A guide to everyday psychology

Short Reads

Leaping lemmings: a persistent old story that tells us more about people than lemmings

Virus Lemmings Cliff Running Panic  - RichardsDrawings / Pixabay
RichardsDrawings / Pixabay

The Takeaway: We love a good story more than a true one.

   No one is quite sure how the story of lemming suicide started. But for many decades, it was widely believed that Arctic lemmings respond to high population density by massing in thousands and heading for the coast. Once there, according to legend, the lemmings jump off cliffs and swim out to sea until exhaustion finally overcomes them.

   Concrete evidence for the migrations/suicides seemed to be provided by a 1958 documentary film. Walt Disney’s White Wilderness showed large groups of lemmings marching purposefully across the landscape before leaping into the sea. But alas, the film was faked.

   The notion of fake wildlife documentaries will surprise many people – especially those for whom Sir David Attenborough has been the unimpeachable face of natural history for three generations. But science and documentary making are expensive enterprises, and so corners have always been cut. As recently as 2011, the BBC wildlife documentary series, Frozen Planet, broadcast footage of a polar bear giving birth. Although this birth took place in a Dutch zoo, the film makers pretended that it had been filmed in the Arctic. The justification given for this deception was that the film accurately represented events that occur in the wild – without intruding on an endangered species.

   Species protection would never have been a concern for the producers of White Wilderness. They were filming lemmings – a species of rodent so populous that they supposedly commit suicide from time to time. But logistical concerns certainly would have been at centre stage… Travelling to the Northwestern Territories is a relatively straightforward journey today. For a team of documentary makers in the 1950’s, burdened with movie-cameras the size of fridges, such a voyage would have been almost epic.

So why bother going there at all…? Why not just buy some lemmings and fake the film a bit closer to home? The lemmings don’t have opinions, the viewers will never know and the Disney executives couldn’t care less. Only ‘science’ cares – and she doesn’t buy movie tickets.

   As it turned out, faking the film was a wise decision. A quest to find lemmings spontaneously leaping off cliffs would have failed – requiring the film producers to explain to Walt Disney’s senior executives why there was a film in the can showing lemmings not assembling in large groups, not jumping off cliffs, and not swimming seaward until exhaustion overcame them. It could have been career-ending. 

   Accounts of the film-making vary somewhat… but it seems that the film-makers employed some Inuit children to round up a hundred or so lemmings, and then used coercion to create the scenes they wanted to record. The lemmings did not jump spontaneously… they were pushed (catapulted off a spinning carousel, to be precise). Perhaps the producers of White Wilderness rationalised in 1958 – as the producers of Frozen Planet would rationalise some fifty years later – that they were simply re-enacting a natural event that was already well known… Taking short cuts doesn’t mean that the legend isn’t true.

  So what is the truth? And why does it matter anyway?

   Taking the second question first, the significance of lemming suicide would be immense. For an animal to give up its life so that another, unrelated, animal could live would finally prove that there are acts of genuine and uncomplicated altruism in nature – a discovery so sensational that it could lead to the burning of all Richard Dawkins’ books about selfish genes and maybe even a Nobel Prize for Charles Krebs.

Charles who…?  

    In an effort to establish what really happens, a Canadian zoologist named Charles Krebs spent four years (c.1959-1962) ‘living with lemmings’. Widely respected among his peers for turning Arctic ethology from observational anecdote into meaningful science, Krebs recorded massive increases in lemming populations and dramatic declines. He carried out autopsies on dead animals and he interviewed the local Inuit people. But he never found any evidence to support the legend.

   Lemmings, he observed, are rather anti-social creatures. During periods of high population density they are inclined to fight savagely, and occasionally eat one another, rather than commit suicide. Perhaps Krebs’ most telling observation was that if lemmings really do commit suicide en masse, it is remarkable that the people who live alongside them have never noticed.

   So the truth is that lemmings do not commit suicide. Krebs (born 1936) is well into his retirement now – but the legend still persists. And its existence and endurance says far more about humans than about lemmings.

   First, it shows the importance of doing proper science – testing theories exhaustively and critically, even when they carry the weight of “well, everyone knows that”.

   Second, it illustrates circumstances in which researchers might be tempted to invent the evidence they need. When we already know that our theory is true, why bother going to great lengths trying to prove it?

   And, third, the endurance of the legend illustrates one of the most potent reasons behind our attraction to such things as celebrity gossip, astrology, conspiracy theories and UFO’s… Nearly all of us prefer an exciting story to a true one. Suicidal lemmings, killer robots with artificial intelligence and ‘why my frontal lobes made me do it’ provide people with dinner party anecdotes. They are our social ‘click bait’. Who wants to listen to psychologists droning on about ‘cognitive dissonance’, ‘stimulus generalisation’ and the ‘selfish gene theory’?

   What the Inuit locals made of the filming of White Wilderness is not recorded – a group of demented white men herding lemmings along a riverbank before catapulting them high into the water. I like to think that they still laugh about it today – or scare their misbehaving children with tales of the white men who once came north to sacrifice lemmings to their river god, Woldiznee.

  And nothing wrong with that, of course… The edge between one person’s science and another person’s fable has always been fuzzy.

1 Comment

  1. Princess Olivia

    I remember Krebs from my college days . Wrote nice text books. KREBS AND DAVIES

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