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Chapter III -- 49

We shall now see how St Gregory handles the problem of the source of the soul. For the soul must come from somewhere.

What he says in the next passage is that living bodies beget the living; dead bodies do not beget anything. For that reason, St Gregory says, it is reasonable to consider that that which is sent forth from the living body to be the occasion of life is itself alive. But that which is sent forth, although alive, does not contain flesh and bones and hair and as many things as are seen in man, but these things are present potentially even if they do not yet appear. In the same way we must consider that that which is sent forth contains the soul, although, just as with the parts of the body, we do not see the operations of the soul until bodily development should have progressed appropriately. Instead, St Gregory says, the soul initially manifests those operations which are appropriate to the initial stage of development, namely:

…in making for itself by means of the implanted matter the suitable dwelling place. For we do not consider that it is possible to harmonize the soul to alien buildings, just as it is not possible that the seal in the wax should be fitted to an alien engraving.[1]

For, St Gregory says, just as the body proceeds from something very small towards the perfect, thus also the operation of the soul, appropriately implanted in the substrate, together advances and together increases. First there is only the power of growth and nutrition (the vegetative power of the soul), then when the man is born there is manifested the power of sense-perception (the animal power of the soul), then comes the rational power, not appearing all at once, but manifesting itself together with the increase of the body by means of study and bearing fruit as much as the power can find place in the substrate.[2]

This account of the transmission of the soul with the living sperm must be considered in the light of St Gregory’s doctrine that the soul comes into existence at the same time as the body. It is hard to see just what St Gregory means when he enunciates the doctrine that the soul is transmitted with the sperm. For his obvious meaning is that the living sperm contains the whole soul, and that that soul then proceeds to direct the development of the sperm into a full human being in the womb, manifesting itself as the embryo develops in the womb and after. But this implies that the sperm even before conception contains the soul, something which contradicts St Gregory’s notion that the soul comes into existence with the body at conception.

This account of the transmission of the soul with the human sperm also presupposes that the human sperm is by itself sufficient for the development of the human being. Here, St Gregory is wrong on a detail of biology. For we now know that in the ordinary course of affairs a human is conceived by the fertilization of a human egg in the woman by the human sperm of the man. Moreover, St Gregory’s view that the soul cannot live in alien buildings raises the question of human cloning. Given these two matters, we will now discuss St Gregory’s account from the point of view of modern biology.

As we have already remarked, St Gregory has a very good grasp of developmental biology. We suspect that it is from a reading of Aristotle, the great biologist, that he obtained such a good grasp of development. However, modern biology is both anti-Aristotelian—because of Aristotle’s vitalism and his doctrine of final causes or goals towards which biological processes tend—and strictly materialistic and mechanistic. So, while the modern biologist might concede that St Gregory has a good grasp of development, he would reject the notion that a soul has anything to do with either the development of a man or the resulting adult. A sperm and egg unite; a man is engendered. The biologist can implant a nucleus from a somatic cell into an unfertilized egg and produce a man. So it appears. We say ‘so it appears’ for the simple reason that no one has ever admitted to bringing a human clone to term, at least not with such scientific credentials that he has ever been believed. That humans have been cloned is true. The law, at time of writing, permits human cloning in the United Kingdom, and the practice is apparently not forbidden in the United States. It may be permitted or tolerated in other countries where the scientific practice of biology is sufficiently advanced for human cloning to be a practical possibility; we do not have details. However, as far as we know, the present official practice is to use cloned humans for the production of tissue cultures and not to implant them in surrogate mothers so that they might be brought to term. Insofar as the embryo is not destroyed by the actual procedure of producing the tissue cultures, then the embryo as far as we know is later destroyed. The English law specifies that the human cloned embryo be destroyed no later than approximately the fourteenth day after ‘conception’.

Perhaps all of this turns what St Gregory is saying into well-written nonsense?

No. However, it is necessary to deal with the issues one by one. First the issue of materialism in biology. We have already addressed this issue in Chapter I, and we will not repeat ourselves here. There is a fundamental gulf between the ideology, the world-view, the paradigm of modern biology, which as we have said is materialistic and mechanistic, and the worldview of Christian theology. It is not merely a matter of the Christian writers being writers who lived in the Fourth Century. There is a fundamental problem with the orientation of the biologist today.

The greatest difficulty today with St Gregory’s position is the notion that the soul has a role in the development of the body. That is what St Gregory was saying when he said that the first operation of the soul was to build for itself a suitable dwelling place since it cannot live in an alien dwelling, just as the seal in the wax cannot be fit to a foreign engraving. According to the biologist today, it is clear that all the information necessary for the development of the human from the fertilized egg is contained in the information content of the DNA at conception. While it is true, the biologist says, that the human develops by an unfolding, that unfolding is under the direct control of the information found in the DNA at conception. Hence there is no longer room for the soul in the development of ‘the suitable dwelling place’, nor even any necessity to posit the existence of a soul: the human can be analysed with regard to his development perfectly well without the introduction of a concept of soul, on the basis of the molecular genetics of development.

