Confessions of a scientific humorist

James V. McConnell

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Let me begin this confession with the statement, of my firmest conviction: Humour has no place at all in Science. That is, in Science with a capital S. Any more than humour has a place in Religion with a capital R. If the Establishment had its way, there surely would be a special corner in hell set aside for priests and pastors who dared to crack jokes from the pulpit and scientists who made flip comments from the sanctuary of the laboratory.To the Establishment, some things are sacred, including Religion, Science and Cows. These are the grim realities of life and, believe me, there is nothing grimmer to me than Religion and Science.

Look at it this way. Humour is the great leveller, the great humanizer, the great destroyer of illogical pomposity. Religion and its monozygotic twin, Science, are by the Establishment’s definition super-natural in some sense. The barbed point of wit destroys the illusion, decapitalizes the nouns, and reduces Religion and Science to mere human occupations. The priest loses his mystique the moment he dares to question what to the Establishment seems the: divine order of things by dropping a pungent pun into his sermon or lab. report. Defrock the fellow! Cut off bis research grants! Don’t let him publish his heresies in our journals!

And if there’s anything worse than someone who writes scientific or religious humour, it’s the person who has the audacity to publish it. For ten years now, I’ve published a somewhat humorous, semi-scientific journal called Worm Runner’s Digest. Herewith begins my confession. For the Digest started as my own personal little joke on the Scientific Establishment but has turned out to be more of a joke on me. I’ve lost grants because of the Digest, had my laboratory experiments questioned not because of their content but because of the Digest, had articles I submitted to other journals turned down because I dared to cite studies published in the Digest. It would seem that a little humour goes a very long way — towards excommunication!

Far be it from me, a lowly psychologist, to attempt to define humour. All I know is that much of it seems a sudden or unexpected departure from the norm, and that if you don’t know what the norm is, the humour is usually lost on you. That is to, say, to see something as being funny, you have to have a little knowledge about whatever is, the subject of the joke. The more specialized the wit, the more information the reader must bring to it to appreciate it. The funniest satire ever written on Shakespeare’s Hamlet would leave a reader cold who has not read the Bard or seen his plays massacred on stage. The fact that a famous, tavern on the American West Coast is named Chez When wouldn’t bring a smile to the lips of a person who didn’t both speak some French and know how a drunken American sounds when pouring a libation for a friend.

The same thing is true with the Digest. This scurrilous journal will seem humorous to you only if you happen to know a great deal about flatworms. On the off chance that some of the finer planarian points are lacking from your store-house of knowledge, I will duly explain a bit about the psychology of worms so that you will gain some insight into the psychology of worm runners. It’s a strange tail, I assure you. The planarian, or common flatworm, is a small aquatic animal that seldom grows to more than 3 centimetres in length and is found in ponds, streams and rivers throughout the world.   I got interested in

the beast because it’s the simplest animal on the phylogenetic tree that possesses a true brain and a human-type nervous system. But the planarian is famous for many reasons beyond its brain. For instance, it is the simplest form of life to have true bilateral symmetry — which means that you can cut it in half from head to tail and the left half will be a mirror image of the right. And it has about the most mixed-up sex life of any animal going.

Let’s face it: the planarian is that psychological anomaly, an anti-Freudian animal. To begin with, it is an hermaphrodite, having a complete set of both male and female sex organs. So there goes, Freud’s concept of penis envy out the window, for the feminine side of the worm can’t really envy anything it lacks because, you see, it really doesn’t lack it. When a young planarian engages in what Freud politely called exploratory play, does this mean that a single organism could, all by itself, violate the incest taboo? And when two adult flatworms mate, they back up to each other, their tails go up in the air, and they cross-fertilize, a primal scene that even the Kama Sutra doesn’t describe. But the most non-Freudian aspect of all concerns the planarian’s digestive habits.

The flatworm lacks a mouth; instead; it has a pharynx in the middle of its body that it extrudes when it comes in contact with food. The pharynx latches on to whatever is to be the meal and the worm sucks the juices up through it as through a drinking straw. The problem is that this one organ acts both as input and output to the intestinal tract. How does one explain in analytic terms the psychosexual development of the planarian since its oral stage is so obviously confused with its anal stage?

Parenthetically, the worm’s pharynx got me in a lot of trouble back in 1962, when I lectured on my research at a meeting in San Francisco. The San Francisco Chronicle, perhaps the best of the northern California newspapers, was kind enough to run a front-page story on what I had to say and illustrated it with a large two-column drawing of a worm. Unfortunately, the artist rather overemphasized the pharynx in his urge for scientific accuracy, and equally unfortunately, the night editor of the paper was no biologist. He didn’t know what that odd thing protruding from the middle of the worm was, but he had rather dark suspicions of what it might have been and he was very sure it didn’t belong on the front page of a family newspaper. So the story, complete with picture of worm with extruded pharynx, appeared on the first page of the earlybird edition of the Chronicle, but got shunted aside into a less obvious position in later editions. I still have a copy of that gloriously obscene first edition. To the best of my knowledge, it is the first time in history that the early worm has gotten the bird.

