Please stop looking for the ‘original sin’ gene

Think Christian has been running a mini-forum on the question of a “historical Adam.”

Dennis Venema’s contribution was quite helpful for squarely stating that science finds the idea of a single “Adam and Eve” couple as the ancestors of all of humanity to be extremely, and increasingly, unlikely.

I liked Venema’s piece a lot, particularly this bit:

Some Christian groups are beginning to require denying these findings as part of their theology. In particular, there is a concern that moving away from the view that the entire human race descends from one ancestral couple threatens the doctrine of original sin. … These sorts of moves put scientifically knowledgeable believers in such groups in a difficult position – do they deny the science to remain theologically “on side,” or do they risk membership in their faith communities by accepting the science?

As the information coming out of the various genome-sequencing projects trickles down to the pew level, these difficulties are only going to increase.

That’s wise and true. But I’d go further to argue that those insisting on a “historical Adam” are not “on side” theologically, either.

Show me someone who thinks Genesis teaches a “historical Adam” and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t understand Genesis — the genre of it, the title of it, or anything else about it.

Once upon a time a man named mankind was the father of the human race even though he only had three sons despite living to be 930 years old.

If I seriously have to explain to you that this does not constitute a historical claim, then sit down, because we’re apparently also going to have to talk about how Frodo, Miss Marple, Ulysses, Cuchulain, and Amelia Bedelia are not historical figures either.

But what baffles me completely is this bit from Deborah Haarsma’s concluding post in the Think Christian series:

This scientific picture of a group of early humans raises many questions, including particularly difficult ones related to the Fall. Plantinga and pastor Daniel Harrell both suggest a possible solution: perhaps Adam and Eve were two individuals within the group of early humans. This would preserve Adam as a real historical figure and the Fall as a real historical event. However, the spread of sin to the rest of the group is problematic, since it would take many generations to spread genetically through a population of thousands.

Wait, sorry … for a second there I thought she said that sin spreads “genetically.” (Rubs eyes.) Let me read that again:

However, the spread of sin to the rest of the group is problematic, since it would take many generations to spread genetically through a population of thousands.

OK, yeah, she really said that.

You’ve got to hand it to Augustine. Anybody can be a little wrong once in a while, but to be so spectacularly wrong that 1,500 years later people are still saying stuff like this … well, that’s impressive.

I appreciate the concern and the intent of stuff like this, but I think it’s possible to make sense of the book of Romans without resorting to hallucinogenic science and delirious theology that ponders the “genetic” spread of sin.

We can only make sense out of the idea that sin is “genetic” if we’re also willing to make nonsense out of the ideas of justice, mercy, redemption, atonement, and forgiveness. And I’m rather fond of those. So please, let’s stop looking for an “original sin” gene, thanks.

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  • Matt Herrera

    Wait, Amelia Bedilia isn’t real?  Childhood = ruined.

  • Boze Herrington

     Same here. Cuchulain was one of my heroes.

  • GDwarf

    Huh. Genetic sin. That’s…I want to say that’s new, but somehow I suspect it isn’t.

    Of course, this raises so many interesting possibilities! Viruses that inject sin into infected cells! Viruses that remove sin! What happens if a cell mutates to be sin-free? Could that lead to you going to hell while your cancer goes to heaven? Does radiation erase sin? Can we screen for sin at conception now, to breed a race of sin-free beings? What happens if there’s a copying error in the sin section of someone’s genome and they end up with two sin segments? What, exactly, is the selection pressure in favour of sin? What happens if a microbe steals some of your DNA (it happens surprisingly often, as does the reverse, much of human DNA has been taken from bacteria), does it become a fallen bacteria? Does that grant it intelligence as well?

    Man, I could write a library of sci-fi about this…

  • reynard61

    “Huh. Genetic sin. That’s…I want to say new, but somehow I suspect it isn’t.”

    It’s not. In the last century it went by another name. Old whine in a new bottle…

  • Riastlin Lovecraft

    Am I the only one thinking we should roll with this?

    “Yeah, we’re totally using all that RTC-donor money in genetic research to cure Sin. Oh damn, it turns out the way we were doing it led to curing Down’s Syndrome instead. Must’ve been the 4th time something like that happened. Oh well, keep the money coming, with enough research we must find the cure for Sin eventually.”

  • Violet

    This is the plot to a number of perplexing anime series, isn’t it?

  • Thomas Stone

    I can only imagine that the genetic result of freedom from original sin would be something like J. Alfred Prufrock, a man so afraid to disturb the universe that he dare not eat a peach

  • Tricksterson

    Or that planet in Serenity where most of the people starved to death because they became incapable of harming anything.  Except the ones who became psychotic cannibals that is.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Miranda, and the cannibals are the Reavers. (O_O) aaagh nightmare fuel.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Which in itself is an allegory: If you are successful in breeding the aggression out of people, you won’t get a Society of Perfect Harmony. At least until the first aggressive predator arises or is introduced; at which point your Society of Perfect Harmony becomes a prey-rich environment for the predator(s). Because your docile sheeple have become incapable of defending themselves as part of the domestication process.
    I think there was also an SF movie starring Sly Stallone that used a similar concept — a Perfectly-Harmonious Society without crime where a Predator was introduced from a cold-sleep prison.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    Demolition Man. :)

  • Bill Hiers

    There is an Alistair MacLean novel about a killer disease called The Satan Bug, but the name of the title virus is purely metaphorical.

  • Vermic

    Man, I could write a library of sci-fi about this…

    Gonna have to stop you right here, before you reinvent midichlorians.

  • Invisible Neutrino

    … and horcruxes are reinventions of eldritch soul containers. So what?

  • Carstonio

    The thread title gave me the earworm of the Eurythmics’ “Missionary Man.”

    What didn’t you like about midichlorians? (Other than the fact that the name sounds like keyboard synthesizers for playing brainwashing music.) The concept to me sounded anti-egalitarian, going against the idea that anyone could become a Jedi with the right commitment and training. I’ve heard from other fans who see the mysticism of the original Force concept as out of place.

  • vsm

    The concept to me sounded anti-egalitarian, going against the idea that
    anyone could become a Jedi with the right commitment and training.

    I don’t think that idea ever appears in the original trilogy. According to it, some people just happen to be more special than others and can wield demigod-like powers after what appears to be a three-week course. It’s even implied to be genetic, which is why I don’t really get the objection to midichlorians.

  • AnonymousSam

    Magic is often implied to be genetic too.

    My objection can be summarized as having an inherent dislike of DoingInTheWizard. Sometimes I’d rather have no explanation than one which strives to be scientific and arrives just as contrived and desperately handwaving at itself in an effort to seem perfectly natural.

    A particular character of Metal Gear Solid 2 and 4 also comes to mind.

    Okay, we have a Romanian with fangs who can run on water, run straight vertical, hypnotize with a glance, paralyze by striking at somebody’s shadow, seemingly cannot be killed or drowned, has a lower than natural body temperature and who drinks blood.

    Codename: Vamp

    Because he’s bisexual, athletic, a practiced hypnotist and injected up the wazoo with nanomachines which rapidly regenerate tissue damage.

    What? You thought it was because he was a vampire? “No, there’s no such thing as vampires,” says the protagonist who lives in a series with ghosts, telepathy, telekinesis and shamanistic powers.

    That’s Doing in the Wizard.

  • vsm

    I guess I just thought that if force sensitivity is genetic, it should also be observable via scientific instruments. I’m probably the wrong person to talk about this, since, as I recently realized, I don’t actually like Star Wars.

    As for everything related to MGS, I just put it under Kojima being a master troll/true artist.

