Does Embryology Elucidate a Traducianist View of the Origin of the Soul?

Joanna Leidenhag
Thursday 17 March 2022
  1. Introduction
  2. Fields of Study
  3. Discussion
  4. Conclusion

1. Introduction

Whilst almost all Christians thinkers throughout history have affirmed the existence of the soul, the Christian tradition has not been so unified regarding the nature of souls, their relationship to bodies, and what function they should have in relation to other doctrines. One debate where these different views on the soul play out most clearly is in answering the question: where do souls come from? All agree that souls, like everything else, owe their existence ultimately to God, but this still leaves considerable room for variation. What kind of origin story can we tell about an individual’s soul – of my soul, or your soul?

Today, in an age where the existence of the soul is no longer so universally affirmed, such a question may seem bizarre or antiquated. In fact, this only makes the question of the origin of the soul more urgent and important. This is because requesting an origin story is a way of asking, “Where do souls fit within our wider worldview?” How does belief in a soul relate to issues of personal identity, genetic makeup, biological evolution and human diversity and dignity? I do not think soul-talk has fallen out of fashion because of a seeming tension with neuroscience (or any other empirical discipline), but because it seems disconnected, even redundant, within this wider nexus of empirical discovery. Reviving the debate on the origin of the soul is one way to combat this false perception of irrelevancy.

Does embryology elucidate a traducianist view of the origin of the soul? To answer this question, we will first take a more detailed look at traducianism, which is the idea that souls are inherited from parents alongside biological material. Since the traducianist claims that soul-inheritance cannot be separated from biological inheritance, it seems pertinent to see if contemporary embryology can help articulate how souls are inherited and develop in tandem with bodies. I will then sketch out some of the key moments in the history of embryology. In the discussion section, I give an affirmative answer to the question of this puzzle by providing an up-to-date account of human reproduction and embryonic development, which includes some ideas about how traducianists might zoom in on different parts of embryology to further illuminate their account of the inheritance of the soul.

2. Fields of Study

2.1 The Origin of the Soul: Traducianism

There are three traditional Christian views on the question of how individual human persons come to be ensouled creatures: the “ready-made” pre-existence view, the “custom made” creationist view, and the “second-hand” traducianist view (Farris 2015).

The pre-existence view states that souls are immortal in both directions – they have always existed and will always exist – and that, either due to some kind of fall or by a divine act, these pre-existent souls come to be accidentally (and regrettably) united with bodies. Condemned at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553CE, the ready-made pre-existence of the soul view has been the least popular within Christianity.

Creationism about the soul, not to be confused with the denial of evolutionary theory, is historically the most popular view regarding the origin of the soul in the Christian tradition. Creationism argues that God creates each soul directly and from nothing; that is, without the help of created materials or secondary causation. For creationists, no set of circumstances within creation (material or immaterial) can be a sufficient explanation for the existence of the soul for human persons. For pure creationists, there is nothing anti-science about the soul, but it is entirely supra-science. For the creationist, biological theories of human origins, as either a species or as regard the generation of each new individual, are neither a help nor a hinderance to theology; they are fairly irrelevant for the question of the origin of the soul (creationists, of course, may still be very interested in biological origins, indeed they may be evolutionary biologists by profession). Such an independence-style view of the relationship between the theology of the soul and natural science may protect theology for a time, but such isolationism eventually leaves theology without explanatory power and ‘soul’ becomes a way of talking, rather than an ontologically real part of the human organism.

Traducianism, from the Latin tradux for ‘offshoot’ or ‘sprout’, argues that God created the first human souls directly, but that all subsequent generations of human beings inherit their souls, alongside their biological and genetic material, from their parents. As such, the traducianists story of individual human origins presumes, for its own theological reasons, a strong correspondence with the contemporary understanding of the material origins of each new human.

