Monday, April 18, 2016

A tale of two frogs

There is a well-known parable about frogs in boiling water: if you throw a frog into boiling water it jumps out immediately, but, according to the tale, if you put a frog in cold water and then heat the water slowly, you will have frog soup long before the frog figures it out. The slow ascendance of civilization over the course of millennia has put us in the position of the second frog. By the time it is possible to recognize what is happening, it is far too late. In addition, civilization erases all memory of anything outside itself; we are frogs in hot water who have forgotten what life was like before we were thrown into the kettle. For those born within civilization’s penumbra, civilization appears as the primordial clay out of which life is formed, it is the benevolent source of all personal meaning. All overt traces of what came before, the rich authentic human life-ways that have been destroyed in the civilizing process, have been lost to conscious memory and reside only as wispy shades of latent genetic potential and a pervasive sense of unease.

Historically, the dissolution of human authenticity occurred in two interpenetrating and overlapping waves. The first came with the slow transition to agriculture, a merging of social technology with lifestyles based on cultivated grain. The second came with the pestilent outbreak of cities, malignant concentrations of social power entirely dependent on resources obtainable only through ever-expanding growth and conquest. But history is just a story of the past; it cannot be the cause of future change. Securing the future requires access to the minds of children, and so history is made to repeat itself on a micro scale, as civilization tames and colonizes the emerging psychology of each developing child. By the time the water feels hot, all that is wild and human in us has already been blanched into a pale and helpless facsimile.

Language itself is in some sense the enemy here. Our ability to think symbolically and our penchant for carving the world into abstractions obscure the reality of our situation beneath an overabundance of easy rationalization. The truth of our circumstances should be obvious, but the truth is masked behind unanalyzable assumptions. Even if we suspect that we are sitting in boiling water, it is unlikely that we will correctly identify the source of the heat. And our capacity to rationalize—coached and trained and elevated to a fine art through formal education—makes the potential for misidentification extremely high.

There is another far more obscure frog story that might be applied as allegory to our failure to recognize what should be obvious. It is a story about a scientist who trained a frog to jump in response to a shouted command, cut off the frog’s legs one at a time, and upon discovering that the distance the frog jumped became progressively shorter with each additional leg removed, concluded that cutting off a frog’s legs makes it deaf.

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