Jack Mulder Jr. challenged Christians to accept the Immaculate Conception of Mary (“Why More Christians Should Believe in Mary’s Immaculate Conception,” Christian Scholar’s Review 41.2 [2012]:117-134) because it provided the psychological freedom for her to consent to the Incarnation. In this paper R. Gary Chiang and Evelyn M. White take up this challenge by showing that any ovum is biologically isolated from the stain of original sin and that this stain can be inherited through the sperm. Thus, the physiology of reproduction provides a mechanism for the Incarnation without contravening the laws of nature, and occurs regardless of Mary’s psychological state. Mr. Chiang is Professor of Biology at Redeemer University College, and Ms. White, a retired nurse, founded the Arthur C. Custance online library.

In the Winter 2012 issue of Christian Scholar’s Review1, Jack Mulder Jr. provides an intriguing essay encouraging Christians to believe in the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary. The “Immaculate Conception” is a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, and for many Christians in the Reformed tradition, this term is not a familiar one. As Mulder points out, the papal bull, Ineffibilis Deus, defines this dogma as a belief that “the most Blessed Virgin Mary, in the first instance of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege granted by Almighty God, in view of the merits of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the human race, was preserved free from all stain of original sin.”2 This bull emphasizes the importance of elevating Mary to the level of sinlessness because of her special relationship with God and the Incarnation of Christ. And although the bull states that there was no biological need to make Mary immaculate, it notes that Mary’s flesh “did not contract the stains of Adam” and she came into this world in a vessel that should not be “wounded by the common injuries.”3 The grace imparted to Mary made her “an unspeakable miracle of God—indeed, the crown of all miracles and truly the Mother of God; that she approaches as near to God himself as is possible for a created being.” The bull continues with this praise, proclaiming that “we affirm in our confidence that she will obtain pardon for the sinner.” Considering the Reformed perspective that through Christ, and Christ alone, our salvation is assured,4 it would not be surprising that Reformed Christians who are cognizant of the Immaculate Conception would choose not to promote it.

Mulder’s Challenge

In his essay, Mulder is encouraging Christians to accept the Immaculate Conception not on grounds that elevate Mary to be equal with the Son of God, but based on what is now known about the psychology of coercion. Mulder extends his argument for the Immaculate Conception beyond whatever physical or spiritual needs required a pure virgin, and he emphasizes Mary’s psychology and her willingness to be impregnated by the Holy Spirit. Mulder’s argument that Christians should accept the Immaculate Conception is built on the psychology of Mary and her attitude toward being called upon to give birth to the Son of God.

Mulder is careful in formulating this psychological argument that Mary, herself, had to be free of original sin. A number of times in his essay, he points out that certain preconceived beliefs of Christians are stumbling blocks for accepting this concept, and fully appreciates why they would reject it. At the end of his essay, he addresses three serious objections in a rational and non-confrontational manner, and the reader, if not convinced of the Immaculate Conception, has now been given reasons to accept it. Based on the premises he fully discloses, his argument is logical and appealing. As he states in his concluding paragraph, “I have argued that plausible ideas concerning human freedom and coercion put serious strain on those Christians who do not hold to the Virgin Mary’s Immaculate Conception.” He then concludes with this challenge, “It seems to me that many more [Christians] should consider carefully what reasons they already have for denying Mary’s Immaculate Conception.”5

Neither author of the present paper believes in the Immaculate Conception, but it is not because we do not accept the logic of Mulder’s argument. As noted above, based on his premises, his argument appears sound. He relies on the psychology of coercion to show that Mary had to be immaculate, even though a pure state may not have been necessary for her to bear “a sinless individual, or even God the Son.”6 Unfortunately, his argument does not take into account what is now known about the mechanics of human reproduction since he is concerned with the psychology of Mary, not her physiology. When the Immaculate Conception was officially proclaimed as a dogma by Pope Pius IX in 1854, the understanding of human reproduction was very rudimentary and little mention was made of the physical state of her body, other than it was pure and protected from being injured or corrupted. Yet if we distill the problem facing God at the incarnation to its most basic element, what God needed for the Incarnation of Christ was not necessarily an immaculate virgin, such as Mary, but an immaculate ovum. Unknown to many proponents of the Immaculate Conception, a modern understanding of the biology of human reproduction has revealed a means by which an immaculate ovum could be produced from a body that is tainted with the stain of original sin. And if the maturation of this ovum follows known biological processes, a virgin free of the stain of sin would not be required to ensure that such an ovum would develop into a sinless body untainted by sin.

In this essay, we combine theology of the Incarnation of Christ with the present understanding of reproduction to take up Mulder’s challenge to “consider carefully what reasons” we have for rejecting Mary’s Immaculate Conception. We do not deny that the ovum produced by Mary needed to be free of the stain of original sin, and that God, barring any biological process available for creating such an ovum, could have imparted a “singular grace and privilege” at the moment of Mary’s own conception to ensure she was pure. But as we will describe, reproduction in itself actually makes a pure ovum possible without our Creator having to interfere with the fundamental physical and chemical properties of nature. Our Creator used a property inherent in the biology of reproduction to carry out a plan for our redemption. There is no need to grant any “singular grace or privilege” to make Mary immaculate since it is very possible that 1) a pure ovum is, in fact, the physiological state of any ovum produced by any human female, and 2) this ovum could develop in a woman who was conceived in the natural way without fear of being tainted with the stain of original sin. The scientific evidence for this mechanism is quite striking once this evidence is known and applied to our understanding of original sin and redemption.

The primary purpose of our essay is not to deconstruct Mulder’s argument, although in the conclusion we offer an alternative view to Mary’s psychology. Instead, we first bring to light these lesser-known biological mechanisms pertaining to reproduction and heredity, and second, we describe how biological reproduction makes redemption physiologically possible by ensuring that the ovum since it first appeared in Eve has remained free of the stain of original sin. And assuming that the ovum is free of the stain of original sin, we venture to propose a physiological mechanism that supports the theological requirement that this stain is inherited through the father.