The genealogy for traducianism is often traced back to Tertullian. Tertullian’s view has often been criticised, even by those attracted to traducianism more broadly (like Augustine), for being materialistic. However, we should not confuse such criticisms with a kind of denial of the existence of the soul, nor with views that make the soul dependent upon, originate from or reducible to the body, as the term ‘materialism’ might connote today. Tertullian is clearly a kind of substance dualist because he maintains that at conception there must be “two kinds of seed – that of the body and that of the soul”, but that these are conceived and formed “perfectly simultaneously” and “are inseparable” so that priority cannot be given to either one over the other. Both of these substances are created separately by God originally, again assuring readers that neither can be reduced to the other (Tertullian 1885, §27). However, humans are psychosomatic wholes such that in Adam “the clay and the breath” “amalgamated and mixed their proper seminal rudiments” so that now they are passed on to subsequent generations through a “united” and “combined” outflow (Tertullian 1885, §27). Tertullian is a kind of substance dualist who uses traducianism to emphasise the psychosomatic unity of the human person.

Apollinaris of Loadice, Clement of Alexandria, and Gregory of Nyssa use traducianism to combat any suggestion that humans can be divided into different (unequal) groups, instead arguing that we are “one qua succession”, such that all people should be treated with equal dignity. Gregory also argued that “without the addition of an outside power” the soul “advance[s] alongside the growth of the body” (Gregory 1893, XXIX.4). Gregory even went so far as to suggest that Adam’s body was derived from early animals, and that humanity’s rational soul was a blend of the prior vegetative and sensitive souls found in other creatures (Livingstone 2008, 7). So here we have an interesting use of traducianism both to suggest that all humans have equal dignity (as part of one soul-family), and simultaneously that humanity is not entirely dissimilar or separate from other animals.

For Gregory, it seems that the soul can come in different degrees and these degrees are not only found in different species, but also in the developmental stages of each individual human. Therefore, it is not a rational soul as such that is inherited, but a nutritive soul that develops into a rational soul as the body develops. Despite differing from Tertullian’s and Nyssa’s version of traducianism in significant ways, Odo of Tournai’s traducianism also held that the species-soul-stuff that is inherited from ones parents starts off in the womb as a nutritive soul initiating new life before “growing with it [the body] into a rational soul” (Odo 1994, 71). This developmental account of the soul surely removes some of the difficulty with understanding how human souls can be inherited, since even creationists like Thomas Aquinas supposed that vegetative and sensitive souls are inherited (Aquinas 1920, Q118, Art.1).

Nineteenth century evangelical theologians who embraced Charles Darwin’s Origins of the Species often used traducianism to articulate “the unity of man” as a species by descent (like Apollinaris, Clement and Gregory had done centuries before) (Iverarch 1894, 175). These lines of argument grew in importance as embryology became one of the central pillars of evolutionary biology.

Contemporary discussions of the origin of the soul in theology are few and far between, but it has received some attention recently from analytic theologians; J.P. Moreland and Scott B. Rae defend a version of traducianism, largely on biological and ethical grounds (Moreland and Rae 2000, 220-223). Others have sort to consider the origin of the soul not only in light of contemporary biology, but also to correspond to popular theories of consciousness. For example, Joshua R. Farris defends a creationist account, that is updated to take on board insights from embryology and emergence theory (Farris 2014, 2015, 2017). I offer a panpsychist-traducianist account (Leidenhag, forthcoming). William Hasker’s emergent dualism offers a new account, not entirely identifiable with any of the standard historical positions (Hasker 2001, 2018, 2021). It seems that the debate regarding the origin of the soul has re-emerged again as an important one for theological consideration and debate.

However, traducianism suffers from one central weakness – a failure to give a sufficiently detailed account of how souls might be inherited. This is a puzzle that can be traced back to Tertullian’s initial articulation of traducianism, which included the affirmation that souls are (mutable and spatially located, but still) indivisible. Creationists have long criticized traducianism for being essentially mysterious and implausible; can souls really be inherited? Even if there are no knock-down arguments against soul inheritance, the traducianist faces a “lack-of-theory problem” (a phrase inspired by Thomas Nagel to refer to a similar gap in recent philosophy of mind; Roelofs 2018, 295; Nagel 1986, 50). Again, because the traducianist (for various theological reasons explored above) sees soul-inheritance and biological inheritance as a parallel processes, or perhaps even a single dual-aspect process, we have clear justification for investigating if anything in the field of embryology can help traducianists respond to the accusation of incoherent mysterianism from the creationist.

