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


12 comments on “SCIENCE CHALLENGES DOCTRINE by Frank Lawlor

  1. Marge Schuler says:

    Thank you, Frank, for this very informative piece.
    I think many people, maybe the majority of Catholics, intuitively sense error in the theological position of the church on reproduction even though it is framed as being “pro-life.” Polls consistently show that a majority of Catholics approve of abortion law as currently written and practice contraception at the same rate as everybody else. Yet, there is little open challenge to the Church on these matters. I suggest a major reason for this silence is people’s lack of scientific understanding of the issues. Besides, who wants to be accused of being against life? Still, I think people would prefer to rely on science rather than simple intuition—or even better would welcome science as a bolster to their intuition.
    I thank you for your contribution to the discussion.

  2. Bob Willis says:

    I echo Marge’s thanks, Frank. I found your explanation both clear and helpful.

    I am left with one question or at least one wondering. From what you said about the genetic pairing and the process of fetal development, may I infer that a biologist cannot say when the developing fetus is a human being? I of course understand that the whole process of conception and fetal development occur within the context of a human being and because of the contributions of human sperm and ovum, but, then, a lot of things occur within the human context, e.g. fingernails, hair, body fat, intestinal waste that we don’t have any trouble doing away with and that we don’t equate with being a human being.

    If a biologist cannot say from his or her scientific perspective when the fetus is a “human being,” then I am left with the obvious conclusion that Catholic bishops and theologians, supposedly expert in church history and scripture, not experts in biology, don’t have any scientific basis for declaring that the human being comes into existence at the moment of conception. Moreover, they have no scientific basis for asserting that the soul is infused by God into the fetal life at the moment of conception. And, as far as I know, the church has never declared as a matter of faith at what point God infuses a soul and thus “creates” a human being.

    I do not, therefore, find any solid basis for outlawing contraception as being supposedly stopping a human being from coming into existence (especially so in light of your discussion about the unlucky demise of 75% of fertilized ova). Nor do I find any scientific basis for saying that any and all abortions are murder of a human child (we don’t seem to have much problem with eating a living carrot, nor do we call that “murder”!).

    I do understand, however, that it is a “safer” moral position, one favored by the “probabiliorists,” (one must do what is more likely to be moral) to declare off limits any and all human activity from the moment of conception just in case there might be a human being there at that moment. A less “safe” position, one taken by “probabilists”, is that when we don’t know for certain that something is evil we are then free to do what seems reasonable to us. Again, to my knowledge, the church has never declared officially and dogmatically that one must be a “probabiliorist” to be a good Catholic.

    The hierarchical battle against contraception and abortion is not a scientific one, nor is it a theological one. Rather, it is political one. It gets the sentimental votes of the ill-informed who will die in defense of a helpless and innocent human baby (even when we don’t even know it is one!). Moreover, the hierarchy hangs shrewdly on to a fundamental truth: if we can control the bedroom, then we have the control that makes us both important and needed.

  3. Frank Lawlor says:

    Thanks for your thoughtful reply. As Mr Lentz has proved over and over, a word like “baby” is very effective in distorting a political discussion. Accurate words such as “embryo” or “fetus” don’t have the same emotional impact. The same thing with a slogan like : ” Life begins at the moment of conception”. Of course, both cells that interact in conception are and have been alive. Life therefore precedes conception. Life continues at conception as a single celled living organism. I don’t see that this organism can possibly be considered human. It shows no characteristics or behaviors that would identify it as human. During the development of the fetus it more and more shows its human destiny. At what point would this be considered a human?
    The question: “Does human life begin at conception?” can be considered from a scientific point of view if there can be an agreement on exactly what it is that constitutes “human” and then ask if there are physical correlates of that. It has been pointed out elsewhere that science tells the physician at the end of life that a flat brain wave signals the end of a human life. If this same indicator can be used to signal the beginning of a human life, then it is possible to measure this variable in the course of the developing fetal neural system and use it to answer the question. However, at what point could a brain wave analysis indicate that the organism is functioning as a human as distinct from other mammals? The “infusion” of a distinct and individual human soul is a matter of Doctrine: end of discussion! Only God knows when the infusion happens.
    This soul is beyond the the measurements of any scientific instrument. I don’t know exactly why the scientific criterion is accepted by theologians for “de-soulment”, (the flat brain wave). Logically medicine should be required to keep the blood circulating, oxygen administered etc. indefinitely, for years perhaps, until God returns to get the soul back out.

