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.
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
And then, with deadpan audacity
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,
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.
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,
Introducing his tape recorder theory at a conference McConnell refers to it as 99% wild speculation and probably quite wrong, and to himself as
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
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.
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.
Kathleen Stein. King of worm runners
Continuation. To top
The Digest was important in three respects, Travis says. It provided McConnell with an editorial forum: it carried bibliographies of al research relevant to the running of worms and the wider memory-transfer controversy: and it was often sent gratis to those who might be interested.
But in the minds of many influential scientists, especially those in funding capacities, the already-outrageous transfer studies were further damned by their physical proximity to the Digest’s satire and laughter. The ambiguity of humor acted like an amplifier on McConnell’s already-controversial research. By the end of the Sixties he was severed from funding and was subjected to intense derision and prejudicial treatment at meetings and elsewhere. Let’s put it this way, McConnell explained as he wheeled around the Ann Arbor campus in his Mercedes with its BEHAVE license plate. «If my overriding goal was to get the transfer material accepted and win the Nobel Prize and become famous in that sort of way. I certainly would never have started the Digest. Obviously, subconsciously or whatever that wasn’t one of my goals.
Aside from indulging in satire and parody, McConnell broke other sacred taboos. He disclosed certain mechanical and human failures in the lab. He once admitted, for instance, that his air conditioner had gone on the blink and heated up some animals. Then there was the incident involving RNA: McConnell admitted publicly that some had fallen on the floor and he had scooped it up and stuffed it back into its container. Accidents will happen, but not to scientists. Reporting that we dropped the first RNA on the floor. McConnell commented, is like admitting that one has farted in church.
At the time, though, McConnell had no idea he had so soundly violated the canons of respectability.
Most neurophysiologists in the Fifties and Sixties spent their lives studying the brain with electrical probes, thinking chemical events to be derivative:
Bernard Agranoff and Roger Sperry are only two of the eminent neuroscientists who told McConnell that if he were right, all of their life’s work was for naught. Sir John Eccles went further. As a devout Catholic, he worked out the mind/body/soul problem in a personal way. According to McConnell, Eccles believes in free will, yet he apparently had early difficulties resolving this concept with mechanistic physiology. So he put God at the synapse as a sort of Brownian movement of molecules. He once told me. McConnell remembered,
Today there is growing suspicion that thoughts and feelings may one day be traced to chemical events. Such thinking makes the transfer effect less dubious. Very little is known about what makes the brain tick. New neural connections are made, but no one has yet explained how.
What do researchers in the biological basis of behavior say? Most restrict themselves to investigations at the neurotransmitter level. New York University professor of neurology and physiology David Quartermain admits that he is skeptical of the transfer theory, but he is willing to grant that
Nor does Quartermain, who is investigating protein-synthesis inhibition in the brain and looking for a way to ease memory disorders, discount the possibility that protein is a key element in memory.
McConnell wryly points out that some RNA experiments have been done on humans – in organ-transplant recipients.
Never fearful of speculation. McConnell thoughtfully entertains some farfetched ideas – such as learning pills. He will imagine a time when drugstores might carry bottles of protein compounds or RNA to enhance learning of calculus, say, or tax accounting, or anything else. Not everything, he cautions.
The years of worm running are behind him: the Digest terminated after 20 years for lack of funds. McConnell now turns his attention increasingly to teaching, writing, and the formulation of a unified-field theory of the brain, though he’s too modest to call it that. This quest includes a decade-long wrestling match with the redoubtable Skinner over the existence of the mind.
When McConnell was a trembling grad student, Skinner told him that the mind is a theoretical concept that we are better off abandoning. McConnell went away to mull that one over for 20 years.
Today he says,
But Skinner still won’t look into the ‘box.’ With our knowledge of the hemispheres, we can now go much further into the head than Skinner is willing to go.
Skinner has never explained how an individual changes himself or modifies his own behavior. McConnell says,