‘Depraved’ Penguins and Harm Reduction

The Guardian newspaper published an article earlier this month about the unearthing of ‘landmark’ observations into the mating habits of the Adélie penguin that had been purposefully hidden away for a century.  What was the reason for the article’s obscurity you might ask?  Apparently the scientific community of the time was morally appalled by the observations of the penguins ‘depraved’ behaviour which included acts of homosexuality, necrophilia and violence towards females and younger penguins.  The researcher, George Levick decided to not publish his observations on these moral grounds, thereby protecting the values of society.  It was not until 50 years post Levick’s discovery, that scientists would have another opportunity to observe and record the mating habits of Adélie penguins with somewhat different interpretations of the observed behaviours as explained in the Guardian by Douglas Russell, curator of birds at the Natural History Museum :

“It is startling stuff, though Russell told the Observer that recent studies have helped understand the behaviour of these “hooligan” penguins. “Adélies gather at their colonies in October to start to breed. They have only a few weeks to do that and young adults simply have no experience of how to behave. Many respond to inappropriate cues, hence the seeming depravity of their behaviour. For example, a dead penguin, lying with its eyes half-open, is very similar in appearance to a compliant female. The result is the so-called necrophilia that Levick witnessed and which so disgusted him.”

So what do depraved penguins have to do with harm reduction?

Much like Levick’s penguins, drug use is often viewed through a moral lens within our society.  Interpreting science through a moral lens however, is dangerous.  When moral belief is applied to research regarding drug use the interpretation is reduced to a binary solution of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.  Such moral lens not only limits the interpretation of our findings but it also limits the research questions that we seek to answer, focussing on questions of how we reduce drug use without regard for the health implications entailed when people continue to use drugs.

The science that underpins harm reduction takes a far more pragmatic approach, abstaining from questions about wrong and right and instead focusing upon questions of risk, health and harm.

This is not to suggest that harm reduction is value free.  Ritter and Cameron (2007) in seeking to define harm reduction in the Australian context explicitly state that harm reduction is underpinned by humanistic values.  By removing ourselves from the ethical questions of the morality of drug use (or at the very least not imposing our own ethical views of the matter upon others):

  • We abstain from the stigmatisation of drug users that is all too prevalent within our society (do no harm)
  • We  acknowledge that despite the range of quality demand reduction interventions that may be available to people who use drugs, many will choose to continue to use drugs (self determination)
  • We avoid ascribing erroneous motivations for drug use (evidence based)

It should also be asserted that while harm reduction takes no stance upon the morality of drug use,  abstinence from alcohol and other drugs is still valued as a state where the potential for drug related harm is greatly reduced.  Abstinence however is not a precondition of harm reduction.


The imposition of a moral position regarding alcohol and other drugs use can be potentially destructive to individuals who use drugs by increasing the potential for stigmatisation and marginalisation.  Viewing drug taking behaviours through a moral lens only increases the development of inappropriate and erroneous motivation for the behaviour and subsequently resulting in the development of inappropriate and sometimes dangerous interventions.  Most of all such a moral approach hinders the collection of a valid and accurate evidence base from which we can base interventions that have the potential to reduce the risk of drug related harms.

Now let’s talk about the pandas…


‘Bamboozled 2: Use’ Kanoti  http://vimeo.com/12762915 accessed 16th June 2012

Ritter, A. & Cameron, J. (2005). Monograph No. 06: A systematic review of harm reduction. DPMP Monograph Series. Fitzroy: Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre.

‘Sexual depravity of penguins that Antarctic scientist dared not reveal.’ Saturday 9 June 2012 http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/jun/09/sex-depravity-penguins-scott-antarctic  accessed 16th June 2012


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