    As for contraception: At the point in history when science became separated from Philosophy, it is my contention that the first big break with the past came when Aristotle’s idea that we can understand nature by examining nature and inferring what the built-in purpose of things must be. So, we look at the huge claws of the bear and infer that their purpose is to tear into the flesh of prey. Simple, logical and obvious. We look at the reproductive process and infer what is the purpose of sexuality, sex organs, intercourse. The purpose is whose? Obviously, it is God’s purpose. When this assumed purpose is frustrated by human action (vg. a pill or condom) we have a sin: i.e. interfering with God’s purpose. Now, along comes science. In order to do science productively early investigators saw that they must throw out Aristotle’s sort of analysis of purpose. This ancient way of looking at reality is called “teleological”. Built in purpose is finally exposed as a purely human invention, an assumption that short circuits further inquiry. It leads nowhere except to the illusion of understanding reality. The whole story I tried to detail in the scientific investigation of reproduction was first and foremost only possible after putting aside the teleological analysis and using a purely empirical analysis. As for the bears: today scientists would insist that the fearsome claws they use so effectively have NO PURPOSE ! Shocking, ridiculous? Those claws have an evolved survival function that lucky big clawed bear offspring used to out feed and out breed their cousins who happened to have, like most of their kin, small, puny claws. Does science conflict with doctrine on contraception? It sure does if the evil of contraception is because of teleological reasoning on the part of theologians. Is it?
    Thanks for the discussion.

  4. Mark Humphries says:

    Frank if you agree with Bob Willis’s inference that:
    “.. a biologist cannot say from his or her scientific perspective when the fetus is a “human being,” , what is wrong with the “precautionary principle” as a deterrent to abortion, even if only in view of potential adverse psychological impact on the woman, before moral issues are considered????

    • Frank Lawlor says:

      Mark, I wish that a reasonable reply could be as brief as your thesis!
      First, yes, I agree with Bob in a general sense, however, I must enter a “distinguo” here. Can science even deal with the concept of “human being”? Do we mean by saying this, can science identify this product of conception as “Homo Sapiens”? Answer, “Yes this is possible scientifically if an analysis of the DNA is possible.” The downside: such a test would destroy the embryo. At a later developmental stage, that of a fetus, the DNA test might not destroy the fetus, perhaps the amniotic fluid might even supply the fetal DNA.
      Secondly, given the improbability of either the embryo or the fetus surviving to a living birth, the so called “precautionary principle” is stretched too far to be much of a guide. Traditional doctrine would use this very conservative principle to declare the embryo or fetus as a “human person”. This apodictive judgement would then be used to overcome even reasonable motivations for terminating the pregnancy, such as a probable threat to the mother’s survival. In an analogous situation: doctrine would be open to a soldier killing an enemy who probably would be a suicide bomber. The precautionary principle would not be a deterrent to this murder. Why would it be applied to abortion in so absolute a manner if survival of the fetus is improbable anyway?
      Thirdly, these considerations do not deal directly with the criterion “human being”.
      We are using the “potential of humanity” (even if verified by DNA) without dealing with the more immediate question: “is this living cell, or this globular cluster of cells, or this fetal life form which may exhibit physical characteristics that are common to all mammal life (heart, liver, neural matter, primitive limbs, etc.), actually now “a human being”? If it is reasonable to say that a living being must exhibit the neural capacity definitive of “human”, ONLY such an organism IS human and therefore entitled to the life protections afforded to all humans. It is significant that, according to our legal standards, abortions, earlier than one at a very late term, are not labeled as “murder”.
      Finally, on the issue of “psychological impact” (i.e.. sense of severe guilt and therefore, regret), the data on this are ambivalent. For those who have been indoctrinated on abortion as a primary “moral issue” this impact has been found to be most consequential. This impact is certainly not independent of the moral issues and to be considered separately. Here again there is important data. Women who have suffered miscarriage do not usually suffer “adverse psychological impact”. On the other hand, this impact can be a result of a still birth or a death shortly after birth. A good friend bore a child who was physically incapable of survival outside of the womb. The child died only hours after birth. This mother at age sixty continued to dress in black and mourned this death despite having two surviving children.
      Thanks Mark. The issues here are complex.
      Frank Lawlor

