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Spirits, Souls, and Clones: Biology’s Latest Challenge to Theology
Frank R. Zindler
Since the time of Charles Darwin, biology has been theology’s worst nightmare. The challenge of Copernicus and Galileo – even though it took the Church of Rome almost five centuries to adjust to it – was trivial compared to the frontal assault unleashed upon Christian theology in 1859 with the publication of Charles Darwin’s On The Origin Of Species. Although it took less than a century and a half for theology’s chief mystagogue publicly to “accept” the reality of Darwinian evolution (without naming Darwin!), the acceptance was only conditional. Indeed, in October of 1996 when Pope John Paul II declared the theory of evolution to be “more than just a hypothesis,” he stopped far short of accepting the principle in its major implication: that humanity in all its aspects and in its essence is the product of blind, unthinking, physicochemical processes of nature. Catholics may be permitted to accept the obvious fact that their bodies evolved, but not their spirits or souls. Even if it is no longer true that “only God can make a tree,” Catholics must believe that only a scheming deity can make a human soul. They must believe that it is this soul that makes a body human.
The reality of biological evolution poses an insoluble problem for theologies that posit the existence of an undetectable commodity called the soul – an entity that despite its insubstantiality makes us human beings possessed of the unique, un-animalian faculty of “free will,” and allows for the survival of our personalities beyond the grave.
Why the resurrection of our physical bodies is also scheduled in most theological time-tables is a curious mystery. If our personalities fly off at death with the soul’s release, the body seems to be a redundancy unneeded in the afterlife. As Omar Khayyám put it so long ago in his Rubáiyát:
Why, if the Soul can fling the Dust aside,
And naked on the Air of Heaven ride,
Were’t not a Shame—were’t not a Shame for him,
In this clay carcass crippled to abide?
Of course it might be argued that disembodied spirits could not feel pain, and without bodies capable of being tortured physically hell’s fury would be lost. But this raises a Cartesian question of how an immaterial soul can be affected by a material body – and vice-versa. Despite Descartes’ suggestion, it doesn’t seem that the pineal gland is up to the challenge.
To return to the threat to theology posed by evolutionary biology: if what really counts about us is our souls and not our bodies, why did the god of Christendom wait so many billions of years for our inessential bodies to evolve by the bumbling, painful, and wasteful process of natural selection? Why didn’t he just zap our souls into existence at the dawn of the Precambrian Era (right after he allegedly separated light from darkness) and forget about our bodies? Why did Superspook wait so long to bring the spiritual dimension into the physical framework of space and time?
If it be admitted that our bodies evolved from the bodies of animals possessed of neither souls nor spirits, and that injections of souls or spirits are unitary acts of a god operating within the limits of space and time, embarrassing questions leap to mind.
It is certain that we are descended, generation after generation, from ancestors who are less human-like as the line of descent is traced back to Homo erectus, Homo habilis, Australopithecus, or even more primitive primates. Nevertheless, it is also clear that no particular generation in this line differed any more from its parent generation than do we from our parents. So how did god decide which generation had become just human enough to warrant the infusion of souls? (i)
We moderns are prone to lament the “generation gap” that separates us from our parents or (more frequently) from our children. But imagine the magnitude of the generational chasm the pope must believe appeared somewhere along the line between Pithecanthropus erectus and Priestus pædophilus. There must have been a generation that could have told its parents: “Hey, mom and dad! We just became human beings, with all the rights and privileges pertaining thereto. We have souls, you don’t. We’ll go to heaven after we die. You, however, will rot like rutabagas when you die. There’s no transfer option on your trolly ticket!”
Indeed, Darwinism is an embarrassment to theology.
Spirits and Souls
Since it is the theological doctrine of spirits or souls that is most affected, before we consider the implications of developments in modern biology it is necessary to remind ourselves of just how it is that theology came to be saddled with the burden of belief in spirits or souls in the first place.
Sometime in the course of prehistory after language had evolved, our ancestors began to puzzle over the question “What is life?” or its inverse “What is death?” Not a one of those benighted people had ever had a single course in biochemistry or molecular biology. They didn’t even know that the main function of human beings was the production of carbon dioxide and urea! The invisible chemical marriages and divorces that constitute the process known as “living” were unsuspected. Our predecessors even thought they thought with their hearts, and that their consciences were in their kidneys. (ii) Most of them couldn’t tell the difference between brains and bone marrow – a distinction unrecognized in many languages to this day! The supposedly god-guided authors of the Judæo-Christian scriptures also were ignorant in this regard, and so they mention brains not even once in their Aramaic, Hebrew, and Greek compositions – making the Bible a truly brainless piece of literature!
