Humans Are Not Like Slowly Boiling Frogs … We Are Like Slowly Boiling Brainless Frogs

Even though people keep using the famous simile — “the fatally slow human response to climate change makes us like a slowly boiling frog” — it is not quite right.

As Wikipedia puts it, German physiologist Friedrich Goltz “demonstrated that a frog that has had its brain removed will remain in slowly heated water, but his intact frogs attempted to escape the water.” Other 19th Century studies appeared to have different results, but modern experiments (!) show that frogs with brains are in fact smart enough to leap out of water as it is heated up.

James Fallows of The Atlantic, who I am quite certain holds the world record for boiling frog posts, has one from Michael Jones who cites “Sensation in the Spinal Cord” from Nature, Dec. 4, 1873:

“Goltz observed that a frog, when placed in water the temperature of which is slowly raised towards boiling, manifests uneasiness as soon as the temperature reaches 25° C., and becomes more and more agitated as the heat increases, vainly struggling to get out, and finally at 42° C., dies in a state of rigid tetanus. The evidence of feeling being thus manifested when the frog has its brain, what is the case with a brainless frog? It is absolutely the reverse. Quietly the animal sits through all successions of temperature, never once manifesting uneasiness or pain, never once attempting to escape the impending death.”

Even so, I am inclined to agree with Jones that this should not be fatal to the metaphor.  It just needs to be tweaked.

Technically, we are the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, as I’ve said before (see “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?“).  Such are the privileges of being the only species that gets to name all the species, so we can call ourselves “wise” twice! But given how we have been destroying the planet’s livability, I think at the very least we should drop one of the “sapiens.” And, perhaps provisionally, we should put the other one in quotes, so we are Homo “sapiens” sapiens at least until we see whether we are smart enough to save ourselves from ourselves.

If we destroy a livable climate, which means “billions of people will be condemned to poverty and much of civilisation will collapse” and are renamed just plain Homo, then in fact we will  have demonstrated we are dumber than frogs (who were, after all, doing just fine until we came along).

At that point, we will be brainless frogs.

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24 Responses to Humans Are Not Like Slowly Boiling Frogs … We Are Like Slowly Boiling Brainless Frogs

  1. Raul M. says:

    The post brings to my mind the question of possible futures from the collective will and individual actions.
    If only a scripted play then the outcomes could be changed from a few noble acts; but, maybe it would take many actors of great change to realize we come out of the cave before we must dive back in to avoid the coming UV change. For if society collapses then so do efforts to control the escape into the atmosphere of manmade ozone destroyers, cause recycling would be passey.

  2. Bird Thompson says:

    Thanks for the laugh! Gallows humor I guess. And thank you for all you do.

  3. fj says:

    Yep, a picture’s worth a thousand words.

  4. Peter M says:

    and yet life goes on for Americans as usual this holiday- across the street from me 25-30 year old’s getting into huge imported SUV’s, going about in their little world of ‘cool’ consumption based miasma and mindless inertia, as if the future will be just fine.

    there will be huge changes ahead-like nothing humans have ever seen in modern civilization. The ‘Great Disruption’ is just beginning- and its outcome is likely to be very unpleasant for most.

  5. Chris says:

    Smoking, obesity, reality TV, drug abuse… Yep, humans are brainless frogs. We’re doomed.

  6. fj says:

    This is a rightfully concise damning critique of the do-nothing people on this planet — especially those in the so-called “developed” world — allowing this accelerating crisis to continue unabated.

  7. NJP1 says:

    good analoy cept theres nowhere to jump tp

  8. Russell says:

    The brainless slowly boiling mode is one of the rhetorical hallmarks of the climate wars

  9. Paul Magnus says:

    There is this subtle characteristic …. the optimism bias which helps in many cases, but unfortunately not now.

  10. David Lewis says:

    Homo planeta interfectorem

  11. Ernest says:

    We use our brains in the wrong way, so I would argue for *willfully* stupid, as in the case of denialism in some quarters.