  • Ross

     I think I saw this as a hammer movie. Guy finds the cell that causes evil and thinks he’s developed a dead-cell innoculation. Tries it out in a petri dish and sees that all the Evil dies in the blood sample, then shoots his daughter up with it before waiting around to see that an hour later, the dead cells come back to life and kill all the non-evil cells.

  • Haven

    This sounds amazing. In my view, the main problems with midichlorians are that it wasn’t established at the outset of the story, it’s a plot device that has potentially huge implications which are never brought up again, and it clashes tonally. This idea is none of those things, so I think you should run with it regardless.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    And that midichlorians are handwaved as some sort of genetic marker of Jedihood, giving The Force a genetic basis. Would have worked better if Midichlorians were just some sort of measurement of Force-use ability. “Midichlorians off the scale” would just mean “This is the most powerful potential Force-user.”

  • MaryKaye

    I can’t help thinking of the bit at the end of _Chimpanzee Politics_ where the author says, “I have never since been able to look at Yeroen without thinking, ‘This is a murderer’.”  (Yeroen and an ally suddenly killed the dominant male one winter, when they were confined closely.)

    I don’t know if Yeroen did wrong by chimpanzee standards, but I would certainly be willing to consider that he did.  A lot of animals are probably pretty amoral but I’m not at all sure chimps are, or the other highly intelligent social animals like elephants.  (Of course, solitary animals might have their own morality that I, as a highly social animal, simply can’t understand or recognize.  I don’t know how we could find out.)

    In other words, I don’t think we got the knowledge of right and wrong from a human ancestor; I think it’s been around a while.  It’s just gotten a lot more complex as our brains complexified.

  • Worthless Beast

    I now want to go to a desert and sift through the sands for a few grains of Love. 

  • Violet

    I think if you went to a certain spot in Black Rock Desert, NV, you could probably sift the ground and come up with more than a few grains of love. Or at least something that, if you were to take it, would make you feel very loving.

  • badJim

    Get in line in that processional
    Step into that small confessional
    There the guy who’s got religion’ll
    Tell you if your sin’s original.

  • flat

    if sin is genetic or not, I do in part agree with the diagnosis Doctor Cox made about people.

    Dr. Perry Cox: Lady. People aren’t chocolates. Do you know what they are mostly? Bastards. Bastard coated bastards with bastard filling. But I don’t find them half as annoying as I find naive bubble-headed optimists who walk around vomiting sunshine.

  • AnonaMiss

    There was an idea I heard in my childhood, from friends at a sleepover, that original sin was transmitted to each new generation by virtue of us being conceived through sinful icky SEX!!; and that Jesus escaped having original sin because he was conceived without SEX!!!.

    Compared to that, the idea of original sin being transmitted genetically seems liberal and refreshing.

  • Baby_Raptor

    That doesn’t make any sense, because sex wasn’t connected in any way to the Fall? Unless “eating the apple” is a huge metaphor…

  • The_L1985

     A lot of Christians over the centuries have connected the two.  Paradise Lost has a scene in which the newly-fallen Adam and Eve suddenly develop lust and act on it, then feel remorse and do the whole fig-leaf thing.

  • Dmoore970

    The fig leaf business seems to suggest that sex was the result, rather than the cause, of the Fall.

  • Anton_Mates

    Really?  Seems to me that they must have gotten less interested in sex after the Fall, if underwear suddenly seemed really important to them.

    Unless they were just wearing fig leaves so they could sexily peel them off later, I guess.

  • EllieMurasaki

    The attitude ‘sex and sexybits are shameful’ seems to promote obsession with sex.

  • Ross

     Though pre-fall Adam does ask Gabriel if angels have sex (Gabriel’s answer boils down to “Yes and it’s none of your business.”), and he asks from the position of someone who has an understanding of the act.

    But yeah, the idea that the Original Sin was sex is not a new one. Pretty sure it was in whatever bible Carrie’s Mother was reading from. And the William Jennings Bryant expy in Inherit the Wind gets tricked by the Clarence Darrow expy into proving that he doesn’t read the book of Genesis literally by shouting that the original sin was sex while on the stand.

  • Tricksterson

    Well, the Serpent at least is an obvious phallic symbol and there are some stories that use the idea that Cain was the offspring of Eve and the Serpent, not Adam and Eve.

  • Aiwhelan

    A scary number of adults think this way too.

  • vsm

    Wouldn’t that make IVF babies free of original sin?

  • AnonaMiss

    Maybe if the sperm was collected by needle instead of the ICKY!! way.

    Interestingly, the girl I heard this story from was Catholic. I’m sure this isn’t the official Catholic position, but if it were, it would put a cynical spin on their IVF ban, eh?

  • The_L1985

     It isn’t, but there’s another bizarre bit of Catholic theology that comes to play:  the Immaculate Conception.  Basically, the idea is that since Jesus couldn’t gestate within a sinful vessel, the Virgin Mary must have been conceived free of original sin.  Somehow.

    One often gets the feeling that the medieval church had the mindset of, “The Bible doesn’t say anything about the subject, and we don’t know–fuck it, let’s just make something up that sounds right!  The laity will never know the difference!”

  • Thomas Stone

    Keep it under your hat, but I kind of get the feeling Paul was making it up as he went along, too

  • AnonymousSam

    I always heard it was because Matthew and Luke mistranslated the Hebrew almah, which doesn’t necessarily mean “virgin.” Paul doesn’t reference Mary’s virginity at all. Then again, some sections of the Pauline epistles refer to Jesus as if he were a hypothetical messiah who hadn’t yet come, so… yeah.

  • Green Eggs and Ham

     Ah, but it’s more complicated than that.  St. Anne (the name given to Mary’s mother) would also have to have been born by immaculate conception to be a pure vessel herself.  And so would her mother. And her mother; all the way back to Eve.

  • histrogeek

     I’ve mentioned that to Catholics (who wouldn’t clout me for it), and they pretty roll their eyes. If I understand it correctly (and IC is not remotely a doctrine I buy into), the “perfect vessel” was only necessary for Jesus, the actual Godhead, so St. Anne was not immaculate, and Mary wasn’t born of a virgin.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    If you assume the ancient idea of “seed and incubator”, all the genetics (and Original Sin) pass down entirely through the male line. So the female line is less important.

  • Mark Z.

    I think the mindset of the medieval church was “God, by definition, is bigger and louder and shinier and more awesomer than everything else. This also applies to everything connected with God.”

    The first part of this was a serious theological idea. It’s the basis of Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of the Trinity, for example.

    The second part is where we get stories of St. Margaret* flying around like Superman and shooting lightning out of her mouth and being attended by birds that sing the Ave Maria, and then after her inevitable martyrdom her body sprouts thousands of perfect white roses, and the pagan king who killed her falls to his knees and rends his clothes and cries out “Christ Jesus, have mercy on me!” and the next day gets baptized and leads all of Croatia to salvation, and her bones are distributed to churches all over Christendom, and looking at one of them will cure smallpox and ensure safety during childbirth.

    And so, since Jesus was the son of God, and was born under exceptional circumstances, the medieval tendency is to give the exceptional circumstances exceptional circumstances of their own. He was sinless from his birth–how much more awesome can you get? Well, his mother can be sinless from her birth! (I suspect a contributing factor here was that the life of Christ was a matter of canon, and embellishing it could get you in trouble with the church, so the devotional tendency to make up badass fanfiction had to be displaced to his mother and other peripheral characters. I have no evidence for this, though.)

    * Any resemblance to actual saints, pagans, or Croatians is purely coincidental. There are several Saints Margaret; this is not one of them.

  • Ross

     It pretty much boils down to “She had a retractible hymen”.

