A chassis, really?

If one accepts what has been developed in our two firsts parts, we believe that he must already be convinced that chassis isn’t a good metaphor for referring to non/human animal such as Xenopus tropicalis. However it is important to insist on this part of our development we expect to do two separate things. Insist that the chassis metaphor isn’t an adequate term to refer to animals (and certainly living beings, but this goes beyond our project) from both epistemological and ethical point of view; and present an original work recalling the service done by frogs to science, as a special acknowledgment of our collaborator Xenopus.

Metaphors aren't innocent

We have to take keep in mind that there is a performative dimension of language, the words we use influence the ways we act, they tend to open some dimensions of our practice and close others. Cows, pigs and chickens do not require the same treatment than meat factories. It doesn’t deploy the same universe, the same images. And publicity understood the importance of the representation we have concerning what eat and do not eat. The awareness campaign campaigns showing animals mistreated emphasize on what is behind the cow you eat: the construction and demolition of meat factories. We can find many example through history in which reality is transformed by language in order to allow practices that couldn’t be done before. Richard Lewontin, insists on the limit of some metaphors that limit the possibilities opened to research.

In The Triple Helix (1998) the geneticist of development Richard Lewontin explains how different metaphors describing the development (word which is already a metaphor) of an organism influenced the ways we understood embryogenesis and the interaction between the organism and its environment across the XXth century bringing molecular biology to the dream that “decoding” the genome will be the key giving us the full understanding of life and a way to cure most of the diseases.

“While we cannot dispense with metaphors in thinking about nature, there is a great risk of confusing the metaphor with the thing of real interest. We cease to see the world as if it were like a machine and take it to be a machine. The result is that the properties we ascribe to our object of interest and the question we ask about it reinforce the original metaphorical image and we miss the aspects of the system that do not fit the metaphorical approximation. The price of metaphor is an eternal vigilance”

During the debates many biologists suggested that metaphors were necessary to take some distance with the animal studied (or in case of slaughterhouse, the animals to cut up), however one might that this necessity doesn’t reveal the issues of habits and the loss of attention to others that it may create.

Historical praise to the frog as a martyr of science

The French historian of science Christine Blondel and physicist Bertrand Wolff wrote a historical praise to the frog on a popularization website devoted to the Ampere and the discovery of electricity.

This praise represent a kind of special attention that can developped concerning any model organism. Acknowledging the history of being is a way among others to recall our dependance on its existence, dependance requiring a special attention to its interests.

We present here a translation of their work :

The following sections are translated from Christine Blondel and Bertrand Wolff's historical praise to the frog.

" The frog is kind-hearted…

Without it, would William Harvey discovered the blood flow? The cold-blooded animals like toads or frogs have a slow heart that is easier to analyze than mammals. It is by looking at them that Harvey made his first observations. In his work Motus Cordis, he assures that the blood is expulsed by the heart to the artery and goes by through the veins. “This is how I start to wonder if there was a circulatory move of the blood”. But, Harvey died before finding out what becomes to the blood between the arteries and the veins.

The lung devoted to Science…

Once again, we have to thank the frog for solving the enigma of the blood circulation. Observing under a microscope the lung of a frog, Marcello Malpighi noticed very thin blood vessels - the capillaries - that link the small arteries to the small veins.

In 1661, he wrote :

“Things are much easier to see with the frogs (…). The microscopic observation revealed things even more prodigious (…). I clearly saw that the blood got divided and circulated in tortuous vessels”

It is by crossing the lungs that the veins’ blood goes back to the arteries. But, to get this result, Malpighi admitted, even glorified himself:

“I have almost scarified the entire race of frogs, something that never happened before, even during the furious battle between rats and frogs described by Homer”.

… And sexual practices submit to scientists’ voyeurism.

Theories of “generation” – that is of reproduction – had aroused passionate quarrels. One of them was about fecundation: what part plays the man seed? The frog, as a very common animal, and reproducing quickly, has the merit of transparence… It reproduces by external fecundation, the eggs laid by the female are straight after recovered by the male seed.

Jan Swammerdam, Biblia naturae, Leyde, 1737-1738 [manuscript from 1679]

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In the XVII th century already, Jan Swammerdam was interested by the frog’s reproduction. With a small magnifying lens, he observed the cellular division of a fecundated frog’s egg. In 1768, Lazzaro Spallanzani dressed a male frog with a little panty made of leather, not without difficulty, because the animal tried to get rid of it!

“What assure the whole, is that I’ve putted some straps to these panties. I slipped it on the harms of the male frog, under his head, between his body and the female’s one”

The females mated with these males wearing panties freed their eggs, but these ones decayed and didn’t transform in tadpole. But, inside the panties, Spallanzani found drops of transparent liquor. He took a sample of virgin eggs in a frog’s ovary, knowing by experience that they can spontaneously develop. He damped them with the collected seed and noticed a few days after that the eggs developed as well as if they were naturally fecundated by the male.

“He just came to realize the first artificial insemination in a laboratory” wrote Jean Rostand. This series of experiences – with more than 200 frogs – allowed Spallanzani to ruin the hypothesis of fecundation at distance: the direct touch of the egg and the male seed is essential.

It has nerve, and tight!

