Modern science in this debate

Submitted by frlarry on

Our understanding of ourselves is, from a scientific standpoint, much deeper today than what was available to St. Albert or St. Thomas Aquinas. A paper by Stephen C. Meyer in the August 10, 2005, Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington, entitled The Origin of Biological Information and the Higher Taxonomic Categories, gives a pretty good idea of some of this depth, though it speaks of life in general, not only human life. For the purposes of this discussion, what it says about life in general is also relevant.

Since the discovery by Gregor Mendel of the principles of genetics, and the subsequent discovery of the structure of DNA by James Watson and Francis Crick, geneticists (who are, generally speaking, people gifted in biology and mathematics) have had a huge intellectual playground to enjoy themselves in. The recent work on mapping the Human Genome and protein structure prediction has only served to underscore the challenge of the task of understanding what makes us tick.

Of particular relevance to us here is the fact that human beings are, in their physical essence, encoded in their DNA structure. A gene is essentially a double helical strand containing sequences of amino acids, characterized by their base components, selected from adenine, thymine, cytosine and guanine, with a rare occurence of uracile replacing thymine. Mathematicians encode this in sequences like ADTADCATC... In doing so, the problem of characterizing the human genome may be understood as characterizing a subset of a high dimensional discrete space. That is, which sequences may be regarded as corresponding to a valid and viable human being, and which not? We may refer to this space as genome space, recognizing that the dimensionality of particular genomes may vary to some extent, a fact that is most obvious in the anomalies of aneuploidy.

Of course, by putting the question in such terms, we are skipping entirely over the question of what God may be doing when new human beings are conceived. That is, while it may be theoretically possible to identify clusters of DNA sequences that encode viable humans, based on a knowledge of the existing examples and an analysis of the likely proteins resulting from non-extant variants, with their impact on ontogenesis, there is still the question of what God will permit.

It is, after all, God who designed the human form. God envisioned all of the possibilities, and God may have his own set of rules that augment what is encoded in nature. We may, for the sake of this discussion, assume that God encoded everything necessary in the laws of physics, and that God continues to play his part in creating a human soul for all of the physically viable human variants. Of course, viable here means simply that a fertilized egg is formed through fertilization and the resulting egg has the inherent capacity (in a normal supportive environment) to develop normally at least to the embryonic phase. For purposes of this discussion we need not address the question of whether God will participate in the development of a human clone by endowing a viable clone with a soul.

However any of these tangential considerations are resolved, the main question for us here is, how are we to regard the universal type, human, in light of what we know about the abstract DNA characterization of the human genome?

In particular, we have said universals can be described as ideas in the mind of God. For God, however, such an idea can incorporate all possible realizations of that idea. In particular, God's idea of the human person can include all possible human genomic structures. The problem for us, of course, is this. How are we to regard the so-called anomalies, such as the aneuploids? Surely, we cannot say that these people are not human, even though they do not possess an "ideal" human genomic structure. And what about the cases of gender confusion that have genetic antecedents other than aneuploidy? The book of Genesis clearly suggests that God's ideal human person is either male or female, and not subject to the anomalies we have seen.

Of course we know that God permitted human beings to suffer in a world that is imperfect, a world that is, in the words of St. Paul, "subject to futility", the futility of corruption. [Rom 8:20] That is, we live in a world that is subject to both information and energy entropy. Since it is subject to information entropy, the ideal human genome, if there is such a thing, is subject to a kind of smearing in genome space. The Garden of Eden story suggests that God allowed this outcome because of the original disobedience of Adam and Eve, but did not see this as ideal for human beings.

The foregoing considerations raise two major questions:

  1. What axioms of natural law theory are called into question?
  2. What new axiomatic structure can retain the spirit of natural law theory without its baggage of outdated assumptions?

In particular, we must ask: How does our updated understanding of physics, chemistry and biology impact our use of universals? How do our moral prescriptions for ideal humans, based as they are in our understanding of human nature and God's plan for us, extend to the anomalies, and how do we achieve a social consensus on this?

We might begin to approach these questions this way. What is the relationship between viable behavior and behavior which is morally allowable? By the latter I mean this: given that certain anomalous genomic structures are viable throughout life, and given that people with those structures have predilections for behavior patterns that are non-ideal in some classical sense, is there any additional information we can bring into the discussion to rule them out on moral grounds?

