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15 September 2006

Ora Memoria! Lifting the rug: What's underneath Bobby's 1964 Science Fair Project about Cannibal Learning

A bunch of assorted Platyhelminthes (yours for $133 + shipping & handling), including the Sheep Liver Fluke, and Dugesia tigrina, another liver-loving worm, from Carolina Biological Supply Company -- the same mail-order firm that sold me a jar of live flatworms when I failed to trap my own in the sewer pond.

Well, this just gets worse and worse.

Except for my wobbly display board, which had to be taped to the Project next to it to keep mine standing, _this_ was a pretty darn accurate re-creation of my 1964 Science Fair Project.

As you fall drunkenly into the temptation to judge my Science Fair Project, I ask you to consider certain mitigating circumstances.

If I hadn't done it, I would have flunked Science, and my life would have been even worse Hell than it usually was in those days. So I had to whip Something up, and the Something was _this_, more or less.

By the way, I never meant to suggest that Learning Through Cannibalism was my original discovery. For my Bar Mitzvah, Aunt Nathlie had bought me a subscription to Science Digest -- which is roughly to Science what Junior Scholastic is to The New York Times -- and I'd read a short article about this strange scientific phenomenon.

I thought it was really neat that maybe we could learn stuff faster by eating ground-up educated people.

Look, I was mega-bored, bored to tears. For me, Kindergarten to High School Graduation was just 13 continuous years of Boredom (except for the time S*** G**** set Mr. Lucas, the chemistry teacher, on fire and me and Murray Smigel were the only kids to leap out of our chairs to get the fire extinguisher, that certainly wasn't boring), and the unexpected chance to share Good Things about Cannibalism with a wider audience ... well, maybe this Science stuff was more interesting and more Fun than my science teachers had led me to believe.

Look. It's 42 years later, and the fact is: Most Science *is* boring, and most Science is Not Fun. The Project to my left was "Radioactive Electrophoresis in Potassium Salts Using Capillary Absorption" and the Project to my right was "Information Feedback Using Partial Differential Equations." Maybe they won the Westinghouse scholarship and got into Johns Hopkins -- but were they having Fun? I don't think so.

So a jaded, bent kid like Little Bobby was just naturally going to leap at the chance to do a Science Fair Project about the Up Side of Cannibalism.

I had no adult advisor, no parent to help me, no inspiring science teacher to guide me. All I had was a half-pound of raw liver from the Safeway that I tied to a string and floated in the pond where the big storm sewer discharged into Rock Creek, and then come back each day to harvest my free-range wild natural flatworms. (The book said they love raw liver.) They never appeared. A week before the Fair, I panicked and sent money to the Science Supply Company for a jar of Dugesia tigrina.

The inspiring science teacher might have told me that I should have identified the Adult Scientist who discovered the Cannibalism thing. I wasn't trying to pass this off as Original Research. I just didn't know who the Adult Scientist was and I didn't know I was supposed to cite his/her Paper.

Better Late Than Never. I've been Googling

Dugesia conditioned cannibalism

and now, 42 years after I won the blue and the white ribbons, I finally know who discovered that you can get smarter by eating ground-up smart members of your own species.

Okay, here's some Real Science: If you claim to have discovered a Science thing, the thing has to be reproducible. Based on what you write up in your Paper, total strangers on the other side of the Planet should be able to do the same Experiment, and get the same results you claimed you got.

The flatworm shipment was late. I never actually did the Experiment. I put some earthworms in my tank instead. I just took Science Digest's word for it that this was a Real Science Thing.

Well, it turns out Science Digest took this guy's word for it, too.

You think all this is unimportant? You think this is Boring?

Theodore Kaczynski the Unabomber didn't think this was chopped liver. He sent one of his Mail Bombs to try to kill the Discoverer of Worm Cannibal Learning. I don't know why. Kaczynski was a Ph.D. mathematics professor from UC Berkeley who'd gone Off The Grid and was living in a homemade cabin in the Montana woods. I don't know what made him go High Explosive about Worm Cannibal Learning. He did his math masters at U-Michigan in Ann Arbor.

It now also appears I got the wrong worm. Dr. McConnell appears to have fed ground-up educated Dugesia dorotocephala meat to uneducated Dugesia dorotocephala to make them learn tricks faster. Not my fault, blame that one on Science Digest.

from Wikipedia:

James V. McConnell (October 26, 1925 - April 9, 1990) was an American biologist and animal psychologist. He is most known for his research on learning and memory transfer in planarians conducted in the 1950s and 1960s.

Most of McConnell's academic career was spent in the psychology department at the University of Michigan, where he was a professor from 1963 through his retirement in 1988. He was an unconventional scientist, setting up his own refereed journal, the Journal of Biological Psychology, which was published in tandem with the Worm Runners Digest, a planarian-themed humor magazine.

His paper
Memory transfer
through cannibalism
in planarians

published in the Journal of Neurophysiology, reported that when planarians conditioned to respond to a stimulus were ground up and fed to other planarians, the recipients learned to respond to the stimulus faster than a control group did. McConnell believed that this was evidence of a chemical basis for memory, which he identified as memory RNA.

Although well publicized, his findings were not completely reproducible by other scientists and were therefore partially discredited.

McConnell was one of the targets of Theodore Kaczynski, the Unabomber. In 1985, he suffered a hearing loss when a bomb, disguised as a manuscript, was opened at his house by his research assistant Nicklaus Suino.


* R. Thompson and J. V. McConnell (1955) Classical conditioning in planarian, Dugesia dorotocephala, J. Comp. Physiol. Psych. 48, 65-68.

* J. V. McConnell, (1962) Memory transfer through cannibalism in planarium, J. Neuropsychiat. 3 suppl 1 542-548

* Block, R.A, and McConnell, J. V., Classically conditioned discrimination in the Planarian, Dugesia dorotocephala., Nature, 215, Sept. 30, 1465-6, (1967).

External links

* Bio
* Unabomber attack
* Everything2 Node


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