But it wasn’t the worm’s sex life that attracted me to it in the first place. As a graduate student; at the University of Texas, I had undertaken a project with another student, Robert Thompson, to see if the planarian could be trained. Presumably, since it is the simplest animal to possess a true brain, it should be the simplest animal capable of showing true learning. So Thompson and I set up an experiment in which we demonstrated — at least to our own satisfaction — that the flatworm could be taught the type of lesson that Professor Pavlov called the conditioned response. Later, when I went to the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor as a struggling young instructor, the head of the Psychology Department called me into his office for a friendly little chat.

        Jim, he told me, you may have heard a nasty rumour that to survive in the academic world, you must ‘publish or perish’. I just want you to know that the rumour is true. I’m sure you know what is expected of you, but I have a favour to ask. If at all possible, will you please try to do good research. But if you can’t, for God’s sake, publish a lot of bad research, for the Dean won’t know the difference anyhow.

I got the message and right away set up the first worm lab. at the University of Michigan.

I was given a tiny little basement room and enough funds to purchase a very modest amount of equipment and a few worms. Like all eager young instructors, I was wise enough to talk two very bright young students into doing all the actual work for me. But I had a problem; we had demonstrated that worms could learn, so what were we to do next? For a long time I puzzled over this problem, then recalled that one day when Thompson and I were working at the University of Texas, we had a wild idea.

Planarians not only reproduce sexually, but asexually as well. When a worm is first hatched from its egg, it is fully equipped to do everything but reproduce. After a few months of fattening up, it reaches puberty and begins mating. Sexual activity continues for three to four years, after which the animal seems to go into a senile decline, becomes all lumpy and misshapen — and then a miracle often occurs. One day as the animal is crawling along the bottom of some pond, the tail develops a will of its own and grabs hold of a rock and refuses to be budged. The head struggles to get things going again, but no matter how hard the head pulls, the tail remains obstinately clinging to the rock. Not able to convince the tail to get on with it, the head does the next best thing: it pulls so hard that the whole animal comes apart at the middle. The head then wanders off, leaving the tail to manage as best it can.

Now, if you cut a human being in half across the waist, he has a tendency not to survive the operation. But if you do this to a flatworm, you merely trigger off asexual reproduction in the same way that the animal occasionally does itself. For the head will grow a new tail in a matter of five or six days, and the tail, clinging gallantly to its rock, will regenerate an entire new head in a matter of a week or two. Furthermore, each of the regenerated portions of the beast will soon grow up to the same size as the original animal and, being rejuvenated as well as regenerated, will begin sexual mating again.

Thompson and I, knowing this odd habit of the flatworm, thought it might be clever if we trained a worm, then cut it in half, let the head grow a new tail and the tail grow a new head, and then tested both halves to see which half remembered the original training. Thompson and I never had the time to do that experiment at the University of Texas, but at Michigan I had students, worms and apparatus, so we set out to see what would happen.

To our great surprise, we found that the heads remembered just as much as did worms that had been trained but not cut in half at all. Apparently, if you are a worm, losing your tail does not affect your memory. To our greater surprise, we found that the tails remembered even better than did the heads. Obviously, for worms, losing your head actually improves your memory!

These odd results suggested to us that, in the planarian at least, memories might not be stored just in the head section. Our next experiment consisted of chopping a trained animal in several pieces and letting all of them regenerate. As we half expected; each regenerate showed memory of what the original animal had been taught. Slowly it began to dawn on us that the usual theories of memory storage just didn’t hold, for these all; insisted that memories were stored neurophysiologically in the brain. Since our regenerated worms had to re-grow an entire new brain, it seemed to us that they must be storing their lessons chemically — that is, whenever the worm learned something, there had to be some corresponding change in the molecules in their bodies. Our chemical theory of memory was interesting, but how to go about proving it?

People have personalities and, after you’ve studied them a while, it becomes apparent that planarians do, too. That is, each organism reacts slightly differently from its cousins and brothers. But chemical molecules are all supposed to be the same. So, when one worm learns his lesson in our training apparatus, we assumed that the chemical changes inside his body were more or less the same as those that would take place in any other worm’s body when it, learned the same lesson; Now, that’s a perfectly tenable hypothesis if you don’t happen to know much about zoology or biochemistry so, blessed with a most enthusiastic ignorance of such arcane topics, we ploughed ahead.

