Scientific and legal data

In the sci­en­tif­ic world, we are used to think­ing psy­chic states from their bio­log­i­cal roots, some­times even to reduce them to biol­o­gy. But biol­o­gists have also been study­ing, for about twen­ty years, the influ­ence of the psy­che on bio­log­i­cal reactions.

Sci­en­tif­ic dis­cov­er­ies in the field of epigenetics[1] show that some genes are inhib­it­ed while oth­ers express them­selves strong­ly, depend­ing on the bio­log­i­cal envi­ron­ment (in par­tic­u­lar the dis­tri­b­u­tion of genes in the genome) and the envi­ron­ment of the psy­che, i.e. the behav­iour of liv­ing beings them­selves. For human beings, it is empha­sized that nutri­tion, phys­i­cal exer­cise, stress man­age­ment, plea­sure and social net­work can inter­vene on the mech­a­nisms of epi­ge­n­e­sis. This attests that the two fields of the bio­log­i­cal and the psy­chic are in per­ma­nent rec­i­p­ro­cal rela­tion (it is impor­tant for the GPA!). Sim­i­lar­ly, psy­cho-neu­roim­munol­o­gy stud­ies the impact of psy­cho­log­i­cal events on the immune sys­tem. Hence the words of sci­en­tist Joël de Ros­nay: “Who would have thought, bare­ly ten years ago, that the func­tion­ing of the body depend­ed not only on the “DNA pro­gram”, but on the way we con­duct our dai­ly lives?

Epi­ge­net­ics also opens new hori­zons: what humans will genet­i­cal­ly trans­mit to their descen­dants could be the fruit, in part, of their own behaviour!

Cur­rent stud­ies on brain plas­tic­i­ty also point to a close link between the func­tions of the liv­ing and the lived. The orga­ni­za­tion of neur­al net­works plays on the expe­ri­ence but, in return, it changes accord­ing to the indi­vid­u­al’s expe­ri­ences. An abil­i­ty of the brain to reshape con­nec­tions between neu­rons by the for­ma­tion or dis­ap­pear­ance of synaps­es. Thus, exer­cis­ing or re-edu­cat­ing one’s brain capac­i­ties (train­ing-learn­ing, there­fore psy­che) plays on the biol­o­gy of the brain itself. The same goes for the reg­u­lar prac­tice of med­i­ta­tion which involves the spir­i­tu­al part of the human being.

If the bio­log­i­cal influ­ences the lived, as we have been say­ing for a long time, the lived influ­ences the bio­log­i­cal! So, what the psy­chol­o­gist usu­al­ly says, the biol­o­gist has only recent­ly shown!

The problems this poses

A significant paradox between biotechnologists and biologists

Biotech­nol­o­gists mod­i­fy liv­ing organ­isms by striv­ing to sim­pli­fy them in order to bet­ter recon­struct, con­trol and use them for cer­tain pur­pos­es. They are look­ing to improve its basic func­tion­al­i­ties or add oth­ers (see the Biotech­nol­o­gy fact sheet). This reduc­tion from liv­ing to select­ed func­tion­al­i­ties aims to get the max­i­mum pro­duc­tiv­i­ty from the “liv­ing machine”. Besides the eth­i­cal ques­tions that this rais­es, in par­tic­u­lar that of “util­i­tar­i­an­ism”, can this sim­pli­fied liv­ing cor­re­spond to a real improve­ment of the nat­ur­al liv­ing? Indeed, para­dox­i­cal­ly, the biol­o­gist dis­cov­ers more and more that the liv­ing is com­plex: its evo­lu­tion is influ­enced by the envi­ron­ment which affects even the expres­sion of its genes; it belongs to ecosys­tems which mod­i­fy it; it is plas­tic and can thus adapt, evolve, in short “liv­ing being”!

Thus, at a time when biol­o­gy seems to be emerg­ing from too strict a func­tion­al­ism, it is now the turn of biotech­nolo­gies to risk lock­ing itself in. This is essen­tial in order to respond with objec­tiv­i­ty and rel­e­vance to the tech­ni­cal and eth­i­cal chal­lenges of the use of human techno­sciences! Tak­ing care of the liv­ing” can­not be lim­it­ed to increas­ing its func­tion­al­i­ties to “per­fect the machine”. Will the tran­shu­man thus reduced to increased func­tion­al­i­ties not in fact be impov­er­ished in rela­tion to humans? Respect for humans, includ­ing by try­ing to increase their capac­i­ties, is only pos­si­ble in view of their com­plex­i­ty and the inter­pen­e­tra­tion of their bio­log­i­cal, psy­cho­log­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al dimensions.

