Is there a natural morality?

Jérôme Lejeune

Conferenza pubblica tenuta il 20 giugno 1989 nell'ambito del summer program, American session, John Paul II Institute. In Rilievo



1- The animation of matter

In his quest for the truth, the biologist tames upon a two-fold evidence at the two extremes of the development of a human being. This evidence is clear: spirit animates matter.

First of all, take the macro and micro structure of the brain, from the most complex connecting network that we presently know an earth (measuring 200,000 kilometers in length, if one calculates in neurotubules) to that extraordinary play of synapses which causes a flow of particles to be engulfed by the receptive membrane when a vesicle bursts and emits a chemical mediator.

Curiously, our machine for eliminating the fortuitous and keeping only the deducible, mark of reason, is a particles counter of an incredible velocity. In the synopsis itself, particles pass one at a time into each of the channels. The little devil of Maxwell is at the bottom of this system which deciphers and puts order in the universe.

Most wonderfully, the least thought triggers this flow of ions and this extraordinary counting of particles, spirit truly animates matter.

At the very outset, when a being begins its carrier, it is the genetic information which, accidents apart, dictates all its qualities. According to the felicitous formula of the mathematicians, the being called to life is reduced to its simplest expression (1). The language is, of course, extremely miniaturized. In the head of a spermatozoid, there is a linear meter of DNA. If one brought together all the DNA molecules which will define each and every quality of each and every one of the five billion men who will replace us on this planet, the amount of matter would be about equal to two aspirin tablets.

What we know, beyond any possible doubt, is that all the necessary and sufficient information is present from fecundation, that is, from the moment when the information carried by the spermatozoid and that carried by the ovule are joined in the fertilized egg.

This idea that spirit animates matter is, in a way, inscribed in our very language. We use the same ward for an idea that comes to mind and for a new being coming into existence. In both cases, we speak of conception. This is not a poverty of our vocabulary but implicit recognition, if I may put it so, that at the very beginning, soul and body, spirit and matter, are so interlocked that it is impossible to speak of one without the other. And language never has.

This leads us to consider the biologist's first responsibility: to explain to his contemporaries that molecular biology wholly excludes Cartesian Dualism according to which there is spirit on one side and body on the other. Living matter does not exist; there is only animated body, but animated by the nature of man.

A question immediately suggest itself. Are there Instructions far Use of this human nature? Is there a natural morality? Were I to express my thoughts very respectfully, if a bit abruptly, I would say that the Decalogue is the user's manual and the Commandments of the Church the instructions for maintenance for human nature.

But one would first of all have to establish that human nature dues indeed exist. This is fiercely debated. Talk of human nature is not fashionable nowadays and, not too long ago, it was pretended to be demonstrated that the human condition was, in fact, only a kind of convention admitted by one society, but different for another, with no way of knowing which was good.

If there is a natural morality, it would be wise to conform to it, not in order to direct science (for natural morality is itself an abject of science), but rather to direct the uses of science and to decide about the technical applications of our knowledge, and how to put it to good use. Science is indeed the Tree of Good and Evil. It provides both good and bad fruits. Our whole responsibility as scientists is to collect the good fruits and not to offer the bad ones to our contemporaries and our descendants.


2. From Human Nature to Natural Morality

Of course it is difficult to define human nature; nonetheless, we must try to grasp what it is. For a geneticist like myself, the first step is simply to say: Well, we know with certainty that this enormous genetic message, 1011 of bases in DNA, corresponds to a phenomenal quantity of information. Moreover, we know that it is because the conceived being has this information that it is human. In other words, the most modern and objective molecular genetics can be epitomized in a rough paraphrase of the beginning of St. John's Gospel. "At the beginning there is a message. This message is in life and this message is life; and if this message is a human message, then, this life is a human life". Of course, one must decipher this message and that is already underway, but it is not necessary to get into overly technical details on how to read these extraordinary Tables of the Law of life which are inscribed to our DNA.

It would, however, be quite insufficient to consider only DNA. DNA is like a magnetic tape on which the symphony of life is inscribed, but it must never be forgotten that the rest of the fertilized cell is like the magnetophone which will decipher the code and play the symphony. When we speak of the quantity of information expressed in bits, this is not only what is inscribed on the tape, but also what is involved in the machinery that reads the ribbon and executes what it means.

Then it is not only some 1010 to 1013 bits that are involved, but an absolutely enormous number which at present no one can state precisely (2).

