The Seed of the Woman: Arthur Custance's Proposal for the Transmittance of Original Sin

The Seed of the Woman is a book by Canadian gap creationist and physiologist Arthur Custance which was recommended to me when I was discussing about the historical Adam with some more theologically traditional-minded people. The question I was thinking is how traditionalists think the sinful nature from original sin is inherited from Adam and Eve to their descendants, given what we know about biology. The whole book is online here, but the relevant chapter is chapter 18. Regardless of the merit of his ideas, I don’t think I’ve come across anyone who wrote with so much detail on a theory of how original sin is propagated.

Custance’s proposal is basically that original is only passed through the male sperm. As part of his argument, he goes into a detailed explanation of reproduction. I don’t have any background at all in this area so I don’t fully understand what he’s saying, but the basis of his argument is the claim that in contrast to male sperm, the female ovum is in a sense “immortal”:

When any attempt is made artificially to promote self-replication and further development of a single spermatozoon, the results are negative. The sperm are not viable for more than a few days unless fused with the ovum. But when the female ovum is treated suitably (at least in the animal world below man), it may develop into a mature organism. It is capable, therefore, of replicating itself indefinitely, even in the absence of fusion with a spermatozoon. When this is observed in nature it is referred to as parthenogenesis, meaning essentially virgin conception leading to virgin birth. The fact of parthenogenesis is clearly established for the female seed: (195) the same cannot be said to have been observed for the male seed.

The ovum is, in fact, a unicellular organism. And by virtue of its ability to replicate itself indefinitely under appropriate conditions, it must be assumed to have retained the same kind of physical immortality which other unicellular organisms (like amoeba or paramecia, for example) still enjoy. By contrast, although the individual spermatozoon has all the appearance of a highly active and extremely complex unicellular organism, it does not have the power to replicate itself, and therefore does not enjoy a like physical immortality. It does not behave like a unicellular organism.

It is therefore clear that these germ cells constitute a very slender thread in the continuity of immortality, for the initial cell (the fertilized ovum) retains its own identity for between two and five doublings (depending upon the species) before differentiated cells begin to appear which can no longer be considered as part of the original germ plasm. These few pure germ cells will continue to replicate themselves in isolation, though at a much slower rate, but for a short interval of time the stream of immortality is entrusted to a tiny handful of cells.

Again, I would modify this statement slightly by noting that it is really the sex cells in the female line that are “the only physically immortal things.” The statement does, however, show how widely it is recognized that at the very root of our individual existence there is an immortal constituent, the seed of the woman.

Thus, when Adam and Eve sinned, Adam’s sperm (but not Eve’s eggs) was corrupted in some way, such that mortality would be passed on to all of his offspring. However, this also explains why Jesus was without original sin: because he did not have a biological human father.

But if the seed of the woman could be activated without fertilization by the seed of man, it must be supposed that the result would be the emergence of an individual escaping the mortogenic factor which Adam bequeathed via his seed to all subsequent generations. Such an offspring would recover in his person the original physical immortality with which Adam was endowed at his creation.

Custance also makes an argument for the necessity of Lamarckism in the case of original sin (since he believes Adam and Eve were created originally immortal, acquiring sinfulness only afterwards, which was then transmitted to all their descendants).

Needless to say, this is a very concordist proposal. But I am curious to see what is the opinion of people who are more informed about biology and human reproduction think about this theory. Plausible speculation? Complete pseudoscience? Something in between? (@jongarvey, I noticed you have quoted Custance before in your blog, though not this particular proposal. )

While I don’t have the knowledge to properly judge whether he’s presenting the science correctly, I am generally skeptical because 1) He doesn’t seem to talk about genetics and DNA - perhaps because this is a pretty old book from 1980, 2) Just because the ovum is “immortal” (in a sense) in isolation doesn’t automatically have any consequence for the immortality of a whole, developed human being, and 3) I’ve read many instances of creationists taking pieces of legitimate science and twisting it to support much more speculative or even straight out false conclusions, so I have to admit that I just don’t fully trust Custance on this matter.

I go for the second view. This is not biology and has nothing to do with biology. You will note that there is no suggestion of where in a sperm cell this mortality factor might lie and what, physically, could transmit it. One reason for this is that the only thing the sperm contributes to the zygote, at least that lasts for any appreciable length of time, is its genome. And of all the genome, the requirement for a sin-transmission gene would be that it occurs in all sperm but never in an egg. Unfortunately there is no such element. The Y chromosome is the only element that never occurs in an egg, but of course it is transmitted only to males. Thus there can’t possibly be anything in sperm that acts as the author requires. Of course it could be something immaterial that travels through sperm, rather in the way the soul supposedly inhabits the body, but you correctly note that the ovum’s supposed immortality is a silly conceit having nothing to do with immortality of the body.

