Friday, May 23, 2008

Sexual reproduction

Sexual reproduction happens like this.[note 1] The male and the female join as one biologically complete whole, and this whole produces the offspring. (Note: The two moments—the joining and the reproduction—should not be seen as separate, since the joining occurs in and through the striving for reproduction.)

This has an interesting consequence. While we think of someone's parents as two individuals, Bob and Jane, there is a real sense in which the origin of the child lies not so much in Bob and in Jane, as in the united Bob and Jane.

Suppose that Bob and Jane are no longer "together", whether through divorce, or because their sexual union was completely a one-night stand. Then there is a sense in which the child is an orphan—the united whole from which the child originated no longer exists.[note 2]

And if the child originated not from a biologically united whole but from in vitro fertilization (IVF), then the child never had an originating biological whole. Interestingly, a child produced through cloning has more of a biologically united whole at the origin—for the parent from whom it is cloned is such a whole—than a child produced by IVF.

The above is merely descriptive. Can any normative consequences be drawn just from these considerations? Is there perhaps an argument against reproduction except through sexual union in the context of a 'til-death-do-us-part marriage in these considerations? Perhaps it is impermissible to make a child without a commitment to at least strive to keep the child from being an orphan, by striving to maintain the relationship and preserve the lives of the individual parents?

In general, we can ask whether a child can have a right to have a particular kind of origin? I actually think the answer is positive. For instance, a child has a right to not to be procreated with the sole motive being the production of organs, a right that goes beyond the right not to be afterwards used as a mere source of organs. A child has a right not to be procreated in a way that treats the child as artifact. If these thoughts are right, then one may have a right to a particular kind of origin, even though, of course, one wouldn't exist without that kind of origin.


Enigman said...

Normative consequences might follow from a description that carved nature at the joints, but does this "one biologically complete whole" do that? I fail to see what that description is describing. What is biological completion here? With fish, sperm is scattered over external eggs; and the mammalian method seems to have been a development of that.

I do think that there is some sort of mystical union taking place when people do these things properly, but I wonder how much of that is biological, and how much derives from the greater closeness we can (but may well not) feel at such times, a closeness that is more heavenly, than biological.

Anonymous said...

There is one particular qualm I have with this: What about situations where the unified no longer exists because of death? (After all, it is "'til death do us part.") It doesn't seem right to call an orphan in that sense, and that makes me question the usefulness of the term. A more interesting notion to me would be abandonment: when biological parents separate from the union that produced the child willingly and intentionally, their acts could be seen (in a sense) as abandonment. I think that this argument might be stronger with this language rather than orphanhood.

larryniven said...

I'm with enigman: in what sense am I not biologically complete right now? Further, it's a bit wonky to say that the "joined whole" is what ends up producing the child when one part of that whole only acts for, being generous, an hour of the 9ish months over which the child is produced. In particular, the male could die before the child is produced - theoretically, even at or just before the moment of orgasm (thus, before the biological components that form the child even meet). This just seems all out of whack to me.

Alexander R Pruss said...


You're not complete now insofar as you do not have a complete reproductive system. That the male need not survive only means that the child can be an orphan.


Clearly when they are not unified because of death, the child is an orphan in the ordinary sense.


What is unique about sexual union is that it is physical. Spiritual union with other people can be achieved in other, sometimes more effective, ways, such as co-founding a monastery and praying together always.

Enigman said...

Alexander, re your reply to Larry, we are none of us biologically complete as individuals, or even as breeding pairs, since we are social animals. So your argument might naturally extend to something as communistic as regarding the Kibbutz as the Parent, it seems to me.

Alexander R Pruss said...


But we can at least fulfill the basic biological functions of all organisms with only two people--we can live, grow and reproduce. It is true that specifically human flourishing requires more.

Enigman said...

But (i) we can only fulfill those functions within an ecosphere like this one. And even if that is somehow a given (although the biological line is naturally fuzzy) we would have to be very lucky to survive as only two people. We just are not designed for such functionality. Which brings me to (ii), the fact that a woman might reproduce without a male. Apparently it is possible.

Alexander R Pruss said...

I suspect you're overstating the difficulty of a pair of people surviving in a warm climate.

Actually, it appears to be possible even for a man to reproduce asexually (twinning), but it isn't the normal form of human reproduction and can only happen during the first fourteen days of one's life.

larryniven said...

I really think you're stretching the phrase "biologically complete" somewhat in your response, Alex. If I need stuff that's external to me in order to be biologically complete, then enigman's next point is correct: that my "biological completeness" also requires things like food, air, a place to sleep, and so on. I think at that point the notion of biological completeness has gone too far afield.

Also, I don't think your second response adequately defends what you expressed as the process of sexual reproduction: "The male and the female join as one biologically complete whole [whatever that consists of], and this whole produces the offspring...the joining and the reproduction should not be seen as separate." Again, the joining can happen with one of them already dead (perhaps both, given the right setup?), at which point the "whole" no longer produces anything, because the "whole" is in fact (at least) half dead. Orphan or otherwise, the production that's happening doesn't depend at all on there being a "biological whole" for the entire process or even any significant part of it, was my point.

Alexander R Pruss said...

When one is dead, there is no real joining--there is only adjoining. :-)

Alexander R Pruss said...

I should explain. Of course it is possible to "join" organisms with glue, say. But unless organisms are cooperating together in virtue of being joined, this is not a joining as an organic whole.

Enigman said...

Incidentally (very), in your 2000 paper you claim, about condoms, the pill and coitus interruptus and so forth, that: "By deliberately modifying the sexual act so as to make it less biologically unifying [...] the couple is necessarily (but perhaps not consciously) signifying that that they wish to be less united as persons than they could otherwise be."

But they may only be signifying a wish to be less united in that way (as co-parents), which is compatible with a more general wish to be more united as persons, surely?

I am thinking of (not a brilliant metaphor) a rich connoisseur (of wine or food or whatever) forgoing the deeper pleasures of swallowing, sometimes (perhaps most times, since rich), or popping a fictional pill (so reducing the body's ability to metabolise fats, sugars, alcohol or whatever to a level some people have naturally, cf. infertile people), or inserting some barrier to the absorption of such, so as to more deeply appreciate the products of the producer, who is deeply admired and valued.

While we desire food because of the effects that only follow from swallowing, much human artistry is possible, with what is (for whatever reason) desired; and so a deeper relationship (e.g. between cook and connoisseur, centred on the food) is possible, by artificially restricting the swallowing or whatever. A nice aspect of that metaphor is that while such behaviour might be justifiable only in a rich world (where such waste was OK), artificial contraceptions tend to make the world richer (via reduced demographic pressures).