Biography of Famous Scientist James V. McConnell Part 2

About the famous scientist James V. McConnell, history and biography of the maverick scientist.


The worms were cut again and the ends that had received no conditioning training were allowed to grow their missing ends. McConnell found that his new crop of worms were already conditioned to the bright light even though no part of them had ever received "training". This could be evidence of inheriting a learned bit of behavior, which was altogether contrary to reputable biology in the U.S. and even had political implications because Russian biologists had once insisted that such inherited learning was possible.

McConnell went farther--perhaps too far. Planarians are cannibals, so he diced up some of the "trained" specimens and fed the pieces to a naive group of worms who had never undergone the light-and-shock conditioning series. After this meal, the untrained worms were naive no more. Professor McConnell reported that they now reacted to the light as though they had received the usual conditioning, cringing at the light in anticipation of an electric shock. His conclusion: A memory, or conditioned response, had been ingested by the planarians when they ate their better-educated brethren. From 1962 to 1969 a number of scientific journals as well as popular news magazines reported difficulty in swallowing this conclusion. Other experimenters then began reporting failure in their attempts to confirm McConnell's results and there was a flurry of running worm experiments.

McConnell's Worm Runner's Digest attracted so many humorous contributions that he was able to publish 2 books of them: The Worm Re-Turns (1965) and Science, Sex, and Sacred Cows (1971). More recently he has published textbooks in social psychology and general psychology, but is best known as an exemplar of the belief that one does not need to be solemn in order to be serious. McConnell was born in Oklahoma, went to college in Louisiana and Texas, and now lives in Ann Arbor, Mich.

The worm experiments showed that there is still no adequate understanding of the processes of learning and remembering, in terms of the precise, chemical and physiological events that occur. McConnell's modest proposal that memory transfer could occur through cannibalism, however, was treated with derision, and some other explanations were soon advanced by experimenters to account for the worms' behavior. The nature of the subject matter being what it was, the controversy never really raged but rather sputtered awhile and then subsided in a mixture of laughter and statistical quibbling.

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