The blog of photographer and musician, Kim Ayres

A drop in the ocean

Last night we sat and watched “March of the Penguins” on DVD. Apart from some over-anthropomorphising it was quite spectacular, but it did leave me feeling quite low and morbid.

The film follows the annual cycle of emperor penguins as they breed, incubate the egg, care for their young and damn near starve and freeze to death in just about the harshest environment on Earth – Antarctica. The penguins are imbued with deep emotions by the narrator (Morgan Freeman) and the accompanying soundtrack. Although these penguin feelings are speculative, and initially I found the sentimentality quite irritating, it did set me thinking that actually they probably must experience intense emotion, or something similar. The drive to try and keep their eggs, then young, alive in temperatures of minus 60 degrees while waiting for their partner to return from feeding, before setting off on a 70 mile journey to the coast so that they can finally eat, and eventually return to their spouse and offspring, is clearly an extremely powerful one. And if it is emotionally based, then the vast majority of these penguins must lead thoroughly miserable and devastating lives as chicks and partners are lost to predators and the environment.

Nature doesn’t require the penguins to have a good life, only that enough of them survive so that the species continues. And if their actions are driven by emotions then the fact that tens of thousands of generations have been repeating this endless cycle for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years is incredibly depressing.

Are we humans any different? We might have distractions such as DVDs, work, alcohol, religion and daytime soaps, but the essence is the same. The quality of our lives is unimportant, so long as enough of us survive to pass on our genetic code. “Survival of the Fittest” sounds like such a noble, strong and powerful thing, and yet in reality it’s just “survival of those who manage to scrape through by the skin of their teeth.”

How long do we keep repeating the cycles of life with no ultimate meaning beyond the continued existence of strands of DNA?

I mean, if we were to say 100 years – more than most people can expect to live – was the equivalent in length of one millimetre, then 10,000 years (as far back as human civilisations can be traced) would be represented by 1 metre. Just over 6 kilometres would take us back to the time of the extinction of the dinosaurs – think for a moment about how far 6km, or 4 miles is, compared with 1mm. Multiply that by a factor of 10 and you get as far back as the first complex organisms, with the formation of the Earth being something in the region of 42km back.

And the best any of us can hope for is less than a single millimetre on a stretch of road over 120 miles long since the Big Bang.

Ever felt that your life was completely and utterly insignificant?

This afternoon I was out bramble hunting with the children and, like last year, Meg ended up with more smeared over her hands, face and clothes than in the tub. We came home triumphant, with about 3lbs of usable berries to be converted at some point into Bramble Crumble and Bramble Ice-Cream and after getting washed we sat down to a Sunday roast, lovingly prepared by Maggie. And then we were treated to a surprise.

Maggie had made up thick fruit smoothies – bananas, strawberries, blueberries and a dash of pineapple juice - and put them through the ice-cream machine. Pure fruit and nothing else; as delicious as ice-cream yet a fraction of the calories and actually good for you.

And for a brief moment in an infinite universe I get to enjoy good food, wonderful children and a loving wife.


Foot Eater said...

The trouble with the idea of the significance of life is that it's an anthropocentric one by definition. Unless one is religious, which I know you're not and which I'm not, life doesn't have any intrinsic meaning in the universe. It just is. Any consideration of significance has to stop at the question 'why are we here?'

I don't find this depressing in the least, although I used to. What I've come to realise is that to live a happy life, I'm better served not asking 'why am I here?' but rather saying, 'I'm here, and it's an unquestionable given. In that context, what is significant in my life?' I can appreciate the beauty of the natural selection process that has led to my existence, with a great deal of luck thrown in, but it really doesn't bother me that I'm here to serve no ultimate cosmic purpose (other than, I suppose, to conform to physical reality).

Religious people sometimes challenge my atheism by asking how I can bear to live my life knowing it will end and that will be the end of me. Leaving aside the implied and rather odd idea that reality can be altered according to one's desires, I usually reply with this perhaps rather trite analogy. When you go to see a film, you're always aware that after two hours it will end, but the fact that it is finite surely doesn't stop you from enjoying it and possibly finding it profound.

