At a young age I knew more about Viking rune stones and fifteenth-century Venetian commerce than is common among relatively well balanced late adolescents, but that was only because these were subjects assigned to me in school. I would not be able to recite Cicero’s Catiline oration had it not been required for an exam. So it was only because I once was asked to write a commentary on the mating habits of penguins (“The Moral Exploitation of Penguins,” Crisis, July 2013) that I learned more about penguin genitalia than virtually any clergyman or devout layman I know.
This is not a subject of normal interest to the average person trying to deal with the fever of daily life, but it took on a certain importance in 2013 when the New York Times claimed that there were two homosexual penguins in the Central Park Zoo. There are 17 species of penguins, but only these two, of the species Pygoscelis antarctica, got the attention of one of the Times editors. Until recently, such appetites falsely imputed to penguins would not have qualified as “news fit to print.” But these days, the media have sex on the brain, and as Malcolm Muggeridge said, that is a very unsatisfactory place to have it.
It was assumed that if penguins can do it, it is “only natural” for humans to do it. Once the Central Park Zoo penguins were publicized, zoos from Bremerhaven to Tokyo claimed that some of their penguins were living an alternative lifestyle, too. No self-respecting zoo lacked such a pair, and it was good for business.
The cynic in me suspects that we have entered a second stage in observation of penguins as fabricated prototypes of human behavior: What is now ungrammatically called “gender” dysphoria has become the latest fad. Two penguins in London’s Sea Life Aquarium are now supposed to be oblivious to the sex of their chick.
Dr. Gemma Clucas, postdoctoral research fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, contributed to the discussion by saying that the contrasting maleness and femaleness of penguins, based on her own experience, require “close and difficult” observation to distinguish. Dr. Clucas does not seem to have considered that penguins themselves do not have the same difficulty in telling each other apart, which is why there are so many penguins (for instance, the Macaroni penguins currently number over 11,600,000 pairs, and there would be no pairs at all if they shared Dr. Clucas’s difficulty in telling the difference). Given the complex mating dances and ritual displays of most kinds of penguins, one would think that they would be offended if told that their private parts are too inconspicuous to make a difference. This is not unlike human sensibility. But no eye has seen, nor ear has heard, nor mind has imagined what is hidden beneath the feathers of a penguin.
Undaunted, the London ornithologists are promoting a penguin couple (“Rocky” and “Marama”) as examples of how sex assignment transcends biology and glides about a parallel gnostic universe of wish over fact. They have adopted a four-month-old Gentoo chick which will be, according to an aquarium publicist, “the world’s first penguin to not have its gender assigned. Later on the facts of life will appear, but for now the chick will be ‘genderless.’” Ignoring the split infinitive, the real problem is the way this twists biology into some sort of etiological fantasy. Sea Life’s general manager, Graham McGrath, admitted as much: “While the decision may ruffle a few feathers, gender neutrality in humans has only recently become a widespread topic of conversation, however, it is completely natural for penguins to develop genderless identities as they grow into mature adults.”
Much about this demeans humans and other creatures alike. When pygmy chimpanzees of the Pan paniscus species engage in peculiar forms of copulation and frottage while hanging upside down from tree branches in the swamp forests of the Congo, they are not subject to moral censure because they are not imago dei. And only the most artful propagandist would suppose that a rainbow trout has any affinity with the perverse appropriation of that symbol by polemical humans.
Behind all this is not moral liberation but, in fact, a pessimism that drove dualists like the Cathars to ritual suicide. Those pygmy chimpanzees are an endangered species—not because of hunters but because of themselves. And the original same-sex penguins that beguiled the New York Times failed to reproduce because they took melancholy turns sitting on a rock when they had no egg. Perhaps the only glimmer of promise in all this nonsense is that the nonsensical will discover too late that rocks are infertile, and the only humans left will be those who know what humans are.
Fr. George W. Rutler is pastor of the Church of St. Michael in New York City.