The 1959 Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature went to Disney’s White Winter, largely for the wonderful exploration the film made of the strange case of lemming mass suicide. It is one of those fascinating oddities of nature, this little rodent that heads off overpopulation by sacrificing huge numbers of its own into the sea every seven to ten years. Narrator Winston Hibler plays up the drama of such an event, speaking of the thousands of little creatures following one another to their deaths.
It is a striking image for sure, one that since that documentary has come to symbolize the human phenomenon of group think. As strange as lemming behavior may seem to our larger human brains, there’s an uncomfortable familiarity to it. We like to be part of a group, to share in the camaraderie of a single purpose.
At times, that can be a great thing about humans. Together, large group of individuals united in a single purpose can turn the tide of public opinion form wrong thinking into righteous action. And there’s been a lot of good accomplished in the world because of that. For example, the US Civil Rights Movement comes to mind.
But there’ve also been plenty of devastating events throughout history that have resulted from people en masse running headlong into atrocity, chucking their individual ideologies in favor of the group. The Holocaust might be one especially alarming example.
But for better or worse, human nature does things like that. We glom onto the herd and head for the cliff. Sorry to say it Moms everywhere, but yes, if our friends jump off a bridge, there’s a pretty good chance we’re going to do it, too. It’s just that lemming-like part of our brains.
Except that Disney kind of misled us about the lemmings.
I’m embarrassed to admit this story came as somewhat of a shock to me when I stumbled across it a little while back. Though I don’t use it beyond occasionally attempting to give myself a little credibility when writing about science-y kinds of things, I do have a degree in zoology and frankly, lemmings committing mass suicide doesn’t make a lot of sense from a science-y perspective. But I never gave it any thought. Everyone knows lemmings run off cliffs and drown themselves in the ocean.
Of course, lemmings don’t really do that. It turns out the creators of White Winter collected a dozen or so lemmings from local Inuit children and in an Alaskan location that was neither by the ocean nor the natural home of said lemmings, used fancy camera angles and some elbow grease to make it look like the little critters ran gleefully to their own altruistic deaths. In fact, the animals were thrown into a river by the filmmakers. And an Academy Award was won.
I mean I guess if everyone thinks it’s a good idea to fling a bunch of helpless rodents into the water, it must really be a great idea.
To be fair, the documentary does suggest that mass suicide isn’t the best way to describe what the lemmings are allegedly doing. They are dispersing, or at least they might have been if the documentary had actually captured natural lemming behavior in the wild. For those of you without a science-y zoology degree, that just means the animals spread out over a wider area when their population becomes too dense. Sometimes when they do that, they’ll come upon a body of water in their way, and if they have to, they’ll swim. Some of them might even drown in the process.
But fancy filmmaking, which if you don’t consider the unethical choices made regarding wildlife might have been a good choice for Academy Award recognition, seems much fancier if it tells an awesome story. True wildlife filming is hard, because as anyone who watched that dreadfully boring television experiment in which National Geographic aired continual live footage of Yellowstone National Park can tell you, nature doesn’t just start acting all science-y the moment the director calls, “Action!”
Thinking is hard, too. I mean like really thinking, of the kind humans do when we listen to multiple perspectives even when we’re pretty sure some of those perspectives are being offered up by complete idiots. Or like when we conduct our own research on a controversial issue, looking to primary sources whenever possible and honestly challenging our own assertions. And boy here in the US for sure, and I suspect around the world as well, we have lots of groups shouting at us to throw ourselves off the cliff with the rest of the right-thinking people.
I suggest instead, we take another more important and much more science-y lesson from our friends the lemmings. Maybe instead of bunching up in the same place we’ve been, where we’re being crushed by the same ideas shouted louder and louder, we should take a moment to step back, to get away, to put some distance between ourselves and the mob.
Yes, we might come upon a body of water. But I think having a little more elbow room, and listening to our own voices for a change, might be worth the swim.