Sorry if this sounds confusing or, worse, obvious; I'm not good at articulating these kinds of concepts even though I'm fairly clear about them in my own head.

Those smoothies sound awesome, by the way, Kim. I think I read somewhere on your blog that brambles are what we Sassenachs call blackberries, is that right?

Dr Joseph McCrumble said...

I too was hit by exitentialist angst more than once during my formative years. I couldn't help but look towards the future and feel the panic setting in that one day everything I know and love would simply cease to exist. Nowadays I tend to look behind and reminisce about the things I've already enjoyed, which takes my mind off the prospect of growing old and infirm. I also find it helps to always have something to look forward to doing. That way you actually welcome the forward passage of time rather than constantly trying to pile pressure on the brakes.

With Dolores up the duff again my thoughts once more return to considerations of our mortality. As one life begins, so my own life inches ever closer to its inevitable conclusion. I am in no way pessimistic though, for I can look forward to seeing my third child grow and prosper. Unless, that is, he/she comes under the influence of twin X, twin Y or Mrs McHaggarty. In which case I hope there really are guardian angels.

Kim Ayres said...

Foot Eater - The smoothies are indeed awesome, and yes, brambles up here are the berry, and the plants are briars. After your comment I've added hyperlinks into the blog to link to last year's entries about the Great Bramble Hunt

As for the search for greater significance in the universe - the fact is that sometimes I'm more than happy with the idea that there is nothing more, because if there is some greater purpose to it all then it's sure as hell bloody obscure. I have enough distrust for authority as it is, sowould find it very difficult to trust anything setting itself up as the Ultimate Authority.

On the other hand, as reflected in posts like Wasn't I Supposed to be Somewhere Else?", there are times when it feels like I am supposed to be out there saving the world, but no one gave me the instructions.

I've become aware over the past few months that my mood is generally getting lower, and that more often than usual I'm reflecting on mortality in a morbid way. The problem is I have no idea whether it is the result of something physical, like the B12 deficiency thing, or whether it's psychological and I still have unresolved issues to deal with. All I do know is that films like March of the Penguins seem to set me off on these trails of thought much more frequently these days.

Dr J McC - First of all, congratulations! I sincerely wish your new child all the health and happiness in the world.

As for existential angst, you've still got another 8 years before you hit 40, so I wouldn't get too comfortable at the idea that it's all in the past ;)

Dave Migman said...

I've been reading John Gray's "Straw Dogs" and while I don't agree with everything therein he does have some good points that reflect your thoughts here.

1; We're animals who have become deceived by a sense of 'self'. Misled if you like.

2; Our thirst for progress and the belief that science can somehow save us is rooted in our Judaeo/Christian traditions.

The book is very bleak at times but worth the time. Ain’t finished it yet. He mentions the idea of Gaia a lot.

As for meaning, a point... who knows? The great mystery is death. No one knows the answers, the quest for an ultimate truth I believe to be futile. But there are facts we can grapple with.

Perhaps we are no different than ants. Colonies can be thousands of years old, they are inventive, they proliferate the globe. They also answer to some form of collective conscious. A kind of collective will.
Do we?

As an artist I wonder if what fuels and drives me create. I wonder if is not derived from some form of collective presence. Deep in our subconscious minds are the stains of our ancestry, a genetic memory we barely touch.

In our quest for a God in our image we have prised ourselves away from Nature. We think ourselves apart when we are intrinsically bound there. The pagan beliefs were aware of this, closer to this. Even their gods and goddesses reflected better the scope of nature than Christianity and its ‘unnatural’ imposition of morals, of sin and repentance.

Meaning? Perhaps that’s a purely personal quest. That we must all track down our own forms. Mine through creating, some through destroying, some through God, some through the knowledge that after a lifetime suffering there is ultimate peace (though we don’t know this is the case).

34quinn said...

I find it interesting in a way that I happen to read your post today right after reading phils post about the death of steve irwin the crocodile hunter.