    No, really.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Actually, I think Immaculate Conception was an inevitable corollary from the idea of Original Sin; if Sin is passed down genetically, Mary must have been shielded from it in some way so Christ could be conceived sinless.
    And since until Mendel there was a common idea that everything was passed down from the male (with the female acting only as an incubator), a Virgin Birth would also be a necessary requirement. (Though this shows signs of starting from the Gospels’initial foundation of a virgin birth, then trying to reverse-engineer a rationale from there.)

  • The_L1985

    Er, the virgin birth wasn’t the original foundation of the gospels. Mark, the oldest gospel, and John, the most recent, don’t mention the birth of Jesus at all. The virgin birth may have come from other Mediterranean myths of the time, like the Greek myth of Danae, a virgin who became pregnant when Zeus came to her in the form of golden rain.

  • AnonymousSam

    It has also been suggested that the whole concept came from translating Isaiah from Hebrew into Greek, changing almah (“young woman”) to parthenos (“virgin”).

  • AnonymousSam

    Why else do you think they call IVF “playing God”? :p

  • Dave

     Yeah, I’ve heard this equation a lot. My favorite take is a joke-prayer my husband tells me is popular in Brazil: “Oh Virgin Mary, who conceived without sinning, help me sin without conceiving!”

  • christopher_y

    There was an idea I heard in my childhood, from friends at a sleepover, that original sin was transmitted to each new generation by virtue of us being conceived through sinful icky SEX!!

    That is, or was back in the days when I had more contact with Sunday school teachers, a fairly common view, which I think derived from the idea that the story of Adam and Eve eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge of good and evil was some kind of metaphor for them having a bit of the old rumpy-pumpy (I suppose it would have been quite new rumpy-pumpy at the time). Even as a kid I thought that that was stretching metaphor a bit further than it was happy to be stretched, but a lot of people seemed to be OK with the idea. Maybe it cropped up in some book of pop theology from the Victorian era.

    Another version that’s out there, which I suppose is quite close to an “original sin gene”, is that sin derives from instinctive animal behaviour, which we have inherited from our australopithecine ancestors, but ought to be able to overcome with our fine big human minds, because God doesn’t want us to be apes. I’m not going to waste Fred’s bandwidth listing all the ways that’s wrong, even from a theist perspective, but it’s an idea that’s definitely around. I suspect this one originally derives from people trying to Christianise Darwin’s famous comment: “Plato says in Phaedo that our ‘imaginary ideas’ arise from the preexistence of the soul, and are not derivable from experience—read monkeys for preexistence.”

  • Carstonio

    Heh. The big flaw with that concept is that sexual reproduction existed before humans. Creationists insist that all animals ate plants before the Fall, so I can easily imagine Duane Gish claiming that the animals didn’t reproduce either. If he hasn’t make that claim already.

  • AnonaMiss

    Creationists insist that all animals ate plants before the Fall, so I can easily imagine Duane Gish claiming that the animals didn’t reproduce either.

    Well it stands to reason. Before Death, reproduction would just have gotten in the way/overcrowded the garden.

  • Carstonio

    Maybe the fig leaves were necessary because after eating the fruit, Adam and Eve grew genitals and so did the animals.

  • Consumer Unit 5012

     It does bring up the question of if all the animals (and humans) had the reproductive equipment before the Fall, or if it spontaneously manifested when JHVH hit the Kill Switch, just like meat-eating supposedly did.  :-P

  • Ross Thompson


    I can easily imagine Duane Gish claiming that the animals didn’t reproduce either. If he hasn’t make that claim already.

    I’m pretty sure dinosaurs reproduced via mitosis.

  • Carstonio

    Venema mentions Mitochondrial Eve. I suppose original sin would work metaphorically with that theory if one postulates that she was far more immoral than the rest of her tribe.

  • Ruby_Tea

    Venema mentions Mitochondrial Eve. I suppose original sin would work metaphorically with that theory if one postulates that she was far more immoral than the rest of her tribe.

    Well, that’s just silly.  Everyone knows that Mitochondrial Eve was born of a Cylon mother and human father, because of the power of True Love. 

  • Mordicai

    WAIT.  New Dan Brown novel; the humans from that original tribe of hominins that DIDN’T get the Sin Gene.  Or the “recessive” Sin Gene in Jesus.  Yesssssssss.

  • The_L1985

     I hate to tell you this, but Oberon Zell beat you to it.

  • Mordicai

    It is the gene for whether or not a Calvinist God has decided whether you get to go to heaven or not!

    The genome of the 144,000!

  • Tricksterson

    I just want to read a crossover novel with Frodo, Miss Marple, Ulysses, Cuchulain and Bonnie Bedelia.  But now of course you’ve given me an idea for who should write it.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    I’ll stick with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic fanfic.

  • David Evans

    Haarsma writes: “perhaps Adam and Eve were two individuals within the group of early humans.”

    This would only resolve the scientific issues if the wider group contained reproducing females. So what to make of Genesis 3:20 And Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.?

  • The_L1985

    How about if all the people who weren’t descended from Eve died at some point?  There is that whole flood thing with Noah, remember.

  • redsixwing

     Hmm. If Eve (being Mitochondrial Eve as well as the garden one) wasn’t the mother of everyone, but only Eve’s descendants survived the Flood, and sin is somehow transmitted through Eve’s mitochondrial geens, then the stated purpose of using the Flood to wipe out sin backfired spectacularly.

    “You were supposed to wipe out THIS little group, and save THIS big group! Seriously, I don’t know how you got that backward!”

  • EllieMurasaki

    I thought the point of the Flood was to wipe out the giant half-angel mortal people (see Genesis 6, 1 Enoch). Of course my perspective may have been influenced by how I just wrote a short story about precisely that.

  • redsixwing

     Ooh, that sounds like a cool short story. I’m fascinated with anything involving that particular set of giant half-angel mortals, though.

    I may very well be misinterpreting things, it’s been a long time since I read my source text. ^^

  • Rebecca Trotter

    I’m not at all surprised that sin as genetic would be a rising idea in Christian circles. Personally, I think that Original Sin is passed from parent to child in the form of crappy parenting. You believe that there’s something inherently wrong with your kid and respond to normal childish behavior as a sign of this inherent sin and viola – another generation gains its sinful disposition. Which could also be how Jesus was born without Original Sin – his mother was told he would be perfect before he was born. Or it could be genetic. O_o

  • Amaryllis

     “Personally, I think that Original Sin is passed from parent to child in the form of crappy parenting.”

    Yeah, pretty much. Not so much that you believe that something’s wrong with your kid, but that all the things that are wrong with you get in the way of “bringing up your child in the way he should go.”  And the mistakes you make are passed on to your child, and so ad infinitum, apparently.

    If only you’d been a better mother.


    How could I have been a better mother?

    I would have needed a better self,

    and that is a gift I never received.


    So you’re saying it’s someone else’s fault?


    The gift of having had a better mother myself,

    my own mother having had a better mother herself.

    The gift that keeps on not being given.


    Who was supposed to give it?


    How am I supposed to know?


    Well, how am I supposed to live?


    I suppose you must live as if you had been

    given better to live with…

    I wanted nothing but your happiness.


    I can’t give you that!

    What would Jesus do?

    He had a weird mother too . . .

    from Magi, by Brenda Shaughnessy

  • Rebecca Trotter

     Amaryllis, that’s beautiful. Thank you for sharing. And I think you are right – it’s not just about thinking there is something wrong with your kid – it’s about the ways you are damaged yourself. I was too lazy to explain properly. This idea also gives me hope, though. As screwed up as things are, it seems to me that for maybe the first time humanity is really grappling with the darkness which has been passed from generation to generation. I know a lot of people are very critical of our tell-all, Jerry Springer age, but light is the best disinfectant.

