SCIENCE CHALLENGES DOCTRINE by Frank Lawlor

This is a guest post by emeritus and octogenarian biologist Frank Lawlor examining at some depth the serious disconnect between science and religion in the area of human reproduction.  Whatever wounds religion has suffered from the encounter with science in this regard have been self-inflicted.  Certainly it is uncomfortable for everyone to be faced with having to abandon cherished beliefs and adjust to reality.  But the Catholic Church’s insistence that it was in possession of the absolute truth in these matters has made the eventual and inevitable adjustment more than uncomfortable, it has made it an embarrassment … and embarrassment has entailed denial.  For, how embarrassing is it to admit that both your premises and your methodology are shown by the facts to be flawed? 

Frank’s piece helps us understand why it is so hard for the Catholic Church to adjust.  Perhaps understanding things at the depth Frank elucidates will provide reformers with resources that will prevent superficial responses that are no solutions at all.

by Frank Lawlor

1. The Biology of Reproduction — from Aristotle to Modern Times  

It has been said that bad biology leads to bad theology.   For almost two thousand years Aristotle’s “scientific” analysis of the biological process of reproduction held exclusive sway for scientists and theologians, who were usually one and the same person.  Aristotle made some very careful observations on reproduction as he observed it in a wide variety of species.  His data were limited by the lack of any instrumentation and his conclusions were not challenged until the invention of the microscope about two thousand years later.  His generalized description of the process is based on the biased idealogical assumption that the male is the sole cause of human generation by means of the semen’s pneuma (air, breath).  Only in the nineteenth century did this word semen, (literally “seed”) refer to sperm cells.  For Aristotle conception began within the female body when the seminal liquid caused the menstrual blood to “set” within seven days after intercourse and this somewhat vague event enabled conception to occur.  Very likely Aristotle inferred this part of the process from the fact that, when conception occurs after intercourse, the woman does not have her next menstrual period.  The key philosophical inference made by him was that seminal fluid contributed the “essential form” of the human being;  and the female menstrual blood was the nutritive liquid that supplied the “material form” necessary for growth.  From this time on,  for almost two millennia,  the term “conception” referred to a very specific process totally different from the process this term connotes today.  This difference is necessitated by the fact that prior to the mid nineteenth century, there was no concept of the living cells that make up all living entities.  No one had even postulated either a sperm cell or an egg cell or skin cell or any other kind of cell before Robert Hooke, in 1665, discovered this basic building block of every plant, fish, insect or animal.  The very concept of the microscopic biota, an entire realm of living matter consisting of millions of species, was not even a speculative element of human thought until Hooke, using an early microscope, discovered microscopic life in pond water and the cells in plants and animals.

This primitive pre-cellular biology guided the theologians for almost 2000 years.   For instance: Applied to the conception of Jesus,  Aristotle’s biology meant that Mary did not contribute genetically at all to her child.    She, like every mother, contributed only in a nutritional sense to her son’s physical existence. The mother receives the male seed from the father and nurtures its development. This process can influence the health of the fetus and nutritionally cause the child after birth to look in some respects like the mother and show some other maternal influences.  Therefore,  philosophically the mother does not contribute to what Aristotle called the “essential form” of her child.  This is a consequence that allowed the theologians to avoid a complication which would have a bearing on the divinity of Jesus.

According to Aristotle’s biological model it would be the mother’s fault if there were any defects in the child.  Being a female was considered a severe defect caused by the mother as would be other mental deficiencies or physical deformities.  Everything good physically or morally or intellectually is credited to the father.  Everything undesirable is conveniently deemed to be the mother’s fault.   King Henry the eighth blamed his wives for their failure to supply him with a male heir.  Henry’s reasoning might have made Aristotelian sense  according to the bad biology of the day but his subsequent deadly behavior has made him one of History’s great villains.

If we look further into Aristotle’s model we find that he postulated that the developing organism, after conception,  went through several pre-human stages of development.  The first was called Vegetative suggesting the life functions of plants.  The second was Animal or Sensitive which was analogous to the functions of “lower” animals.  The final stage, reached at forty days for males and fifty days for females, was Intellective (human: thinking, reasoning).  Aristotle also taught that a different sort of soul was divinely infused at each level.  Aquinas and other Christian theologians saw practical implications of this developmental process.  They judged the moral levels of abortion as determined by the stage of development of the fetus.  A similar nuanced moral judgement has not been made by modern theologians depending on the neural development of the fetus and infant as determined by modern biology.

