Wherein I Learn a Thing or Two About Lemmings…

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One of my favorite things about blogging is the way we learn from one another.

This story began, I thought, with a bit of political humor.

A high point of President Biden’s state of the union address was his masterful orchestration of the angry Republicans’ raucous denials that they’d mess with Social Security and Medicare.

(Hint: doing just that has been a goal among Republicans for decades, and several of them acknowledged it pre-election.)

Despite the shouts of “liar” and who-knows-what-else, the President deftly and cheerily channeled the disloyal opposition’s denials into apparent unanimous support for Social Security and Medicare and a standing ovation in behalf of senior citizens. (We’ll see how long that lasts…)

A witty USA Today writer, Rex Huppke, described Biden’s actions this way:

“President Joe Biden, at the ripe age of 80, came out with ample vim and vigor in Tuesday night’s State of the Union address and proceeded to mop the House floor with the howling, discombobulated remains of the Republican Party.

“Preaching populism and leaning hard on his noted skill as the empathizer-in-chief, Biden bounded through a speech that acknowledged the nation’s struggles while remaining unerringly optimistic. He went off script regularly, parrying Republican lawmakers who heckled him, at one point backing the whole party into a corner and getting them to swear to protect Medicare and Social Security benefits.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in a State of the Union speech – they ran at him like a pack of lemmings and, with a wink and a grin, he politely directed them to the cliff.

I thought that final paragraph was really clever, and I appended it to a comment I made on a fine blog post that Jill Dennison had written about the President’s performance and the looming-too-soon 2024 campaign.

That’s when my consciousness was raised. Fellow blogger rawgod responded to my comment, in part:

“It is just so disappointing to me that this malicious trope is still being used today. Lemmings do not jump off cliffs. That was a stupid lie promulgated for some unfathomable purpose by Walt Disney in the early 50s, and that is still being propagated today!”

Well, that bit of information was troubling. And when I checked the Encyclopedia Britannica for details, I learned that rawgod was essentially right. Though the lemmings suicide myth predated Disney, the filmmakers’ imagery endures. Worse yet, it involved animal cruelty that we wouldn’t tolerate today.

“Lemmings do not commit suicide. However, this particular myth is based on some actual lemming behaviors. Lemmings have large population booms every three or four years. When the concentration of lemmings becomes too high in one area, a large group will set out in search of a new home. Lemmings can swim, so if they reach a water obstacle, such as a river or lake, they may try to cross it. Inevitably, a few individuals drown. But it’s hardly suicide.

“So why is the myth of mass lemming suicide so widely believed? For one, it provides an irresistible metaphor for human behavior. Someone who blindly follows a crowd—maybe even toward catastrophe—is called a lemming. Over the past century, the myth has been invoked to express modern anxieties about how individuality could be submerged and destroyed by mass phenomena, such as political movements or consumer culture.

“But the biggest reason the myth endures? Deliberate fraud. For the 1958 Disney nature film White Wilderness, filmmakers eager for dramatic footage staged a lemming death plunge, pushing dozens of lemmings off a cliff while cameras were rolling. The images—shocking at the time for what they seemed to show about the cruelty of nature and shocking now for what they actually show about the cruelty of humans—convinced several generations of moviegoers that these little rodents do, in fact, possess a bizarre instinct to destroy themselves.”

I thank rawgod for taking me to task and setting me straight about lemmings. Some may regard rawgod’s gentle scolding—and my reaction here—as “woke.” So be it! He was correcting misinformation and expressing concern for fellow inhabitants on our diverse planet. I’m happy for the enlightenment.

When I reread that paragraph above about the lemmings myth providing “an irresistible metaphor for human behavior,” I saw a sad irony in relation to the Insurrectionist Caucus, who unfortunately now have power far beyond their numbers in the People’s House.

If we are serious about the oath that members of Congress must take in support of the Constitution of the United States, their numbers should be zero.

Does anyone care to offer a more accurate substitute for lemmings to describe these characters and their bizarre and destructive behavior?


