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Of penguins and people

A review of the movie “March of the Penguins”

by Pam Sheppard, staff writer, AiG–USA

October 1, 2005

Donkeys and elephants have long been associated with USA politics, but now penguins are being pulled into the mix. However, not just any penguin—we’re talking the emperor penguin, whose unique breeding cycle takes center stage in the surprise USA box office hit of the season, the documentary March of the Penguins.

These amazing birds, which live in the remote continent of Antarctica, have become political fodder for some, a “pawn in the war on evolution”1 for many, and a “politically charged parable”2 for others.

In a New York Times article (September 13), “March of the Conservatives: Penguin Film as Political Fodder,” Jonathan Miller writes that “conservative groups have turned its stirring depiction of the mating ordeals of emperor penguins into an unexpected battle anthem in the culture wars.”

Posing the question, “Is the emperor penguin an enemy of Darwin?” David Smith wrote in the UK’s The Observer (September 18), “America’s surprise film hit (projected to be the family film hit of Britain in time for Christmas) was meant to be a nature documentary. Now it’s a pawn in the war on evolutionary theory.”

So, what do emperor penguins in Antarctica have to do with the culture wars?

Before and after the recent USA presidential election, many news reports and editorials equated people who support Christian morality with those who believe in creation instead of evolution. Likewise, many secular reporters have linked the issue of the culture wars to the rejection of evolution. For instance, Time magazine recently devoted its cover story, “Evolution Wars”, to this battle.

So why are many Christians so happy with this French-made film that has already grossed over 70 million dollars at the USA box office?

Film critic and radio host, Michael Medved, addressed this question when he said in a New York Times article (September 13) that this movie is the first one that conservatives have enjoyed since The Passion of the Christ. Needless to say, this has caused some (including Miller) to refer to the film as “Passion of the Penguins.”

According to the New York Times, the movie (which highlights the nine-month period it takes small-stepping penguins to traverse 70 miles of ice where they will court, mate, lay and incubate their eggs, and return to the sea) appeals to conservatives because of its “soft-pedaling of topics like evolution and global warming.”

The filmmakers said they did not consciously avoid these topics (they did admit to being strong believers in evolution themselves), but wanted to create a documentary that would reach as many people as possible. They did manage to squeeze in one evolution-friendly reference by speaking of long ages when the film’s unseen narrator, Morgan Freeman, says towards the beginning: “For millions of years, they [emperor penguins] have made their home on the darkest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on Earth.”

Not only do many Christians (frequently referred to by the liberal media as conservatives) see no evidence for evolution in this stunningly shot documentary, but rather they see ample evidence of God’s design that allows this amazing bird to survive the Antarctic winter, going months without food, and to breed during the worst weather conditions on earth.

“That any one of these eggs survives is a remarkable feat—and, some might suppose, a strong case for intelligent design,” wrote Andrew Coffin of World magazine (August 6) who points out that it is sad that the film does not acknowledge a creator in its examination of these strange and wonderful animals.

Evidence for divine design?

After recently seeing this movie myself, practically everything about these penguins, the largest of the 17 penguin species, shouts God’s incredible design as Romans 1:20 tells us: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.

From their long and treacherous journey to their traditional breeding ground—up to 70 miles away—to how the mother and father penguin take turns guarding and nurturing the precious egg and later the newborn chick (all while enduring temperatures as low as –80°F [–62°C], 100 mph [160 km/h] winds and a 125-day fast), God’s handiwork is unmistakable.

Now in the original world, emperor penguins probably never existed! This does not mean at all that these creatures evolved. They are obviously descendants of an original “penguin kind” that God created. Each land animal kind was represented on Noah’s Ark by two or seven individuals.  After the Flood, as each kind reproduced and spread out over the earth, different species within a kind resulted from natural selection (and other genetic factors). This is not evolution in the molecules-to-man sense, because no new information is added into the genes. Today, there are many species of penguins living in climates varying from quite warm to extremely cold. God programmed enough information in the original penguin kind (assuming there was only one kind of penguin to start with, which is certainly possible) to enable different species to form by adapting to varying environments in a post-Flood world. Each of these “daughter” groups would have less information than the “parent” kind.  For further information see the articles Speedy species surprise and Bears across the world.

For instance, consider how (in a climate which no other living creature can endure), the emperor penguins get to the same destination, but via a different path, each time. As the narrator poses the question, “How do they get there—by an invisible compass inside?” And these aren’t the only birds that seem to have a built-in compass—migratory birds do as well.

Once the penguins have reached their destination (where there is no chance of the ice breaking through), they must find a mate. The next eight months they will stay together, separate, reunite and bring forth new life. How can the same two recognize each other again when there are thousands of penguins in the same area? It’s possible through mating songs that allow them to record their mate’s “vocal signature.”

In early June, an egg appears and the only goal for the new family will be to keep it alive. With almost a third of her weight now gone from fasting for weeks and producing the egg, the mother must soon depart back to the sea (over 70 miles [110 km] away) for much-needed food. That means the father must take over the care of the egg. But first, she must carefully transfer the fragile egg from her feet to the tops of her partner’s feet where he will carefully tuck the egg under a fold of abdominal skin just above his feet. This transfer must take place within seconds or the egg will freeze. Unfortunately, some eggs won’t make it, giving us yet another example of living in a sin-cursed world.

Dr. Jobe Martin points out in the DVD Incredible Creatures that Defy Evolution (Volume 3) how amazing it is that the egg, which is only a couple of inches from the ice, doesn’t freeze. “The fact that their feet don’t freeze on the ice is a miracle in itself,” he adds.