  • vsm

    So, get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself?

  • histrogeek

    Bad ideas never die; they just keep reappear with very variation. Gnostics, Bougmils, Cathars, Shakers, all pushed something like teh sex transmits teh sin from parents to children. And they didn’t even need Augustine to come up with that.  

  • Ian

    It’s worth remembering that Augustine was a liberal by the standards of his time.  His chief intellectual opponents were neo-Platonists who taught that matter itself and anything to do with it was evil.  Augustine was trying to tell a story explaining how there was evil in the world despite the fact that God created everything to be good (including human bodies).  He had much less body-hate than his contemporaries.

  • arcseconds

    Matter = evil sounds more like Manicheanism or Gnosticism to me than neoplatonism.  I’m pretty sure that neoplatonism sees matter as being an emmenation from the Divine, just like everything else.  Certainly matter with any kind of form is intimately involved with the Divine (because that’s what having a form is).  Neoplatonism doesn’t even really have a concept of evil, whereas some forms of gnosticism think material creation is a product of the Evil One.

    However, it does seem as though at some point Christianity did take on board a full-blown Manichee-style evil concept.  My understanding is that this wasn’t really present in the Hebrew religion of the day, and it can’t really be found in pagan sources, so I’ve always wondered where it came from.  Maybe from Manicheanism itself?

    Anyway, as I was saying, the pagan neoplatonists (I’m thinking of people like Porphyry here) didn’t really have the same kind of manichean concept of Eevvilll as the Christians did.    Plato (and for that matter Aristotle) doesn’t really think in terms of evil at all, but if anything in terms of badness, and badness is really a kind of falling down from what you should be (or what you really are), quite analogous to sickness.   We pity the sick and try to help them get better — we don’t hate them and try to destroy them.

    So, why the body for neoplatonists (less clearly for Plato, given how raunchy some of his dialogues are) is definitely of a lower order, and the better sort of human would despise it (think Hypatia throwing her menstrual cloths at an irritating admirer), it’s all kind of aristocratic.   The great unwashed won’t get it and will fornicate, eat, and drink to their hearts’ content, but what more can be expected of them? They get to reincarnate anyway, and maybe they’ll do better next time — there’s no urgency.

    They had this kind of nonchalance about theology, too.   It didn’t really matter what the lower orders believed in too much — it was felt that pagan religion preserved the truths of philosophy (i.e. neoplatonism) in mythic form appropriate for consumption by the masses.  The idea of a catechism would be completely foreign to them.

    That’s the way i remember it, anyway.

  • Headless Unicorn Guy

    Matter = evil sounds more like Manicheanism or Gnosticism to me than neoplatonism.

    Monica’s son Auggie had lots of firsthand experience with Manicheanism. I’d be surprised if he DIDN’T write primarly to rebut it.
    This also leads into Auggie’s baggage regarding sex. Before his conversion, he was apparently a real horndog; afterwards, he was celibate. In neither stage of his life could he have interacted with women as people — before they were sex objects and afterwards they were forbidden fruit. As people tend to go crazy in general when the subject is sex, he probably brought a load of sexual baggage into his writings.

  • histrogeek

    True enough. Except for the Shakers, all those other groups were basically retreads of neo-Platonism. Still I always feel that getting advice on sexual ethics from Augustine is like trying to get advice on an after-dinner cocktails at an AA meeting.

  • Geds

    Once upon a time a man named mankind was the father of the human race
    even though he only had three sons despite living to be 930 years old.

    Also, too, somebody ought to point out that, “And then mankind mated with Neanderthals and about ten percent of the genetic structure of modern humans comes from there,” really, really doesn’t fit into any of those neat little narratives.  Kinda wrecks ’em, in fact.

  • histrogeek

     Maybe the Neanderthals are where Cain’s wife came from, solving one mystery those nasty pedantic skeptics raise [sarcasm]. Of course geography gets screwy since Neanderthals were almost entirely in Europe so they couldn’t have been “east of Eden” (as if that was the only problem with this pseudo-hypothesis), unless we go full-bore stupid, mix mythologies, and call Atlantis Eden. 

  • christopher_y

    Neanderthals were almost entirely in Europe so they couldn’t have been “east of Eden”

    They’ve found Neanderthals in Israel (Kebara), Iraqi Kurdistan (Shanidar) and Iran (Bisitun). Pick your site, depending on where you want to put the garden of Eden. And of course there were Denisovans somewhere – only known from Siberia so far – who also interbred with modern humans.
    Plenty of opportunity to let your imagination run riot there.

  • histrogeek

    Eden is described in Genesis as very loosely being in Mesopotamia, unless of course we want to claim (and why not?) that actually Genesis is referring to others rivers named Tigris and Euphrates, not the rivers currently referred to by those names.
    Although this is just an instance of fictional world-building, Biblical names can cause confusion because the modern place name refers to somewhere different from the ancient one. Biblical Ethiopia, right up to Acts, is referring to modern Sudan not the country in the Horn of Africa (which in classical geographies is called Abyssinia).

  • The_L1985

     I’ve often wondered if our early coexistence with other hominid species might be the origin of “elf” legends.  Both are like humans, but not quite human, and both are never seen in modern times (in the elf legends, it’s because they “went to another world” or somesuch).  The various differences between elves and actual hominids can be explained away as the legend getting distorted over time, like a massive game of Telephone.

  • arcseconds

    Maybe, but it’s just as likely to be other homo sapiens sapiens.

    My guess is there’s more difference in looks among modern humans than there is between modern humans and Neanderthals :]   

    It’s often been put forward that myths of faeries etc. are stories of (in Europe, at least) pre-Indo European inhabitants.   Aren’t the Tuatha de Danaan supposed to disappear into barrows?  Also, I understand neolithic arrow heads were often identified as ‘elfshot’ in folk tales.

    Forest-dwelling hunter-gatherers existing on the margins of an expanding
    agricultural society would account for a lot, especially if they were
    shorter in stature.

  • Tricksterson

    I always thought Neanders were more candidates for Drawhood, than Elfdom, except for the advanced tech part.  Short, hairy, exceptionally strong, sound familiar?

  • Tricksterson

    Should have been Dwarfhood

  • Tricksterson

    According to something recently read in Discovery Denisovan DNA somehow found it’s way to New Guinea.  Anyway they were definitely “east of Eden”

  • Tricksterson

    I’ve heard one theory by way of Stephen King (who presumably didn’t take it seriously) who got it from his fundamentalist mother (who did) that the people in Nod were those who evolved from apes and by marrying into them Cain gave them souls.

  • Tricksterson

    I thought more like 2- 4%.  And a little from Denisovans who are a spinoff from Neanderthals.

  • Geds

     I thought more like 2- 4%.  And a little from Denisovans who are a spinoff from Neanderthals.

    Might be.  I didn’t remember the exact number.  I just remember that it was a big enough percentage to be noticeable, but not big enough to, say, fuel the plot of an episode of Star Trek or Doctor Who wherein someone regresses to Neanderthal state.

    Oh, who am I kidding?  The mere suggestion of such a thing would probably be enough for a television writer.

  • Vermic

    What didn’t you like about midichlorians?

    I’ve always regarded the Force as purely mystical, and I think the original trilogy did too, so Lucas’ sudden need to “explain” it as little dealies in the bloodstream makes me scratch my head.  And I dislike ysalamiri, those anti-Force sloths, for the same reason (and still more for what a transparent plot device they are).  These elements remind me of genetically-spreading sin because they are all attempts to yoke to science a concept which is meant to transcend quantification and physical origins.

    That said, I know that some fans like midichlorians.  Just putting my own reasons out there.