There must have been many occasions where a person died suddenly, without benefit of anatomy-altering knives, spears, or projectiles. Today we would suppose such a person to have suffered a heart attack or stroke. To the ancients, however, there was no obvious anatomical difference between the newly dead individual and the person who a short time before had been a sentient, active human being. The only obvious difference between the live and dead bodies was the presence or absence of breath. Breath was the élan vital, the vital force.
The vivifying function of breath came to be depicted in the second of the two creation myths placed at the beginning of the Hebrew Bible. Yahweh molds “Adam” from the dust of the earth, but the poor fellow exhibits absolutely no get-up-and-go – until Yahweh breathes into him “the breath of life” and Adam “becomes a living soul.”
The idea that breath is life, or that breath is the essence of a person became enshrined in the very vocabulary with which Judæo-Christian theology is written. Our common English word spirit derives from the Latin word spiritus, meaning ‘breath’. The Holy Ghost of Christian Trinitarian mythology is nothing but ‘the holy breath’ (to hagion pneuma) in the Greek Bible. (iii)
If spirits are simply entities composed of breath, all sorts of odd theological doctrines become understandable. Since breath is a physical thing (you can feel your breath when you blow upon your hand, and you can often smell it as well), it was once reasonable to believe that one’s “spirit” could exist outside and independent of the body. (The mixing of gases and diffusive dissipation of the breath would not be discovered until almost modern times.) If the spirit/breath can exist outside the body, it must go somewhere after death – or after sneezing for that matter.
The custom of saying “God bless you” or making some other magical gesture after one sneezes derives, without question, from the primitive notion that there is a danger that evil breaths or spirits – lurking in the air around pneumatically challenged individuals – will rush in to “take possession” of their bodies before their own spirits can return. It probably would be un-Christian to doubt that most cases of “demonic possession” occurred as a result of solitary sneezes occurring when there was no one around to say “God bless you.”
Of course, not only evil breaths could be imagined as taking possession of people. In fact, it appears that the main function of the third member of the Christian Trinity (the ‘Holy Spirit’) was to take possession of entire groups of people all at once. Whereas the god of the Old Testament could only inspire (lit. ‘breathe into’) his prophets, the Holy Spirit– a.k.a. the Holy Ghost – of the New Testament could be inhaled by an entire congregation all at once, as in the case of “Pentecost” [Acts 2:1-4] when the apostles are claimed to have been taken over by a spirit disguised as “tongues of fire.” (If dragons can have fiery breath, why not gods?) Moreover, the Holy Spirit was nothing less than the breath of the resurrected Jesus, as revealed in John 20:22, which reports that JC “breathed on them and said to them, ‘receive the Holy Spirit’.” What could show more clearly than this that the concept of spiritual entities is the result of a biological misunderstanding of the nature of breath?
The Souls of Embryos
The notion that it is breath that vivifies led quite naturally to the idea that a fetus becomes alive at birth, when it takes its first breath. But it would seem that several centuries before the turn of the era the obvious liveliness of at least late-term fetuses forced the conclusion that life entered the fetus before birth and necessitated redefinitions of the terms spirit and soul. In various ways these entities became immaterial, despite the clearly material origin indicated by their etymologies. For Aristotle, the soul was simply the form of the body. Life apparently began when the embryo became formed into obvious human shape. Unfortunately for the use of Christian theologians, Aristotle appears to have taught that the soul perishes with the body. This makes a certain amount of sense, since the newly dead body still has the same “form” as the live body, and it would follow that the soul (=form) must stay with the corpse until its human form is lost. The down-side of this idea, of course, is that if the soul still be thought to be the vivifying principle, the thing that makes living things alive, it is hard to detect its presence in a body that is starting to rot!
When Christian theologians came into the fray, it was concluded that the soul was present in the fœtus formatus but not in the fœtus informatus, and that “formation” took place later in female fetuses than in male ones. Mostly, however, it was believed that ensoulment occurred at the time of “quickening,” around the fifth month of pregnancy when fetal movements first are easily detectable. Abortion was a serious sin only after quickening.
Discoveries in biology after the invention of the microscope, however, caused all this to change. The discovery that humans, like chickens, had eggs, and that it was eggs fertilized by spermatozoa that developed into fetuses led to the notion that “life” began at conception (fertilization). (That life exists in sperms and eggs even before fertilization is a fact with which Catholic prelates even today cannot deal.) In 1869 Pope Pius X reversed his church’s long-held view that the soul arrives in the fifth month of pregnancy and declared instead that the mystical woozit made its appearance at the moment of conception. Only god can make a soul, and only fertilized eggs can receive them. If the zygote (fertilized egg) has a soul, it is a human being. It is equal, therefore, to the mother that gives it berth and birth. It is a single-celled person!
But if only one soul is infused into a single zygote, what happens when that zygote splits into two separate pieces and each develops into a complete fetus? This is how identical twins are produced. Does only one twin have a soul? Presumably, souls cannot reproduce and certainly can’t divide. Or can they? And what happens when a single fertilized egg results in a small group of identical individuals? (Actually, identical quadruplets, etc., constitute natural “clones” of the original zygote.) Does god create an extra soul every time a zygote undergoes fission? How does he decide which part should receive the new one and which should keep the old?
