Anti-Darwinians notwithstanding, humans are enthralled by the goings-on of other species because we want to know who we once were, who we are now, and who we can become. We are made giddy by the discovery that we share 98.6% of our genes with chimpanzees and can imagine how, back in the day, it might have felt to swing through the branches, lick termites off twigs, and crack nuts with rocks. We can also see in nature the propensity all creatures have for violence and so are comforted both by the knowledge that we can’t help our darker impulses and by the hope that we can.
In his article I, Turbo, science and nature writer Eric Wagner captures this tension beautifully. Having spent six months in Argentina’s Punta Tomba region, Wagner and his wife, El, studied Magellanic penguins and observed firsthand their tendency towards savagery as well as their capacity for gentle good will.
Possessing what Wagner funnily calls a “Me” and “Not Me” take on existence, these jackass penguins, so named for their braying, were “breathtakingly indifferent to the welfare of their neighbors” and “had no qualms about using the desiccated remains of their dead offspring as nesting material”; yet, there was one, the irrepressible Turbo, whose joie de vivre and disarming sweetness belied the menacing underside of penguin culture. Where lesser penguins would brutalize the interlopers whenever they had the chance, Turbo would waddle out from the bushes to greet them whenever they passed by. Where the more fearful penguins would eschew all contact with the intruders, Turbo would nightly bill-rap on the couple’s trailer door so he could be let in.
In a PBS Nature special on the American bald eagle, we get to witness a display of transcendence that rivals Turbo’s, in which a young male takes a bride and treats her with such tenderness and kind regard that some of us might be tempted to trade in our partner for a raptor. At one point, when the two are preparing an intricate nest for their unborn, the female puts a stick here, some grass there, a leaf elsewhere while her partner looks on with a courtly indulgence only love can bring. As soon as she turns her back, though, he sets about to undo her handiwork and to rearrange it so it is more to his liking.
In another scene, he sits on a lone egg, a blizzard all but burying him and the nest in snow, while she goes off in search of food. She never returns—and never will return because she has died—but he waits nonetheless until cold, hunger, and perhaps heartbreak force him to abandon his eaglet and to fly off. The following spring he returns to the same nest and once more waits until the possibility of renewal arrives in the form of another graceful damsel.