by Denyse Oï¿½Leary
Should your kids see this film? Read the accompanying book? No, not if you want to raise them as unquestioning Darwinists!
In June 2005, Warner's stunning 80-minute film March of the Penguins, produced by a French team headed by Luc Jacquet, stunned audiences with its portrayal of the long march of the emperor penguins from the sea across treacherous ice to a stable area where they can mate and raise their lone egg.
In 2005, that very same year,National Geographic pronounced itself resolutely Darwinist, with a glowing photo spread on how Darwinian evolution explains life on Earth (a spread that unintentionally demonstrated the opposite).
So it was perhaps a bit surprising that a wildlife documentary that NG distributes, which won rave reviews from a variety of sources and an Oscar for best documentary, should be accused of promoting an intelligent design hypothesis.
Indeed the New York Times argued that the movie did so well at the box office (US$75 million, apparently) mainly because it soft-pedalled evolution and global warming.
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.
And in the UK, where the film was released in December, the Guardian Observer (September 18, 2005) sniffed about
"How the penguin's life story inspired the US religious right":
To many, it will be no more nor less than a life-affirming portrayal of Mother Nature, reminiscent of Sunday-evening television with Sir David Attenborough whispering from the undergrowth. To some, however, the mesmerising images of birds waddling, mating and nurturing their young have become cinema's most politically charged parable since Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/1.
Conservatives in America claim to have seen God in the emperor penguin. They have rejoiced in the way the film shows penguins as monogamous upholders of traditional family values. They presumably welcomed the screenwriters' decision not to pursue arguments about climate change. They have even pointed to the heroically resourceful penguins - blinded by blizzards, buffeted by gales, yet winning against the odds - as proof of 'intelligent design', the religious belief system that aims to challenge Darwin's theory of evolution.
Having seen and read the beautifully prepared, visually stunning film and book, I think that the absence of Darwinist cant is a huge literary improvement. In other words, if intelligent design becomes widely accepted in science, we can reasonably hope for better documentaries. No more "survival of the fittest" (Spencer) and "continual free fight" (Huxley) voice overs where they do not really explain the evidence.
The filmmakers had no intention of supporting any intelligent design hypothesis. They merely set out to describe what the penguins really do. Then why did they cause a controversy?: Simply this; they did not impose a Darwinist narrative on the text. But, of course, once you make the aesthetic decision not to impose a Darwinist narrative on the text, well, your text stands out, in a welter of B grade documentaries that take Darwinism for granted.
The American and British legacy media organizations carried on about the fact that some think the film supports intelligent design (ID), with the result that they ended up unintentionally supporting ID themselves. They caused hundreds of thousands of people to ask questions they never asked while watching regulation Darwinist-approved documentaries - and might not have asked even now, if they had not been told what to look for.
Anyway, a Darwinist soon imposed his own narrative on the text.
How a Darwinist would write the film
Responding to the idea that the male penguins co-operate to share the body warmth, Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, replies,
A group of penguins standing upright looks like co-operation, but in fact the ones on the outside are struggling to get in and those on the inside are trying to stand their ground: it's a classic Darwinian struggle. The idea that the life of a penguin is any more beautiful than that of a malaria virus is absurd.
Actually, the book narrative does not depict any classic Darwinian struggle at all. It states that the male penguins, left with the eggs in a harsh climate, spiral in and out of their "turtle" formation, in a slow and orderly way, taking their fair turn in the warm center of the huddle:
The males can be aggressive the rest of the year. But they are docile and cooperative now, united to protect the eggs and survive the cold. Each takes turns getting warm by spending time near the center of the turtle. The huddled mass coils around itself in an undulating spiral. The penguins on the outside move in toward the center, the ones on the inside go outward. And this rotation happens very gently in order to safeguard the eggs. (p. 75)
(Note: A biologist friend writes to say that " there IS no "malaria virus." Malaria is caused by a protozoan, a parasite. Biologically speaking, it's even further removed from being a virus than a bacterium. If Darwinist Steve Jones actually said what's quoted above, he's surprisingly ignorant." Of course, Jones may have been misquoted; this correction is for the record.)
(Update: Apparently, it was indeed a reporter's error: An alert reader on another blog has noted that The (Guardian) Observer's For the record column for Sunday September 25 2005 stated:
In the following article we misquoted Steve Jones, professor of Genetics at University College, London, mentioning a malaria 'virus'. Malaria is, in fact, caused not by a virus but by a protozoan parasite. Apologies.
The reality is that if the Emperor penguins did not show such a high degree of genuine social co-operation, there would simply be no more Emperor penguins after a few years. So Jones, unable to explain within his narrow Darwinian system how such complex behavior evolved, simply denies the evidence presented in the film.
Studio exec: They're "just birds"
The studio execs also strenuously denied any suggestion that they are not Darwinists:
But the film's makers say they are strong believers in evolution, and its American distributors, Warner Independent Pictures and National Geographic Feature Films, insist that it is simply a tale about penguins. Laura Kim, a vice-president of Warner Independent, said: 'You know what? They're just birds.'
