Article translated by Dr David Heaf.
I. Gene technology in the field of medicine
II. The significance of heredity for human beings
From a spiritual point of view, what is it that actually carries the genes?
When asking "What significance does what is usually referred to as 'heredity' have for the spiritual development of mankind?" we must be clear when we are talking about gene technology that it is a matter of the material carrier of inheritance which is being manipulated by technology. So what significance does heredity have for the development of the human being so far as the medical field is concerned? The main medical application is the prediction of processes, of predispositions to illness. There are two important research areas of which the first is prenatal diagnostics.
By using prenatal diagnosis one is in a position even in early pregnancy to determine the state of the chromosomes in the developing child. A fine needle is inserted into the amniotic fluid and a quantity is withdrawn along with some of the embryo's cells. These cells are then cultured to increase their number until sufficient cells are available for carrying out the diagnostic tests.
First a check is made for major structural changes in the chromosomes. Is there a full complement of chromosomes present? Are there too many or too few? Which chromosomes are present in increased numbers? In this way it can be determined whether 46, 47 or only 45 chromosomes are present. In trisomy 21 there are three instead of two chromosomes of type 21 present. From this it can be concluded that there is a higher probability of developing the symptoms of mongolism or Down's syndrome. But it must be emphasised that such predictions have their limits. These stem from the difficulty of forecasting the severity of the symptoms which eventually emerge, that is assuming we want to call them symptoms. For instance, trisomy 21 can manifest as the full symptoms of Down's syndrome with the severest debilitation and yet children can be born with it who during their lives complete a normal psychomotor development and who have only a single organ malformation. And there are all sorts of variations in between.
So it really is impossible to say in advance how severely the illness will manifest.
There are other genetic disorders which allow better prediction of the disposition to illness, yet the severity of their manifestation is also not entirely predictable.
The fine structure of the genes, their chemical make-up, can be investigated. Thus not only can the chromosomes be examined by light microscopy but also the base sequences of the chromosomes can be chemically analyzed and from this it can be determined whether a chromosome carries certain disease processes. This is used where inherited disorders are already present, for instance in Huntington's chorea, muscular dystrophy or haemophilia. Sequencing tells us that there are genetic changes on certain chromosomes. If, for instance, the mother of a child is a carrier, i.e. can pass on haemophilia without suffering it herself, she can go to her doctor and ask whether her child is healthy or has the blood disease. Genetic counselling has the job of giving information about this.
Genetic prediction of disposition to disease
But there is much more. The human genome (HUGO) project involves making a database of the circa 100,000 genes which should greatly increase the power to forecast potential human developmental characteristics.
This could also extend the prediction of predisposition to diseases such as diabetes, rheumatism and even to areas such as delinquency; a tendency to suffer from schizophrenia etc. One can imagine what social consequences it would have if we could really make predictions like this. Such predictions are already used in the United States to calculate insurance risks and can also be used in assessing a person's suitability for employment. Someone applying to a chemical company which handles carcinogenic substances can be required by the prospective employer to undergo genetic testing to see if they carry genes which predispose to cancer. This development affects employment prospects.
Both areas of human genetics are important in gene technology: prenatal diagnostics and the ability to obtain a genetic "fingerprint" of a person and predict with a certain degree of probability that particular characteristics will arise in the course of a person's life - with all the social consequences this has, for instance for the life of Down's syndrome children (1).
Manufacture of medicines
Gene technology is also used in the manufacture of medicines from microorganisms. There are several hormones essential for life in the human body which are not produced in certain kinds of illness. Insulin is the best known example. Erythropoetin is another. This is formed in the tubular-epithelial cells of the kidneys. It is essential for the production of red blood corpuscles in the bone marrow and individuals with too little erythropoetin become anaemic through forming too few of these. There are many patients who must be on artificial kidney dialysis to purify their blood and whose kidneys, because of excessive damage, cannot make this hormone. In the past, they suffered from severe anaemia and had to receive blood transfusions because their erythropoetin production was insufficient. But now we are able to administer erythropoetin. It is still expensive but it will become cheaper as the production methods improve. One has to admit that this source of erythropoetin is a great blessing for these patients because it means a dramatic improvement in their quality of life.
