life is a precious thing. we all struggle to preserve it, whether or not we realize this truth. march of the penguins, a french documentary, illustrates the point that no matter how hard you think your life is, the emperor penguins have it much, much harder.
when i was a kid, i consumed anything and everything related to nature: jacques cousteau, national geographic, audobon society books, camping and hiking around southern california. i’ve always been a sucker for anything related to the natural world, so it stands to reason that i should fall for nature documentaries.
this one is different.
it tells a story that is, for all intents and purposes, unbelievable. in a nutshell, emperor penguins survive and breed under the harshest conditions on the planet, for months on end, under constant threat of death by starvation and exposure. over the course of thousands of years, they have perfectly adapted to their environment, and can live despite their inhospitable surroundings.
they don’t fight each other to survive (with rare exceptions). indeed, the inhospitability of their surroundings forces them to create a "heat collective" to stay warm. mothers and fathers have to swap childcare roles repeatedly, all the while under threat of death to their offspring by freezing. they are the apotheosis of Darwinian adaptation.
this isn’t a new story. we’re constantly faced with examples from the animal kingdom of creatures who prove themselves capable of feats well outside our comfort zone. and yet there seems to be something different about these penguins. maybe it’s the otherwordliness of their surroundings; maybe it’s the way they take weeks to pick a mate, despite desperate circumstances; maybe it’s the way the couples show love for each other (however transitory). maybe it’s the fact that they waddle across Antarctica for miles on miles with tiny footsteps, all just to get food for their chicks (one each, at most).
the thing i found the most amazing was their single-mindedness. almost everything the penguins did was explcitly geared towards reproduction: their uncanny sense of direction, their ability to stave off hunger and withstand cold, their sense for seasonal and environmental changes. everything they did and were capable of, just to do their best to make sure their young survived.
watching these penguins made me realize the trade we’ve made: bigger brains and a more diversified set of abilities, at the expense of an ability to survive the harshness of the unadulterated natural world. basically, we’ve traded brains for everyday fortitude. we can meet challenges, to be sure, but take the average human and drop them in the forest 100 miles from civilization, and they’ll be dead before anyone can find them.
we can learn a lot from animals, now and a hundred (or a thousand) years from now. they can remind us of our humble animal beginnings, of our need to bond in order to survive. they can remind us that we aren’t necessarily as strong as we think…
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