Wednesday, September 14, 2005

March of the Penguins

I finally got around to seeing it last night. It's very well done, despite the occasionally over anthropomorphized narrative. Highly recommended. My esteem for penguins has gone way up. Meanwhile, my opinion of leopard seals and skua gulls is way down.

Inexplicably, many conservatives seem to think the film is a useful weapon for their side in the culture wars. They think this because they are, if this New York Times article is a reliable guide, completely insane. Let's consider some excerpts:

In part, the movie's appeal to conservatives may lie in its soft-pedaling of topics like evolution and global warming. The filmmakers say they did not consciously avoid those topics - indeed, they say they are strong believers in evolutionary theory - but they add that they wanted to create a film that would reach as many people as possible.

“It's obvious that global warming has an impact on the reproduction of the penguins,” Luc Jaquet, the director, told National Geographic Online. “But much of public opinion appears insensitive to the dangers of global warming. We have to find other ways to communicate to people about it, not just lecture them.”

I didn't feel like they were soft-pedalling evolution, and I'm pretty sensitive to these things. I'm not sure where in the film it would have been appropriate to mention the subject. Likewise for global warming. If global warming is having some demonstrable effect on the mating rituals of penguins, it might have been nice to give it a mention. Otherwise, I don't think the film would have benefitted from including it.

Likewise, the only allusion to evolution in “March of the Penguins” is a line near the beginning, intoned in the English-language version by the narrator, Morgan Freeman: “For millions of years they have made their home on the darkest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on earth. And they've done so pretty much alone.”

Ugh. In yesterday's post I praised the Daily Show for managing to do a segment on evolution that did not have any serious scientific inaccuracies. Meanwhile, the Times does an article that mentions evolution tangentially, and they blow it.

The age of the Earth and the evolution of life are separate topics. Capice? Is that so complicated? The only ones who equate the two are especially dim young-Earthers, and certain New York Times reporters.

Incidentally, if references to the great age of the Earth are to be equated with evolution, then we should also mention that, actually, the film makes several comments about the age of the Earth.

But the really crazy part comes later:

To Andrew Coffin, writing in the widely circulated Christian publication World Magazine, that is a winning argument for the theory that life is too complex to have arisen through random selection.

“That any one of these eggs survives is a remarkable feat - and, some might suppose, a strong case for intelligent design,” he wrote. “It's sad that acknowledgment of a creator is absent in the examination of such strange and wonderful animals. But it's also a gap easily filled by family discussion after the film.”

Evolution can't explain the mating rituals of penguins? Evolution can't explain it?

A mindless process operating over millions of years is the only thing that can possibly explain a mating system this cruel and wasteful. What's the creationist or ID explanation, for heaven's sake? Explain to me how a just and loving God afflicts his creation with so ridiculous a mating system.

Go on! Explain it to me. Is this the reulst of sin entering the world? That's the standard creationist explanation for every other bit of nastiness in nature. Like it's really plausible that Adam and Eve sin somewhere in the Middle East, and God decides to torture penguins in Antarctica.

Are the penguins learning some great moral lesson through all of this hardship? Anthropomorphizing aside, I think the lesson is lost on them.

Or maybe they're there for us to learn from? Maybe. But then what are we supposed to learn from the vastly more frequent cases of wretched, disgusting, immoral animal behavior:

[Sarah Hrdy] studied a population of monkeys, Nahuman langurs, in northern India. Their mating system is what biologists call harem polygyny: dominant males have exclusive sexual access to a group of adult females, as long as they can keep other males away. Sooner or later, a stronger male usurps the harem and the defeated one must join the ranks of celibate outcasts. The new male shows his love for his new wives by trying to kill their unweaned infants. For each successful killing, a mother soon stops lactating and goes into estrous. The death of her infant converts her more quickly from a potential to an actual resource for the male's reproduction. This is why infanticide is adaptive for the male.