  • Dmoore970

    What bothered me was that in the first three movies, it is implied (though never expressly stated) that Jedi-dom is to some degree hereditary.  In Phantom Menace we find out that it is hereditary, in midichlorians.  And then in the next movie, we find out that Jedis aren’t allowed to reproduce.


  • The_L1985

     If we assume that high midichlorian concentration is the result of a recessive gene…

  • Ross Thompson

    That said, I know that some fans like midichlorians.  Just putting my own reasons out there.

    My reasons for disliking midichlorians are mostly in the realm of unexplored consequences. If ability with the force is directly related to parasites in your bloodstream, then presumably, anyone can get a blood transfusion from Yoda and become a ninja. The Jedi council could have a midichlorian captive breeding program, so that Jedi can be issued with hypodermics filled with the buggers, for when they need more power. Midichlorians could be genetically engineered for greater efficiency, or you could grow midichorians that don’t grant force powers but out-compete their cousins; inject these into a Jedi and he slowly loses his powers.

    There are libraries waiting to be written about the possibilities, but it’s all just waved away as being magic, despite the fact they’ve deliberately established that it’s not.

  • Tricksterson

    In Darths & Droids a wonderfu reimaginingg of the movies in webcomic form, this is exactly how Anakin gets his Jediness, by blood transfusion.

  • Ross

     The thing is… None of that “explanation” is actually in the movie. All anyone ever says is “Without midichlorians, we would have no knowledge of the Force.” No one ever says that they cause the Force, or they give people the Force. Based on what’s actually said, you can interpret midichlorians pretty much however you like. There’s nothing actually stated that means more than “Midichlorians let us detect a person’s force-potential via blood test”

    Even before the prequels came out, it always bothered me that the original trilogy is only set about 20 years after the rise of the Emperor, and yet the Jedi have gone from being the official legally-empowered defenders of the Republic to being essentially mythological. Han Solo doesn’t believe in the Force. And yet the Force was apparently established scientific fact in his lifetime.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Behold the power of propaganda.

  • Worthless Beast

    Here’s a fun game: Something my guy did recently. 

    Watch all the Star Wars movies in chronological order – Phantom Menance first, and so on. One per night.  When you get to A New Hope, point at the screen and go “Gah!” at all of the inconsistences that are created by the prequels. 

    Including Han Solo’s possibly unintended and overlooked Flat Earth Atheism.   There are a lot, though.

  • arcseconds

    I’ll take your word for it that there’s no more stated than that, but you’ve got to admit all of the mystical stuff that Yoda says in The Empire Strikes Back about how the Force is everywhere, in the rocks, the trees, the squiggly things in the Dagobah mud, is a little incongruous with “oh, and it turns out it’s mediated in some way by symbiotic prokaryotes that live in your blood! the concentration of these is directly related to your force potential, and can be assessed by a simple, nearly painless blood test that can be administered with very little training!”

    We could imagine the ‘force theme’ playing over the mystical stuff, then the usual bumped record sound followed by an advertising jingle as Yoda turns from mystical-mode into medical-advertising-mode :]

  • Ross

     You actually could pull the while thing off,  had the prequels been written better, by casting old Ben and Yoda as having gone a bit peculiar during their respective hermitages, and playing up the mystical elements that were largely vestigial during the last years of the old republic: deprived of the support network of the powerful and influential Jedi Order, and after twenty years stewing over “where they went wrong”, they’ve basically decided that the Jedi went astray and were divinely struck down for having strayed from the true yadda yadda.

    That is, they’re working off the Scofield Reference Journal of the Whills

  • arcseconds

     I figured somewhere between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace Lucas picked up a biology textbook, and read about mitochondria and chloroplasts and thought “that is so cool! I’m totally putting that in my next movie.”

  • Ygorbla

    The weirdest thing about this is what they’re concerned with.  I can understand a Christian being worried about losing the concept of a historical Adam — I mean, the Bible does say that there was this guy named Adam, etc.

    But they’re not concerned about that!  They’re concerned that by losing a historical Adam (which the Bible does at least talk about) they’ll lose this concept of original sin, which isn’t in the Bible at all, in any way shape or form, not even in a pedantic let’s-take-all-the-parables-exactly-literally way.

    I think it’s telling that so-called literalists are more worried about losing the tenacious chain of interpretation that leads to Original Sin than they are at losing the literally-named Adam.

  • christopher_y

    Eden is described in Genesis as very loosely being in Mesopotamia

    Well, there you go then. Cain found his missus in a cave at Bisitun in the Zagros. She must have been quite surprised, having grown up in the middle palaeolithic, when this bloke came along with a full range of bronze age technology. But maybe that made him more attractive. 

  • Tricksterson

    According to the Bible wasn’t it one of Cains descendants who inveted metalworking?  Or was that just iron-mongery?

  • christopher_y

    Hmm… we could be getting into realms of dangerous speculation here (that’d make a change, wouldn’t it?) The Jewish Encyclopedia’s discussion of Cain’s name says:

    The etymology of [Genesis] iv. 1 is a linguistic impossibility. The name was originally that of the Kenite tribe (see 2). The word  (“ḳayin”) is read in the Masoretic text of II Sam. xxi. 16, and translated “lance”; the corresponding words in Arabic and Syriac mean “smith.” The tribe may have derived its name from the fame of its smiths.

    Which certainly makes him look like a metal worker. 

    However, later in Genesis, the origin of both bronze and iron working is attributed to his descendent Tubal-Cain (originally, according to JE again, plain Tubal, and referred to an Indo-European tribe near the Black Sea who traded items in both metals). This is obviously as confused as any orally transmitted tradition. I don’t think we gain much wisdom by trying to read it too closely.

  • Amaryllis


    “Immaculate Conception” Is Not Equal To “Virgin Birth.”

  • Amaryllis

    ” we’re apparently also going to have to talk about how Frodo, Miss Marple, Ulysses, Cuchulain, and Amelia Bedelia are not historical figures either.”

    But if they were, that’s a dinner party I’d like to be invited to– as long as Amelia Bedelia isn’t doing the cooking, of course.

  • arghous

    Don’t blame me.  I’m just big boned and lumpy helixed.

  • Chrissl

    RTCs or whoever is trying to say original sin is “genetic” are working from the idea that “blood” relationships — ancestor-descendant relationships in particular — have a sort of mystic force or sacred character that makes them inherently more powerful (or important) than any other type of relationship. This certainly seems to have been a prevalent worldview in the ancient world.

    I have encountered a very thought-provoking analysis of differences between liberals and conservatives that says, among other things, that one big difference is where you think obligations and rights come from. Liberals tend to believe that more obligations are chosen — people choose to marry, choose to have children, choose to take an ideological view. Conservatives tend to believe that more obligations are inherited — people marry and have children because it’s their duty to their families, and carry on the (perceived) familial viewpoint and ideology for the sake of family honor.

    This would explain why some people struggle with the idea that original sin could pass other than by direct descent.

  • EllieMurasaki

    No, I don’t see how it would. If original sin equates to the concept that we are all capable of doing hurtful things, then it’s heritable, since it’s an inherent part of being human and being human is heritable. And if it doesn’t so equate, then what the hell is original sin?

  • Invisible Neutrino

    This belief in quasi-genetic inheritances of non-heritable properties reminds me of the distorted echoes of Lysenkoite genetics I’ve heard that persist across Russia, where people will say their country has inherited some kind of problem with getting its shit straight, as though it were woven into the actual DNA of the Russian people.

  • rmwilliamsjr

    i find it curious that the underlying theology of federal headship and imputation are legal metaphors, not biological. there is no necessary genetic connection either between adam and the human race nor between jesus and those to be found “in him”. they are God’s choice of heads to represent the group, mankind and the elect.

