Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Star Wars Midi-chlorians On Earth?

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens was a HUGE success and is being released on Blu-ray and DVD today. Fans seems to be in agreement that J.J. Abrams did a better job reviving the franchise than George Lucas did with the Star Wars prequels, which caused a great disturbance in the Force.

While Jar Jar Binks soured the prequels for most people, one of the other sticking points was the Midi-chlorians. The what? Let's review. In the original series, the Force was described by Obi-Wan Kenobi as "an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together." In episode I, Qui-Gon Jinn delivered the buzzkill message that the mysterious Force actually had a biological explanation. Instead of saying, “The Force is strong with this one”, one may as well say, “The Midi-chlorians are numerous in this one.”

Watching the interview below, Abrams appeared to show disdain for the whole "Midi-chlorian" idea, not even mentioning them in the new film.

According to Wookieepedia, “Midi-chlorians were intelligent microscopic life forms that lived symbiotically inside the cells of all living things. When present in sufficient numbers, they could allow their host to detect the pervasive energy field known as the Force.” A collective groan could be felt through movie theatres worldwide, as if millions of voices suddenly cried out in terror…

To a cell biologist, it sounds like Lucas drew his inspiration from the mitochondria, which are bacteria-like symbionts that work with our cells to provide energy. They even look like they might be cousins (see below). But that is where the similarities end. Unlike Midi-chlorians, mitochondria do not allow us to tap into energy fields…no matter how much we try to quiet our minds to hear our mitochondria speak to us.

Midi-chlorian (left) and mitochondria (right). Brothers from another mother?
But a strange and provocative paper by Alexander Panchin and colleagues proposes an unorthodox new idea called the “biomeme hypothesis”, which posits that the impulse behind some religious rituals could be driven by mind-altering parasites.

Let that sink in for a moment. Might your religion, or any number of other activities, be driven in part by parasites or symbionts in your brain? Before you dismiss the idea too quickly, think about the rabies virus. This super tiny virus is notorious for altering the behavior of dogs (and other animals, including people). Rabies can make even the most docile of dogs become uncharacteristically aggressive so that they bite and spread the virus. Rabies virus is just the tip of the iceberg; there is no shortage of parasites that are known to eerily alter their host’s behavior.

Rabies makes dogs aggressive to enhance viral transmission. The virus can get into a new host by causing its current host to bite others.
Central to Panchin’s hypothesis is the idea that certain religious rituals may facilitate the transmission and spread of parasites. The authors site that holy springs and holy water are replete with numerous microbes, including human pathogens. Sacred in Hinduism, the Ganges River probably contains the most, as an estimated 200 million liters of untreated human sewage is dumped into it every day. Bathing in this “purifying” water has led to the development of multiple diseases, such as cholera.  The Hindu “side-roll” ritual is associated with Cutaneous Larva Migrans, also known as “creeping eruption of the skin”, which is caused when the skin becomes infected with parasitic hookworm larvae. Performed in Muslim communities, ritual ablution, which involves irrigation of the sinuses, has been proposed to be a potential risk factor in contracting Naegleria fowleri (the infamous “brain-eating amoeba”) in Muslim communities. Outbreaks of respiratory infectious diseases and meningococcal disease are common amongst Hajj congregation in Mecca. The transmission of herpes has been reported in the Jewish circumcision method known as metzitzah, which involves the sucking of blood from the wound. Finally, many sacred relics are kissed or handled by many worshipers, offering additional routes for the potential transmission of multiple infectious agents.

While it is clearly demonstrable that certain religious rituals have inherent health risks, there currently is no direct evidence that any of the possible infections transmitted can influence the victim’s behavior (other than causing them to see a doctor). Until new data arrives, we are left with the conclusion that the rituals people engage in stem from cultural memes rather than biological. But one thing is clear:  you should use some hand sanitizer next time you dip your fingers in the holy water.

Contributed by:  Bill Sullivan
Follow Bill on Twitter
Panchin AY, Tuzhikov AI, & Panchin YV (2014). Midichlorians--the biomeme hypothesis: is there a microbial component to religious rituals? Biology direct, 9 (1) PMID: 24990702

1 comment:

  1. Thought-provoking, Bill. Panchin’s hypothesis reminds me of the idea someone proposed -- I forget who, but it's discussed in Hofstadter's book _Metamagical Themas_ -- that the growth of many religions might be due to their central beliefs implicitly containing the idea "It is your duty to believe this statement, and to convince others of its truth." (I may not be quoting it accurately, but it's pretty close to that.)