More distressing to theological misunderstandings of the human animal, however, is the development of modern biology which makes possible in vitro (“in glass,” i.e., in test-tubes or petri dishes) fertilization of human eggs with human sperm collected by means of an act the Church considers “unnatural” and therefore illicit. For the thought of Yahweh having to climb into test-tubes to deliver souls is sillier than the thought of Santa Claus climbing down chimneys to deliver sugarplums. (iv) Needless to say, all medieval thinkers alive today disallow such procedures, which they consider to be extremely wicked. What must really cause their hair to fall out and produce an involuntary tonsure is the fact that it is quite possible to cause two separate zygotes – each presumably with its own soul – to fuse together to produce a composite, single embryo. (Such zygote fusion has been done with mice many times, producing single babies that have four or more parents.) If this were actually done with human zygotes, would the person resulting have two souls? After death, would Yahweh sort out the cells that developed from each pre-fusion zygote and resurrect two bodies, perhaps sending one to heaven and one to hell?
To tweak the theologians just a little bit more, we may muse about the theological implications of another experiment that could be performed right now, since all the technology needed is old and well-developed. It is possible to fuse human cells with the cells of other animals. Indeed, human-mouse and human-chick chimeric cells have been grown in cell cultures for many years. These chimeras have been produced from ordinary body cells, however, not zygotes. But what if we were to fuse a human zygote with a chimpanzee zygote? Chimpanzees differ genetically from humans by only one percent, and it is reasonable to suppose that a human-chimp chimera could be implanted in the womb of a surrogate mother and brought to term. Would it have a soul? If so, why don’t chimpanzees by themselves have souls? What are the genes in that one percent difference that cause us but not chimps to have souls? Could we trick Jehovah into injecting souls into chimps if we transferred a few critical human genes into them? (We transfer human genes every day into organisms ranging from bacteria to mice and rats, and we are starting to transfer them into other humans; we certainly could transfer them into chimps as well.)
If you have ever eaten a Red Delicious apple or a Burbank plum, (v) you have eaten a clone. If you have ever propagated African violets from leaf cuttings or generated three Planaria worms by cutting a single worm into three pieces, you have been practicing cloning. Cloning is simply a type of asexual reproduction that produces one or more offspring that are genetically identical to their progenitor. Every gene of the single parent (with this departure from “family values,” it is no wonder the pope and the Christian Coalition oppose the practice!) is carried by the offspring. Although clones of plants are extremely common, animal clones are pretty uncommon above the level of sponges, corals, and worms.
There was, therefore, considerable excitement in the mid 1970s when it was announced that amphibians had been cloned by transferring nuclei from skin cells of adult frogs into fertilized frog eggs from which the original nucleus had been removed. The tadpoles resulting from this pseudozygote were genetically identical to the adult frogs from which the skin cells had been collected. Unfortunately, the tadpoles were unable to mature into adult frogs, and attempts to clone mice from fully differentiated cells of adult animals got exactly nowhere. (It did become possible, however, to clone mice from embryos at the four-cell stage of development.) For almost two decades it seemed as though cloning of adult higher animals was impossible. It appeared that the DNA of which the genes are composed underwent irreversible changes in the course of embryonic development and that these changes made it impossible for the DNA in the nucleus of, say, a skin cell or a white blood cell to be reactivated enough to produce an entire body with all its different cell types.
Then, on 24 February 1997, The New York Times published a startling article. A mammal had been cloned – a sheep. The astounding feat had been accomplished by a team of Scottish veterinary scientists working at the Roslin Institute in Edinburgh. The formal report was published in the staid British research journal Nature, on 27 February 1997, although Ian Wilmut (the senior researcher) had announced the breakthrough a week before in an electrifying press conference. By the time the formal report appeared in print, the religious world had already been galvanized into action against the intrusion into “God’s domain.”
Before considering the hysteria provoked by Dr. Wilmut’s work, it is necessary to explain exactly how he did what he did — the utterly unspiritual and soulless anatomical and physiological manipulations that produced a lamb that was a “carbon copy” of its mother.
Hello Dolly, Lamb of the Godless!
Wilmut started with a Finn Dorset ewe in the third trimester of pregnancy, when mammary glands are actively developing. Cells were taken from her mammary glands and grown for several cell generations in tissue culture. Then, what would become the DNA-donor cells were rendered quiescent by “starving” them for five days by reducing the concentration of nutrient serum in their culture medium. This resulted in cells which had exited the growth cycle and were arrested at an inactive stage of the cell cycle.
