An imp-p-p-perfect argument

15th June 2007 at 01:00
Stories about penguins are used by both right and left to justify their causes, which means that creationism should certainly be on the agenda in science lessons, an academic tells Adi Bloom

PENGUINS ARE cute. They flop and flap and dive for fish. Their babies are fluffy and have oversized feet. In many ways, they are mascots for old-fashioned family values.

On the other hand, they can be seen as embodiments of all that is evil in modern society.

Michael Reiss, of the Institute of Education in London, says this shows how scientific studies can be interpreted to support various beliefs, and it is precisely this that leads him to argue for including the discussion of creationism within the science curriculum.

March of the Penguins, the 2006 film that depicts penguins hatching and raising their chicks, is a case in point, he says. The film has been seized upon by the Christian right, who insist that it embodies many of their core values.

Professor Reiss quotes from a website that asserts: "All the penguins wait to start their journey until the last of them is out of the water, giving a sense of unity I It is similar to what we are called to do in the body of Christ: 'Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.'"

The penguins in the film work calmly together, without in-fighting or gossip. And when they huddle together for warmth, every penguin is given a turn in the middle. The natural world, the Christian website concludes, is an effective illustration of what God wishes for humanity.

But, Professor Reiss says: "Such a conclusion is despite the fact the film relates that females aggressively compete for males, and it depicts the way in which mothers who have lost their chicks may attempt to steal others'.

"The film is also honest about the fact that most emperor penguins are faithful only for one season."

But it is not only the right-wing who seize on penguins as role models. And Tango Makes Three is a picture-book account of two gay penguins who hatch an abandoned egg. Despite right-wing attempts to ban the book, it includes much that would appeal to the socially conservative, says Professor Reiss.

"Roy and Silo, while gay, didn't rush into their relationship, they have been faithful for years, and Tango would not have survived (if she hadn't been rescued) as an egg - perhaps an echo of the pro-life agenda."

Professor Reiss claims that both penguin stories demonstrate that a person's beliefs can influence how he or she perceives the world: while scientists view a wildlife documentary as an example of natural selection at work, creationists marvel at God's design. Avoiding discussion of religion in science lessons, therefore, risks alienating pupils who find the lesson disconnected from their world view.

He concludes that all schools should incorporate aspects of religion into the science curriculum. That would allow for discussion of science's strengths and limitations, and illustrate the importance of social context in science.

"It is perfectly possible," he says, "for a science teacher to be respectful of the positions that students hold, even if these are scientifically limited, while clearly and non-apologetically helping students to understand the scientific worldview."


Intelligent design, page 25


March of the Penguins

This National Geographic film focuses on a colony of hundreds of emperor penguins as they march single-file across Antarctic ice for more than 70 miles to reach their breeding ground. There they mate and lay eggs, which must then be protected through the brutal winter blizzards until they hatch in spring.

And Tango Makes Three

Roy and Silo are different from all the other male penguins in Central Park zoo, New York. While most like to talk to female penguins, Roy and Silo choose to build a nest together. When the zookeeper finds an abandoned egg, he leaves it in Roy and Silo's nest and they successfully raise a daughter, Tango. (The addendum to this true story, told by Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell, is that Silo later left Roy for a female named Scrappy. But Tango has now set up nest with another female.)


Pingu, a live animation penguin created for Swiss television in 1986, stars in a series of five-minute short films. The small penguin wanders around the South Pole, speaking unintelligibly and getting into scrapes. The series hit controversy when one episode, showing Pingu urinating in public, was banned in some countries. But David Hasselhoff is a fan: in 1989 he released a single entitled The Pingu Dance.

Happy Feet

This CGI-animated film, featuring the voices of Nicole Kidman, Robin Williams and Elijah Wood, tells the story of Mumble, a tone deaf emperor penguin. As a result, he is unable to attract a mate through song and is alienated from the rest of the colony. But he discovers that he has another talent: the ability to tap dance. He uses this skill to redeem himself and to win the love of his paramour.

Penguin biscuits

Launched in 1932 by McVitie's, the chocolate-covered biscuits have become a school lunch box staple. They are best known for the advertisement in which viewers were impelled to p-p-p-pick up a Penguin.

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