It may help us to make sense of these questions if we first recall St. Augustine's characterization of evil: Evil is the absence of good in a being [fn]Cited in excerpts from Thomas Losoncy's chapter on Augustine in Ethics in the History of Western Philosophy Ed. Cavalier, Gouinlock and Sterba (MacMillan/St. Martin's Press, 1990). See the review at the Online Guide to Ethics and Moral Philosophy.[/fn]. People do evil acts, then, primarily because they lack something important in their makeup. For our purposes, however, it might be more accurate to say that people are inclined to do evil acts because of an imballance in their makeup, an imballance that derives from a significant deviation in their structure from the ideal envisioned by God.

To illustrate the foregoing, consider the example of a psychopathic killer. In an article by Shirley Lynn Scott, entitled "What Makes Serial Killers Tick?", at Court TV's Crime Library web site, Ms. Scott summarizes

Just as these killers rip open their victims to "see how they run" (as Ed Kemper put it), forensic psychiatrists and FBI agents have tried to get inside the killer’s mind. Traditional explanations include childhood abuse, genetics, chemical imbalances, brain injuries, exposure to traumatic events, and perceived societal injustices. The frightening implication is that a huge population has been exposed to one or more of these traumas. Is there some sort of lethal concoction that sets serial killers apart from the rest of the population?

All of these potential sources of psychopathology involve a significant privation, resulting in a structural deviation from the ideal, which in turn results in an imballance in the emotions and thinking that incline the psychopath to aberrant behavior. The most fundamental of these structural deviations are, of course, genetic in nature. That is, the person who suffers from such deviations is disordered by nature from their inception. A person who develops into a psychopath, on the other hand, becomes disordered through damage to their intrinsic state.

Clearly, both the genetic deviance and the structural damage are evils that God allows, consistant with our presence in a universe subject to the law of futility. These are not conditions that God chose for their own sake (i.e., intrinsic goodness, which is obviously lacking here) or for our sake.

The challenge for us in the 21st century is to try to discover from the combination of science and revelation the clues God left us for understanding what design of the human person God did choose for our sake and the good of creation as a whole. The challenge, too, is to discern a kind of epistemology of natural law theory that will aid us in establishing a suitable axiomatic framework. This methodology, it will be seen, is substantially different from the program of "scientific moral epistemology" described in the article on moral epistemology in the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

The methodology I propose for this discovery is two-fold. First, we may presume that, even in a world that is corrupted by the law of futility (summarized as the two-fold laws of entropy with their moral implications), God established a core of goodness that is readily present and even predominant in nature. Second, when a deviation from the predominant phenomena is observed, the relationship of the deviation to the "main line" must be evaluated on the basis of universally recognized values, i.e., things that are clearly good in themselves. The case of psychopathology discussed above shows that these questions can sometimes be settled very easily in the negative. Some cases, such as racial minorities (and clearly both black people and white people are in the minority world-wide), can be easily decided in the affirmative. Other cases, however, such as minority sexual expression, are not quite so clear solely on the basis of these criteria (though the scriptural tradition is unambiguously negative). The removal of homosexuality from the DSM-4 manual of diagnosable mental illnesses is an historical example of the difficulty of addressing this issue.

Let us begin with what may be discovered through application of the first principle. What core elements of God's design of the human person are readily apparent in nature? In this discussion we consider genetically based differences. They clearly include the following (and this is obviously not intended to be an exhaustive list):

