Scientific discovery of the elusive human soul (Thawai in Manipuri) as Mitochondria

Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh
In my science writings in TSE, I’ve tried to communicate modern discoveries in science to readers. I first wrote about mitochondria in my search for the origin of Meiteis in my book, The Origin of Meiteis of Manipur in 2009. The origin of Meiteis is still in a limbo. It’s still up for grabs. The latest salvo comes from Dr Priyadarshani Gangte (TSE, July 17 2018). Dr (Mrs) Gangte, a Meitei turned Kuki, is an erudite scholar. She wrote: ‘Nongda Lairen Pakhangba, a Naga who was a Tai and Laisna, the younger sister of Poireiton, a Chin-Kuki- tribe who belongs to the old Kuki group’…
The endangered Meiteis tribe is fortunate in that, before they become extinct, as their last rite, the mystique of their origin has been solved: “Tangkhuls and Kukis were Meitei ancestors”, apokpa in Meiteilon. Now, they should be looking after their protégé, poor Meiteis, still clinging to “chingnakoina pannsaba, haonakoina (sic. chingmees) panngakpa”.
Anthropology received from sources that cannot be substantiated is like the existence of the soul, for which there’s no authenticated evidence for its subsistence. As I was once interested in the soul, I did some research, which found it to be a complete farce. But I gathered some scientific evidence that alludes to the presence of soul to mitochondria in our living body and its departure from our corpses.
God and Science compete each other. In 1968, three Americans, Frank Norman, Jim Lovell and William Anders became the first humans who orbited the Moon on board Apollo 8. During their 9th orbit, they made a live television Christmas broadcast in which, being religious, they read the creation story of the biblical Genesis, beamed across the quarter of a million miles to Earth: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep […]. We close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas – and God bless all of you, all of you on good Earth.”
The broadcast proved controversial in America. It was challenged in court as a violation of the 1st amendment of the United States Constitution, which does not allow religious promotion by the Federal Government, of which NASA is a apart. The Supreme Court dismissed the case, on the grounds that it had no jurisdiction in lunar orbit.
The basic concept of the union of God with the soul, is the fundamental tenet of all major religions except in Buddhism, for which there is no afterlife or God. Over the centuries, theologians have assembled a mighty tome as a fantasy novel of what they thought to be the soul, such as monism (advaita, Vedanta) and dualism (dvaita, Vedanta). This is called theology, a part of philosophy ie knowledge (Greek).
The existence or non-existence of God and the soul has been a long quest of my life (cf. Quest beyond Religion, 2006: 27-32). All along, the uncertainty of God shared the same platform with soul. Now, my disentanglement with God and soul is complete. I’ve the courage to extricate myself from a prospective reward of heaven or a punishment in hell. Whilst, over nine years, research in the structure and function of Mitochondria has made me believe that mitochondria are the souls of men, other animals, and plants.
Within each of our cells are many tiny biochemical power plants that convert chemicals from basic fuel molecule used by your cells to provide energy for life.
The human body consists of 30-40 trillion cells. Cells are the building blocks of the human body. Mitochondria are tiny biochemical power plants, like the hydro-electric power plant that gives us energy. They live within our cells and convert chemicals from foods to ATP (see below), the basic fuel molecule, used by our cells to provide energy to keep us alive.
Meiteis of Manipur have many philosophical insight. By insight I mean, Meiteis have thoughtful knowledge that connects to other parts of their existence. Ancient Meiteis had more than one soul. They had five souls representing the elements in nature like fire, and an extra soul represented by their shadow (MÍ in Manipuri). I don’t know if these 5 elements are the same as a the Vedic Punch Bhuta or the Chinese and the Japanese 5 elements. When I was a little boy, they used to say that when a person dies its ‘mi’ also comes out. And dead people never cast shadows. Probably because they had never seen a dead person standing against the sun.
I take immense delight in this graceful poetic expression of a Meitei youth’s sincere and undivided love for his sweetheart : Katchare thawai mangamak,/miga thana taruk mak/ pamubagee choronda;/ loubiyu tattana… (I) relinquish my five souls, altogether six with my shadow, at your babylicious feet; please accept with abandon…
