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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.
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.