The beginning of a person

You may remember that on my posting of 31 May (The Control of Life) I included “But one theory, albeit controversial, may have strength. In the very early days, it is argued, the conceptus does not yet constitute an individual. At that stage it can still develop into two individuals, who would be identical twins. If so, the moral issues concerning methods of preventing womb implantation would be different.” And we had some discussion to try to understand this further.

Interestingly a new study which is relevant to this question, has just been published. Until now, it was believed that the male and female genes blended at fertilization – producing the whole genome of the conceptus. But now it is understood that this does not appear to be the case: the male and female genes do not blend until after the first cell division – some 24 hours later.

If this discovery is confirmed it is clear that we are not talking about an individual human being until this stage. Here is one secular issue, noted in the study.

“Furthermore, the knowledge from this paper might impact legislation. In some countries, the law states that human life begins — and is thus protected — when the maternal and paternal nuclei fuse after fertilisation. If it turns out that the dual spindle process works the same in humans, this definition is not fully accurate, as the union in one nucleus happens slightly later, after the first cell division”.

There are theological consequences too. The Church argues that we are talking about a human being, with its consequential rights, ab initio (Evangelium Vitae, para 60), nevertheless we may think that our moral duties to a conceptus which is not yet an independent human being vary from those which apply to one who is.

You can find the report at

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#METOO and evolution

#METOO has caused a great fuss on the press and in social news. But its profile has been overtaken by new issues. It will come back with the next scandal. But in the brief break we may allow ourselves to look at the question at more leisure. Today I want to take a peep at the contribution of evolution.

We can sometimes see evolution in action. A simple example is the peppered moth. Before the Industrial Revolution the moths with light-coloured wings flourished because they were camouflaged against the light tree trunks — while their darker kin were gobbled up by the birds. But after the Industrial Revolution the tree trunks became darker. The light coloured moths got eaten and the dark coloured, now safely camouflaged, flourished. So the purpose of evolution is to preserve the species in their, sometimes changing, environment.

This development could of course be studied directly through careful observation over time. But how about the human race? We can only make intelligent guesses based on the little evidence we have. We know for instance that until quite recently women tended to spend most of their adult life producing children, many of whom did not survive to breed in turn. Menstruation, for instance, was rare because of the frequency of pregnancy. It wasn’t thought of as the ‘curse’ but as a blessing. The great apes menstruate but, for the same reason, this rarely occurs.

So we may speculate about what effect evolution had on the human mating game. What I am writing here is a brief list of the possible evolutionary outcomes. Look at it, see if you agree, see what you might add. I am not a woman but I am a Catholic who was married for 6 decades, with five children – so perhaps I know a little more about female reproduction than the next guy.

A woman must continuously keep an eye open for potential breeding mates, but she must not be too proactive to avoid being seen as a flighty, and so unreliable, woman. She will often dismiss a pass because she needs time to assess qualities. Personal attraction expands the range of male possibilities. She looks for: health (seen in symmetry, particularly the face), reliability. general competence, authority, resources. The instincts remain even if she is satisfactorily married. She notes men as attractive on the same criteria.
A fundamental tendency to spread his seed widely, encouraging him to be proactive. This is tempered by the need for a fertile woman capable of bringing up a family. He will not expect to be chosen immediately and accepts that he must persist, even against a negative response. He will look for good health (symmetry again) and maternal proportions such as breasts, hips/waist. Attractiveness in his mate will boost his standing amongst his peers. The instinct remains after marriage since mistakes have a low biological price for him.

So what do you think?

Posted in Bio-ethics, evolution, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 12 Comments

I’ll solve your problem

Looking at a long life I sometimes try to recall incidents or discoveries which I took to heart, and have continued to benefit from since then. The first one which occurs to me is when I learnt how to listen. Back in the late ‘60s I became a marriage counsellor. Of course I was trained for this, and before long I was sitting in a presbytery, and meeting a range of people whose lives were going wrong. In theory they would all be married couples, in practice it could be people with gender change or deep-rooted homosexuality – or almost any other personality distress you could think of.

So I had to learn to listen. I had started under the impression that I was a good listener, and even better at providing workable solutions. But I was taught that this was not the listening required. It was no more than a form of narcissism which gave me a conceited sense of wisdom.

