August 19, 2005 | David F. Coppedge

Do Emperor Penguins Know the Meaning of True Love?

The nature film sensation March of the Penguins is capturing the public imagination because of its portrayal of emperor penguins in almost anthropomorphic visions.  Strutting upright in their feathery tuxedos, these Antarctic seabirds seem almost human: they love, they walk, they sacrifice, they grieve over the loss of a chick, they endure hardship bravely, they rejoice at a family reunion.  It’s a bit over the top, reports Hillary Mayell for National Geographic News.  She quotes biologists who cast doubt on whether penguins can experience true feelings.  Penguins respond to hormones, biologists tell us, and their social behavior is instinctive.  Still, the movie is worthwhile, the article confesses; the simplistic portrayal is useful, helping make some aspects of the life cycle of penguins more accessible to the general public.

Mayell is right about the fallacy of imputing human emotional and moral qualities to birds.  Still, birds are among the smartest of animals (03/23/2004, 02/17/2004, 08/09/2002).  Who could know what they think and feel without becoming a birdbrain?  (Remember, that is a compliment, not an insult—02/01/2005).  To believe that such behaviors are mere emergent properties of matter in motion seems inadequate.  In evolutionary terms, animal behaviors that look playful or emotional seem senseless in a world of survival, and evolutionists are at a loss to explain them (03/24/2005).  Maybe the fact that we humans can relate to the cries, chirps, and behaviors of emperor penguins indicates that there is, at some level, a non-material element to their ontology, a kind of psyche.  While avoiding the fallacy of personification, we must also not commit the fallacy of reductionism.
    Penguins, despite their comical waddling, deserve our respect.  They are wonderful birds, amazingly adapted to their harsh environment.  (And, contrary to the claims of paleoanthropologists, they demonstrate that walking upright was not invented by Lucy.)  As true birds, yet so profoundly different from the sparrows and robins that share our urban settings, penguins outperform fish as champion swimmers (09/10/2004).  The sea is their sky.  They fly through the water with the speed and grace of a swift.  Emperors are among the most handsomely dressed of all penguins, their black-and-white curvaceous outfits highlighted with a blush of facial vermilion.  One would think it was produced by the same fashion designer who decorated orcas and pandas.  Viewers will undoubtedly notice also how the plumage pattern changes dramatically from chick to adult: the chicks’ eyes are surrounded by goggles of white, whereas the parents’ are nearly concealed in jet black.  Knit together as effectively as thick fur, the feathery coat repels freezing water and biting winds that can rage up to 100 miles per hour and plummet to 70 degrees below.  Their thick, leathery feet, looking like crampons underneath and alligator skin on top, are tough enough to survive miles of walking across ice, yet tender enough to cradle an egg and protect a downy hatchling for months.
    So many physiological adaptations have to be finely tuned for these birds to survive – from the warm flap of skin that incubates the egg centimeters away from the deadly cold, to the ears and eyes that can survive the pressure a thousand feet down in the ocean, to the exact timing of the hatching of the eggs and the females’ arrival to feed them, and much, much more – they seem irreducibly complex on the macro scale.  Undoubtedly some accentuation of existing characters might occur over many generations as the habitat changes, but to believe that all these adaptations could have coalesced in one species by a blind process of natural selection stretches credulity beyond reason.  If it were true, where are the transitional forms?  Where are the fossils?  Despite the single reference to millions of years of adaptation, March of the Penguins is a film about intelligent design.  Fact is stranger than fiction.  Like World magazine said, this stuff just can’t be made up.
    Take the family to see this movie.  You’ll laugh at the penguins’ bellyflops, admire their handsome suits, observe the physical adaptations that outfit them for survival, and shiver at the hardships they endure.  The story is beautiful, the photography stunning (a tribute to the challenges the cameramen endured), the music is memorable, and, despite the occasional human emotions attributed to the birds, it’s true – emperor penguins actually perform this incredible 70-mile march, year after year, in one of the harshest environments on earth.  This may be a film you will want to have in your home DVD collection along with Winged Migration, to reflect on any time your life seems too difficult.  We give it two flippers up.

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Categories: Birds, Media

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