2.2 The History of Embryology

The history of embryology is as old as medicine and, according to historian Joseph Needham, can be traced back to Hippocrates’ theory of the material causes of reproduction from the combination of a male and female seed, much like plant reproduction (Needham 1959). There are few dedicated professorships or institutions to embryology, and instead the field has included a diversity of scholars from theologians and natural philosophers to physiologists, anatomists, surgeons, midwifes, zoologists, botanists, biologists, and geneticists, not to mention the sculptors, artists and graphic designers that communicated the hidden world of the womb to the wider public. Today, most embryologists consider their discipline as part of the wider field of developmental biology, which seeks to understand not only the first 8 weeks of embryonic development, but the forces that continue to define and sustain human life (Amjad 2019, 1).

Aristotle taught that the female provides the matter necessary for new life (so she is more than an empty vessel, but she does not contribute in any way to inheritance) and the male provides the form. The male seed, for Aristotle, was not itself alive with a soul, but is an instrument that transmits soul, thus turning the potentiality of the female’s matter into the actuality of a living body. Aristotle taught that the embryo has a nutritive soul potentially from the moment of conceptus (like a plant), a nutritive soul in actuality and a sensible soul in potentiality from the moment the heart starts to beat (like an animal). It might seem then that Aristotle’s view of human reproduction is very much in line with later Christian traducianism, but it is not that simple. For when it comes to the rational soul (or mind), Aristotle tells an alternative story. The rational soul “is different; it seems to be an independent substance implanted within the soul and to be incapable of being destroyed” (Aristotle 1987, 1.4, 40b) Unlike traducianists, Aristotle sees “Reason” (nous) as on the “divine” side of the Creator-creature distinction, and therefore “nothing whatsoever” to do with physical activity or biological inheritance (Aristotle [1942] 1979, 136b, 28-9)

Needham writes that “the modern as opposed to the ancient period of embryology” began when Albert of Cologne not only repeated Hippocrates experiments (which he read about through details Arabic commentaries such as Ali ibn Sahl Al-Tabari of Baghdad’s Firdus al-Hikmah and Abu Ali al-Hasan Ibn Sina’s Canon Medicine) on chicken’s eggs but performed similar experiments on fish and other animals (Needham 1959, 91). However, Albert’s revival of the two-eggs thesis with joint parental inheritance was undercut by his most famous student, Thomas Aquinas, who reverted to Aristotle’s one-seed theory in combination with a creationist account of the rational soul.

The next big shifts in embryology came in the seventeenth century from three directions.  First, William Harvey’s On the Generation of Animals (1651) argued that all animals, including humans, came from fertilized eggs, and in 1667 the discovery of ovaries, which had been hypothesised as ‘female testes’ since Herophilus (335-280 BC), finally put Aristotle’s male only inheritance view to rest.

Second, equally important to such specific anatomical discoveries are the broader philosophical shifts, now referred to as the rise of mechanistic philosophy. In the first half of the seventeenth century embryology and the doctrine of the origin of the soul were still a single shared question which formed a single story in intellectual history. Clear examples of this can be seen as late as William Harvey’s thoroughly vitalist views, and Thomas Fienus’s On the Formation of the Foetus (1620), which like Gregory of Nyssa centuries before, argued that the rational soul is not given from without, but arises from transformations empowered from within (Jones 2004, 161-164). But, to the mechanists, a passive nature controlled by external divine laws seemed the more intuitively theistic model. The separation of embryology from soul-talk relies on the combination of creationist exceptionalism regarding the rational soul with mechanistic philosophy, which removed the language of ‘soul’ with regard to plant and animal life.

Third, the dominance of mechanistic thinking and the invention of the microscope, which revealed a highly intricate humanoid structure in embryos, gave rise to the theory of preformationism. This view is helpfully summarized by the theologian Malebranche when he writes, “We must suppose that all the bodies of men and animals which will be born until the consummation of time will have been direct products of the original creation, in other words, that the first females were created with the subsequent individuals of their own species within them” (The Search after Truth, quoted in Needham 1959, 169). This view fitted neatly with a view of God creating finished products that needed growth, but not developmental change.