  • mountainguy

    If sin has been spread genetically, how are particular sins inherited? Is rage dominant, while sloth is recessive?

  • Newbiedoobiedoo

    Once upon a time a man named mankind was the father of the human race even though he only had three sons despite living to be 930 years old.

    Point of order:  not true.

    Gen 5: 4. After Seth was born, Adam lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters.
    <Gen. 5:5. Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died.

    Judaism differs on how many “other sons and daughters” that was, but they tend to agree it was over 55-60 kids.

    Which was where Cain got his wife (a sister). No one talks about that because, while they’re quick to believe Cain is capable of anything, accepting this would mean that Seth did it too. And sin is for other people!

    I like Fred, but incest will screw up both reading comprehension  and DNA.

  • Patrick McGraw

    I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan*, and I’m fine with midi-chlorians.

    In Episode IV, Obi-Wan Kenobi says “The Force is an energy field generated by all living things.” That’s pretty much techno-babble, part of how Star Wars combines science fiction and fantasy tropes. Why some people had the potential to sense and control this energy field wasn’t explained, but Obi-Wan and Yoda didn’t really have time to give Luke a crash course in History of Force-Using Traditions. Partly because the movies are space operas about adventure, not world-building essays.

    Establishing that midi-chlorians are what enable sentients to sense and control the Force doesn’t remove all the mysticism from the Force for me. It tells us what determines a person’s Force potential, yes. But where midi-chlorians come from, how they can be found in almost all sentient species across the galaxy, and how people are born with high concentrations of midi-chlorians despite parents with no Force potential – none of that is addressed in the short description Qui-Gonn gives. It’s been quite an exposition dump already.

    As for the possibilities involved with manipulating midi-chlorians, we do get a little indication of that. Qui-Gon theorizes that Anakin may have been conceived by the midi-chlorians. Palpatine hints to Anakin that Darth Plagueis could use the Force to create life, which can be inferred to be Anakin. So there’s the possibility that you manipulate midi-chlorians to make someone very powerful in the Force – but it’s not something you can do with a petri dish and a syringe. A very skilled Sith Lord may have done it. (I think there’s a novel about Darth Plagueis, but most of the EU stuff I read is comics.)

    But again, this is world-building backstory in a genre that focuses on adventure. One of the flaws of the prequels is that they spend a little TOO much time on exposition – I expect this is due to Lucas’ greater control, as there was a lot of exposition cut from Episode IV.

    As for Han’s attitude in Episode IV, it’s not that big a stretch. The prequels established that there were never more than a few thousand Jedi, so most people probably spent their entire lives without seeing one – including people of interplanetary influence like Trade Federation Viceroy Nute Gunray prior to Episode I. Several characters in the prequels express the view that the Jedi are mostly show – “simple tricks and nonsense” that could easily be done with technology dressed up in mysticism.

    Then there’s the simple fact of 20 years of the Imperial Propaganda Machine. And people are quite willing to believe things that contradict their own experiences. Fred has addressed that a lot here, such as the lie that Evangelicals have always opposed legalized abortion.

    * While I am a fan of Star Wars, consume lots of Star Wars media, collect much Star Wars merchandise, and have played in a lot of Star Wars RPG campaigns, I am not a True Fan. I say this because nothing about Star Wars sends me into a frothing rage, for the mark of a True Fan is how much they seem to hate what they claim to love. However, I AM a True Fan of Marvel and DC Comics, Warhammer 40,000, and Legend of the Five Rings.

  • arcseconds

     I think it’s a bit of a blunder, actually.  The only thing stopping it being a major blunder is that it’s not very important (which makes its status as a blunder all the more obvious — there’s no need for it).   and you’ve touched on why yourself.

    Let us take the failings in severity order.

    The first is that it introduces needless problems for the viewer.  The fact that many viewers don’t like it is proof of this, and it would have been avoided either consciously or intuitively by a better writer.   Many people said “say… wha?” at the midicholorians, and that in itself is a problem.  You don’t want your viewers doing this, not in this kind of movie, and not for this reason.

    It’s also a kind of genre fail, which I’m going to say is the second failing, but is closely tied to the first.  Lucas shows at this point a deafness for genre, which is uncharacteristic at least of 70s-Lucas.

    here’s why:

    The Star Wars movies aren’t the kind of science fiction that is sometimes called ‘SF’: they’re not about exploring the implications of technology.  They’re in the pulp fiction/ space opera / adventure movies (as you say) camp.    They take the props for granted — they’re just part of the setting.  So we can easily buy into the rayguns and the hyperdrive and the robots — they’re part of the genre we’re used to.

    We can also easily buy the Jedi.  They’re something like a monastic or military order, with mental powers and Eastern mysticism.  We’re familiar with those things, too, from kung fu movies and comic books, and to some extent from Western fantasy.  How many pulp fiction characters had mysterious powers they learnt in the East?   Lots, perhaps the most famous being The Shadow.    They happen to be in a setting that also has spaceships, so that’s new, but it’s not hard to adjust.  One thing that helps bind them together is the psychic powers, which are common in science fiction, but usually seem more mystical than scientific (often they’re portrayed as coming about as an inevitable product of greater intelligence — yogis, gnostics or maybe neoplatonists?)

    So after having established that his world has significant fantasy tropes for over 20 years, he suddenly rams the mystical, fantastic stuff into science fiction — and not even the science fiction of Star Wars, either, we’ve suddenly collided with Gattaca.  SF, not space opera, all of a sudden.  It was inevitable that it would rub some people up the wrong way.

    The third problem is, introducing the new element doesn’t achieve anything useful that couldn’t have been achieved another way.  As far as I can see, the only advancement to the plot we get for this is proof that Anakin is ‘psychically well-endowed’.  But we don’t need to introduce a new element to do this!  it’s already been well established that Jedi can detect that ‘the force is strong with this one’.  If you need to tighten it up a bit, just establish at the beginning of the movie that Qui-Gon is especially good at this, and he can see Anakin is off the scale.

    (Incidentally, this is another symptom of the narrative tension that’s introduced by midichlorians.  The Jedi are normally portrayed as not really liking technology all that much.   Blasters are random and clumsy; real Jedi don’t use targeting computers; Empire officials put too much faith in their technological marvels.  But here we see them dependent on technology for what should be core Force business.  Use the Force, Lucas!)

     The other things we get here is an explanation for the Force, or at least, something which might seem to some as an explanation, plus something to hang an explanation for Anakin’s appearance.  As for the first, it’s not a very good explanation, as you point out, and the Force is really better off without an explanation, especially in this kind of genre (I kind of wonder whether this was actually Lucas’s aim, though, to provide an explanation).  As for the second, well, again assuming you need to say anything about it at all, you could just have the characters speculate that the Force itself made Anakin.

    The fourth problem is that it’s boring expository dialogue. I have mixed feelings about expository dialogue at the best of times.   You’ve already covered this one, but i think it needs a bit more reemphasis:

    Pointless boring expository dialogue in an action movie!

    (do I need to protect myself from being thought to be a True Star Wars fan? I must protect my place on the geek hierarchy! I’m not a fanboy; I just overanalyse things)


  • Patrick McGraw

    Too much expositionary dialogue has always been one of Lucas’ flaws at writing adventures. The original trilogy and the prequels basically show what happened when he got Protection From Editors (warning: tvtropes link).

    I certainly agree that way midi-chlorians were introduced was a storytelling blunder. As you said, it added complications and exposition where the established “Jedi can sense someone’s Force potential” would have served much better.