This epigenesis (theory of embryonic development) is somewhat parallel to the early modern (19th Century) analysis that concluded:  “Ontogeny recapitulates philogeny”. In plain English, “Fetal development goes through stages which reenact the evolutionary stages of living species”. This model, proposed by Ernst Haeckel around 1880, is based on observations of the developing embryo which at various times physically resembles the adult stages of evolution proceeding from from single celled organisms through simple multiple cellular life to more complex life forms such as fish, reptile, mammal, then primate and finally human.  This theory was influenced by Darwin’s thinking but was not based on good data and subsequently was scientifically rejected.

The long persistence of Aristotle’s errors concerning reproduction lasted even beyond 1665 when Robert Hooke first developed and applied the use of the microscope to living matter too small to be analyzed with the unaided eye.  He discovered the cell, the basic building block of plants and animals, as noted earlier.  In 1667 Anton Van Leeuwenhock discovered a specific kind of cell in semen, which he named the sperm cell or spermatozoa.  He did not credit this cell with the special role it was later found to have in conception.  In fact, he theorized that this cell was a parasite.  Therefore his discovery did not end the Aristotelian era of reproductive theory.

Scientists continued long after 1667 to hold to the basic analysis of Aristotle giving sole causation of human life to the male through his liquid semen.  Van Leeuwenhock claimed that a human originates from an “animalcule” that is found in the male semen but he did not identify this with the spermatozoa.  Some other microscopists of the time began to suggest that the spermatozoa was the active agent in conception.  Strangely,  they thought that they could discern a tiny man curled up inside each male sperm cell. They called this little creature a “homunculus”.  This “bad Biology” represents a small step toward the actual role of the sperm cell. From 1667 to 1878 the strange picture presented by these scientists of a tiny human being folded up within the sperm cell certainly strengthened the Catholic horror of masturbation.  Under this scientific model some theologians declared that masturbation would constitute a mass murder of homunculi.  About two decades ago the most recent appearance of this silly moral outrage came in a public pronouncement when the elderly Jesuit confessor of John Paul II decried masturbation as “murder”!  The scientific blunder and its related Theological aberration demonstrate the importance of developing better lenses for microscopes!  About this same period in the history of science, Astronomers suffered a similar debacle when some observers were convinced that they saw intricate canal systems on Mars!  It was proof of intelligent life on Mars.  The effects of this error were not theological but they did stimulate very imaginative science fiction!   We might add to the old dictum: “Bad biology survives long after its apparent demise”.

During the eighteenth century some observers such as Reinier Van de Graaf (1767) described the ovary but its product, the ovum,  was only first observed in 1827 by Karl Ernst von Baer.  After this observation many scientists favored the theory that the human egg had the dominant role in conception.  For a while Biologists were divided into two camps,  the spermatists and the ovists.  Improved microscopic resolution and magnification by 1878 enabled Walther Flemming to discover the basics of the process of conception which involved an actual fusion of a sperm cell and an egg cell.  This fusion is what we would today call “conception”.  It is however, a complex process involving pairing of genetic material rather than an instantaneous event.  This discovery was an historical breakthrough which marked the final demise of  Aristotle’s Model of Reproduction.

This huge breakthrough gave irrefutable proof that both parents have the same basic role in reproduction.  Each parent is equally responsible for the existence and genetic characteristics of their child.  The implications of this were revolutionary for the equality of women.  The reverberations of this still shake up the politics,  public morality, and the legal system of the twenty first century.  The implications for the proper role of women within the Roman Catholic Church have yet to be realized in a practical manner.

