The Sunday Times September 18, 2005
Andrew Sullivan: Not-so-picky penguins muddy the morality war
Not even the penguins are safe. The latest victims of America’s culture warriors are emperor
penguins, the stars of March of the Penguins, the surprise summer box- office hit in the US. The
French documentary — to be shown at the London film festival next month — charts the amazing
struggle of these birds to survive in brutal cold and to march back and forth each year to their
breeding grounds to copulate and rear their young.
Partly because of the dearth of any decent movies and partly because of the brilliance and
simplicity of its photography and story, the film has become the second- largest grossing
documentary in US history with ticket sales of $67m (about £37m) so far. I found it engrossing
and mercifully free of the usual “the Earth is doomed by humans” narrative of most enviro-docs.
Michael Medved, the religious right radio host, gushed in The New York Times that this was the
best movie for evangelical Christians since Mel Gibson flayed the skin off Jim Caviezel in The
Passion of the Christ.
The penguin pic was “the motion picture this summer that most passionately affirms traditional
norms like monogamy, sacrifice and child rearing”, he argued. “This is The Passion of the
Penguins.” Don’t worry. You don’t get to see penguins nailed to icebergs. But the message is the
Other evangelicals have touted the film’s gorgeous story as an example of intelligent design, the
pseudoscientific doctrine that evolution is a myth. To which George Will, the sane conservative
pundit, replied: “If an Intelligent Designer designed nature, why did it decide to make breeding so
tedious for those penguins?”
Undeterred, Maggie Gallagher, one of the chief campaigners against gay marriage, also hailed
the film. “(It) is hard not to see the theological overtones in the movie,” she wrote. “Beauty,
goodness, love and devotion are all part of nature, built into the DNA of the universe. Even in the
harshest place on the Earth (like 21st century America?), love will not only endure, it will triumph.”
Love? Maybe it’s because these beautiful creatures have the shape of middle Americans, waddle
amusingly, fall over occasionally and have heads on top of their bodies that we project our needs
and anxieties onto them. But we do so at our peril. Love, it turns out, has very little to do with the
mating habits of the emperor penguin.
According to The Auk, the scholarly journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union, emperor
penguins make Liz Taylor look like a lifetime monogamist. Their mate fidelity, year to year, is
15%. Each year, in other words, 85% of emperor penguins get a divorce and pick up a new
spouse. Not only that, they’re not particularly p-p-p-picky.
“In emperor penguins the tendency to divorce occurred only when females returned earlier than
their previous mates. Most emperor penguin pairs formed within 24 hours after the arrival of the
males, which were outnumbered by females,” says The Auk. Memo to male emperor penguins: if
you get to the breeding grounds a day late, forget about it. She’s already moved on.
It gets worse. Some penguins are — wait for it — gay. Of course, any fool could have told you
that. They’re invariably impeccably turned out, in simple and elegant black tie with a very discrete
splash of colour, and you can’t tell the boys from the girls. This is a big problem for zoos hoping
for baby penguins. The keepers at Berlin’s Bremerhaven zoo were frustrated for years wondering
why their penguin couples weren’t producing any eggs. After DNA testing they discovered that
three of the five pairs had the avian equivalent of “civil partnerships”.
Gay marriage has apparently been around a lot longer than many of us believed. So they
brought in four, er, birds from Sweden to try to wean the gay penguins into reproducing.
No word yet on progress. But German gay groups were outraged. How dare the zoo try to
reprogram gays? “The central question is, are our penguins really gay or is it simply a lack of
opportunity?” the zoo keeper told Der Spiegel. “The males have had the opportunity but haven’t
In New York’s Central Park zoo, a gay penguin marriage has even become literature. Roy and
Silo were two male penguins who showed no interest in the females, appeared devoted to each
other, built a nest together and at one point even found a pebble they decided to sit on.
Sadly, the pebble didn’t hatch. When keepers provided Roy and Silo with an egg abandoned by a
heterosexual penguin couple, they became devoted daddies. Their adopted baby was called
Tango. This summer a lovingly illustrated children’s book, And Tango Makes Three, hit the
shelves, yet another weapon in the pro-gay culture war.
But nature isn’t pro-homosexual either, it turns out. In a piece of news that has rocked the
American gay scene, Silo recently left Roy and is now with a female. “Her name is Scrappy,” Rob
Gramzay, the zoo’s senior penguin keeper, told the Chicago Tribune last week. “They had an
egg. It didn’t work out and they might try again.”
Poor Roy now just hangs out with a few birds, both male and female. “He’s not in a nesting
situation. It’s more for camaraderie,” Gramzay said.
Alas, for all the evidence that homosexuality, promiscuity and transgenderism exist in the natural
world, it’s a little stupid to use this material for political purposes. How do I put this gently to both
the social right and the PC left?
We’re not penguins. We’re not chimps. We’re not even those merrily promiscuous bonobo
monkeys. We’re humans. And even our “natural” mating habits — moderate monogamy and
some homosexuality, according to all the best science — do not tell us anything about morality.
Try going to a documentary film and accept its touching depiction of the natural world for what it
is. And marvel at the beautiful, confounding mystery of it all. Not everything is political. And not
everything is about us.
Comments from a friend.
Delightful article. I had not seen it.
It is, of course, crazy to argue: Animals x,y,z do A. Therefore it is right for humans to
do A. On the other hand, I think there are some fairly plausible evolutionary accounts of
the origins of some basic human emotions and capacities that underlie human moral systems
(without, of course, providing a definitive argument for which system is "correct").
After all, since the stuff was not (gasp) handed down on stone tablets from on high, there
must be a naturalistic account.
On the other hand, it is no surprise if some right-wing sorts think they can make use of
animal analogies. After all, our Dear Leader has the approximate moral development of an