He died "LIVING" his life the way he loved to live. With excitement and adventure.

So how do we know what we are to really be doing with our lives other than to try to find some things that we derive pleasure from.

Like your yummy treats and nice time with loved ones. If one was to pass away at a time in life where they are enjoying so much love and happiness yes , it is true it is very tragic too, but would it really be much better to pass away doing nothing, or on the way to work or after an argument.

Life is .......that's is all just IS...we do what we can and take what we get and somewhere in it we try to feel good about our selves.

Like your penguin story, for myself, I cannot really figure out any great reason for having had to live the life I have with the hardships and pain and struggles, except that I tell myself there must be a reason. Purhaps it is for my genes , perhaps one of my sons shall father a child that fathers a child that does something incredable, or not.

Maybe we are not much different from your penguins or an ant crawling along the sidewalk.

For now I will just try to be the best Penguin,Ant or human I can be.

Dave Migman said...

The Steve Irwin thing is kind of funny. I mean if there is a god then it's got one fucked up sense of humour right? Here's this guy who makes a career wrestling crocs, snakes and the deadliest creatures the world has to offer and yet he's killed in a one-off 'freakish' accident with a sting ray!

Anonymous said...

You know what they say.."life is in the palm of gods hands"take it or leave it...I don't see where we really have the choice..the only one that knows our destiny is the good Lord himself.Wether were doing what we like or what we don't like in our lives..when our time is up it's up...Sorry that's just the cruel reminder of life...

Severin Bloodclot said...

As regards previous comment; Funny how most Christians can't spell isn't it. Makes you wonder how they actually take time to read the Bile-ball never mind how they feckin' interpret the bastard!

KIM; Yes animals do have deep seated emotions. This can easily be proven with
a; one wet poodle
b; a microwave oven
place poodle in oven and switch on a low strength, I'm telling you that poodle definately wants out of there, some deep emotions going on....

sarah said...

Ever felt that your life was completely and utterly insignificant?

(March of the Penguins) i've seen better nature programs on PBS. i wasn't terribly impressed, although the cinematography was pretty cool.

Anonymous said...

excuse me here, but if certain people cannot be polite, and talk appropiately, because for some reason they think that their better than others..well I don't see why you just don't keep your opinions for your self..and for cristianity,
Do you "severin bloodcot" uderstand what's written in the bible? obviously not, because if you did you wouldn't be so damn rude!!!
Now how's that for spelling?????

p.s just for the record, I'm not a cristian...I just know how to behave myself.......

no offense to you mr Kim Ayres....

SafeTinspector said...

The thing that separates man from not-man is the ability to recognise, appreciate and manipulate patterns.
All the rest of our functions are common amongst animals in general and mammals in specific.
Our purpose as a race, as far as I can tell, is to apply our one unique feature to the task of understanding existance.
This is if you are the sort to think there is a purpose.

Otherwise, hedonism is a pretty good choice. THe good kind, where you enjoy the company of your family and loved ones.

Kim Ayres said...

Dave - I've a funny feeling that this is actually the first time you've commented on my blog, in which case - welcome!

I hadn't thought about the idea that our belief that science can save us is rooted in our Judaeo/ Christian traditions, but it makes sense. And the idea that we're misled/ deceived by our sense of self is really interesting.

Hopefully we can chat more about that when I come up on Wednesday.

Quinn - It's the inherent conflict between feeling that there must be some kind of purpose to life and absolutely failing to find one beyond the continued reproduction of strands of DNA.

As for Steve Irwin, given that I've seen programmes where he's been wearing shorts and standing open legged above some pretty nasty poisoness snakes, you can't help but feel he lasted a lot longer than anyone could have expected.

Fancy Face - that's fine if you can believe there is a God, and that He cares one way or the other. If you don't, it's not much comfort.

Severin - if you want to argue with Christians then at least challenge the arguments. To make gibes about spelling just makes you look cheap and petty, not the sophisticated wit you believe yourself to be.

Sarah - David Attenborough's Life in the Freezer was considerably better but, as you say, the cinematography was pretty cool.