  5. Mark Humphries says:

    Frank, thank you for your considered and gracious response.
    Your question: “Can science even deal with the concept of “human being”? “ is a significant one. You seem to give a qualified “yes” in terms of the DNA and the accepted characteristics of mammalian life, but imply these preconditions are necessary without being sufficient, and “do not deal directly with the criterion “human being”.”
    I would agree with you but I don’t want to get too caught up in philosophising about this.
    It seems to me that as science peels back the clouds of unknowing in the area of the biology of reproduction (and in all other areas), we are engaged in more than shining our light on the nuts and bolts of how stuff work. Rather it seems like opening windows into deeper mysteries which promise their own light.
    Scientific research yields new data. But as we know, data is not yet knowledge, knowledge is not yet understanding, and understanding is not wisdom.
    We have seen and decry the smug certitude and reductionism of ages past, of institutions, of theology and of doctrines. This we do not want to emulate.
    In respect to abortion miscarriage morality and psychology etc., as you say, “the issues here are complex.”
    In our proclamations, maybe we need to take the “precaution” to tread warily and “take off our shoes” before mystery and wonder we have not yet fathomed.
    Thank you Frank

  6. rjjwillis says:

    Mark, I think your last point is well taken. However, I would urge one caveat. Mystery is mystery, granted. However, we must be willing to act according to the lights that we do have. It is at least questionable when the fertilized egg is what we would name a “human being.” Given that, we must make our own judgment as to what is the moral/right/correct action to take in any given circumstance. We cannot avoid the task by simply claiming that it is the safer course to do nothing, as if that can get us off of the moral hook. In every case, I would maintain, we have to weigh what is the furthering of life in a situation: that is the only absolute. I don’t give any more rights or dignity or pride of place to the mother than I do the child, if it is a child and not simply cells gradually moving toward childhood; and vice versa. My regards, and thanks, Frank, for furthering this discussion. Bob Willis

  7. Frank Lawlor says:

    At this point in my life, I have a deep aversion to an imprecise use of labels that relate to concrete, observable realities. Bob, I agree with your overall analysis but I cringe at calling the fertilized cell or any of its developmental stages before birth as a “child”. This word ends the discussion before it has really started. A “child” is obviously a human being and one capable of survival on its own. Granted that the use of the scientific terminology assigning the label “embryo”, and then “fetus” is arbitrary in that each stage of development is not so clear cut that a particular moment can be assigned for this progression, nevertheless, these stages are very clearly distinct from that of “baby”, “infant” and “child”. And this may be important for answering the “human” question. Furthermore, can we really assign an absolute value to any aspect of the process that we are dealing with here? “Life” itself is a property of the gametes prior to conception and it is a property even of the other products of conception such as the placenta. It is in some actual situations in which the fine points of the process of reproduction become important for arriving at a morally acceptable decision. One of these situations would be when the mother’s life is going to be the price paid for continuing the pregnancy. Doing nothing is not a morally justifiable choice. In less clear cut circumstances, the biological characteristics of the embryo or fetus might help in arriving at a moral judgement. It is time for the biologist to be included in this discussion. Thanks.

  8. leonkrier says:

    Frank, Hi!

    Thanks for your time and effort in presenting this article and subsequent engagement of comments.

    To build upon what has been said thus far, I wish to reference two of your comments:


    Aristotle also taught that a different sort of soul was divinely infused at each level.

    • Where does Aristotle make this statement?

    • This statement makes Aristotle sound more like a Pythagorean and Platonist.

    • Aristotle’s position on the human soul was that it was mortal, not immortal and pre-existing like the Pythagoreans and Platonists believed… infusion by a divine being implies “immortality.” However there are two qualifiers: 1) the perennial debate regarding the “active/agent intellect” and whether Aristotle held that this had an independent existence and 2) whether the early Aristotle who was still influenced by Plato or the late Aristotle who was his own and established philosopher is being referenced.

    • It was Aristotle’s position on the mortality of the human soul that was rejected by Catholic theology; the Pythagorean/Platonic view was accepted.


    The “infusion” of a distinct and individual human soul is a matter of Doctrine: end of discussion! Only God knows when the infusion happens. This soul is beyond the the measurements of any scientific instrument. I don’t know exactly why the scientific criterion is accepted by theologians for “de-soulment”, (the flat brain wave). Logically medicine should be required to keep the blood circulating, oxygen administered etc. indefinitely, for years perhaps, until God returns to get the soul back out.

    • In this comment, are you referencing the Catholic Church’s position or is this your viewpoint. I want to assume you are referencing the Catholic Church and not a position you hold.

    • Scientifically speaking, there is no such thing as a “soul” or “mind” as understood either in western philosophy or as asserted by religion. There is no basis, i.e., evidence for these assertions.