Manipulation of cells in the human body
Another area, which has a big future, is direct modification of the genes in the cells of the body. It is now possible to remove body cells, manipulate them genetically by inserting, with the help of so called vectors, selected DNA segments from human body cells into the cell nucleus. These are allowed to multiply in culture and then replaced in the body. Cells such as white blood cells introduced in this way are able to form certain antibodies, proteins of the immune system, which they were hitherto unable to do because of some genetic defect. This experiment was tried on a young girl in the United States who had only two years to live. The result is as yet unknown.
Gene technology is now used in immunological research, for instance in combatting cancer. There are various views as to the causes of cancers, and this is reflected in the treatments. In cases of cancer, there has been a growing interest in giving greater attention to the factors at work in the surroundings. This means looking not at the cancer site itself for a cause but in the interactions between the immune defence system and the whole organism. Special cells are involved in immune defence. There is interest in seeing if it is possible to manipulate these cells in such a way that they attack tumour tissue directly without damaging other living tissues. This application has not yet reached medical practice but it is being researched intensively.
In vitro fertilisation
Extrauterine ("test tube") fertilisation has drawn a lot of attention to gene technology although they are not directly connected. We are talking about a fertilisation process which should really take place in the protective environment of the organism, but instead is exposed in the test-tube to the strong influence of earthly forces. After the process is set in motion, the fertilised cell is re-implanted. This opens up two further possibilities for manipulation, namely cloning human embryos and one day being able to alter their genetic material. This is still forbidden by law in Europe but it is conceivable that this will be circumvented by carrying out the research in other countries where there is no law protecting embryos.
As doctors we finds ourselves in a certain sense in a schizophrenic situation. We can imagine a scenario in which we are approached by the close relatives of a patient with a severe disease, at the same time knowing full well that we can only help the patient with a medicine produced by genetic engineering. We are then faced with a very difficult decision.
As practitioners of anthroposophical medicine it can be clear to us that such medicines or treatments do not help the patient to find the karmic counterbalance called for by the illness called for by the illness. We must nevertheless as doctors accept that in many cases we must opt for the use of such medicines in reducing suffering or maintaining life.
Over and over again we are thus faced with conflicting choices because the use of modern technology in medicine takes place in the knowledge that therapeutic treatment is given which might go right against human spiritual development. Yet on humanitarian grounds it must be used. The first duty of a doctor is to lessen suffering.
Does heredity play an important part in the spiritual and biographical development of the human being? We can ask a second question connected with this: of what significance is the illness and healing process for the spiritual development of the human being and for the unfolding of his biography? We shall look at the first question in relation to childhood development. There we find many examples of inherited behaviour patterns, inherited reflex complexes being transformed by imitation. When a child is born it has its early childhood reflexes, its inherited reflex patterns ("motor reflexes"). In the course of time they are changed and repressed. The child learns through imitation to internalise certain movement patterns in its environment in such a way that it becomes able to act according to these patterns. The inherited motor reflexes are overcome to the extent that the movement patterns are assimilated, internalised and repeated imitatively. This brings about brain development and the development of cerebral structures. But the child does not stop at this. It does not just imitate movement, thereby overcoming inherited movement patterns, rather, at the same time, through the development of imitative behaviour, a new faculty unfolds, namely that movement becomes increasingly an expression of the child's own individuality.
Thus imitative movement becomes transformed into "individualised movement". For instance, through its facial expression and gestures the child takes on the mould not only of its environment but also an expression of what it has developed out of its inner being.
