“The Craziest Thing I’ve Ever Seen”

Over on social media the other day, I came across the following tweet, posted at NPR’s site.

My comment, used above as this post’s opening pic, wasn’t completely sarcastic.

Instead, the video and, more importantly, the effort to make sense of it (i.e., are the turkeys engaged in a weird ritual!?), seem to be suitable examples of how we use categories like religion or ritual: to make sense of the unknown when it seems to suggest analogues to that which is known.

Sure, there’s all sorts of scholarship already done on this, e.g., studying how European explorers (aka colonialists) first tried to make sense of the peoples and customs they were confronting for the first time. But you really don’t have to look much further than a tweet about turkeys, and the accompanying commentary — “These turkeys trying to give this cat its 10th life” — to see it in action.

The curious thing is, of course, that perfectly mundane explanations can shed sufficient light on such actions, such as in the NPR story, linked above, where a biologist suggests it’s “most likely … predator inspection behavior“– which we see across species. In fact, a friend on Facebook then posted this video in the comments, showing that this is, perhaps, not such unique behavior after all.

By extension, might our attribution of complex meanings, symbolic associations, and unseen intentions to those mysterious actions we label “ritual” or “religion” be off base as well? Frits Staal’s classic essay comes to mind, in fact…

So the next time you see a story on how, say, cave paintings or burial techniques prove that ancient people were religious (or maybe that chimps are too?), maybe you should think of those turkeys and how interpreting this or that as religious, or as a ritual, tells you far more about us than them — shedding light on our attempt to make sense out of something that strikes us as, well, just a little crazy.

2 thoughts on ““The Craziest Thing I’ve Ever Seen”

  1. As the local Climate watcher, I would offer one alternative suggestion about the meaning of the turkeys for our future sociality as a species facing the increasing volatility of climate. What will matter in the future to biodiversity will be the extent to which humans gather in circles to dance around the predators that threaten us, such as drought, flooding, freezing, bacterial plumes that kill water life, viruses, bleaching corals, melting permafrost, fires, winds, super storms, super typhoons, super tornado seasons, melting glaciers, and the sixth great extinction of biodiversity. That is, perhaps the circling turkeys are meaningful in that they work to notify the flock of a threat and the collective action produces the greatest chance for survival. My sense of the future for human communities, from Syrian farmers faced with drought to the suburbs of LAs Vegas sucking water from a straw under Lake Meade’s receding shores, is that there will be less violence in those places where the turkeys circle, where the women dance together, where the foodies make food hubs and promote social justice in the distribution of food. Where strong men are followed there will be greater violence, “others” will be sacrificed on the altars of difference (Kristeva?), women will become the 0s upon which the economy of patriarchy will turn (Kristeva), and the organization of circles will be tightly controlled. So I’m with the turkeys on this one, and would say a theory of religion that does not account for the evolutionary biology of such behavior does not understand how powerful such behavior will be in the coming decades of climate volatility.