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Oddly enough, there is such a thing in the egg: the mitochondrion. Maybe he would like to revise his ideas?

I added a word to correct this sentence. It might be hard to spot.

In humans and the vast majority of vertebrates, there are huge differences between ova and sperm, both in size and in other characteristics. In some of these vertebrates, the ovum can be induced to develop into a haploid organism. In none of these cases would a reasonable scientist call the ovum a “unicellular organism.” I doubt there is any way to harness the differences to create a defensible “theological” argument about “original sin” or anything like it, but such an argument would have to be more scientifically credible than this one. Yikes.

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Same here.

Ovum are not immortal.

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I know in other animal species, it is possible to use cells from another female to fertilise ova, in a cloning-adjacent process: under this proposal, such offspring should be immortal… or would it apply only to humans? If so, human immortality is very close indeed.

Seems to me that original sin is a spiritual concept more than a physical one. This overly literal/physical approach suggests to me that one side of each strand of Jesus’ DNA was material and the other made of divine spirit stuff.

Dan

I definitely didn’t cite Custance in connection with original sin, but only with regard to some useful anthropological observations he recorded.

I go with David in seeing original sin as spiritual, not physical. That said, seeing that we have no clear concept of how spirit interacts with body, that too is speculation.

If one wanted to go down the physical route, though, whilst neither ova nor sperm nor genes are immortal, our gene-centred focus sometimes disguises the truth that nature has passed protoplasm down in an unbroken chain from the origins of cellular life until now. We do not inherit only a genome.

Corrupt the flesh of Paramecium, at least, and it stays corrupted down generations. But the cause of that is the biologist’s physical instrument, not Paramecium’s waywardness.

One would also have to have an explanation of why a particular cytoplasmic change, however generated, should affect all the offspring, especially in mammalian biology.

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Hang on, you may be onto something there. Paul talks about Adam’s sin bringing death and condemnation on all men (πάντασ ἀνθρώπουσ). Maybe women don’t have original sin, just men. That would explain a lot. . .

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“Protoplasm” gets replaced; it’s not even semi-conservative. And you get none of it from your father. DNA gets replaced too, half of it at every replication, but the sequence is preserved. Over the long term, that’s all that’s inherited.

Paramecium has a whole suite of cytoplasmic inheritance tricks. Some of them are due to cytoplasmic RNA, but the cortical inheritance I learned about back in school in the 1960s (which is what I refer to above) still, as far as I know, has no explanation. It does not appear to be mediated by DNA or RNA, but lasts for many generations.

There is no dispute that both RNA and cytoplasm change their molecules over time. What persists over generations is clearly some informational content, whether epigenetic or from whatever unexplained cytoplasmic mechanism Sonneborn described.

Paramecium is not people, it’s true. And traumatized ectoplasm certainly isn’t moral failure. But there doesn’t appear to be funding for extensive research on equivalent mechanisms in metazoans, so I do not rule it out of court.

“Many” isn’t enough. It has to last for countless generations.

You are going to have to explain this in more detail if we’re going to discuss it. And are you truly attempting to defend a physical mechanism for inheritance of sin through sperm?

The terms of my post are quite clear from the first - a reply to Dan’s observations about physical inheritance.

As for Sonneborn’s experiments on Paramecium, they’re so old and well known that I’m sure all those here with a good grounding in biology are familiar with them. If not, there is always Google. But a place to start an overview might be here.

You will note that the main case of long-term cytoplasmic inheritance in your linked paper turns out to be an endocellular parasite with its own genome. Are there any cases of long-term cytoplasmic inheritance that are not, at base, genetic inheritance?

This 2017 paper suggests that at least some of the mechanisms of cortical inheritance are still unknown (and by the reference to Lamarck, seems to leave the question as an open one).

That of course leaves the possibility of a strictly epigenetic mechanism possible (though the author prefers a broader definition of the term), but it has not been found, as of 2017 apparently.

The phenomenon Sonneborn described seems hard to explain genetically: changes in form produced surgically were reproduced in subsequent generations.

But relating this to Dan’s original point, it remains true that no natural organism receives genes from its parent(s) without also receiving an organised cellular structure. Perhaps this is entirely the product of DNA/RNA from wherever it exists, but I’m not sure that has yet been comprehensively proven.

This isn’t true, at least concerning the contribution of sperm to the zygote.

Can we agree that the differences among species are due to differences in their genomes?

There never was any question about that in the discussion.

In other words, that is true, at least concerning the contribution of ovum to the zygote.

There was never any question about that in the discussion.