Though the articulation is frolicsome and amusing, it’s a blistering lyrical statement of intent, offering all of his six souls ie life to her. He’s giving away all the powerhouses that give him life. Scientifically speaking, these mitochondria like the soul, work for the entire person. As the Bible says, the soul can work, crave food, eat, obey laws, and touch the dead body. Those activities involve the entire person (Leviticus 5:2; 7:20; 23:30).
Science, that has been struggling to find the dividing line between life and death over the past century, is now coming closure. In ancient times, Aristotle and other Greek philosophers, and in modern times, great thinkers like Descartes and Kant had tried and failed to rationalise the origin of life. Presently, mitochondria may turn out to be the heart of the matter between the non-living and living, and in discovering what sparked the first life on Earth, 2 billion years ago.
Mitochondria in animals including humans, and chloroplasts (another form of mitochondria) in plants and algae, are the “powerhouses” in cells. They give life to animals and plants. They live in our body cells except in red blood cells, as cylindrical bodies in an independent world of their own, with their own genetic materials (genome) and lineage. The name ‘mitochondria’ was coined by Carl Benda in 1898. It comes from the early days of cell biology when researchers used to tease them from cells using fine needles. Greek ‘mitos’ meaning thread, and ‘chondrion’ meaning a grain.
Mitochondria vary in size, but the average mitochondrion is about one micron in length. Their population varies in relation to the tissues of the body, depending on the work they do. They are abundant eg, in liver. They multiply when the energy needs of a cell increases. For a bodybuilders, they will have much more mitochondria in their muscles. On the other hand, If you are suffering from heart failure, you will have fewer mitochondria in your heart muscles and thus less energy. When they are quite depleted, the heart will stop functioning and you will die.
Mitochondria are “organelles” ie little organs, like many others that live inside a cell in its cytoplasm but outside its nucleus. They produce energy by using oxygen we breathe in (cellular respiration) for the cells to function and the cells in turn, for the entire person. They have their own cell membrane and DNA (genome). They multiply by simple division into two, like bacteria. Indeed, they are ancient bacteria. So are chloroplasts, which were once free-living cyanobacteria and now living inside all green plants and algae, providing energy by photosynthesis.
Recent Videomicroscopy shows that mitochondria are constantly dividing, fusing, and changing shape. According to the endosymbiotic theory, they are survivors of the ancient aerobic (using oxygen for living) bacteria-like, free-living unicellular ancestors without a nucleus (prokaryotes), which were engulfed amoeba-style, by nucleated cells (eukaryotes) for food.
Over the millennia, the host cells, instead of digesting their victims inside, began to use them to produce energy for them. It was like saying: ‘look Joe, if you do this for me I’ll let you live’. So they began to live symbiotically inside (endosymbiotically) for their own survival and the existence of their hosts, 1.7 to 2 billion years ago (Lynn Margulies, 1967). Because mitochondria produce energy in the form of ATP (adenosine triphosphate) from ADP (adenosine diphosphate), the evolution of cellular organisms began, ending up with modern humans. They’re in essence, the human souls.
When I was a medical student (1962), we were taught about ‘Kerbs cycle’ ie how living cells produce energy as ATP, but nothing about mitochondria. Only in 1976, scientists knew mitochondria are involved in the synthesis of the energy-carrier molecule ATP from ADP by electron transport ie passage of electrons from a higher concentration outside the ‘inner membrane’ of mitochondria to the lower concentration inside (proton gradient). When energy is required eg, to run, mitochondria break down ATP to produce ADP + energy. They also generate body heat, and mediate cell growth and death.
If indeed, life originated on Earth from chemical processes in the primordial soup, or from the deep alkaline sea beds, powered by the natural occurring proton gradients then, mitochondria are a good candidate for the elusive human soul. Once we find the ancestors of mitochondria we may find the origin of life that began 2 billion years ago.

The writer is based in the UK

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