Saturday, August 13, 2005

Lessons from the Penguins

This afternoon my family and I viewed March of the Penguins. We gave it 12 thumbs up. (OK, I have a large family -- and we were even missing one child.) This documentary, narrated by Morgan Freeman, takes you through the beautiful and mysterious world of the Emperor Penguin's mating and family developments. It was stunningly good, and I understand that this documentary has done very well at the box office. Currently, it is wedged between two films by Michael Moore for at the top of the list of all time box office successes for documentary. (It would have been more ironic if a film about whales or elephants occupied that slot, but these Penguins are quite large.)

Penguins have found their way to live in the beautiful yet harsh antarctic world. Each year in March, as the southern summer ends, they begin a 70 mile trek inland from their ocean home to the place where they were born. They then begin the process of finding a mate (Penguins are serially monogamous - each year they mate for the purpose of raising a chick, and after that year they retreat to solitary lives. I'm not suggesting this as a lesson, though.) The pair then undertakes to produce a chick together. This involves lots of harrowing experiences with predators, storms, and the loneliness of separation. You see, once the female produces the egg, the male is then entrusted with it for something like two months while she returns to the ocean to feed. He must sit with the egg perched on top of his feet to keep it warm, with the only shelter being the collective warmth of the whole flock of other dads doing the same thing. The chick hatches, and is quite hungry. But by this time, the females are just getting back from feeding, and they hopefully return in time to find their chicks and feed them. The male then takes his turn returning to feed and bring back food for the chick, and this cycle repeats for several months. By November, the chicks are ready to dive into the ocean, which has now come very near to their resting ground as the southern summer sun melts the ice. They enjoy four or five years of adolescent bliss in the ocean, before they, too, join the world of responsible adults and give of themselves for the sake of raising their chick.

One thing that struck me about this whole spectacle was the sense of wonder we all had in seeing something which was previously unknown to us, and presumably to nearly everyone else as well. Only God Himself could see and enjoy this mystery, until He shared it with us through the diligent hard work of the filmmakers. Hopefully we can keep that sense of wonder going as we witness other things of beauty around us.

Another thing was the fact that the Penguins enjoyed both solitary and community lives. When it came to raising the chick, for the most part the work was solitary -- it was up to the mom and dad to raise their child. It was not a village activity -- if the mom or dad got eaten by a leopard seal, the chick did not make it. If a mom came back with food and the dad was lazy and did not keep the chick warm enough, the chick died. (And I would guess the lazy dad has a harder time getting a mate the next year -- assuming the females visit about such things before the next year's march). If the mom dawdled and enjoyed too much food and fun at the ocean, and she didn't make it back to the chick in time, the chick died. (And I would guess the mom also had a hard time finding a mate the next year -- though who really knows. Males are ususally glad to have any females interested in them.) There was group activity, however, in making the trek together, and for the males in the winter, they depended on the group for warmth, taking turns getting to the outside in the blizzard experiences. That was the only way to survive in that harsh state of nature.

In any event, I'm now about to get to what I think is the most interesting lesson. It felt uncomfortable knowing that some moms would come back with food and find their chicks had died, and yet other chicks would not have mothers return for one reason or another, and as a result they would perish with no food. It would seem fitting to match these moms and chicks together so that more could survive. It also seemed odd to have the community behavior of support in the cold, yet individual responsibilty for coming back to feed the chicks. The chicks were not fed indiscriminately by anyone with food; they were fed by their own parents, who recognized their chick voices.

However, there appears to be an important reason for the individual responsibilty model built into these penguins. I suppose that if you thought the village would feed your chick if you weren't there, you might spend a little longer at the beach feeding and enjoying yourself. On the other hand, if you knew that it all depended on you, you would do your utmost to make it back - regardless of the personal discomfort and suffering incurred -- since you knew that the outcome really did depend on doing your best.

Though I don't advocate the imposition of the harsh rules of Nature in all human contexts, there is a lesson here. If you fuss too much with incentives for people to act responsibly on their own, you can in fact do great harm. It could even affect the survival of the group.

Have a good weekend -- and go see the March of the Penguins !

Best regards.

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