Polar Penguin Prudes

In 1910, on an ill-fated expedition to the South Pole, a British biologist observed the activities of adelie penguins.  He was shocked by what he viewed as depraved acts by the penguins — so much so that he recorded his observations in Greek. His later paper on the topic was so disturbing to the pre-World War II sensibilities of the British scientific community that it was never published.

The paper has been discovered in the files of the British Natural History Museum and published in the journal Polar Record.  The biologist, Dr. George Murray Levick, recorded incidents of sexual coercion, physical and sexual abuse of penguin chicks, non-procreative sex, and apparent homosexual liaisons among the penguins — but what he found most “depraved” was attempts by male penguins to mate with dead females.  (According to modern biologists, the latter conduct is explained by the fact that female adelie penguins indicate their readiness for sex by assuming a certain position, and if a dead female’s body happens to assume that same position, the male penguins have a sexual reaction and just can’t help themselves.)

It’s hard to imagine that a biologist would be morally troubled by the conduct of birds or animals, but the extreme sexual inhibitions of Victorian and Edwardian England were pervasive.  Anyone who has lived with dogs knows that you can’t assign human sensibilities to animals that think nothing of sniffing the rear ends of fellow pooches, eating rabbit droppings for a snack, or dry-humping a visitor’s leg.  You would think that penguins would be given a special break in view of the fact that they live on barren rocks in frozen climates without much else to occupy their thoughts.  After all, you can only do so much swimming or eat so many fish.

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