science commentary

Molecular biology, Raelians, and the mysterious doctrine of transubstantiation

A flying saucer cult partially confirms Thomas Aquinas using modern molecular biology techniques.

by T.J. Nelson


W hat if we could turn wheat into human flesh? What if the flesh we got was not just anybody's, but the flesh of someone who is identified by millions of people as a god? What would our reaction be? Why, we'd cut it up into little wafers and eat it, of course.

When I was a kid in Sunday school, I always envied the Catholics. While we Presbyterians got old English-style ivy-covered stone buildings, staid hymns in 4/4 time, and sometimes nice blond wood paneling, the Catholics got all the cool stuff like dazzling stained glass windows, elaborate gold chalices, demonic possession, exorcisms, Nostradamus, heads spinning around, secret prophecies about the end of the world, and transubstantiation, where ordinary bread and wine get converted into the flesh and blood of Jesus.

This latter comes, of course, from the verse in the Bible where Jesus says “He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him” (John 6:56). Even the disciples were apparently surprised by this: as the Bible puts it, they ‘murmured at it.’

(This is not to be confused with the time he figured out how to feed five thousand people with five loaves of bread. I had always assumed he just stomped off to the grocery store and bought more, muttering something like “...those disciples ... one lousy picnic ... guest list of five ... for crying out loud! ....” Apparently, though, that's not quite how it happened.)

Lightning on a ginger snap
A ginger snap being transubstantiated
Well, I played hookey a lot on Sundays, so forgive my confusion on these things—it's been a long time since I strayed from the flock. But the general idea seems to be, if I'm reading it correctly, that if they ate this bread, they would live forever (meaning they would live in a spiritual realm in the afterlife)—living forever, one way or the other, being a recurrent theme in Christianity going all the way back to the Tree of Life in Genesis.

I'm not trying to ridicule the idea. It's a fascinating tradition. To Catholics, it probably all seems quite ordinary. The Catholic Church decreed at the Council of Trent in 1551 that the Eucharist (which means either the ritual of partaking bread and wine in commemoration of Christ, or just the bread and wine itself) is regarded as a propitiatory sacrifice, and really, truly is the blood and body of Jesus Christ. But imagine if we took slices of red beets and told little kids they were pieces of Santa Claus, and you had to eat them. The kids would think it an odd custom indeed, and probably somewhat disturbing, in a Silence of the Lambs-better-get-out-of-here-now before they bring out the chainsaws kind of way.

It turns out that a group of Raëlians once tested tested a sample of consecrated communion wafers by PCR using modern (at the time) DNA technology and discovered that they contained ... only wheat DNA. Of course, this doesn't prove that transubstantiation doesn't occur: what if, for example, Jesus actually was made of bread? Thomas Aquinas himself considered this possibility, and dismissed it.

On the other hand, it's possible that these particular wafers were defective in some way.

The Raëlians used human mitochondrial DNA primers, so what it really proves is that those particular consecrated communion wafers didn't contain any human mitochondria. Mitochondria, as we know, are passed down only from the mother and would contain only maternal DNA. So provided that the story of virgin birth is true, there should be lots of mitochondria there. So the result is pretty convincing. It firmly rules out any chance of cloning Him from a communion wafer.

But what is fascinating is why our ancestors would even think of this. The idea of acquiring spiritual immortality by eating a god seems bizarre and alien to us today—a window into the minds of our distant ancestors.

Or does it? Acquiring power, wisdom or immortality by eating a specific food is a common theme even today. In the 1971 sci-fi movie THX-1138, children learn advanced economics by absorbing it through syringes and IV bags; in one scene an adult impresses them by saying in the old days it took a whole week.

Today we know acquiring knowledge from an IV bag would be as difficult as transmogrifying the DNA and protein sequences from a plant into their human counterpart. Memories are not stored as RNA sequences as some physiologists once hypothesized. The structures of wheat and human cells differ enormously. But in the days before molecular biology, the microscope, and the concept of molecules, the idea of transubstantiation must have seemed fairly plausible.

Thomas Aquinas, recognizing that eating actual human flesh is ‘not customary’ (at least in polite society), wrote in Summa Theologica that the change is entirely supernatural: Christ's true body and blood, he concluded, cannot be detected by sense or understanding, but only by religious faith. Following Aquinas, many modern theologians consider the idea of transubstantiation to have a basis in Aristotle, the idea being that the ‘accidents’ (the physical attributes) of bread and wine remain empirically bread-like and wine-like, but the ‘substance’ (the true nature) of them is changed into the body and blood of Jesus. Thus, they would deny that human mitochondrial DNA has to be present.

Today the whole thing seems like a quaint relic, a tradition that's anachronistically out of place, and so makes our culture interesting—gives it its meaty flavor, as it were. Maybe it's a way for Christians to stretch their religious faith, a way of opening one's mind—to believe one impossible, or at least very unlikely, thing before lunch. Or maybe it's their way of strengthening their beliefs by reminding them that miracles could happen to anyone.

Anthropologists call the symbolic eating the flesh of a god theophagy. Many early religions, including the ancient Greeks, practiced it, often by ritualistically consuming bread and wine. According to Sir James George Frazer's The Golden Bough, the Aztecs had an elaborate ritual of creating an idol of their god Huitzilopochtli out of food, which they would then consume. Ritual cannibalism is also a common feature of iron age and stone age cultures. Many American Indian tribes, notably the Iroquois, Hopi, Anasazi, and the Aztecs, practiced it quite literally (see here, here, and here). We may be tempted to think it was the omnipresent threat of death by starvation that caused early humans to make the link between eating and immortality. Or perhaps, knowing that some foods can cause death, it's logical to conclude that others could prevent it. But even though similar rituals still exist in our society, we really don't understand it.

Back then it really was a different world, and a different way of thinking. It's as hard for us to imagine as to understand how, as kids, we could have thought the world ceased to exist when we stopped looking at it. Science has changed not just our understanding of the physical world, but our minds. As a result, in many ways our ancestors are more alien to us than any extraterrestrial could ever be.

See also:

Pascal's Wager
A new take on an old philosophical idea.

On the Internet, no one can tell whether you're a dolphin or a porpoise
mar 22, 2015


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