By no means was this the end of the biological investigation of reproduction.   As microscopy advanced,  in the last years of the eighteenth century, the hereditary cellular organelles, the chromosomes, were discovered within the nucleus of all cells.  Their role in reproduction and their function was not known.  Finally,  in the early 1900s a biologist,  Thomas Morgan, discovered that these chromosomes played a key role in inheritance.  In humans a full set of twenty three paired chromosomes (giving a total of 46 human chromosomes) is resident in the nucleus of  all body cells.  This fact amazingly revealed that in the average adult 10 trillion cells have the entire blueprint for that particular human being!  Microscopic observation showed that each chromosome was a linked pair.  One chromosome in each pair is received at conception from the mother and the other member of the pair is from the father.   When the reproductive cells,  sperm and ova, are formed these pairs split up with one half of each pair contained in the nucleus of the male sperm cells and,  when the female ova are formed,  one half of each chromosome pair is contained in each female egg cell.  When the sperm cell and the egg cell became a single cell at conception,  the half chromosome pairs from each are combined into a single full set of 23 paired human chromosomes in the fetus.  The splitting of one particular chromosome pair in the male determines the sex of the offspring.  Aristotle blamed the mother for sex differences whereas we now know that it is the male’s fault.  King Henry should have blamed himself!

The scientific community in the opening decade of the twentieth century had finally identified heredity details of the process of reproduction.  For many of us today the basic scientific understanding made by Flemming came within the lifetimes of our own grandparents.  The discovery of how heredity is transmitted by the chromosomes was made in our parent’s lifetime.  The discovery that the actual genetic agent carried in the chromosomes was DNA (a chemical structure) was a scientific breakthrough in our own lifetimes.  In that short period of history the two thousand year dominance of the badly mistaken scientific analysis of reproduction was completely rejected and replaced by solid scientific discoveries.  Considering the close linkage between Biology and Theology,  there has not been a corresponding revolution in Theology.

More recently,  the effects of the Genome Project which built upon the new scientific foundations of reproductive Biology and the discovery of DNA, are being applied in the new field of Genetic Engineering.  What this means is that we are witnessing the earliest stages of mankind’s ability to direct the next steps in the process of evolution.  The effects of this New Biology for Doctrine will be huge.

 2. Some implications for the Theology of Reproduction

There have been some other areas of conflict between the developing scientific model of reproduction and Catholic Doctrine.  Two thousand years of bad biology has led to the present mishmash of sexual confusion promulgated as Catholic Doctrine.  This is not a phenomenon limited to Catholic morality, it is ubiquitous among many Christian sects, as demonstrated by the present campaign in many States, like Mississippi, to have the newly fertilized zygote, (not yet an ordered structure of cells (a blastocyte), defined legally as a “human person”.   The doctrinal reason often given is that “at the moment of conception” God Himself infuses a human soul into the single cell which from that moment on is a human being.  The “scientific” basis for this “ensoulment” theory was proposed by Aristotle who postulated the three stage ensoulment which we discussed earlier.  Somehow, the three stages with their three souls was dropped.  Now we are asked to accept as a human being a cell which cannot survive even for a few minutes outside of the mother’s uterus.  This cell multiplies rapidly but only reaches the size of a grain of rice after about a week.  The early days of its existence are very dangerous for survival.  Only about 25 out of every hundred fertilized human cells survive to reach birth. About one third do not survive the very first step in the developmental process.  These cells fail to implant in the womb.   The rest of the 75 do not survive to term.  This is a perfectly natural process.  Similar statistics apply to other mammals.   Apparently “ensoulment” is no guarantee of life as a human being even without the malevolent intervention of a human abortionist.  One might expect that careful analysis of the Biology involved should lead theologians to a more reasonable approach to what it means to be a human person.

There is a very extensive scientific literature devoted to the progressive development of the various organic systems of the embryo,  the fetus, the infant and the toddler.  This developmental process is virtually complete at birth except for the development of the neurological system.  The earliest neurological development involves basic reactions such as pain which function to prevent damage to the fetus within the womb by stimulating movement.  The neural control of muscles is another progressive development.  As neurons develop throughout the body and in the brain the synaptic connections between neurons also increase in complexity.  Before birth the fetus reacts to sound and touch.  By the time of birth various autonomic reactions are already developed that function for survival involving feeding,  breathing,  temperature reactions, touch in avoiding pain, etc.  These reactions are essential for survival.  The nervous system indicates that the infant is a sentient organism but not yet neurologically developed sufficiently to demonstrate rational thought.  The development of speech is an indicator of an ongoing increase of the synapses in the brain devoted to the rational functions.  It is used by parents and pediatricians to indicate normal neural development.  All of this biological data suggest that personhood may be the endpoint of an ongoing process and not a characteristic “infused at conception”.

