Can Microbes Manipulate Minds? Guest Post by Petro Starokadomskyy

From Fig 1 of Starokadomskyy's paper.
From Fig 1 of Starokadomskyy’s paper.

Starokadomskyy is at the Department of Internal Medicine, UT Southwestern Medical Center. He writes about his work in the area our original post “Decline Of Participation In Religious Rituals With Improved Sanitation” covered. That article criticized the work of Alexander Panchin and others which said religion was caused, somehow, by microbes. Nobody knows which bugs are responsible for that kind of science.

The main attractiveness of science consists in existence of clear standards for new hypotheses. Every new proposal in a given discipline should be confirmed experimentally and be in agreement with the general rules (e.g. thermodynamics, evolution, etc), should complement existing data in a logical way, etc. Even when a new discovery forces us to revise some previous concepts, it should not appeal to a total revision of the entire body of existing data.

For example, when a discovery of a reverse transcription disproved the “main molecular dogma” (DNA-RNA-Protein), a fact of existence of the reverse transcription challenges neither basics of physics nor evolution nor any other related scientific disciplines. The beauty of contemporary science consists is its flexibility: everything can be challenged by new data, but nothing new can contradict existing paradigms without strong theoretical and experimental evidences.

Of course, distinguishing between truth and falsity is not so straightforward process. The best judge for a new hypothesis is a time—an accumulation of data from independent sources finally confirms or disproves a given idea. But in real life, usually it takes too long. Even today, when data are accumulating with an incredible speed, scientists arguing throughout the years to adopt new paradigms. And a long year ago, at the time of Occam, Decartes, and other men that created the basement for contemporary science, the final approval (or refutation) of hypotheses took a time counted in centuries, and sometime whole life of one scholar was not enough for that.

That is why the problem of demarcation of the real data from artifacts and false theories was so important at that time. Several medieval scholars tried to develop some simple and reliable tools for “early screening” of new theories. Probably, only few of these ancient methods survived until today. But these “survivors” became true cornerstones of the modern scientific methodology: indeed, who will be doubting today about a necessity of experimental proves for a new claim? Perhaps, such triviality might have a negative role. Sometimes, people may overlook these simple rules while putting forward some bright state-of-art scientific hypothesis.

Two recent publications can serve as a perfect illustration of the aforementioned. The discussion has been occurring in a respectful journal Biology Direct, where young scientists (Panchin et al.) propose a purely speculative hypothesis: what if some unknown microbe can subtly manipulate with the human mind and incline people to perform some religious ritual in order to spread itself among other believers? At the first glance – why not, indeed: a sanity of religious rituals is known to be far from hygienic standards. But do this really required an introducing of a microbial component to be explained?

A following comment by myself criticizes the proposed hypothesis. Following my critique, the article is in disagreement with a basic logic—a typical flaw in an ultramodern cutting-edge proposal, when the beauty of an idea outshines the elementary logic. Since scientific knowledge embraces all the parts of our life including social, behavioral, and cultural aspects, it would be naive to believe that generations of scientists overlooked some epidemiological consequences of a religion. The existence of some hidden microbial driver has to have clear consequences for entire world history and be detected by hundreds of scholars throughout the time, taking into account more than 2000 years of religious history and millions of participants.

These two articles are a perfect illustration of a practical usage of medieval philosophical approaches in our high-tech time. The hypothesis doesn’t require expensive multi-genomes studies or investigation of the brain-microbiome axis to be proved or disproved. To do so, it is enough simply read any book titled alike “History of religion”. Indeed, boring and critical analysis of available historical and sociological evidences highlights multiple disagreements between the proposed state-of-art hypothesis and our casual life.

The discussion is quite unique because it is a vivid example of a situation, when contemporary hypothesis, even published in a scientific journal, can be opposed by well-forgotten philosophical approaches. Purely philosophic doctrines like Occam’s razor or Popper’s criteria are still actual. No matter what is the object of a research: microbiome, genomes, Freud’s theory, next-generation sequencing or Caloric theory, the basic logic should never be neglected.


  1. In a society where DNA can be extracted from the tiniest of blood drops and electron microscropes are found everywhere, announcing a microbe “might” be responsible for religious belief is what we would call substituting creative writing for science. If you can’t produce the microbe, then don’t bother with the paper. Want help looking? Emails and blogs work for that. Don’t write a “maybe, maybe and maybe” paper on what you think is happening. It’s reeks of the lack of science top to bottom. (This didn’t sound scientific from the beginning—maybe because it does go against time honored methods.)

  2. Gary

    But it might be a cryptozoological microbe returned to Earth by Jodie Foster (you’ve seen Contact, yes?) and transmitted through Bigfoot researchers to the rest of the population. Very hard to prove, you know.

  3. Gary: I had not consider that possibility! That would be very hard to prove.

  4. Clay Marley

    It’s been thought of already. Let’s call them Midi-chlorians, intelligent microscopic life forms that live inside cells and in sufficient numbers, allow one to commune with “the Force”, and become a Jedi.


  5. Johan

    These microbes disappear instantly when the host dies. To prove their existence, you have to cut open the brain of a living human being. The clever microbe knows that won’t happen, because religious thoughts implanted by the microbe forbid this.

  6. LOL! Well, ya’ never know, I suppose, but it would be funny if somehow they could show some microbe robs the brain of rational thought and hence render the host religious. I mean, look at the cultures who had people eating hallucinogens. Same sort of idea. 😉


  7. JMJ: Maybe they can find one that explains progressive delusions while they are at it.

  8. Doug M

    There does seem to be some data that your gut fauna may influence your mental state. Rats fed a certain strain of Lactobacillus demonstrate a less severe response to stress that rats which did not receive the bacteria.

    It is quite a leap to go from microbes have an influence on brain function to microbes drive religious belief.

  9. John B()

    Lets see how far back we can go:

    Bradbury’s “Come Into My Cellar” (short story : 1962)
    ” Meanwhile, Mrs. Goodbody, the paranoid neighbor next door, is fearful about an invasion from outer space and is already beginning the fight in her front yard by spraying all the insects attacking her plants. Is it possible invaders from another world could travel to Earth as insects? Or even tinier forms of life? Spores”

    Jack Finney Invasion of the Body Snatchers (book and movie ~1955)
    Heinlein’s “Puppet Masters” (1951)
    Reefer Madness (1936 – is this your answer Sheri?)
    As a colleague used to say : strange herbs and mushrooms

  10. Could very well be my answer, John B().

  11. Robbie

    The fools tell us that Christians are diseased whereas progressives are not.

    How they explain their ilk like Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, Castro, Chavez, and the other irreligious nihilistic government tyrants? They’ll say that 100+M killed was just nature taking its course on the way to disease free utopia. I expect they’ll also claim that those particular tyrants weren’t actually disease free while our modern government worship is certainly sanctified.

  12. –from the blog entry–
    the final approval (or refutation) of hypotheses took a time counted in centuries, and sometime whole life of one scholar was not enough for that.

    so tell me, and quickly please, how do I get to be a scholar?

  13. David in Cal

    Thinks caused by microbes are typically called “diseases”. So, this article postulates that religion is a disease.

  14. John B()

    David in Cal:

    That is the inference…and believed by many

    See Dawkins, Hitchens, et al

    It’s often considered a genetic mutation that must be eradicated

  15. Couldn’t agree less with the premise of this article. Scientific knowledge is evaluated based on evidence alone. Philosophical principles are at best guide posts or rules of thumb. They never ultimately decide the merit of any claim.

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