It should come as no surprise that certain sacred religious practices are remarkably unhygienic. Holy water in church fonts tends to be rife with fecal bacteria. Believers who ritually kiss the same holy stone or other religious artifacts no doubt end up sharing microbes. Millions take ritual baths in filthy lakes and waterways in which human waste and dead bodies float conspicuously on the surface. And closer to home, well, are you sure that Father Murphy washed his hands before pinching a series of eucharists between his fleshy fingers and putting the Jesus crackers, and maybe those digits, on one wet tongue after another?
It sounds far-fetched, but, according to Michael Schulson in the Daily Beast,
That, more or less, is the suggestion of a paper published last month in the online journal Biology Direct. Written by Alexander Panchin and two colleagues associated with Moscow’s Institute for Information Transmission Problems, “Midichlorians — the biomeme hypothesis” suggests that the impulse behind some religious rituals could be driven by mind-altering parasites. Looking for chances to spread, these hypothetical microbes push their human hosts to do seemingly irrational things — like, say, share a cup of wine en masse, or dunk themselves in the Ganges, or gather themselves from all corners of the earth in order to kiss the same wall, stone, or icon.
On the whole, this paper must make for some of the weirdest academic reading of 2014. It features Jedi knights, cat-borne diseases, the Eucharist, and bacterial mind control. And it’s been making the rounds lately, if by “making the rounds” one means “simultaneously entrancing and horrifying renowned biologists while earning a major cameo in Nature.”
That latter graf is the part where Schulson, who isn’t a scientist but instead holds a B.A. in Religious Studies, can engage in some dismissive editorializing. (Further down in the article, he also gives Richard Dawkins a drubbing; considering some of Schulson’s other writings, he isn’t taking much of a shine to atheism). At the same time, though, he acknowledges that the thought of germs driving people to perform certain acts…
… isn’t quite as outlandish as it sounds. Many germs really do alter their hosts’ behaviors in ways that help the germ spread (think of rabies, which spreads by biting, and which alters the brains of infected mammals to make them feel very, very aggressive; or consider Toxoplasmosis, a protist associated with cats, that seems to cause infected rats to feel less fear of felines).
It’s unlikely that Panchin and his fellow authors have written the year’s high point of biological brilliance, mostly because they readily concede (read their full paper here) that they operate in the realm of inquiry, a.k.a. hypothesis.
They do, however, deserve props for the courage to ask an intriguing and (it seems) rationally defensible question, one that microbiologists and neuroscientists are now free to debate and (I sincerely hope) research further.
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