It seems somewhat contradictory that despite the Doctrine that every fertilized cell is a human being with an immortal soul, no ritual has been devised to baptize these little pagans so that they will escape the eternal fires of Hell. This fate has been part of the ancient Doctrine defended by Augustine and only subjected to theological equivocation recently with the eradication of Limbo.  Of course, as we said, most of these deceased “persons” are reabsorbed into the mother’s body unless the death occurs late enough in the pregnancy to be observed as a miscarriage.  However, even in this latter case there ordinarily is no ritual baptism suggested.  The theological implications of “personhood” are not applied in practice (perhaps because they are not taken seriously?).

This last statement perhaps is premature in light of the fact that a law was recently proposed in one of the States requiring a woman who has suffered a miscarriage to report this immediately to the police who must then investigate in order to determine if she is to be charged with murder.  If she does not report this she could be subject to prosecution and a jail sentence.  In this case, as in so many others related to reproduction,  the relevant theology leads to a reductio ad absurdum.  The Biology leading some to such a Theology is certainly “bad Biology”!  The Aids vs condum dispute is surely an example as is the recent disputed abortion carried out in a Catholic hospital to save a mother’s life.

As a Biological aside here: The parental genetic contribution that determines the individuality of the next generation is not exactly equally contributed by each parent.  There are certain parts of the DNA that are solely maternal and do not originate from the father. This particular bit of hereditary material resides only in every ovum and not in the sperm.  They are essential organelles of every offspring cell and are called mitochondria.  Their job in the cells is to enable the cell to use oxygen in producing the energy needed by the cell to function.  They contain a bit of DNA for self replication to enable every cell to do this using its own mitochondria.  Very important thing this maternal gift!  If this had been known in ancient days perhaps societies would have be matrilineal?  Perhaps having a recognized biological advantage women would  have exclusively been our clergy and hierarchy?

The very basic discovery of the active role of both parents in responsibility for the “essential form” of the offspring had theological implications for the place of Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the mid nineteenth century, with modern scientific analysis of the biological processes of reproduction progressing beyond Aristotle, a new theological Doctrine was declared to explain how Jesus could be conceived by the active bodily contribution from a sinful daughter of Adam. This is not a big problem if Mary, like all mothers under Aristotle’s analysis, was mainly the passive receptacle of the male “seed” but instead she was shown by science to have a genetically active role. This conflict required theologians to raise Mary above all other mothers by declaring her to be unique in not herself inheriting the curse of inherited “original sin” at her own conception and therefore not passing this genetically on to her child (as Augustine’s theology requires).  Rome declared this Doctrine of The Immaculate Conception in 1854.  This declaration followed the early progress in reproductive Biology (1824) and occurred just about when the  “Ovists” and “Spermatists” were debating and preceded Flemming’s  breakthrough in 1878.

A painful lesson was learned long ago in the case of Galileo whose scientific discovery of Earth’s orbiting the Sun contradicted the Biblical story of the Sun’s movement around Earth.  The Bible is clear in describing the Sun, which by a Divine miracle stopped orbiting the Earth in order to prolong the daylight necessary for the Jewish army to defeat an enemy.  Galileo’s discovery clearly contradicted the Bible.  Perhaps more serious was that if Galileo was correct then Earth was demoted as the center of the Universe and mankind was not the centerpiece of all of creation!  Galileo was tried in a Church court for the capital crime of heresy.  Although found guilty,  he was not burned at an ecclesiastical barbecue but was sentenced to silence and house arrest for the rest of his life.  It was later irrefutably shown by Newton that such a miracle would instantly destroy Earth and the whole solar system!  Galileo was right.  This historical (and embarasing) lesson showed the adjustment of theology to be a much more sensible solution to a theological crisis than rejecting the findings of science.  I would suggest that in the light of the last hundred years or so of Biological discovery in the field of reproduction,  there needs to be quite a bit of Theological adjusting if Doctrine is to remain at all credible.

Frank Lawlor