Eighteenth-century embryology is typically characterized as dominated by the debate between mechanistic preformationism and vitalistic epigenesis (the latter fitting nicely into the Romantic ideals of nature as a living organism and humanity’s ‘becoming’). The most famous instance of this debate is found in an exchange of letters between Newtonian mechanist Albert von Haller and the pioneering epigenesist Caspar Friedrich Wolff, which “came to define and symbolize the key questions faced by biological sciences in that era, the idea of God in relation to the biology of creation, the question of spontaneous generation, the role of mechanism in developmental biology, the issue of regeneration and the dilemma of ‘monstrous births’” (Amjad 2019, 5).

By the second half of the nineteenth century, preformationism have been undercut – microscopes improved, the discoveries of cells in 1838 by Matthias Schleiden and Theodor Schwann, and the new germ layer theory of development by H.C. Pander and Karl Ernst von Bear, unified botany with animal and human anatomy (Hopwood 2009, 288-289). The epigenetic (and recapitulationist) view of embryology became one of the three central pillars of macroevolution (along with geology and animal husbandry), often pitched against an outdated theory of divine design.

At the turn of the twentieth century, the continuing battle between vitalism and mechanism meant that “academic embryology was in turmoil” (Hopwood 2009, 298ff). This turmoil resulted in disciplinary fragmentation and the creation of new (competing) subdisciplines: chemical embryology, comparative embryology, experimental physiology, developmental mechanics, theoretical biology, marine biology, molecular biology, and the new (well-funded) field of genetics. A shared goal across these shifting disciplinary divides was to explain how a single cell could develop into a complex multicellular organism. Everyone agreed that there were hereditary determinants (genes) that directed organ formation and cell differentiation, but debates raged as to whether these determinants were found in the nucleus or the cytoplasm. Promising discoveries were made by Hilde Pröscholdt (later Mangold) and her 1936 Nobel prize winning supervisor Hans Speemann, in discovering embryonic induction (that one group of cells (inducing tissue) directs the development of another group (responding tissue) to become a specific organ (i.e. the heart). But this did not generate the widespread synthesis of the life sciences that many initially hoped for and “by the mid-1940s embryologists found themselves on the sidelines of the distinctly nonembryological Modern Evolutoinary Synthesis” (Hopwood 2009, 307-308).

In the 1960s, that which had been fragmented was reunified under the new discipline, “developmental biology”. The question of how, if all cells contain identical DNA, some cells develop into bone and others into blood etc., was answered by the generalizable principle of differential gene expression (Gilbert and Barresi 2020, ch.5). This, of course, only leads to new questions; how do cells not just make skin and bone, but a hand? How do cells ‘know’ and regulate their relative positions to one another? Ideas of morphogenesis and pattern formation led to new insights for understanding the hierarchy of interacting genes, mRNAs (messenger RNA strands that leave the nucleus into the cytoplasm) and protein development. This led to breakthroughs in molecular cloning and embryo manipulation (mostly of frogs, fruit flies, mice, worms, or chicks).

But, of course, twentieth-century embryology has been largely motivated by the hope for greater control over agricultural and human reproduction. In vito fertilization, established with the birth of Louise Brown in 1979, has now become a widely practice medical procedure, although surrounded by controversy regarding the ethical status of surplus embryos. As Hopwood concludes, “At the start of the twenty-first century, embryology is again a high-profile science, as it was at the beginnings of the nineteenth and twentieth. But embryologists no longer just analyze embryos or even intervene experimentally in development; cloning companies and fertility clinics are creating new organisms” (Hopwood 2009, 315). The question for theologians is, are they creating new souls? That depends on whether souls are inherited and formed through physical processes.

3. Discussion

This first thing to note is that embryology is an excellent example of a theologically entangled scientific subdiscipline. Throughout its long history embryology has been as concerned with questions of when an embryo can be said to be ensouled as the material causes of embryonic growth. Even though contemporary embryologists would likely disregard soul-talk and focus on material causes, embryology continues today to be embroiled in debates regarding when ‘life’ starts, human dignity to all, and the ethics of human intervention. In what follows, I outline a contemporary understanding of human reproduction, with an eye to seeing how and where embryology might shed light on a theory traducian inheritance.