Fancy Face - If you let Severin Bloodclot wind you up, then he adds another tick to his scoreboard.

I don't mind what religion you are so long as a) you don't expect to convert me and b) if you want to debate you have to be prepared to be open to debate.

No offense taken :)

SafeTinspector - sometimes I think the whole human race is suffering from the Dunning-Kruger effect, where we all think we are so much smarter than we really are.

I think religion carries a lot of the blame by trying to make out that we are God's chosen species, when in fact we are only another form of penguin

SafeTinspector said...

Not necessarily smart, no. But we enjoy a certain advantage.
The problem is that the advantage has been, by and large, applied to further the animal desires that have come along for the ride.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

I'm all over the place on this one, Kim, but here is what I think today.

It seems that life on earth is as much about shocking waste as it is about productivity or purpose, if indeed it is about producivity at all. Millions of turtle eggs turn into mere hundreds of turtles and most of them are gobbled before they make it to adulthood. Nature's full of waste but the waste is taken up productively elsewhere in the system (the feeding of shorebirds in this example). there is something beautiful about that but also something deeply chilling to humans who only get the chance to produce a few offspring and who cannot afford to just "lose" some as turtles do. I have no scientific basis for saying so but it seems the less fecund we are as a species, the more we are attached to the few offspring we do have, making existentialist questions more of a worry to us than other species. Elephants have few offspring too and mourn their dead, so they say but there's something extra to that in humans.

But then we are the only species to make any sort of a study or adopt rituals to satisfy existential angst making it appear likey we are the only species to be afflicted/blessed with it, whatever.

My problem with atheism is that as a human I can see both the beauty and horror of the way nature works and I can't figure out why that should be. What possible evolutionary advantage does it confer to be able to see beauty in the shape of a tree or a passage of poetry or a work of art? But ss a species wouldn't we get along better without religion and dogma to clutter up our trajectories?

I can't see the atheism thing because I can't solve the problems of why evolution working in a vacuum allows us to see the beauty in something like a tree - what's the evolutionary point of that? It's just distracting us from our purpose and productivity,isn't it?

Equally, I can't see the Christian thing because religion seems to be so counter to evolutionary progress (the news is illed daily with religious nutters of one stripe or another trying to bomb their equally religious enemies "back into the Stone Age")

I remain an agnostic who has a sense of something larger than ourselves. I call it God but I'm buggered if I know what that is!

Contributing to my belief in a God of some sort are many things but the one most pertinent to this conversation is the fact that I have known extremely driven people. People who were born and from the moment they were big enough to form a committee to help others in some charitable way, did so. People with a burning need to write that they can't fathom, but they rearrange their whole lives to satisfy their need. Speaking of mere predilections and fancies or hobbies does not cover the intensity some human beings have. We all touch on it from time to time and I can't see why that part of reality that we all acknowledge to be in our experiences should be ignored in favour of stuff we can merely see. If it's there it affects us and our actions which has implications for the whole species. Why is that feeling of a God or a collective consciousness around and to be found in even in the most remote tribes in the Amazon - man has always had a sense of The Other and for me i can't unthink that away or marry it to the evolution-in-a-vacuum theory of atheism.

I believe in a God of some sort and everything that science tells us is a peek at something larger and more beautiful and awesome. I don't believe in any particular religion although the origins of most (forgetting the bizarre rituals and fairy stories) all call upon that which is most decent and noble in our natures.

At least that's what I think today! Great, absorbing post, Kim. I'm always glad i came when I stop by.

Sorry to go on. It's difficult to keep it brief when the topic is something like this and i just wanted to add m tuppence worth or what that's worth (although i shouldn't think I'd get as much as tuppence for it). :)

Anonymous said...

just to set the record straight here..I AM NOT A CRISTIAN.I believe yes there is a reason why we were put here...
I just thimk that if you haven't got anything nice to say then say nothing at all...some comments are just meant to be kept silent.....

happykat said...

I'm still looking for the point of existence, Kim. I'm still trying to marry the dieties with the real world.