With the imitation process, which is at the same time an internalising and individualising process, something that is laid down in the human genes can be so repressed that other activities such as walking, talking and thinking can unfold. Their developmental laws are not embedded in the genes. This needs to be expressly emphasised, because nobody would be able to walk speak and think if they did not have other people around them. In human beings these faculties are only acquired through social contact with others. Children brought up without human contact cannot develop these faculties. With the animal kingdom the situation is different.
We must also discriminate between imitation and conditioning or mere reflection. In curative education we come across a certain group of children, so called autistics, who have a tendency to copy the movements of others exactly. It is a kind of process of reflection. There is no individualisation, no real internalisation. They are incredibly good mimics of bird calls. Their condition demonstrates a disturbance in imitative behaviour.
Imitation involves a twofold process. On the one hand movement patterns are internalised and on the other hand contact with the environment, with the mother and father, is developed in such a way that not only are movements copied but they become so united with the soul-spiritual essence of the other person that the morality which expresses itself in this speaking and doing is absorbed and internalised. The child's soul in uniting with the soul-spiritual of another person is engaged in a morally formative process. Through imitation the child gradually represses its own forces of heredity and transforms them.
Rudolf Steiner indicated that especially in the first seven years the possibility of individuality arises, of changing and overcoming the forces of heredity to some extent (2). These forces offer resistance to those of individualisation. A kind of battle goes on. When the soul-spiritual element unites with the embryo during its development and comes up against the forces of inheritance which are foreign to its nature an intense struggle takes place between the forces of the individual and those of heredity. The strength of the forces of the individual determines whether the child will be able to change its physical appearance, its gestures and its physiognomy around the 7th, 8th or 9th year in such a way that they become increasingly unlike the corresponding characteristics of its parents. A metamorphosis occurs and through it one can see how strongly the individuality of a child develops. It happens to differing degrees. This says nothing about how clever a person is. There are highly gifted people who can transform the forces of heredity only weakly. Nowadays more and more people are developing the faculty of being able to penetrate their genes with the forces of their individuality to the extent that they become increasingly different in stature, constitution, physiognomy, gestures and facial expression from their parents.
But in curative education one sees exactly the opposite. Many children around the age of 15 to 17 are almost exact copies of their parents because they do not have the forces needed to overcome their inheritance or to individualise what is available for them to imitate.
Childhood illness is another area where individual and hereditary forces manifest a struggle. Rudolf Steiner indicated that childhood illnesses offer the possibility, through fevers and other phenomena, of working with one's own bodily organism in such a way that the forces of heredity are overcome.
The relationship between individual and heredity forces is expressed in the concept in genetics of "penetrance" or "expressivity". In using these terms people acknowledge that certain genes can express themselves very strongly in some cases or only very slightly in others. This distinction between phenotype and genotype, or between phenomenon and genetic make up, raises the question of the extent or intensity to which the genes bring about the external appearance. It is this intensity which is referred to as penetrance or expressivity. It is dependent on the forces of individualisation. So when certain forces of heredity are present and encounter very strong forces of individualisation, the I (self) is in a position extensively to transform the forces of inheritance. In such a case what is there in the genes expresses itself only very weakly. And in the opposite situation the genes express themselves much more strongly.
From a spiritual point of view, what is it that actually carries the genes?
Here we must consider something other than the genes or the substance of the DNA on the material plane which Rudolf Steiner termed the "physically inherited model body" (Modelleib) (3). This is the physical body which is like a model and originates from the stream of inheritance. It is similar to a template on which the higher members of the human being can build up and renew the entire body. Are the forces of the individual so strong that they can change parts of the model body or are they so weak that until the 7th to 9th year they shape the physical body into a true copy of the inherited bodily model? For the second seven years of life Rudolf Steiner referred to the so called 'body of the human personality'. This is a physical body which more or less exhibits the gestures, physical shape and physiognomy of the forces of the actual individuality.
Work on changing the forces of physical inheritance takes place mainly in childhood, though even as adults we have the possibility of dealing in our personal development with transforming the burden of inheritance. However, we should not underestimate this burden even for adults.