His murderous efforts do not always succeed. The females are often sisters or other close relatives and may share a genetic interest in the survival of a threatened baby. So the mother may have help in defending her offspring. Unfortunatly the male is much bigger and stronger and often does succeed. Deprived of her nursing baby, a female soon starts ovulating. She accepts the sexual advances of her baby's murderer, and he becomes the father of her next child.

Do you still think God is good?

(Emphasis in Original). (George Willimans, Plan and Purpose in Nature, pp. 159).

A fine question, and one the conservative mentioned in this article are unlikely to answer. If the penguins are supposed to be teaching me something about monogamy and sacrifice, explain what the monkeys are teaching me.

You better hope the penguins are the product of evolution, because any God directly responsible for what the penguins go through every year is a sadistic monster. The penguins themselves are very inspiring. A God who directly created them is not.

My Christian friends assure me, sometimes with annoyance, that this is a bad argument. Usually they do this in lieu of actually explaining why it is a bad argument.

Later we come to this:

Other religious conservatives have seized on the movie as a parable of steadfast faith. In Sidney, Ohio, Ben Hunt, a minister at the 153 House Churches Network, has coordinated trips to the local theater to see the film. (He describes the organization as a Christian denomination with nine churches spread over Ohio and Minnesota.)

“Some of the circumstances they experienced seemed to parallel those of Christians,” he said of the penguins. “The penguin is falling behind, is like some Christians falling behind. The path changes every year, yet they find their way, is like the Holy Spirit.”

Mr. Hunt has provided a form on the Web site that can be downloaded and taken to the film. “Please use the notebook, flashlight and pen provided,” it says, “to write down what God speaks to you as He speaks it to you.”

The only religious thought I had during this movie was that if I wasn't an atheist before, I certainly am now.

Sorry if I seem miffed about this. But cherry-picking the handful of inspiring and beautiful things in nature as the basis for drawing conclusions about God is pretty silly. Richard Dawkins, as usual, summed things up pretty well:

The total amount of suffering per year in the natural world is beyond all decent contemplation. During the minute it takes me to compose this sentence, thousands of animals are being eaten alive; others are running for their lives, whimpering with fear; others are being slowly devoured from within by rasping parasites; thousands of all kinds are dying of starvation, thirst and disease. It must be so. If there is ever a time of plenty, this very fact will automatically lead to an increase in population until the natural state of starvation and misery is restored.

(Richard Dawkins, River out of Eden, pp. 131-132)

At this blog I often defend the idea that evolution and theism are compatible. Indeed they are. I see nothing in evolution that should shake the faith of a committed Christian.

But I think I will never understand a person who can spend even a few minutes pondering the sheer awfulness of nature and conclude the world is superintended by a just and loving God. And I will definitely never understand someone who can come to that conclusion, and then have his faith shaken by the minor realization that life evolved by natural processes over millions of years.

The rest of the article is worth reading. Go have a look.


At 3:52 PM, Anonymous frank said...

"My esteem for penguins has gone way up. Meanwhile, my opinion of leopard seals and pelicans is way down."

Skua Gulls, not pelicans! I doubt that a pelican ever reached any part of Antarctica. Skuas, primarily scavengers, are aggressive eaters of penguin chicks. Skuas do not overwinter, so their attacks begin in the Antarctic spring when they are breeding. I feel confident that I will be the only poster here who has a scar from a skua bite! (Sustained in front of the Wilson Piedmont Glacier, near McMurdo.)

Orcas also are predators of adult penguins.

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Jason said...


What! They looked like pelicans to me!

I'll ocrrect the error. Thanks for pointingit out to me.

At 11:14 AM, Anonymous Big Bird said...

Skuas are people too...and we have to eat. All those fluffy babies...GOD must have put them there for me because he loves me and wants me to each baby penguins.

At 8:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"“Please use the notebook, flashlight and pen provided,” it says, “to write down what God speaks to you as He speaks it to you.”"

Does this guy want his readers to get beaten up by irate cinemagoers?

Ginger Yellow

At 10:56 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the cruel and wasteful march of the penguins is simply proof that it is actually penguins who comitted original sin and the Christians have things all wrong.

