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Juggling Three Different Personae – While Walkig a Tightrope – Without a Net
Social Setting – Applied Aspects

And the potential applied aspects of these ideas raised the stakes considerably. If drugs could be found that would either enhance learning or if specific information could be introduced into an organism chemically, new therapies dealing with the treatment of senility, dementia, learning disabilities, and various forms of mental retardation could be developed. By the early 1960s two pharmaceutical companies were testing patentable memory drugs: Abbott Laboratories of Chicago was conducting tests of the efficacy of a drug it named “cylert,” while International Chemical and Nuclear Corporation of Los Angeles was testing “ribanimol,” a drug derived from yeast cells.

So, let’s see; what we have here are

✓ cannibalistic worms;

✓ a theory, smacking of Lamarckianism, advocated by Lysenko and adopted by Stalin;

✓ a potential scientific breakthrough;

✓ conflict and controversy in the scientific community;

✓ enormous potential health applications;

✓ journalistic tendencies toward hype, hyperbole, and sensationalism;

✓ ethical issues such as mind control and Brave New World

and James McConnell, a scientist with a media background, a sense of humor, and one who prides himself on “telling it like it is”

All the ingredients – and more – of a journalist’s dream. Or the perfect storm, as the case may be. And throughout the episode, journalists, free-lance writers, and television producers constantly sought McConnell out.

And McConnell didn’t disappoint.

McConnell & the Mass Media

At the time, surveys indicated that four general stereotypes of scientists were held by the public: (1) the eccentric, unfathomable, pre-occupied genius – a la Einstein; (2) the dedicated, dispassionate, detached, objective, and humble researcher relentless in the pursuit of knowledge – 12 hours a day, seven days a week, often in isolation, (3) the “mad scientist” of science fiction lore, and (4) the bookwormish, timid, bespectacled, shy, modest “nerd.”

Although the bespectacled McConnell perhaps looked the part, one had only to meet McConnell to see that he was no nerd - he was, as I said before, “some piece of work.” He used calculated public relations techniques, calibrated to differing audiences, and was quick-witted, able to improvise at a moment’s notice. A small sampling:

When, for example, McConnell was asked about his Lamarckian interpretation of his findings, he said

Our work with flatworms does not entail sexual inheritance because the worms usually reproduced asexually. Lysenko’s projects have typically involved sexual reproduction, so actually there is quite a difference... But, our worms are now mating, and if we can get sexual inheritance we’ll crack the field wide open.

And then, with deadpan audacity

We begin a series of experiments to test whether transfer could be accomplished through sexual reproduction. We get these big worms – really big worms – from Buckhorn Springs. We leave them alone to get acclimated – they mate – constantly. We start training them – they stop mating. We stop the training, they begin mating again... It makes you wonder about the value of an education.

The jokes about professor burgers started after coverage of a talk McConnell gave at an international symposium on drugs and human behavior, sponsored by Department of Psychiatry at the Presbyterian Medical Center in San Francisco.

It made the first of the San Francisco Sunday Chronicle.

In addition to that statement, the artist’s drawing of the planarian that appeared in the early editions caused some concern.

The pharynx - as you see - is somewhat out of proportion and seems to be protruding a bit.

Changes are made in the second early edition - not to the drawing, but to the headline, which is now also branded a Scientific Shocker.

Finally, by the late edition, the desk editor, realizing that such a drawing had no place on the front page of a family newspaper, found a proper scientific picture to replace the obscene drawing that appeared in the early-bird editions.

Which prompted McConnell to say,

To the best of my knowledge, it is the first time in history that the early worm has gotten the bird.

and then there’s the Worm Runner’s Digest.

After Newsweek ran a story on his regeneration study in September 1959, McConnell, inundated with letters from hundreds of high school students from all over the country under some pressure to conduct a scientific experiment for their local science fairs, put together a fourteen- page manual describing how to care for and train worms. As a joke, he affixed the name Worm Runner’s Digest to the top.

