A Guide From Conception to Growing Up, Growing Old and Natural Death

By Gerard M. Verschuuren

Angelico Press, 2016

188 pages, $16.95

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The author of this important book, Gerard Verschuuren, is a human geneticist with a doctorate in the philosophy of science. Among his other books are Five Anti-Catholic Myths: Slavery, Crusades, Inquisition, Galileo, Holocaust; Destiny of the Universe: In Pursuit of the Great Unknown; and Darwin’s Philosophical Legacy: The Good and the Not-So-Good. In his latest book, he lives up to the title description by neatly summarizing both the biological and philosophical truths of the different stages of our transit from conception to natural death.

The author’s approach reflects his dual strengths in biology and philosophy. For example, Verschuuren describes the latest understanding of the development and workings of the brain and then steps back to consider questions such as: “Is the brain a computer?” or “What are addictions if we have free will?”

The format of the book is chronological, with each of the six sections of the book devoted to one phase of life (with titles like “From the Day of Conception,” “Life in the Womb” and “Growing Up”).

In each section, Verschuuren first describes what is going on scientifically (explaining the roles of DNA and chromosomes, sex differentiation and cell development, programmed cell death, clinical death and brain death). He then considers what we might call the implications of what is going on and the greater questions prompted by each stage’s biological hallmarks.

Although the author gives his readers much to ponder throughout this book, perhaps the most tantalizing questions arise towards the end, when we reach his presentation of old age and death.

Here, the questions are more cosmic and the stakes much higher: Does death mark the end of the person or not? For after the human body shuts down, the organs stop functioning and decay sets in, we either cease to exist entirely, as the materialists maintain, or, as non-materialist philosophers, theologians, saints and mystics think and believe, we live as disembodied spirits. (Of course, our creedal belief in the resurrection of the dead prepares us for an ultimate reunion with a glorified body at the last day — if we are among those who have died faithful to Our Lord and have entered the heavenly realms after perhaps a period in purgatory.)

Although an extended discussion of the last things (death, judgment, heaven and hell) is beyond the scope of Verschuuren’s conception-to-death exposition in this book, he does dip into the implications of near-death experiences in “The Final Stage” and also entertains the question of “Heaven or Hell?”

All in all, I highly recommend this solid presentation of human biology at each stage of life, accompanied by thought-provoking consideration of the great philosophical questions evoked by each stage.

 Opus Dei Father C. John McCloskey

is a Church historian.