  1. God made people male and female. [Gen 1:27] The complementarity and desirability of this two-gender design is readily evident. The key deviations from this design occur in aneuploidic cases. The distinction is rooted in the x, x vs. x, y chromosomal pairing, a complementary pairing that is so close to universal as to be considered, on purely natural grounds, God's design.
  2. God provided for natural genetic differentiation in isolated populations. Thus distinct races evolved. Each may be presumed highly successful in their original environments. The applicability of distinct giftedness in third environments needs to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis, but the intrinisic goodness of each separate line may be presumed.
  3. The design of 23 pairs of chromosomes may be considered God's intent, and therefore normative for human beings. Aneuploidy in all its forms must be considered an unfortunate deviation from this design, though not, of course, invalidating the designation of "human". Clearly God chooses to permit this as a byproduct of the natural stability of some outliers from the main line. It may be considered as evidence of the robustness of God's design in the face of radical mutations.
  4. The genetic gap between human and other species is far greater than the gap between any two humans, no matter how deviant. Thus, there are clear standards, based on genetics, for deciding on the difference between "human" and "animal".
  5. Abilities, such as intelligence (in all its forms), speed and agility, strength, balance, etc. correlate well with universal standards of beauty, and we may presume that such abilities are inherently good. Conversely, a lack of ability in any given area may be characterized as an evil in St. Augustine's sense. The evidence shows that abilities and their lack originate in genetic differences, but may be improved or degraded by environmental or experiential factors.
  6. In this connection, we may classify virtue as being an ability, perhaps acquired, but probably also connected with genetic preconditions. Grace builds on nature. People who are highly courageous most frequently have ancestors who are highly courageous. In any case, virtues, as such, are an intrinsic good desired by God. The psychopathology discussed above may be understood as an extreme privation of key virtues.
  7. The highly complex, subtle and integrated character of human heterosexual expression greatly exceeds the scope implied by the absolute requirements of the procreative function. Nevertheless, we find that it is, in its essence, universal in all cultures. Heterosexual play in lower animals has a greatly diminished scope of importance in animal behaviors. God clearly intended this hyper-functionality to be a positive good, and it behooves us to search out its purpose and meaning.

With regard to point 7, we should note that the role of heterosexual expression in family coherence and cohesion, as well as its role in spiritual growth, are key to understanding human culture as a whole. In particular, there is clearly a normative language of sexual expression, a language whose vocabulary, grammar and meaning may be parsed from common cultural factors. Sexual play, in particular, enhances mutual communication (via self-disclosure) between heterosexual partners. The dynamics of exclusive heterosexual union are clearly superior in fecundity to all other possible combinations due to their natural contribution to sharing in self-disclosure, enhancing familial coherence and cohesion and advancing the project of the propagation of the species. This superiority clearly exceeds the scope of all force-fit alternatives, i.e., alternatives based on so-called test-tube babies with either natural or artifical gestational surrogates, even apart from the psycho-social impact of a "test-tube baby" identity. Again, these elements are so predominant in human nature as to need no additional justification for normativity. In fact, I claim that such factors are demonstrably built into the human genome.

All of these areas are clearly in God's plan for humanity. Item 7 gets at the obvious point that human heterosexual expression (in exclusive pairs), in contradistinction to all alternative fads, is a deeply and integrally embedded characteristic of the human person that, because of its depth of meaning, its unquestioned role in enriching human culture, and its power in pair-bonding and family cohesion and role coherence, radically sets us apart from all other species. It is a difference in kind and not simply in degree, even though so-called courtship rituals may often be distinguished in lower species.

Now let us consider examples that society considers not so obvious, where there are predominant subcultures which radically differ in their assessments of these phenomena.

  1. Gender-based specialization of roles is optimally functionally adaptive and a positive good. In particular, should society consider the persistance of these specializations to be caused by inherent factors in the design of the human person, rather than arbitrary artifacts of an outdated regime, and therefore be considered normative? What criteria, along the lines already considered, may be adduced to clarify this question?
  2. Gender complementarity as a key (i.e., indispensible) element in marriage. In other words gender complementarity is essential for the union to be a positive good, overall. Indeed, social norms that contradict this ultimately devalue marriage. There is still a clear majority favoring this proposition, but the majority appears to be dwindling in some parts of the world, while it is clearly firming up in others. The design of complementary pairing for the continuance of the species is, by itself, unquestionable. The issue here is whether same-sex marriage, or even same-sex coupling might be considered morally desirable or allowable under any reasonable natural criteria. As it turns out, of course, item 2 is ultimately derivative of item 1 above and item 7 from the previous list.

Gender specialization is a common phenomenon in higher animals. Among lions, females hunt for food while the males protects the domain of the pride. Other polygamous species have a similar specialization. Species that have a preference for an exclusive monogamous arrangement tend to specialize the males in hunting, gathering, foraging, etc., while females stay at home to take care of infants and the young. In some species, like the bear, the female takes the young ones with her on the hunt, temporarily leaving them under cover when she spots her prey, while the male bear selfishly fends for himself while keeping an eye out for females to impregnate. (Who does that remind you of?)