What in essence is the physical body?
The physical body can on the one hand be regarded as simply a form or shape and on the other as a material object. But in the old religions and mysteries there was yet another way of regarding it. They spoke of the physical body as the true temple of God. With this they meant that if the physical body and its formation is spiritually properly understood then it is also conceived as being built according to the order prevailing in a state. From knowledge of the physical body as a spiritual entity people tried to deduce its laws which then flowed into forming the social order. There is a whole series of symbols for this temple status which is intended as an expression of the physical body such as Solomon's Temple or Noah's Ark. The religious leaders in these cultures placed pictures before humanity which were intended as a revelation of the spiritual origins of the physical body.
How is this physical body formed as a spiritual body? In a certain sense it is a "Word body". It is based on formative forces which obtain from the sphere which, in a more abstract sense, we are familiar with as speech. The forces which are in certain sounds like the letter 'I' or the letter 'O' imprint themselves in quite specific formative gestures on our bodily form. Eurythmy attempts to make these gestures visible. Take for instance the 'E' gesture made by crossing the arms. This cross is also present anatomically as the crossing over of the nerves of vision, in the hands when we clasp them together and in the nerve fibres of the spine. These E-forms in our body are correlates of soul functions which express themselves in the speech-organisation of the body. We find the I-gesture in the uprightness of backbone, the O-gesture in the enclosing form of the ribs and chest. It is not difficult to demonstrate that our skeletal system is built up according to musical intervals and that our body is proportioned on the golden section. God geometrises, moulds, makes music and speaks when he shapes the human body (4). That was the content of the old mysteries. And if we engage in artistic activity nowadays, we set free from our bodies what formed them during embryonic development. The musical intervals inherent in the proportions of the skeleton are set free and release the consciousness and the creative use of music. It allows us to make music, to model, to shape forms as well as to speak freely.
Where does the physical body come from?
Anthroposophy points to a very early phase of human evolution, namely Old Saturn. Beings who had placed their warmth-substance as will-substance at its disposal, participated in the building of the physical body. In this way it was possible to form the physical germ of the body. The physical organism then passed through various stages of Earth evolution. Here I shall focus on the stage of the Earth's evolution called Lemuria (5). This stage crops up frequently in religious mythology, for instance in the Old Testament as the Fall of Man. The earth was of quite a different make up at that time. The dead mineral kingdom was not in its present form, but the Earth gradually evolved the aeriform, watery and solid states out of a kind of condition of warmth. In Lemurian times there existed a state between the fluid and the solid. Then came a densification into a horn-like state, a bit like our fingernails. An event took place during these times involving the separation of the Moon from the Earth. The departure of the Moon allowed not only a softening of the horn-like but also a densification of substance to the mineral-solid condition. These substances were not only external in the natural surroundings but they were also components of the human being, to the extent, for instance, that they were laid down in the skeletal system. This is comparable with embryonic development. First of all the embryo is gelatinous and the bones gradually crystallise out from the head via the mid-line to the periphery. Calcareous substances precipitate out of the bloodstream into the mineral state. The minerals have developed out of the living and not the living out of the minerals which is the prevailing view of contemporary science. The mineral realm is formed as a dead product of the living like a mollusc shell or the coal formation of the coal seams. This mineralisation process has had its effects on man. One is that the soul-spiritual organisation of human beings is connected with their bodily organisation on Earth, in such a way that a kind of severance from spirit or cosmic consciousness, a spiritual death process can take place. A consciousness of birth and death arose involving an extinguishing of awareness of the spirit world.