I see you have a lot of philosophical comments here and i won't add to them until I have worked out answers of my own.

Kim Ayres said...

SafeTinspector - Any advantage is only an advantage if it propogates itself through successive generations. Some of those animal desires are needed for that.

Sam, PCB - I think Dave, in his first comment above, partially addresses your thoughts with the notion that a lot of our creativity and drives are a part of our collective ancestry. This idea requires no need for a God.

I think part of where you fall into a trap is still looking for purpose in evolution. There is no forward planning with evolution, only what happens to survive and not get wiped out. As I said in the post, it's not so much survivial of the fittest as survival of those who manage to scrape through by the skin of their teeth - it might even be survival of the luckiest.

I appreciate the time and thought you've put into commenting here. Most blog comments tend to be a couple of words, or a couple of sentences. Most commenters on this post have written several paragraphs. I must have struck a chord somewhere :)

Fancy Face - ok, ok - you're not a Christian! I know what you mean about some comments, but what I was saying is that if you let him wind you up, then he's happy - it's what he wants. Or he wants people to think he's witty and clever, but he's obviously young and still needs a lot of practice before he'll actually make anyone but himself laugh.

Happykat - I look forward to your thoughts :)

Severin Bloodclot said...

Okay, this is gonna be a long one, but hey, no insults this time.
First Kim I apologise that I'm using your space to get this out. It's a nice blog, shit I'm like a cloud on a sunny day - what else can I say... except!

For a start. I'm not trying to be fancy, humourous, clever ( you should really take a step back here guys, step down off your preachy boxes and obtain a 'sense of humour')
In fact I'm not trying to be funny at all... I'm just pointing things out, without being polite, conservative, middleclass and, well, let's admit it, boring.
If you believe in free speech then let me have my say, if not censor me. If I insult you then come-on, gird your loins and give me some back.
Provocation is the only way we shall learn anything from each other. Please give me some flak.

I'm not trying to get cheap hit to come look at my blog, (it's shite anyway) but I tour these blogs and the majority of what I come across depresses me utterly. to the very core of ma beady brown eye.
The observation I made against Fancy pants (or whatever his name is) came after touring numerous sites where Chritians and B.A.C's spout their misguided filth and each contain numerous spelling mistakes. Well, I read all the comments in this Blog and came across Fancy Pants, put two and three together and came up with a smart bomb Blue on blue six.
So there you go.
Perhaps I have some kind of Messianic complex and you are all part of the dream of myself....

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

Good point. You're right about my assuming a purpose for evolution. I need to think again.

Thanks for responding. My mind changes on this a lot but I haven't applied it (my mind) to a really serious study. Thus my half-baked observations. I'm glad I came by today though. I enjoyed reading your and the other commentators ideas.

The question of how and why we feel the ache of beauty still lingers though. We see it in imperfect things (I'm thinking of Gerard Manley Hopkins' "Pied Beauty" one of my all time favourite poems) we see it in perfection and order, there is a puzzling sadness to it. What's that all about? All this massive, abundant beauty can't just be by the way, can it? And even if it is all by the way and not an intimation of something greater than ourselves, why do we perceive it so keenly? I'm not sure if man's time on earth has been sufficient to develop in us this acute sense of what's beautiful to the intellect or the senses.

I realize these are woolly questions with all different facets to them. Off for a cuppa, a rethink about your point on evolution and to try to break the beauty questions down into answerable component questions. I thought I was going to have a quiet afternoon with my book until coming here!

Kim Ayres said...

Severin Bloodclot - a compliment about my blog! Thank you, I'll take it.

Free speech is a great one so long as people agree with you. When they want to promote something you disagree with then its much harder to suport their right to say it. Would I allow Nazis, racists and child abusers to promote their ideas on my blog? Of course not - especialy when I can hit the delete button so easily. I'm not saying you're any of these things, just that I don't go for the free speech thing as an excuse to piss people off.

When it comes to debate I prefer thoughtful, although a well crafted witty insult is funny, but not easy to pull off. Some of the Blunt Cogs crew are masters at it and have sites dedicated it. That's the playground for that behaviour. Here I prefer to keep the language clean and the insults friendly.