Basic Mechanics of Reproduction

As is commonly known, reproduction is the process whereby the species of an organism is capable of generating more of its own kind. Less commonly known is the existence of two forms of reproduction: asexual and sexual. Some understanding of the basic mechanisms of both is needed to appreciate how physiology can be integrated with the theology of original sin.

In asexual reproduction, a single parent divides itself into two daughter organisms having the same genetic information as the parent once had. One-celled organisms, such as bacteria, undergo this form of reproduction. Cells within our body also use this mechanism of reproduction to produce more cells needed for growth and/or maintenance of bodily functions. In asexual reproduction the parent does not die, but lives on in the daughter cells as long as cell division continues. For instance, when a body cell becomes cancerous, it undergoes cell division unabated, producing a continuous cell line, a lineage of cells that does not die. Death eventually occurs when the cancer overtakes and kills the body of the host. Researchers have taken advantage of the unlimited growth of cancer cells to produce continuous cell lines that can be maintained in cell cultures outside of the body. The HeLa cell line is one example. This cell line has been kept alive since 1951 when the first cells were isolated from a cervical cancer found in one Henrietta Lacks. Henrietta died in 1951, but her cancerous cells continue to live on. By being constantly supplied with fresh growth media at the appropriate times, the HeLa cell has survived continuously, and is considered to be biologically immortal. Similarly, the ovum, once fertilized, is also capable of undergoing asexual reproduction to give rise to a continuous cell line. As discussed below, this ability also imparts to the ovum a type of biological immortality.

In sexual reproduction, two parents are required to produce offspring, with each contributing a cell or cells to create the new organism. Both parents continue to live after reproducing, and in many species of organisms capable of sexual reproduction, both parents are involved in rearing the offspring. To appreciate what occurs during sexual reproduction, a few biological facts need to be reiterated. First, the human body is composed of trillions of tiny sac-like structures called cells. All these cells arise by cell division (that is to say, asexual reproduction) from the ovum when it is fertilized by the sperm.

Second, each of these trillion cells contains information in a structure called the nucleus. This information is used by the cell to make more cells, and to ensure that a cell plays a particular role in the body. This information is stored in molecules of deoxyribose nucleic acid (DNA), and during cell division, the walls of the nucleus disappear and the DNA becomes packaged in strands referred to as chromosomes.

Third, when each of us began as a fertilized ovum, we received one set of 23 chromosomes from the sperm of our father, and another set of 23 chromosomes from the egg of our mother. Once the ovum is fertilized, the combined DNA in the ovum replicates itself, and with each replication a new cell is produced. Therefore, each one of the trillions of cells in our body, with few exceptions, possesses 46 chromosomes that can be grouped into 23 pairs. Each set of 46 chromosomes can be traced back to the original set combined at fertilization.

Fourth, each of the chromosomes from the father can be matched according to similarities in structure with a chromosome from the mother in all cases except for one in the male offspring. Of the matched pairs, twenty-two are referred to as autosomes. In the twenty-third matched pair, the matched chromosomes have the same appearance in the female, but are dissimilar in the male. This pair of chromosomes is referred to as the allosome pair, and since they carry the genetic information that determines gender, they are also referred to as the sex chromosomes.

Fifth, in asexual reproduction the DNA in the parent cell is duplicated so that the cell can split into two daughter cells having equal amounts of genetic information. For sexual reproduction, a completely new individual is formed by combining cells from the two parents. But if two cells from each parent simply combined, the resulting cell would have twice the number of chromosomes, a condition not tolerated in biology. The cell would die. Therefore sexual reproduction requires each parent to produce a gamete which is a cell having half the complement of chromosomes. The egg is the female gamete, and the sperm is the male gamete. With only half the full complement of chromosomes, these gametes are not capable of producing more cells. They are considered “dead ends” unless they combine at fertilization. Once the gametes unite, the combined DNA can replicate itself to form new cells by cell division and so create a whole new individual.

Reproduction and Inheritance

The mechanics of reproduction as described above show the means by which the physical elements of the cell, in particular the chromosomes, can be divided then recombined to produce an offspring for the next generation. In asexual reproduction, the DNA is copied faithfully so that the offspring are essentially identical to each other. In sexual reproduction, the DNA of the offspring differ because each offspring receives half of its DNA from the DNA of each parent. The DNA received by the offspring is not an exact copy of what was in any one parent, but a mixture of some of the DNA from both parents.

Much of this information was discovered with the use of microscopic techniques to follow visually the movement of the chromosomes during cell division. However, the chromosomes are more than just pieces of atoms tied together to form molecules of DNA visible to the microscope. They carry information. While this information is being used to create new individuals, it is also used to pass on to the offspring traits displayed by the parents. An inheritable trait, such as hair color, is referred to as a gene, and the study of genes is the focus of the science of genetics.

In an early concept in genetics, it was thought by scientists, such as Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1777-1829), that traits acquired by the parents during their lifetime could be passed on to their children. This concept is known as the inheritance of acquired characteristics.7 It provides a mechanism of inheritance to explain why it appeared that parents who developed certain traits during their lifetime could pass on these traits to their children. Charles Darwin (1809-1882) favored this means of inheritance for it also provided a way that new genes could be added to the genetics of a species. The increased number of new genes would increase the chances of producing genes that would confer a reproductive advantage to the individuals of that species having that gene. New genes would be selected by natural selection, and over time, enough new genes would give rise to a new species. Although this concept was widely accepted, it does not mesh well with the theology of the stain of original sin. Interestingly, as the science of genetics unfolded, this concept was abandoned because it no longer explained what was being observed. It was replaced with a concept that not only explained the observations but also complemented theology well.

Two scientists working in the 1800s uncovered some facts about inheritance that showed that traits acquired during the lifetime of a parent could not be passed on to their offspring. We can inherit from our parents genes that give us the ability to become muscular, or to be long-distance runners, or to have blue eyes, but new genes do not develop during the course of a person’s lifetime. We are only capable of passing on genes that we, ourselves, are born with.

By selective cross-breeding of varieties of the common pea plant, Pisum sativum, Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) discovered that new genes do not suddenly appear.8 Instead, any trait not displayed by the parents but showing up in the offspring was already in the parents or in other members of the population. By chance mating, they can appear once again in a generation after being hidden for one or more generations. His findings provided physiological evidence that the genetics of an individual is not affected by the environment. The environment may determine what genes get expressed the most, but it will not result in the creation of new genes.