Here was our reasoning. Worms are rather special. Not only can you cut them in half, and each piece will regenerate into an intact organism, but you can also play all. sorts of sadistic games with them. If you slice the head in half, from the tip of the snout down to where, the worm’s Adam’s apple would be, and then you keep the two sections of the head separated for twenty-four hours, each section will regenerate separately. You’ll end up with a two-headed worm. Interestingly enough, a chap at Washington University in St. Louis worked with two-headed planarians later on and found, to our delight, that these animals, learn significantly faster than, do normal beasts. So, as far as the worm is concerned, two heads are indeed better than one! And if two heads aren’t enough for you, split each of them again, and you’ll have four heads on the same body. You can get up to twelve heads at once, if you and the worm are interested in such things. More than that, you can take the head from one animal: and graft it on to another—planarians don’t reject tissue grafts the way that most higher organisms do. Well, if the memory molecules were the same from one worm to another, why couldn’t we train one worm, extract the chemicals from it, inject them somehow into another, and thus transfer the memory from one beast to another?

For several months we tried to do just that, but we failed, simply because we were rather stupid about it all. Our hypodermic needles were far too large and we tried to inject far too much material. The poor little worms swelled up like balloons; a few popped. Eventually, though; a brainstorm hit us. Hungry planarians are cannibalistic. If we couldn’t make the transfer using our crude injection techniques, perhaps we could induce the worms to do the work for us.

So, in our next experiment, we traineda group of victim worms and then chopped them in pieces and fed them to an unsuspecting group of hungry cannibals. After the cannibals had had a chance to digest their meal, we promptly gave them the same sort of training w e had given the victims. To our delight, the cannibals that had eaten educated victims did significantly better than did cannibals that had eaten untrained victims. We had achieved the first inter-animal, transfer of information or, as I like to put it, we had confirmed the Mau Mau hypothesis!

After we had repeated this experiment successfully several times, we went on to show that the chemical involved in the transfer was RNA, a giant molecule found in almost all living cells. For we showed that we could achieve this type of memory transfer using a crude extract of RNA taken from the bodies of trained planarians and injected into untrained worms.

In recent years, a considerable controversy has cropped up concerning a whole series of similar experiments using rats and mice as subjects rather than worms. And, despite the outcries of the orthodox, it does now seem as if chemicals extracted from the brains of trained rats and injected into their untrained brethren does cause much the same sort of memory transfer as we had originally discovered in flatworms.

But I stray from the point. We published our original regeneration results in 1959 and at once found ourselves mentioned in several national publications. Of course, none of the journalists took our work at all seriously but, unfortunately for us, there were hundreds of high-school students around the country who did. The United States had just embarked on an orgy of educational self-improvement, part of which was the creation of science fairs for younger students. Once a year these youngsters were encouraged to undertake an independent scientific project of some consequence, and to enter their results at an annual contest in their locality. Well-meaning judges selected winners. Local winners competed against each other at regional events, and finally at a national meeting the best of the country vied for top honours.

Now, the trouble with a high-school student’s undertaking his own research project is that he has little equipment or space to work with. A student might wish to do a very interesting study involving the training of rats, but where are the animals to be kept and how would they be paid for? The brighter students, realizing this limitation from the start, were on the lookout for simple but interesting experiments, and many of them working in the biological sciences saw immediately that the worm could make an intriguing and most inexpensive substitute for the rat. So in 1959 we were inundated with letters from these bright youngsters asking us to tell them all about the care and training of worms.

I answered the first few letters personally at great length, but when several hundred arrived, it became clear that some more efficient means of communication would have to be arrived at. So my students and I sat down and wrote what was really a manual describing h ow to repeat the sorts of experiments we had been working on. It took us all of fourteen pages to pour out our complete knowledge of planarianology. We typed the material up and reproduced it on ditto paper.

Now, I had always been noted for the oddness of my sense of humour, and the planarian research greatly enhanced this reputation. Thus none of my students considered it strange that we should try to make a? joke out of this little manual, so joke it became. First of all, it had to have a name. In psychological jargon, a person who trains rats is called a ‘rat runner’, because, presumably, his task is to get the rats to run through a maze or some other piece of apparatus. A man who trains insects is a bug runner, and someone who works with humans is, quite seriously, called a people runner. Obviously we were worm runners, and so the title of our manual simply had to be Worm Runner’s Digest. One of the girls designed a crest that appeared on the cover, with a rampant two-headed worm, a coronet of connected nerve cells at the top, a Latin motto, an S and an R for stimulus-response, a Ψ for psychology, and a pair of diagonal stripes painted the maize-and-blue colours of the University of Michigan

To top the manual off, we called it Volume I, No. 1, the joke being that we had no intention of continuing its publication. Little did we appreciate the strength of the publish-or-perish syndrome. Academic scientists are so desperate that they will publish anywhere, so to our utter amazement, we began getting contributions for the next issue. Hoist with our own petard, there was nothing we could do but put out a next issue, and a next, and a next…

And now, here we are, a journal with ten years behind us, an international circulation numbered in the thousands. One of our crowning achievements, incidentally, was the receipt of a letter from the Library of the Academy of Sciences of the U.S.S.R. offering an official exchange of journals. We wonder still if they quite knew what they were getting.

