Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Conservative Penguins?

According to a recent article in the New York Times, March of the Penguins has proven popular among conservatives. It is not surprising is not that conservatives enjoy it; as I have written before on this blog, it is a delightful film. What is surprising is that some conservative groups have latched onto the movie as support for moral values or a political agenda. For example:

Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, told the young conservatives' gathering last month: "You have to check out 'March of the Penguins.' It is an amazing movie. And I have to say, penguins are the really ideal example of monogamy. These things - the dedication of these birds is just amazing."
And again:
"March of the Penguins," the conservative film critic and radio host Michael Medved said in an interview, is "the motion picture this summer that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing."
Sacrifice and child-rearing are indeed a major aspect of the film. Monogamy, though, is another story. Penguins, like many other birds, are actually serial monogamists. That is, they mate with a single partner for the entirety of one breeding season, but commitments do not last into the following year. Each bird has to win a new partner. This is clearly stated in the film.

And once more:
Richard A. Blake, co-director of the film studies program at Boston College and the author of "The Lutheran Milieu of the Films of Ingmar Bergman" said that like many films, "March of the Penguins" was open to a religious interpretation.

"You get a sense of these animals - following their natural instincts - are really exercising virtue that for humans would be quite admirable," he said. "I could see it as a statement on monogamy or condemnation of gay marriage or whatever the current agenda is."
Use of penguins as fodder against gay marriage also runs into difficulties, given examples like this pair.

Some are also using the film to push intelligent design:
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."
Ultimately, I think it is a bad idea to try to use the animal world as a morality play. We like to see reflections of our own emotions and motivations - dogs are loyal, cats are mischievous, and Antarctic penguins fall in love. There is a grain of truth in all such characterizations. As fellow members of the animal kingdom, and especially as higher-level members, we share much in common with other mammals and with birds. But there will always be a gap between humans and other animals, and trying to pretend it does not exist is fair neither to humans nor to other creatures, which ought to be understood on their own terms.

Furthermore, nature is harsh, and animals act in ways that are often disturbing. Anyone who has kept rodents knows that parents will kill their babies if there are too many in the tank. (I had this experience with gerbils when I accidently ended up with both males and females and they started breeding.) Males of some animal species will kill off the cubs sired by other males. Brown-headed cowbirds lay their eggs in other species' nests; often their chicks will push the other chicks out of the nest to get more attention. And chimpanzees will engage in warfare.

March of the Penguins actually did a fairly good job handling the harshness of the penguins' breeding cycle, from the long and difficult march, to the temperatures far below freezing, to predation. However, it also surrounded the penguins with a romantic aura that may have partially obscured this.