The “plas­tic­i­ty of life” refers to a dynam­ic ten­sion between “robust­ness and vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty”, rigid­i­ty and mal­leabil­i­ty, invari­ance and trans­for­ma­tion, and, more broad­ly, between invari­ance and his­toric­i­ty. It is a nec­es­sary and cru­cial con­di­tion for liv­ing organ­isms to evolve, with their meta­bol­ic, repro­duc­tive, orga­ni­za­tion­al and infor­ma­tion­al char­ac­ter­is­tics. On the one hand, the robust­ness of a liv­ing organ­ism defines its abil­i­ty to main­tain itself in the face of dis­tur­bances linked to its envi­ron­ment. On the oth­er hand, it is influ­enced by this envi­ron­ment, hence its “vul­ner­a­ble” aspect, regard­less of the fragili­ty linked to a dis­ease or a dis­abil­i­ty. Thus the “invul­ner­a­ble cyborg[2]”, called of their wish­es by cer­tain tran­shu­man­ists, los­es its capac­i­ty of adap­ta­tion by los­ing the “vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty” nec­es­sary to all liv­ing to evolve. For human beings, this vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty is linked to the biol­o­gy-psy­chism-spir­i­tu­al inter­ac­tions in their ecosys­tems. Respect­ing it and tak­ing care of it there­fore con­sist in pro­mot­ing robust­ness-vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty bal­ance by allow­ing body-psy­chism-mind har­mo­ny in their envi­ron­ments. It is there­fore appro­pri­ate to con­sid­er an eth­ic in which the vul­ner­a­ble human being is the cornerstone.

Anthropological and ethical visions

This look of the mod­ern biol­o­gist joins cer­tain tra­di­tions of Chris­t­ian anthro­pol­o­gy, from Saints Paul, Ire­naeus, Ephrem, Max­imus the Con­fes­sor, and both Rhen­ish and Ori­en­tal mys­tics, who explain the uni­ty of man “body-soul-mind”. Saint Paul writes: “May the God of peace him­self sanc­ti­fy you whole; may your spir­it, your soul and your body be kept whole with­out reproach for the com­ing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Thess 5:23). Saint Ire­naeus, in the 2nd cen­tu­ry, com­ments: “The flesh mod­elled (shaped by God, the Cre­ator) alone is not the per­fect man, it is only the body of man, there­fore a part of man. The soul alone is no more the man, it is only the soul of man, there­fore a part of man. Nor is the spir­it the man, it is called the spir­it, not the man. It is the mix­ture and union of all these things that con­sti­tute the per­fect man” (Adver­sus haere­ses, V, 6, 1). It is a mat­ter of dis­tin­guish­ing body-soul-mind but in a inter­pen­e­tra­tion of these three dimen­sions. So the body does not reduce itself to bio­log­i­cal, it thinks and feels. Sim­i­lar­ly, the soul which cov­ers a prin­ci­ple of orga­ni­za­tion, ani­ma­tion and uni­ty uni­fies the metab­o­lisms, emo­tions and thoughts of the body. And the spir­it appears as the “fine point of the soul”, where the Spir­it of God speaks to man in his body and soul, as “being global”[3].

This com­par­i­son of today’s biol­o­gy with this anthro­po­log­i­cal tra­di­tion indi­cates that one of the impor­tant eth­i­cal cri­te­ria for tak­ing into account the impact of the use of biotech­nolo­gies on human beings will be that of respect­ing and pro­mot­ing the uni­ty of the cor­po­re­al, the psy­chic and the spir­i­tu­al in their ecosys­tems. One could thus ask one­self the ques­tion of the impact of such or such tech­no­log­i­cal inter­ven­tion in terms of har­mo­ny or dishar­mo­ny between these three dimen­sions, in order to favour the pow­er of being oneself.


Tost, Epi­ge­net­ics, Cast­er Aca­d­e­m­ic Press, 2008.
Mor­ange, “L’épigéné­tique”, Études, n° 4210, Novem­ber 2014, p. 45.
de Mon­tera, “Epi­ge­net­ic hered­i­ty: a par­a­digm shift? “Berg­son or Sci­ence, Philo­soph­i­cal Impli­ca­tions, 2014, pp. 27–49.
Lam­bertet R. Rezsö­hazy, Com­ment les pattes vien­nent au ser­pent : essai sur l’é­ton­nante plas­tic­ité du vivant, Flam­mar­i­on, 2004.
Magnin, Penser l’hu­main au temps de l’homme aug­men­té, Albin Michel, 2017, ch. 4.
by Ros­nay and Fab­rice Papil­lon, Et l’homme créa la vie, LLL, 2010.
J.-M. Besnier, L’homme sim­pli­fié. Star Touch Syn­drome, Fayard, 2012.

Feb­ru­ary 2, 2018


[1]  Par la géné­tique, on étudie le génome et son envi­ron­nement biologique. Cet envi­ron­nement a une telle influ­ence sur l’expression des gènes (et non sur leur struc­ture interne) qu’il mérite d’être étudié pour lui-même : c’est l’épigénétique.

[2] Fusion homme-machine, ce qui est encore plus que l’hybridation homme-machine.

[3] Voir Con­gré­ga­tion pour la doc­trine de la foi, Instruc­tion Don­um Vitae, 22 févri­er 1987, intro­duc­tion, 3, qui par­le de « total­ité unifiée » pour évo­quer la per­son­ne humaine.