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Showing posts with label biology. Show all posts
Showing posts with label biology. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Does a Fertilized Egg Have a Soul?

A recent article in the British publication Premier Christianity asked the question, "Does individual life really begin at conception?"1 David Instone-Brewer argues conception is too early to consider the embryo or zygote a person, pointing to the fact that cells are undifferentiated and the embryo could split into twins. He notes that prior to the 14 day mark, cells are undifferentiated, therefore "the number of nerve and brain cells in the human embryo is zero, and it has less complexity than the simplest microscopic worm."

Instone-Brewer doesn't rest his argument on biology, however. He's more fair than that. He offers a theological argument as to why 14 is the magic number. He continues:

For a completely different reason, theologians might also regard 14 days as a significant starting point for individual life. This is the date before which the cell-bundle could split into identical twins or larger multiples. We don't know if God injects a fully formed spirit at some point (like Plato imagined) or whether our spirit develops while our body develops. However, we can be sure that God does not give an individual spirit to a bundle of cells before 14 days because if those cells did subsequently split into identical twins, they would have only half of a human spirit each. Theologically speaking, therefore, individual spiritual life cannot start before 14 days after conception.

What Makes a Living Thing Alive?

Here is where I think Instone-Brewer goes wrong. While it is true that a single embryo will infrequently split into multiples, Instone-Brewer seems to offer a stunted definition of what the soul is. In his explanation above, he tries to separate the soul from the growing embryo as something that God perhaps adds to the entity. Yet, he doesn't take into account what is the thing that causes the embryo to be considered a living thing at all.

Regardless of whether our soul is fully formed or develops with the body, there is something that is unique about an embryo in that it is a living entity. It is different from a rock or a piece of wood. It is even different from a human corpse. The embryo is alive. The Bible has traditionally taught that the thing that separates a living being from an inanimate object is the soul.2 In Genesis 2:7 we read, "Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." The word used for God's breathing and the word used for being are both forms of the Hebrew word nephesh which is the primary word for soul. In the Genesis passage, God fashions the body—that is, all the parts are there and read to work—but the body doesn't become alive until the soul is given to it by God.

There are several other passages that illustrate the soul as being the distinctive element separating life and death. Genesis 35:18, which recounts Rachel's death, describes her passing by recording her soul's departure from the body. Also, Elijah when raising the widow's dead son in 1 Kings 17:21 prayed "Let this child's life (nephesh) return to him."

The Difference between a Being and Tissue

Of course, someone may offer an objection at this point, asking "What about cells such as skin cultures they keep alive in Petri dishes? Certainly, those don't have a soul, do they?" Well, I would argue no. First, a soul is a single entity that relates to the entire being. Instone-Brewer is right in noting that an embryo splitting into twins would leave each with half a soul. Similarly, a sperm cell and an ovum don't each have half a soul that fuses together when they unite. This is equating the immaterial aspect of the soul with the material aspect of the cells themselves. The soul encapsulates and animates the entire person.

Because the soul supervenes upon the entire person, it can be said that the soul provides the guidance or teleos for the body to operate properly. In other words, one's body is like an assembly of musicians and one's DNA is the sheet music. However, without a conductor to regulate the system, a symphony would never be produced. An embryo and even a zygote (fertilized egg) have that conductor in the soul, which animates the organism with forward progress. It builds a body.

Contrast that with cells in a dish. There is no telos there; the cells simply continue in a mechanical fashion as long as. In fact, one can compare them to the organs of an organ donor. If you are an organ donor, you have allowed certain body organs to be taken from you after you die and transplanted into another person. The organs are not removed until you are really dead, yet certain organs can for a limited time and with intervention stay viable for longer periods. While the cells of these organs are still operational, they will also die unless they are placed within a living being where their purpose may be fulfilled.

Embryos are not like an organ simply because the telos of an embryo is to create an independent entity. One may realize this doesn't happen in 14 days (or even nine months; it takes many years before a human being can be considered fully independent), but it marks a clear distinction between that which is a living being and cells that are mechanically operational.

On the question of where the soul of the twin comes from, you can read the excellent reply Peter D. Williams writes here. However, by ignoring the theology about what makes a human being alive, I think Instone-Brewer's answer is too short-sighted.


1. Instone-Brewer, David, and Peter D. Williams. "Does Individual Life Really Begin at Conception?" Premier Christianity. Premier Christian Media Trust, 14 May 2015. Web. 26 May 2015.
2.. Although I offer some examples here, a much fuller argument for the soul as that which gives life may be found in J.P. Moreland and Scott Rae's Body & Soul: Human Nature & the Crisis in Ethics. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2000), pages 26-40.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Shocking Biology Book that Triggered the Scopes Trial

Whenever the famous Scopes "Monkey" Trial is brought up, most people believe it is a concrete example of the stubbornness of religious believers to not allow the facts of science in the classroom. That's definitely the way Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee saw things in their subsequent re-imagining of the events that took place in Dayton, Tennessee in 1925. Their treatment of those who held to religious beliefs when writing Inherit the Wind is clearly designed to make that point.