Very well. Now let us consider exactly what "just birds" do:
- The penguins, which are flightless and live in the sea, cannot lay their eggs on the unstable surrounding ice shelves. Every year in march they must waddle far inland to a stable area near the Adelie Coast. There they must live for nine months without food. How do they do it? ( One might also ask, how do they know they must do it?)
- They waddle day and night seventy miles back to the stable ice plain on which they themselves were born, between the islands of Pointe-Geologie. As winter gradually locks in, they face temperatures as low as eighty degrees below zero with hundred-mile-an-hour winds. Many penguins turn themselves into living bobsleds, sliding along the ice; others march resolutely upright, but always in order, with no shoving or pushing. As the temperature drops, they huddle for warmth.
- Among seven thousand penguins gathered, the search for a mate begins. Penguins identify their mates by singing to each other. Surrounding penguins remain quiet, which ensures that the new couples can hear each other's message clearly. The new couples soon focus ecstatically on each other and mating occurs.
- After laying her single egg, the female must somehow transfer it to the male's feet. The pair rehearse the maneuver first; if they fail, the embryo will be destroyed within seconds by the cold, and the bereft parents must simply return to the sea.
- The female must return to the sea immediately in any event, because she has lost a great deal of body weight from the exhaustion of both the trip and producing an egg. The partners sing a final song before parting, to ensure they will find each other two months later, when the female comes back with food for the chick.
- The males form themselves into a "turtle," to keep themselves and their eggs warm, against the mid-winter blast of the dreadful catabatic winds from the South Pole. They take turns moving in and out of the center of the turtle.
- Just after mid-winter (mid-July), tiny penguins peer out, cheeping, from the crease just over their fathers' feet - begging for food. The father himself has nothing to eat while he awaits his mate's return, but he draws on a special substance in a crease in his throat, to keep the chick alive.
- The females appear on the horizon, and the males begin to sing, more and more loudly, to their mates. They delicately return the chicks (who might freeze in seconds) to the females, who begin to feed them. But before they leaves for the sea, in order to feed themselves (for they are starving), the fathers sing to their chicks and the chicks return the melody. Now the fathers and chicks will recognize one another when they meet again. But some fathers, having lost nearly half their body weight during their ordeal, will never return. (If either the father or the mother dies, the Emperor chick will die too; the chick can only survive if this highly specific survival program is carried out.)
- The fathers, having fattened themselves again, come back after a few weeks. Now the mothers can make frequent trips to the ocean for food. Meanwhile, the chick is fed by his father, whose song he recognizes and returns.
- Some mothers who have lost chicks try to steal other mothers' chicks, but other adult penguins intervene to prevent them. (Do penguins have a moral sense, or do they seek simply to prevent what they perceive as predation or social breakdown?)
- As unstable ice starts to crack, the parents do not need to go so far for food for their growing chicks, and the chicks themselves are becoming more independent. They also take many risks. By December, they plunge into the sea where they will live for four years, before joining the long March of the Penguins themselves.
One might well wonder, while it is still legal to do so, just how the birds developed such a complex, self-sacrificial, highly communicative and co-operative behaviour pattern by a step-by-step Darwinian method - when any mistaken direction would be fatal to the species.
(Note: It's conceivable that the studio will be pressured to edit the film and book for the express purpose of defacing the text or narration with Darwinist cant or defacing the cover or jacket with Darwinist disclaimers. I didn't notice anything like that in the 2006 book or film, so if they have already done so, it isn't very obtrusive. However, for best quality, you might want to insist on an original edition of this outstanding film.)
Talking about them as if they were human!
Quite apart from bashing intelligent design, some commentators were upset at the touching way the filmmakers portrayed the emotional life of the penguins.
George Will (Sunday August 28, 2005):
"March of the Penguins" raises this question: If an Intelligent Designer designed nature, why did it decide to make breeding so tedious for those penguins? The movie documents the 70-mile march of thousands of Antarctic penguins from the sea to an icy breeding place barren of nutrition. These perhaps intelligently but certainly oddly designed birds march because they cannot fly. They cannot even march well, being most at home in the sea.
[ ... ]
The penguins' hardiness is remarkable, as is the intricate choreography of the march, the breeding and the nurturing. But the movie, vigorously anthropomorphizing the birds, invites us to find all this inexplicably amazing, even heroic. But the penguins are made for that behavior in that place. What made them? Adaptive evolution. They have been "designed" for all that rigor -- meaning they have been shaped by adapting to many millennia of nature's harshness.
