Turns out humans are not like slowly boiling frogs … we are like slowly boiling brainless frogs learned something new or, rather, old from reading Fallows’ blog.  The famous metaphor* — “the fatally slow human response to climate change makes us like a slowly boiling frog” — is not quite right.  As Wikipedia puts it, German physiologist Friedrich Goltz “demonstrated that frogs will indeed remain in slowly heated water, but only if their brain is removed.”

James Fallows, who may hold 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.

* [Yes, I know this is technically a simile.]

7 Responses to Turns out humans are not like slowly boiling frogs … we are like slowly boiling brainless frogs

  1. paulm says:

    They are all sorts of frogs.

    The Bush administration will go down in history right up there with the worst of the worst who have committed crimes against humanity.

    Revealed: the secret evidence of global warming Bush tried to hide

    Photos from US spy satellites declassified by the Obama White House provide the first graphic images of how the polar ice sheets are retreating in the summer. The effects on the world’s weather, environments and wildlife could be devastating

    The pictures, kept secret by Washington during the presidency of George W Bush, were declassified by the White House last week.


  2. Steve Bloom says:

    Hey Joe, this current Toles is even more pithy (h/t A Change in the Wind).

    [JR: Thanks!]

  3. Eddie says:

    The real question is: Wouldn’t a brainless frog just refuse to move no matter what was happening? Because it’s, you know, brainless.

  4. Patrick says:

    At first I laughed. And then I thought about it. And it no longer seemed so funny.

  5. Steve Bloom says:

    Eddie, brainless (“pithed”) frogs retain a lot of reflexes.

  6. Gail says:

    Steve, it’s like the expression “running around like a chicken with its head chopped off.” They really do.

    Much of everything you need to know about human behavior can be extrapolated from observing poultry.