The other scientist, August Weismann (1834-1914), used a microscope to follow the development of the ovum after it was fertilized. He observed that the body of a multicellular organism can be divided into two main types of cells, the germ cells responsible for carrying the genetic information to the next generation, and the somatic cells that carry out the functions of the body. He then observed that the germ cell line responsible for sexual reproduction continues from one generation to the next, but the somatic cells die when the body dies. A new somatic cell line arises from the germ cells that continue through to the next generation, but the germ cells do not arise from the somatic cells. From his observations he proposed the “Continuity of the Germ Plasm” which is a theory stating that the germ cells (“plasm” also means “cells”) give rise to somatic cells and not the other way around. The germ cells pass their genetic information on to the somatic cells, but genetic information cannot travel in the opposite direction. Even if changes in the somatic cells did occur during the lifetime of the parent (as occurs when a somatic cell becomes cancerous, or when muscle cells are enlarged during exercise), these cells are not the ones that give rise to the gametes, and any change in the genetics of the somatic cells cannot be passed on to the next generation.

What observations suggested this theory to Weismann? Once fertilized, the egg starts to replicate the DNA, and parts of the ovum containing each copied set of DNA molecules is sectioned off to become a new cell. This DNA replication and cell division occurs first without an increase in overall size of the original ovum. Each cycle of cell division doubles the number of new cells, first 2, then 4, 8, 16, 32, and so on. Weismann observed that as soon as the germ cells and the somatic cells can be identified as distinctly different cell lines in the developing embryo, the germ cells segregate themselves from the somatic cells. They do not mingle; they remain separate. In females, the germ cells cluster away from the developing somatic cells and wait until the somatic cells give rise to the primordial reproductive organ. Once the somatic cells start to form the reproductive structures, the germ cells migrate from where they were clustered to take housing in these developing reproductive structures. In females, the germ cell line enters the ovaries, and starts to produce primary oocytes, each surrounded by a layer of follicle cells. Before birth, the germ cells stop making the primary oocytes and a female is born with all the primary oocytes she will ever have. Beginning at puberty, and then on a monthly basis (the menstrual cycle), at least one of these primary oocytes matures to form an ovum released into the fallopian tube. This cycle continues during the reproductive years of a female interrupted only during pregnancy.

Both Weismann’s theory of the Continuity of the Germ Plasm and Mendel’s observation on the character of the gene challenged the concept of the inheritance of acquired characteristics. According to Mendel, new traits cannot develop from experience and be passed on to the next generation, and according to Weismann, the environment and experience affect only the somatic cells which die with the body and do not pass on their genes to the next generation. Mendel’s concept of heredity is widely known today. His laws of genetics have been foundational concepts for present-day developments in cellular DNA, molecular biology, genetic engineering, and evolutionary phylogeny. However, Weismann’s observations have drifted into obscurity. Nonetheless, more recent findings still validate his theory. The germ cell line is what continues from the parent to the offspring, and this cell line remains separate from the somatic cell line during early embryogenesis (See appendix).

As we will now discuss, these verifiable mechanisms of reproduction and inheritance have far-reaching implications when applied to the stain of original sin, and the need for an immaculate ovum. When Pope Pius IX thought it fitting to accept the dogma of the Immaculate Conception officially, the inheritance of acquired characteristics was believed to be the means by which the stain of original sin infected the whole human race. It was a trait acquired by our parents, and it could be passed down through their genetics to their offspring. However, the work of Mendel and Weismann shows that the inheritance of acquired characteristics does not occur in human reproduction, and that in God’s plan for redemption – a plan laid out before the creation of the world – He does not forestall, but makes use of the created natural laws.

Biology and the Stain of Original Sin

Human experience and scientific study have greatly increased our understanding of the mechanics of reproductive biology, but we must turn to Scripture for knowledge of the effects of original sin. Before the explosion of scientific information that was ignited in the nineteenth century, the creation story in Genesis was considered by most Christians to be historically accurate and to provide the foundation on which the plan of redemption is based. Today, the theory of evolution questions how the Genesis story of creation should be interpreted, and we are aware of various interpretations.9 However, we restrict our discussion to a traditional interpretation of Scripture since this is the interpretation upon which the concept of the Immaculate Conception is based. Adam and Eve were real human beings; they became the parents of the human race; they were created good. The Bible is also clear that Adam was formed directly out of the dust of the earth, and Eve was formed from the raw material in Adam. In this scenario, each of our original parents was created separately, but it is very important to realize that the cells of the bodies of Adam and Eve can be traced back to the same starting material found in Adam.10

When created, Adam and Eve possessed physical bodies that were good, not subject to dying.11 In the more detailed description of the creation of Adam and Eve in Genesis 2, we read that God provided a means for man to reject God’s authority. He warned Adam not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but God did not prevent him from doing so. As a result of freely choosing to disobey God by eating this fruit, Adam and Eve were changed both spiritually and physically. They no longer were free to commune directly with God, and they lost their immortality. In biological terms, their bodies began to die.

We can only surmise what specifically happened to the physical world after our first parents ate the fruit, but Scripture describes its consequences. Thorns and thistles appeared (Gen. 3:18), Adam and his descendants now needed to labor for their food (Gen. 3:17), and women would experience great sorrow in bearing children (Gen. 3:16). God even killed animals to provide clothes for his wayward children (Gen. 3:20). Whatever the physical cause of these changes, they are described as the consequence of sin, of disobeying God. This sin entered the world as a result of the actions of one man, Adam, for as Paul writes, “as by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin; and so death passed upon all men, for that all have sinned” (Rom. 5:12, KJV).