However, when one researches the facts of the case a different picture emerges. I've already talked about how the entire incident was manufactured; with the various parties hoping garner publicity for whatever side they happened to champion. As for the trial itself, Carol Iannone does a great job summarizing how the play distorts the facts in her First Things article. For an even more in-depth look into the events surrounding those eight days may be found in, Marvin Olasky and John Perry's Monkey Business: The True Story of the Scopes Trial.

What Triggered This?

In looking at the background, there were a lot of pieces at play. As a reaction to the German high criticism and the more liberal spin that many prominent denominations were placing on the biblical texts, Christian fundamentalism had become a major force, even succeeding in helping to pass prohibition laws.1 The explosion in scientific achievements such as the telephone, in-home electricity, the airplane and the discovery of x-rays were changing the way people lived. Sigmund Freud, a self-described materialist whose psychoanalysis was hugely influential, taught that religion was nothing more than a human projection onto the world for those seeking to fulfill deep-seated wishes.2

In all of this change, Darwin's theory was being promoted across most of the school systems in the country. Yet, the Darwinism of the 1920's was not what one may hear today. The Darwinian champions of the early 20th century were themselves more fundamental in their understanding of the advancement of living creatures, including humans. The biology textbook used to teach the students in Tennessee in 1925 shows us just how much was really objectionable.

Reading the Biology Book Taught in Tennessee

As I noted previously, when asked whether he had taught evolution in the classroom, "Scopes said that any teacher who followed the state-approved textbooks taught evolution."3 The state-approved textbook for biology at that time was A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems written by George William Hunter in 1914 and published by the American Book Company out of Cincinnati. The entire book has been digitally archived and is available online at the Project Gutenberg website, but I wanted to highlight a few passages for you. Under the subtitle Evolution, Hunter lays out the story of man descending from apes and points to nomads as "little better than one of the lower animals." 4 Hunter's comment impugn the mental functions of people groups like native American or the various tribes across Africa that never developed beyond their stone age roots. Here's what he wrote in A Civic Biology about the races:
At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; the American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the Caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America. (Emphasis added.)5

Kill the Worthless People

Of course, holding to evolution in the early 20th century, it was easy for Hunter to embrace and teach eugenics. He clearly held that there were inferior human beings who he described as parasites. Here is the entire relevant section:
The Jukes.—Studies have been made on a number of different families in this country, in which mental and moral defects were present in one or both of the original parents. The "Jukes" family is a notorious example. The first mother is known as "Margaret, the mother of criminals." In seventy-five years the progeny of the original generation has cost the state of New York over a million and a quarter of dollars, besides giving over to the care of prisons and asylums considerably over a hundred feeble-minded, alcoholic, immoral, or criminal persons. Another case recently studied is the "Kallikak" family.35 This family has been traced back to the War of the Revolution, when a young soldier named Martin Kallikak seduced a feeble-minded girl. She had a feeble-minded son from whom there have been to the present time 480 descendants. Of these 33 were sexually immoral, 24 confirmed drunkards, 3 epileptics, and 143 feeble-minded. The man who started this terrible line of immorality and feeble-mindedness later married a normal Quaker girl. From this couple a line of 496 descendants have come, with no cases of feeble-mindedness. The evidence and the moral speak for themselves!

Parasitism and its Cost to Society.—Hundreds of families such as those described above exist to-day, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.

The Remedy.—If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with success in this country.

Blood Tells.—Eugenics show us, on the other hand, in a study of the families in which are brilliant men and women, the fact that the descendants have received the good inheritance from their ancestors.
In Bryan's closing argument before the court on the Scopes trial, he made some very salient points. He opened declaring that he was not trying to stifle the free speech of any teacher:
Let us now separate the issues from the misrepresentations, intentional or unintentional, that have obscured both the letter and the purpose of the law. This is not an interference with freedom of conscience. A teacher can think as he pleases and worship God as he likes, or refuse to worship God at all. He can believe in the Bible or discard it; he can accept Christ or reject Him. This law places no obligations or restraints upon him. And so with freedom of speech, he can, so long as he acts as an individual, say anything he likes on any subject. This law does not violate any rights guaranteed by any Constitution to any individual. It deals with the defendant, not as an individual, but as an employee, official or public servant, paid by the State, and therefore under instructions from the State.

The right of the State to control the public schools is affirmed in the recent decision in the Oregon case, which declares that the State can direct what shall be taught and also forbid the teaching of anything ''manifestly inimical to the public welfare." The above decision goes even further and declares that the parent not only has the right to guard the religious welfare of the child but is in duty bound to guard it. That decision fits this case exactly. The State had a right to pass this law and the law represents the determination of, the parents to guard the religious welfare of their children.6
My question to those who use the Scope trial to say how backward the citizens of Tennessee were in objecting to the text is would you want your children to be taught this stuff?


Eskridge, Larry. "Fundamentalism." Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals. Wheaton College, 2012. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

2 Nicholi, Armand M. The Question of God: C.S. Lewis and Sigmund Freud Debate God, Love, Sex, and the Meaning of Life. New York: Free, 2002. Print. 18.