The first notion, then, is a genetic definition of the being. For the second notion we must return to our opening remarks on the brain. One need only remove the cranial dome to find in man the frontal areas and the Broca and Wernicke zones that are absent from the primates. These zones are necessary far articulate speech and coherent thought.

Without getting into comparative neuroanatomy, one can perhaps make a rough but nonetheless quite convincing observation. I travel a lot and no matter where I go there are two extremely instructive places I like to visit - the university and the zoo. In the universities, I have frequently met eminent colleagues who shake their learned heads and wonder if, when all is said and done, their children when very young were not some kind of animals. But at the zoo, I have never seen a meeting of chimpanzees asking themselves, when all is done (and not said!) whether their children would not some day grow up into University members!

About a zoo, why not go in Australia? Down there you would meet rather stupid bipedal creatures for whom aborting their babies looks perfectly natural - I mean the kangaroos - and more precisely the King Kangaroos, roughly the size of a man.

At two months of age, the baby King, two centimeters long, is aborted. He looks like a little sausage with one claw on each of his rudimentary limbs. He does not know where the maternal pouch is, (nor whether it exists at all) but he feels gravity. He climbs right up in the fur, and if the mother kangaroo stands still he will not fail to reach the pouch and fall inside it. Then, comfortably, he will suck a tiny nipple and grog for another seven months.

The remarkable thing is that another kangaroo will let him do so. She would not allow any other being to accommodate itself in her pouch! Obviously the recognition of the tiny sausage as a kangaroo being is somehow written in her nervous system.

If nature has taken the trouble of wiring the meager brain of a mother kangaroo, so that she could recognize the "kangarooiness" of the little kangaroo, I cannot believe that with their one and a half liter brain, the scholars have not been endowed with the faculty of recognizing the human dignity of the tiniest humans!

For my part, I conclude that human nature is evident to all. On this planet, man is the only creature who asks himself whence he comes, who he is (3). He is also the only one to have discovered, (and this from the beginning) that there is a connection between the passion of love and the reproduction of his kind. The most gifted or the best trained chimpanzee never had nor ever will know that there is a connection between copulation and the appearance nine months later of a little ape who resembles him. Man has always known that Pagans quite rightly represented the god of love in the form of a child. This peculiarity, this knowledge which is, as it were, genetically inscribed in the heart of man, gives to his behavior, and especially to his amorous behavior, a dignity that does not exist in the rest of the life world.

If one agrees that there can exist a natural morality, it follows immediately: that to dissociate love of the child and the child of love is an error in method. Hence the quite natural prescription of continual abstinence in the chaste celibate and periodic continence in the happy marriage. If monogamy indeed corresponds to human nature and if morality reserves to the husband the prerogative of being the only one authorized to deposit reproductive cells in the inner temple that is the wife's body, one then arrives quite simply at fundamental moral notions. Contraception, which is making love without making babies; extracorporeal fecundation which is making the baby without making love; abortion, which is unmaking the baby; and pornography, which is unmaking love; are not in keeping with the natural dignity of man.

The mocking remark that morality is ill placed in the bottom of panties exhibits ignorance of neuroanatomy. The cerebral projection of the genital organs is at the upper extremity of Rolando fissure in the interhemispheric surface, very close to the limbic system. That is to say, the genital is the only corporal representation to be in contact with the center of the emotions that move us: those which aim at presevation of the being (hunger, thirst, aggressions) and the preservation of the species (reproduction, protection of the young, love). It follows that we are so made that whatever concerns the genital directly involves the moral, neurologically speaking. Hence the impossibility of mastering emotive behavior if the will does not command also, and perhaps first of all, conscious and deliberate genital behavior.

When technology gives us control over the very young human being, over the embryo which can be formed in a quasi-alchemical phial, and even brought back from a frozen state, this natural morality teaches us that young as he might be, as fragile as he might be, the human embryo is member of our species and by that fact ought to be protected from all exploitation. He is not a stock of spare parts to be drawn on at need. He is not a commodity to be frozen and unfrozen at will. He is not consumer good for sale or exchange. He is quite precisely our neighbor, our likeness, the flesh of our flesh.


3- Stumbling Block or Safeguard?

