Say everyone’s talking ’bout chicken Chicken’s a popular word But anywhere you go, you’re bound to find A chicken ain’t nothin’ but a bird
— Emmett Wallace, as performed by Cab Calloway
A couple months ago, I found a copy of the DVD Sitting Ducks, a collection of a dozen or so episodes from the cartoon series, for a buck. (Except for Doctor Who, I never spend any more than two or three dollars for a DVD.) I’ve watched it several times now. I confess I am fascinated, because the humor is grounded in a premise that is, well, ethically a bit weird.
Sitting Ducks is developed from ideas originally conceived by artist Michael Bedard. Initially, these were expressed in a humorous pop-art lithograph of three ducks sitting in lounge chairs; one has his head tilted up to look at two bullet holes in the wall above his head. Bedard later wrote a book about an alligator who saves a duck from a hatching factory, to warn him of the nefarious plans of the gators who intend to so fatten up the ducks that they will be unable to fly when it comes time for the gators to feed (I have not read the book, but take this on the Wikipedia article on the franchise.) Finally it was made into a television show, which Wikipedia describes succinctly thus:
The show takes place in a town called Ducktown and focuses on a duck named Bill, and his best friend Aldo, a huge alligator from the neighboring town of Swampwood. Seeing as how ducks are favorite snacks of the alligators there, Bill and Aldo’s friendship is rather unusual.
Unusual indeed. In order to discuss the odd nature of this friendship and the context in which it occurs, allow me to speculate on the history of the planet where all this happens. It is different than ours and different from that of other cartoon universes. In the Warner Bros. universe, for instance, evolution has evolved pretty much as it happened here, only other species have achieved consciousness and can communicate between themselves as well as humans. But there are no humans in the Sitting Ducks universe. (Some of this is pure speculation, but some is derived from what is actually said by the characters.)
On this planet (we’ll call it pseudo-earth), some catastrophe occurred, wiping out all human life. We can guess this happened, because the characters use terms and refer to inventions in a manner only meaningful in a human context; so apparently some human world is in their past.
Following this catastrophe, birds – say on one continent – and lizards, on another, evolved until becoming fully conscious and intelligent. This probably had to happen on separate continents, otherwise natural selection would have determined which of these species developed consciousness first, leaving one at the mercy of the other.
An odd biological trade-off occurred for the ducks in their evolution. They lost the power to fly, while developing their wings into arms and hands. (Other birds have developed wings with fingers long enough to allow flight, e.g., the crows, who seem to have evolved on a tropical continent. Meanwhile, penguin wings have not evolved at all.)
Eventually, however, the evolved lizard species, primarily alligators, and the evolved bird species, primarily ducks, arrived on the same continent; a very small one, apparently, since there are only two cities on it, Ducktown and Swampwood, with very little mileage between them.
As might be predicted, a conflict ensued. The nature of it is unclear; the alligators, in conflict situations, seem only able to resort to personal physical force; the ducks appear to have developed the capacity for innovative technology, which probably includes weapons and defenses. At any rate, the end result of the conflict was a treaty between gators and ducks: The gators are allowed to eat any ducks caught in Swampwood, but any gators found trying to catch ducks in Ducktown are guilty of poaching and suffer imprisonment (or perhaps worse, it’s never made clear.) The gators also get any feathers ducks may molt, for use in pillows, etc., an additional benefit.
Sounds like a good deal for all? Yet it’s exactly here that the ethical context of the program gets a little weird. Let’s find a rough human analogy. Suppose Nazi Germany and contemporary Israel shared borders (and they were the only nations on a single continent). But. they are both signatories to a treaty that allows the Nazis to torture and kill any Jew found within Germany, though any Nazi if found in Israel engaged in the same pursuit would be committing a felony. The Nazis also would get hair from Israeli barbershops to use for wigs, etc. Can we imagine this? And can we imagine the Israelis signing any such treaty?