If you think about it, normal conversations are like a tennis match. We take in quickly what the person has to say and, already, we are preparing our answer. And so the ball of conversation flies backwards and forwards. Minimal listening, maximal responding. Counselling is the opposite. Here, the counsellor listens very carefully, taking in every nuance and watching any nonverbal signals. Then he (or she) reflects what he has understood, both in terms of information and emotion. The client, who is not used to anyone actually listening, gains the confidence to explore their difficulties at a deeper and deeper level. Later the counsellor will help the client think about what they have described, and how they might takes steps to improve the situation.

Of course formal counselling is a specific situation, but I found that really listening: to my wife, children, friends, colleagues was enormously valuable. I no long appeared as the ‘know all’ . Instead I was someone whom you could talk to and who wouldn’t judge you, and who might help you to solve a problem or two.

I would like to claim that I am constant in this approach. But no. The gravity of my ego pulls me down to becoming the ‘know all’ again. I regularly have to look at my conversations and check how well or badly I have been listening – and to make a new resolve.

So you might like to try an exercise. Look out for an occasion when someone, perhaps close to you, starts a conversation. And then see what happens if you use listening in the way I have described. You may find that difficult to do. I was obliged to practice again and again, and in different circumstances, before the message began to stick. A phrase I was taught to keep in the back of my mind was ‘you feel X because of Y’. As in ‘you feel low today because you had some bad news yesterday’. I found that helpful.

You may find the outcome surprising. The speaker may well have never had the experience of someone really listening to him. And, as in the counselling room, a great deal more will emerge. It may end up not with ‘I’ll give you the solution for that’ but with ‘what do you think the solution for that would be? This could lead to practical objectives which the speaker is helped to identify. The listener is not solving the problem but guiding the process which enables the speaker to solve the problem.

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Attachment and loss

I dropped in on my old friend Denise for a cup of coffee. What I saw was a marvellous example of human nature. She was looking after her grandniece, a child under two. I simply watched. In between our conversation Denise, almost without a conscious thought, was constantly aware of the child. She was tempting her into new experiences and new initiatives, accompanied by new words – related to the child’s curious exploration. I remembered the importance of those early years. And this was confirmed by a study this year which charted the effects of family environment on adult self-esteem.

Good parents have always behaved like Denise, but now we have a much better understanding of how the young child’s experience affects the infant brain. The human brain – infant to adult — has approaching 100 billion neurons, but what matters here is not the number but the connections between them. A baby has, of course, been born with some vital connections, enabling it to survive, but it is over the first two years that a great mass of the connections are established. After that, the brain, guided by experience, starts to prune this superfluity of possibilities down to a more useful number. The quality of that experience is vital to the future of that child.

Sadly, we have the evidence from the orphaned Romanian children discovered after the collapse of its communist government in 1989. Following a state-sponsored baby boom, the crowded orphanages were filled with some 170,000 children kept in the most cruel conditions. There was no opportunity for personal relationships, discipline was maintained by punishment regimes and the level of general care was appalling. The children were denied the opportunity to edit their neural connections in the ways we take for granted. The result was underdeveloped brains, low IQs, reduced neural activity, language difficulties and, of course, attachment problems. While some of these outcomes have improved to a degree over time, the relics of such experiences remain in adulthood. The separation of children from their parents – as we have seen in the issue of Mexican immigrants in the US – may well lead to some degree of long-term damage.

But, prior to such evidence, the importance of the first few years of life was generally accepted. This was associated initially with the writings of the British psychoanalyst John Bowlby on the subject of attachment and loss. He had noted, as result of his research, the importance of a continued and secure relationship – normally with the mother. Later studies have extended and confirmed the general importance of relationships in the early years.

It would seem that the way we are treated by others, and the ability to relate to others, gives us at this volatile stage an internal picture. We see ourselves as acceptable and worthwhile persons – or indeed the opposite, with gradations in between. And it is this picture that we take into life. A single example proves nothing, but I put my inbuilt sense of happiness down to the richness of my childhood in a large family. And I believe I detect the same pattern in the three generations which now follow me.

