Guest-post wisdom on frogs

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While I have been out of action, a technology-world friend named Michael Jones has generously added to the world's store of knowledge on the Frog Question. He has the floor:

SLOWLY-BOILED FROGS (guest blog post by Michael Jones)
 
180px-Goltz.jpgGerman physiologist Friedrich Leopold Goltz [left, Wikipedia image] published his studies of decerebrated frogs in Beitrage zur Lehre von den Functionen der Nervencentren des Frosches. (Berlin: August Hirschwald, 1869.) There, 140 years ago, he begat the familiar story of the slowly-boiled frog. The key element of this scientific discovery, lost across the years in the story's retelling, is that the frogs must first have their brains removed.

Goltz work inspired George Henry Lewes--actor, philosopher, friend of Dickens, bigamous partner of Marian Evans (George Eliot) and of note, literary critic--to extend the slowly-boiled brainless frog oeuvre by slowly-boiling frogs with partial brains or with their spinal cords severed at various locations. Lewes published his findings four years and many frogs later as Sensation in the Spinal Cord in Nature, Dec. 4, 1873. He summarized the story this way:


"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."
Countless slow-boilings of partially dismembered frogs by Goltz, Lewes, and numerous others conclusively show the following truths: first, that even a brainless and spineless frog will recoil from hot water; and second, while healthy frogs will jump out of water when the temperature slowly gets too hot, brainless or spineless ones will not. The general sense of the slowly-boiled frog metaphor thus echoes scientific fact, even with its factual basis--elision of the frog's brain--itself elided through time and retelling.

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This reconnection with our scientific past must reshape the Fallows crusade against the frog story and its abusers. The story as told remains untrue, so intolerance of it remains well founded. But, with its basis in science and human nature, and with so many tombstones in the boiled frog cemetery, it would be a shame to abandon it completely. I suggest that James Fallows follow the lead of his critical predecessor George Lewes by verbally removing the brain from the frog. That is, when those like Nobel winner Paul Krugman or United States President Barack Obama tell the slowly-boiled frog story inaccurately, Jim should write, "yes, if you mean a brainless frog!" With vigilance, that may become the equally well-known punch-line of the slowly-boiled frog story.

[This is your regular host JF speaking again. The passage above has been slightly updated -- first time around I didn't include some edits Michael Jones had made. Even without knowing the part about decerebration -- a term that can be at least as useful in taking about politics as "boiled frog" is now -- I had been willing to declare peace and victory in this matter. But Jones' account offers a reality-based way of resolving the issue, while setting a high standard for guest posts in the future. Or owner-posts, for that matter.]

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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