Mulder admits that he really cannot define the stain of original sin, but he does accept that “whatever it precisely refers to” sin and its effects are inherited from parent to offspring. Recognizing that Genesis might even be an allegory or metaphor, and that accepting Adam and Eve as representing conditions and not actual individuals makes it difficult to envision what is the stain of original sin, Mulder notes that this stain could refer to “brute force” associated with the survival of the fittest. And this “brute force” could be described as the “inherited disordered inclinations we have to disobey God.”12 Whether these disordered inclinations came about by the degeneration of the original good creation, as described in Genesis, or as a consequence of the need to struggle to survive, on which the process of evolution is based, Mulder points out that this stain of original sin is inherited.

The Mortogenic Factor

The Immaculate Conception is a concept that arose from the need to address the “stain of original sin.” It is assumed that this stain was acquired as soon as our first parents ate the forbidden fruit, allowing this fruit to stain their bodies. But more important, this stain of sin did not enter the world because of what Adam and Eve thought, but because of what they did. A substance so dangerous as the forbidden fruit could be looked at or gazed upon, but God warned Adam not to eat it or Adam would surely die (Gen. 2:17). Ingestion of this fruit did more than signify disobedience to God; it immediately resulted in a physical or biological change to their physiology. In Genesis 3:9, God asks a rhetorical question, “Adam […] Where art thou?” Surely God knew where Adam was, but as A. C. Custance has suggested, this question may be emphasizing the fact that Adam, as he was first created, ceased to exist.13 Adam had changed, for the Adam that God had created as good was no more. From a biological perspective, Adam had been physically transformed and this transformation brought death to the human species, an experience not inherent in these first human beings.

For us today, dying has always been a part of living. We cannot imagine a human being who lives without dying. For our original parents, death was not a norm. Death was a penalty. And this death came about as a consequence of ingesting the fruit that was “pleasant to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6). As Mulder suggests, this stain may have caused a change in human psychology wherein we have inherited disordered inclinations, but in biological terms, the fruit functioned as a poison that caused their bodies to begin the process of dying once they had ingested it. This poison can be described as a mortogenic factor because it changed their immortal physiology into a mortal physiology.14 The immortal human body that God had created became “mortalized” after ingesting this poison. Thus, this mortogenic factor has been imbibed into our reproductive physiology to affect all of humankind. It is an inherited trait – a trait that affects the physical components of the body and not just our psychology.

Reproduction, Inheritance and the Mortogenic Factor

The mortogenic factor caused the bodies of Adam and Eve to start the process of dying, but God did not annihilate our species. Adam and Eve were designed to give rise to more humans even though they had now acquired this mortogenic factor. Through sexual reproduction, they were given the ability to fulfill their very first directive from God, to be fruitful and multiply and to fill the earth (Gen. 1:28). But also through sexual reproduction, this mortogenic factor has been passed down to each human individual. It is part of being human. According to the revealed truth of Scripture, all human beings can trace their existence to Adam and Eve, and except for Jesus, all human beings since Adam and Eve have been infected with this mortogenic factor.

If we apply our understanding of reproduction to the inheritance of the mortogenic factor, we arrive at a curious observation. Both Mendel and Weismann discovered first that new traits do not automatically appear in the species and second that changes that affect the body cells of the parents are not passed down to the children. Thus, the acquisition of acquired characteristics is not a biologically feasible mechanism for the inheritance of the stain of original sin. In other words, the stain of original sin picked up by eating the forbidden fruit ought not to have affected the rest of the human species. It may have caused the bodies of Adam and Eve to die, but that would be an effect on the somatic cells. Only if the germ cells were also affected would the mortogenic factor become an inheritable trait. Interestingly, the Bible does not say that the stain of original sin is passed down through our parents, but only through our fathers. This is a very important theological point that has biological implications; an ovum from the Virgin Mary needed no special intervention except that it be fertilized not by a man but by the Holy Spirit. In other words, the germ cell line giving rise to the ovum may have escaped the stain of original sin but this stain has become, through the male, part of our human condition.

Based on these revealed theological truths, two biological questions need to be addressed: 1) Could the germ cell line that started in Eve have escaped the stain of original sin since germ cells do not pick up acquired traits? 2) What biological mechanism enables the mortogenic factor to be passed down to the next generation through the male contribution to sexual reproduction?

Escaping the Mortogenic Factor

Of these two questions, the ability to escape the effects of the mortogenic factor is easiest to understand in biological terms if we consider this factor to be an acquired characteristic that affected the somatic cells of our original parents. As described above, the germ cell line giving rise to the ovum continues from generation to generation as biologically immortal, and this cell line is not affected by what happens to the somatic cells. It is therefore very possible that the mortogenic factor picked up by Eve’s somatic cells when she ate the forbidden fruit did not affect her germ cells. Whatever change Eve may have experienced in her somatic cells, it did not affect her germ cell line that produced the ovum. As long as the egg, after it was fertilized, continued to give rise to new germ cells, then the egg produced by these new germ cells of the next generation would not be affected by the mortogenic factor. In this manner, the germ cell line continues on through each generation without losing its original biological state, a state that it had when it was housed within the body of Eve, and possibly before that, in the body of Adam. Her germ cell line has a form of biological immortality like that of the HeLa cell line. Because the somatic cells of the body arise from the germ cell line in each new generation, the body could be considered the vehicle or the fresh growth medium by which this germ cell line maintains this immortal state. The mortogenic factor serves only to cause the somatic cell line to die at the end of each generation.

However impossible Mendel’s and Weismann’s observations first seemed to be, they were not only scientifically profound by elucidating the mechanism of inheritance, they were theologically enlightening. Any inheritable trait in a species must be present in the germ cell line of the first set of parents of that species, and any changes due to experience are restricted to the somatic cell line. They do not become part of the germ cell line. Therefore, there is no need to invent a mechanism by which the ovum of Mary escaped the stain of original sin. The original germ cells in Eve were not affected as her somatic cells were, and the germ cell line could continue in its original state within the women of each generation. The Continuance of the Germ Plasm, a mechanism unknown to the early church fathers, was engineered by our Creator to be an essential part of the mechanics of sexual reproduction. And through this mechanism, an immaculate ovum was preserved for the Incarnation of Christ.

