By DONALD DeMARCO
The year 1938, like all years, had its problems: Hitler seized control of the German army and placed Nazis in key posts. The Civil War in Spain continued unabated on its path of destruction. Benito Mussolini published an anti-Jewish/African manifesto. Winston Churchill condemned Hitler’s annexation of Czechoslovakia. The League of Nations declared Japan to be an aggressor against China. It was a year in which certain factions did not agree that Jews, Africans, Spaniards, Czechs, and Chinese were fully human.
Yet, like all years, there were areas that remained unaffected by a climate of turbulence. The beginning of human life was not an issue that was caught up in a maelstrom of cultural confusion. There was no reason to distort or contaminate its scientifically documentable reality.
And so, Margaret Shea Gilbert, a name that is not remembered by many, wrote a small book entitled Biography of the Unborn in which she described, with grace and biological precision, the beginning of human life.
“Life begins for each one of us,” she wrote in her opening paragraph, “at an unfelt, unknown, and unhonored instant when a minute, wriggling sperm plunges into a mature ovum or egg….It is at this moment of fusion of the sperm and ovum (a process called fertilization) that there arises a new individual who contains the potentialities for unnumbered generations of men.”
The general public looked favorably on Gilbert’s book. It was not controversial in the least. The Williams & Wilkins Company, a leading publisher on scientific and medical works at the time, honored it by awarding its author a prize of $1,000 for “the best book on a scientific subject for general reading.”
Ten years after its initial publication, Readers’ Digest widened the book’s readership in 1948 by publishing it in a condensed form. Nineteen thirty-eight was an island of serenity concerning the origin of human life despite what was going on in the rest of the world.
The fertilized egg, or zygote, contains all the information it needs to direct its development to the point where it attains consciousness and resembles other adult human beings. A world-class geneticist, Jerome Lejeune, the discovery of trisomy 21, states that “as no other information will enter later into the zygote, the fertilized egg, one is forced to admit that all the necessary and sufficient information to define that particular creature is found together at fertilization. The zygote’s end is implicit in its beginning. Human life, therefore, begins at fertilization.”
There is a widespread presumption that science marches on quite independently of cultural influences. This view is naïve in the extreme, as history has shown. One need only consider the immense political pressure placed on scientists in Nazi Germany and in Stalinist Russia.
Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said it well in his treatise, Medical Essays, in the mid-19th century, when he remarked that “medicine, professedly founded on observation, is as sensitive to outside influence, political, religious, philosophical, imaginative, as is the barometer to the atmospheric density.”
In theory, he said, medicine “ought to go on its own straightforward inductive path,” but in practice there exists “a closer relation between the Medical Sciences and the conditions of Society and the general thought of the time, than would at first be expected.” He was speaking not only about medicine, but about science in general.
Cultural influences are always present and affect scientists as well as those in any other discipline. Nineteen thirty-eight was turbulent in many ways, but in that year the science of embryology that pinpointed the origin of human life was allowed to proceed according to its own objective standards. The climate also allowed people to read about the origin of human life without cultural prejudice. The widespread belief in progress is somewhat mythical. We would be wise to recognize the occasional lapse into regress.
Catholics, however, will find rich meaning in the fact that the Nativity takes place exactly nine months after the Annunciation.