When thinking about how souls ‘split off ‘or individuate from parents, we should start with gametogenesis, the creation of gametes (sperm and eggs) through the processes of meiosis. Most human cells contained 46 chromosomes, in 23 pairs (in males, the 23 set is a non-matching pairing). Meiosis (‘lessening’) is the first stage of gametogenesis whereby the genetic material in the cell’s nucleus is halved, one taken from each pair, resulting in 23 single chromosomes. In normal cell division, mitosis, the chromosomal DNA duplicates itself before the cell’s division, so that both cells continue to contain a full 46 chromosomes. In meiosis, for the creation of gametes, duplication also does occur, but the cell then divides twice and both times with a slightly difference to normal mitosis. During the first division, the chromosomes cross over, or chiasma, with an adjacent pairing, leading to genetic variation between the two divided cells. In the second division, there is no second duplication, resulting in four unique gamete cells with only 23 chromosomes each. Gametes are then held partially apart from the rest of the body’s system in the testes or ovaries.

For all traducianists, the gametes (and particularly the male gametes) either are ensouled themselves (with a nutritive soul) or they carry soul-stuff to the ovum. A traducianist has a choice about how to make sense of this claim. Either, she can say that there is something about gametes that make them uniquely suited to be a material vehicle for carrying souls from one body into another. Alternatively, the traducianists can say that matter and soul are not as separate as we often imagine, such that all matter contains some element of aspect of soul. I think this latter claim is better suited to the traducianists commitment to viewing humans as a psychophysical unity and to humanity’s close relationship to other creatures and the wider creation. If the traducianists accept this latter option, then what is special about gametes then is not their capacity to carry (human) soul/conscious in some basic form, but the unique genetic material that allows two fertilized gametes to create unique chemical instructions for the development of a new organismic structure, a new human being.

The next key moment in human reproduction is fertilization, when the male and female gamete fuse their haploid genomes in a process known as syngamy to make a new diploid cell, the zygote. At this point, we have a living organism with a unique and complete human genome. It is worth pausing to consider what the relationship between DNA and soul is on this account of traducianism. On the view of traducianism I am supporting, DNA is not where the soul (or some quasi soul-stuff) is found, at least not in any way that is different from other types of matter. However, as structural information DNA is extremely important. DNA is the instructional manual for the creation of proteins and the development of the body into the specific patterns and structures necessary to create new conscious wholes out of conscious parts.

There remains a question (or choice) of whether we say that a zygote has a fully human soul (by virtue of having a complete and unique human genome) or that a zygote contains all that is necessary to develop a full human soul, but currently should be described as having a zygote-soul. This ambiguity can be seen in traducianist reflection even as early as Tertullian, who (whilst arguing against abortion and considered it to be homicide) describes the vegetative soul of an ensouled embryo as still “the rudiment of a human being” who “becomes a human being in the womb from the moment that is form is completed” (Tertullian 1885, §37; Jones 2004, 114). Given that the traducianist does not limit souls (consciousness) to human beings alone, it is unsurprising that traducianism opens up the possibility (but not the necessity) of claiming that embryos have souls without entailing that this soul is a human person.

The fertilized zygote cell immediately duplicates and divides into two blastomeres. The blastomeres continue to duplicate and divide, and when it reaches a solid ball of 16 cells it is called a morula. The morula then reorganises into a hollow ball called a blastocyst. The blastocyst (or 70 to 100 cells) contains two different kinds of cells; outer cells (called the trophoblast) and inner cells (called the embryoblast). As the cells duplicate and divides it is unclear whether we should count each new cell as a new single-cell-subject, or as part of a unified morula or blastocyst subject. On the one hand, even at this very early stage the cells act in a unified and structured way, each developing into different kinds of cell and serving specific purposes. As outlined above, we do not yet fully understand how cells coordinate with each other to do this. On the other hand, I am inclined to speculate that the integration of experience relies on neurogenesis and the specific role of the nervous system in unifying experience across different parts of the body and brain to form a unified first-person perspective. It could be, however, that some partially unified and basic form of experience exists through various changes of development, from zygote to embryo, but that the quality of this consciousness is not more than the single-cell zygote, for the more complex features of consciousness correlate to neural connectivity. This notion of souls resulting from combination or being unified together from parts of the human being might sound strange, but it is not totally unheard of in the Christian tradition. Gregory of Nyssa writes, with regard to the nutritive, sensible and rational soul that “one should think of man’s nature to be a sort of conglomeration of several souls”, which together naturally form one single soul (Gregory 1893, XIV.2).

