Not suitable for penguins

The lesson of the Penguin Pool

Being a member of the Zoological Society of London I can drop in to London Zoo whenever I feel like it. Each time I follow a very similar routine. I arrive as close to opening time as possible and make my way immediately to the butterfly house.

Last time I went the air inside was full of newly hatched glasswing butterflies. As their name suggests they have transparent wings making them seem even more fragile and ethereal than other species.

From there I make my way back to the Penguin Beach. All but one of the penguins there are Humboldt penguins, which are grey and sleek.

The odd one out is a solitary Rock-Hopper Penguin, who sports a golden punk hair-do. He can often be seen standing all alone on a rock and his lonely state always tugs on my heart strings.

But at least he doesn’t have to live in the old penguin pool.

That famous work of modernist architecture, designed in 1930 by Lubetkin, is oval like an egg and has amazing suspended bridges, but was never at all suitable for any actual living penguins.

The concrete it was made from damaged their feet- giving them the crippling complaint  bumble-foot-, and wasn’t very friendly to a bird that likes to burrow; and the water was too shallow for them to actually swim in.

When the Zoo authorities decided to build a Penguin enclosure which took into account what real penguins were actually like there was quite a strenuous campaign by devotees of the old pool to leave things just as they were.

It seems to me that a lot of damage is done to people when they to, like the original London Zoo penguins, are on the receiving end of theories and ideas which don’t take proper account of human nature.

Here are 2 quotations.

‘ When all is said and done, is there any more marvellous sight, any occasion when human reason is nearer to some sort of converse with the nature of things, than the sowing of seeds, the planting of cuttings and the transplanting of shrubs..’

‘ All kind of things rejoiced my soul in their company- to talk and to laugh, to do each other kindnesses, to share the love of books, to chat about everyday things lightly  and then about deep concerns, and back again.


Can anyone tell me who I am quoting?

I can give you a clue- they are not part of an advertising campaign by the Royal Horticultural Society or Waterstones.

St Augustine, whose day it was on Thursday.

These days St Augustine is chiefly remembered for having a pretty bleak conception of human life, epitomised by his theory of original sin.

Simply put he insisted that all human beings are born deeply flawed, into a world of suffering which is also profoundly disordered. God has the power to save and redeem them, but by their own power they can’t escape their fundamental nature or situation.

But those quotes provide a useful reminder that he didn’t think all was bad. There was plenty of avenues around for light and grace, fulfilment and happiness too.

Augustine’s picture of the human condition was complex, full of light and shade.

When I consider young men heading off to Syria to contend against a great evil, with the potential for their idealism to turn into a hateful ideology, plus a host of other circumstances we are all aware of, I can’t help but think Augustine was on to something.

Now consider Richard Dawkins latest brush with controversy.

In case you haven’t followed it. It stemmed from a hypothetical discussion via twitter. A woman who said that if she discovered that she was pregnant with a baby suffering from Down’s syndrome she would experience an ethical dilemma, received a fairly blunt reply.

“Abort it and try again. It would be immoral to bring it into the world if you have the choice.”

He followed this up with a more detailed explanation of his reasoning.

Basically his line was that, as he sees the maximisation of happiness and the reduction of suffering as his golden rule when it comes to making moral decisions, logic dictated his conclusion.

Irrespective of the rights and wrongs of that particular furore a pretty fundamental understanding of the meaning and purpose of life is involved here. To be happy and to avoid pain become the cardinal virtues.

It is the back ground utilitarianism that’s all around us.

Pharell William’s Happy is a great song and great video, but I am not sure it provides an adequate rule for life!

You can probably all remember the famous atheist bus campaign of a few years ago, for which Richard Dawkins was a great enthusiast and in the light of his comments in this situation we can see why.

Its slogan was simple and emphatic.

‘ There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’

The writer Francis Spufford was incandescent in his fury about that.

Here are just a few extracts from what he wrote  at the time in his provoking book ‘ Unapologetic’.

The word that offends against realism here is ‘enjoy’. I’m sorry- enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great… but enjoyment is one emotion. The only things in the world that are designed to elicit enjoyment and only enjoyment are products, and your life is not a product.

He writes that enjoyment is just one small part of life.

 The rest of the time, you’ll be busy feeling hope, boredom, curiosity, anxiety, irritation, fear, joy, bewilderment, hate, tenderness, despair, relief, exhaustion and the rest.

I understood better why he was so angry about the narrowing of life’s meaning and value to enjoyment when I read the obituary, in the spring, of his mother, Margaret Spufford

I knew vaguely that she was a historian of great repute, and  a Christian spiritual writer renowned for her honesty and wisdom, but what I did not know was that she suffered from early on in her life with chronic anxiety, developed a rare life- long form of osteoporosis, causing her near constant pain, and had a daughter who had a genetic disorder which took her life at 22.

All of which makes me think that St Augustine wasn’t so wrong after all. Certainly his account of what it is to be a human being has much to re-commend it when compared to some of the modern alternatives, which are as unsuited for real human beings as the penguin pool was for real penguins.

We can’t really live in them, we can’t make ourselves at home and the water is far too shallow.


1 thought on “Not suitable for penguins”

  1. I have just read this entry..Whilst reading, my emotions have run from awe at the beauty of words. Sadness a the plight of the Penguins and the apparent near sightedness of man.The delight of mental stimulation.and complete despair. for Dawkins. Having cared for Downs children I came to the conclusion that they were sent to this world to teach us a lesson. There is something distinctly beautiful about them. Their spontaneity, their natural ability to love and in my opinion; their complete lack of evil make them very special
    I thank God that I can feel. With out sadness how can we appreciate what true happiness is.
    Richard Dawkins, how sad your life ..

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