Of course, even as our circulation increased, we remained unique. We decided that most scientific journals are deadly dull, and ours would be different. To pep things up a bit, we included poems, jokes, satires, cartoons, spoofs and short stories scattered more or less randomly among the more serious articles. People seemed to like this melange; or at least, some of them did. A few people complained that they didn’t have time to waste on the sophomoric humour — they wanted the truth and nothing else. Their trouble was that they often found themselves getting halfway through a satire before they realized that their leg was being pulled.

We would have ignored such complaints had they not come from some of the most famous and influential members of the scientific community. To help these poor souls out, we resorted to a propagation device much like the worm’s — namely, we split in two. We gathered all of the so-called funny stuff and banished it to the back of the journal, printing it upside down to make sure that no one would confuse the fact with the fancy.

The Digest inched along this way for several years, until we faced another crisis. The authors of our serious articles complained that they weren’t getting adequate coverage. When an article is published in most scientific journals, it is picked up by one of the abstracting services for dissemination in abstract form. Despite the fact that the serious side of the Digest contained some pretty meaty stuff, none of the abstracting services would touch anything that came from a journal with such an odd name as ours. Eventually, as a kind of last-ditch compromise, we changed the name of the front half of the Digest, calling it The Journal of Biological Psychology. Nothing else was changed but the name, but what a difference it made! Within two months we know even received letters from Psychological Abstracts, Biological Abstracts and Chemical Abstracts asking that we send them this new journal for abstracting. Naturally, we obliged.

As I look back at the past ten years or so, it becomes apparent to me that life would have been a lot easier had the Digest suffered a stillbirth. Much of the controversy surrounding the work on memory transfer stems in no small part from the fact that it received its first publication in what some of my colleagues still refer to as the Playboy of the scientific world.

I can recall attending a meeting at Cambridge in 1964 at which I presented what seemed to me to be rather conclusive evidence that memories could be transferred chemically from one planarian to another. Afterwards, over the inevitable soggy cookies and warm, flavoured water, I was taken to task by a noted Scientist who informed me flatly that he would refuse to consider seriously anything published in a scientific
cartoonbook
. When I asked him which of the British journals he had reference to, he almost dropped his cookie.

I can also remember when a good friend of mine took me aside one day to tell me how much damage I was doing to my reputation by printing the Digest. He was really quite worried about the matter.

        My God, he said, if you keep publishing articles in that thing, people may actually want to cite them some time, and then where* will you be? You ought to change the name, throw out all that socalled funny stuff, and make it a respectable journal.

I also treasure a letter I received from a; world-famous zoologist who demanded, that we remove her name from our subscription list, because we were misleading students into, thinking that Science could be fun!

Now, in all these cases, the person doing the criticizing was a bona fide, expert scientist as well as Scientist. They were quite sincere in their comments, offered them up for my own betterment. I respect their scientific work, but I do feel rather sorry that so much of what is great and glorious and meaningful about science seems to have slipped through their fingers.

The kind of intropunitive wit that is the hallmark of the Digest can thrive only when its author is fairly secure emotionally and intellectually. People who neither understand nor appreciate humour are probably threatened by those of us who do. We speak a language they don’t understand, we react to the world around us in ways that are foreign and disturbing to them. Most of them have based their entire approach to life on the premise that seriousness is next to godliness. Those of us who see the occasional folly and ignorance of most of our behaviour often react by cracking a joke. Humour, particularly that directed against ourselves, keeps us humble in the face of our own too-well-perceived incompetence. The totally serious person fears this kind of insightful perception into his own behaviour patterns and fears humour because he cannot afford to be humble.

And now perhaps you see the Digest for what it really is: the house organ of an anti-Scientific movement. It is my firm conviction that most of what is wrong with Science these days can be traced to the fact that Scientists are willing to make objective and dispassionate studies of any. natural phenomena at all—except their own scientific behaviour. We know considerably more about flatworms than we do about people who study flatworms. The Establishment never questions its own motives; the true humorist always does.

It is my strong hope that if we can get the younger generation to the point of being able to laugh at itself, then and only then can we hope to turn Science back into science.

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