March of the God-fearing Penguins

by Brad Plummer

Photo: Courtesy New England Aquarium

Penguins may be cute, but don't call it love.

Conservative Christians have long bandied the notion of “traditional” values as the only insurance against society’s impending collapse. Behavioral preferences like monogamy, heterosexuality, and two-parent families (with the father as CEO), many say, are the very fabric of natural order. To ignore them is to oppose God’s rule. Any deviation from the Creator’s set of regulations for human behavior might incur His wrath, whether as a hail of flaming brimstone, or perhaps as a plague, like AIDS.

Although many fundamentalist Christians believe the Bible has sufficient authority to mandate bedroom behavior and nuptial arrangements, some think that finding examples of these ideas outside the human sphere can strengthen the claim. According to Jonathan Miller of the New York Times (March of the Conservatives: Penguin Film as Political Fodder), for many conservative Christians, the summer film March of the Penguins documents these moral truths in action, proving the point that God prefers monogamy, a nuclear family structure, and a boy-girl-boy-girl seating arrangement at life’s tea party.

Emperor penguins are beautiful creatures, given to human-seeming bouts of playfulness and intimacy. But whether or not these birds are adequate examples of how humans ought to conduct themselves depends on which details of their life-history one examines. The conservative Christians who have adopted this film as lifestyle justification show selective reasoning about which penguin traits illustrate their point. And the film’s American editors, although they claim no collusion, have left most of the contravening evidence on the cutting room floor (including any reference to the shrinking ice sheet on which the penguins live, thereby avoiding any allusion to global warming). The film depicts at length the nuzzling rituals among penguins, but seriously downplays the role of predators or the number of penguins that succumb to the weather.

Monogamy doesn’t exist in nature, at least not the kind espoused by religious advocates. “Serial” monogamy—the strategy used by emperor penguins—is commonplace. But serial monogamy is distinct because parents leave each other and choose new mates sequentially, sometimes every season or after producing offspring. According to Jared Diamond’s “Why is sex fun?”, zoologically speaking, humans are also classified as serially monogamous in their sexual behavior. On balance, human couple-hood is a temporary thing, and most people have more one mate over their lifetime.

Among birds and mammals alike, how parents produce offspring (their mating strategy) is determined by how they care for the young. In the case of emperor penguins, if the male leaves too soon, his offspring will die. The penguins stay together because their environment says they have to—not the Bible. Among most other bird species whose habitats are less harsh—hummingbirds, wrens, swallows, and ducks, to name a few—the male either abandons the female completely, or sets out to fertilize as many other females as he can while his mate incubates their clutch of eggs.

Homosexuality is also commonplace in nature. According to biologist Bruce Bagemihl, author of Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity , zoologists have observed homosexuality in nearly 450 different species. In 2004, a pair of homosexual chinstrap penguins at Manhattan’s Central Park Zoo— Roy and Silo—spurred controversy among opponents looking to debate whether gay penguins imply anything about human morality. (The penguins parted ways in 2005, having successfully raised a surrogate chick named Tango from an egg given to them by zookeepers. And again, both sides found justification for their perspectives in the story.)

Marriage is a human social institution that has no biological counterpart. It is a moral and social contract that requires people to put aside—not adhere to—biological impulses. To undertake such a pursuit approaches the realm of spirituality. To seek justification for marriage in the behavior of other animals is not only futile, but diminishes the institution in the attempt to anchor it to biology.

The problem with Christian enthusiasm for March of the Penguins is not whether their values should be promoted, but to what degree animal behavior means anything for human society. Otherwise, what should we make of infanticide among lions? Or cannibalism among chimpanzees? Some might argue that any human behaviors that are also found in common with other species suggest a deeper, biological or genetic basis. But, whereas studying the commonality between humans and other species has scientific and social value, using those commonalities to argue on behalf of morality misses the human uniqueness of morality.