While there is overwhelming evidence for the definitive role of the DNA in development, we would like to remark that it is still early.[3] The cloned animals that were said to prove the feasibility of human cloning suffer illnesses that their prototypes do not. They have compromised immune function and higher rates of infection, tumour growth, and other disorders. They have a tendency to be born larger and to put on more weight than is proper given their prototype. They have a tendency to die young, sometimes for unknown reasons. Perhaps, given the very low success rate in the actual cloning procedure, given the rather high rate of miscarriage in the cloned animals that are implanted in surrogate mothers so as to be brought to term, given the rather high rate of illnesses that have to do with malfunctioning of DNA-based control systems, it is too early to be confident that we know everything there is to know about development. Science is replete with cases of overconfidence based on a ‘breakthrough’ until such a time as all the consequences of the ‘breakthrough’ have been thoroughly studied. That having been said, as a caution as to whether we know everything there is to know about development, let us return to the question.

We do not think the St Gregory is wrong. We think that what he is saying is valid even given the manifest role of DNA and its information content in development. For, as we have said, the soul is not material; it is not a hidden chemical that enters into the chemical reactions. It is an intelligible substance that obeys its own laws.

We do not say that the chemical reactions are directed by the soul so that, say Protein A is produced at this instant instead of Protein B. Most of the time, the protein that is produced is the protein that is specified by the DNA. However, for the fertilized egg to progress on the road of development, the soul must be present, just as God must be present.

Let us now turn to the question of the transmission of the soul. This is a very important question. St Gregory espouses a doctrine of the transmission of the soul through the human sperm. We will find in Chapter IV, below, that in the High Middle Ages, St Thomas Aquinas enunciated a doctrine that the soul was created by God sometime after conception, although the Roman Catholic Church as a whole evidently settled on a doctrine that the soul was created by God at the moment of conception.

Now the first problem is that St Gregory was evidently unaware of the necessity of the maternal egg for conception to take place. We do not think that he emphasized the human sperm as the source of the soul for any reason other than that he had been taught that that was how humans came to be: the human sperm was sufficient unto itself for the development of the human; the mother who conceived the child was merely a source of nutriment and protection for the human sperm. We find the same doctrine in St Thomas Aquinas in the Thirteenth Century.

The second problem is that the current procedure for cloning of humans uses an unfertilized human egg, although one taken from a living woman. In the cloning procedure as we understand it today, that unfertilized human egg is denucleated[4] and the nucleus from a somatic cell of the prototype of the clone-to-be is implanted in the egg in place of the removed nucleus.[5] The egg is then electrically or chemically stimulated to provoke the reaction that corresponds to fertilization in the natural case, and the development of the human begins to take place—if it does: the success rate is very low.

Our own view is that if the Nyssian doctrine of the transmission of souls is to be retained, then a modification must be made to it: it must be the female egg, not the male sperm that is the bearer of the soul. This is not to espouse an ideology but to be able to account for the procedure of human cloning. The doctrine of the transmission of the soul has advantages: It accounts for cloning if the modification suggested is made to it. It also accounts, in the natural case, for the development of identical twins. For natural identical twins develop from a single fertilized egg. For a certain number of cell divisions, all the cells of the embryo retain the biological potential to develop into a complete individual. In the case of human identical twins, during this period of total potential, the embryo for reasons as yet unknown to science splits into two, and two genetically identical individuals develop. We have discussed the matter of identical twins and their genetic identity in Chapter I; we need not repeat ourselves here. However, from the point of view of accounting for the souls in the identical twins—for each identical twin has a soul; they are not two bodies with one soul—the transmission doctrine of the soul makes it easy to account for how from one embryo with one soul, suddenly we have two genetically identical embryos each with its own soul. Moreover, identical twins can be produced by human intervention from eggs fertilized—or, we imagine, cloned—in the laboratory. That is, once a human egg is fertilized in vitro it can then be mechanically separated into two identical twins in the laboratory by the scientist who has done the in vitro fertilization. Much the same practice of mechanically separating cells at a very early stage of development is used for the creation of embryonic cell cultures, the ones that are used for the production of tissue cultures. The transmission doctrine, especially when the transmission of the soul is tied to the human egg, enables us to account for the soul in each of the mechanically produced identical twins.

Of course, it will be objected that there is a regular natural wastage of human eggs. Perhaps, it might be asked, are all these eggs souls which are lost? We think not. The egg provides the potential of life; it does not provide life itself. The soul is transmitted with the egg. The soul, as St Gregory of Nyssa has said, comes into existence at conception at the same time as the body.

However, this answer may not be satisfactory, and the only possible solution would be to discard the theory of transmission of the soul in favour of the creation by God of the soul at the moment of conception, even when, in the case of cloning, the ‘conception’ occurs without the benefit of human sperm, by means of the implantation of the nucleus of a somatic cell of the to-be-cloned donor into an unfertilized human egg. Then in all cases of cloning and identical twins whether naturally or artificially produced, we would simply say that God created a human soul at the instant that the conception, or its analogue, or the separation of the embryo into two, took place.