Will raises some interesting questions here. The penguins probably could not in fact live in warmer climates, in which case their unusual adaptations are an alternative to going extinct, as 99 percent of all the creatures that have ever lived on Earth have done. The reason the film causes people to discuss intelligent design is precisely the difficulty of seeing how the penguin's behaviour could evolve through simple, random Darwinian steps. But as for anthropomorphism (talking about animals as though they had emotions like those of humans), well, it is an interesting criticism. Darwinists generally talk about humans as though they were animals. The narrator in this case is reacting to the evidence of the penguins' behavior, and avoiding the refuge of sophistries such as they're "just birds."
Filmmaker Luc Jacquet denied (October 22, 2005) promoting intelligent design and indulged in some anthropomorphism, of his own. He ridiculed the idea that the penguins' behaviour provides a model for family life:
ï¿½If you want an example of monogamy, penguins are not a good choice,ï¿½ Luc Jacquet told The Times. ï¿½The divorce rate in emperor penguins is 80 to 90 per cent each year,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½After they see the chick is OK, most of them divorce. They change every year.ï¿½
So anthropomorphism is fine, apparently, if we relate animal behavior to socially discouraged human behavior, like serial divorce. Anthropomorphism is only wrong if it implies that animals engage in behavior that would be interpreted as socially constructive in humans - monogamy, for example. However, if we look at the penguins as birds rather than as surrogate humans, a moment's thought shows that animal behavior can never guide human behavior because it is adopted for reasons irrelevant to human experience.
Case in point: Monogamy would probably disadvantage the Emperor penguin colony. The males and females must separate for long periods. How can they know whether their separated mates survived the long, dangerous treks? If, as a result of waiting for a vanished mate, a given penguin did not breed, the colony's numbers would fall. By contrast, monogamous pairs of Canada geese raise their young together. Monogamy prevents the geese from expending valuable energy after their long migration flight north on a useless conflict over mates. (One Canada goose is much like another, after all, so the returning geese suffer no disadvantage if they just stay with their current mates and continue breeding.)
Peter Chattaway, the reviewer for Christianity Today, argues that the film
suffers from a tendency to impose human emotion on its creatures. Freeman's narration, written by Jordan Roberts (Around the Bend), tells us things like "the pain is unbearable" and "the reunion is a joyful one." While these particular descriptions may be warranted by the animal behavior on display, we might wonder if the film goes too far in calling itself a "love story," as opposed to a story about, say, primal reproductive instincts. (Is it really love if the characters have different sexual partners every year?) Then again, the original French version of this film was reportedly even more extreme in this regard; instead of an objective narrator, it had three actors providing the inner thoughts of the mama, papa, and baby penguins.
But wait a minute. Surely there is a difference between imaging an animal's behaviour in human terms and genuine anthropomorphism! Darwinists have made everyone, including non-materialists and non-Darwinists, unnecessarily uneasy on this score because their point of view creates profound confusions and double standards. Note that Chattaway acknowledges that "these particular descriptions may be warranted by the animal behavior on display," but nonetheless worries that the film may go "too far." Too far for what? Darwinist Steve Jones did not think he was going too far when he denied the actual direction of the evidence of penguin behaviour, but of course no one called him on that ....
The traditional pre-Darwin understanding of human beings readily granted that animals show emotions, just as we do. What animals lack is reason and abstract ethics. In fact, emotions are mediated through the limbic system of the brain, which is well-developed in mammals. But then we can't make that the only criterion because alligators show emotions too, and they must do so using only the reptilian brain.
On that view, we anthropomorphize animals not when we assume that they have intense states of emotion (because they do) but when we assume that these emotional states are combined with mental states that only reason and an abstract moral sense can create.
For example, the she-penguin is no doubt genuinely devastated at not finding a mate or losing her chick. Why should we not assume that she feels it deeply? We go too far only if we portray her as musing, as a despondent woman might, "Why don't I just kill myself? I'm ugly and a failure. No, wait ... killing myself is wrong ... But who says it's wrong? Is there really Someone who make these rules? Sometimes I fear I'll go mad thinking about these things ..."
The bird is sentient (capable of feeling), but not, after all, an avian Ophelia. Some miseries accompany the human condition that are almost certainly unknown to penguins.
Anyway, in my view, the French should do many more of these projects, and the British and Americans many fewer. The French treat documentaries as they treat cooking - doing it right and enjoying it right is most of the fun. The team lived at the South Pole for months, interacting with the unruffled penguins. The stills in the book, showing the camera crew surrounded by stately, possibly curious penguins, are truly remarkable photography.
So if you want your kid to learn Darwinism don't buy this book or DVD. If you want your kid to learn how birds co-operate under the harshest conditions on the planet, well, this is the best value for your money.
Toronto-based Canadian journalist Denyse O'Leary (www.designorchance.com) is the author of the multiple award-winning By Design or by Chance? (Augsburg Fortress 2004), an overview of the intelligent design controversy. She was named CBA Canada's Recommended Author of the Year in 2005 and is co-author, with Montreal neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of the forthcoming The Spiritual Brain (Harper 2007).
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