Sex, Obesity & Violence

3 August 2023

Sex, Obesity and Violence

The struggle with the inner penguin.

By John Watson

Photo of John Watson

It is the penguins that give it away. No, I’m not talking about some double agent penguins living off Scotland who feed information about our fleet movements to the Russians and whose coats are the colour of a tuxedo. No, the reference is to the gangs of unpaired adelie penguins whose sexual behaviour so shocked George Murray Levick, a scientist with the 1910-13 Scott Antarctic Expedition. According to Levick (and his account has been confirmed by later research) not only did the young male penguins indulge in rape, homosexuality and paedophilia, even gang-banging the chicks in front of their parents, but they also went in for necrophilia, provided of course that the corpse retained its general penguin shape. Levick wrote his account in Greek so that it would not pervert the uneducated reader and included the immortal line “there seems to be no crime too low for these penguins”.

The difficulty with this for the fashionable social scientist is that the behaviour of the penguins clearly belongs more to nature than to nurture. There is no evidence that the better brought up penguins, say those with churchgoing parents, are any better behaved than the others. Nature seems to have implanted a particular pattern of behaviour in the modern penguin and that is broadly it.

Which takes us of course to the BBC, to the cricket field, to the House of Commons and to the many other institutions in the land where people, not always but usually men, give in to sexual urges which it would be much better if they repressed. There is little doubt that these urges exist to some extent even among the nicest people. Watch a really attractive girl cross a room in a certain way and see how many of the men present react to her. Some will follow her progress with wide eyes. Others will deliberately turn away, a sure sign of urges successfully suppressed but, for all that, still requiring suppression.

So far, so obvious. Readers of the Shaw Sheet are men and women of the world, and it will be no surprise to them that everyone has an inner penguin of sexual desire and that it has to be kept in check by some form of suppression. Sometimes the agency of that suppression is the law but more commonly it is one or more of a whole lot of other factors such as social pressures, conscience, religion, loyalty to family, self-respect, consideration for others or a feeling for right and wrong. It is when all this fails that things go wrong and there are two possible causes for such failure. The first is that the penguin urges are abnormally strong. That is probably a matter of genetics. The second is that the ability to suppress is abnormally weak. Maybe it is a combination of the two.

So what do we draw from this? Not that the law or social pressures on sexual conduct should be relaxed or that bad behaviour should be treated more leniently. After all it is essential to our society that the penguin in each of us should be restrained, and to relax the mechanisms through which that restraint is imposed would be folly. It would make no sense to let up on our opposition to bad sexual behaviour or to turn a blind eye and ignore it. The behaviour must be condemned. At the same time, however, it must be recognised that to see it for more than what it is – a failure to suppress urges which are commonplace – is to lose the plot. Much though one might regret that failure, it does not mean that the person is bad in other respects. Had Kevin Spacey been guilty of those offences of which he has now been cleared, it would have said nothing about him as an actor, and the refusal of his industry to allow him to exercise his profession would have remained shameful and cowardly.

This division between the behaviour and the person can be applied in other areas too. Obesity, for example, is a huge problem nowadays. As far as I am aware, penguins do not suffer from obesity but the pattern of a genetic propensity to eat too much, a propensity which needs to be suppressed, is similar to that we have discussed in relation to sexual conduct. Here the main suppressants are public disapproval and increased medical risks and the trick again is to condemn the overeating without allowing that condemnation to spill over into other areas. Pavarotti was a very large man but to regard this as taking away from his quite extraordinary musical accomplishments would be simply foolish. Remember that division, you idiots, when you condemn pressures from doctors and friends to lose weight and become healthier as some form of “fattism”.

Then try violence. There are those who are genetically prone to it and it is for them to suppress their urges. Perhaps they spend long hours in the watches of the night struggling to suppress them and perhaps they fail. If they do so, society must apply sanctions if citizens are to be safe but, for all that, as those convicted go down for the years inside, we must remember. These are people who have failed. That does not mean that there is not good in them too.

And now let us move the lens to ourselves, easy-going, sophisticated, not prone to any genetic impulse which we cannot control. Perhaps the message is that we are lucky. Our suppressants are all strong enough for the challenges they face but as we bathe ourselves in the glow of our complacency let us spare a thought for those who may have prayed “lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil” and found that the prayer went unanswered. Spare a thought for the victims of the inner penguin.

Cover page image: Samuel Blanc / wikimedia / Creative Commons

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