For millennia, Christians have saved the corpses of saints. Worshipers would make pilgrimages to view the bodies or body parts on display and share in their holiness.
I recently listened to an NPR book tour podcast featuring Peter Manseau, author of a recent book about holy relics. He described how worshipers would be so overcome with awe that a few bit off pieces of the saints’ bodies (in one case, a toe). I was both horrified and impressed. I’ve never believed in anything strongly enough to make me want to go Mike Tyson on the dead.
The relic discussion got me thinking about the modern era, and I realized that science is teeming with relics as well. This is true both on a general and an individual level. On a general level, we can point to archaeologists unearthing ancient remains of lost civilizations and species. A recent Nova special on Neanderthals documented the genomic analysis of Neanderthal remains to answer questions about our common ancestry. More commonly, bones are carbon-dated and skeletons are modeled for their aerodynamics or for bipedal versus quadrupedal motion.
But the most fascinating kinds of modern relics come from specific individuals. They are prized for the unusual features of that individual rather than their representativeness of a species as a whole. For example, Einstein’s brain was preserved and studied. Scientists found that the size and surface morphology of his parietal lobes were different from those in non-genius controls. Fragments of Beethoven’s skull and hair have revealed that the composer died of lead poisoning, which might account for his medical problems later in life, although probably not his deafness. And scientists have been trying to get a DNA sample from Lincoln’s tomb to conduct genetic testing for a specific type of genetic illness, spinocerebellar ataxia type 5.
To understand why relics have persisted over time, it’s useful to ask what purpose they serve. Why collect the dead? As I mentioned, the ancient relics were valuable for their holiness. At the time, religion was the only path to understanding the world. Why are we here? What came before us? How can we gain control of our lives, both on Earth and after death? God was the source of those answers and the relics were a portal to god.
Despite all that has changed about our society and our ways of thinking, modern relics serve the same purpose. They may not be thought of as a phone line to god, yet we still value them for what they can explain. They tell us about our evolution and about the lives of the historical figures who shaped society and have become our modern legends. They provide a window into the nature of human genius, creativity, good and evil; a portal to ourselves. And that is something I can truly believe in.