Back in March Science Writer and blogger Ed Yong gave a TED talk on the subject of parasites and the fascinating ways in which they can sometimes "subvert and override the wills of their hosts" (a full video of the talk posted here on DG). In his talk Yong spoke about how rodents infected with the brain parasite toxoplasma gondii effectively become “cat-seeking missiles”; seeking out felines and getting themselves eaten just so that toxo can then develop and reproduce inside the cat. As much as one third of the global human population may be infected with toxo. Although mild flu-like symptoms occasionally occur during the first few weeks following exposure, toxo generally produces no symptoms in healthy human adults (toxoplasmosis can be fatal to infants and those with weakened immune systems, however). Opinions are currently divided among researchers as to what, if any, influence toxo has on the behaviour of infected humans (although links to schizophrenia are amongst the effects which have been hypothesised ). But, says, Yong in his TED talk, even if it isn’t from toxo, “Given the widespread nature of such manipulations [of hosts by parasites], it would be completely implausible if humans were the only creature not under the same thrall.”
While the idea of mind control via a parasite may seem like science fiction, there is an example we're all already familiar with: rabies. The rabies virus induces aggressive, violent behaviour in the infected, increasing the chances of the host biting other animals. The rabies virus is transmitted via the saliva of the infected into a new host. It's a somewhat crude (and oversimplified) example but its one that is pretty much universally accepted and understood.
Not all parasites make themselves so conspicuous however, in fact it may come as a surprise to you that there may be as many as ten times more bacterial cells in your body than there are human cells . 90 trillion or so microbes are your constant passengers; you are a walking ecosystem . The human microbiome (to give it its proper scientific name) is the aggregate of micro-organisms that reside on and inside us; from between our toes, to the tips of our eyelashes, to our gastrointestinal tracts. Some of these organisms perform tasks which are known to be beneficial to us, the host, but the majority have thus far been too poorly researched for us to understand what, if any, role they play in shaping our lives . That however is changing, especially when it comes to the gut–brain axis.
The gut–brain axis refers to the biochemical signalling taking place between the gastrointestinal tract and the nervous system, involving intestinal microbiota (gut bacteria) which have been shown to play an important role in brain function. Changes in gut bacteria are now being investigated as possible contributors to, or triggers for the worsening of, autism . A 2013 study carried out by the University of California found that subjects who regularly ingested beneficial "probiotic" bacteria showed altered brain function . Earlier this year researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Arizona, Tucson published that they had found that people living in cold, northern latitudes have bacteria in their guts that may predispose them to obesity . How we process information, how we interact with others and the world around us, even our outward appearance, may all be controlled to some degree by our microbiome. Gut bacteria has even been proven to alter sexual preference (although only in fruit flies thus far) . How much of what we think of as "us", might actually be "them"?
At the beginning of July 2014 a paper entitled Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis: is there a microbial component to religious rituals? was posted on the open access, peer-reviewed online journal Biology Direct (full text here). The paper puts forward the following hypothesis:
Some microorganisms would gain an evolutionary advantage by encouraging human hosts to perform certain rituals that facilitate microbial transmission. We hypothesize that certain aspects of religious behaviour observed in human society could be influenced by microbial host control and that the transmission of some religious rituals could be regarded as a simultaneous transmission of both ideas (memes) and organisms. We call this a “biomeme” hypothesis
Practices such as the touching and kissing of holy relics, drinking from or bathing in sacred waters, and ritual flagellation or piercing of the body are postulated as a possible means of transmission of specific parasites. The practice of fasting, "known to reduce total gut bacteria and affect the gut microbiome composition", could have a part to play in a parasite's life cycle, or else its effect upon the host. The veneration, or eschewing, of certain domestic animals could be a means of controlling which parasites the host is exposed to. Even celibacy in holy men and women could be linked to parasitic passengers; "it has been noted that many parasites eliminate their hosts reproductive potential as they channel all available resources to maximize their own reproductive success."