For cells which would receive the DNA-containing nuclei from the Finn Dorset donor cells, Wilmut chose oocytes (immature egg cells) obtained from Scottish Blackface ewes, stimulating egg release with injections of gonadotropin-releasing hormone. As soon as they were obtained, the oocytes were enucleated to remove all traces of Blackface nuclear DNA.
The starved mammary gland cells were then fused, by means of electric pulses, with the oocytes that had been deprived of their own nuclei. The same electrical pulses that caused the cells to fuse (just as sperms and eggs would do) served also to activate the “fertilized” oocyte and allow the beginnings of cell division and embryo formation. The composite cell resulting from the fusion was in effect a zygote – a fertilized egg that could be cultured in vitro to form a hollow bag of cells (blastocyst) that could be transferred to the womb of a surrogate mother. There it could develop into a fetus and ultimately be born as a baby lamb. Nowhere along the line would any sexual act be involved – completely immaculate conception!
The vast majority of cell fusions carried out by Dr. Wilmut did not go all the way to birth and survive infancy. But one did, to become Dolly, the little lamb now famous throughout the world. Because the lamb had been produced from mammary tissue, she was given the name Dolly – in honor of Dolly Parton, an entertainer world famous as an example of a different type of mammary tissue development
Clonest Thou not!
Even before the official report was published in Nature, religious leaders everywhere denounced the achievement and declared it shouldn’t be done in humans. Bill Clinton, assuming the mantle of Evangelist-in-Chief of the United States, upon hearing the news immediately banned federal funding for human cloning research (human embryo research is already out of bounds for federally funded scientists), and he requested that nonfederally funded researchers also observe a moratorium on human cloning research. He ordered the National Bioethics Advisory Commission (NBAC) to draw up a set of policy recommendations on human cloning within ninety days. Both houses of Congress, ever at the beck and call of priests and preachers, scheduled hearings on cloning. Two bills were promptly introduced that would ban federal funding for human cloning research, and a third bill was entered that would level a civil penalty of $5,000 on anyone carrying out such research. Christopher Bond (R. Missouri), author of one of the bills banning federal funding, told the NBAC that there was no need to study this subject anyway. “There are aspects of human life that should be off limits to science.”2
Duke University divinity professor Stanley Hauerwas warned that scientists advocating cloning “are going to sell it with wonderful benefits” for medicine and animal husbandry – expressing alarm that there was “a kind of drive behind this for us to be our own creators.”3 Right. But how is this different from reproducing ourselves in the ordinary way? Who besides humans creates humans? Don’t most parents consider themselves to be recreated at least in part in their children?
Loyola University Jesuit Kevin FitzGerald, despite the fact that he is a geneticist, stated that a human clone would have a different soul – as well as be a different person than its progenitor. Where the soul would come from and how it would get into the clone was not reported.4 Nicholas Coote, assistant general secretary of the Roman Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales, spoke out against cloning in a way that would make American “family values” advocates proud, arguing that everyone has a right to two biological parents.5
Archenemy of biotechnology Jeremy Rifkin and leader of a global coalition of three hundred religious and ethics organizations demanded a worldwide ban on human cloning. Violators of such a ban should suffer a penalty “on a par with rape, child abuse, and murder.”6
Muslim physician Hassan Hathout of Los Angeles took an appropriately patriarchal view of the possibility of cloning humans. “A woman can be the mother of her own self… and that’s not God’s plan.”7 Hebrew scholar Robert Alter, apparently misunderstanding even traditional methods of reproduction, made the comment that “When man starts creating human beings in his own image, you’re into a whole different ballgame.”8
Former Dominican priest Philip Boyle worried that cloning could produce something that was almost human but not quite. “What’s missing might be mental. It might be physical. It might be some characteristic that makes us human, like free will…”9 As so often is the case with clerical commentators, Boyle seems unaware that such a situation would hardly be new. All children are born lacking “free will,” and not a day goes by in which a woman somewhere in the world gives birth to something that no sane person would consider fully human. These monsters range from partially anencephalic creatures (in which varying amounts of cerebral cortex are missing) down to slimy dermoid cysts (vi) that might be mistaken for buttered plum puddings were it not for their content of hairballs and teeth.
Not all religionists, of course, have responded with a simple “Thou shalt not.” Some have at least tried to understand the theological reasons why thou shalt not. In Ohio, United Methodist Bishop Judith Craig said that “It is both terrifying and thrilling to me… It is mostly terrifying because we are reaching beyond where our moral development has gone. Who is going to think it through? What is it that separates us from that sheep?” Indeed.
“If cloning has only to do with cellular substance,” she asked, “where does the persona come from? Does the soul exist in the genetic imprint? This has outstripped our theology.”10
Of course, Catholic theologians would deny that souls could be encoded in our “genetic imprint,” but Craig’s question clearly points out the absurdity of theological ideas in the face of cloning. If souls are not encoded in our DNA, how can we inherit “original sin”? If we don’t inherit it with our sex chromosomes, how do we inherit it? If Yahweh creates souls de novo to insert into each conception – whether coital or clonal – is he creating them pre-stained with the “spot of Adam”?
