Angilbert (fl. ca. 840/50), On the Battle Which was Fought at Fontenoy

The Law of Christians is broken,
Blood by the hands of hell profusely shed like rain,
And the throat of Cerberus bellows songs of joy.

Angelbertus, Versus de Bella que fuit acta Fontaneto

Fracta est lex christianorum
Sanguinis proluvio, unde manus inferorum,
gaudet gula Cerberi.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Tribute to Moloch: Is Broca Only His Brain?

IN THE MUSÉE DE L'HOMME IN PARIS, atop the hill of Trocadéro overlooking the Seine valley and the Eiffel Tower can be found, Carl Sagan tells us though I have not seen it, in a jar of formalin, the brain of the French physician, anatomist, and anthropologist Pierre Paul Broca (1824-1880). How much of Paul Broca is left in this brain? Carl Sagan asks in his bestseller Broca's Brain.

Perhaps the better question is how much of Paul Broca, if any at all, was ever in his brain? Did Pierre Paul Broca exist before his brain existed?

Was there any of Paul Broca in his body? If Paul Broca's body sans his brain was preserved in a cask of Amontillado, sort of like Admiral Nelson's in a cask of brandy with traces of camphor and myrrh, how much of Paul Broca would have been left in that body without a brain? Would Paul Broca have been split into two: part of it at the Musée de l'Homme in the cask of formalin, part of it in a cask of Amontillado wherever stored? Would there be more of Paul Broca with us if we took the brain from the cask of formalin and incorporated it back into the skull preserved in the cask of Amontillado? The questions seem silly, because Paul Broca is dead, both in his brain and in his body. Taken out of the preservational fluids, the inanimate body and brain would soon spoil, putrefy, and disintegrate into its component elements.

How much of Broca is in his brain?

We cannot say the same thing in the beginning of Paul Broca's life. There was a time, in the beginning of his life, where Paul Broca had no brain, and only the rudiments of a body. He was found not preserved in a cask of formalin or of brandy, but living in an amniotic sack full of amniotic fluid. Was Paul Broca Paul Broca only when his brain waves could be detected at about six to eight weeks' gestation, and not Paul Broca before then? Was Paul Broca at six-weeks' gestation the same Paul Broca whose brain is now in formaldehyde? If not, then why would neither Paul Broca nor his brain have been here had he been aborted as a six-week-old fetus? Why would neither Paul Broca nor his brain have been here had he been aborted at the end of his third trimester? Either way, Paul Broca without a brain or with a brain would not have been, and we would be at the Musée de l'Homme looking at an empty jar that said "the Brain of Paul Broca that never was." We'd shrug our shoulders with little interest and move on to find Descartes's skull to see what we could learn from it. And Carl Sagan never would have written his book, and he would have enjoyed less royalties and less people would have been misinformed by his materialistic philosophy.

Descartes's Skull

Had we taken Paul Broca's one-celled zygote and, instead of putting it in a cask of formaldehyde, cryogenically preserved it for one hundred fifty years, and later implanted it in some willing French rent-a-womb, would we not have Pierre Paul Broca be with us today?

Pierre Paul Broca, though he had no brain, would be in the one cell of that zygote in a manner in which he never was, and never will be, in his separate brain in the Musée de l'Homme. This is because Pierre Paul Broca's zygote--without a brain, without any brain waves whatsoever--would be alive. And Broca's body and brain--without any brain waves whatsoever--is dead.

The absence of brain waves in the beginning of life is clearly different from the absence of brain waves at the end of life. Yet the vast difference between the lack of brain waves at the beginning, and the lack of brain waves at the end appears completely to elude those who suggest that human life really begins only when brain waves are detected. The absence of brain waves when a human being is alive and when their coming is foreseeable is world's apart from the absence of brain waves when a man is dead and their coming is unforeseeable, indeed, barring a miracle, physically impossible.

The brain looms large in the debate between abortionists and advocates of traditional morality. Like Carl Sagan, abortion advocates want to tag one's humanity to the presence of a brain, "brain birth" so to speak, and so they argue that since the fetus has no measurable brain activity for its first six weeks of life, it cannot be human life, and so may properly be snuffed out without qualms of conscience. Since a working brain is necessary for a normally functioning human life, the advocates of abortion argue that the absence of it allows the inference that we are not dealing with anything human. But this is to confuse categories.

While the brain is required for normal human life, and the complete absence of it spells death, the existence of a brain is not equivalent to human life.

We know this by observation: there are human beings that are profoundly and irreversibly mentally disabled: indeed there are infants who are tragically born anencephalic, without a brain, and yet what else are they but human beings? The defect from which they suffer is not unlike any other defect: of limbs, or organs, or anything else. Why should the child without a brain be treated any different from the child without legs? The child was genetically programmed to have a brain, and something has interfered with the normal progress through no fault of his own.

We also know this because a zygote without brain waves is something entirely different than a corpse without brain waves. So the analogy between "brain death" and "brain birth" fails for lack of parallelism. As Professor Raymond J. Devetterre* observes in his book Practical Decisions in Health Care Ethics: Cases and Concepts:

There is a significant difference between a fetus without brain life and a human being who has lost brain life and is brain dead. The fetus is alive and the brain-dead patient is dead. The brain-dad patient is dead because he has suffered the irreversible loss of all brain functions. The fetus has not suffered any such loss and therefore is not dead. A brain cannot be considered dead if it never lived--death always follows life. True, neither the six-week fetus nor the brain-dead individual has brain life, but the former is alive . . . and the latter is dead. The fundamental difference between life and death undermines the analogy between an early fetus and a brain-dead patient.

For these reasons, comparing an early fetus with a whole-brain-dead patient does not seem to be a bad idea. The early fetus is not dead but alive; it simply has not yet developed awareness. . . . A patient declared dead by the whole-brain-death criterion is dead; a developing fetus, or even an embryo for that matter, is living.
Deveterre, 145.

Brain activity it would seem is an inadequate measure of human life in its incipient stages of development. To recruit it in the abortion debate is to ignore the lack of parallelism between "brain death" and "brain birth." It is to ignore the difference between Pierre Paul Broca as a living zygote in his Huguenot mother Annette Broca née Thomas's womb in 1823 and Pierre Paul Broca as a lifeless brain in a jar at the Musée de l'Homme in Paris in 2010.

*Raymond J. Devettere, Practical Decision Making in Health Care Ethics: Cases and Concepts (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2010) (3rd ed.). I disagree with Devettere's "one of us" test of human life, but his observations on the lack of parallelism between the lack of brain activity at the beginning of life and the lack of brain activity at the end seems accurate and concisely stated. That is the only reason for which he is cited, and no agreement with any of his other views ought to be inferred.

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