In the middle of the XVII th century, the Dutch naturalist Jan Swammerdam explored another field of life: the transmission of the nerve impulse. A frog can keep on swimming even if one’s take away its heart, while it comes to a standstill if one’s take away its brain. The blood circulation is not necessary to move (at least for the frog). In 1568 he demonstrated, in front of the Duke of Toscane, the contraction of the frog’s muscle, separated from the frog with its nerve, under the action of a simple compression of the nerve. While there’s no more links between the nerve and the spinal cord, the contraction can be repeated at will. Opposing to the most widespread hypothesis, Swammerdam concluded of his experience that the muscle contraction can’t only be explained by the action of a fluid that flowed inside of the nerve, from the spinal cord to the muscle.

Jan Swammerdam, Biblia naturae, Leyde, 1737-1738 [manuscript from 1679]

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One of the experiences of Swammerdam on the muscle of a frog.

“If one irritates the B nerve with scissors – or with any instrument [the muscle contracts] and move the two hands that handle the tendon closer”

In one more precise version of the experiment “put the muscle in a A glass tube and pierce the tendons with two fine needle BB […] from which the tip is fixed in a piece of cork. If one’s irritates the nerve C, one can see the muscle moving the needles closer in DD; while most of the muscle becomes considerably thicker […] and blocks the tube”.

The details and conclusions of Swammerdam’s experiments are not much diffused because, renouncing to science to focus to spirituality, he burned a part of his manuscripts. What’s left will be published half a century later, but his public demonstrations and his correspondence made his works known by European scientists.

The extreme sensitivity of the frog and the facility by which one can isolate its nerves had made it a preferred subject in the study of the nervous command. In the second part of the XVIII th century, the nerves of the frog’s tights are excited by pressure, by “irritation”, by chemical action of opium or curare, or more, by the direct use of electricity.

It is “the most delicate electrometer discovered until now” (Galvani, 1786)

The new stimulant discovered by Galvani – a distant spark – caused a general astonishment and new wave of researches.

We won’t tell here the story of the adventures that took Galvani’s frogs to the Volta battery. But, we should note that Volta joined Galvani in his praise to the precious batrachians:

“I’ve chosen the frog among any other animals, because it is gifted by a very sustainable vitality and because it is very easy to prepare it”. (Letter to Cavallo, 1793)

The “galvanists” in favor of animal electricity and the “voltaists” in favor of the metallic electricity enrolled the animal in their controversy. The great traveler and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt transported in his luggage, “even riding a horse”, pliers, scalpels, and metallic patch to defend the thesis of animal electricity on local frog, always accessible in neighboring pond.

Today, animal manipulation is no more allowed in schools, and public demonstration had to be replaced by another media.

Pioneer of the wireless communication, it catches electromagnetic waves!

The frog’s career in electricity didn’t end in 1800. After the announcement of the existence of electromagnetic waves by Heinrich Hertz at the end of the 1880’s, many scientists and inventors looked for diverse detector of these mysterious waves. Thus, in 1912, Lefeuvre, professor in physiology at the University of Rennes, realized a “physiological detector”, capable to detect waves of telegraphic wireless emitted in Paris. Before being able to diffuse speech and music, the Hertzian waves transmitted Morse code telegraphic signals. The core of Lefeuvre’s apparatus is nothing else than a frog, which tight contracts at the signal reception! One dash: an extended contraction, on dot: a brief contraction.

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Pr. Lefeuvre "physiological sensor"

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J.A. Fleming, Principles of electric wave telegraphy and telephony, Longmans, 1916.

In its bowl, it predicts weather

The popular wisdom in weather prevision uses many of sayings that refer to the frog:

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“If the weather is nice, the frog croaks on the banks of its ponds”; in the vase, it digs, if the bad weather is coming”.

“Frogs that croak at day, rain in the three days”

“When frogs sing at night, in the morning, the sun shines"

In the 70’s, on the French radio Europe 1, the famous hoarse-voiced meteorologist Albert Simon awarded the quality of his prevision to his frog which, in its bowl, went down or up its ladder in accordance with the variation of the barometer.

A “privileged fragment of the living world”

Let’s go back to life science. The study of the parthenogenesis - that is the reproduction without male - by the biologist and popularizer Jean Rostand was also done with frogs. By inflicting an appropriate trauma on a non-fecundated egg, one can obtain the cellular division of this egg. Thousands of toads, frogs and tadpoles were submitted to these experiments:

“We can study all the problems on frogs. People think that frog is a small subject but it isn’t. All biology is in a frog. We can study cells, sperm, eggs, parthenogenesis, etc. Lastly, even the mutation and the heredity. We can study everything on a frog”, it constitutes a “privileged fragment of the living world”.

A new form of reproduction without male, the cloning, was realized for the first time in 1962 on a frog, before the ewe Dolly, by the introduction of the nucleus of an intestinal cell in a nucleus-free egg.

We can let George Canghilem, philosopher and historian of life science, conclude that:

“The frog was, so to speak, a good girl for physiologist; they used it a lot and it was very useful to them”.

We can add that if the frog finds a good place here, it’s because it was also a good girl for “electricians”. "


  1. Christine Blondel, Bertrand Wolff, historical praise to the frog.
  2. Austin, J.L. 1962, How to Do Things with Words Oxford, Clarendon Press