This raises an important social question. We are aware that our society is uneven: stretching from the poor and often under-educated to the relatively wealthy and well-schooled. While some will surmount social barriers, we know which group is most likely to succeed. And this is another form of inheritance since the condition, positive or negative, of each generation tends to be passed on to the next generation. Half our measurable intelligence level is genetic, and this is then strongly influenced by the home environment. Britain broadly stands well on social equality in comparison with many other countries but it is by no means the best.

While we can to some degree reduce inequality through social changes such as quality nursery education, it is not going to disappear. Fortunately the remedy, respectable a hundred years ago, of preventing the poor from breeding through sterilisation has been abandoned. But our changing social mores are not promising. The Marriage Foundation (well worth Googling) summed up one change: “There’s a growing Marriage Gap: 87 per cent of high earners (over £43,000) marry; only 24 per cent of low earners (under £16,000) marry. The rich get married (and stay together); the poor dont.”

To this we may add the understandable wish of mothers to get back to work – perhaps for economic reasons, perhaps for career development. I have three millennial granddaughters facing exactly this issue. While we might like to think that both genders are equally able to care for children in the early years, evolution would suggest that, over the millennia, women would have developed the higher inborn skills. As James Fordyce said in his 18th-century Sermons to Young Women, mothers “can diffuse virtue and happiness throughout the human race”

Posted in Catholic Herald columns, evolution, Neuroscience | 16 Comments

Are you conscientious?

While the idea of conscience has always been important in the Church, it is certainly much more emphasised in recent times. I would date this from Vatican II when its importance was clearly described. But of course it has always been there: indeed, dramatically, Aquinas says that even if our rejection of Christ may be objectively evil, we must still follow our considered reason and be ready to disclaim him if that is where our reason leads.

So one would expect that the powers that be would put a great deal of work into explaining the best ways to employ our consciences. What are the processes we might use? Do we take into account how we are vulnerable to the psychological aspects of human nature? Or the influences from our upbringing and experiences? How does conscience relate to virtue? What is the difference between obedience and the use of reason? And so on.

Today I am suggesting that we look at the nightly consideration of conscience. It would be interesting to know whether most fully paid up Catholics and other Christians do this regularly. Do you? (I should admit here that I am far from being as regular as I should be.)

In reviewing our day do we include the good things we have done and the progress we have made? We know that recognising our successes improves our self respect and motivates us to continue in the right directions.

And that indicates that we should review our virtues. Virtue is a very churchy word. We all approve but it’s too vague to do anything about it. It’s not helped by the old fashioned names of the cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.

But in fact it’s all about virtues. These are the habits and tendencies which measure how we stand in regard to our closeness to God. At the physical level they are developed in the brain. We could, if we were able to interpret them, read off the relevant neural connections which apply. But at the level of the spiritual they mark the grace-filled tendencies which orient us towards the Almighty. But like any habit they can wax and wane: we have to check our progress and our regress continually.

So our nightly examination should perhaps include the question: did I get closer to God today? Or did I slip backwards? And it need not be airy fairy because we have the actions and the thoughts of the day to provide the evidence.

I think we might have great benefit from discussing our experience of all this, and sharing our good ideas.

Posted in Scripture, Spirituality, virtue ethics | Tagged | 7 Comments

The wind of change

Imagine a large group of people who all went to public schools. We would think it likely that most of them would praise the public school system and indeed be ready to promote it. But inevitably there would be among them a few, perhaps five per cent, who actually thought public schools were a bad idea. These oddballs would indeed be oddballs – in that position. But let’s suppose that some of them set out, with good arguments, to convert the others. And indeed they were sometimes successful. How many would they need to convert in order to the bring the whole mass, or at least more than 70 per cent, to join their side?

The golden number is 25 per cent. This was calculated in an interesting study recently published by Science. This figure surprised me. After all, the majority had perfectly good arguments for their original position so how could the views of a minority, however energetic, change their minds? It worried me, too. What does democracy mean when the view of the majority can, in effect, be overridden by the view of the minority?

When, for example, we were considering our position before voting for the EU referendum, most of us were looking around for good arguments. And there were plenty of them. The problem was that there were equally good arguments for the other side. It seems likely that many decisions were not the outcome of our brainpower but the views of the people who surrounded us.