It must now be asked if this morality, unchanged throughout time, amounts to an embarrassment for research. That is, is it an unfortunate taboo or, on the contrary, a precious guide? I would not pretend to give an a priori answer. Rather I will examine three examples.


a) Respect of the Couple

The conjugal act is the only natural mode of depositing male reproductive cells into the feminine body, through the union of two persons. This physical union which alone renders valid and definitive the engagement of the persons is a desired and deliberated act of the spouses.

Fecundation of the ovule by the sperm, will eventually take place hours later, but the fusion of the reproductive cells is then a consequence of body physiology and is beyond the conscious and deliberate control of the spouses.

There is a fundamental difference between carrying in the male gametes (by union of the persons, i.e., the act of love, truly speaking) and the fecundation of the ovule (at the cellular level). As a consequence, if the technician carries the gametes he substitutes himself for the husband and, through a syringe, he achieves the act naturally reserved to the union of the persons. In this sense, there is substitutio personarum.

On the contrary, when the technician suppresses an obstacle preventing the fusion of the reproductive cells or alleviates an hormonal difficulty or anything else hampering fertility, he achieves adjutorium naturae which is the very purpose of medicine.

This operational distinction, which is in full accordance with the Vatican instruction Donum vitae, is not at all academic. May I take the liberty of quoting a woman having just had her embryo transferred after extracorporeal fecundation. It is a little shocking possibly, but how enlightening. The anesthesiologist, the biologist and the gynecologists had performed the procedure in a respectful atmosphere accommodated with soft music. Instants later, to her troubled husband asking how the thing happened, the would-be mother answered abruptly, " I made love with the three! "

A realistic, or more precisely a surrealistic description (that only a woman could discover) of the substitutio personarum we were discussing previously !

It remains to be remarked that consequences of extracorporeal fecundation are frightening for the human embryo - the technician who fosters him, for two or three days in the incubator or deep freezes him for years in liquid nitrogen, is, in fact, the only person having truly parental power ever him. Hence all the dangers of exploitation, all the perverse abuses already invented or yet unimaginable!

Conversely, the child conceived in corpore materno is protected from all these attacks, by the very place of his conception. The womb is not only a shelter incomparably better equipped chemically and physiologically than the most sophisticated laboratory, but this secret temple is also possibly the only place really designed for the coming into the world of a new human being, committed to eternity.

The term secret temple is not pure metaphoric poetry, I learned in Japan. The Reverend Mother of charming sisters near Hiroshima taught me that in Chinese script, the uterus is defined by two " conjis ". One means "shrine", the other means " concealed ". Then men try to tell the true story, no matter if they speak French, English or Japanese, when it comes to figuring out the place of the beginning of life's adventure, they reach two concepts: secret and sacred.

If I can propose an opinion, I would surmise that the long trip outside the mother's body implied by in vitro fertilization, is not a favorable solution, Progress in adjutorium naturae will soon make it an obsolete, undesirable and unnecessary complication. Two schools will appear: The one will fight sterility by plastics, grafts, molecular biology or what have you; the other will obstinately pursue extracorpareal fecundation. but its avowed purpose will no longer be the fight against infertility but an arbitrary dominion over human destiny.


b) Respect of the Embryo

By respect of the embryo I mean the human embryo. Is this a taboo that retards research? I don't think so. The history of the past three years is very illuminating on this score. Three years ago, our colleagues in England tried to get a law enacted that would permit the experimental use of human embryos not yet 14 days old. I had the honor of appearing before the British Parliament to give a geneticist's opinion. What had been proposed was this:

If you give us the right to use 14-day old embryos, we will study different illnesses and obtain knowledge leading perhaps to a cure for mental retardation, cystic fibrosis of the pancreas, muscular dystrophy, Trisomy 21, and hemophilia.

In my testimony I was obliged to remark in a quite matter of fact way, that one could not study in a 14-day old embryo a disorder in a brain that had not yet formed, nor difficulties of blood coagulation (e.g., hemophilia) because the organs which farm blood cells are not yet differentiated, nor an anomaly of the muscle which will appear only a week later. Finally, the project in no way enabled one to elaborate a logical basis for saying these experiments are scientifically necessary and absolutely indispensable for the study of the five diseases. I can tell you - and this is amusing - that this extremely simple intervention was very badly received. The scientific weekly, Nature, entitled it " A French Influence in Britain ". Something quite shacking. Nature went so far as to promise a free subscription to anyone who would provide a research project demonstrating the falsity of what I had said. That was three years ago. Nature has published no such thing and, to my knowledge, no one has received free that excellent scientific publication.