Another event at this time was the separation of the sexes. Here animal and human heredity originated. Only when individuals of two different sexes unite can on the one hand individuality arise - i.e. the daughters and sons are different from the parents - and on the other hand the passing on of certain genes come about. In those times the genes were not as degenerate as they are today, but they were an expression of cosmic forces. People saw to it that in the subsequent generations of cultural evolution the 'blood' in the sense of heredity was kept pure. Indeed, the Jewish peoples have a deep knowledge of the forces of heredity for instance the fact that the forces of heredity pass more strongly from the first to the third generation than they do from the first to the second. The descendants frequently bear the name of their grandfather. On the other hand they know that belonging to the Jewish peoples is attributable above all to the forces of inheritance of the mother. In the twelve tribes of Israel, which at the same time were hereditary lineages, cosmic archetypal powers were passed on which can be traced to the zodiac, for instance as Judah, the Lion. They enabled the people who were born into them to perceive their particular cultural tasks, for example, priestly service. In this way the spiritual tasks were to a large extent concealed in heredity.
Cosmologically this was connected with the fact that the departure of the Moon from the Earth left part of the Moon still connected with the Earth and this had the task of continuing to work in the stream of inheritance. The Moon forces had the job of reflecting the cosmic forces of the zodiac and of working into the stream of inheritance of mankind on the physical Earth.
The effects of the forces of heredity and of the faculty for spiritualisation
In considering the four members of man's being; the physical body, the etheric body, the astral body - the bearer of the soul forces - and the ego, the following distinctions can be discerned. Firstly there emerges a force at work from the physical body which binds the life and soul processes to the physical. It is above all the forces of heredity which do this. At the same time in cases of genetic disorders the I-organisation (ego organisation) is too loosely integrated and it is unable sufficiently to attach itself to the other members of the person's being (6). This means that to some extent the I is no longer able to take hold of the other members. This is a similar situation to the relationships of the different members which prevails in the animal kingdom where the force of the I has to work inwardly from outside as the group souls of the animals. People with inherited disease have an abnormal embodiment of the soul or an excessively strong manifestation of the soul and of life processes determined by material forces.
On the other hand a person can connect his I too strongly to the soul and life processes so that the physical body remains unchanged. Thus there are some who think that they do not have to pay any attention whatsoever to their genes, that they would rather only develop spiritually. They cut themselves off from anything material, turn away from the world of the senses, reduce their food intake through fasting in order extensively to close off their physical body as a bridge to the outside world. Others have too great a tendency to get deeply bound up with their physical body and its material processes. It is the express task of the human being to create the balance between the spiritual and the physical. Only in this way can mankind progress its spiritual evolution. This is evidenced by the struggle between the forces of heredity and those of imitation which goes on in the first seven years of a child's life.
Intuition is a future stage of the evolution of human consciousness which will arise inter alia through the coming into existence of the capacity for morally-creative thinking. This ability will be gradually developed and is in progress at the present time. It is a faculty which enables a person to rest lovingly in the being of another person, so that the being of the other speaks from within him. Modern psychology calls this empathy, the first echoes of intuition. One becomes united with the other being and their inner life. In returning to oneself the experience arises of what this uniting of beings produces inwardly by way of reactions in the feeling and will life through the creation of "after images". Pure sense-free thinking, as Rudolf Steiner described in his Philosophy of Freedom, as well as loving devotion to the other person (unity of beings in empathy) are the two most important sources of intuition in our time.
How do the forces of intuition take effect?
They strengthen the human spirit so that through the etheric body it can transform and enliven the human physical body (7). This enables the spiritualisation of the physical body in a balanced way between spirit and matter. The child partially completes this in its first seven years of life. Many faculties we develop as children are in a certain sense lost when we become adults. Our power of judgement develops, our experiences become more selective. We begin to assign more importance to our own soul life than to our environment. Even so the transformation in the first seven years is the preparation for the development of higher faculties such as the free moral creativity of the epoch of the consciousness soul.
This is exemplified by a case of an autistic adult who could copy movements very well and could also speak but who was unable to develop independent morality. He always asked others how he should behave. He saw his morality only as a reflection of the surroundings. The transformation of the forces of heredity during the first seven years which enables the individuality in physical embodiment to attain its own morality which can be realised in the love for another person. As regards test-tube children one might wonder to what extent they have the ability to develop their own morality and whether people born after artificial fertilisation can transform their genetic material in the right way and develop a corresponding morality.
