What is it with penguins?

A film about the loveable Antarctic creature is the US box office hit of the year. Now the seabird is being claimed by some Christians as proof of God's intelligent design. Michael McCarthy reports

Anthropomorphic, that's the word we're looking for. Human-like. They remind us of us. What other explanation can there be for our curious fascination with penguins?

They are seabirds related to albatrosses and petrels, but do we get albatross jokes? Petrel stories? "An albatross goes into a bar and orders a beer and says..." Hardly. But click on Google and you'll find penguin jokes on more than 1,200 websites. And it's not only jokes. There are penguin myths.

The most-frequently repeated one is that bored RAF pilots stationed in the Falkland Islands fly low past penguin colonies to get the birds to watch them, first this way, zoom, then the other way, zoom. Then they suddenly turn, and fly over the colonies directly - ZOOM - and the birds watch them fly overhead with craning necks, craning and craning, until all 10,000 of them fall over backwards.

You can just about believe it. I mean, look at them. With their upright stance and arm-like flippers these aren't birds, are they? They're dinky human figures with - for us - two irresistibly entertaining additions to the dinkiness: a waddling walk and a dress suit with a starched shirt-front.

In reality, this creature is a streamlined fish killer, highly-evolved to operate in extreme conditions. But when we look at one what do we see? Charlie Chaplin dressed as a head waiter. No wonder they're popular. Such is the power of anthropomorphism, of our ready willingness to attribute human characteristics to animal species. Penguins seem to trigger it more than almost any other bird, and now they're triggering it like never before with the release of an epic blockbuster film in which they are the stars.

The March of The Penguins has already taken America by storm and will be released in Britain in time for Christmas (it will be premiered at the London Film Festival next month). It is the surprise international movie hit of the year, a wildlife documentary directed by a French biologist, Luc Jacquet, which was made for less than £4.5m but has already grossed £37m at the US box office.

It recounts an epic tale: the life cycle of the emperor penguin, Aptenodytes forsteri, the largest of the 17 penguin species, all of which are found in the southern hemisphere. Every aspect of emperor penguin life is tough, for the bird is the southernmost species and breeds on the ice-bound Antarctic land mass. What it takes to do this is remarkable.

At the end of the Antarctic summer, in March, the birds flop out of theSouthern Ocean where they have been assiduously stuffing themselves, and begin a long trek to their mating grounds, up to 70 miles away. Thousands gradually come together, tramping over the ice in long single files like patrols of infantry. But that's only the beginning.

After courtship and pairing, the female bird produces a single egg, and then one of nature's great curtains comes down. A six-month dark descends, and the temperature drops with it, to minus 60 and below - and the female bird departs. She has gone without food for so long - and the effort of producing the egg has been so great - that she must return to the sea to feed.

The task of incubating the egg, in the harshest conditions on earth, falls to the male of the species. When blizzards arrive, with 100mph winds in a nightmare of frozen dark, even these birds adapted to the conditions through millions of years of evolution have to huddle round together in great groups to keep a minimum of warmth. But most survive, and so do their eggs, kept secure and warm in a fold of abdominal skin just above their feet; and after 60 days of this, the eggs hatch. The male feeds the tiny chick at first with a milky substance, then eventually the female returns to take over, recognising her mate by call.

If she returns, that is, and hasn't fallen prey to leopard seals or killer whales. If she has, or is late back, the male has to leave the chick and return to the sea, or he will starve.

The film is an extraordinary story of co-operation and endurance, and audiences have been hugely moved. But so forceful is the appeal of The March of the Penguins, so powerfully does it work on our anthropomorphic instincts, that it has touched other, stranger nerves.

The film is being claimed by the American religious right as a parable of its own, as a heart-warming story which affirms traditional values such as monogamy, selflessness and child-rearing, in the face of the normal Godless liberalism for which Hollywood is now seen to stand. It is even being taken as an argument for "intelligent design" - the creationism which refutes Darwin's argument that life has evolved through random natural selection. Only such perfectly designed creatures, the argument runs, could withstand such terrible conditions,

Many Christian magazines, newspapers and websites are now singing the film's praises for its allegedly conservative message.

Christiananswers.net, for example, is currently displaying a series of critiques of the movie. Its helpful categorisation of the film's qualities include: "PROFANITY: None. SEX/NUDITY: Penguins mate during the film, but it is understood, not shown. THE EXISTENCE OF GOD: One year in the life of an emperor penguin is a great indication of the existence and character of God."

Yet bizarrely, it is barely nine months since penguins were being used as the exemplar of a somewhat different set of values.

At Bremerhaven Zoo in Germany, earlier this year, tests were carried out on five pairs of Humboldt penguins which had not succeeded in breeding, and three of the pairings were found to be homosexual.

When the zoo imported four female birds from a Swedish zoo to try and get breeding started, it was deluged with protests from gay groups in Germany and elsewhere, outraged at the attempt to "cure" the gay birds. In the end the gay penguins ignored the females and remained faithful to their partners. They became gay icons.

This has by no means gone unnoticed in the argument in the US, where penguins' family values, praised by the right, are contrasted with their gay traits by the liberal left. One blogger alleges: "The male penguin couple at a California zoo are so good at taking care of eggs that the zoo actually takes eggs from the straight penguin couples and deposits them in the nest. They give the straight penguins rocks instead." So there.

Caught in the middle seems to be the American columnist Andrew Sullivan, who is both conservative and homosexual. On his website he writes: "Michael Medved [a conservative US film critic] even went so far as to argue that the penguin documentary 'passionately affirms traditional norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing.'

"Well, not quite. It turns out that monogamy varies a lot among birds and even among penguin species. The emperor penguins featured in the movie have a very low monogamy habit.

"From year to year, only 15 per cent of the blokes mate with the same, er, chick. Imagine humans with an 85 percent annual divorce rate. That's the model that some on the religious right are now touting. Maybe they should rethink. When they're not gay, these birds have as many spouses as Larry King. Even Liz Taylor beats them on the marriage front, I think."

Some of those involved with the film are trying to take the heat out of the argument. Laura Kim, a vice-president of Warner Independent Pictures, its American distributor, summed up what not a few thought by saying: "You know what? They're just birds."

You can see her point. If we take our anthropomorphism too far and start seeing moral messages in animal behaviour, we're likely to end up disappointed. Some penguins are monogamous child-rearers; and others are gay. But neither one set nor the other is obeying any moral code that may exist in our minds.

They're not really amusing, waddling, dinky versions of us at all. They're Antarctic seabirds doing what comes naturally.

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