The concept of universal variable and the question of Bioethics as love of life*

- Eliane S. Azevedo, M.D., Ph.D.
Instituto Superior de Estudos para Matrimonio e Familia - ISEMF
Salvador, Bahia, Brasil

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 10 (2000), 82-84.

*Darryl Macer, Bioethics is Love of Life (Eubios Ethics Institute 1998).

The academic concept of variable comes from statistics analysis demand on its struggle for understanding nature by experimenting on isolated natural phenomena. By defining variables the scientists bring a micro slice of nature to the laboratory, observe its behavior on a range of controlled circumstances and draw pertinent conclusions (1). Thus, the concept of variable is a fundamental tool for scientific work, in spite of being a reduction of nature to a Cartesian view of the universe.

In spite of its scientific outlook, most variable definitions have an interface with human arbitrary, nevertheless, educated arbitrary. In biology and medicine, for example, the lack of natural limits between health and disease normal and abnormal, let the scientists to the settlement of conventional limits for normality. For anatomical variables, the concept of normality is the absence of abnormality, which is a non-definition (2). For quantitative variables, the arithmetic means plus or minus two standard deviations are numerical conventions for our range of normality. Outside those limits, the natural variability of our organism is labeled as "abnormal". Not only that, but most of these limits had been established for North American or European populations but are nearly applied to the entire world. For many doctors and patients these numerical limits of normality are seen as determinists numbers dividing people into healthy and sick ones (3). Nothing is allowed to individual genetics variability beyond those conventional limits.

The construction of quantifiable variables acquired unquestionable scientific status in modern medicine. Protein and enzyme dosages, organic and inorganic elements quantifications, etc. Even the most critical minds easily became submitted to all sort of numerical report. Does not matter the absence of signs or symptoms two standards deviations are certificates of diseases.

In spite of all those drawbacks in the construction of the scientific variables no one seems to question it. Thus, they are scientifically and academically accepted.

On the other hand, outside the quantifiable components of the human organism is its most noble part: - the feelings. However, from a rigorous academic point of view, human feelings are not reduced to quantifiable variables, escape from statistical treatment, significance tests and so on. As a consequence, they are generally excluded from the scientific approach for estimating health and sick status. In spite of the universality of human feelings the lack of a method for reducing it to a Cartesian measurable variable let them outside the universe of modern science (4).

Biological variables and cultural plasticity.

The major criticism made to love to answer the question if Bioethics is Love of Life is that love is not universal, is not academic, does not fulfil the basic question of normative ethics and that there is no universality of the meaning of love (5). In other words, the concept of love varies from one culture to another that is its weakness from a universal and scientific point of view. Also, there is a criticism of love, extreme love, leading to grave hatred (6).

Let us begin by taking the question of love variability from culture to culture. To my understanding there is almost nothing in this world that does not vary from here and there without loosing its basic meaning. All biological variables have its own variability as well, without loosing its scientific status. If one takes a variable such as gene expression, finds a good example of that variability. The Human Genome Project is promising to identify those one hundred thousand human genes we have (7). So, in a near future, it will be possible to know the biochemical make up of each gene and to write down its bases sequence. However, the same DNA sequence of a gene does not assure that its expression will be the same in two persons, even if sibs. There is an unquestionable variability in gene expression from person to person, from population to population, from one environment to another (8). The lack of a universal gene expression does not exclude its study from the scientific world. What every geneticist is well aware is that, in genetics, variability is the rule.

If a modern science as genetics can deals with all the variability of gene expression without losing its scientific status, why Bioethics can not deals with the variability of love expression?

The major lesson nature is constantly giving to us is that the only invariable human characteristic is its variability. Regardless of quantification, definition or concept of variables in science it ought to hold some inner variation here and there. Thus, the rejection of universal variables such as love, under the argument that it does not have an overall consistent meaning in every culture has no scientific support on the account of the so well known scientific variability of its own variables (specially the biological ones).

The other point deserving comments is the fact that extreme love leads to grave hatred. Here again, the great lesson comes from nature itself. No one questions the importance of feeling hungry or thirst for surviving. However, the excess of hungry is harmful to the organism leading to lose of health. Not only hungry, but nearly every variable related to our organism has an optimum in quantity. Our nature has its own wisdom for functioning correctly not to less, not too much; even if love.

The concept of universal variables

In 1980, in a paper published in Current Anthropology (9), we defined a kind of variable, suitable for cultural anthropological studies, named it universal variable and defined it as one that: a) needs no definition by the investigator, because there is universal consensus as to what it means; b) is not artificially produced by the investigator, and c) is naturally present in every population. The methodological value of a universal variable lies in its suitability for cross-cultural studies, its freedom from investigator bias, and its informational richness.