Yet the matter gets stranger when we introduce Bill Duck to Aldo Alligator and have them strike up a friendship. Now imagine mad Nazi physician Joseph Mengele, who tortured and murdered Jews daily in fraudulent “medical experiments,” crossing the border into Israel in a secretive effort to find select Jews for further “experimentation.” However, a truck nearly runs him over in a near-accident, when he is saved at the last moment by a young Moshe Dayan, who would become Chief of Staff for the Israeli military. Out of gratitude, Mengele not only swears off any further tortuous/murderous “experiments”; he becomes so close to Moshe that he slips across the border every now and then to play cards, eat kosher at the local deli, go fishing, etc. And of course Moshe will cross the border every now and then to help out, when his pal Joseph has problems with the Gestapo, etc.
Well, maybe not.
The reader will see the ethical problem here, and it is emphasized by the fact that ducks and alligators are not of the same species, although they do share a common ancestor (as any dignified crocoduck could tell you if it weren’t a manifestation of creationist denial). That is, one can imagine Moshe deciding that perhaps Nazis can be converted to some human feelings, one at a time, because they are after all human beings. But ducks share no “alligatorness” with, well, alligators; and the reverse is also obviously true. Thus, the only qualities they share are intelligence, consciousness, and some form of conscience.
So, whenever Aldo feels tempted to eat a deep-fried duck nugget, he is quite right to remark that this is part of nature’s plan. “I’m the predator, you’re the prey,” he reminds Bill in one episode. But perhaps reason and good will are enough to overcome one’s animal nature?
Within the domain of the cartoon, this is enough, and positive reviews of the show emphasize that the recurrent theme of the programs is the importance of friendship, no matter what. Still, when one thinks of the occasional truce between cat and mouse in Tom and Jerry cartoons, these take place in a human-dominated world, and is presumed a temporary truce between individuals. But, both Aldo and Bill are fully embedded in their separate and adversarial communities. Sometimes this becomes integral to the stories told, as Aldo and Bill attempt to define their friendship among skeptical same-species friends. And one can’t help feeling that the writers of the program are intentionally eliding the social implications here as too troubling to resolve amusingly.
And after all, the question lingers, can two distinctly separate species of intelligent life live in peaceful co-existence? The question frequently appears in science fiction, but only as already answered – e.g., the multi-species crew of the starship Enterprise in Star Trek. Still, remember the old Twilight Zone episode, “To Serve Man”? (It’s a cookbook!”) Why shouldn’t a different intelligent species simply see us all as just so much food? Optimists assume it as epistemically given that two intelligent species ought to recognize each other as intelligent, but in fact I can see no good reason for this faith. And the problem has come up anew concerning the possibility that the development of an artificial intelligence with a self-aware consciousness “could spell the end of the human race,” as Stephen Hawking put it to a BBC reporter recently.
This is exactly why we find a comparison between the Sitting Ducks universe and the alternative universe inhabited only by Nazi Germany and Israel both unpersuasive and unsettling. It’s not just that both Jews and Nazis have intelligent, self-aware consciousnesses with consciences: they are both recognizably human. Regardless of their differences, and despite racist ideology, they share the same basic genetic material. For instance, even should intelligent alligators eat intelligent ducks, there’s no question of cannibalism involved – and neither would there be, should ‘trans-human’ cyberized hominids require human flesh and blood to feed upon – or even, in the case of Dr. Who’s Cybermen, to use as alternative form of “reproduction.”
It has seemed like I am making statements, but really I am asking questions. Some of these will probably never be resolved.
Still, without putting down Sitting Ducks, which I do find entertaining, one wonders if the old Warner Bros. cartoons, with their greater amount of violence, were closer to the reality of any possible co-existence between differing intelligent species. Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner remain forever locked in mortal struggle – and this seems about right for an evolution decided by natural selection.
Wiki article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sitting_Ducks
Internet Movie Database page for series: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0368543/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1
Hawking quote: http://www.bbc.com/news/technology-30290540