57 thoughts on “Wherein I Learn a Thing or Two About Lemmings…

    1. I appreciate your comment, Neil. I don’t think the writer’s comment was a deliberate slap at lemmings. As I noted, I enjoyed his wit. But having learned about the persistent myth, I felt obligated to correct the misinformation.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I heard many times that wind turbines kill birds in significant numbers and came to believe it. I now understand that the number is a tiny fraction of other causes of death. Such myths are common, I think.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Interesting analogy, William. Though wind turbines are less significant than other causes of bird deaths, such as cats and window collisions, the American Bird Conservancy noted the damage will grow as the number of wind turbines increases. They offer a plan to protect birds while furthering climate change. https://abcbirds.org/program/wind-energy-and-birds/bird-smart-strategies/

      But I’m sure you’re right about myths. Certainly conspiracies are gaining credence these days.


  2. Thanks for the post, Annie. In the film while it look like lemmings were going off a cliff really they were jumping off a moving turntable, and then picked up and put back on the turntable so what looked like thousands were less than 100. But the whole point is, humans use the “lemming” trope all too often while knowing nothing about lemmings. It is the whole trope in reverse. People will believe almost anything they hear if it sounds good, no matter what the truth is. Fortunately for lemmings, they can never be called humans, even in jest!

    An animal that did run off a cliff to its own death, with help from humans of course, was the buffalo. Back in prehistoric times buffalo ran in packs of millions, moving across the prairies in gigantic swarms, blindly following the leader, who was responsible for the whole herd. (No idea how they selected leaders, the aplha male probably,) BUT ealy humans took advanrage of the buffalo’s poor eyesight, and would turn part of a pack of stampeding buffalo herd in a preset direction, urging them to go on as fast as they could run. What the buffalo did not know, and could not see till the last second, was that the humans were directing them towards a cliff, and they were falling to their deaths before they knew it. Once the herd was all over the cliff the people at the bottom slaughtered any who were still alive but broken, and in this way got their food and clothing for the coming winter. The cluffs the buffalo were directed to became known as buffalo jumps. Only, the buffalo were not jumping, they were falling, with no way to warn those behind them of what was happening.
    This hunting method was ingenius for its time, but it was still animal cruelty personified. The bones of the first buffalo to fall were crushed by the buffalo falling on top of them. They had no time to suffer. But the ones who were to the back of the pack probably broke legs and ribs and such, and likely suffered greatly till the humans put them out of their misery.

    I am not saying we should replace the word lemming with buffalo, though doing so would be more accurate. I really just wish people would stop using noble, and often cute animal names to describe humans and their actions. We are all “pigs” for doing so!


    Liked by 5 people

    1. Thanks, rawgod. I didn’t know that buffalo story either. Sounds horrific, as do methods of modern animal “processing.” I’m hoping that as the findings of animal behaviorists become more sophisticated and well known, our relationships with animals will change accordingly.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That is my hope, but unless I go against my ancestral DNA I have about 10 goods years left at the most!, so I won’t live to see the change. I have already outlived my parents, their parents, and half my male siblings.
        One of my mottos is “Animals are people too!” The way humans treat them is unforgivable.

        Liked by 2 people

  3. Annie, you are to be commended for having the humility to admit you needed to be set straight about the facts — just like Trump would do if he ever engaged in misinformation. The world would be in a much better place if only everyone would follow your and his example….well, maybe not a BETTER place, but at least a place like America (the land of the free and the home of the knave).

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Good grief, mm! In my last post, I lamented the very linkage of Joe Biden’s name with Donald trump’s in the same sentence. And here you are, linking mine—even in jest! Eewww…

      But Jack the Brave will snag the knave. The susPence is building.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. Does anyone care to offer a more accurate substitute for lemmings to describe these characters and their bizarre and destructive behavior?

    There is a phenomenon which happens with ants which is vaguely analogous. Ants commonly follow chemical trails laid down by other ants of their own colony. When a whole colony of ants is migrating, this helps them all stay together, since ants don’t have minds (as far as we know) and can’t use abstract rational thinking to guide their behavior. However, it sometimes happens that the ants in the front of the migration will get turned around and stumble across the chemical trail left behind by the ants in the rear, which they then follow, which results in the entire colony going round and round in a circle until they die of starvation. I’ve seen video of this. It could serve as an analogy for the wingnut pattern of getting locked into a cycle of pointless self-destructive behavior until they ultimately starve themselves of votes (or so we hope).

