By Dr. David Fleischacker
Sometimes, when one begins a journey, one never knows how it will entirely end. In part, this is true for what will be following in the subsequent blogs on Humanae Vitae. However, I have also been thinking about this for many, many years, and so a bit of it is simply presenting parts of a large forest that I have traveled through, and to which I have returned on occasion. Conception has continued to unfold in increasing degrees and realms of intelligibility. I must admit that it is a bit daunting to know how to introduce this forest to others until one has walked around the forest for some time, and come to know all of its fauna and beauty, and then thought for an even longer time at how to begin the introduction. So, this is my first attempt at introducing the intelligibility of conception as it has begun to illuminate my mind over the years.
I have decided to start with biology and biochemistry, not the whole of it, but some pointers. I will not go through all of the details of the experimental studies and the actual formula and equations, some of which I have read, many of which I have not. But I will give sufficient pointers to the intelligibility that is gained and how it relates to the question at hand on the meaning of conception. This will include the biology of the spermatozoa, the oocyte, the egg, the male body, female body, both in terms of the conjugate forms as well as the statistical realization of these forms. It will also require turning to the higher and lower levels of the forms (chemistry to biology for example), and moving up to the very highest levels of human conscious existence.
So, to take a cue from INSIGHT, when Lonergan was quoting positively from Descartes (which of course was not true for all that Descartes had to say), we need to start with small problems and work to larger ones. In intelligibity, what comes first is the general heuristics: The questions. And the questions then begin to modify along the way as intelligibility then begins to rise up, bit by bit, until the entire forest comes into view. Hence the forest does not come into view without careful attention to the parts. One cannot miss it by paying attention seemingly too much to the parts. One only misses it if in the end understanding does not emerge.
And, thus, let us begin with a simple starting point: the spermatozoa and the oocyte. In this blog, I will focus upon the first.
The Biological and Biochemical Structure of Spermatozoa: a functional relationship to the oocyte and the Woman’s body
Many of us have seen pictures of male sperm. But to understand the male “seed,” one needs to examine its biochemical structure. In the frontal end of the spermatozoa is a pocket of enzymes. Contained within the head of the spermatozoa is genetic material. And toward the tail end of the head is a group of mitochondria that surround the actual tail which protrudes. Mitochondria provide ATP, a high energy molecule that fuels the cells and their activities. In addition, the spermatozoa has molecules on its surface that react in various ways to its environment.
There is much more as well, but these few pieces of information give us an interesting starting point to raise some questions. What is the function of the enzymes? What is the function of the genetic material? What is the function of the mitochondria and their distribution? What is the function of the surface molecules?
One cannot answer these questions by looking at the spermatozoa alone. Observing its behavior under the microscope only gives a small part of what is needed to understand it as a whole. On a slide, it would move about for a time, depending upon the environment, and then die. Nothing would be learned about the enzymes in the frontal end or about the genetic material inside. More elaborate experiments would reveal the particular nucleotide sequences of the genetic material, the particular chemical structure of the surface proteins that react to the environment, and all the chemical and biophysical details about the mitochondria and how they drive the propulsion of the tail. Yet, dropping it onto a petri dish, studying it under a microscope, breaking it down into all of its biochemical cycles simple does not explain what it is, even if these biochemical studies prepare the way. In all of these cases, a fundamental intelligibility is still missing.
It is only when we examine it in relation to the woman’s body and the unfertilized egg that we begin to understand its form. The relationship to the woman’s body and to an unfertilized egg begins to expand the needed phantasm for insight. The frontal end enzymes dissolve a protective coat surrounding the unfertilized egg. And many, many sperm are need in order for this softening to take place. Some of the surface proteins set in motion a set of chemical and biophysical changes which allow the sperm to move up the fallopian tube drawn toward the egg. The genetic becomes an intrinsic constituent of the egg, if it is fortunate to enter. Even the mitochondria and the tail are related to this entire process, because biochemical schemes of which they are part relate ultimately, through those surface proteins mentioned earlier, to the egg itself. They literally help to propel the spermatozoa in the right direction, guided by the radar detecting surface proteins.
In other words, without a relationship to the woman’s body and oocyte, those enzymes really have no purpose or meaning. The genetic material is meaningless. The surface proteins would likewise be senseless, and really would not help the creature to do much except within the protective environment of the woman. In other words, the entire cellular form of this cell is designed to become united with an egg, and not just anywhere, but in and through a woman’s body (or in other words, to the schemes of recurrence of the woman’s body — I will examine this futher in a later blog, once I examine the statistical element in these relationships). Thus, in answering these questions, one discovers that each of these parts possess an intelligibility that only makes sense in relation to both the environment in which they operate and the destiny to which they are aimed.
The Genetic Material of the Spermatozoa: A relationship of finality to the zygote and its unfolding stages of development
The genetic material reveals a finality. It contains within it a complement of chromosomes, haploid in number relative to the full set found in standard human cells. In these chromosomes are found millions of nucleotide sequences, some of which have intelligible relations to protein formation (Proteins are complex molecules that help to carry out many functions in an organism (eg. to help catalyze chemical reactions), and hence are called genes. Now, some of these genes are found in many different species of animals, such as those involved in encoding proteins for DNA synthesis–which takes place when a cell divides into two, and both cells need to have the same “genetics”). Others tend to be unique to one creature, the human being, and some even unique to either the male or female form of our species. Most of these genes are inactive, some will remain so permanently, others will be activated when they become integrated into the egg, others only if they happen to be within cells that have differentiated along a certain line of development, and become part of a particular cellular system (skeletal, muscular, circulatory, immune, etc.). The point in all this, is that the genetic material only has a formal intelligibility that becomes developmentally actuated within a human being. Thus, this genetic material only makes sense or means something in its relation to a human being. This is quite interesting, because it means that even within the spermatozoa, the genetic material contains real existing pointers to human life, and only this “pointing” makes sense of this material and why the male body forms this spermatozoa as it is.
In other words, in its operating, the spermatozoa has a functional relationship for integration into an oocyte (more technically, it is one of the reproductive conjugate forms), and ultimately into a horizontal finality that unfolds a zygote into a differentiated multicellular system. It also has vertical relationships, however those will be dealt with in the appropriate blogs.
A Concluding Note
It is important to highlight that the pointers to the biochemistry and genetics of the spermatozoa belong to larger patterns in the reproductive schemes of human beings, and hence, one cannot really understand the spermatozoa and its “meaning” until all of these–and even higher yet–level schemes have been sufficiently understood, especially those that are the highest, which really then identify the kind of “thing” to which these schemes belong.