Around day eight to ten the blastocyst implants into the endometrial layer of the mother’s uterus. The trophoblast cells continue to divide into more specialised cell types; a villous cytotrophoblast cell that is the precursor to syncytiotrophoblast cells, and extravillous cytotrophoblast cells that are the precursor to the invasive trophoblast cells (Handwerger 2009, 94-104). Syncytiotrophoblast cells form the outer epithelial layer of the chorionic villi. The chorionic villi are the main functional units of the placenta, where fetal blood is separated from maternal blood by only a three or four cell layers (known as the placental membrane), thereby allowing the majority of fetal/maternal exchange to occur. The placenta transfers oxygen and nutrients from the mother to the child, and removes waste and carbon dioxide, it protects the fetus from infections, and releases hormones into both the material and fetal circulations.

Implantation raises another interesting question of the relationship of the embryo’s soul (or souls if not unified) to the mother’s soul as a result of implantation. Implantation requires constant communication between the conceptus (future child) and maternal tissues. Although a few (stem) cells seem to be shared and can persist in the bodies of the mother and child for many years, the foetal system and the maternal system remain separate by the placenta membrane (contra to Aristotle, not sharing blood). On balance, therefore, it makes sense to say that there may be some minimal integration and phenomenal unity between mother and foetus such that we can consider them as independent subjects most of the time but are also justified in considering them a single unified subject for a few purposes.

Some cells from the placenta develop into the amniotic sac around the embryoblast cells. When the formation of the amniotic sac is complete around day 10 to 12, the blastocyst is considered an embryo. At this point, with the embryo within the amniotic sac, and partially under the lining of the uterus, the major organs and external body structures start to develop. Whilst a heartbeat can be heard around week 6-8, development continues throughout the lifespan of the human organism. Continuous and gradual development makes it very difficult to posit any single definite stage when soul combination (or soul creation for creationists) occurs.

If we want to associate the soul not just with animation and whole-body processes, but more particularly with consciousness, then one might choose to focus on neurogenesis, or the development of the neural network. Human brain development begins in the third week after fertilization (with the differentiation of neural progenitor cells and the formation of the neural tube) and continues post-birth into (at least) late adolescence. Neuron production, which are the central information processing cells of the brain, starts around week six and completes by mid-gestation, at which point rudimentary neural networks and the various structural parts of the brain are complete. By the second trimester, fMRI scans make it possible to pick out significant structural similarities between the neural network of the fetus’ brain and that of a human adult. Given the brains importance for consciousness, and the high level of integrated information achieved in neural networks, it seems like that neurology (stretch out to the whole bodies nervous system) is a key means by which conscious parts (cells) combine to form the conscious whole of the human soul.

4. Conclusion

This essay has considered how contemporary embryology might help traducianists elucidate a theory of soul inheritance. Two main conclusions can be drawn from this investigation. The first is that before the rise of mechanistic philosophy, embryology and questions of the soul were considered as a single area of enquiry. I see no reason why these two fields cannot be reunited. One way for such a reunion to take place is through the recovery of the idea that souls (consciousness) is found in different degrees throughout nature, as the internal quiddity of all matter. The second conclusion is that embryology can elucidate, although not at this point fully explain, a traducianist account of the inheritance of the soul. A traducianist views the inheritance of matter through gametes and fertilization to include the passing on of soul-stuff from parents to offspring. The development, differentiation and growth of the zygote into an embryo, fetus and child is, therefore, also a story of how these soul-stuffs become unified structures allowing for more complex forms of life and consciousness to exist. This is broadly in line with the historic traducianist picture of soul developing through nutritive, sensible, and rational forms. Since the soul is not reducible to matter (or to the causal-structural description of physics), we should not expect embryology to ever fully or sufficiently explain the inheritance of the soul. There will always be a place for metaphysics and theology in such an account. However, since the traducianist posits such a close relationship between soul and the body the metaphysician and theologian are committed to making sure their story of soul inheritance is fully in line with the picture given to us by developmental biology.


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Leidenhag, Joanna. 2022. “Does Embryology Elucidate a Traducianist View of the Origin of the Soul?” Theological Puzzles (Issue 6). 

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