Even the facts of normal procreation present serious problems for the doctrine of the heritability of original sin. Grasping at straws, some theologians have reasoned that since conception involves an act widely considered naughty if not down-right sinful, a conceptus might become tainted by sin due to the circumstances of its creation: it has been “conceived in sin.” But how such an idea could be reconciled with the notion that the deity is both just and good has never been satisfactorily explained.
Transmission of original sin fits even less easily into the scenario of clonal reproduction. Where in the sequence of events detailed above has there been anything remotely resembling a sexual “sin”? If, as the Loyola Jesuit geneticist maintains, a clone has not only its own unique personality (an obvious truism) but its own soul distinct from that of its progenitor, how will that soul acquire the stain of original sin? Can it inherit it from the soul of its progenitor? Will it be held accountable for the sins of its progenitor as well as for those of Adam? And when and where will that soul enter into the cloning process?
Associating souls and cells The reality of cloning forces an examination of just what the association might be between bodies and souls. Does the soul come to a focus in the pineal gland as Descartes supposed? Or is it diffused throughout the body, from forelock to toenails? If part of the body is lost, does part of the soul go with it? Or is the soul an indivisible invisible entity that shrinks back to some core region of the body? Years ago, many theologians objected to heart transplantation, due to the clear implication in the bible that the heart is the seat of the soul. But such objections are rarely heard today, and it would seem that at least the Catholic Church locates the soul somewhere within the head, as evidenced by its practice of baptizing each head of multiheaded monsters separately.
It must be noted that for the Catholic Church at least, the soul cannot be equated with mind or personality. This is because mind is a process, not a thing – a verb and not a noun, despite its classification as a noun in most languages. But Catholic teaching nowadays holds that whatever the soul is, it is present in fertilized eggs. Since we can be quite certain that the process we call mind – a processes requiring the electrophysiological interaction of billions of different cells – does not occur in zygotes, zygotes could not have souls if souls are minds. A single cell cannot possess a mind.
If it be further held that souls are immutable entities (of course, not all religions believe this), still less is it possible for mind to be the soul. Very simple changes in chemistry – addition of alcohol, LSD, or mescaline, or wide fluctuations in glucose levels – can have dramatic effects on the process we call mind. There is also the well-known fact that several times each night the mind disappears altogether, during the stages of dreamless sleep. If minds are souls, what happens to souls during dreamless sleep? (vii)
If we accept the pope’s claim that zygotes have souls, we can use that “fact” to try to understand the association between cells and souls. Unfortunately, we can only ask questions and try to trace the implications of their possible answers.
Does the soul fill the entirety of the fertilized egg? Or is it localized, say, in the nucleus? We must remember that a Jesuit geneticist has assured us that a cloned person would have a soul that was different from and independent of the soul of its progenitor. Since the only thing deriving from the progenitor is the nucleus from the cell that was fused to the enucleate egg, if nuclei carried souls the clone would have the same soul as the progenitor. To have a different soul, it would seem that the soul must have been supplied by the cytoplasm of the egg cell. But then, the clone’s soul would be the same as that of the female that produced the egg! Whichever organelle of the cell it is that is host to the soul, it must be able to shed old souls and acquire new ones. Like a shoe, it must be capable of being re-souled.
Both normal and clonal reproduction create difficult problems for the idea of ensoulment and create constraints for the nature of the relationship between living matter and souls. In both types of reproduction, there is a material connection between the parents or progenitors and the offspring. In the case of eggs and sperms, just as in the case of eggs and body cells being cloned, the cells producing the offspring were once parts of adult bodies supposedly suffused with souls. How do reproductive cells disassociate themselves from the souls in which they formed? Do souls of parents automatically withdraw from cells as they turn into sperms or eggs? In the case of cloning, how does the body cell used to supply the genetic information for the clone become shorn of the spirit that surrounded and suffused it when it was a part, say, of the bone marrow or ear lobe? These are not cells that we might suppose would normally be called upon to shed their souls. Does the deity remove their souls only when meddling, unbelieving scientists remove them for the purpose of unnatural acts such as cloning?
Leaving unanswered the question of when cells involved in reproduction lose the souls of their creators, we must next inquire when and how they acquire the new souls that theologians assert are present in them. In the case of sperms and eggs, although they are fully alive by any criterion of molecular biology, most theologians today do not seem to think they have souls – despite the Monty Python hymn “Every Sperm Is Sacred.” Before the discovery of the human egg, it might have been possible to believe that sperms (the term is derived from the Greek word for seed) carried the soul of the offspring and the female’s rôle involved nothing more than providing a fertile soil in which the seed could sprout and grow into “the fruit of the womb.” Since it appeared that fetuses could only develop from zygotes – the fusion-product of a sperm and egg – it seemed that the soul had to make its entry sometime after the two cells had touched each other. Exactly when in the complicated events of embryo formation this occurs is not explained. Rather, theologians pretend that “fertilization” is an instantaneous event.
