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Sometimes We Save Each Other

Tuesday, January 01, 2013 - 11:00 AM

A spider on a frog on a tortoise (Darren Hoyt)

Good morning, friendos! To mark the occasion of the New Year, I wanted to tell you the story of the Spider on a Frog on a Tortoise.

This is a real photo snapped by my friend Darren (Darren Hoyt, web designer extraordinaire). A few years ago, he discovered this unlikely stack of animals trapped in the filter well of a swimming pool. It was late summer and it had been raining all week.

Darren explains that after a heavy rain, you have to check the filters because dead critters (frogs, bugs, etc) tend to get trapped inside. It's just how it goes. Rainfall = dead critters. So it was with morbid curiosity that Darren approached the pool that day. But instead of a grim clean-up job, Darren writes: "we found something else -- a turtle, exhausted and barely able to stay afloat any longer, supporting a frog on its back while a spider clung to the frog’s head to avoid drowning. We guessed it had been 3 days since the storms hit, when the filters were last emptied. Somehow the three had survived in 8″ of water, one of top of the other like ice cream scoops."

I offer this story as a way to start the New Year -- because it hints at the idea that maybe we're not as selfish in our nature as we are always told we are. 

Did the tortoise rock the heavy frog cargo from his back? No. Did the frog eat the spider? No. (Maybe that kind of frog doesn't eat that kind of spider. The spider expert I contacted couldn't verify the species from the photo, but...) Did the spider attack the frog out of fear, biting its slimy steed in desperation or in hopes of a meal? No, it did not. All anybody did was cling to each other. Darren says that "Even after their rescue, they were reluctant to part ways. Finally, the spider disappeared into the grass and the frog hopped in the other direction."

So make of it what you will. But I'm making it my symbol of 2013. A little talisman, Tortoise - Frog - Spider, to carry around as we start anew this year. To remind us that we've got it in us to be good. That sometimes we save each other.

Is this naive meaning-making -- blinders toward the tortoise -- in the midst of the dizzy flurry of war, violence, and greed that splatters our newspapers?

Maybe. But I'll leave you with this steamroller of an essay by Benjamin Anastas that raises an interesting question about where selfishness comes from. I'll let you experience the joy of reading it (it's short, punchy, and pulls a fist full of tears from your spleen through your eyelids with its last line) but there's one particularly relevant part for my  Tortoise - Frog - Spider outlook. Instead of heading to biology or evolutionary psychology for examples of potential altruism, Anastas looks to Ralph Waldo Emerson -- looks to him as the guy who, in America anyway, propagated the idea that we are selfish to our core and we best not fight it. In a talk at the Masonic Temple of Boston in 1838, Emerson first introduced the idea of “Self-Reliance” to the American consciousness. And in so doing, Emerson packaged selfishness as a moral and admirable trait. He condoned it. Embraced it. Imbued it with divinity. Self-Reliance was the thing that would get you ahead in the world. It belonged to the brave. The uncompromising. It became a virtue.

But Self-Reliance, Anastas argues, is the problem. He calls it a "spell" -- cast over the American people, and urges us to consider that it might not be a universal to "love ourselves before any other."

Whether or not we are truly inherently selfish in our nature, I like to imagine that there was a time when we didn’t admire and accept it as so. And it's interesting to note that Emerson preceded Darwin by about 20 years. So perhaps by the time Darwin's theory of evolution came on the scene, an already rampant ideology ("selfishness rules!") was happy to see itself in this new theory (survival of the fittest, every man for himself), and point to selfishness as an infallible, deeply scientific truth.

Maybe, MAYBE, the idea that selfishness is simply "the way we are" is just that, an idea. An ideology, even. A chant we tell ourselves to excuse and perpetuate behavior. Maybe it's just as natural for us to be generous. Maybe the frog on a tortoise with a spider on its head is not an outlier, but proof, dripping in chlorine, of our quite natural tendency to help one another out. It's so deep in us, in fact, it goes back way back... past our reptilian brain, to the amphibian, and even arthropodan one.

So gribbit gribbit friends, and whatever sound a turtle makes and whatever sound a spider makes. Happy Lucky 13, may it be full of triple-scooped offerings of generosity.

Look! This lady got a tattoo of spider on a frog on a turtle.

Look! Darren's complete account of his discovery.

Look! Sometimes people don't suck.


