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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.

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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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