    For Expanded Universe world-building, I can certainly see Republic worlds using technology to test midi-chlorian count being an effective way for the Jedi Order to learn about potential recruits. Even prior to the Clone Wars, the Jedi just didn’t have the numbers to do themselves. But that’s something you put in a novel, not an adventure movie.

    (One of the reasons I don’t read many SW novels is they tend to be more science fiction, less space adventure.)

    I disagree about midi-chlorians making the Force too sci-fi, though. It was already pretty sci-fi. Doc Smith and Alfred Bester were influential science fiction writers that made heavy use of psychic powers. Scifi shows like the original Star Trek had people with weird powers all over the place without them needing to be mystical.

    The other things we get here is an explanation for the Force, or at least, something which might seem to some as an explanation, plus something to hang an explanation for Anakin’s appearance.  As for the first, it’s not a very good explanation, as you point out, and the Force is really better off without an explanation, especially in this kind of genre (I kind of wonder whether this was actually Lucas’s aim, though, to provide an explanation).

    An explanation for the Force was given in the first act of the first Star Wars movie, by Obi-Wan Kenobi. “The Force is an energy field generated by all living things.” So we have always known where it comes from, and that was really all the explanation we needed in one line.

    We did not have an explanation for why some people were Force-sensitives and others weren’t, or what determined a person’s Force potential, beyond it apparently running strong in families. But a space opera adventure doesn’t really need to explain things like that – of course the Hero has special potential, he’s the Hero.

    So really, while I feel midi-chlorians should probably have been left out of the films (like you said, “pointless boring expository dialogue in an action movie”), they’re fine as part of the setting.

    Just like how all we needed to know about hyperspace travel was “Traveling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops, boy! Without
    precise calculations we could fly right through a star, or bounce too
    close to a supernova and that’d end your trip real quick, wouldn’t it?” But the fact that there is a lot more detail worked out isn’t a problem, and is part of makes for interesting world-building.

  • arcseconds

    As I already indicated, psychic phenomena are always mystical.  The fact they appear in science fiction settings doesn’t stop this.   Unless you’re very good, attempts to explain them in scientific terms are always going to seem clumsy at best, and most writers know better than to attempt this.

    It’s true that they’ve long been a staple of science fiction, and this might seem a bit odd if we think of science fiction as being essentially about science and technology.  But science fiction has never been solely about that, and in most cases it’s not even mainly about that.

    Science fiction grew up in the late 19th and early 20th century, and reflects many of the preoccupations of western society of the time.  A great enthusiasm for scientific and technological progress (tempered sometimes with doubt), some interest in social change, but also a big interest in the occult and spiritualism.  It’s the occult and spiritualism side that gives us the psychic powers.  While it’s true that many thought (and continue to think) that psychic powers and occult phenomena are quite real, and in some sense a natural part of the world, and amenable to scientific investigation, they usually also think that these are a challenge to the recieved view in science — they want, and expect, science to reject reductive materialism and embrace holism, life-energy, and a spiritual realm.  It’s quite frequently connected with a belief in the mysteries of the East — an understanding that Eastern cultures have retained or acquired an advanced knowledge of these things which Western culture is normally blind to.

    There’s another aspect to this which kind of bridges the gap between mysticism and modern science, and that’s progressivism.  It was widely believed, even by scientists, in the late 19th century that there was some kind of progressive force propelling evolution forward to new heights. This notion is still very much with us today — you still hear ‘it’s undergoing the next step in evolution’ in science fiction films. But it’s been completely expunged from modern evolutionary biology, so we can now say that people who think evolution works like this misunderstand evolution (well, they might be deliberately proposing an alternative… but usually it’s just plain misunderstanding).

    And of course, this wasn’t just in biology.  Everything was supposed to be progressing to greater and greater heights of everything.

    (This is perhaps the last vestige of the cosmic order in science. )

    Anyway, we can see that science fiction authors themselves usually understand psychic powers as not being amenable to reductive, materialistic, efficient-causal explanations from the fact that when they do give explanations, they’re generally given in holistic, dualistic, and final-causal terms.  Psychic powers are extremely commonly portrayed as the next step in evolution, so we’ve got progressivism and teleology right there.  They’re also often protrayed as an inevitable consequence of greater intelligence (which of course is also the next step in evolution…) — with greater intelligence comes greater insight and greater awareness, and with those things comes the power to not just percieve the universe, but alter it.  If that’s not gnostic-yogic mysticism, I don’t know what is.

    The psychic is also frequently portrayed as experiencing a greater unity with both the universe and other individuals.  The more powerful the psychic becomes, the less they are dependent on physical bodies.  Eventually they become an angelic being of pure energy, or often even a godlike being.  Which of course is the ultimate stage of evolution.  This isn’t particle physics, and an explanation in terms of particle physics seems out of place.

     The explanations are almost always the kinds of explanations that a Victorian occultist would provide (but often they explanations are simply absent). Often other, higher planes of reality will be invoked, and very often mysterious energy fields.  These energy fields are really kin of Kirlian photography, morphic resonance and qi, not of magnetism and gravity.

    (There are, no doubt, examples of explanations given in terms that sound more like modern science.  I’ve probably even read some.  But i can’t remember any.  some of them might even do a good job of it, but it’d be hard work.)

    It’s also worth noting (once again) that the usual portrayal of psychic powers in science fiction is pretty close to the portrayal of psychic powers in occult fiction, which has no reason to give psychic powers scientific explanations. If anything, science fiction is more all-in with extravagant psychic phenomena and godlike beings and oneness with the universe! it’s occult fiction that portrays a more down-to-earth, limited variety of psychicness.

    That’s what our culture is like and that’s what the genre is like. And the original star wars trilogy does nothing to repudiate that inheritance.  In fact, it enthusiastically embraces it by having the foremost practicioners belong to a monastic/military order sporting marked Japanese styles, who scoff at technology and frequently speak in gnomic utterances like pulp-fiction zen monks (when they’re not sounding like a ‘power of positive thinking’ self-help book). Both Jedi and Sith regularly remind people that the Force is more powerful than technological marvels.  Their guru is literally a gnome, who explains the Force in expressly mystical terms. Jedi survive death as incorporeal spirits.  The Force has a dark side (manicheanism!) and the moral attitude and state of mind with which you wield it determines which side of it you align to.

    This is not an exploration of possible science.  In fact, I’m beginning to wonder whether mysticism is correct any more, too.

     It’s sounding more like ‘religion’ is the appropriate term.

  • Patrick McGraw


    It’s sounding more like ‘religion’ is the appropriate term.

    Tarkin, Motti, and Han all Vader and Obi-Wan’s “religion” in Episode IV, so it is an appropriate term.

    Given that Tarkin and Motti had both personally witnessed Vader’s powers, I expect what they referred to was Vader’s belief in the Force as something mystical with a will of its own, rather than just a source of energy for psychic powers.  Han pretty clearly bought the Imperial line that the Force was just Jedi propaganda.

    I do take issue with the “Jedi scoff at technologyy” view, though. Obi-Wan has a dim view of blasters, but that is in comparison to the “elegant” lightsaber, which is also a high-tech weapon. He trains Luke with a droid.

    Yoda doesn’t have any tech because he’s been living out in a swamp for decades and doesn’t really need it there anyway. He doesn’t say anything negative about Luke’s starfighter or R2-D2.

    The Sith, Palpatine especially, are very big fans of technology. Emperor Palpatine clearly thought the Death Star was a great idea. Vader had a custom starfighter built for him. His objection was to Motti calling the Death Star “the ultimate power in the universe.”

  • arcseconds

    OK, so I was being a little hyperbolic with my ‘scoff at technology’ remark, but the original trilogy is full of ‘technology may be great, but the Force is greater’ stuff.    The prime example for me is Luke being instructed to turn off his targeting computer.   Don’t rely on technology.  Trust the force.

