In defense of midichlorians

I never thought the midichlorians were a stupid answer to a question nobody had, because they don’t explain where the Force comes from. That would be like saying that food is where energy comes from.

“Master, sir, I heard Master Yoda talking about midichlorians. I’ve been wondering, what are midichlorians?” 

“Why, Ani, my boy– I’m glad you asked that question…”

“Midichlorians” has become a byword for the explanation that no one needed—an embellishment that reduced the Force to mere bacterial byproduct. Many critics rate the introduction of midichlorians as the single worst invention of the prequels. Another line in The Phantom Menace (Obi Wan to the Gungans, “You and the Naboo form a symbiont circle… Surely, you must understand this”) makes it clear that George Lucas had just learned about the endosymbiont theory and eagerly incorporated this science babble in his quest to ruin what had been the sublime and ineffable Force. More sloppy writing and bizarre retconning. Case closed.

Perhaps it’s because I’m a biologist, but I’ve never hated midichlorians. Clearly styled after mitochondria, which allow cells to capture energy more efficiently, midichlorians give force-sensitives the ability to tap into the energy field that “surrounds us and penetrates us.” They also create the Force, in keeping with Obi-Wan’s original explanation to Luke that the Force is created by living things. Like mitochondria, they are also the result of an ancient symbiosis. When Qui-Gon Jinn explains midichlorians to Anakin, he says that “no life would be possible without them.” While that’s not true of earth life (nor does it really make sense in context because the midichlorians are also lifeforms, presumably descended from a free-living ancestor), it is true that the acquisition of mitochondria is the defining feature of eukaryotes, the group that includes all conscious life that we know of. Eukaryotic cells are bigger, with a more complex and modular division of labor, and, thanks to mitochondria, they command more energy. I think it’s obvious that, just as mitochondria do not literally create energy, midichlorians do not create the Force. They simply allow cells to harness it.

mitochondria_mammalian_lung_-_tem
All our mitochondria do is harness useable energy… which is only somewhat magical.

I never thought the midichlorians were a stupid answer to a question nobody had, because they don’t explain where the Force comes from. That would be like saying that food is where energy comes from. I just thought the idea of an endosymbiont that channeled the Force was a slight elaboration from a more scientifically sophisticated age. In fact, I was pleased that the Jedi Order had at least begun to approach the Force scientifically, since they seem so stultified in other ways.

It’s only the way the midichlorians are used in Phantom Menace that makes zero sense and introduces a huge plot hole. The only plot purpose midichlorians ever serve is to establish that Anakin is off-the-charts force-sensitive, but then this insanely useful blood test for Force adepts never comes up again. The existence of this quick and easy test makes the idea that there’s a Sith hiding in the Senate that the Jedi just can’t find even more ridiculous. But this problem is  not intrinsic to the idea of midichlorians– it could easily have been avoided if there were no test for midichlorians, or if regular living thing midichlorians aren’t distinguishable from those that give Force powers.

For some, the problem with midichlorians is in the attempt to “unweave the rainbow.” No mechanistic account of the Force will do. But, as I’ve said already, midichlorians don’t explain the Force. At least, they don’t explain the Force anymore than the existence of neurons explains our thoughts. At most, midichlorians are a new level of analysis. As in real life, I think that people who are upset by unweaving the rainbow and find mechanistic explanations cheapening are just unaccustomed to thinking mechanistically. Often, they just haven’t grokked that every phenomenon, sublime or mundane, has an underlying mechanism. Sometimes the mechanism itself is another layer of beauty.

This is not to say that midichlorians are a great example of an elegant mechanism. In The Phantom Menace, they don’t add any weight to the Force or give us any insight into Its effects on the world of Star Wars (except to give the impression that the Old Republic was more scientifically sophisticated). But there is one way in which I think midichlorians could add depth to the Force. There’s an on-going debate about the origin of mitochondria—partnership or parasitism. It’s true that today the relationship between mitochondria and surrounding cell is one of “mutual advantage,” but it may not have begun that way. The textbook story– a large cell offered a smaller cell protection in exchange for ATP, and then eventually started farming the mitochondria that became essential parts of a new eukaryotic cells—is possible. But it’s also possible that the mitochondria-progenitors were sneaky pathogens that preferred to consume living hosts from the inside. In fact, the closest free-living relatives to mitochondria, Rickettsia bacteria, are intracellular pathogens (some are responsible for typhus in humans). Qui-Gon seems to think that the creation of life and knowledge of the Force are good things, and that therefore the midichlorians are good. But this explanation is a little too pat. The Force is a complicated entity with a will of its own. It has a light and a dark side.  How much more fitting would it be for the midichlorians to be characters like everyone else, with complicated pasts, doing what it takes to thrive, their actions both good and bad from “a certain point of view?”

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