About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

The Passion of the Penguins

Well, conservative Christians never cease to amaze me! The latest (according to a recent New York Times article) is their take on the documentary "The March of the Penguins," a smashing success this summer, and by all accounts an excellent example of nature documentary.

Conservative commentators have being all over the web and radio waves to insist that the movie "verified the beauty of life and the rightness of protecting it," even though penguins aren't really "beautiful" other than to other penguins (and coackroaches to other coackroaches), and every species on earth tends to protect its own offspring. Of course, the fact that penguins and everybody else destroy, life both in competition with other species and with their own, is conveniently overlooked by the pious Christian.

According to another comment, the movie is "the motion picture this summer that most passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing." Again, a moment of reflection should convince anybody that all parents make some sacrifice to rear their offspring, but that this -- at least in the animal world -- has nothing to do with moral principles: it's got to do with increasing the chances of the parent's DNA to pass on to the next generation. Moreover, penguins may be monogamous, but other birds aren't. Why not pick the latter as examples to hold for the moral education of our children? (Incidentally, many species of birds also show a degree of homosexuality as a natural part of their biology...)

A minister in Ohio reached astonishingly ridiculous heights when he said: "Some of the circumstances they [the penguins] experienced seemed to parallel those of Christians. The penguin is falling behind, is like some Christians falling behind. The path changes every year, yet they find their way, is like the Holy Spirit." Wow, my Catholic upbringing didn't prepare me for the astounding discovery that the Holy Spirit affects penguins, but that just goes to show you how much one can learn from a documentary which, incidentally, makes absolutely no moral statement at all. In the words of Laura Kim, a vice president of Warner Independent, which distributed the movie in the US: "You know what? They're just birds." Indeed they are.


  1. Welcome back, Massimo! Your posts were sorely missed (By me, at any rate).

  2. Holy moly those articles about the gay penguins are funny!

    I really loved the one about the gay Central Park Zoo penguins. Not only are they gay, they actually adopted and raised a baby together!

    At one time, the two seemed so desperate to incubate an egg together that they put a rock in their nest and sat on it, keeping it warm in the folds of their abdomens, said their chief keeper, Rob Gramzay. Finally, he gave them a fertile egg that needed care to hatch. Things went perfectly, and a chick, Tango, was born.

    For the next 2 1/2 months they raised Tango, keeping her warm and feeding her food from their beaks until she could go out into the world on her own. Gramzay is full of praise. "They did a great job," he said.

    Call Jerry Fallwell! This perversion of gay penguins adopting youngsters has to be stopped before it's too late!

  3. I think there is enough for both sides of the aisle to latch on to in the behavioral ecology presented in March of the Penguins to further their political agendas. I heard, if memory serves it was on a recent All Things Considered on NPR, a politically left commentator bemoaning how Penguins was more or less a right wing tool to introduce the Republican version of "family values" in the theatre.

    The truth is the fact that the left resented any hint of even an anthropomorphized nod to the value of family in a film about avian parental care bothered me about as much, well OK, more, than the right copting this bit of penguin behavior as an excuse to further their own agenda. Perhaps the cure is a new film this time about the extra-pair mating systems of passerine birds.

    Excellent blog! I'll have to create a link in my my own evolution and science blogspot site!

  4. I saw the movie with a friend and her son. She has taught the boy that life is created via natural selection and that species adapt or die off based on natural phenomema rather than a planned design. (I have never heard her talk to her son about these things but since she is as an evolutionary biologist who is an atheist I am making some assumptions here). The three of us discussed the movie and its beauty, its heroics and sadness from a perspective that had no room for a divine plan but rather as a result of the raw beauty of natural selection.
    Rather than the fundamentalist bandwagon line that this proved a deity we saw the same movie and were in awe of nature.


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