Science in Review — The Thanksgiving Turkey gets the LEGO Worm

Painting of the First Thanksgiving

The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth by Jennie A. Brownscombe

It is entirely possible to draw too much of a connection between the United States of America as it presently exists, and the new creation to come promised in the Bible. Current events make it clear just how much healing our world presently needs. I want to be very clear that I only intend a very narrow and specific comparison. Having said that, as I was reflecting on Thanksgiving, it struck me that for those among the Plymouth settlers who were believers, the American continent may have seemed to be the closest analogue of the world yet-to-come as they would experience, particularly when it came to food.

According to the traditional Thanksgiving narrative, God’s providential provision was necessary to the survival of those settlers. Or at least, they were more acutely aware of that need. In Europe, food production was already an abstraction for the mainly urban pilgrims, a function of civilization rather than the efforts of each individual person or family. In America, the availability of sustenance was less guaranteed, and proven Old World techniques and crops didn’t all translate. Even the human intervention of the indigenous population is associated with specific individuals known by name rather than an anonymous collective activity.

To my mind, this put them closer to the state described in Eden, and to the situation we will experience in the new creation. That is not to say that heaven will be a purely agrarian society or that we will all be subsistence farmers or hunter/gatherers. Nevertheless, I believe we will be more fully aware of how dependent we are on God for daily bread, whatever form that may take.

Thus I think it is fitting that we remember this period in history with a very specific traditional meal. It is speculation on my part from anecdotal experience, but I suspect that for an increasing number of Americans, the Thanksgiving turkey is the food they eat that bears the closest resemblance to its original state. Granted, a Butterball is still significantly transformed, but it remains recognizable as an ex-bird. Most of our meat is even more butchered or processed. When else do you have occasion to deal with a neck or intact organs?

As for sides, I suppose we still purchase fruits and vegetables in fairly intact forms year ’round, so they aren’t quite as much of a departure. At least for Thanksgiving we have potatoes or yams that usually still come with some of the soil they grew in clinging to them. And at a proper meal, the cranberry sauce will be served with the ridges from the can still intact, just as God made it.

At a time when most produce can be purchased continuously, it is also refreshing to have a distinctly seasonal meal. Cranberries and pumpkin remain among the relatively few crops that we eat primarily when they are in season. OK, so maybe that’s a somewhat northeast-centric view; I’m not sure if those items are in season in fall all over the country. For that matter, the experience of fall itself isn’t universal. But it is nevertheless valuable to be reminded that our food production is subject to the cycles of the planet.

Funny, then, that these musings on the origins of our food and our connection to nature unabstracted by civilization and technology were inspired by something as artificial and abstract as a LEGO robot simulating the nervous system of a worm. See, when I read that story, my mind immediately went to resurrection and the new creation. I hear and read all the time that heaven is a fairy tale, that science has made it impossible to believe in any such thing, and that when we die that’s the end. And yet, to me scientific research of this sort makes belief in life after death all the more plausible.

Now, I don’t know to what extent a C. elegans worm has self-awareness, personality or identity such that one could say a specific worm has been resurrected. And I certainly don’t think that if such a thing is possible, that this research has actually achieved it. I don’t think we can even say that, whatever worm consciousness is, it is completely encoded in the connections of worm neurons; there are other aspects of the physical worm brain that are not fully captured in this simulation that could contribute as well.

Movie poster for Transcendence

What, this isn’t what you think about on Thanksgiving? (copyright Warner Brothers)

But the underlying metaphor for this work is that our consciousness is software running on the hardware of our bodies and brains. You may not agree with that notion, and that’s fine. My point is that, from the point of view of the science, that is the working hypothesis that motivates experiments like this worm robot. And for some, it goes even further and creates an expectation that some day a specific human consciousness could be reproduced in a computer. Maybe you are skeptical about that, but to the extent that the idea is not categorically dismissed as a fantasy by the scientific community, then I see no reason to think resurrection as described in the Bible should be considered any more fanciful.

In particular, I was struck by the embodied approach used by the researchers. While LEGO sensors are very different from worm noses, they still provide feedback on the real world. This appears to be an important element of consciousness; when we are deprived of sensory input, our brain or mind invents it, leading to hallucinations. So if mechanical incarnation is possible, it will likely need to make provisions for this requirement. How reassuring, then, that the Bible promises an embodied resurrection!

And for me, there are few stronger reminders of our embodiment than the need to eat. It engages all of our senses. It is necessary for the continued function of our bodies. And it connects us to the embodied nature of the rest of creation. Well, except maybe for that cranberry sauce, but we need a little reminder that the new creation is meant for a community.

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Andy Walsh

Andy has worn many hats in his life. He knows this is a dreadfully clichéd notion, but since it is also literally true he uses it anyway. Among his current metaphorical hats: husband of one wife, father of two elementary school students, reader of science fiction and science fact, enthusiast of contemporary symphonic music, and chief science officer. Previous metaphorical hats include: comp bio postdoc, molecular biology grad student, InterVarsity chapter president (that one came with a literal hat), music store clerk, house painter, and mosquito trapper. Among his more unique literal hats: British bobby, captain's hats (of varying levels of authenticity) of several specific vessels, a deerstalker from 221B Baker St, and a railroad engineer's cap. His monthly Science in Review is drawn from his weekly Science Corner posts -- Wednesdays, 8am (Eastern) on the Emerging Scholars Network Blog.

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    Hannah Eagleson commented on November 26, 2014 Reply

    Really enjoyed your thoughts on embodiment here, and the nuanced way you approached the history of Thanksgiving. :)

      Andy Walsh commented on December 3, 2014 Reply

      Thanks; glad you find it worthwhile!

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