Guest-post wisdom on frogs

By James Fallows

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.]

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2009/07/guest-post-wisdom-on-frogs/21789/