Monday, June 04, 2007

Star Wars and the Midi-Chlorian Menace

Just over 30 years ago, Star Wars Episode IV was released in the U.S. and it changed the way science fiction would be portrayed in the movies. As a 10-year-old I loved it. I wanted to be Princess Leia - brave, smart, and pretty - and I had a little girl's crush on Hans Solo. And there were so many cool things to see - magnificent space ships, the race to destroy the death star, light swords and a holographic chess board, not to mention the alien-filled bar. But one of the things that caught my fancy was the idea of "The Force". It was everywhere and in everything, and, if you were the right kind of person, you could tap into its power. Of course there was a "dark side" to The Force, but those who used it were ultimately punished. It was indistinguishable from magic. Star Wars was essentially an epic sword and sorcery movie in sci-fi clothing that it made no pretense of being hard science fiction.

Fast forward 22 years to the release of Star Wars Episode I. My husband and I were among the thousands who caught a midnight showing on the day it was released. There was so much anticipation . . . and disappointment. The stilted dialog, annoying little Anakin, stupid to the point of offensive Jar Jar, and obvious plot just didn't live up to my happy memories of Star Wars as a kid. One of the many things that irritated me was the changed premise of The Force: no longer was it a sort of universal life force. Instead George Lucas added the sciency explanation that it was due to "midi-chlorians," symbiotic microorganisms that live inside all cells.

According to Chris Knight's excellent article on The, Lucas envisioned the midi-chlorians as something like mitochondria. It is thought that mitochondria are derived from microorganisms that took up residence in simple cells millions of years ago. Over the eons they gradually changed from symbiotes to essential cellular components. Based on that example, it's not so odd that there is a similar organelle in the life forms of the Star Wars galaxy. But what of the Force? That's where it gets complicated.

Here is the process as it might happen (in the Star Wars saga, anyway). A cell begins to generate its presence in the Force. It has its own special "signature" that it adds to the Force as a collective. The greater Force symbiotically adds a bit of itself to the cell by organizing organic matter at its most basic level into structures that are "in sync" with the Force. This manipulation of matter is the smallest manifestation of the Force possible, and also its most natural. Just as cells are the basic unit of life, so too is this interaction between life and the Force the base for all other interactions between an organism and the Force. And the amount of midi-chlorians generated would be proportional to the Force being created: the more Force a cell makes, the more midi-chlorians the Force produces in kind. Why it would do that... who knows? Maybe midi-chlorians are a kind of adaptation to the energies of the Force... it would fit within modern thought about species adaptation to changing environments (often just to stay in "one place" as a species: the "Red Queen" model).
Knight argues that facility with The Force is inherited, but the inheritance is through chromosomal genes, not the midi-chlorians.

Two things indicate that strength in the Force is passed down genetically. First, mitochondria are bestowed from mother to child. Because of the sperm cell's structure and need for speed, transmitting of mitochondrial DNA is more nuisance than need. Unless Luke and Leia were conceived in some artificial way that allowed for Anakin to pass along his midi-chlorians, the twins' strength in the Force came from Anakin's chromosomes. Even if midi-chlorians are NOT like mitochondria in structure but are instead a smaller "organelle", that doesn't mean that Luke or Leia would have an abundance of them, either. Second, the Force ability seems to follow the rules of Mendelian genetics in that it appears to be a dominant trait. Anakin has a sense of the Force, as do Luke and Leia. Shmi Skywalker, being Anakin's mother, perhaps has it also (she had a "sense" for when Anakin was near). Apparently Amidala does not, but dominant trait that it is, it goes along to her offspring via Anakin. If the Skywalker clan is unlike anything else in real life, it at least follows the rules of sophomore-year biology.
The inherited "Force genes" increase the level of midi-chlorians in an individual, marking rather than creating the ability to easily manipulate the Force.

According to Wookieepedia, the midi-chlorian concept has been expanded in the Star Wars novels and is fully integrated into the Star Wars mythos. Does it add anything to the storytelling, though? At least in the movies, I would say no. The midi-chlorians aren't based on much real biology (other than the "inspiration" of mitochondria), as Chris Knight's complicated analysis attests. Sure their presence let the filmmakers show a nifty gizmo that can detect the Jedi-ready with a simple scan. Beyond the sciency-souding veneer, however, the concept of midi-chlorians does nothing to actually explain the facility some individuals have in manipulating The Force. I think it was one of those elements that should have been cut in the editing room so as not to distract from the epic adventure. That's all I was really waiting for.

Image: Mitochondria, Mammalian Lung By Louisa Howard [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
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kim said...

I agree... I liked it much better when the Force was some type of "magic". What's the point of greeting everyone with "May the Force be with you" if your Force-potential is all genetically based? "Oh, hey, thanks... but I have a low midi-clorian count so the Force can never actually be with me. But you have a great day too, alright?"

Jeff said...

Those little microscopic particles were the single biggest reason I tuned out after episode one, and you pegged it exactly: the force was no longer a spiritual, metaphysical thing. It became just another biological trait.

Peggy said...

Kim & Jeff: it seems to be a common complaint of pretty much every fan of the original Star Wars movie I've talked to. I wonder how Lucas could have so misunderstood the appeal of Episode IV (and V & VI).

Anonymous said...

Actually, I like the midichlorian idea better. It means that just about everybody has some potential, but some find it easier than others to use it. So, if Star Wars was real, I could use the force--but Anakin or Yoda would have a heck of a lot easier time doing it.

Anonymous said...

My own 2 cents on midi-chlorians: Dose it de-mystify the Force? On a small level yes. Does it de-mystify it to the level that people make it out to be? Not really. All it does in my mind is offer up a reason why some beings can use the Force (Jedi) while others can't (IE Han Solo). Which is more then can be said for the OT, if its an energy force that flows though everyone that why are they people that can't use the Force? With the OT we never get an answer to this question.

At the very least the midi-chlorians offer up an explanation why that is, albeit a pusdoscience one.

And finally why does it matter if the Force has a somewhat pusdoscience answer to it? If it still lets you Force Choke, Force Shove and allow you to use a freaking lightsaber without slicing your limbs off. I personally wouldn't nitpick over its source of origin so long as it still works.

Anonymous said...

I loved the original star wars when it was released,
But your all over thinking the idea of the midi-chlorians they were mentioned in the original and were created from the start by Lucas, a quote by yoda saying that the force lives in everything all through the plants and the trees and every person it's what connects all living organisms.

Just adding my 2 cents to the concept

Anonymous said...

If they are micro-organisms, how is it possible that they concieved Anakin from a human, also doesn't that make Anakin half-Midichlorian? So, in turn, Luke is only 1-quarter Medichlorian, so technically Anakin Should be Stronger than Luke, the chosen one?