Inheriting the Mortogenic Factor

Our present understanding of inheritance provides a natural way to preserve the germ cell line biologically as this line was first created without invoking an Immaculate Conception for Mary. The female germ cell line giving rise to the ovum continues to exist in its original state, and according to Scripture, it is contaminated by some male component during sexual reproduction. But how does a human father infect the ovum with the mortogenic factor if his germ cell line was not affected by an acquired characteristic? In other words, biology has revealed a means to preserve the continuance of germ cell line through the ovum, but how does the male contribution to reproduction transmit the mortogenic factor to the next generation?

As the concept of the Immaculate Conception was developed in response to a theological concern, the contamination of the ovum by the male is also based on theology. Using exegesis of Rom. 5:12, both Martin Luther and John Calvin concluded that the “paternal sperm” is the deadly factor by which the “stain” of death and sins are passed on.15 Of course, their understanding of the mechanics of sexual reproduction did not allow them to separate out the different physical components of the male secretions that are involved in fertilizing the ovum. During intercourse, the male delivers not only the sperm, but secretions from accessory reproductive glands16 that aid in delivering the sperm to the vagina, as well as protecting the sperm while it is in the vagina. Today, the general consensus among the biology textbooks is that only the head of the sperm enters the egg during fertilization, and only one sperm is required. In fact, the human egg is equipped with a mechanism to prevent fertilization by more than one sperm.17 Since theology notes that the vehicle for the mortogenic factor is through the male (which for the Incarnation of Christ was circumvented by the Virgin Birth), its transmission must involve something in the semen. This something could be part of the fluids in the semen, or of the sperm itself. And if it is restricted to the sperm cell, then it could involve the DNA of the sperm, or some still-to-be-discovered cytoplasmic factor.

Semen and the Mortogenic Factor

Along with the sperm, the semen consists of organic molecules secreted by the somatic cells of the male. Therefore the semen may be able to pass on the mortogenic factor from the contaminated somatic cells to the pure ovum. This scenario is in keeping with the biological principle that the germ cells do not take on acquired characteristics, and that the ovum would therefore remain unaffected by a poison that caused the somatic cells to die. However, a problem for transmission still exists: the semen does not enter the ovum, only a single sperm. Given this biological certainty, it seems unlikely at this point in our scientific understanding that the inheritance of the mortogenic factor resides in the semen unless it too is capable of penetrating the ovum by a process that has yet to be detected. Thus, it is likely that the sperm serves as the means by which the mortogenic factor enters the ovum, and not the semen, so that this factor may reside in the DNA of the chromosomes or in the cytoplasm18 of the sperm.

Chromosomes and the Mortogenic Factor

Since the major contributions of the male to the developing ovum are his chromosomes, which in turn will influence the characteristics of the cell, then the mortogenic factor may reside in the male DNA causing all those born of Adam to become infected. The problem with this scenario is that the male DNA used for reproduction is part of Adam’s germ cell line. This cell line ought to have escaped the mortogenic factor as did the female germ cell line in the body of Eve. But if the DNA in Adam’s sperm contains the stain of original sin, then Adam’s germ cell line was infected, while the germ cell line in Eve was not. Both of our parents ate of the fruit, both were practically biologically identical (Eve’s body came from Adam’s body), so both should have been poisoned in the same way. If the mortogenic factor could affect Adam’s germ cell line, then biology suggests that it should have also affected Eve’s.

Another objection to having the mortogenic factor in Adam’s DNA is the manner described above by which the male DNA contributes to the next generation. Once the sperm enters the egg, its DNA immediately associates with the DNA in the ovum, and together, they give rise to the complete set of chromosomes needed for cell division. During the replication of this complete set of DNA to create DNA for a new cell, each strand from each parent is duplicated and will end up in every cell produced by the fertilized ovum. If the mortogenic factor were part of the sperm’s DNA, then this factor would end up in every cell produced by the ovum, and could not be separated out from the female germ cell line. In other words, one contaminated germ cell line would contaminate the other germ cell line. Therefore, to avoid potentially contaminating the germ cell line in the female by becoming part of its inheritable DNA, this mechanism of inheritance needs to be avoided.

The Cytoplasm and the Mortogenic Factor

It is generally thought that all the genetic information transferred from parent to offspring resides in the DNA of the nucleus, the nuclear DNA. It is a less-known fact that during sexual reproduction some genetic information not associated with the nuclear DNA may be transmitted to the next generation. The nucleus is contained within the cytoplasm of the cell, and some inherited traits or genes are present in the cytoplasm, not in the nucleus. Since the bulk of genetic information exists as nuclear DNA, this non-nuclear source of hereditary information is not readily apparent. Its existence was first suggested to explain dauer modifications, inherited traits that seem to be acquired by a population of organisms through the experience of the parents.19 More recently, dauer modifications are thought to be conveyed by plasmagenes, self-replicating hereditary structures thought to exist in the cytoplasm.20

If the mortogenic factor is inherited from the male, but it is not associated with the DNA in the nucleus, then it may in fact be a form of a plasmagene present in the cytoplasm of the sperm cell, but not part of the nuclear DNA needed for growth and development of the fertilized ovum. The plasmagene or plasmagenes could be transferred from the sperm to the egg and become part of the somatic cells that arise from the female germ cell line. Since it is a cytoplasmic entity not needed for DNA replication, it could be segregated to some of the cells as the ovum is divided up during the first few cell divisions. In this way, it will not infect all cells arising from the fertilized ovum. This mechanism appears logical but at the present time, there is a biological drawback. It is generally thought that the sperm contains very little if any cytoplasm, and that the only substance that enters the egg is the sperm’s nuclear DNA. If so, then how can a plasmagene enter the ovum at every fertilization?

The answer to this question may be found in more recent studies of inheritance which suggest that the sperm provides more than its DNA to the ovum. For example, experiments which described the small amounts of DNA found in the cell’s mitochondria (mitochondrial DNA) from different ethnic groups have logically deduced that a single woman gave rise to all the human races. Since this scenario is unlikely based on evolution working by natural selection, it has been suggested that one of the assumptions in the interpretation of these results may be at fault. That assumption – the ovum does not receive mitochondria from the sperm – may not be entirely true.21 Therefore the sperm may provide more than its DNA to the ovum. Furthermore, the human sperm cell actually has more cytoplasm associated with it than previously thought. This cytoplasm has gone undetected for the most part due to traditional procedures used to examine the sperm structure. These procedures have been shown to destroy the cytoplasm of the sperm cell,22 thus making it impossible actually to observe where any sperm cytoplasm may go during fertilization. Considering these more recent developments, it is biologically quite possible that a plasmagene enters the ovum during each fertilization.

