Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Object of Pity

Last night we turned on the telly and watched a documentary about penguins, until it became too dreadful to watch. On the way to switch-off, the programme induced a few doubts in my mind about the notion of 'survival of the fitness', which, as I understand it, says that animals able to adapt, via the fact that they are born with genetic mutations that help them stay alive in tricky environments, go on to evolve their own species into newer stronger variations, while those born from lines that don't have those genetic mutations die off eventually.

What I found myself wondering was this: if that's worked for giraffes with long necks, why hasn't it worked for penguins with extra powerful, aerodynamic kinds of wings? Or, to turn it round the other way, how come, if penguins have to run the gauntlet of sea lions to get food for their chicks, none of them have developed their wings beyond desperately sad little flapping appendages into useful things that might actually lift them off the ground, beyond the reach of the snapping teeth of their horrible blubbery foes.

Of course, this probably merely demonstrates that I don't understand the theory behind the idea of 'survival of the fitness'.

I certainly don't like witnessing it in action, especially when reassuring David Attenborough's voice is replaced by the Scottish actor who played Dr Who for a while. I don't mind him, but he's not comforting.

What eventually made us turn off was a scene that appeared to be heartbreaking - although I am aware this could simply have been a trick played on us by the film's editor. On a stretch of ice lay a very stiff, very dead penguin chick. In the distance a burly figure could be seen shuffling about, apparently looking for something. Of course, the burly figure was the chick's mother and eventually she found her dead child. When she did, she showed all the outward signs of real grief and it was this that was too much for us.

But what I realised afterwards was that it was not the fact of the chick's death that had aroused my sympathy. Seeing the little frozen corpse lying on the tundra - if tundra's what it was, (geography's never been my strong point, and that is probably the biggest understatement I have ever made), - was only as sad as seeing road kill, (which is sad, but I'm sorry to say that I have got used to it.) What was unbearably poignant was the mother's reaction. It was the mother I felt sympathy for. Is this because I am a mother, or is it normal? Looking back, I feel a bit hardhearted that I didn't really mind much about the death of the chick itself.

Incidentally, should you be looking for a more rounded, thoughtful discussion about sympathy and empathy, there's a fascinating debate on the subject raging at the Boston Review

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