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Comments [17]

Gregory McIsaac

I liked the story of the turtle, frog spider. The reference to Ben Anastas' article on Emerson was too much of a distraction. I read Anastas article, and it seemed to be referring to a different Emerson than I rememeber, and then I recalled a discussion of Emerson and Anastas' article on "On Point" with Tom Ashbrook:

From that, it seems Emerson's words are best understood in the context of their time, and untangling that distracted from the central message of the blog post. In American history there are many examples of rugged individuals and cooperative groups making significant contributions. Thanks to both in their times and places. The writer(s) of the Book of Ecclesiastes observe that "There is a season for everything, and a time for every event under heaven."

Jan. 29 2013 12:03 AM
David from Shenandoah Valley, Virginia

When I first saw that picture in a newspaper (probably about 5 years ago) I printed a color version from the net, and posted it in my office--I'm a mental health professional, and that picture has given many clients a nice opportunity to "break the ice" with their comments on the picture. I tell them that I've titled the photo "Interdependency" and then we'll discuss how all people are interdependent in society. This then provides a way to settle in on how I can help clients with their various issues and draw on their strengths to help others (which is very therapeutic in itself).

Jan. 28 2013 12:16 PM

As an Asian myself. I just have to say, don't you speak for me, 18MR.

Jan. 06 2013 09:19 AM

a really nice germ, i think if i'd come across such a grouping that so strongly reminds of the bremen town musicians [a rooster on top of a cat on top of a dog on top of a donkey] i'd offer my own back and see where that leads...

one point, though. lulu described the idea of praiseworthy selfishness back then as finding its expression in Darwinian evolutionary theory, going on to say, 'survival of the fittest, every man for himself', which implies that those 2 half sentences relate to one another.
once and for all, that is NOT what 'survival of the fittest' means.
'every man for himself' as used to attempt a variation is as ill-fitted as the common place misconception of 'survival of the strongest.' language used in science has to be precise, and is, and where it's not, people will be working on it.
'fit' is a fit word, as what is described is the means for adaptation being advantageous as compared to others - what works out better for the homes of genes better adapting by certain means as opposed to others will eventually be of effect on the species.
what advantageous means depends entirely on - a lot. given specific circumstances altruism can very well be a means to the more advantageous end, both for the individual and, in the longer run, species. which means that 'survival of the fitter' would in such a case describe a scenario including altruism.
anyway, awesome story and photo, thanks for it :)

Jan. 05 2013 04:30 AM
Ignacio from Los Angeles

You now, I thought about it and it occurred that this piece about the tortoise, frog and spiders says something about our culture the authors did not intend. Yes, the narrative is sweet, warm and fuzzy, but is that the real lesson nature is showing us in this episode?

This piece takes what is objectively a Hobbesian moment, and anthropomorphizes it to serve as a metaphor intended to bolster a notion diametrically opposed to what the tortoise, frog and spider were actually doing.

"I offer this story as a way to start the New Year -- because it hints at the idea that maybe we're not as selfish in our nature as we are always told we are," says the narrator. However, the facts tell the opposite story: the spider felt no regard for the frog and climbed as high as it could; the frog felt no regard for the tortoise and climbed as high as it could. The tortoise, frog and spider were engage in nothing other than their lonely struggle for survival - nature red in tooth and claw. Even in symbiosis, the "cooperation" exists because of competition, not in spite of it.

However, that lesson doesn't fit the zeitgeist of the audience the authors are targeting - the NPR crowd. Therefore, we invent an interpretation of nature - even invent "facts" - that legitimizes the narrative being proffered.

Now, if some day we find a tortoise on the back of a frog who in turn is on the back of a spider, who is saving both from drowning, then you got a story.

Jan. 05 2013 04:26 AM

I like the photo of the tortoise, frog and spider saving each other. Truly amazing. However, Ralph Waldo Emerson's idea of "self-reliance" had nothing to do with selfishness. Emerson was a leading proponent of the Transcendentalists who were communitarians. They believed in community and cooperation. They created a real community called Brook Farm in Massachusetts. Emerson's idea of self reliance was that each individual should have self-reliant skills and each person could think for themselves, like Thoreau. However, each person came together to support their greater community. This is the opposite of selfishness. Each person brought more to the community by developing their own skills and self-awareness of their role to contribute to the whole.

