March of the Penguins (2005)

B+ SDG Original source: National Catholic Register

The better part of two decades ago, in a college philosophy class, I found myself debating a professor whose views on gender issues were so extreme that she apparently denied even the most basic biological differences between men and women. Culture, not biology, she maintained, was the real source of all male-female distinctions, even physiological ones.

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Directed by Luc Jacquet. Narrated by Morgan Freeman. Warner Independent.

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Documentary frankness about the harsh realities of penguin life.

At one point in the discussion, I blurted out in frustration, “But look, aren’t there such things as male and female penguins?”

I could see her hesitate before answering, not stumped by my logic but trying to bridge the vast cognitive gap between us. Finally she asked, “But how like a penguin are you?”

Good question.

Certainly I believed, and believe, that humans are radically different from animals — created in God’s image, bequeathed with rational souls and moral freedom. But I also continue to believe that there are real similarities. Despite that professor’s best efforts, I still think that humans, like penguins, are innately male and female — that we are both warm-blooded vertebrate bipeds who reproduce sexually and rear our offspring to maturity as couples. At least, penguins do; people are supposed to.

Of course, penguin chicks are independent within a year, whereas human children mature much more slowly — and, furthermore, humans can have multiple dependent children of different ages at the same time, potentially prolonging the parental commitment still further. In human societies, this commitment has been enshrined in the institutions of marriage and family. Penguins, naturally, don’t bother about institutions, and generally choose new mates each year, maximizing the genetic diversity of the community.

To human observers, the ways in which animal behavior variously resembles or contrasts with human behavior is an inexhaustible source of fascination. Catch animals behaving one way, and we can’t help marveling at how “almost human” they seem. Catch them behaving another way, and we’re struck by the unbridgeable gulf between the animal and human worlds.

Both impressions are valid as far as they go, though either can be overdone. And both types of animal behavior are very much in evidence in Luc Jacquet’s March of the Penguins, a French nature documentary that in its English-language form became an unlikely summer blockbuster, and even unlikelier flash point in the national discourse of culture wars.

First things first. March of the Penguins offers an intriguing look at the formidable complications and obstacles involved in the reproductive life of Emperor penguins. To begin with, given the harsh Antarctic environment, the precious egg, and later the vulnerable young chick, must be completely protected from the elements at all times.

This requires the penguin parents to do a lot of standing around with an egg or a chick perched on their feet, tucked under warm abdominal plumage, and when necessary passed with surgical precision (get it wrong and bye-bye, baby) from one parent to the other. And because of the extent to which the Antarctic ice melts and refreezes each year, all this standing around has to be done a considerable distance from the sea in order to remain on permanently solid ice. This means, first of all, a laborious initial trek, not to mention the journey back to the sea for food, an ordeal during which the remaining parent will be left alone.

Given what the egg-making process has taken out of the mother, she naturally gets first dibs on returning to the sea to feed, leaving the father holding the egg till her return. This, in turn, obliges the father to go without food for the equivalent of four trips back and forth to the sea. And so on, and on, and on.

This difficult and dangerous dance has a certain innate fascination; but what gives the narrative its emotional appeal, in part, is the discovery of echoes in penguin life, or what look like echoes, of human experiences of love and loss.

The original French-language version of the film (La Marche de l’Empereur) was unabashedly anthropomorphic, with speaking roles for the penguins by way of voiceover dialogue from French actors. Perhaps wisely, the English-language version of the film eschews this approach, instead offering narrative commentary in what is widely described in the press as the “honeyed” cadences of Morgan Freeman’s voice. (In both versions, the reliance on voiceover sets Penguins a notch below the best French nature documentaries of the last fifteen years, Winged Migration, Microcosmos and Atlantis, which neither needed nor were burdened by narration.)

While not giving the penguins dialogue, the English version is not without anthropomorphisms of its own. From the outset, we are told that “This is a story of love. And like all love stories this one begins with an act of utter foolishness.” The “foolishness” in question refers to the Emperor penguins cannonballing out of their natural element, the water, onto the ice, where they are clumsy and (to us) silly-looking.

Needless to say, the appearance of “foolishness” is in the eye of the human beholder; penguins can’t mate and hatch eggs in the ocean, and that’s all there is to it. But what about the love? Do penguins love their mates? Do penguin parents love their chicks?

Consider, for example, the pathetic episode in which an unsuccessful mother bird makes a futile effort to replace her lost chick by stealing another mother’s chick — an episode not unlike the story of the two harlots judged by Solomon in 1 Kings 3. (The penguins don’t have a Solomon, but they do band together to stop the would-be chick-napper.)

Is a penguin mother’s biological bond to her chick the same as a human mother’s love for her child? Of course not. Yet the biology of the mother-child bond exists for humans as well as for birds. It seems reasonable to suppose that the suffering of a human mother at the death of a child at least includes (though it isn’t limited to) something similar to what the bereaved penguin mother appears to be going through. Thus, to see a degree of common experience is not necessarily mere anthropomorphism.

But now consider, on the other hand, the behavior of the penguins during a scene in which adolescent chicks are attacked by a predator. Do they flock to the chick’s defense, as they did during the instance of attempted chick-napping? Do they cry and carry on, or watch anxiously from the sidelines? It doesn’t look like it. As long as the predator is outside their own personal space, as far as we can tell, they don’t appear to be particularly concerned at all.

Granted, penguin concern might not look like human concern. For that matter, behavior that resembles human grief might not correspond to anything we would recognize as emotion in penguin psychology. Appearances are all we have to go on.

That said, if March of the Penguins is anthropomorphic, for the most part its anthropomorphism may lie largely in drawing our attention to those aspects of penguin life that legitimately remind us of human life. The emotions and moral affections with which we approach parental sacrifice for children or spousal separation and reunion may be uniquely human, but on some level whatever the penguins are doing probably figures into what human couples do (or are supposed to do).

Of course this line of thought can be pressed too far, as was demonstrated by the public debate over the significance of penguins in the war over marriage — surely a spectacle more ridiculous than the alleged “act of utter foolishness” with which the film opens. (If the defenders of marriage must have an avian mascot for monogamy, surely they can do better than the serially monogamous Emperor penguins — say, the cherry-headed conures of that other 2005 bird documentary, The Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill, which generally do mate for life.)

Granted, watching March of the Penguins, we may well reflect that if all human couples did at least as well by their offspring as Emperor penguins do — if in general we left our partners and young in the lurch only in the event of unfortunate encounters with large predators, or similarly deadly circumstances — the world would be a better place. Still and all, marriage has a lot more to do with how we are different from penguins than how we are the same.

Documentary, Nature Documentaries, Penguin Nation