Science and Faith: Episode 6- The Biology of Human Life

Written by on 20/03/2021

Radio Maria England Science and Faith

Episode 6: The Biology of Human Life


Broadcasts: Sunday 5pm, Wednesday 2am, Thursday 11am and Friday 9pm


In episode 6 of our Science and Faith series, we tackled questions around the biology of human life. We endeavoured to ask these questions from as many points of view as possible so we invited Prof. John Bryant (Professor Emeritus of Cell and Molecular Biology, University of Exeter), Prof. Allison Krile Thornton (Assistant Professor of Philosophy,  The University of South Alabama) and RME Science and Faith’s Catholic Advisor, Fr. Robert Verrill. 

In the first half of the programme, we asked Prof. Bryant whether there is any agreed definition among biologists on what is meant by life and if there are situations where the definition of life is ambiguous. We were also interested to hear about the complexities of the meaning of the word ‘organism’, if a single-celled embryo is a human organism and whether it is a separate organism from a pregnant mother’s body.

In the second half, dedicated to philosophy, Prof. Thornton briefly delved into schools of thought which would define ‘life’ very differently. This prompted a discussion about the soul and the distinction between a human being and a person.

Finally, Fr. Robert walked us through how the Catholic Church’s understanding of when life begins has changed over the centuries. He explained the concept of delayed harmonisation by St Thomas Aquinas. We also discussed scriptural passages on the beginning of life and personhood and what the dogma of the Immaculate Conception can tell us about the biology of life.

When does human life begin?

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Prof. John Bryant: After obtaining a first-class degree in Natural Sciences and a PhD in Plant Biochemistry at Cambridge, John held academic positions at Nottingham and Cardiff before being appointed Professor of Cell and Molecular Biology and Head of Biosciences at the University of Exeter. He is now Professor Emeritus of Biosciences. His research has mainly focussed on the biochemistry of DNA and the workings of genes. He has an active interest in the ethical aspects of biomedical research and has been a Bioethics advisor to the Higher Education Academy since 2002. He also writes and broadcasts widely on bioethical issues. 

John was Vice-President of the Society for Experimental Biology from 2001–2003 and President from 2003–2005, Visiting Research Associate at the Brookhaven National Laboratory, USA 1992–1997 and Visiting Professor of Molecular Biology at West Virginia State University, USA 1999–2007. He was Chair of Christians in Science from 1999–2006 and is a Fellow of the International Society for Science and Religion. He is an active member of Exeter Network Church.

Prof. Allison Krile Thornton

Prof. Allison Krile Thornton is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Alabama and is jointly appointed in the College of Medicine.

Previously, Prof. Thornton was a visiting graduate fellow at the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Philosophy of Religion and a recipient of the Society of Christian Philosophers Graduate Fellowship for Science Cross-training, for which she worked on an interdisciplinary project connecting the metaphysics of the human person to research in biology. Prof. Thornton has also served as Baylor University’s Clinical Fellow in Medical Ethics, through which she worked with physicians in a variety of clinical contexts. She received her PhD from Baylor University in 2018. Her research sits at the intersection of biological metaphysics and ethics, especially in biomedical contexts. In particular, she’s written on animalism. (

Fr. Robert Verrill

Fr. Robert is a Dominican friar who is currently Acting Catholic Chaplain for the University of Cambridge at Fisher House. Before joining the order he obtained a PhD in Mathematics from the University of Cambridge and worked as a software engineer. He’s now working on his PhD in Philosophy, which is on Quantum Physics and common sense.



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