In that paper, at that time, our main example of universal variable was family names, for two main reasons: first, because of its universality in nearly every culture; second, because we had showed an strong association between religious surnames and Black ancestries which was interpreted as a translation of the religious feelings among Black descendents in Brazil (10). In that sense, we believe, from the consistency of research results, that the meaning of family names among Black descendents in Brazil is a translation of Black African religious feelings.

Later, following the search for universal variables, in a conference entitled The malformed newborn: biology, moral and ethics (11), we point out, from our experience in genetic counseling, that even the most mentally retarded child would respond with quietude and a peaceful face to the universal language of love. To the families of affected children, love is a language capable of communication with the mentally deficient.

We all know, from life experience, that not only children, healthy or unhealthy, but also all humans, without exceptions, have an inborn ability for love perception and response. Also, we all know that there is no way of reducing the variable love to a scientific methodological frame; that it is probably above our cerebral structure and reasoning connections. In experimental science we work under the assumption of a universal order in nature; in Bioethics we may well work under the assumption of the universality of love. There should be no culture in the entire humanity that does not understand the feeling of love. The word varies from one language to another; the way it is felt also, but, the feeling for protecting the life we praise, regardless of definition, has to be the feeling of love, all over the world. Thus, there is no need for defining the love variable; it is a universal variable.


There is, in our days, an urgent need for a global Bioethics as well as for a universal language in Bioethics. To go in this direction one has to search for the most universal human value and virtue. Bioethics as love of live is the best we can reach. Love is a universal variable and life is universally praised. The exceptions are at large of the main question and should be deal on a way of enriching the concept of universal love and the universality of human life value.


1. See Hulley SB., Cummings SR. Designing clinical research. Williams and Wilkins. USA. 1998; Winer BJ. Statistical Principles in Experimental Design . McGraw Hill, 2nd ed. USA. 1971; Fisher RA. Statistical Methods for Research Workers . Oliver and Boyd Ltd. USA. 1948; Mather K., Jinks JL. Introduction to Biometrical Genetics. Chapman and Hall, London. 1977; Goldstein A. Biostatistics. An Introductory Text. Mac Millan Co. USA. 1964; Sokal RR., Rohlf FJ. Biometry. Freeman and Company. USA. 1969. .
2.Opitz, John M. (1997). O que _ normal considerado no contexto da genetiza__o ocidental. Bioetica (CFM), 5:131-143..
3.Margolis J. (1976). The Concept of Disease. The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy 1(3):238-255..
4.Honigmann, John J. (1976). The personal approach in cultural anthropology research. Current Anthropology 17:243-261; Moles, Jerry M. (1977). Standardization and measurement in cultural anthropology: a neglected area. Current Anthropology.18:235-258. .
5.Veatch, Robert M. (1999). Theories of Bioethics. Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9(2):35-38.
6.Morioka, Masahiro. (1999). Commentary on Macer. Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 9(2):38-39.
7.Grisolia S. (1991). UNESCO Program for the Human Genome Project. Genomics 9:404-404; Collin F., Galar, D. (1993). A new five-year plan for the US human genome project. Science 262:43-49; Rowen L., Mahairas G., Hood, L. (1997). Sequencing the human genome. Science 278: 605-607.
8.See Penrose LS. Latent effects of chemical differences. In Outline of Human Genetics . John Wiley & Sons, 2nd. ed. NY. 1963; Herskowitz, IH. Phenotypic effects of gene action. In Genetics 2nd. ed. Little Brown and Company. Canada. 1965.
9.Azevedo, Eliane S. (1980). The Anthropological and Cultural Meaning of Family Names in Bahia, Brazil. Current Anthropology 21:360-363.
10.Tavares-Neto, J., Azevedo, Eliane S. (1977). Racial origin and historical aspects of family names in Bahia, Brazil. Human Biology 49:289-299; Tavares-Neto, J., Azevedo, Eliane S. (1978). Family names and ABO blood group frequencies in a mixed population of Bahia, Brazil. Human Biology 50:361-367; Azevedo, Eliane S. The meaning of names and family names as a tracer of cultural values. In Aspects of Language, vol.II., Theoretical and Applied Semantics. Ed. Rodopi BV., Amsterdam. 1987; Azevedo, Eliane S. (1983). The reconstruction of cultural history and racial admixture from the meaning of family names in Bahia, Brazil. Quaderni di Semantica 6(1):209-212; Azevedo, Eliane S., Fortuna CMM., Silva, KMC. et al., (1982). Spread and diversity of human population in Bahia, Brazil. Human Biology 54:329-341.
11.Azevedo,Eliane S. A crian_a malformada: biologia, moral e etica. I Congresso Medico Social da Bahia. 10-14 nov. Salvador, Bahia, Brasil. 1981.
Acknowledgment\ I am thankful to Professor Giancarlo Petrini, Director of the ISEMF for his suggestions.

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