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No, Humans Are Not Like ‘Slowly Boiling Frogs’

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

It’s as hard to kill the boiling frog metaphor as it is to kill an actual boiling frog.

Even though people keep saying that the slow human response to climate change makes us “like the proverbial frog in boiling water” — or that “the Universal Windows Platform is like Facebook and a boiling frog” — the metaphor/simile is not merely a cliché. It isn’t even accurate.

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 an intact frog attempted to escape the water when it reached 25 °C.” 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 holds the world’s record for boiling frog posts, still posts regular updates, like his 2015 piece, “The Boiled-Frog Watch Returns.” Fallows posts this excerpt from the 1888 publication, Studies from the Biological Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University:

Fallows argues that while the “metaphor is flat wrong,” that is just a “minor problem. The major problem is that it is such a damned cliché.” He links to this 2013 essay, “Can we please throw the boiling frog metaphor into some boiling water?”

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So now you can decide to drop the cliché because it isn’t accurate or because it is a cliché. If you insist upon using it, then satire and humor may be your best bet.

For instance, Gary Swing “has filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission to run for U.S. Senate in Colorado as a member of the Boiling Frog Party.” And Swing is upfront about the fact that “It’s not a true story.” A former Green Party candidate, Swing is doing this as “absurdist electoral politics.” His Boiling Frog Party Facebook page is here.

Another option if you want to keep using the metaphor is to modify it….

We are the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens. As I’ve said before, since we are the only species that gets to name all the species, we can call ourselves “wise” twice.

But given how we have been destroying the planet’s livability — despite repeated warnings by scientists — we should probably drop one of the “sapiens” and provisionally put the other one in quotes. We would then be Homo “sapiens” sapiens — at least until we see whether we are smart enough to save ourselves from ourselves.

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If humans destroy a livable climate — which means “severe, pervasive and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems” lasting many centuries accompanied by a “breakdown of food systems” and more violent conflict — and are renamed just plain Homo, then in fact we will have demonstrated we are dumber than frogs.

At that point, we will be brainless frogs.

CREDIT: Tom Toles (reprinted from theWashington Postwith permission)
CREDIT: Tom Toles (reprinted from theWashington Postwith permission)