That is, a human is constructed, sort of like a car in a factory. When does a car come into existence?

No-one would say it’s a car when you have 4 car tyres, or just 3:


Add a frame and an engine – is it a car yet?

What about a body, steering wheel, but no seats – is it a car yet?

Once all parts are in place (or it’s recognisable enough), then most people would say it’s reasonable to say it’s a car.

But is a human anything like that? Well, some people claim this.

I’ve heard some of the following comments that I think fall under the constructionist view:

  • ‘it’s not a human until it has a brain’ (ie a real human needs all its parts in place)
  • ‘it’s just a collection of cells’ (so this thing is just ‘made of’ certain stuff – sort of like ‘it’s just a hunk of metal’ for a car-in-construction)
  • ‘it’s not a human until they’re self-aware’ (so a certain function needs to be in place, sort of like you don’t have a car until the engine is in place).

But let’s say you took a polaroid picture of yourself with a famous star. You were about to flap it about in the air when someone comes from nowhere, grabs the paper out of your hand, and rips it up. Now, you get upset. The person asks: “Why are you upset? I just ripped up a piece of paper.” “What? You’re crazy” you answer, “It was a valuable photo – it just wasn’t developed yet”.

That’s the sort of position a growing foetus is in – and it’s a vulnerable position because we can’t ‘see’ a very developed human yet (although ultrasound may change this more and more).

So, one the one hand, you have the constructionist view which actually turns out to be arbitrary (the same way I can decide a car doesn’t exist until it has a live battery). On the other, you have the developmental view which recognises the DNA of the living, self-directed entity and that a living thing never changes its essential nature (a cat is always a cat and can only make more cats).

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