    Unfortunately, it’s not a very useful metaphor since this behavior in ants is not well know among humans (as the fictitious suicidal behavior of lemmings is, despite being untrue). I suppose another possibility is the way moths sometimes fly into candle flames and kill themselves because the light from the flame “tricks” the visual system moths normally use for navigation. Perhaps the flame could be a stand-in for Trump, or for extremism — something that triggers the normal instincts of politicians but misleads them in a self-destructive direction? The metaphor quickly becomes strained.

    In reality, natural selection being what it is, self-destructive behavior is just not very common in animals. A better option might be literature. Captain Ahab comes to mind — a man of brilliant leadership skills but questionable sanity, whose crew came to view him as an almost godlike figure, but whose obsession ultimately led not only to his own destruction, but to that of all who followed him.

    But I don’t know how many people would get it. How many people still read serious novels? I doubt that most modern political extremists read them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I like both the ant and moth metaphors, Infidel. The ant story is fascinating.

      As for Captain Ahab, I think many of us are hoping that Jack Smith is far more successful in his obsessive pursuit of the great white whale. And the word is that he gets along quite well with those who work for him.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. The origin story of a saying like “lemmings following other lemmings over a cliff” is always interesting. It is, according to some, factually inaccurate. But that does not really matter. The saying has come to represent the blind following the blind by people. That is the popular usage and so it is useful . Same thing with the Buffalo herds driven to their deaths by Native American groups. A useful metaphor, for sure.
    If we really want to use examples to explain human behavior, we need to strike closer to home. Our closest primate relative, the common Chimpanzee, fills the bill. Observed in the “wild” by Jane Goodall and those who followed her, a grim picture of the political structure of chimpanzee groups emerged.
    To simplify. A few male chimps run the group. Like mobsters. In that group, one chimp is dominant, but not totally dominant. He needs the others to carry out his violent will.And those below him are waiting for an opportunity to “take him down” to become the top chimp. These male groups find isolated chimps from other groups, ambush them, and beat them to death. Sometimes these murdered chimps are former members of the group who have split off.
    To me, this ruthlessness of a few in power is stronger than a metaphor of human behavior. It is more likely genetically determined. Part of our heritage?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I don’t believe people normally feel a need to beat others to death. Perhaps fear is a trigger, in which case politicians promoting fear–“socialists will take your guns, take your gas stove, take your gasoline powered car, steal the next election”–will provoke violence.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Joseph, back in August, you and I had a discussion about the substance of my post “Sex and Gender: Diversity in Chimps, Bonobos, and Us.” Franz de Waal posits that we could well be descended from both the chimps and the bonobos—the latter a far more peaceful group.

      So perhaps this American polarization among those who seem bent on violence and cruelty and forcing their will on others—vs those who embrace diversity and acceptance and “live and let live”—is somehow related to these two possibly diverging strains in our evolutionary development.

      I’m only half joking here. What do you think?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Humans aren’t actually descended from chimpanzees — there was a common ancestor of both, a single species that split in two about six million years ago. It’s likely that the common ancestor was fairly similar to the modern chimpanzee, but we don’t have fossils of it, so we don’t know for sure.

        One branch from that split evolved into humans. The other branch, about three million years ago, split again, resulting in the two modern species chimpanzees and bonobos (north and south of the Congo river respectively). So chimpanzees and bonobos are both equally closely related to humans, like two equally distant cousins.

        We don’t have direct data about the behavior of the common ancestor, but the fact that human and chimpanzee behavior and social organization have so many obvious similarities suggests that it was more chimpanzee-like. In fact, male dominance hierarchies, and high levels of violence within and between groups, are pretty much the norm in primate species that live in large social groups. The bonobos are very much the odd species out. They’re a fascinating evolutionary deviation, but unfortunately much less relevant to the biological roots of human behavior than chimpanzees are.

        As Joseph Urban suggested above, chimpanzees would be an excellent source of metaphors for various forms of human behavior, except that most people, unless they’re specialists, aren’t aware of just how close the similarities are. Concerning wingnuts specifically, you may find my observations here to be of interest (scroll down a bit).