  12. CW says:

    It’s hard for people to come to terms with the fact that there is no collective human brain. They keep on somehow thinking or hoping that there’s something collective looking out for the interests of the whole of the planet: an interventionist God, a world government, a superhero. But there isn’t such a thing. Collectively, at least at the moment with no world government, we are truly brainless.

    Bit of irony here though: there’s no centrality to the brain per se either. No little tiny human pushing buttons on a control board inside your skull. Instead, the neural networks there became so complex over time that consciousness “emerged”. Perhaps that’s one way we might work our way out of this. Human socio-political networks that begin to take on lives, or a consciousness of their own.

  13. Greg says:

    Richard Leaky, the paleoanthropologist, gets it, and is quoted in the Washington Post today:

    “If you look back, the thing that strikes you, if you’ve got any sensitivity, is that extinction is the most common phenomena,” Leakey says. “Extinction is always driven by environmental change. Environmental change is always driven by climate change. Man accelerated, if not created, planet change phenomena; I think we have to recognize that the future is by no means a very rosy one.”

  14. Rabid Doomsayer says:

    We face so many problems, of which climate change is but one. True the most serious, but perhaps not the most immediate.

    Our political systems are dominated by monied interests, with the most flagrant abuses barely rating a mention. The defense of what “our side” does irrespective of the facts is rampant.

    Our financial system is not on the edge it is way over it. Emotion alone is keeping it floating. Sooner or later we will be like the coyote and look down. Or the rest of the world will not see the US dollar as a safe haven. The financialization of financialization can only hide the truth for so long.

  15. bill says:

    I always thought the frogs were being defamed!

    Denier ≈ lobotomised amphibian: works for me.

    That last Toles sketch is priceless. That’s exactly what’s happening…

  16. Chris says:

    By the way, boiling living frogs, very mean.

  17. bill says:

    Yeah, I doubt you’d get that one past a contemporary ethics committee…

  18. Mulga Mumblebrain says:

    I’ve just trawled around the news, and I really think I’ve understated the position, somewhat. Everywhere you look, inside my own country and throughout a world dominated by neo-liberalism and Western neo-imperialism, barking mad and diabolically evil creatures masquerading as human beings are inflicting death, destruction and destitution on their fellows, without the hint of empathy, compassion or humanity, while barking on about ‘our moral values’. Surely we cannot go on like this very much longer?

  19. Judi says:

    Fortunately, not all humans are brainless frogs. Some are making a serious effort to live without contributing to the End of the World as We Know It.

    As climate change continues, as with all life forms on this planet, that which cannot adapt to the change is doomed to die.

    So, in the future, it will be easier to find good, affordable real estate.

  20. Liz R. says:

    We’re Fracking the Frog in Pennsylvania! Toss a boiled frog in a pond and you still get a ripple, right?

  21. Solar Jim says:

    Mulga: I am concerned that we are doomed to go on in our financialized (ie. privatized) world for “very much longer,” even though your social analyses are priceless.

    Joe: Considering the aggregate of increasing world government subsidies for “fuels,” I would change the latter half of your title to “rampantly corrupt brainless frogs.”

    Perhaps the upcoming UN eco-conference should be called Rio-20.

  22. Solar powered says:

    Mulga, we need more eco warriors like yourself. The general apathy is frightening especially from the less blessed economic societies. They are propagating as if there is no tomorrow, and for many, that will come to pass. Peace and Love.

  23. Ernest says:;header-sec

    The human brain is not optimized to deal with long term slow moving pervasive threats such as climate change. It is biased towards the status quo and preconceptions.

  24. Dave says:

    I believe the reason many people still do not accept the global warming idea is the old “cry wolf” deal. We have been lied too and manipulated so many times by government and authority that it’s a knee jerk reaction to doubt them. The lack of trust in the government for the past 40 years is going to get us all in big trouble.