Also, Martin Luther King and Gandhi followed the Transcendentalists in regard to non-violence and moral self-reliant thought and action. People who advocated civil rights would not have acted if they hadn't developed independent thought to stand up for justice and for human rights. This is the type of "self-reliance" Emerson wanted each person to develop. It is more of a critical thinking ability to be able to not be swayed by group think - especially if the group is misguided and needs reform. I would say now that Congress needs to have more people willing to stand up for the common good as opposed for their selfish views.

Jan. 05 2013 02:22 AM
Katherine from Charlottesville, VA

My dad and brother-in-law found a similar situation in our pool skimmer in TN (last summer?), but it was topped off with a lady bug rather than a spider:

Pretty cool -- like those childhood fables come to life!

Jan. 04 2013 04:38 PM
Yellow rain from Texas

Maybe RadioLab can learn from the animals' example and not be dicks towards Hmong interviewees?

Radiolab’s conduct during its September 24th Yellow Rain segment, in addition to violating NPR’s code of ethics, demonstrated a complete lack of racial, ethnic and cultural sensitivity.

In its podcast, Radiolab’s persistent repudiation and dismissal of the personal accounts of Eng Yang, Hmong refugee, genocide survivor, and official documenter for the Thai government -- and his niece, award-winning author and activist Kao Kalia Yang -- provoked an outcry among its listeners. Radiolab’s ongoing culturally insensitive handling of the issue has since been criticized in several places; The Good Men Project, Hyphen Magazine and Minnesota Public Radio, to name a few.

Jan. 04 2013 12:04 AM
Christina from Charlottesville, VA

Awesome story Lulu! Sounds like your year is off to a great start. Hope to see more of you in 2013.

Peace girl.

Jan. 03 2013 09:02 PM
Curtis Prince from Charlottesville, Va.

Lulu! Super Cool! I dig this story first of all, but mostly, it's really cool to have found it's your Blog. So to make things even more interesting, my Sister is who actually posted it on FB, totally randomly, not knowing we know each other. Wishing all is well. Peace Sister.

Jan. 03 2013 08:24 PM
Bruch Reed from New York

The story is lovely but I am left wondering why the pool cannot be made safer for the wildlife? Especially a box turtle, a frog... there's no reason why "dead critters" should be accepted as inevitable. Build a hardware cloth cage for the filter, someone. Or a fence around the pool.

Also, that's a Wolf Spider an American Toad and a Eastern Box Turtle.

Jan. 03 2013 06:38 PM
Scotti from Milwaukee, WI

First you gave us the nonchalant cow. Now the tortoise frog spider?!But when, oh when, will Radiolab give us this:

(spoiler alert: it's the breakfast version of tortoise frog spider)

Jan. 03 2013 05:05 PM
Mary Saunders from OR

Lynn Margulis stood up to defend cooperation and synergy at Cambridge among stuffy guys. The video is sooooo good. This picture reminds me of it. She shows spirochetes teaming up to become motility for a round bacterium. Cooperation and getting along are also everywhere, if that is what we are looking for.

Jan. 03 2013 05:02 PM
Nina from Tallahassee, FL

My take: The turtle couldn't shake the frog. The frog was saving the spider for a meal later. The spider needed the frog's height to stay above the water.

I like your take on it though. ;)

Jan. 03 2013 03:21 PM
Feral Boy from St. Louis

My wife and I moved to St. Louis eleven years ago. The two of us lived in a small house which was a part of my father's estate. We had 2 dogs and 3 cats, and the cats did not care for each other at all. While we were there we lost power for a few days during a cold snap. That morning all THREE of the cats were curled up together on the bed with us, under the blankets. And they tolerated each other much better after that.

Jan. 03 2013 02:17 PM
Joshua from Asheville, NC

Thanks for this "good morning" (and way to go for resisting the urge to display the fabulous "Frog and the Scorpion"). I gotta say, your essay is much better than the Anastas essay... but neither compares to the ridiculous Emerson original. Emerson gives himself away near the end, "[...] a rise of rents[...]and you think good days are preparing for you". Well, we know which side of the tenant/landlord line he was striding. : )

Jan. 03 2013 02:02 PM
Karen Marshall

Thank you Lulu for a very inspiring story I came upon thanks to a friend's post on Facebook. I will carry it with me as a talisman in 2013 and beyond. Peace and Love.

Jan. 03 2013 09:17 AM

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