If the mortogenic factor is transmitted to the ovum by a type of plasmagene in the cytoplasm of the sperm, how could the sperm pick up this factor and not the ovum such that the paternal sperm conveys the corruption from generation to generation? The answer to this question may be found in the differences in the manner by which the sperm and ovum are produced. Unlike the ovum, which attains the stage of a primary oocyte in the ovary even before a girl is born, the process of forming a sperm does not begin until puberty. Therefore in the female, the initial stages of ovum development start with the germ cells isolated from the somatic cells. Each ovum becomes surrounded by a layer of follicle cells at an early developmental stage so that the ovum remains completely isolated from mature somatic cells even in a reproductively mature female. However, sperm production begins long after birth at puberty when hormones from the head trigger the production in the testes of the primary spermatocytes from the stem cells (the spermatogonia) of the male germ cell line. Therefore the primary spermatocyte which eventually becomes the sperm is formed in the presence of fully mature somatic cells. In addition, as this maturing spermatocyte becomes a sperm cell, there is no follicle cell layer to protect it from the mature somatic cells. While it is maturing, it is intimately associated with the Sertoli cell, a type of somatic cell that lines the seminiferous tubules of the testes. If the mortogenic factor is inherited by each human being by way of plasmagenes, there is plenty of opportunity for these plasmagenes to enter the cytoplasm of a maturing sperm from its initial formation as a primary spermatocyte to a mature spermatozoa in the seminiferous tubule. In the female, by contrast, there is no opportunity for such plasmagenes to enter the maturing ovum.

Mortalization of the Somatic Cell Line

Weismann’s observation that the germ cell line carries on from generation to generation in the female, whereas a new somatic cell line is produced for each new generation, has been used previously to suggest a biological mechanism for creating a pure ovum.23 In this essay, we have added more up-to-date biological information that continues to support this possibility, but information that appears to be unknown to many proponents of Mary’s Immaculate Conception. However, one question not addressed in these previous works is the continuance of the mortogenic factor. During cell division triggered in the fertilized ovum, the somatic cells appear at about the 16-cell stage.24 Theology necessitates that these somatic cells carry the mortogenic factor, and now with our knowledge of plasmagenes, it is possible to suggest how the contaminated somatic cells arise from the immaculate germ cells.

When fertilized by a human sperm, the egg receives very little substance from the male. In terms of volume, if the sperm head (the part of the sperm that enters the egg) is considered to be one unit volume, then the egg is about 14,000 unit volumes.25 The volume of the egg contaminated by the contents of the sperm is very small indeed. And once the egg is fertilized, the male and female chromosomes unite and quickly start to replicate to form the DNA to make more cells. When the first cells are formed, they divide up the volume of the ovum, but the ovum does not initially increase in size. If division of the cytoplasm of the ovum were random, then some of the new cells created by dividing up this cytoplasm would contain the plasmagene of the mortogenic factor and some would not.

The presence of a plasmagene in a cell in the germ cell line may, in fact, be responsible for turning that germ cell into a somatic cell. In other words, the plasmagene from the sperm, not the DNA from its nucleus, triggers a germ cell to become a somatic cell. At fertilization, nuclear DNA from the male unites with the homologous nuclear DNA from the female, and cell division is initiated. Then only those cells of the dividing ovum that, by chance, have acquired a plasmagene will become somatic cells and begin to divide rapidly while the germ cells free of the plasmagene arrest their development until the rudimentary ovaries are formed. That plasmagenes could direct the genetics of a germ cell is quite feasible. Being a source of genetic information, the plasmagene may use this information to trigger its host cell’s nuclear DNA to generate a somatic cell. These somatic cells would make more contaminated somatic cells thereby giving rise to a contaminated body. This mode of infestation is not novel for a similar mechanism is used by viruses to commandeer the body cells to make more of themselves. Thus, the cytoplasm in the fertilized single-celled ovum may be exposed to the mortogenic factor, but the germ cell line remains untouched by this factor as cell division of the ovum isolates this factor to only certain cells. The germ cells containing the mortogenic factor are triggered to become the new somatic cell line for the next generation. Input from the Holy Spirit at the conception of Jesus Christ in the Virgin Mary would allow the ovum to make somatic cells without the presence of the mortogenic factor picked up from the forbidden fruit. The body of Jesus would be pure as were the bodies of Adam and Eve when they were first created.

Conclusion

Mulder should be commended for his attempt to bring a theological concept into the nuts and bolts of the real physical world. If God really impregnated a woman in a way that required her complete consent, then that woman needed to be free of any factor that would prevent such a consent. He does not consider whether or not the ovum needed to be immaculate, but focuses on Mary’s psychological need. As he notes,

I am not arguing that bearing a sinless individual or even God the Son, of itself, requires the Immaculate Conception. […] Rather, I am arguing that an immaculately conceived individual makes for the best and least coerced recipient of the invitation to bear God the Son.26

Hence, without being immaculate, Mary could not freely accept her call to be the mother of God. She needed to be free of sin in order to participate freely in the Incarnation of Christ.

We are uncomfortable with this speculation since we believe that the hope of a Messiah would have been instilled in every female born of Jewish parents making it more likely than not that any Jewish virgin, not just an immaculate Mary, would freely give themselves to the Holy Spirit should they be confronted by an angel bearing this message. God would have had no difficulty in finding a virgin who would freely cooperate. He had ensured this attitude would exist among Jewish youths even in a stiff-necked people by encouraging and rebuking this nation to continue in His ordinances that ultimately point to the hope of a coming Messiah. Given this cultural milieu, we believe that finding an unwilling virgin would have been far more difficult than finding a willing one.