    I see this very much as tapping into the popular idea that the human mind has mysterious, intuitive capabilities (not necessarily full-blown psychic powers, mind) that our mechanistic society routinely ignores or possibly outright inhibits.

    While it’s not terribly important for this discussion, I’d always assumed Motti hadn’t seen any examples of Vader’s powers until he gets throttled by them, after he makes snide remarks about ”sorcerous ways” and “sad devotion to that ancient Jedi religion”.   It makes it a bit more powerful if you read it that way…

  • arcseconds

     I suppose you’re probably thinking ‘OK, well, even given what you say, really what’s the problem here? The explanation doesn’t actually contradict anything, and genre’s not God.  I (or Lucas) am author here, and I can do what I like, can’t I? I get all this cool world-building stuff!’

    The problem is a genre-smash, as I said.  Lucas has taken the most mystical of science-fiction tropes, driven it out further into the mystical desert, then rammed it at top-speed into a hard SF laboratory.

    It seems that you think the Force can still be as mystical as you like, but the problem isn’t what explanations remain logically possible given what’s been established in the film, but rather the flavour and direction are all wrong. He’s gone and put tobasco sauce on the icecream — which might work in an avant garde haute cuisine place, but this is the local pub and we’d just ordered the sunday roast!

    It’s not that you couldn’t do this successfully, but you have to be aware (intuitively aware, maybe) of when established genre and the wider culture are going to help you, and when they’re going to work against you.  In this case they’re going to work against you.  We’re used to just accepting psychic powers without explanation, and if we do get explanations, we’re expecting broadly mystical ones. So to start down a modern scientificy path is going to require some work.  I think you probably need to flag right from the start either that you’re not going down the usual path, or at least that you’re going to play with genre, so the audience is primed for it and doesn’t rebel.  If you are going to play it straight for half the narrative, you either need to keep playing it straight, or go all in and really pull the rug out from under the audience, maybe on several fronts at once.   Not 99% keeping in with the genre plus this one bit where you suddenly decide to deviate with this essential part of the setting that you’ve already established.

    You would also, I think, need to go right down the path of scientificy materialisticy Force explanations, not just dip your toe in.  Haul the audience’s expectations from qi and mental advancement right through to magnetism and e. coli.

    There’s probably no good way of introducing it into the Star Wars universe after Empire Strike Back — it’s too late for it, my son.  If I had found this in a spin-off novel, I would have said “well, OK, this is a lame fan-fiction reimagining. The Force is clearly mystical and they’re attempting this half-hearted modern biology crap.” and at that point, probably shut the book.  

    The only way of doing it at all well is probably what you suggested earlier ­— Yoda and Ben have gone a little funny in their old age.  But while that might be an interesting book, it’s pretty clearly deviating from the movies quite substantially — we’re obviously supposed to admire the Jedi, and take them seriously, not see them as quacks. The complete deviation is what would make it work, but you’re not going to be able to bring everyone with you.

  • Patrick McGraw


    I think you probably need to flag right from the start either that you’re not going down the usual path

    Again, I just don’t see the Force as having been purely mystical in the original trilogy, or even the original film.

    Obi-Wan describes it in a combination of sci-fi and mystical terms – there’s this energy field created by living things that gives Jedi their power. The Jedi and the Sith have mystical beliefs about the will of the Force and the Dark Side of the Force.

    The Force was introduced as a combination of standard
    sci-fi and science-fantasy elements, and as being biological in origin.
    Midi-chlorians expand on the already-established biology.

  • arcseconds

     I know that’s your view.  I have already addressed all of these points.

    You haven’t engaged with my argument, so obviously you haven’t accepted it.  I’m hoping you at least read it and understood it?

    Naturally, restating your view without addressing my points isn’t going to induce me to rethink my position — I don’t agree with anything you’ve said here, and I’ve already explained in great detail why.

    The only think I want to emphasize is that your own personal interpretation kind of doesn’t matter.   There’s no reason why you can’t take the interpretation that you do on the basis of what is presented in these films, but it’s not how psychic powers are normally presented in the genre, and it’s not how our culture normally thinks of psychic powers.   Lucas does nothing to challenge those presumptions until a prequel released nearly three decades after the first movie.  A good science fiction writer would take this into account, and either leave it alone, or introduce it nice and early.

    I’m not going to repeat myself further, so unless you have any further questions or remarks, I suppose this discussion is at an end.

    Thanks for an interesting discussion.  It hadn’t even occurred to me that anyone would take the Force’s description as an energy field as being something you might find in a physics primer, rather than in a New Age text.

  • arcseconds

     Incidentally, what would you think if someone gave an explanation operating in the other direction? Explaining something we expect to be explained (if explained at all) in terms of science and technology with minds and mysticism.

    Let’s say instead of midichlorians, it’s revealed in the prequels that hyperdrives work on the basis of the power of positive thinking (“Flying is easy. Just think happy thoughts!“).  It’s not that there’s no machine involved, you understand, but it uses the vibes from the crew to go faster than light.

    That contradicts nothing stated in the original trilogy. In fact, it helps to explain how a crappy third-hand freighter is the fastest ship in the fleet — it’s powered by Han’s chutzpah! It also helps to explain how the were unable to use the hyperdrive after Hoth — they were all a bit shagged out and defeated.  It’s also a cosmos where the mind is well established as being able to affect matter, so it’s not like we could object to this on metaphysical grounds.

    I’d be completely horrified by this, because of the massive and unexpected undermining of staples of the genre it seemed to embrace for an entire series of movies. Hyperdrives work by advanced physics, not naff optimism from children’s books.  But maybe you think it’s just an opportunity for interesting world-building?

  • Patrick McGraw

    You haven’t engaged with my argument, so obviously you haven’t accepted it.  I’m hoping you at least read it and understood it?

    Yes, we’re coming at it from such different angles. Your argument, as I understand it, is that the way the Force was presented in the original film and trilogy falls into the “weird powers as mystical secrets from the East” trope. (The Jedi Mind Trick resembles the Shadow clouding men’s minds, “trust your feelings,” etc.) And I haven’t engaged that because it certainly does fall into that trope.

    My issue that I read the descriptions of the Force as also falling within the “weird powers as sci-fi phlebotinum” trope as seen in series like Star Trek, X-Men, and Lensmen. The movies are full of that kind of space opera, where wondrous things are given the briefest pseudo-scientific handwaves.

    Thanks for an interesting discussion.  It hadn’t even occurred to me
    that anyone would take the Force’s description as an energy field as
    being something you might find in a physics primer, rather than in a New
    Age text.

    Thank you as well. It may be that I also grew up reading superhero comics, and The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe can go a long way towards bending a kid’s thinking to “Oh, so Jedi draw from the Force like the various mutants draw from extra-dimensional power sources.”

  • amanda

    wow. youre all pretty clueless. the whole truth behind original sin is free will. infused into the (yes) Biblical Adam. after God created the world. the Spirit IS what separates humans from animals. otherwise monkeys & gorillas would be our hairy peers posting funny FB comments in the next cubicle. do you think they havent had a chance to evolve? the monkeys you suggest we came from? one really smart monkey evolved and millions of years later no other monkey has come to even be a peer rival of the human monkey? we are unique and wonderful & made that way, & science proves that millions of years later not even our evolutionary cousins can comprehensibly communicate with us, other than through experiments or as pets. i admit Nordic history is mistold by the Christian crusaders of the day. its therefore rational to say that through Greek & Roman translations amid politics may have misconstrued some historical content…but to dismiss human history entirely with innacurate theories is pretty juvenile. sure aliens are real, but youd believe that before your own human history which involves actually being responsible for what you do.