With mother gone, the male penguin must carry and protect the egg for more than 60 days (practically without moving), without eating, and while exposed to the worst weather conditions on earth. (When all is said and done, the male will go without food for 125 days.)

So, how do the male penguins keep their eggs, let alone themselves, from freezing in the extreme polar weather? As a way to resist the blizzard, the penguins regroup in a turtle-like formation while swirling around like a snail. Compressed against each other, they take turns being in the middle where it’s the warmest and being on the outside where it’s the coldest. All the while, they are shuffling along the ice, careful not to lose the egg that is so delicately balancing on their feet.

What makes these male penguins cooperate in such perfect harmony? According to an article by the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD),3 it’s their instinct as a social creature.

Another special adaptation of the emperor penguin, according to the AAD article, is the penguin’s ability to “recycle” its own body heat. The emperor’s arteries and veins lie close together so that blood is pre-cooled on the way to the bird’s feet, wings and bill and warmed on the way back to the heart.

However, not everyone sees this as evidence of design. Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London and an atheist, said in The Observer that “a group of penguins standing upright looks like cooperation, but in fact the ones on the outside are struggling to get in and those on the inside are trying to stand their ground: it’s a classic Darwinian struggle.” This seems to illustrate that one’s worldview determines how one interprets the evidence! Of course, even if that should be demonstrated to be the case, Darwinian “struggle” in a fallen world is not opposed to a biblical worldview. In fact, “survival of the fittest” was described by a creationist, Edward Blyth, before Darwin.  See Muddy Waters: Clarifying the confusion about natural selection.

Bird in flight?

Many evolutionists say that the penguin is a bird that supposedly lost its ability to fly, as Dr. Martin points out in Incredible Creatures that Defy Evolution (Volume 3). “But evolutionists haven’t come up with any ancestors for the penguin,” he counters. “So what kind of bird was it that became a penguin and lost its ability to fly?” he adds.

But emperor penguins really do fly—at least that’s what National Geographic says. In fact, these penguins fly under water. They can hold their breath for over 22 minutes and can dive 1,500 feet (450m), both necessary feats in order to find food.

Paul Ponganis, a research physiologist at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego, wrote in a National Geographic article4, “Penguins are as well designed for underwater flight as birds are for flying in the air. And when they swim, they really are flying underwater. A penguin’s wings act the same while it’s swimming as a bird’s does while it’s flying.”

After many successful feeding dives where the female penguin has built up enough fat and filled her stomach with food, she must be able to return to her newborn within one day of it being born—or it will die. While the father is able to regurgitate secretions that can keep the chick alive for one or two days, if the mother is late, the father will have to abandon the chick and return to the sea before he starves to death.

When the mother returns (usually within days of the chick being born), she will find her mate by once again using her vocal signature. She will immediately feed her hungry chick, which must then be transferred from the father to the mother. They must use as much care in transferring the chick as they did with the egg or the chick will freeze and die.

Many, like pro-life advocate Jill Stanek, are raving about how the movie positively reflects sanctity of life issues. In a WorldNet Daily.com article (August 10), Stanek wrote that the film “verified the beauty of life and the rightness of protecting it.” This movie impacted me in the same way.

Another area of great discussion is the issue of monogamy. While some are rejoicing in the way the film shows penguins as “monogamous upholders of traditional family values,” the emperor penguin is usually monogamous only for a year, but not for life, as Adam Leipzig, president of National Geographic Feature Films, points out in The Observer article.1

Morality not from animals

Indeed, Christians must be careful about using examples from the animal world to support human morality. Some animals (in this fallen world) exhibit homosexual behavior! Remember, man was made in the image of God. Even though our body has features which enable it to be classified in the same grouping as mammals, for instance, people were created differently than the animals. God commanded, and the animals came into existence. But for man He said, “Let us make man in our image.” (Genesis 1:26). There is an insurmountable gap between people and animals. God gave us His Word (and our consciences) to inform us of right and wrong—we don’t get our morality from animals.

The movie showed what happened when a young chick didn’t make the tricky transfer from Dad to Mom. When a failed transfer resulted in a frozen newborn chick, a grieving mother (of course this is interpreted by man as “grieving”—but is it “grieving” as we understand it, or an instinctive behavioral reaction programmed into the animal?) tried to steal another penguin’s chick (we trust people who are comparing the penguins’ behavior with humans won’t use this to justify stealing someone’s baby!). The tribe wouldn’t allow her to take it and the mother had no choice but to head back to sea. This was yet another reminder of living in a fallen world which includes death and suffering

Until the young chicks are old enough to feed themselves, the mother and father will take turns feeding their chicks by heading to sea and back. Once the baby emperor penguins are able to dive and fish on their own, it will be another four years before they are able to join the ritual march to their breeding grounds. 

This movie certainly illustrates the phenomenal design in the animal kingdom—and that design includes programmed instincts for social behavior. But such animal behavior should not be used by Christians to make moral decisions about abortion, euthanasia, homosexuality, faithfulness and monogamy in marriage, divorce, etc., because man was created in God’s image and is distinctly and significantly different from any animal. Once again we see that Genesis is the key to right thinking on these matters.

References and notes

  1. Smith, David, How the penguin’s life story inspired the US religious right, The Observer, observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,6903,1572642,00.html, September 18, 2005. Return to text.
  2. Ibid. Return to text.
  3. Australian Antarctic Division, Emperor penguins: winter survivors, www.aad.gov.au/default.asp?casid=3524. Return to text.
  4. Hile, Jennifer, Emperor Penguins: Uniquely Armed for Antarctica, news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2004/03/0329_040329_TVpenguins.html, March 29, 2004. Return to text.

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