To make his point clear that being willing to be the mother of God may not be enough to remove any hint of coercion by God, Mulder uses the analogy of Sally and Tony. Sally is willing to give money to the street bum, Tony, but Tony then confronts Sally at gunpoint to hand over her cash. In this analogy, Sally would still be coerced into giving away her money although she intended to do so freely. But this analogy, understandably, is set up to support Mulder’s argument that coercion could have existed if Mary were not pure. Given the culture of her day, we believe a more fitting analogy for Mary is to describe Sally as a pious non-gambler being given winnings of a lottery that she did not participate in. Such a person may object to wasting hard-earned money on buying tickets for a lottery, but in our materially minded society, it is very unlikely to find anyone who would object to receiving millions of dollars no matter how much they detest the method by which the money is gained. Likewise, Mary may have objected to a physical relationship with a man prior to being wed, but she would not have objected to a physical relationship with God in order to bear the Messiah. Her greed and sense of self-worth arising from her disordered inclinations would have overcome any sense of violation. Interestingly, our analogy suggests that Mary’s disordered inclinations encouraged her to be the Mother of God, to bear the Messiah who would rule the world. What virgin would not want this? So rather than her stain of original sin being a hurdle for the Incarnation of Christ, as Mulder argues, it may very well have been the catapult throwing her headlong into the task.

Mulder uses his knowledge of human behavior as studied in psychology to argue for the necessity of the Immaculate Conception. We use our knowledge of biological reproduction to argue against this concept. In both arguments, scientific knowledge is being applied to theological knowledge in order to arrive at some description of the truth, but different conclusions are reached since different scientific theories are being applied. Theology may be enlightened by scientific knowledge, as Mulder has attempted to do using a psychological approach, but care must be taken that the scientific theories being applied are verifiable, and have not been made obsolete either by more recent findings or by findings from other scientific disciplines. As we have demonstrated in our response to Mulder, a completely different theological understanding can be developed by knowing what the modern verifiable scientific facts of reproduction are. However, we do not claim to have spoken the truth; we have only considered a plausible scenario based on the interpretation of the present scientific and theological knowledge. Rather than discouraging discussion by emphatically supporting a particular view of reality, our hope is that theologians and scientists alike will continue to seek truth by incorporating all of knowledge and not to limit understanding to one discipline. As Custance observed, truth does not reside, “only in Science nor only in Scripture but […] both [are] necessary, each contributing to and receiving light from the other.”27

Appendix

The following quote is from a human developmental biology textbook:

An early segregation of the primordial germ cells has also been described in mammals. Several investigators (Fuss, 1912; Hamlett, 1935; Witschi, 1948) described primordial germ cells in early human embryos and suggested that they take origin, in the pre-somite [that is, before somatic] stage, either from the endoderm or the overlying mesoderm in a restricted area of the yolk sac wall close to the allantoic diverticulum and later migrate through the mesentery to the region of the germinal epithelium or the gonadal blastema. In Man these cells appear to migrate from the yolk sac to the hindgut wall and thence along its mesentery to the gonadal ridge (fig. 302) where they become concentrated (Witschi, 1948). The primordial germ cells thus come secondarily into relation with the other two components, coelomic eptihelium and mesenchyme of the gonad. Other investigators however (Stieve, 1927; Simkins, 1928; and Swezy and Evans, 1930) have denied that such primordial germ cells exist, or, if they do exist, that they are concerned with the development of the definitive sex cells. The histochemistry of the primordial germ cells (Baxter, 1950; McKay et al., 1953; Chiquoine, 1954; and see Figures 303 and 304), however, and investigations on other animals suggest that in mammals, too, there is a precocious segregation of the cells which give origin to the future functional ova or sperms.28

Also in a review paper by A. McLaren, the author describes recent findings in mammals that support Weismann’s observation that the somatic cells arise from the germ cell line, and not the other way around.29

Cite this article
R. Gary Chiang and Evelyn M. White, “A Theologically Based Biological Challenge to the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 43:3 , 241-260

