A Tale of Two Froggies

Canadian Journal of Philosophy 31 (Supplement):105-115 (2001)
There once was an ugly duckling. Except he wasn’t a duckling at all, and once he realized his error he lived happily ever after. And there you have an early primer from the animal literature on the issue of misrepresentation -- perhaps one of the few on this topic to have a happy ending. Philosophers interested in misrepresentation have turned their attention to a different fairy tale animal: the frog. No one gets kissed in this story and the controversial issue of self-recognition is avoided. There are simply some scientifically established facts about ways to get a frog to stick out its tongue. (Who would want to kiss a frog under those conditions, anyway?) Some frogs, it seems, are fairly indiscriminate about sticking out their tongues. Not just flies, but a whole slew of other things will go down the hatch if propelled at just the right velocity and range through a frog’s visual field, provoking a tongue-flicking response. Fortunately for us all, frogs seem to be a bit more discriminating about whom they will kiss. At first sight, the frog’s tongue-flicking response seems like an ideal starting point for those who wish to promote evolutionary or "teleological" theories of intentional content. The signals passed from the frog’s retina to the frog’s brain were undoubtedly honed by the deaths of untold millions of insects snagged by countless generations of amphibians. Those amphibian ancestors whose eyes generated signals that were more 1 reliable guides to the location of food in the environment did better at propagating their genes, all other things being equal, than their cohorts whose eye to brain signals were less reliable. The teleosemanticist identifies the content of frogs’ intracranial signals in terms of the environmental conditions that historically corresponded to successful tongue-flicking, namely the presence of frog food -- typically flies -- in tongue-flicking range. And their descendants live happily ever after. But this would not be a fairy tale unless there were something to pose a credible threat to this happy ending..
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