But the sacred-sperm hypothesis cannot be discarded by theologians without at least some doubt. For it turns out that there are some uterine tumors that are not only the result of fertilized eggs gone awry (and thus should have souls), but actually represent individuals that carry only the genes of their fathers.11 Completely lacking any genes from the mothers whose wombs they invade as though they were infiltrating cancers, these “androgenetic” tumors make up a subclass of obstetric tumors confusingly referred to as hydatidiform moles. (I prefer to think of them as undeveloped Christians, however.) It has been shown that these growths can result in either of two ways. The so-called homozygous moles result when, after an egg is fertilized by a sperm carrying an X-chromosome, the egg nucleus with its chromosomes disappears and the sperm nucleus undergoes chromosome doubling, to produce the normal count of 46 chromosomes needed to form an “unborn child.” (These have to be genetic females derived from sperms carrying an X-chromosome, since doubling of chromosomes in sperms carrying a Y-chromosome would produce nonviable double-Y nuclei.) There are also heterozygous moles that can be either male or female and result from an egg that is fertilized by two sperms and then loses its own nucleus. If sperms carry souls, it would seem that heterozygous moles would have to have two of them!
There is a startling similarity between the hydatidiform moles – in which the egg nucleus is lost and all the nuclear genetic information comes from one or more other cells – and the conceptions produced by cloning, where the egg nucleus is deliberately removed and supplanted by the genetic material from a donor cell. The only major difference would seem to be that the former (in which Christians ought to be able to see “the hand of God” at work) develop into tumors, whereas the latter (guided only by the hands of godless scientists) at least occasionally develop into live births.
Returning to the problem of ensoulment, we ask one last time: When in the course of cloning would a new soul enter into the process of development? Would it occur as soon as tissue intended for cloning is removed from the body and placed in culture medium? Would each cell so placed have a soul? Would souls appear after the cells start of reproduce in culture? If so, after how many cell divisions in culture? Would the new souls enter only after the cells have been “starved” by withholding nutrient serum for some while? If fasting be considered a “spiritual exercise,” would starving cells acquire spirits? Perhaps the soul has no association with the donor cell at all, but rather appears in the egg cell when its own nucleus has been removed. Perhaps all enucleate eggs are spiritual beings!
If the soul appears only after the donor cell has touched the egg cell, we must still wonder at what stage of physicochemical transformation this takes place, and how the soul-bearing unicellular product might differ from one not so graced. Would ensoulment take place if we substituted a chimpanzee egg for a human one? (If cloning should ever be carried out successfully with human eggs, we can be quite confident that it would work with chimp eggs as well, since chimps and humans are 99 percent identical genetically.) Does the soul enter when the donor cell membrane fuses with the egg cell membrane? Is it the electrical minishock that signals the advent of the soul? Or must we await the soul’s entry at some time after the break-down of the membrane around the donor nucleus? Or after the chromosomes are stimulated to divide by factors supplied by the egg cell? Or after several cell divisions have occurred, and the nuclei are able to divide with the aid of replication factors they themselves have caused to be produced? Or after…?
Loss of Definition For some while already, the reader has probably grown weary of questions that seem both aimless and futile. It has been necessary to ask these questions, however, to show that definitions of the term ‘soul’ – to the extent that theologians have even bothered to supply them – must lead to contradictions and absurdities. Moreover, though this essay cannot be considered to be a philosophically rigorous exposition, it becomes quite apparent that the term ‘soul’ cannot be defined and has become both scientifically and philosophically meaningless. There is no way to show that the proposition “People have souls” is in any way truer than the proposition “Pimples have souls.”
The Coup de Grâce? It would appear that cloning of humans – if it should ever be carried out successfully – would be the reductio ad absurdum of the theological notion of souls. Every attempted definition of the term ‘soul’ will have been exposed as leading to ridiculous consequences. Theologians will find it impossible to concoct replacement definitions that will be scientifically testable and not lead to embarrassing conclusions. It is hard to see how the pope could allow the sacrament of confirmation to be conferred on a person cloned with a chimp egg, or how he could justify a single baptism for a baby having four or more parents – even if cloning was not involved in its production.
Western theology now has its back up against the wall, and it can be expected to react like any wild animal that has been cornered. It is already lashing out at science with whatever claws it still possesses. Although theology has been toothless for some while, its teeth still fester in the hides of Darwin and his professional descendents and impede the progress of evolutionary science and education. But toothless or not, theology has managed to force the secular powers in most western nations to outlaw or prevent funding of research on human embryos. As the dragon of religion enters its death throes, its tail can be expected to do much harm as it flails about. It is not impossible that it could, before expiring, deal a deadly blow to the science that has slain it.