3 Bergeron, Paul H., Stephen V. Ash, and Jeanette Keith. Tennesseans and Their History. Knoxville: U of Tennessee, 1999. Print. 252.

4 Hunter, George W. A Civic Biology: Presented in Problems. Cincinnati: American Book, 1914. Print. 192.

5 Hunter, 195.

6 Bryan, Willam Jennings. "Text of the Closing Statement of William Jennings Bryan at the Trial of John Scopes, Dayton, Tennessee, 1925." California State University Dominguez Hills. California State University Dominguez Hills, 31 Oct. 2005. Web. 26 Mar. 2015.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Monkey Business: Stop Excusing Sexual Deviance

An article entitled "Face it: Monogamy is unnatural" was featured yesterday on the CNN site. Written by Meghan Laslocky, her thesis is that "a greater tolerance toward the human impulse to experience sexual variety is needed."[1] Laslocky bases this on the fact that "Biologically, we humans are animals. So it makes sense to look to the animal kingdom for clues as to what we are built for." She then throws out examples from the animal kingdom of how monogamy is a sham. "The evidence shows that monogamy is a rarity among mammals. Only 3% to 5% of all the mammal species on Earth 'practice any form of monogamy.' In fact, no mammal species has been proven to be truly monogamous."

She culminates her argument with a look at the biology of pair-bonding in prairie voles, a small rodent native to North America. Stating that hormones and receptors are the cause for such behavior, Laslocky concludes:
"Among humans, here's the rub: we have the chemicals and the receptors, but it varies from person to person how much we have. Based on brain wiring alone, inclination toward fidelity can vary dramatically from one individual to another. In other words, 'once a cheater, always a cheater,' might have as much to do with brain wiring as with a person's moral compass, upbringing or culture. "
I'm sure everyone who has walked in on their spouse in the act of infidelity is comforted by that fact.

Arguments like the one Laslocky proposes are not new. Many times I hear from homosexual advocates that homosexuality must be natural because zoologists have observed animals performing homosexual behavior in the wild. This type of reasoning is as preposterous as it is inconsistent. No one would say, "Chimps fling their feces and we are so close genetically we should, too." Or to take a more mundane example, it isn't uncommon for a host to be horrified when his or her pet dog mounts the leg of a guest. Even in the article, one image of elephant seals is accompanied with the note that males "protect harems of more than 100 females from other males thinking of moving into their territories." I'm sure such a "natural" relationship model will be not considered acceptable by women!

No, these appeals to the animal kingdom as a way to understand our sexual actions make one of two egregious errors. The first is they assume humans are slaves to our biology. While prairie voles may not be able to rise above their responses to chemical hormones, part of what it means to be human is to NOT react to our base stimuli. We don't want a man threatening to kill at the mere presence of another male. We don't want a person to simply take whomever he or she desires. We have this capacity for reason that makes us--let's choose this word wisely--civilized.

In fact, that's the argument that women's groups have relied on when talking about rape and provocative dress. It doesn't matter how it makes you feel, you don't have to act on it. So, to dismiss infidelity as people who are victims of biology opens up a much larger issue and gives sexual predators an out.

The second way these kinds of arguments err is by blurring actions and assuming animal motivations are the same as in humans. This anthropomorphizing animal behavior is a common plague in animal behavioral research. The case of Koko is a perfect example.

Koko is a famous gorilla who supposedly mastered over 1,000 signs and uses American Sign Language to communicate in complex sentences. However, as Steven Pinker in his book The Language Instinct documents, the handlers were interpreting actions as signs, interpreting one sign to mean something else, and basically superimposing what they wanted Koko's behavior to mean onto the ape's actions. [2] Similarly, no animals form homosexual relationships for pair-bonding. They auto-stimulate themselves with whatever they may find. That's why the dog mounts the guest's leg.

One thing not mentioned by proponents who liken human sexuality with animal behavior is acts of sexual gratification between species. Peter Singer writes that while visiting an orangutan refuge in Africa with a group, one of the women "was suddenly seized by a large male orangutan, his intentions made obvious by his erect penis. Fighting off so powerful an animal was not an option, but Galdikas (the refuge's director) called to her companion not to be concerned, because the orangutan would not harm her, and adding, as further reassurance, that ‘they have a very small penis.' As it happened, the orangutan lost interest before penetration took place."[3] Such a scenario is scary, but not as scary as Singer's conclusion. He says such an action is an example of why sex across species should "cease to be an offence to our status and dignity as human beings."[4]

Regardless of which error is committed, you can see how judging sexual actions by observing animal sexual behavior leads to dangerous consequences.  Human beings are not merely animals. We have minds and we have a moral compass. Bestiality is wrong. Rape is wrong. And excusing infidelity on the basis of biology is itself inexcusable.


1. Laslocky, Meghan. "Face it: Monogamy is unnatural." <> Accessed 6/22/2013.

2. Pinker, Steven. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language.
(New York:William Morrow & Co. 1994). 345-347.

3. Singer, Peter. "Heavy Petting." Nerve, 2001. < > Accessed 6/22/2013

4. Ibid.

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