by Paul Niquette
Copyright ©1996 Resource Books All rights reserved.

zygote n. 

  1. The cell formed by the union of two gametes. 
  2. The organism that develops from such a cell as characterized by its genetic constitution and subsequent development.
"That's nothing," sneered the little boy to his sister.  "I remember back before I was born!  I remember when God said, 'Stand up, I want to put your eyes in'."

All right, so I fudged.

The entries in 101 Words I Don't Use are in alphabetical order.  I shopped around for what I wanted to be the last one.  The dictionary offered me "zyzzyva," any of various tropical American weevils often destructive to plants.  You can be sure, I do not use the word "zyzzyva."  But I have nothing to say about it either.

A few words before that is "zygote," which I may have used long ago in a biology class.  I do have something to say about that word, so here it is.  I suppose I have hereby constrained myself not to use the word "zygote" anymore.  Small price to pay.

If "senior citizen" denotes the one minority to which we all aspire (see old age), then "zygote" denotes the one minority from which we all emerge.
One morning some time ago, I woke up with a sentence repeating itself in my head:
"The movement of first moment is the moment of first movement."
The thing reminded me of a cardinal principle of rational thought, which I may have heard first expressed by Carl Sagan: "Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence."  There must be a name for word reversals that produce this figure of speech, but I didn't know what it was (I found out later that the term 'antimetabole' comes close).

Nevertheless, it is visual images that supposedly dominate dreams, not logic -- and not words.  I awoke mystified.  Suddenly I recalled the previous day's news from Washington.

While considering this country's most vexing social issue, legislators became drawn into a debate of the philosophical question: When does a human life actually begin?  In other words, when does a zygote become a person?

There emerged a crusade of highest intensity ("movement of first moment") which urged lawmakers to regard the "quickening" ("moment of first movement") as the demarkation line between zygote and human being -- after which deliberate termination is wrong enough to be declared unlawful.

The mystery of my dream was cleared up.  But, alas, not the issue.

What, if anything, is it to be a human being?  Once we leave zygotehood behind, how do we distinguish ourselves from other creatures, including the computers we build?  There are plenty of answers around -- and people far more qualified than I to provide them.  Mind if I try?

Humans don't have to learn from experience.
I mean that every which way.
  • Once burned, twice cautious.  Fine.  For lizards, maybe.  But we humans go on playing with fire.  We get burned again, too.  Or once in awhile come up with something useful.
  • Experience is the best teacher.  Whoever first said that didn't have Mr. Wilson for Physics 1A.  Must not have been much of a reader, either.  Humans read.  That's neat.
If 101 Words I Don't Use has a unifying theme, it is that "volition" is the most beautiful word in any language.  That's what I think, anyway.
  • Being human means celebrating volition at every opportunity.
  • Being human means going against advice, against precedent, against experience.
  • Being human means reaching out with your mind and glomming onto knowledge from teachers, from books, and from -- well, from experience, too.  That's up to you.
  • Being human means understanding -- maybe not always with perfection -- the problems of other beings not just like ourselves.  Lizards don't do that.  Neither do computers.  All right, maybe dogs do.  But dogs don't read.  So there.

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