    I would like to contribute one comment about identifying what it is to be “human.” Neuroscience and fMRI research is impacting psychotherapy (IPNB = Interpersonal Neurobiology) (cf. The Developing Mind, Daniel Siegel; The Center for Hope & Healing % Bonnie Badenoch, PhD, LMFT and The Center for Love & Trauma % Saj Razvi, PhD, LPC) and Neuroesthetics (cf Semir Zeki, Institute for Neuroesthetics). There is an emerging understanding that the “brain” is not contained within one’s skull; in a sense, we share our “brains.” Since the “brain” is the “mind” and the “mind” is the “brain” (cf. The Brain, Michael O’Shea) and we share “our brains,” “being human” is more than what is occurring with an individual organism and its organic status. In medical ethics, the “end of being human” is not simply the cessation of brain waves; it is much more focused upon the demise and eventual cessation of “brain participation” in the web of community. Recently, I participated in a medical ethics conference regarding a person in their late 80’s who has Alzheimer’s, has had 20 plus admissions to the hospital for chronic and deteriorating medical conditions within the past few months and is utilizing expensive medical care in what maybe a futile manner. The Palliative Care Team was looking for suggestions on how to consult with the patient and patient’s family regarding curative versus comfort care. Obviously, this is a difficult and heartrending situation. But the movement in medical ethics has progressed from a hierarchical, top-down process, to affirmation and consideration of individual autonomy, to acknowledgement of the patient being in a context of concentric circles all impinging upon the delivery and utilization of medical resources. For this patient, what does it mean to be “human” when their brain ceases to function (as we understand ordinary brain function) long before the final “wave” on an EEG is recorded?

    Again, “Thanks!”


    • Frank Lawlor says:

      Thanks for your reactions to my essay. My overall goal in this piece was to highlight a few of the areas of modern scientific investigation under the heading “Biology”, which are incompatible with traditional Christian theology. In this context the pre-christian philosophy of the Greeks turns out to be a key to understanding the modern conflict between Christian Doctrine and Science.
      As Tony Equale so eloquently points out, at the time when Christianity rose from a small dissident sect of Judaism to become the official religion of the Roman Empire, there was an intellectual “melding” between the widely embraced ideas of the great thinkers of Greece: Plato, the Stoics and others, and the emerging Christian intellectuals. Augustine of Hippo was the most prominent Christian leader in this process. The Greek philosophers provided a theoretical framework for conceptualizing the emerging Christian world view. This construct was in part as much scientific as philosophical since it was almost two millennia before Philosophy and Science parted ways.
      In my analysis I give prominence to the ideas of Aristotle, who, although a student of Plato, became a more important influence for Christian thinking in the “scientific arena” after his work was brought into the Christian world view by Albertus Magnus and his student Thomas Aquinas in the 13th Century. Aristotle was the most “scientific” of the Greeks, a talented naturalist in the modern sense. It was his ideas on reproduction that perdured into modern times and were so slowly demolished over recent centuries. I did not go into his disputes with Plato on the immortality of the human “soul”. Aquinas quite successfully corrected Aristotle’s mortality of the soul into orthodox immortality. I also clothed his concept of the three levels of the human “soul” with the Christian interpretation (Divine ensoulment} of this distinction as it came to be applied to abortion.
      I hope that my presentation did not imply that modern science accepts the concept of “soul”. I did say that Christian morality has accepted the scientific definition of death as the flat-lining of neural activity in the brain. This indicates to the theologian that the soul has departed the body and justifies the removal of artificial life support. I see this as inconsistent on the part of the theologians without a similar application to the embryo and fetus.
      Your comments on this aspect of the relationship of science and the theology of death is very interesting. Am I correct in concluding that the use of MRI technology provides more accurate information on the identification of death of the human organism? Or, is it that the MRI provides evidence that the individual is permanently cut off from participating in social interactions because of the cessation of any ability to exchange ideas? Does this nullify the indication that the autonomic brain functions would keep the individual “alive” in the traditional sense of heart and respiratory functions without any “artificial” stimulation? If you could elaborate on these ideas it might provide another view into how science and religion might interact in ways previously not available.
      Thanks for advancing the discussion.

  9. leonkrier says:


    I am grateful for your response with its clarifications and invitation to continue the conversation regarding “being human.”

    First, I need to make a technical distinction.

    There is a difference between an MRI and a fMRI (functional MRI). The former provides a static or structural view of the brain. The latter provides a dynamic view enabling researchers to view the “brain in action” (so to speak). Researchers set up focused experiments that allow them to view what part(s) of the brain are particularly activated during the experimental parameters. This viewing of the “brain in action” is possible because the brain requires glucose and oxygen to function (the brain does not store oxygen). Oxygenated hemoglobin is slightly repelled by magnetism but deoxygenated hemoglobin is attracted to magnetism so the fMRI is able to identify where that de-oxygenation took place. It gets far more complicated than this but this is the fundamental difference between the 2 types.