McConnell and the newly formed Planarian Research Group designed a crest complete with a two-headed worm, a coronet made up of a Hebbian cell assembly, the symbol for psychology, homage to the stimulus-response of behaviorism, and a motto, loosely translated as When I get through explaining this to you, you will know even less than before I started.

The term digest, it should be noted, was decided upon before the cannibalism experiments – no pun here – and it wasn’t until years later, McConnell reported, that he learned that in the language of heraldry, diagonal stripes across your escutcheon means that you’re descended from a bastard.

In any event, word of this new journal got out and McConnell, hoist by his own petard, as he put it, started receiving submissions. So he decided to pep things up a bit and poems, jokes, satires, cartoons, spoofs and short stories were scattered more or less randomly among the more serious articles.

Articles such as “The Effects of Physical Torture on the Learning and Retention of Nonsense Syllables,” “The Gesundheits Test,” and “The Effect of a Pre-frontal Lobotomy on the Mounting Behavior of the Congolese Red-Eyed, Thyroidectomized Tsetse Fly” graced its pages, as did an article by McConnell in which he distinguishes between the unwitting, half-witted and whole-witted scientist. The first, lacking a funny bone and developing paranoid feelings of inadequacy, spends long hours in the lab, published a great deal and wins prizes. The half-witted scientist, though he can recognize – even pass on – a funny story, firmly believes that humor has no place in science. The whole-witted scientist, according to McConnell has an over-developed funny bone, known to choke him to death professionally, but he is often bolder and more imaginative than those scientists who are terrified of being wrong and hence seldom are right.

The Digest, at its peak, had a circulation of around 1,200. But it was more than a scientific joke-book. It became a clearinghouse and safe haven for transfer studies rejected by mainstream journals – though I need to quickly make clear that only 62 of the 247 papers reporting transfer experiments – 25% – appeared in the Digest or in its spin-off twin, The Journal of Biological Psychology.

Perhaps most important, the journal provided McConnell a platform that he used to tell it like it is. Each issue contained a signed editorial/commentary that served to rally the troops. He informed readers and fellow travelers about works in progress, lab visits, and both front and back stage discussions at professional meetings. He responded to critics. He offered his running assessment of the controversy as he saw it unfold, commenting that some of his peers were a pretty narrow-minded and pig-headed lot. He cast himself as a heretic and as a David fighting the Goliath of establishment Science.

None of this, as you might guess, endeared McConnell to many of his colleagues and critics.

McConnell'S Conference Presentations

McConnell’s performances at disciplinary conferences – and they were referred to by many as performances – were a bit more restrained – but not by much.

Research results were intermingled with self-deprecating humor, tweaking critics, taking listeners backstage, and offering admittedly speculative and wild sounding ideas.

At a symposium on chemical correlates of learning at the mid-western psychological association McConnell referred to his ideas as wild, foolish and bizarre.

He mentioned that one world famous naturalist, upon hearing of his regeneration study, shook her head and muttered,

If you did what you say you did, and got the results you said you did, I suppose it’s true. But I still don’t believe it.

A moment later, listing replications of the study, McConnell included the work of a 13 year old 8th grader from Penfield, New York – he even showed her picture – and then commented that

Somehow it delights me that results a world famous naturalist held to be impossible could be replicated by a bright 13-year-old junior high school student.

Introducing his tape recorder theory at a conference McConnell refers to it as 99% wild speculation and probably quite wrong, and to himself as

a rather confused quasi-psycho-biologist... speaking on a topic that practically everybody knows more about than I do.

He then describes what he called a rude, crude, sloppily performed pilot study that he dare not publish. With good reason. The test tube containing RNA painstakingly extracted from 500 trained worms was dropped and shattered on the floor. Rather than trash three months of effort, they scooped the goop off the floor, re-centrifuged it to get rid of some of the impurities, and proceeded with the injections into naïve worms. And it worked!

