Penguins – Beneath the Tuxedo

As part of Imperial’s Science Communication Masters, from whose shadowy clutches I am only just beginning to emerge, those of us on the radio module created a short-lived radio programme called “Mission Impossible”. It was broadcast live every Wednesday afternoon on the university’s IC Radio, and featured short dispatches from a variety of contributors.

Here’s the third of three that I wrote: on the story that penguins might have more interesting private lives than we give them credit for.

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Audio file available here:

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In the squeaky clean pantheon of children’s television characters, it seems to me that few creations can rival, for sheer, childlike innocence, the persona of Pingu, the small, claymation penguin. Not for he the wild, garish, technicolour extravaganza of the androgynous Teletubbies – nor the curiously brazen cultural stereotyping engaged in by Rastamouse and his ilk. Instead, Pingu has delighted children around the world for the best part of thirty years with such placid, minimalist adventures as “Pingu and the Cross Country Skiier”, “Pingu and the Broken Vase” and of course the classic “Pingu and the Big Fish”.

Now it is always somewhat disconcerting to make the discovery that one’s childhood idols have feet of clay. Even if one has grown accustomed to the idea that they may have feet of plasticine.

And so it pains me to say that Pingu’s sweet, childlike manner is nothing more than a facade – part of a carefully executed propaganda operation that has already fooled countless millions. A devastatingly successful PR campaign whose secrets were known to few above 66 33 44 degrees South. And this week, for the first time in over a century, the silence has dared to be broken.

Papers have come to light this week chronicling wildlife observations made by George Murray Levick, the medical officer on Captain Scott’s ill-fated 1910 expedition to the South Pole. Hidden in Levick’s notebooks, somewhere between the unobjectionable references to Antarctic weather patterns and lengthy descriptions of shades of the colour ‘white’, were a number of passages discreetly written in Greek.

When these sections of Levick’s notes were translated, they were revealed to contain references to penguin behaviour so shocking, so unthinkable, so unacceptable to a decent Edwardian naturalist, that the magnitude of their depravity could only be restrained by the terse prudishness of the Greek alphabet.

Before you scoff at George Murray Levick, however, picture this. You have just come out of the cinema – from watching one of the seventy-three recently released Happy Feet movies, say – in which penguins are portrayed as hyperactive beaked humans perpetually ensconced in skin-tight tuxedos. And after all, there is nothing humans find more adorable as animals wearing human clothes. I present, as exhibit A in this argument, the Internet.

You emerge from the cinema, as I have said, and come upon a group of Adelie penguins variously engaged in the sexual abuse of chicks, gang rape, forced penetration and necrophilia. Often, I might add, at the same time. Even without the developmental limitations of a Victorian upbringing I think that this might come as something of a shock.

For one thing, it would certainly put a different perspective on the 1986 episode “Pingu and his friends play too noisily”. And let us not even begin to discuss “Pingu and the many packages” or the unfortuately-named “Pingu finishes the job”.

In retrospect, our little thought experiment puts George Levick’s consternation into perspective. In the words of Douglas Russell, curator of eggs and nests at the Natural History Museum, “Levick, to a certain extent, falls into the same trap as an awful lot of people in seeing penguins as bipedal birds and seeing them as little people. They’re not. They are birds and should be interpreted as such.”

For after all, the behaviour that Levick observed among Adelie penguins in 1910 is not so very remarkable. What makes this story so particularly delicious is not the acts of avian turpitude he observed but the way in which Edwardian gentlemen of science behaved when the world around them refused to play by the Marquess of Queensbury rules. Levick, as all humans are instinctively wont to do, was guilty of anthropomorphising the animals he was observing, and therefore believed that the behaviour he was seeing must shed an upsetting light on human interactions.

There is an important lesson in this for all would-be scientists, in all fields of research. You get answers to the questions you ask. And sometimes, if the answers are too much for you to handle, you should think about rephrasing the question. Or, of course, you could just drown it all out and settle down to watch some teletubbies. I don’t suppose you’ve got the stomach for Pingu anymore.

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