    Research use exceeds the clinical use of fMRI. However, both clinical and research have taken significant steps especially in the past few years. There are even uses being explored in legal and commercials arenas.

    fMRI adds another critical dimension in terms of viewing the “brain in action” because the EEG and MEG are biased toward the cortical surface. Combining the diverse strengths of these tools has dramatically increased the understanding of how the brain functions. Many different disciplines, namely, medicine, ethics, art, etc are using fMRI to enhance their professions. Needless to say, an interdisciplinary approach is essential.

    As Semir Zeki says in his “Mission Statement” for the Institute of Neuroesthetics:

    “to promote the importance of learning more about the brain when approaching topics such as art, morality, religion, the law and public affairs in general, to as wide an audience as possible. Indeed, to enlarge public awareness of what a central role research on the brain has in understanding human activity in many areas that affect one’s daily life.”

    The following are two examples of this neuro-imaging research that identify different areas of the brain regarding the perception of beauty… albeit in the same neighborhood, i.e, the anterior insular cortex (aIC)-dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC)/medial frontal cortex (mFC) network:

    “Neuroscientists at McMaster University reviewed 93 neuroimaging studies and ‘showed that the most important part of the brain for aesthetic appraisal was the anterior insula, a part of the brain that sits within one of the deep folds of the cerebral cortex. This was a surprise. The anterior insula is typically associated with emotions of a negative quality, such as disgust and pain, making it an unusual candidate for being the brain’s aesthetic center. Why would a part of the brain known to be important for the processing of pain and disgust turn out to be the most important area for the appreciation of art?”

    “Neurobiology and the Art of Walking in Paris” by Alan T Marty, MD

    “Zeki found, by examining MRI images of his subjects’ brains, that when people look at something they find beautiful, a portion in the front part of the brain called the medial orbito-frontal cortex “lights up.” That is, there’s increased blood flow in this area. He believes it’s a near-universal response to beauty. Zeki added that the medial orbito-frontal cortex is a portion of the brain associated with pleasure, and also reward.”

    “Semir Zeki: Beauty is in the brain of the beholder,” Earth Sky News, Beth Lebwohl

    In reference to the questions at the end of your response, it is difficult to do a fMRI on patients with pathologies who do not have the stamina and cognitive abilities to endure the demands of a fMRI. Youthful research volunteers are far more capable of embracing these rigors.

    There has been some fMRI research to determine if Alzheimer’s is present, but to put a person already diagnosed with Alzheimer’s through a fMRI would definitely raise ethical concerns. However, if such a procedure where physically possible and ethically valid, we could hold out the possibility of obtaining an enlightening view of the brain.

    Regarding autonomic brain functions, I think you and I agree that this brain type of functioning is something we share with other animal species and is not distinctively human. Taking an evolutionary and developmental approach creates a nuanced perspective and therefore more demanding perspective on determining what is uniquely “human” and when that uniqueness emerges and when it fades into the sunset. Traditional Catholic analysis of “infusion of a soul at conception” is simply religious assertion not consistent with science and that the end of life being the cessation of neural activity on an EEG is likely inadequate. The end of neural activity and the declaration of “death” fulfills the legal requirement to harvest organs. This approach is not adequate to address such issues as the ethical use of limited medical resources and disproportionate utilization of healthcare at the end of life versus providing universal health care for all and especially children. Any of the books by former Governor Richard Lamm such as The Brave New World of Health Care speak eloquently to this crisis.

    I recently watched a dark comedy and one of the characters (not the sharpest knife in the rack) went to a business seminar. He related that the instructor cited the example of how a monkey peels a banana from the opposite end to what humans normally do, and the monkey does so with real aplomb. His boss, who paid for this seminar, said “OK, what’s the point?” “Well, sometimes to solve a problem you have to take a very different approach.”

    Wishing you the best and “Thanks” for your interest and sharing!!


  10. Frank Lawlor says:

    Thanks for explaining the applications of this new technology to an understanding of the locus of some important brain functions. It will be interesting to see what implications this carries for the various fields of interest which you mention.
    In the area of medical ethics, which you bring up, it would be interesting to analyze the ethical implications of using genome analysis to devise intra uterine procedures to correct certain genetic abnormalities. Presumably these interventions would have to be carried out at very specific points in fetal development. I have a feeling that there might be some dogmatic principles that would be used to prevent such a therapy.
    Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s