Still, not the sort of thing typically included in the methods section of experimental reports. In a letter written years later, McConnell admits that

reporting that we dropped the first RNA on the floor is like admitting that one has farted in church.

An examination of McConnell’s extensive media files – which I shall not attempt here – gives clear indications that his work caught the public eye and stirred it’s imagination. Articles in newspaper and such magazines as Saturday Evening Post, Life, Reader’s Digest, Esquire, and Fortune turned up on a fairly regular basis...

M.C. Escher produced a now-famous graphic.

Charly, the story of a learning disabled man whose intelligence is temporarily enhanced, wins a Hugo Award in 1959 for author Daniel Keyes and an Oscar for Cliff Robertson when the full feature film is released in 1968.

Hauser’s Memory, published in 1968 and made into a TV movie in 1970, tells the story a CIA supported experiment that injected the brain RNA of a dying German scientist who defected from the Russians into one of their operatives in order to obtain state secrets.

And appearing daily in hundreds of newspapers in the U.S., those following the adventures of Alley Oop and his fellow cavemen – including, of course, Gus the King – in the Kingdom of Moo, read about the transfer experiments as they constituted the main story-line for a period of six weeks from October 6 - November 18, 1965.

Personal Cost

Examining this case, the sociologist David Travis has argued that McConnell’s style – his subversive flippancy and the aura of schoolboy humor that surrounded the work – adversely affected the reception of both McConnell’s work and that of others in the area.

It’s important, Travis states, that researchers be seen as being earnest. Gail Corning, a discourse analyst whose husband worked in the transfer field, agrees.

But, I’m not so sure. I have no doubt that a certain climate surrounded the work – one who worked in the area said the whole field had a stink to it. Were some put off by McConnell? Undoubtedly. Did some think the work noting more than a joke. You bet. Did some other proponents of the transfer phenomena try to distance themselves from McConnell? Sure.

But it’s a lot more complicated than this.

Personal Cost - Early Years

Despite the fact that there were critics at every turn McConnell was, in fact, riding high for at least the seven years following the publication of the first regeneration study. He was not teetering on a tightrope without a safety net. Quite the contrary. First, many prominent researchers voiced their support.

Hebb was fully supportive, thanking McConnell for advance notice of the regeneration study and referring to it as work of the greatest importance:

Thanks particularly for letting me know about your flatworm work. Very nice indeed. Congratulations...
It seems that your results show either that synapses are not modified at learning (which is hard to take on other grounds) or there are two separable components or modes of learning. But, what you have already looks of the greatest importance for the problem and the possibilities equally great. Nice work.
Hebb to McConnell, March 25, 1958

A dozen years later Hebb still considered McConnell’s work to be somewhat of a breakthrough – even if the interpretation of the results needed revision:

The memory transfer approach was and is an important line of research and the results can reasonably be described as a breakthrough, though interpretation of the results is still being debated.
McConnell discovered something important even if (as with some other important discoveries) we are not quite sure what it is or how it works.
D.O. Hebb, Review of the Worm Runner’s Digest, Psychology Today, May 1970

Harry Harlow, editor of JCPP, was no less supportive and offered kind words of encouragement:

Whether or not you believe it this research is, or approaches, the epochal. And any comments by the editorial staff merely expressed their state of mental surgical shock... Let me assure you that I am interested in this research, other psychologists will be interested.
Harlow to McConnell, May 9, 1958

When McConnell asked Harlow if he could use some of his comments as supporting material in his grant proposals, Harlow readily agreed.

When, in late 1964 criticisms of the planarian work began to mount Karl Pribram wrote encouraging words,

By all means, keep your chin up and plow ahead. The Bennett, Krech, and Rosenzweig people haven’t exactly had smooth sailing, either...
I tell you this only so that you realize that when anyone is in a new area one has to overcome conservatism and the very people who often are blazing the trail become most conservative when they wear another hat.
Pribram to McConnell, January 18, 1965.

