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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
In my profession as physician and geneticist, such questions arise
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
(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".