From Colin Dickey at New Republic:
By focusing on high-definition thrills, nature documentaries obscure more than they reveal.
What is a lemming, exactly? Most of us, I’m guessing, could name few of its basic biological attributes. (It’s a rodent weighing one to four ounces and measuring three to six inches in length that lives in the Arctic.) The primary thing we think we know about lemmings—that they throw themselves off cliffs in inexplicable mass suicides—is actually false. This myth originally arose as a folk explanation for the wide variances in lemming populations from year to year, and was cemented by White Wilderness, a nature film produced by Walt Disney that won the Academy Award for best documentary in 1958. In one sequence, lemmings are shown leaping off a cliff into the Arctic Ocean, destined to drown. “They’ve become victims of an obsession,” intones the narrator. In reality, the lemmings were flown to Alberta by the film’s producers and herded off the cliff.
The popular conception of a lemming blindly rushing to its death does a poor job of describing the animal’s nature, but an excellent job of describing human nature—lemmings has entered the vernacular to denote any group of unthinking followers hastening their own demise. More.
Well, some people’s human nature anyway. Dickey might wish to speak for himself and his friends there. That said, many nature documentaries are really sermons in disguise. Could be useful if not taken too seriously. More useful information about the lemming, if anyone cares, might be found here:
Predators could never eat enough to counteract the frenetic pace of rodent reproduction. Instead, the ceiling for prey is set by something called ‘density dependence’: the tendency for crowded populations to stop growing. For example, says Turchin, female voles mature more slowly in crowded conditions.
Eventually, there are so many predators that the prey population crashes. But by then, the number of prey has spent several years at or near its peak — leading to a rounded curve.
Faced with this dearth of prey, the predators must emigrate or starve — either way, their numbers see a sharp decline. For lemmings, says Turchin, “as soon as peak density is reached, food begins to run out, and the lemming population begins to crash” — leading to a population trajectory with jagged peaks. (Nature 2000)
Lemmings wouldn’t know if they were doomed or if they weren’t.
See also: Neuroscience tried wholly embracing naturalism, but then the brain got away
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