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I think the hydrogen bomb has brought the world to the end of war and we are witness to the transition from authoritarianism and strong leadership in times of war or collective danger, to an egalitarian political system in times of peace and safety. An individual does not evolve. The species does one individual at a time. Many evolutionary mechanisms are of the same value as knowledge of first aid, will not be needed thankfully.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Me too! They say it is always darkest before the dawn. It is very dark now. Might as well hope for the best. God or no god, without clear evidence why not go with the positive?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Annie. As Infidel pointed out, humans and chimps evolved from a common species millions of years ago. When I took my Anthropology degree in 1972 we knew very little about primate behavior and next to nothing about other human groups. Now we have ample evidence that our branch of humanity was hardly alone.
        To the best of our knowledge today we now think that there were 9 separate types of humans living on the Earth 300,000 years ago. At the same time. The experts at the Smithsonian suggest there have been at least 2 different species of humans at different times. Of course, the very concept of “species” can be difficult to clearly define and identify.
        That said, we may ask why it is that the species we call “sapiens” is the only one left? Was organized group violence the evolutionary advantage? Or sophisticated cooperation? Or both? In group cooperation and out group aggression?
        Like it or not, it seems as though organized violence is the hallmark of homo sapiens sapiens. It seems to have been the formula for success.
        Of course, what may give a species an evolutionary advantage in one era may end up being disadvantageous in another era. I suppose time will tell.

        Liked by 3 people

      5. Infidel and Joseph: Thanks to you both for this fascinating discussion of our understanding of our evolutionary past. I am aware of the common ancestor, but some of this was quite new to me.

        I’d like to go back to de Waal, a biologist and primatologist, for two matters that he discussed with Alan Alda in the podcast I listened to. Keeping in mind that he is an outlier–a critic of some primatologist theories–I found these two issues worth pondering (from my August post).

        –Alda asks about archeological evidence for war, which goes back only 12,000 years. Many kinds of animals gang up on each other in hunting, but preplanning for war by humans hadn’t been seen before that time. How does de Waal assess that finding?

        De Waal responds that the belief that human history is one of warfare and dominance—and that we are the survivors of those who wiped out everyone else—remains a popular strain in anthropology.

        But he agrees with Alda’s premise:

        “Before the agricultural revolution, before our settlements were created, we don’t have evidence for that [warfare]. So it’s highly speculative to say that we’ve always waged war.”

        It’s an assumption that isn’t backed up by strong evidence.

        “Some anthropologists into peace studies argue that based on what we know of hunter gatherers and so on, it’s unlikely we had a lot of warfare going on in earlier times.”

        –Turning to the primate world, de Waal stresses that the bonobo society is much more peaceful than the chimp society—bonobos are neither territorial nor violent.

        He thinks that’s one reason anthropologists haven’t shown much interest in bonobos: they don’t fit into the widely accepted concept of male dominance.

        He’s quite critical of anthropologists who give short shrift to bonobos, describe them as “very strange” primates, and fail to study them—despite their genetic closeness to us approximating that of chimpanzees.

        “Anthropologists don’t know what to do with an animal like that who’s a close relative of ours.”

        And, he conjectures, “maybe chimps’ behavior—territorial, killing each other—is less in line with humans than bonobos.”

        To de Waal, the sharp behavioral differences between bonobos and chimps lead to interesting comparisons. He believes bonobos are “equally relevant, and we should try to develop an evolutionary picture that includes both of them.”

        He regards this topic as one that’s important for discussion.

        I’m not trying to persuade you–just suggesting these two discussions offer different perspectives on the largely consensus views. It may be possible that if, for example, primatologists focused more on bonobos, they could shed more light on the extent to which we are connected with them.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. I’m well aware of De Waal’s views — I have some of his books — but yes, in these respects he’s an outlier among primatologists, and with good reason.

        Bonobos are a fascinating species, but they are extremely non-typical of primates generally, and it defies evolutionary logic to claim that human behavior has any special relationship to theirs. Basically, the human-chimp-bonobo common ancestor was most likely a rather typical ape species, just as modern chimps are, while humans and (much later) bonobos were offshoots from that ancestral species, created by accidents of geographical isolation (humans east of the Great Rift Valley, bonobos south of the Congo river), whose evolution went in odd directions (humans toward higher intelligence, hairlessness, and walking upright, bonobos toward female-dominated groups and reduced violence), while the chimpanzees didn’t change much and remained a typical ape species. Bonobos didn’t emerge as a distinct species until long after humans had done so, and were geographically far removed from where humans were already evolving.

        All the hunter-gatherer societies which still exist have enormously high levels of in-group and between-group violence, much higher than the violence levels in modern civilization, even when events like World War II are factored in (there is extensive documentation of this in the works of Steven Pinker). Those cultures’ levels of violence are about as high as those of chimpanzee groups. Based on things like records of numbers of murders in societies which kept count of such things, levels of violence have fallen steadily over the millennia as civilization developed. Generation by generation, humans have gradually overcome and mastered our inborn ape impulses. It’s actually quite an inspiring story.