The next question we must address is the question of when conception takes place. The usual notion of conception is that conception takes place when a sperm fertilizes an egg.[6] However, as we learn from Professor John Breck, this view is challenged by certain Roman Catholic theologians who argue that human conception occurs on about day 12 after (natural) fertilization, when the embryo implants itself in the wall of the uterus.[7] Until then, these theologians argue, the embryo—or pre-embryo as they prefer—is merely a mass of undifferentiated cells. This seems, evidently, to be much the same logic as is behind the English law permitting cloning of humans for the production of tissue cultures with the presupposition that all embryos will be destroyed before approximately day 14.

This argument appears to be a subterfuge so that a loophole might be found in the ‘Law’ for the practice of abortion, in vitro fertilization and other scientific experiments and practices which are otherwise forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church, since the Roman Catholic Church takes the strict view that every human embryo has a soul from conception. The logic is to change the date of conception so as to open a window for the forbidden practices. We do not think that the theologians’ arguments are scientifically valid, even when they are arguing scientifically. These theologians’ arguments betray a misunderstanding of the nature of the genetic program of development. However a detailed refutation would be very technical, and we will avoid that here.[8]

Without dwelling on our reasoning because of its technical biological nature, we think that, given what we know today about fertilization, the most natural moment to consider that conception has taken place is immediately after the entry of the sperm into the human egg, when the fertilization reaction takes place that blocks the entry of a second sperm into the egg. There then immediately commences a series of chemical reactions that are clearly ‘designed’ to initiate the process of development. While it is quite true that it is not until after the first cell division that the sperm and egg genomes[9] are a united whole,[10] and that it is not until after the first cell division at the earliest that the human genome begins transcription,[11] we must return to the insight into developmental biology of a St Gregory of Nyssa: while we may not see evidence either of the operations of a soul or, somatically, of flesh, bones and hair in the zygote or embryo, the soul is there; and the soul’s operations and all aspects of the somatic existence of a human being are present in the embryo in potentiality; and the development of a human being which has a soul in the image of God has commenced with the regular unfolding of the stages of development according to a natural sequence, each stage building on the preceding one.

Let us turn to another position that we have seen, this time in an academic textbook of human genetics. There, the authors, speaking of the matter of abortion, remark that although the embryo is potentially a person, it is not yet a person; hence, they imply, it cannot yet be considered a person who is wronged by being aborted. This, curiously enough, was much the reasoning of the Canadian Supreme Court decision permitting abortion: the rights guaranteed to persons under the Canadian Constitution do not apply to the embryo or fœtus since it is not a person.

In view of the fact that St Gregory of Nyssa himself speaks of the operations of the soul and of the aspects of the body as being present in the embryo in potentiality—although he himself asserts, clearly, that both the soul and the body of the human come into existence at the instant of conception—it is well to consider this question: if an embryo or fœtus has the attributes or operations of a person in potentiality, is it a person or is it merely tissue that might, if things go well, later become a person?

The answer is simple: if one accepts that a person has a soul, then that person became a person when he acquired that soul. If, however, the existence of the soul is denied, as it is in the materialistic and mechanistic paradigm of modern biology, then one can easily assert that the personhood of the embryo or fœtus commences with the expression of certain operations of the nervous system in the womb, or with being born, or with being born in an acceptable condition. For what is the personhood of a human person? If he is merely a concourse of biochemical reactions, then his personhood is relative to the quality of his reactions. If, however, he has the dignity of an image of God, and that dignity is bestowed on him at the moment of his conception, then our reverence for the Prototype extends to the image of the Prototype from the moment that that image comes into existence. This is true even if the image is not immediately expressed in its fullness because of the very specific nature of human embryonic development in the womb: each stage builds on the preceding stage, just as among the plants and animals.

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[1] Loc. cit.

[2] The reader will recall that KG III, 76, discussed in Section 6, above, teaches exactly the same doctrine. This seems to be yet another place where Evagrius shows his Cappadocian roots.

[3] There is a school of biology called ‘Developmental Systems Theory’ which challenges the conventional biological paradigm on this matter of the relation of the DNA to the other cytological and environmental factors in development, emphasizing the non-DNA factors in development. See Oyama and Schaffner, including in the latter case the responses to Schaffner’s paper in the same issue of the journal.

[4] The nucleus is removed, including, of course, all the nuclear DNA.

[5] The formal name for this procedure is Somatic Cell Nuclear Transfer (SCNT).

[6] In the case of St Gregory of Nyssa, he would evidently consider that conception took place when the sperm was implanted in the woman by the very act of procreation.

[7] Breck Chapter 3, pp. 130–4.

[8] The reader is referred to our analysis of the logic of the genetic program in Genetic.

[9] I.e. nuclear DNA.

[10] Gilbert p. 154.

[11] Gilbert p. 181. Transcription is the reading of the nuclear DNA for the production of proteins.


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