Post-Mormon. Ex-Mormon. Agnostic. Atheist. Humanist. Feminist. Liberal.
These are all labels that I have used to describe myself at one time or another. When asked to define my religious beliefs, the long answer is that I am an agnostic atheist humanist with strong feminist and egalitarian ideals. For a short answer, I reply either humanist or agnostic, depending on my mood at the time. I choose to define myself as a post-Mormon, as I feel the term implies a less negative connotation than ex-Mormon, although ex is also an accurate descriptor. Sometimes others will describe me as an “anti”-Mormon, although I do not consider myself to be such. I may have left the Mormon Church – and there are issues within Mormonism that need to be addressed – but I do love the Mormons in my life.
In science, language has to be precise. The first important example I was taught – in an introductory developmental biology class – was the difference between cell fate specification and determination. During the course of embryonic development, cells adopt certain fates – this is how an entire complex organism develops from a single fertilized egg. During the course of development, cells go from an undifferentiated state to adopting specific differentiated fates. This is how muscle cells, neurons, epidermal cells, and everything in-between develop to form an entire complex organism. This is the process that makes developmental biology – and life – so beautiful and fascinating.
There are two primary steps that occur during the process of differentiation – specification and determination. A cell that is specified will develop autonomously if placed in a neutral environment such as a petri dish. If a specified cell is placed in an environment with conflicting differentiation signals, then this cell will adopt an alternative fate depending on the signals received. Specification is a stage that is still labile and can be altered based on extrinsic signals. Cell-fate determination is a fixed stage; the cell will adopt the same fate even if placed in an environment with conflicting signals. By this point, differentiation is intrinsic. Many of the classic developmental biology studies involved cutting pieces of a developing organism and transplanting from one area of the embryo to another in order to study how development was affected. As differentiation progressed from specified to determined, the organisms that developed from these experiments became weirder and weirder. The classic example – performed by Hilde Mangold in the 1920’s – involved transplanting an area known as the dorsal lip region, which resulted in the development of embryos with secondary body axes.
Precise language is important in all areas of life. Imprecise language can lead to fights and to confusion when communicating complex ideas. And although I do label myself as an agnostic atheist humanist with strong feminist and egalitarian ideals, there are still many examples where the use of labels can hurt rather than help. The label may be innocent enough – feminism is defined as “the doctrine advocating social, political, and all other rights equal to men – the emotions associated with the feminist label can be quite negative. I know my personal definition of the labels I use to describe myself – do others define these labels in the same manner that I do? If I meet another agnostic atheist humanist with strong feminist and egalitarian ideals, does that mean we have the same views or do they have a different interpretation of what these labels mean? When other people use labels to describe themselves, is my understanding the same as theirs?
Note: This illustration of the famous dorsal lip transplantation experiments, as performed by Hilde Mangold, was taken from Gilbert's "Development Biology" textbook, 6th edition, which can be accessed publicly at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9983/ The exact figure used can be accessed at http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK10101/figure/A2302/?report=objectonly
Note: This is an experimental post on my behalf - I would love to hear feedback on how effectively I was able to communicate the biology concept, as I am pretty inexperienced talking about biology to a general audience. If the example is too arcane or poorly explained, please don't hesitate to give feedback.