The hypothesis is completely unproven. It is mere leap of logic or flight of fantasy, depending on your own perception. Responding to one of their learned reviewers (all of whom seem entertained by the hypothesis but highly sceptical), the paper's authors state "We also agree with Dr. Koonin that our hypothesis is outrageous and may be incorrect, however we believe that it’s still an interesting one and worth considering. [...] What makes our hypothesis perceived as more outrageous [than others] is that religion is indeed a taboo subject in human society."
This response seems to suggest that the idea of parasitic control being a factor in some acts of religious behaviour would be inherently anti-religious; that it would somehow undermine the previously perceived purpose of those acts. But, why should that be the case? If proven to be true, would it not demonstrate that ritualistic religious behaviour had a provable, physical root? If the feelings of community, of belonging, and so on that people get from religious participation were proven to be caused by parasites controlling their hosts (just as the tapeworm Flamingolepis liguloides turns brine shrimp from solitary into social creatures ) would that not make them all the more real? No longer mere traditions, superstitions, or "brainwashing" as some would have it, these acts would have a concrete demonstrable cause and purpose. Some would argue it could be the death of religion, others would call it proof of a creator.
If we, the host, could in fact be the product of our passengers - those whose cells outnumber our own by ten to one - in so many ways, who is to say which of the behaviours and effects caused by "them" are the real "us"? If ritualistic religious behaviour could be eradicated, say via antibiotics just as an example, then what else would we choose to change? What if non-religious ritualistic behaviour was proven to have a similar root? Would we choose to eradicate peoples' desire to attend football matches? Muddy music festivals? Do we pick and choose which are positive and negative traits? Intelligence, body type, mental health... Do we legislate? Do we immunise? What does a homosapien look and like at the end of all that? What are we without our 90 trillion strong microbiome? Is it still what you and I think of today as human?
I fully acknowledge that is all ridiculous and outlandish speculation on my part, of course; a writer's imagination going into overdrive, but that's because parasitic control is an incredibly inspiring topic. Indeed, in his TED talk, Ed Yong said "I'm a writer and fellow writers in the audience will know that we love stories. Parasites allow us to resist the allure of obvious stories; their world is one of plot twists and unexpected explanations."
Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis... is itself, in effect, a work of speculative fiction; building upon existing research and ideas with a series of "what if"s. One of my favourite passages in the paper reads as follows:
It seems that something like Toxoplasma gondii would be a good preliminary candidate for the role of our hypothetical microbe that promotes religious behavior as it is prevalent and widespread (as religious practices are) and its infection is associated with some behavioral traits and it is capable of latently residing in the human brain. Coincidentally, the sacred status of cats, definitive hosts of Toxoplasma gondii was part of the ancient Egyptian religious tradition for centuries. To our knowledge, no research on the association between toxoplasmosis or similar infections and religiosity has been performed, thus such an association could have been overlooked
The entire great civilisation of Ancient Egypt motivated by cat parasites. That couldn't be true, surely? You just keep telling yourself that when you're checking your Twitter/Facebook/Instagram today and seeing images of cat after cat after cat.
Putting this piece together I was curious as to whether Ed Yong would have read (or even heard about) Midichlorians - the biomeme hypothesis... so I dropped him an email asking if he'd like to comment upon the hypothesis. He very kindly sent me this response:
It is clear that parasites and microbes can manipulate animal behaviour but it is very hard to confirm such manipulations, even in species that can be experimented upon. Hypotheses like this will remain cute just-so stories until they can actually be verified
[Before you read this book review, know that I not only intend to offer my opinion on the novel, but also explore the historical events of the Mexican Conquest in some depth. If you are a complete neophyte in the topic & want to enjoy Graham's War God without 'spoilers', then I suggest you close this link & open the Amazon page to order it instead, since my ultra-ultra short review is "I liked it, get the book" anyway --same goes for anyone daunted by the prospect of reading a 3000+-word-long essay, which will only reinforce your decision to buy War God. For the undecided (and the masochists) please enjoy]
Broken spears lie in the roads;
We have torn our hair in our grief
The houses are roofless now, and their walls
Are red with blood.