Gordon Bower, too, voiced his support, writing that should a fight ensue, he was firmly in McConnell’s corner.

I believe you and your work. At a time like this it is difficult for you not to be upset and almost obsessed with the dispute. I’ve been in one or two minor scientific disputes of my own and I know the mixed feelings of threat and indignation. I hope my expression of confidence and admiration for your work helps to reduce at least some of your despondency. If you choose to consider yourself in a fight then view me as lined up firmly in your corner. I hope this fray does not inhibit the productivity of your laboratories.
Bower to McConnell, February 1, 1965.

At the same time, McConnell was offered a seat at the table – he was invited to share a platform with top-flight molecular biologists and electrophysiologists at important conferences. He joined such luminaries as Seymour Benzer, Mac Calvin, D.A. Glaser, Marshall Niremberg, and Holger Hyden for a small, specialized conference on the role of RNA in memory processes at UCLA in 1962. One year later, McConnell was invited to join such heavyweights as John Eccles, Roger Sperry, Neal Miller, David Krech, Eugene Roberts – the list goes on – at the First Conference on Learning, Remembering and Forgetting held at Princeton. No ostracism, here.

Nor was McConnell hurting for money during this time. Considering only those decisions made up through 1965, we can see that the Atomic Energy Commission provided close to $114,000, while the National Institutes of Mental Health provided roughly $42,000 specifically for the planarian work in addition to a prestigious Career Development Award. In house funds from the University of Michigan amounted to $53,000.

Nor was job security much of an issue. Hot on the heels of the cannibalism studies came an offer to become the Associate Director of the Britannica Center for Studies in Learning and Motivation in Palo Alto at the handsome salary of 15K plus a percentage of the profits. By the way, that’s about 100K+ in today’s dollars – for a guy without tenure yet. McConnell spent a year there and, to get him back to Michigan he was promised – and received – accelerated promotions, coming back as Associate Professor with tenure in 1962 and promoted to Full Professor the following year.

All told, this sounds like one heckuva safety net, don’t you think?

And, quite frankly, it was good that he had it.

Personal Cost - Later Years

Circumstances changed dramatically in late 1965 when the first successful transfer experiments using rats were reported more or less simultaneously by four independent labs – none of which were McConnell’s. One of the difficulties with the planarian experiments was that many simply couldn’t believe that a worm was capable of learning, much less pass that on via cannibalism or injection. But nobody doubted that rats could learn. Although he had planned some experiments with rats, McConnell was now behind the curve. Dozens of labs tried their hand at eliciting the transfer phenomenon as the field heated up. Those that obtained promising results worked together in a spirit of cooperative competition, each trying to nail down the best learning paradigm – and then convincing the others to drop what they were doing to replicate their findings.

McConnell – a primadonna – was no longer the top dog. He switched to rats – and, in fact developed what he thought was a darn good paradigm – but he couldn’t convince others to try it out.

His grant money dwindled. NIMH refused to renew either his planarian grant or extend his career development award. Neither the National Science Foundation, NASA nor the Office of Naval Research chose to fund the worm work. NIMH passed on a proposal using amphibians as experimental subjects. The University gradually withdrew its support as well.

Most – but not all – of McConnell’s rat proposals were turned down as well.

As can be seen, a few mini-grants were awarded and, finally, NIMH approved one in 1969. The earmarked funds, however, never materialized due to governmental budget cuts. All told, McConnell’s research funds after the field moved to rats was $33,000 – roughly 10% of the amount he had in previous years.

McConnell has stated that he lost grants and that his credibility suffered because of the Worm Runner’s Digest and his tell it like it is style. Perhaps.