The Pope’s Most Fallible Brain – or Soul? People have worried whether the pope would still be infallible if he had a brain tumor or if someone slipped LSD into his communion wine. These problems are interesting, and their biological implications are worth pursuing. As you know, every minute of your life, your body is exchanging matter and energy with its environment. New atoms are being taken in and old atoms are being lost. Every few years, you literally have a new body. Your personal identity is no more real than that of a candle flame. Only a dynamic pattern exists, as the material “you” coalesces from chaos for a while, only to collapse again into chaos a while later. Moreover, even the dynamic pattern that is “you” changes. The newborn babe generally is unrecognizable in the forty-year-old person
If there be such a thing as resurrection of the body, which body – which collection of atoms – will be raised up at the latter day? If a person has been a cannibal since birth, all his atoms are really atoms belonging to someone else. Will the cannibal or his dinner be resurrected? But we have digressed.
Getting back to popes, since the pope has a new brain every few years, it would seem that the earlier infallible being is no longer on the Throne of Peter when the new brain is present. Is the new brain infallible? How about when the brain is half replaced? Can the pope be infallible half the time? Or is infallibility conferred upon each new molecule as it joins the papal team? Or is infallibility a feature of the pope’s soul, not his brain? Is his soul then perpetually transmigrating from one collection of brain molecules to another? Is his infallible soul being reincarnated every millisecond?
It is now possible to graft brain tissue from one animal into the brain of another. Since the brain is isolated from the immune system of the blood, new brain tissue is not rejected as foreign (the way heart transplants are) and indeed there is evidence that, at least to some extent, the new tissue can function neurologically normally.
With only slight exaggeration we may say that it is only a question of ethics, not technology, that prevents replacing a substantial part of one person’s brain with tissue from, say, a human fetus. If one-third of the pope’s brain were replaced with brain tissue from another source, would the composite pontiff still pontificate infallibly? What if two-thirds were replaced?
If you object to replacing papal gray matter (such as there is) with that of a fetus – thus depriving the fetus of its “right to life” – we can always use rat brains. Rat neurons will grow just as well in the human brain, as far as we can tell, as will foreign human neurons. Now what about a pope whose brain is even one percent rat? Or how about one percent rat, one percent chicken, and one percent Baptist? Would he still be one hundred percent infallible? When the pope is resurrected, will the rat brain rise again as well? And what if it turns out that rats have souls, as Hindus believe, and god decides at the resurrection that the rat needs his brain too?
Weighing the Soul By Frank R. Zindler
Some while ago, I had a delightful argument with a Presbyterian preacher about the concept of soul. I had just explained to him that the idea of a spirit or soul was a result of the fact that the ancients thought breath to be the factor giving life to a body, and that word such as spirit, ghost, and soul originally meant breath or breeze or wind. “Ah!” said the preacher, “haven’t you heard about the scientist who weighed the soul leaving the body of a dying man?
“Not since I quit teaching freshman biology,” I replied. “I used to hear the story every year at least once, but no one ever has been able to tell me who the scientist was or why he would try to do such a silly experiment.”
“What do you mean by ‘silly experiment’?” the preacher asked in annoyance.
“Well,” said I, “how would a scientist know how big a weight change to be looking for? And how far dead should the body be before one concludes that the soul has gone, and that one can now stop waiting for further changes? For example, if in the course of dying, the urinary sphincter suddenly relaxes, several ounces of urine may be lost, but no change in weight that big is likely to be observed at the loss of a soul.” I think my comparison of urine loss to loss of the soul kind of pissed off the preacher, but he held his tongue. I continued.
“On the other hand, a small amount of weight will be lost as the lungs compress, and the last breath – quite literally the spirit, since spiritus in Latin means breath – leaves the body. But how will the scientist know that a loss of weight of this magnitude is not due to loss of air? Also, as the body lies exposed to dry air, it will begin to dehydrate, and thus lose still more weight. Did the experimenter control for all these factors?” I asked the preacher. Of course, he didn’t know, because he had never read it in a scientific journal, but had only heard the myth being told and retold.
Being a firm believer in the principle that preachers always should be nudged by the toe of one’s boot when they’re down, I then proceeded to deliver the coup de grâce.
“You know,“ I told him, “it would be very devastating to your profession if, in fact, such an experiment had been done and had been scientifically valid.”
“How could that be?” he said as he swallowed my bait.
“Quite simple,” said I. “It would prove that the soul is a physical entity. Once we found that it had weight, we could proceed to analyze it chemically. Once we knew its chemical composition, we could then proceed to synthesize souls in the laboratory. We could then take out patents on soul-making, and sue all the clergy for patent infringement – since the god for whom they all claim to be financial agents is alleged to be making souls every day without paying royalties to the patent holders!”
