Reflections on “The March of the Penguins”


In December 2004 the world witnessed one of the worst manifestations of Nature’s fury when the plates under the oceans shifted and triggered tidal waves that caused untold death, destruction and suffering all over the world. Who would have thought that even while this was happening, hundreds of penguins were finding their way back from the Antarctic regions, as they had been doing for millions of years, after their annual procreation-ritual. They had braved the blizzard and the bitter cold and gone there to mate monogamously, and do the needful for the continuation of the species.
It is this marvel in the poetry of Nature that is captured with breath-taking artistry in this movie. It tells the story of the march and mating of the penguins. It kept me, like the rest in the hall, enraptured and awe-struck from start to finish. Here was one of Nature’s umpteen stories of life and strife of creatures that have enriched our planet from time immemorial. The routine of the penguins struck me as symbolic of the inexorable laws that sustain the universe, causing problems and perturbations now and again to biological entities that have emerged in the process.
Their collective strut obeying an in-born instinct reminded me of pilgrims that converge periodically to the sacred centers of the world, there to renew their spiritual lives. For there is surely a built-in herd-urge in humans as in many other species, perhaps to ensure order and cohesion even if individuals were to stray off the course. We also witnessed that when the crowd was lost for a moment, one of them set the course which the rest followed, as it often happens in human societies too.
The determined move of those penguins to the coldest latitudes when warmer climes are within reach is a consequence of the memory etched in their instincts. Perhaps it wasn’t as frightfully bitter in the era of their very distant progenitors in time. It reveals how difficult it is for a species to alter its instinctive modes. This is not unlike many members of our own species who find it hard, perhaps impossible, to let go of worldviews and visions which might have served our ancestors of a by-gone age, but which are blatantly unacceptable, even unconscionable, in our own times. In cultural evolution, continuity of patterns seems to be crucial for sane survival.
It is remarkable how in their apparent uniformity (our own all-penguins-look-alike perspective), the creatures could come back to their respective mates after months of absence. If it was delightfully entertaining to see the males with the hatched eggs cheerfully welcome the return of their females after what could be described as grocery shopping in the blue of the sea, it was incredible how in the cacophony of the welcoming squeaks, every female could spot her own partner and progeny.
Even in the midst of all the marvel and majesty of Nature as told in the penguin saga, we saw a frozen egg here, a dead chick there, a predator here and the anguish of a parent there: reflective of the age-old truth that there can be no enjoyment without sorrow, no life without death, and that, for the better or for worse, is the ordained law in the world of thought and feeling. The problem of theodicy is solved when we look upon the duality good and evil as an intrinsic and inevitable aspect of the experiencing world, even as gravitation is an intrinsic feature of the physical world.
This remarkable movie is immensely satisfying in aesthetic terms: the vastness of the Antarctic’s stretch with its icy boulders and ruthless winters, the silent strut of countless creatures for the sole purpose of creating the next generation, the graceful love-dance of penguin pairs, the gentle transfer of the egg from mom to dad, the onward march of the lady-penguins to fish for food, the little beaks of the chicks opening for feed: all this and more are visually delightful. The documentary makes us appreciate the wonder of the natural world, and it evokes an awe and reverence for nature that borders on the religious.
As I watched, I sensed a source for the current controversy on evolution: Seeing such purpose-driven wonder in the biological world, some argue that all this must be the result of some sort of an intelligent design. But no, says the world of science, it is all no more than the enactment of genetic programming. The ID folks respond: Does not every program we know have a programmer? Yes indeed, is the answer, and Nature herself, wielding the laws that have emerged, has programmed penguins and panthers, ants and antelopes, and all there is, including planets, stars, and galaxies.
I fear that like the march of the penguins, this debate may also continue indefinitely….

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About Varadaraja V. Raman

Physicist, philosopher, explorer of ideas, bridge-builder, devotee of Modern Science and Enlightenment, respecter of whatever is good and noble in religious traditions as well as in secular humanism,versifier and humorist, public speaker, dreamer of inter-cultural,international,inter-religious peace.
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