Damn you penguins, if Eve penguin hadn't eaten from the tree of knowledge, we would all be in paradise, cavorting with vegitarian T.rexs...

As further evidence, consider the perverted gay penguins... Plus the penguins waddle around nude all day long, getting each other hot and bothered and tempting monogamous male penguins into the sin of adultry. Add to that the simple fact that none of those penguins were actually married in a church... well I never!

There are days when I think the conservative "values voters" are going to collectively crack up and reveal that their existence is actually a parody and their whole agenda is some sort of elaborate avant garde performence piece! Then I realize there are probably folks who would believe the bs I just made up about penguins and sin. And my esteem for humans drops far below my esteem for leopard seals and skuas...


At 3:17 PM, Blogger tgibbs said...

It is interesting to think about how such behaviors could have evolved. It is easy to imagine the egg transfer evolving under milder conditions, when a more efficient transfer was mainly an advantage in unusually cold weather, with increasing selective pressure as the climate got colder.

I can see the trek evolving in two ways. In one scenario, it also starts under milder conditions, with the mating grounds close to the edge of the ice. As the climate gets colder, the edge of the ice in midwinter got further and further away, and the penguins had to trek further each year. In this version, there is no major advantage to having the mating grounds so far inland, and it is simply a matter of the recognition of the "right" place already being "locked in." A mutant who decided to go somewhere else might well not find anybody to mate with. On the other hand, the ones that were a bit better able to make a longer trek (e.g. fatter) to the usual place would tend to have greater mating success.

The other scenario has the mating grounds so far inward to avoid predation. In this version, the mating grounds gradually get moved further and further from the water, because the penguins who "nested" furthest away lost fewer offspring to seagoing predators like those gulls and leopard seals.

At 3:23 PM, Anonymous Kevin said... the end of teh movie hadn't the ice melted to within a few hundred yards of the breeding grounds...ant the chicks were all fat and stood next to the water barely able to move untill they were ready, weeks later, to go for a swim?

So if the eggs were laid closer to the water the chicks maybe would be lost as the ice breaks up before the were ready.

At 10:54 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

My sisters boyfriend is an IDCer, and he thinks that God made the complex penguin reprouductive pattern so we wouldn't be knee deep in penguins.

If you believe, you'll do anything to keep the belief

At 7:38 PM, Anonymous Karen said...

If God wanted humans to be monogamous, maybe he should have arranged it so our babies would die if we weren't?

Plus, I have doubts about the monogamy of a critter that gets a new mate every year, or the family values of those that abandon their young as soon as possible, and "never see them again".

At 12:49 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Likewise, the only allusion to evolution in “March of the Penguins” is a line near the beginning, intoned in the English-language version by the narrator, Morgan Freeman: “For millions of years they have made their home on the darkest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on earth. And they've done so pretty much alone.”

Where's the reference to the age of the Earth? The 'they' refers to the penguins.

At 4:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I loved this film. One question that I have regarding the "Evolution Debate" that is provoked by this film is regarding the evolutionary concept of species adapting to their surroundings over time. If, as the film states, Penguins have been following this process for millions of years, they appear to be COPING, NOT ADAPTING to their environment?? After doing so much walking back and forth - wouldn't they have evolved into flying or walking creatures, away from their cumbersome method of movement?

At 8:15 PM, Anonymous Karen said...

Anonymous said...

"Likewise, the only allusion to evolution in “March of the Penguins” is a line near the beginning, intoned in the English-language version by the narrator, Morgan Freeman: “For millions of years they have made their home on the darkest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on earth. And they've done so pretty much alone.”

Where's the reference to the age of the Earth? The 'they' refers to the penguins."

I get it. Penguins are millions of years older than the Earth! They're the source of all life! And everything else, apparently.

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At 12:01 AM, Blogger blogcar said...

My esteem for penguins has gone way up. Meanwhile, my opinion of leopard seals and pelicans is way down."
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