Midi-chlorians are possibly the least popular bacteria in all pop culture. When The Phantom Menace introduced the concept of microbial Force organisms, many Star Wars fans complained that it robbed the Force of its mystery and wonder. Even Star Wars officialdom seems to have distanced itself from the concept. In a recent interview with MTV, J.J. Abrams stated that midi-chlorians would not be mentioned in Episode VII. Yet, for those of us rooted in Western civilization, I suspect our collective reaction stems at least in part from our own religious traditions and preconceptions. The Abrahamic religions tend to create a separation between the material and the spiritual, whereas many Eastern religions embrace a fusion of the two.
First, it is important to clarify what midi-chlorians are—and are not. As Obi-Wan Kenobi explained in A New Hope, the Force is an “energy field created by all living things.” In The Phantom Menace, Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn tells Anakin Skywalker that midi-chlorians are “microscopic life-forms that reside within the cells of all living things and communicate with the Force.” In other words, midi-chlorians are not the Force, but rather act as antennae enabling “living things” to detect the Force. They are akin to our sensory organs; without a nose, we would be unable to perceive smells.
Even accepting this explanation, midi-chlorians upset some fans because they seemed to conflate the mundane with the mysterious. In the Abrahamic traditions—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—religion defies conventional scientific explanation. Laboratory instruments cannot prove or disprove the existence of God, much less explain how Jesus raised Lazarus or walked on water. In fact, such explanations would be beside the point; miracles have religious meaning because adherents believe them to be a sign of something beyond the material world. The promise of an otherworldly afterlife has inspired millions to forgo temporal pleasure for a more heavenly reward. Moreover, Abrahamic religions have often found themselves in conflict with scientific advances that contradicted sacred texts, from Copernicus to Darwin. The notion that Jedi would use biology to validate their religious beliefs flies in the face of millennia of Western history.
Eastern religious traditions provide more insight to understanding the midi-chlorians. After all, the Force is rooted in a vague blend of New Age philosophy and Buddhism popular during 1970s. At the risk of oversimplifying, many Eastern religions accept the material as inextricably linked to the spiritual. Adherents of Buddhism and Hinduism believe that they will be reincarnated after they die; in other words, destined to return to this world rather than depart. Buddhism and Hinduism place greater emphasis on physical acts as forms of religious practice, including meditation, yoga, and even tantric rituals, which involve sexual rites. Siddhartha Gautama, the original Buddha, opened his teachings up to testing and falsification; he provided what he believed to be the best way to achieve enlightenment based on his experience, but did not dismiss the possibility of better alternatives.
Midi-chlorians not only introduce a scientific component to the Force, but also seemingly allow Jedi to quantify a person’s Force powers. In The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon asks Obi-Wan to test a sample of Anakin’s blood, which yields a specific numerical result (“over twenty thousand”). Yet again, this seems to conflict with Abrahamic notions of human divinity. It has generally been understood in most branches of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam that any human being has the potential to achieve salvation.* According to the Bible, Jesus died in order to remove the stain of Original Sin, allowing each person to begin life with a clean slate. As such, a person’s ability to reach salvation depends upon his or her actions, particularly faith in God and adherence to the sacred scripture.
* This seems more in line with George Lucas’ original depiction of the Force, which permitted anybody to feel the Force so long as they performed certain physical and mental exercises (see StarWars.com for interview quotes).
By contrast, in both Hinduism and Buddhism, a person’s spiritual fate is tied not just to actions in this life, but also to past lives. Buddhists build karma by performing good deeds, which can carry over into future lives. The higher the karma, the higher level at which a person will be reincarnated (life as a human is seen as preferable to life as a snail). Eventually, individuals with sufficiently high karma will find nirvana, or release from the cycle of birth, life, and death. This means that some people begin life with higher spiritual potential than others. Like the Jedi with Anakin, Buddhists believe it is possible to discover religious power in children based on their past lives.** For millennia, Hinduism assigned people to strict castes based upon heredity, with the highest class (Brahmins) serving as priests.
** Tibetans identify the next Dalai Lama by testing his recollection of his previous lifetime.
That said, karma in the Buddhist tradition is not quite deterministic. Buddhists believe that individuals are born with a certain level of karma inherited from their previous lives, but also that they can gain more merit through good deeds in their current lives. In other words, even if Buddhists could measure a person’s karma at birth, a higher “karma count” wouldn’t necessarily guarantee enlightenment. Like karma, midi-chlorians give some people higher potential for religious awareness than others. However, it also reveals (yet another) flaw of the Jedi of the Prequel era (see my article last week). In focusing so heavily on midi-chlorian counts, the Jedi overlooked the fact that everybody has some amount of potential to feel the Force. Some people have greater natural talent, but, as any good teacher knows, a teacher should encourage students with potential and passion to succeed, not to discourage or play favorites based on test scores.
Qui-Gon’s emphasis on midi-chlorians in the Prequels and Yoda’s mysticism in the Original Trilogy don’t exactly match up. After all, Yoda never told Luke about midi-chlorians. But perhaps that’s the point. The Jedi of the Prequel era had tools to measure midi-chlorians, but that doesn’t mean they were right to do so. Just as we do not tell new students that the density of their neural pathways determines their potential to learn, so too Yoda might have been reluctant to tell Luke about midi-chlorians for fear of encouraging biological determinism. Treating Anakin, the kid with the highest midi-chlorian count ever, as the Chosen One certainly did not teach him wisdom and compassion. In retrospect, the Jedi obsession with midi-chlorians lulled them into putting too much faith in prophecy and too little in Anakin as a person. Midi-chlorians might demonstrate raw potential, but Anakin’s fate shows that natural aptitude without emotional guidance is wasted or potentially even dangerous.
Dom Nardi is the Contributing Writer for Star Wars at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.