        What I’m saying is, this is simply not a seriously debatable issue any more, just as there is no serious “debate” between flat-Earth and round-Earth views. De Waal’s studies of bonobos are invaluable, but on the history and evolution of human behavior, he’s simply wrong. We’re not bonobos, we’re chimpanzees with enlarged brains who have used our intelligence, over thousands of years, to moderate and repress our natural violent instincts. Whenever something loosens the controls a little, and humanity reverts back toward its genetic nature, the result is the Inquisition or the KKK or Auschwitz. That’s why it’s so important to maintain the strictures of civilization.

        It would be much more comforting to believe that we’re peaceful creatures by nature and that violence is unnatural to us, so that we could just relax and let it all hang out, and everything would be fine if we could just get rid of a few bad influences. But that simply isn’t true, and it’s dangerous to believe it is.

        Liked by 1 person

      7. This is a highly persuasive response, Infidel. In view of what you’ve written, I am puzzled why de Waal, a serious primatologist notwithstanding his outlier status, would hang on to the bonobos story despite their apparent distance in time and location of development compared with humans. It seems to be such an easy refutation.

        I have Pinker on my “must read” list—moving him up now.

        Liked by 1 person

      8. That, I don’t know. In every scientific field, there are a few qualified or even eminent scientists who hold eccentric views. De Waal always struck me as a bit of a crusader out to spread an ideological message, which he’s entitled to do, but which is inevitably in conflict with rigorous adherence to science. Scientists are not immune to the human urge to cling to a preferred belief even when the evidence doesn’t support it. But I do know what the consensus view of great-ape evolution is.

        Pinker should be on everybody’s must-read list. Be aware, though, that his books are pretty massive in size, due to the enormous amount of supporting evidence he includes to back up what he’s saying.

        Liked by 1 person

      9. To oversimplify. (My superpower). Are we genetically “pre-disposed” to violence? Is violence an adaptive trait?

        Humans, like any animal, have genetic potential which is limited by environmental factors. The old “nature v nurture” discussion. On an individual level a person’s genetic “possibilities” are limited or expanded depending on the society in which he lives.

        On the species level? The human species has been one of the most successful ever for two seemingly contradictory traits. Most important is the “cooperative” gene. The success of our species is dependent on complex social relationships which are accepted and enforced. Sociologists call them norms. Unwritten but largely accepted cooperative behaviors.

        On the other hand, in relations outside the self-defined group, cooperation may not be adaptive. Fear of the “other”, sometimes legitimate, is met with violence. The classic “in group” v “out group” problem. It makes sense, in terms of adaptation, for a species to protect itself from potential harm.

        Bonobos are usually peaceful. While they still survive, they do so in a very limited range. Same with the common chimps and gorillas. Compared to the humans, these primates are certainly not nearly as successful, if success is defined as control of the environment. And sheer numbers of members , over 8,000,000,000 and counting in the case of humans.

        So my point is that both types of interactions, cooperation and violence, have been essential to the domination of the Earth by humans. Both must have some genetic basis.

        Liked by 1 person

      10. Evolution is a moving target. You misunderstand if you believe that chimps and bobos are ancestors. They are fellow travelers at the exact point in evolution as we are. You do not see the past when looking onto a mirror.
        “Schrodinger’s Cat”. Waal studied aggression, a particle in the wave moving alongside pacifism. Everything you observe depends upon which one you look at. Waal was well aware that there was another story. It is a huge mistake to think chimps are our past. The human genome contains within it the complete genome of the banana.
        I wonder if Neanderthals had dogs?


  6. Good post, Annie! I have used the lemmings comparison numerous times, and rawgod always calls me on the carpet for it, but sometimes it’s just one that people understand, so I occasionally use it, though I try to avoid it whenever possible. And thanks for the mention and link, my friend!

    Liked by 3 people

      1. I had the opportunity to assist a master plumber at work Thursday. He’s 86 sharp and as strong as my 70 yr old self. (No slur to him). Joe beat em like a chimpanzee. Keep on underestimating old folks. Let’s us get close for the kill shot.

        Liked by 1 person

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