In the human species the great majority of arrangements are exclusively monogamous, due to obvious advantages in the stability of the children's lives. Exceptions come, in pre-modern societies especially, with kings and other top dogs literally taking on the role of chief gorilla and keeping a harem. This is a highly viable arrangement from an economic standpoint while the king is still healthy and active, but it can become a source of jealousy and instability among the king's offspring when the king finally dies. In addition, it can distort the smooth operation of the realm while the children's pathologies are acted out. Examples of this problem are so numerous in literature it needs no further comment here. Its persistance in culture may be due to the genetic advantages of heated competition at the top in sorting out winners from losers within a society. This will tend to work, albeit unpleasantly, until the society as a whole is threatened from he outside by a more virtuous enemy with greater social cohesion. It is probably no accident that England's flowering occurred during the reign of Queen Elizabeth, who had no children and lived as queen for a very long time. The cohesion of English society during her reign persisted in spite of the conflict with the Catholic minority (or was it a silent Catholic majority?) There have been stories, of course, that Sir Francis Drake was her lover. He certainly showed an intense loyalty to her, and she to he, until she signed a treaty with Phillip II of Spain. It may be amusing to the reader to note the similarity of their arrangement with the domestic specialization of the simple family unit. As a pirate on the high seas, Drake was the hunter gatherer to Elizabeth's domestic matriarch - viewed in this way it was simply another successful exclusive monogamous specialization along classical lines.

This felicity of this arrangement has only been questioned seriously in modern times, when the diminished physical and other abilities of women are well compensated for by mechanical and other aids, like the automobile and the many machines used in employment. Even though they have usually been known to take a somewhat different approach to the task, women have been known to be successful computer programmers. Women have been highly successful in management, especially in situations where a collaborative style has proved to be most adaptive. Their natural gifts at collaboration and networking, responsible for much if not most of the social cohesion of pre-modern societies, have proven valuable in all areas of business. In short, their value outside the home has been noticed and taken advantage of by competitive businesses all over the world. Similar results have been seen in many other walks of life, including academia, medicine, politics, and even the military. In all of this it must be said as a caution that not so much is known about the impact of testosterone variability on the success of women in the workplace.

All of this being accepted, there is still the question of specialization in the domestic scene. There does not seem to be any likelihood that the male member of the family can ever fully substitute for the natural gifts of females in caring for infants and small children. There are obvious genetic sources of these gifts that are directly related to the distinct biological role of women in carrying children to term and breast feeding. The specialization of women in the home is simply a natural extension of their natural confinement during the more vulnerable period of pregnancy, a specialization that antedates modern humans by millions of years, and is therefore indellibly integrated in all levels of the human physiology and psychology. Of course, there are men who do extremely well with infants and small children, and there are obvious advantages to the children of such a father. He can take over when the mother is otherwise unable, for example, when she has taken ill. However, this seems to be a minority advantage rather than a normative advancement. In most instances, at best, the male quickly tires of this role. This phenomenon is mirrored among females who, in the minority, also quickly tire of this role. This author is not aware of any data to support a correlation of this minority phenomenon with hormonal variability.

This hormonal variability and its effect on domenstic specialization offers a possible argument in favor of allowing same-sex partnering, and even marriage, on the basis that such partnering can be stable and even highly productive in some cases. In this analysis, we temporarily set aside the question of applying such arrangements to the adoption and rearing of children.

There can be no question that some of these relationships are highly stable. The question for us here is are they to be considered a normal variant, or are they simply an artifact of biological complexity and variability? It seems to me that the latter view is a priori more likely. It can be compared as a phenomenon to the stability and success of many polygamous relationships, where a testosterone rich male is involved with several highly submissive females. While their success is unquestioned when viewed in isolation, there are inherent problems with normalizing this arrangement in the wider society. In particular, and in both of these cases, the children of such an arrangement will always tend to suffer from an imballance of gender role models and in gender-specific care. Arguments to the contrary are clearly wishful thinking. In any case society will do well to consider this problem much more carefully than it has in the wider public debate. When placing children in foster or adoptive care, the presumption should always be that a healthy and stable heterosexual, monogamous relationship among parents is to be preferred over all competing models.

An unanswered question for us here is, what is or can be known about the efficacy or inefficacy of a family arrangement where the mother and father attempt to maintain cohesion while minimizing generativity through the use of artificial means of contraception? I plan to address this question at a later period.



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