The religious right does not understand emperor penguins better than it understands humans

The French daily newspaper Le Monde reports in its edition dated 17 September 2005 that neoconservatives and the religious right (, National Review, Ohio’s 153 House Churches Network) are exploiting the success of the film March of the Penguins to push their anti-women rights agenda. As a dedicated supporter of emperor penguin studies and someone who marvels in the diversity of nature’s productions, I would like to wash off any stain on the emperor penguins honor.

This is easy to do, because the authors of this misrepresentation are abysmally ignorant of the true nature of penguin achievements (among other things). Let’s first consider monogamy that the penguins are supposed to give us in example. They practice it … but review it on a yearly basis. Sorry, but to illustrate a longer-term approach to monogamy in the animal realm, one has to have recourse to wolves.

What about dedication to protect life? I am not so sure it is a very good idea to copy all animal species’ practices on that account either, nor to look for analogical inspiration in any particular species. Some might find attractiveness in the idea of the religious right being inspired by the praying mantis copulation practices, but I prefer them to evolve by other means. The film maker Luc Jacquet is right to warn us against drawing any religious or ethical conclusion from what is story-telling based on observation. Without falling in this trap, can we nonetheless try to get some inspiration from emperor penguins about when it makes sense for us, as humans, to consider that an independent life form has emerges that deserves social protection ? If emperor penguins tell us one thing, it would be that it is when the embodiment of potential life has become independent of the mother’s body (in penguin’s cases as an egg, in human cases as a newborn) and becomes an entity for others. Of course we can anticipate that moment in our imagination, as lovers and tentative parents. Let’s not anticipate it in our laws. Until « birth », it is much better to reason on the foetus as a part of the mother’s body (which is enough to give it some protection, but not against the mother’s interest).

What of the deeper argument on evolution and creationnism? Many bright minds have covered this subject, and if Stephen Jay Gould did not convince creationnists that their arguments were based on a total misunderstanding of evolutionary theory, I am unlikely to succeed. So let’s just remind those who claim that « life is too complex to have emerged from a random selection process » that evolutionary theory is not about random selection processes and tells us -tentatively, as any scientific theory- that life is too diverse and contingent to have emerged from any conscious will.

Finally, I regret it, but emperor penguins tell us very little about whether the flying spaghetti monster theory deserves to be taught in school.

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