Cold with no comfort by Bill Kirton

Mtpaley at English Wikipedia. - Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons by Furado., CC BY 2.5,

We’re all indebted to Sir David Attenborough for continually adding to our knowledge of the natural world over the many years of his broadcasting career. There is, however, one question (perhaps the most important) which I’ve never heard him answer – or, worse still, ask. It was brought home to me again by his BBC series last month, Dynasties. It was magnificent, enthralling, and all the other adjectives one usually applies to his revelations, but it was the second in the series that provoked these bloggy musings.

As a species, we humans (especially the advantaged ones in Europe, the Americas and, for all I know, Australasia) have to tolerate incomprehensible phenomena such as politicians and existential angst, but imagine being an Emperor penguin...

To begin with, they all look exactly the same – males, females, geriatric ones, those in the prime of life. Around 4 feet tall, a couple of little splashes of colour – orangey yellow around their neck and pink along their beak – but no other visible tone except black and white anywhere else. They’re shaped like giant upright marrows with bits on. They take  a new mate every year and remain faithful until it’s time for a change (to a partner who looks and acts exactly like the previous one, of course). The old joke of two blokes looking at a group of women (or vice versa) and saying ‘I don’t fancy yours, mate’ means nothing to them. On the other hand, Pascal’s ‘The heart has its reasons of which reason knows nothing’ might have been coined specifically to describe their life choices.

Evolution knows what it’s doing, of course, but it hasn’t been kind to them. With such long, bulky bodies and just a pair of claws close together at the bottom for support, walking is more of a precarious waddle. Eagles soar, albatrosses glide, swallows flit, but earthbound penguins just wobble. If you’re a bird, my guess is that your best bits are your wings. Not for penguins, though. Theirs are rubbish – maybe good for swimming (which, most of the time, they’re not doing) but little else. Even when they get into an argument, attempts to use them to hit the opponent result in the individual just slapping himself or herself on the side of his/her own chest.

(And there are plenty of arguments. They gather in huge, noisy colonies – maybe tens of thousands. The only privacy they get is on the long, solitary annual treks which males, and, later, females, have to make across the frozen Antarctic wastes to get food for their chicks and their partners, who stay at home for months [in the colony] baby-sitting.)

But let’s stay with evolution, because that’s where the question I mentioned at the start comes in. A highly abbreviated account of the average year for an Emperor penguin is:
  • Several months standing on ice without food in really crap, freezing weather;
  • A couple of hours (that’s a guesstimate) choosing a mate;
  • Maybe 5-10 minutes (another guesstimate) copulating;
  • Solitary males wobbling miles across the ice to get fish to bring back to partner and chick;
  • Who, in turn, are condemned to stand waiting for months in the freezing huddle;
  • The males taking over the baby-sitting while females make their own icy trek to catch fish, having not eaten for months.

And the ‘crap weather’ is an understatement. They have to keep trying to shuffle away from the windward side of the scrum or they’ll literally freeze to death

Only a third of juvenile penguins survive into a second year. The others are killed by the cold or eaten by giant petrels or skuas. And, waiting for those adults who make it to the sea, are leopard seals and killer whales.

So, in all of that, where’s the fun? Well, you’d think evolution would have the answer. What’s it all for, after all? Natural selection. Yes, the continuation of the species. So surely, amongst all that hardship and stress, evolution would make sure that the act of procreation, the act which produces the unfortunate members of the next Emperor generation, would provide a commensurate reward – the usual increase in production of oxytocin and its accompanying surge of opiate-receptor-activating endorphins. In other words, a few moments of other-worldly bliss in the perpetual torment.

But no.

Imagine 2 identical giant marrows copulating (or, if you can’t imagine it, watch the programme). It’s yet another catastrophe. Marrows and Emperor penguins are not designed to balance lengthways on top of one another, let alone carry out precise manipulations of the relevant bits if they do manage it. And the option of foreplay doesn’t seem to exist since there aren’t any bits to do it with.

So months of ice-bound deprivations, hardships and agonies and, in the middle of them all, by way of contrast, a brief moment of ignominy. That is what evolution (or some brain-fade by the Intelligent Designer) has decided is the perfect life-style for the Emperor penguin.


There. That’s the question that doesn’t get asked. What possible justification can there be for opting for such bleakness, such comprehensive joylessness?

These poor creatures aren’t just Pinteresque, they’re Pinter. His Caretaker needs to get to Sidcup. That’s where his ‘papers’ are. But when he gets them (which, of course, he never does), what then?

The penguins don’t even have a Sidcup. Pinter, Ionesco, Jarry and the other absurdist dramatists aren’t just purveyors of fashionable cultural talking points, they’re realists. The life cycle of these birds proves it. They don’t even have Estragon’s luxury of claiming ‘We always find something, eh Didi, to give us the impression we exist?’ They’re yet another example that, in life, absurdity is the norm.


Susan Price said…
Bill, these very same thoughts have often occurred to me.

Darwin said that he gave up on the idea of a loving, compassionate god because he couldn't conceive of one who would create the ichneumon wasp, which lays its eggs in living caterpillars so its grubs can hatch and eat the creature alive. -- And yet he said nothing about the life of the Emperor Penguin, surely an even more bravura piece of sadism. Strange oversight.
Jan Needle said…
'giant upright marrows with bits on.' Eat your heart out, Attenborough! Thanks, Bill, you've succeeded in making Brexit take second place in the most depressing thing in the world stakes. Excellent!
Enid Richemont said…
No Designer worth its salt would place the organs for sexual pleasure right next to those of excretion, and no Compassionate God-thing would EVER have done such an appalling job on human teeth (unless He is, of course, a Dentist, which I have long suspected.)As for King Penguins - well, it doesn't surprise me. Do they ever get depressed, I wonder? Or are they tough and philosophical? What might happen if we somehow enabled KPs to use words? Might their first statement be: God is a Marrow? Or even better, offer them some carefully cultivated Giant Marrows and study the results - sex or dinner?
Jan Needle said…
Enid, there is a conversation on record between God and Nikolaus Otto, the inventor of the four-stroke internal combustion engine. Otto said to God (quite rudely, I thought) 'A design fault, Sir. You have placed the exhaust valve too close to the inlet valve on the human female, unlike the arrangement on my most successful engines. Poor work, I think.' To which God replied: 'I bet there are more men riding mine than yours though, eh, Herr Otto? Tonight and every night. To Hell with you!''
Bill Kirton said…
Well, Enid and Jan, the intention was not to initiate a discussion in the new discipline of biotheology, but it's clearly one worth having. Thank you both.
Sandra Horn said…
I smiled all the way through this. Am I heartless? Dunno. I just enjoyed the writing so much! Thank you, Bill.
Bill Kirton said…
Thank you, Sandra.
Hahahaha! This made my day. Then I read the comments ... hahahaha!
Bill Kirton said…
Thanks, Dipika. In that case, job done.
julia jones said…
Maybe God just wanted us all to have a good laugh -- so he created Bill Kirton. (NO IRONY) A magnificent, unrepeatable achievement!
Bill Kirton said…
Julia, you are definitely too kind, but it would be just like God to make me a comedian when my only desire is to be a romantic hero (apr├Ęs l'heure, admittedly).
Umberto Tosi said…
If there are gods with any legitimate purpose whatsoever, all I can surmise is that penguins were created for remedial reincarnation. Slackers are made to come back as penguins over and over until they learn compassion and committment. Then maybe they can start to work their way along the chain again, perhaps as earthworms.. I would wager that's what's in store for Trump.

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