Some blogs are suited to bile, some to light hearted jokes, some to religious debate, some to politics. If I want to leap head first into a pitched battle with Christians then there are other places on the web I can do so.

I would say this site is primarily about observations on life, sometimes mild, sometimes deep, often confusing. If something you say reveals something about you personally or the human condition, then that's the best kind of comment where I'm concerned.

Sam - you would so love the Introduction to Philsophy evening course I'm going to be running in a couple of weeks

SafeTinspector said...

Nothing wrong with animal desires. They have an evolutionary purpose, yes.
But when...

Ah, never mind. I should've kept my beliefs to myself. They're pretty strange, and this is the Kim Ayres blog, not SafeTinspector. (or the eternally 'coming soon' SafeThink)

34quinn said...

HI kim,

just a quick little note to severin in regards to this whole comment about spelling mistakes etc.with regard to fancy face...

Severin.. .....perhaps the comparison you have made between christians and spelling mistakes ( which first of all I thought was fascinating..LOL"sarcasm").....I am sure it never occured to you that there could (and actually is) a completely different reason for fancy face's spelling mistakes....

fancy face's primary language (ie...speaking , reading and writing)..just happens to be FRENCH..not english....that said I think fancy face does very well to communicate expressions and ideas on all of our blogs, even with the occassional spelling error.. ( which I must add I do constantly due to "dyslexic finger syndrome" and my "I really don't worry about it" syndrome LOL ).

sarah said...

i believe they aired life in the freezer on PBS. PBS uses a lot of BBC productions. i dig it.

Dr Maroon said...

What a fantastic can of worms. Kim you have excelled.

The Penguins. (of Intelligent Design fame.)

“Nature doesn’t require the penguins to have a good life, only that enough of them survive so that the species continues.”

I disagree. Nature doesn’t require that they survive at all, either individually or as a species. As for emotions, the penguins would require some sort of consciousness and various internal glands, both of which they thankfully don’t have.


In an infinite universe, all things are possible.
‘Probable’ is a different kettle of submarines. A God Mother or Hermaphrodite (for why would it be a father?) with a purpose for us? A specific one for each and every one of our increasing population? Doubtful.


It’s nearly always some proscriptive doctrine about sex and other human behaviour. These are handed down to us by men from ancient times who claim to have been told them by voices in their heads. They were all from the middle east. Anyway, since the population is still increasing, as a function of economics, which it is, presumably we’re all still at it ,no matter what all those old bearded Arabs and Jews said. Of course in the Scottish marriage, whatever that construct is, we’re allowed sex so long as we don’t enjoy it. What a pity the Creator gave us orgasms and an a sense of the erotic then. Don’t know why I’m going on about sex so much.


Death is surely a return to the state we were in before we were born. Nothing to worry about there then.


It’s not a proper day at the berries UNLESS you come home saturated in the stuff. That’s why you’re meant to put on “yer auld clays” [your old clothes]

Pip! Pip!

34quinn said...

HI kim, I just remembered this.....
years ago when my now 16 year old son was about 3 we went strawberry picking and were in the field and my hubby and I looked over at him and his little strawberry covered face and laughed about how more were going in his tummy than in the basket. After a while I looked over to him again and now only was his face covered but so was his shirt.....I looked at him and said ..oh my goodness look at all the strawberry all over your shirt...he said ..thats okay mommy I will have those ones later....( meaning he would eat them off his shirt later LOL ) was so matter of factly said that I was rolling in the field. hahahaha

Kim Ayres said...

SafeTinspector - why keep your beliefs to yourself? No one else does

Sarah - David Attenborough is the King of nature programmes

Dr Maroon - I can see we will have to have this lunch date soon to explore the subtleties of the universe over a bowl of penguin soup

Quinn - I use exactly the same excuse when caught with food lodged in my beard

SafeTinspector said...

It seemed as if everyone was being psychological, and I was on the verge of metaphysical.
I didn't want to piss in the pool!

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