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Bird Brains

Are we singling out one arctic bird as our model for personal conduct, or are we supposed to use all animal behavior as examples for our own?

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It does?

Never mind for now. What's exactly true, I can irrefutably state, is that I inadvertently hawked a venue of evangelical propaganda when I reviewed the movie this summer. Curses! The thought is enough to make me want to self-flagellate. Please let me set a few things to right.

First, let's talk about monogamy. The emperor penguin is monogamous, but as the film itself points out, only for a year. And they mate only once per season, spending the rest of the time trying to avoid starving or freezing to death. If the evangelicals are right, and this is monogamy, I can't decide whether to join a congregation or buy a fur coat.

Child rearing is another stretch. Penguins look after a chick only for the few months that it needs protection while developing feathers and getting fat enough to protect it from the cold. After that, it is pretty much on its own, even though it's only a quarter of the size of an adult. One of the most memorable parts of the movie, and one I pointed out at the time as being incongruous with the anthropomorphizing going on, is the scene in which a group of chicks is attacked by a predatory bird. Adult penguins nearby, which look much bigger than the interloper, stand around doing nothing. They don't even seem to notice.

But besides all that, I must say these conservatives are on quite the slippery slope. The kind of question I would have asked as a child in Sunday school is, Why just penguins? Are we singling out one arctic bird as our model for personal conduct, or are we supposed to use all animal behavior as examples for our own? (I mean, it's not like we have a biological relation to them, is it? Last time I checked the Bible, my most distant ancestor was made out of clay.)

Obviously, as an avid fan of nature documentaries, I'm kind of nervous of the precedent being set. On the Serengeti alone, ape infanticide, hyena gang warfare and wild-dog kidnapping are the norm. In fact, the only animal I can remember behaving with any kind of decency is the elephant. At least that noble beast sticks with its own when the dung hits the fan. Need I even mention New Orleans?

I wonder what evangelicals think of Werner Herzog's new documentary, "Grizzly Man," in which decidedly unmonogamous Kodiak males wander around aimlessly, kill cubs between meals and devour the occasional human when there's nothing better to eat. Doesn't that piss off God? I think if many of these folks started reading things other than the instructional materials they receive in church, they would learn it is not the ape they descend from nor the penguin they emulate. These people are direct descendants of what the writer H.L. Mencken memorably termed "homo boobiens," or in layman's terms, fundamentalists. A fundamentalist, wrote the decidedly not fair and balanced journalist around the time of the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925, "is a fundamentalist for the precise reason he is uneducable." As any educable high-schooler knows — at least the ones outside the states of Kansas and Pennsylvania — the Scopes trial was the first battleground over what is now termed Intelligent Design. (Mencken is reputed to have met with John Scopes' attorney, Clarence Darrow, in Richmond to discuss his strategy against creationism defender William Jennings Bryan.) No, it is nothing new. We have been battling these people since Galileo looked through his first telescope. We are certain to have them around to pester us till kingdom come.

Of course we could construe the movie in other ways. We could make the penguins hardheaded evangelicals, trudging their way, heads down, through the blistering winds of progress and truth. Or they could be symbols for progress, eking an existence in the valley of the shadow of ignorance. Both are just as preposterous. These are animals that are made all the more fascinating by careful, empirical observation and study. Any other use is for the birds. S



Wayne Melton is a film critic for Style Weekly.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.




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