What If? Rejects #10.3: Turkey Day

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Q: What if every day, every human had a 1 percent chance of being turned into a turkey, and every turkey had a 1 percent chance of being turned into a human?

Randall’s response: No response.

My response: Allow me to put on my fiction writer’s hat. The obvious answer is that we wouldn’t be eating turkeys anymore, but it’s actually much more complicated and interesting than that. This is an exercise in worldbuilding: designing a fictional world and establishing self-consistent rules for how that world operates. And so, in the spirit of the season, let’s create…Turkey World.

If this transformation phenomenon started suddenly, then the new obvious answer would be mass panic followed by a total collapse of human civilization, which is not equipped for half of its workers to be lacking opposable thumbs for an extended period of time (which would be the equilibrium state). So let’s assume the transformations have been going on for some time—long enough for society to have learned to cope with them. In fact, I doubt that introducing them suddenly at any point in human history would make us very stable as a society, so let’s establish the first rule of our fictional setting:

All humans and all turkeys will randomly transform into the other species with a probability of 1% per day. This has always been a natural characteristic of humans.

This rule means that a person would transform on average once every 100 days—either human to turkey, or turkey to human—and would spend about half of their life as a turkey. If the odds were truly random, there would be a small chance of transforming back very quickly. On the other hand, there would be 2.5% chance of staying in the same form for one year. The longest time ever recorded that someone stayed in the same form would be 7 or 8 years.

This brings up the next immediate concern. How does the aging process work with these transformations? The lifespan of a turkey is about 10 years. If that still holds, with everyone spending half of their time as a turkey, they would age very quickly. Life expectancy would only be about 20 years, with only 10 years spent in human form. It would be hard to build a society like this, so let’s assume that being a turkey does not affect the aging process. People would still have much less functional life expectancy, but overall lifespan would remain the same. This is our second rule:

Humans and turkeys age at a normal human rate regardless of which form they are in.

What about reproduction? Humans are born alive, while turkeys lay eggs. Changing forms wouldn’t do either method any favors. Since the odds of making it through a 280-day pregnancy without transforming are only 6%, we may need a modification here. Perhaps the transformation does not occur during pregnancy. However, if this were the case, overpopulation would be a concern, as women might want to have more children to stay human longer.

Conversely, if the turkeys laid viable eggs, even if transforming was still in play, about 75% of them would make it through the 28-day incubation time without transforming. Since turkeys lay an average of 12 eggs per clutch and at least one clutch per year, this is an even greater overpopulation problem. Certainly, there would be a case to control nesting to control population, but if, for example, a nation wanted to raise a large new generation of soldiers, they would have a perverse incentive to increase nesting unsustainably.

So let’s take it back a step further. How would such a transforming species evolve? (And even if there’s magic involved here, early human-turkeys would still be affected by evolution.) A successful species would be the one with the most successful reproductive strategy, and since humans are much more successful than turkeys, the human strategy would be favored: a relatively small number of children raised over a long period of time.

Therefore, we’ll add another rule to our worldbuilding to try to keep things balanced:

Human-turkeys can only reproduce in human form. Transformation is suppressed during pregnancy, but the mother’s odds of transformation are proportionately higher beginning a few weeks after birth.

This gives us our first clue to the structure of the turkey world: the nuclear family doesn’t exist. After all, 25% of the time, both of a child’s parents would be incapacitated by virtue of being turkeys. Instead, societies would be organized into clans—extended families of a few dozen people, about the size of a typical hunter-gatherer band—that collectively do the work, raise the children, and tend to the half of their number who are turkeys at any given time. In our modern world, the nuclear family and individualism have supplanted this ancient structure, but in Turkey World, the transformation provides a strong pressure to keep it going.

Cognitive ability is another issue. Do people still retain human minds while they are turkeys? The wording of the question implies not, but this has some unfortunate implications. Young children have a critical period of language acquisition up to about the age of 5. If a child fails to acquire language by this time, they will never be able to use it competently. Now, the critical period is long enough that very few children would be unlucky enough to spend enough time as a dumb turkey to be unable to acquire language. However, the more general problem of learning remains. Children would have only half as much time to learn as humans—not enough to get a really good education.

This brings us back to evolution. Humans need long childhoods to fully raise their children to function in society, be that a hunter-gatherer band or a modern city. With the turkey transformations going on, teaching them everything they need to know could take twice as long. It would be better if they could make full use of that time, so here’s our next rule:

Humans retain their human mental faculties while in turkey form.

Now, communication becomes crucial. Spending half of your life trapped in the body of a turkey is a horrifying prospect. But people are creative, and there are sure to be plenty of ways to communicate. A turkey language would be developed. Like many birds, turkeys have a quite agile vocal apparatus, and with human intelligence, they could easily learn a language of squawks and gobbles and possibly gestures that human-humans can understand, loosely analogous to the function of sign language in the real world. Turkeys could write with their feet in literal chicken turkey scratches. And earlier I said turkeys don’t have thumbs, but they actually do. The alula or bastard wing is a tuft of feathers attached to the thumb bone of most birds that can move independently to improve lift at slow speeds. It can’t do much but it would be enough to tap out a message on a keyboard if beaks or feet are no good.

With all of these innovations, it wouldn’t be so hard for people to interact with society in turkey form. Much of society would need to be reorganized to accommodate both humans and turkeys. Many facilities from schools to public accommodations to transportation would have to exist in two parallel forms for society to be functional. Turkey World would be slower and less efficient than ours, but it would have been built up that way, so plenty of workarounds would have been found.

Finally, we have the matter of psychology. It’s harder to imagine the weirdness of being part of a species that randomly transforms into a different, less functional form. One difference is that people would be much better at recognizing turkeys by sight and sound in order to tell their friends and families apart. This may sound impossible, but compare how sounds in other languages that are not distinguished in English (or whatever your native language is) can be almost impossible to distinguish even if you’re paying close attention, while native speakers of that language can tell them apart with ease. It’s the same principle as those critical periods I mentioned earlier: if you grew up living your whole life from birth around turkeys, you would automatically pick out details that we could never imagine noticing in the real world.

As for the original point, we obviously wouldn’t eat turkeys, but I don’t think that we wouldn’t eat meat at all. Humans evolved to eat meat, and if there were no other changes besides random transformation, we would still need meat for most people to be healthy, at least in a preindustrial society. Meanwhile, we would exterminate natural predators of turkeys with extreme prejudice, including many well-loved species like the bald eagle and the great horned owl, and if we kept dogs and cats as pets at all, we would keep them on a much tighter leash (pun intended).

But what I think is more interesting is the biggest potential benefit of being a turkey half the time: flying. Wild turkeys, not the overweight, overbred mutants that wind up on our Thanksgiving tables, are actually decent fliers. While not as strong as migratory birds, they can fly for a mile at a stretch and up to 55 miles per hour, and they’re fast runners on the ground, too. In fact, for city travel, in fair to good weather, a turkey-human might be able to get around all they needed just by flying. Actually, now that I think about, this requires a new rule:

Turkeys in flight instinctively descend to the ground safely when transforming into a human.

Anyway, this is a pretty big deal. Humans have always dreamed of flying like birds, and here’s a world where they actually can. In the end, if people live in a world where they randomly transform into turkeys and back, with all of the obvious problems with that scenario being solved in ways like this, they might actually welcome it.

Happy Thanksgiving.

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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