Penguin film deserves 2 thumbs up
A COUPLE of weeks ago, a Washington Post reporter e-mailed me about the documentary "March of the Penguins" for a piece she's writing.
"It is beloved by many," she wrote of the film, "but some people say the story told by Morgan Freeman was too uninformative, and highly anthropomorphic. Could you comment on your views? How accurate do you think the story was?"
Yes, the movie is anthropomorphic, but that's not a dirty word. Anthropomorphism simply means attributing human characteristics to nonhumans (in Greek, anthrop means human being; morph means form), and that's neither good nor bad. It's just something we anthrops tend to do.
The concept of anthropomorphism came from the ancient Greeks but had nothing to do with animals. It was about religion. Homer's poetry depicted Zeus and the other gods as having the same form as humans, and the philosopher Xenophanes objected to that. He thought it arrogant of people to believe the gods look like us, and created a term for it: anthropomorphism.
Over the centuries, other religious philosophers expanded anthropomorphism's negative connotation by declaring that only humans have souls, meaning animals have no inner life. They are all, according to this belief, pre-programmed survival machines without thoughts or feelings.
That theory is widespread today. For years biologists have been reproaching me for writing things anthropomorphic. "Turtles have hatchlings," one scolded me after I wrote about baby turtles. "Only people have babies."
Good scientists have open minds. Author and primatologist Frans De Waal believes that by refusing to recognize the humanlike characteristics of animals, and the animal-like characteristics of humans, we risk missing something fundamental about ourselves. "As soon as we admit that animals are far more like our relatives than like machines," he writes, "then anthropomorphism becomes ... scientifically acceptable."
I do consider animals my relatives and believe they have inner lives. Some of those might be incomprehensible to us, and some might come close to our own, but they all deserve study and respect.
As to the penguin film's accuracy, most people don't want textbook facts in a mainstream movie. These filmmakers chose to report the most interesting and unusual aspects of these birds, which is fine. People who want to know more details about emperor penguins will look them up, as one of my friends did.
"March of the Penguin's" lack of biological jargon and insertion of humanlike emotion are what made so many people connect with these astonishing birds. This is good. The wild animals on this planet are beleaguered and need all the help they can get. Emotional tugs at our hearts open wallets, create wildlife refuges and launch education programs.
This single film has probably done more for penguin conservation than all the books, television shows, classes and lectures on the subject combined.
I give this movie two thumbs up.
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