The truth is that it was not necessary to manipulate human beings. For in the course of these years, the gene of cystic fibrosis has been discovered. The gene of muscular dystrophy has been cloned and the protein it makes, dystrophine, is now known. Great progress has been made in the understanding of Trisomy 21 and hemophilia. Genetic engineering has made the anti-hemophiliac factor in artificially controlled bacteria, blocking one possible means of transmission of AIDS. All this without harming the life of a single early human being.

But what about frozen embryos? They are accumulated by thousands in a crowded deep freeze tank. The low temperature brings time to a stand still! The hopelessness of arrested beings, concentrated in a hostile place where even the time was also arrested, such is the condition of early humans in a concentration can.

Today, people are questioning what to do with frozen embryos. Kill them.? Or keep them for experimental benefit? These same questions were asked fifty years ago in other precincts.

The only answer is very simple. Concentration can must be forever strictly verboten.

At this point, let me simply quote a phrase from our colleagues of the Max Planck Institute who wrote (in Nature):

The abuse of these techniques through experiments with human embryos (and pre-embryos if one considers a preimplantation embryo not to be an embryo), must be condemned by the scientific community.

This declaration appeared a few months ago and I take comfort from the thought that the scientists in a country where the denatured doctrine of the Nazis was once enforced by the law, are restoring dignity to biology. As an honest servant of medicine, biology must be at the service of the patient, and must never again treat him as an experimental animal.


c) The respect of Mankind

If respect for human nature is not an obstacle to research, is it a safeguard? I tend to think so. I will take a very recent example under discussion at the present time - the abortive pill, RU 486. It is an antiprogesterone, a false key that blocks the site on which progesterone, the hormone indispensable for the progress of the pregnancy, normally acts. In technical terms, this product is called Mifepristone; in practical terms, it is the first specialized anti-human pesticide, one can imagine, without any mistake in reckoning, that if this product is industrially manufactured it will kill each year more human beings than were killed by Hitler, Stalin, and Mao Tse Tung combined.

To eliminate the extremely young humans by a binary ammunition (anti-progesterone for poisoning and prostagladine for expulsing) is precisely the beginning of chemical warfare against humanity!


4- The Way, the Truth and the Life

There remains, however, another question. Our power grows daily. We are going to make new beings (bacteria, vegetable, animals) by ways other than by natural or artificial selection. By that very fact we are certainly going to modify the destiny of man before he perhaps modifies himself. I do not know if we shall be able, during our lifetime, to modify the human brain, but no one can show that this will always be impossible. In short, we are going to become more and more powerful. The biological bomb is probably more dangerous for humanity than the thereto-nuclear bomb. Then we will indeed require something to guide us. It will be necessary to establish or rediscover a term of reference. Who can tell whether this will be good or bad? Who will teach us that?

In my profession as physician and geneticist, such questions arise every day.

Of course, there are always some who suggest that we alter morality whenever any innovation seems to require it or a disruption of the mores suggests it. This method has no future because it cannot surmount the decisive difficulty: "Technology is cumulative, wisdom is not".

So what are we left with? Wisdom itself: that you have done to the smallest of mine you have done unto Me. If specialists remember that, science will remain the honest servant of the human family but, if they forget it, if they forget that there exists above all a supernatural morality everything could be feared from a denatured biology.



(1) Note that "essence" precedes " existence " here. Indeed, the coded message of DNA will be transcribed in RNA which will then be spliced. Secondarily, proteins which are the machine tools of the cell, will be constructed in conformity with the code of the messenger RNA. Given the translation machine (the cytoplasm) on the one hand and the DNA formula on the other, one could know exactly the " essence " of the new being even before it is expressed, that is, even before "existence" of its properties is recognizable.

(2) Even if one day this enormous number were estimated (and there is no theoretical reason why it cannot be), there would remain the great difficulty left unsolved by the theory of information. When the length of a message has been measured, one has in no wise measured its " signification ". To repeat without error such variants as "bla bla bla ", " ran tan plan ", and other, " ron et ron petit patapon ", could require a quantity of information equal to a sonnet of Petrarch! The " quantity " of information in the DNA of a chimpanzee is comparable to that in the DNA of man, yet it is quite certain that the DNA of man tells something more: since man spears.

(3) And : "what have you done of your brother".