But letters from grant agencies cite other reasons that, on the face of it, seem equally compelling. After all these years McConnell was still asking for funds to develop a simple, reliable technique for demonstrating the phenomenon. He was still proposing parametric studies. It didn’t appear as if he’d been making much progress, while others, like Georges Ungar, was in the process of isolating and determining the chemical structure of a putative memory molecule. McConnell with no biochemist on his team, had no intention of doing this. One might say that he field had outpaced his competences and passed him by.

There is no question that McConnell felt wounded. By the early 1970s he felt slighted by other transfer workers, no longer being invited to serve on panels at meetings. And there is no doubt that many still working in the area were trying to put as much distance as they could between themselves and McConnell. But not because of his style. It was his theory that denied the importance of neural networks. It was troublesome in the beginning, and more so now that other approaches had begun to bear fruit.

By 1971 McConnell closed down his lab, began writing what was to become a best selling textbook. Living well, he always said, was the best revenge.

And he returned to one of his first loves – Skinnerian behavior modification – with the same subtlety that was his trademark.

Which brought severe criticism from Angela Davis and, far worse, from Ted Kaczynski, AKA, The Unibomber.

Picture me, twenty years ago, wearing my stylish aviator sunglasses. Is it any wonder that McConnell set the feds on my trail – but that’s another story – perhaps after drinks at the banquet tonight.

But what about the transfer field as a whole? Did it suffer because of McConnell’s supposed antics? I think not.

There’s no doubt that McConnell did not do himself or his colleagues pursuing the transfer phenomenon any favors with what many perceived to be his unfortunate style of presentation. And it is certainly true that many researchers simply stopped reading the literature that continued to see the light of day as the episode proceeded. But despite all this, some stubborn facts remain:

At least 170 independent researchers or research teams devoted differing amounts of their time, energy and resources conducting transfer experiments.

These were reputable scientists – not fringe fanatics. On average, those scientists conducting MT received 3X as many citations to their work each year than their counterparts, and more in one year than most receive in 5.

Nearly 20% of transfer workers received 30 or more citations the year they conducted their transfer experiments. Typically, only 2% of all scientists do so.

More than $1 million in grants were awarded specifically for transfer experiments

Two-hundred forty-seven experimental reports were published, 75% in journals other than the Worm Runner’s Digest/Journal of Biological Psychology.

Although it is difficult to say precisely how many researchers and how much money is needed to investigate any given phenomenon, it seems to me that a critical mass had been achieved.

And to say that scientists stayed away because of McConnell – and not because of cognitive assessments... well, maybe the more pedestrian ones.

But let me conclude with one point that sorely needs to be further developed. As odd or strange or amusing as this case may appear to be, I would argue that the overall reception of this work was quite in keeping with the normal state of affairs in the scientific community. That is to say, nearly all philosophers of science – including the likes of Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, Feyerabend, Aggassi – folks who ordinarily can’t agree over whether it is raining or sunny outside – all agree that extraordinary scientific claims – claims that depart in significant ways from prevailing cognitive frameworks – must be accommodated in some way – at least for a time. There is no sure way of knowing when a claim is first introduced whether it will be a boon or a bust. Bold conjectures (Popper) should be vigorously discussed and be granted a grace period (Kuhn), or these claims should be sheltered (Lakatos). And, as sociological fine-grained analysis of case studies have indicated, this is where much of the action is in science as outcomes are socially negotiated within the parameters set by cognitive constraints. But all this remains for another day.

Let’s leave the last words to McConnell:

It was the validity of the transfer effect. If anyone had gotten something, where you could constantly – where any stupid jerk could go into the laboratory and get a transfer effect, you wouldn’t be here and we wouldn’t be arguing. It was he shakiness of that, of the basic effect that caused the problem... I think if we could replicate it again and again and again all of the rest of the stuff would have been trivial. . . . I mean, you can hate somebody’s guts, but if their stuff replicates again and again and again you’ve got to live with it. You’ve got to adjust to it. Since that wasn’t the case these other things came in.

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