The resistance due to the forces of heredity
As human beings we must strenuously oppose the forces of heredity. Therein lies the possibility of unfolding from within ourselves capacities such as love, intuition, independent morality and virtuousness. Rudolf Steiner spoke of the evolution of the consciousness soul as the product of the transformation of the physical body through the I (7). Is the physical body with its forces of inertia still sufficiently open to the possibility of the individuality being able to work with it in further spiritual development? Or is it, through material forces, so hardened and densified by the influence of the genetic material that it is no longer able to work into the physical body, the body of the Word, of the senses, of morality? If this is the case the person is cut off from any possibility of developing freedom.
With this we come to a particular aspect of our engagement with gene technology. It offers the practical possibility of the human individuality being able to escape from its physical body, to become estranged. With this would be lost the opportunity for the human being to develop its consciousness soul and thereby freedom.
The genetic world view and its influence
The world view characteristic of genetic engineering and genetics research also has an effect on our slow development towards becoming free human beings. A person with a free disposition in thinking about the world is able to decide whether it appears to offer any possibility for freedom. But if we think of ourselves as merely highly developed animals we rob ourselves of the possibility of developing as human beings. The freedom of the human being lies in becoming what he himself thinks. The influence of genetics and gene technology in this respect is not to be underestimated. A particular world view is conveyed by it that interprets the scientific facts. But they could be interpreted differently. Science must be conducted with a capacity for moral discrimination. We have to chose one way of thinking about something or another. This choice has an influence on social realities in the future, on that which will one day come into existence through human beings.
Alternatives to gene technology
In contrast to the kind of intervention that genetics has in view for the human body, anthroposophical medicine has alternatives which are conceived quite differently; namely, strengthening the spirit being of the patient gradually so that they become able to transform the forces of heredity themselves. Homeopathic therapy in anthroposophical medicine is part of this. It is often ignored because it works very slowly, yet it is possible to strengthen the I in its dealing with the spiritual aspect of a mineral medicine in such a way that the transforming of substances can work right into the forces of heredity. These complementary therapies are only just beginning. They need further development, both spiritually and practically.
1. J. Denger (Hrsg.): Plädoyer für das Leben mongoloider Kinder. Stuttgart 1990.
2. R. Steiner: Heilpädagogischer Kurs. 1. Vortrag GA 317 Pastoral-medizinischer Kurs. 4. Vortrag GA 318.
3. R. Steiner: Heilpädagogischer Kurs, 1. Vortrag.
4. A.J. Husemann: Der musikalische Bau des Menschen. Stuttgart.
5. Steiner, R. (1910) Die Geheimwissenschaft im Umriss. GA 13. Rudold Steiner Verlag, Dornach, 1989. Translated by George and Mary Adams as 'Occult Science: An Outline'. 1963. Rudolf Steiner Press, London. Chapter IV "Man and the evolution of the world."
6. Steiner, R. (1923) Mysteriengestaltungen. 14 lectures, Dornach, 23rd November - 23rd December. GA232. Rudolf Steiner Verlag, Dornach. Translated by E. H. Goddard and D. S. Osmond as 'Mystery knowledge and mystery centres'. Pubs:Rudolf Steiner Press, London 1973.
7. Steiner, R. (1909) Knowledge of the Higher Worlds - How is it achieved?, Trans. D. S. Osmond & C. Davy, Rudolf Steiner Press, 1993.
This article was taken from the book "Gentechnik: Was verursacht der Mensch durch den Griff in die Erbanlagen?" published by Arbeitskreis für Ernährungsforschung, Zwerweg 19, 75378 Bad Liebenzell, Germany (1994, ISBN 3-922290-24-8, Price DM 18,00), pages 56-71. It was translated from the German with the author's and publisher's permission by David J. Heaf in 1997 and first published in English on the Ifgene web site in the same year.
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