A Scientific and Religious Look at the Embryo

Conference Gathers Experts of Various Disciplines

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ROME, NOV. 22, 2007 (Zenit.org).- The study of the human embryo is one point where the dialogue between faith and science is both possible and important, said organizers of a conference that brought together experts to discuss the beginning of human life.

The Science, Theology and the Ontological Quest project (Project STOQ), a venture sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture, held a conference last week called "Ontogenesis and Human Life" at Rome's Regina Apostolorum university. Ontogenesis refers to the development of the individual, from embryonic formation up through adulthood.

Legionary of Christ Father Rafael Pascual, dean of philosophy at the Regina Apostolorum, explained why ontogenesis was chosen as the theme for the conference. He said, "The study of human life, from the point of view of its origin, is of particular interest in today's world in which we have to confront all the bioethical questions associated with artificial fertilization, genetic cloning, experimentation with embryonic stem cells, hybrid embryos, etc."

In addition to Regina Apostolorum, five pontifical universities (Lateran, Gregorian, Salesian, Holy Cross and St. Thomas) collaborated with the Pontifical Council for Culture in the event.

Different viewpoints

Speaking to the press prior to the conference, Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, the newly-nominated president of the Pontifical Council for Culture, noted that Project STOQ's objective is to "contribute to dialogue between the areas of investigation and study, that have been separated little by little," and to help institute "stable points of fruitful exchange between science, philosophy and theology, by means of dialogue among experts in these fields."

Bishop Elio Sgreccia, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, gave the opening lecture where he spoke of the importance of reflecting on the association between ontogenesis and creation, which links together the studies of science, metaphysics and theology.

The prelate explained that these separate sciences can all consider the notion of creation through a unique point of view. But, he affirmed, they can also work together, especially in light of Pope John Paul II's encyclical "Fides et Ratio." Together, these disciplines can bring about a greater understanding of human life, from fertilization to death -- through questions about one's purpose in life and about supernatural life after death.

Seeking understanding

William Hurlburt, a physician and consulting professor in the Neuroscience Institute at Stanford University, California, spoke of the advances in developmental biology with regard to embryonic stem cell research.  

He noted a century of dramatic advances in molecular biology and cytology, saying this has delivered us to the doorstep of a new era in the study of developmental biology. When applied to human biology, this inquiry reopens the most fundamental questions concerning the relationship between the material form and the moral meaning of developing life, he explained.

Scott Gilbert of Swarthmore College, Pennsylvania, a professor of developmental genetics, embryology, and the history and critiques of biology, spoke on new discoveries in developmental biology.

He explained that developmental biology has recently undergone a revolution in its understanding of the mechanisms of embryonic development, saying that one major transition has come from insights concerning the incompleteness of the genetic model for development.

Gilbert said recent studies have documented that the environment also affects gene expression, saying that even such things as maternal diet during pregnancy can play a role.

Paul O'Callaghan of the University of the Sacred Heart, Rome, asked the age-old question of when the soul enters an embryo. He focused his remarks on arguments made in classical thought, particularly in Platonic, Aristotelian and stoic thought, and then considered the efforts made during the last century to clarify the status of the human soul with respect to the body.

These, he said, have only repeated the classic dilemma between dualism and monism, but suggested that a theological solution to the dilemma draws its inspiration from the dogma of the resurrection of the body.

Other speakers and topics included Mónica López Barahona, director of VidaCord, on the genetic status of the human embryo; and Giuseppe Noia of the University of the Sacred Heart, on physiological and pathological aspects of mother-fetus interactions.