Footnotes

  1. Jack Mulder Jr., “Why More Christians Should Believe in Mary’s Immaculate Conception,” Christian Scholar’s Review 41.2 (2012): 117-134 (hereafter CSR).
  2. Ibid., 120.
  3. The papal bull, The Immaculate Conception, Ineffabilis Deus, accessed October 28, 2012. http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9ineff.htm.
  4. See the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 21, which asks: Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect? The answer: The only Redeemer of God’s elect is the Lord Jesus Christ. A similar teaching is found in the Heidelberg Catechism, Question 18.
  5. CSR, 134.
  6. Ibid., 119. Mulder references an argument in John Henry Cardinal Newman, Discourses Addressed to Mixed Congregations, new impression (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1921), 369.
  7. Lamarckism (named after Jean-Baptiste Lamarck) was a prevailing view in the nineteenth century that inherited traits were changeable and new inheritable traits could arise from the experience of the parent. For instance, the giraffe was thought to be originally similar to a short-necked gazelle, but by stretching for food in the tree tops they caused their necks to stretch, and their offspring inherited longer necks. Although Darwin’s survival of the fittest explained that longer necked offspring survived while the shorter-necked offspring could not reach the food, both Lamarck and Darwin accepted the inheritance of acquired characteristics. The longer neck was a new trait that appeared in the genetics of the species and was selected for by the experiences of the parents. The individuals who did not stretch or who were without long necks produced fewer if any offspring for the next generation and giraffes eventually, over thousands of generations, came to have the long necks we see today.
  8. Mendel discovered that inheritable traits are transmitted intact from one generation to the next. They do not blend, but are discrete particles he called “genes.” His observations on genes in the pea plant led him to develop his three basic laws of genetics: the Law of Segregation, the Law of Independent Assortment, and the Law of Dominance.
  9. The acceptance of the theory of evolution by many Christian academics as a verifiable scientific fact has encouraged a reconsideration of the historicity of the Genesis creation story. Adam and Eve are no longer considered as real persons, and the human origins story in Genesis is thought to teach theological, not historical, truths. For examples of this viewpoint, see the articles by Daniel C. Harlow, “After Adam: Reading Genesis in an Age of Evolutionary Science,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62 (2010): 179-195; and John R. Schneider, “Recent Genetic Science and Christian Theology on Human Origins: An ‘Aesthetic Supralapsarianism.’” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 62 (2010): 196-212. Although many Christian academics accept the symbolism of Adam and Eve, the wider Christian community is not as willing, and these articles have generated considerable unrest. For example, see the report by David Murray, “Calvin College Giving ‘Misinformation’ About Professor’s Exit over Adam and Eve Views, Colleague Says,” Grand Rapids Press, August 19, 2011.
  10. The creation of Eve from Adam has been discussed on the theological basis extensively in such works as A. C. Custance, Two Men Called Adam, 3rd edition (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Doorway Publications, 2010), 55. The more recent developments in cloning have provided a biological mechanism for the creation of Eve and also provide a biological explanation for the species barriers in reproduction as discussed in R. Gray Chiang, Rescuing Science from Preconceived Beliefs, 2nd edition (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Doorway Publications, 2011), 284.
  11. Referring to Augustine: De Genesi ad Litteram, Bk. I, 25, note 35 [in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Buffalo, Christian Literature Co., 1886, Vol. I, 73, fn.], A. C. Custance wrote: “Before the Fall it was not impossible for Adam to die but it was possible for him not to die.” [in Seed of the Woman (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Doorway Publications), 82 f.]
  12. CSR, 118.
  13. Arthur C. Custance, Seed of the Woman (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Doorway Publications, 1980), 176.
  14. Ibid., 15. Custance coined the term “mortogenic factor” meaning “death generating” to refer to the fatal disease caused by an intrusive factor that appears in the somatic cells, a factor that caused the potentially immortal cells of Adam and Eve to die.
  15. See “paternal sperm” in A. C. Custance, Sovereignty of Grace, (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1979), 87, and Seed of the Woman (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Doorway Publications, 1980), 145-146. Both books can be read online through Doorway Publications at www.custance.org. As noted by Custance, Luther wrote that “the paternal sperm covey the corruption from generation to generation” as quoted by J. L. Neve, History of Christian Thought, vol. 1 (Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1946), 230. Calvin wrote that “woman’s seed is not unclean but only man’s.” Institutes, II, xiii, 4.
  16. Male accessory reproductive glands in humans consist of the seminal vesicles, the prostate gland, and the bulbourethral glands (Cowper glands). Their secretions make up the milieu in which the sperm are delivered to the vagina.
  17. Polyspermy is a condition whereby the egg can be fertilized by more than one sperm resulting in too many copies of DNA in the zygote. Polyspermy has been observed to occur in a number of multicellular organisms, but it appears to have no evolutionary advantage. Instead, mechanisms are in place to prevent polyspermy. Polyspermy does not occur in humans.
  18. The cytoplasm of a cell refers to a gel-like substance in which the organelles and organic molecules float around within the cell. The nucleus that contains the DNA lies in the cytoplasm, but is not considered part of the cytoplasm. The internal part of the nucleus is called the nucleoplasm, and during cell division, the wall of the nucleus disappears and the nucleoplasm and cytoplasm come into direct contact with each other.
  19. A discussion on the history and acceptance of the concept of dauer modifications can be found in A. C. Custance, Science and Faith, Part IV, vol. 8 of the Doorway Papers Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1978). See www.custance.org for this book online.
  20. Mitochondria and chloroplasts are now known to carry in themselves DNA needed for reproducing more of themselves. This DNA is not associated with the nucleus, and can be considered a form of plasmagene. Since there is only a slight chance that mitochondria of the sperm enter the egg, the mortogenic factor is probably not associated with the mitochondria.
  21. Mitochondrial DNA and its application to human evolution was reported by R. L. Cann, et al. in Nature 325 (1 January 1987): 32. For a layman’s description of the science and logic associated with mitochondrial DNA leading to the conclusion that a single woman gave rise to all the human races, see Rescuing Science from Preconceived Beliefs, 88-92. Scientific reasons to reject this logic are described in the same book on, 100-101.
  22. See Trevor G. Cooper, Ching-Hei Yeung, Sabina Fetic, Aligholi Sobhani and Eberhard Nieschlag, “Cytoplasmic Droplets Are Normal Structures of Human Sperm but Are not Well Preserved by Routine Procedures for Assessing Sperm Morphology,” Human Reproduction 19 (2004): 2283-2288.
  23. Arthur C. Custance, Two Men Called Adam, 4th Edition (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Doorway Publications, 2010), 150-155.
  24. Ibid., 153. In a diagram explaining the continuity of the germ plasm, Custance notes that the somatic cells appear about the 16-cell stage (the 4th cell division). This observation is reiterated in more recent studies as the following quote demonstrates: “Scientific evidence shows that already at the two-cell stage, and even more so at the four-cell stage and thereafter, there is a difference in the internal structure of the embryonic cells; although they have the same DNA, each has a distinct pattern of gene expression.” (Memili & First, 2000; Thompson et al, 1998; Zernika-Goetz, 2003; Zimmerman & Schultz, 1994; Santo & Dean, 2004); Robert P. George and Patrick Lee, “Embryonic Human Persons. Talking Point on Morality and Human Embryo Research,” EMBO Rep. 10 (2009): 301-306.
  25. The diameter of a human egg is approximately 0.12 mm and that of the head of a sperm 0.005 mm, making the egg’s diameter about 25 times larger than the sperm. However, when volume is considered, the difference in size is much larger. The volume of a sphere with a diameter of 0.12 mm is approximately 900,000 μm3 and that of 0.005 mm is 65 μm.3 By volume, the egg is approximately 14,000 times larger than the sperm head.
  26. CSR, 119.
  27. R. G. Chiang, Rescuing Science from Preconceived Beliefs 2nd edition (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada: Doorway Publications, 2011), 5.
  28. W. J. Hamilton, J. D. Boyd, and H. W. Mossman, Human Embryology, Prenatal Development of Form and Function, (Baltimore, MD: The Williams and Wilkins Co., 1962), 283.
  29. A. McLaren, “Signaling for Germ Cells,” Genes and Dev. 13 (1999): 373-376.

R. Gary Chiang

Redeemer University College
R. Gary Chiang is Professor of Biology at Redeemer University College.