The preacher was not amused. In fact, he sort of looked like Lady Vanderbilt when she discovered dog-do in the punch bowl at the soirée.
(i) There is a further problem with popes allowing our bodies to evolve, a problem not noted by John Paul II but pointedly discussed by his predecessor Pius XII in his 1950 encyclical Humani generis. Pius recognized that the whole Christian doctrine of original sin would fall apart if “Adam” turned out to be a population of hominids rather than a specific male individual from whom cloning-gone-awry produced a female. The reasoning is clear. If there never were an actual Adam who ate the forbidden fruit, there never could have been a primal act of disobedience, the “original sin.” If there was no original sin for Jehovah to pass on to innocent descendents of the sinner, there would be no need of redemption. If there be no need of redemption, redeemers (usually spelled with a capital R) are not needed, and Christ is sent to the ranks of the unemployed. Pius therefore sensibly outlawed acceptance of “polygenism” – the biological fact that we are descended from a whole population of ancestors, not just a single Adam with the help of an after-thought Eve.
Accoring to Pius, “There are other conjectures, about polygenism (as it is called), which leave the faithful no such freedom of choice. Christians cannot lend their support to a theory which involves the existence, after Adam’s time, of some earthly race of men, truly so called, who were not descended ultimately from him, or else supposes that Adam was the name given to some group of our primordial ancestors. It does not appear how such views can be reconciled with the doctrine of original sin, as this is guaranteed to us by Scripture and tradition, and proposed to us by the Church. Original sin is the result of a sin committed, in actual historical fact, by an individual man named Adam, and it is a quality native to all of us, only because it has been handed down by descent from him.”1
(ii) Although modern translations of the Bible try to change its wording as much as possible to avoid embarrassment, the unimproved editions of the King James Version have numerous passages indicating that the biblical authors thought a person’s conscience resided in the kidneys – or ‘reins’ as they were called in 1611. Most notable is Psalm 73, verse 21, which has the psalmist lament “Thus my heart was grieved, and I was pricked in my reins.”
(iii) Why would a god need to breathe – apart from the fact that humans created god in their own image at a time when the vacuum of outer space was yet unknown? It may be suggested that god had to have breath to be used only once in the history of the universe, when creating Adam. But it seems odd that a perfect being would pack useless baggage through most of eternity. When we realize that the third member of the Trinity is nothing but breath, we see that at least one-third of god is totally useless. Considering that the vast majority of the volume of the universe has no air in it, and thus cannot be used for breathing, it would appear that god’s breath is less useful than an Albanian credit card.
(iv) If we have to set out milk and cookies for Santa, perhaps we should leave something for Yahweh also after he has slithered down the tube. Blood sacrifices maybe?
(v) If you have eaten a Burbank plum, you have eaten a clone of a fruit variety created by a famous Atheist, the plant-breeding wizard Luther Burbank.
(vi) Such cysts sometimes represent fertilized eggs that have implanted in the womb and turned into a confused mélange of different types of tissue. In some cases, the cysts are actually the remains of a twin that was engulfed during the development of its brother or sister. Since such cysts either directly or indirectly develop from fertilized eggs, they should, according to Catholic theology, have a soul or two. Baptism of such undeveloped Christians is difficult, however, since there are no heads at all. Brain cells are simply strewn about amidst the hair, skin, and teeth.
(vii) It is also probably a fact that the idea of souls and spirits has sprung at least in part from the adventures of the mind during sleep.
1 Anne Fremantle, The Papal Encyclicals In Their Historical Context: The Teachings Of The Popes (New York, New American Library, A Mentor Book, 1956), 287.
2 Meredith Wadman, “US senators urge caution on cloning ban,” Nature 386 (10 March 1997):204.
3 “New world of genetic possibility born with cloned lamb,” The Columbus Dispatch, (Columbus, Ohio, 24 February 1997): 1A.
5 Ehsan Masood, “Cloning technique ‘reveals legal loophole’,” Nature 385 (27 February 1997):757.
7 Richard Scheinin, “Clergy, ethicists ponder issues that replication raises,” San Jose Mercury News, reprinted in The Columbus Dispatch (9 March 1997): 6B.
10 Sylvia Brooks, “Cloning raises host of issues for theologians,” The Columbus Dispatch (25 February 1997): 1A-2A.
11 R.A. Fisher, J.J. Paradinas, E.S. Newlands, and G.M. Boxer, “Genetic evidence that placental site trophoblastic tumors can originate from a hydatidiform mole or a normal conceptus,” British Journal of Cancer 65(3) (31 March 1992: 355-8.
Formerly a professor of biology and geology, Frank R. Zindler is now a science writer. He is a member of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the New York Academy of Science, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Schools of Oriental Research. He is the Editor of American Atheist.