Worms are swarming in the streets and plazas,
And the walls are spattered with gore
The water has turned red, as if it were dyed
And when we drink it,
It has the taste of brine
We have pounded our hands in despair
Against the adobe walls,
For our inheritance, our city, is lost and dead
The shields of our warriors were its defense.
But they could not save it.
We have chewed dry twigs and salt grasses:
We have filled our mouths with dust and bits of adobe.
We have eaten lizards, rats and worms
When we had meat, we ate it almost raw.
Weep my people
Know that with these disasters
We have lost the Mexican nation
The water has turned bitter
Our food is bitter
These are the acts of the Giver of Life.
~From the book The Broken Spears, chapter XV
As a literary fan, I honestly don't know which would be harder: To write a completely fictional story, or a fictionalized account of a true historical event. The open-ended freedom of pure fiction could turn into a double-edged sword in the hands of an inexperienced writer; whereas with fictionalized events, you wouldn't be allowed to surprise the reader by deviating too much from what was actually recorded in the History books – unless you're Quentin Tarantino, that is.
Which is why I was very interested in reading Graham Hancock's War God, his first non-fiction (‘first non-fiction-based novel’, or ‘second fiction novel’?) book & a novelized exploration of an event I probably know better than most: The Spanish Conquest of Mexico in the 16th century. ... Read More »
"Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change", said the fictional chemist Walter White on the hit television show Breaking Bad. "Electrons change their energy levels. Molecules change their bonds. Elements combine and change into compounds. But that's all of life, right? It's the constant, it's the cycle. It's solution, dissolution. Just over and over and over. It is growth, then decay, then transformation". Walter White's words paint him as much a latter-day alchemist, ruminating on the mysteries of life and metamorphosis, than as the criminal crystal meth technician that he was.
His words also serve as a succinct description of the questions that drove real-life drug chemist, Alexander 'Sasha' Shulgin, who entered the state of physical dissolution at around 5pm on June 2nd, 2014, just a couple of weeks short of his 89th birthday. Shulgin too was fascinated by the study of change - in his case, how the mind and consciousness could be modified so profoundly through interactions with the most nuanced changes to molecules. "I was always interested in how, if you move one carbon atom, for example, on amphetamine, you can change it from being a strong stimulant to a psychedelic," he once told a reporter. "How is it that the difference of one atom produces such a dramatically different result in the human? The answer is, nobody knows."
Shulgin though, was no Walter White. His concern was not with power or making money (so much so that wife Ann once quipped that a little money would have been nice), and for the most part his experiments synthesizing new drugs were done on the right side of the law (he held a Schedule 1 license until 1994). It was always that question, about the change in consciousness produced by chemical modifications, that drove him throughout his life. And as such, the test subject for the synthesized psychedelics that he invented was always, primarily, himself (as well as another willing subject, wife Ann). Their seminal books TiHKAL and PiHKAL ('Tryptamines/Phenethylamines I Have Known and Loved') provide a permanent record of their bio-assay experiments; a typical entry, such as that for the tryptamine DIPT, includes the chemical procedure to synthesize the drug, followed by comments on the qualitative aspects and duration of the experience (18mg: "Wild effects noted in an hour. Remarkable changes in sounds heard"; 250mg: "Shortly after I ingested the substance I heard a spirit say, 'Once in a lifetime.' She encouraged me to believe that I would have more life after the experience. But, there was a feeling of foreboding"). Each entry finished with a personal commentary, which might touch on anything from chemistry notes to possible applications of the drug. Not all experiences were interesting or enjoyable though, as one might expect when experimenting with the effects of newly designed chemicals – the Shulgins suffered, on various occasions, nausea, periods of unconsciousness, and terrifying psychological symptoms.
This combination of precise chemistry skills with the drive to self-experimentation and self-exploration evokes the label of 'alchemist' all too easily. And Sasha Shulgin's physical appearance ... Read More »