This is important because we now live in a society in which social views, in large number, can be communicated to huge audiences, effectively overnight. Trump, #metoo, semitism in political parties, freedom of abortion, usage of drugs, choice of gender and so on spread through our society like a desert storm. Do we really think about these things or do we just catch them from the air – much as the Black Death spread in mediaeval times? And, as I have written before, social media creates huge groups at great speed. We must expect the views of our society to be very volatile but very rarely thought through by most of those who hold them.

Let me test myself. My view of the morality of homosexuality, as a clear cut example, has in fact changed over the years. Where I am now with regard to this is immaterial. What matters is whether I have picked it up from the wind, or whether I have thought my way through the question and arrived at what I hold to be the right answer. But I remain open to the possibility that new thoughts and circumstances might get me closer to the truth. And how about you? Can you spot a view which you strongly hold without having thought deeply about it. Or did it come from the wind, including the wind from the hierarchical Church? Or (dare I say it?) from the wind from Scripture?

And now you might be saying: Quentin started all this from a psychological study, but was it a good one that really supports his theme? It’s a fair question. Here is a fair answer: . Decide for yourself.

Posted in Moral judgment, Quentin queries | Tagged | 9 Comments

The control of life

From time to time I describe in this column some new discoveries related to human life. They are often techniques that raise significant moral questions, and which have potential good and bad outcomes. I think it is important for Catholics to be aware of the broad picture and to be able to respond intelligently if they are raised in conversation.

I start with three-parent babies. This is a potential solution to the presence of faulty or damaged mitochondrial DNA in the conceptus. This DNA does not carry the personal characteristics of the parent but provides most of the cells’ energy. On paper, at least, introducing it can rescue the forthcoming child from a range of serious potential disorders. Fortunately cases are rare, and the arguments about the best methodology continue. We might argue that altering the genes (which would, incidentally, be passed on to new offspring) in this way is quite unacceptable. But we can understand why some say that the intention is simply therapeutic and would actually save lives.

This brings us to the in vitro issue: conception in the test tube. While this may be intended for medical reasons, the most frequent use would be for parents who cannot conceive any other way. I have a close friend who used it. It is a trying and difficult process for the mother. But my Catholic knowledge of the safe period enabled me to support her over several cycles. The father may be the husband or another donor – raising another moral point. Our immediate reaction might be to assume that such a step (involving the husband of course) was virtuous since it uses the nearest technical method available. But the Church’s understanding is different.

So what do you think? Certainly the methodology can be abused but the fundamental moral issue is whether it can ever be right to separate the sexual embrace from conception if this is contrary to the natural law as God provided.

A very active area of development is Crispr. This is the sophisticated technique used for identifying and altering chosen genes. It is easy to see its value for removing or changing the genes which are faulty in order to correct serious disabilities. But of course the same methodology can be used to tailor-make desirable characteristics of many different kinds. Would you like your child to have blue eyes, for instance? Since many scientists in different parts of the world are working energetically to patent their own developments in this field, there appears to be no easy way to control this.

Of course abortion belongs to this list but I restrict myself here to noting that various movements are having considerable success in making abortion respectable. The recent Irish referendum is a dramatic example. I detect a growing public feeling that Catholic absolutism on this question is some form of religious crankiness. We must draw hope from the fact that otherwise good and respectable people (including a pope and several bishops) supported the slave trade in its time. One day, perhaps, civilised societies will look back and regret.

But abortion raises the question of what constitutes a person. I have listened to several learned discussions on this. Typical issues are the absence of faculties in the early embryo, and these are answered by showing similar absences in those we accept as persons. I have concluded that our definition of person is formed according to the argument we happen to be defending. But one theory, albeit controversial, may have strength. In the very early days, it is argued, the conceptus does not yet constitute an individual. At that stage it can still develop into two individuals, who would be identical twins. If so, the moral issues concerning methods of preventing womb implantation would be different.

What is coming next? Scientists already know how to take, say, human skin cells, and transform them into artificial sperm and eggs. While current protocols prevent this being taken to further stages in humans, it is reported that artificial mouse gametes, using in vitro fertilisation techniques, have produced healthy young. Again, one ethical argument is that the methodology would enable human parents, who could not otherwise do so, to produce their own genetic children.

Posted in Bio-ethics, Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Quentin queries | 20 Comments