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No. 898:
Edible Knowledge

Today, a disturbing parable about feeding our memory. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

A recurrent human day-dream is the one where we learn things by eating edible texts. Jonathan Swift wrote about the idea 300 years ago, but that was satire. In the Book of Revelation, an angel feeds St. John a book so he'll be able to prophesy.

We smile and shrug the idea off, but should we? Harry Collins and Trevor Pinch tell about a line of research that went on from the late '50s into the early '70s and then died out.

It began in an experiment James McConnell did with flatworms. He shone a bright light on the worms and hit them with an electric shock. The shock made them arch their bodies. The worms soon learned to arch themselves in response to light alone.

McConnell then chopped up the trained worms and fed them to other worms. Lo and behold, having eaten their brothers and sisters, many of them would also respond to light alone.

There followed a great semantic debate. Could this really be called the transmission of memory? Maybe it was no more than some photo-sensitive chemical adjustment -- some pharmacological reaction. But then, what is our memory, anyway?

In the mid-60s several scientists trained rats to do various things -- pull levers, walk mazes. Then they injected other rats with an extract made from the brains of the trained rats. Same story: there appeared to be some carryover of learned behavior.

One scientist, Georges Ungar, emerged as a leader in the new field and as the most obvious target of attack. Others tried to replicate his experiments and failed. Ungar charged that they'd altered his experimental technique so radically they had to fail.

Two factors finally spelled the end to this research. First, Ungar had raised the stakes too high. This had become a controversial arena -- too dangerous for young scientists to enter. Along with Ungar's last 5-page paper the editor printed a 15-page critique by another scientist. Besides, Ungar was now on in years. He published that last paper in 1972 and died soon after. He had no successor, and the field died with him.

So, Collins and Pinch tell us, the chemical transfer of memory has never been proved or disproved. We just grew weary of the question. They liken career-oriented science to the Golem of Hebrew mythology -- a humanoid made from clay, then animated. A Golem can serve us, but he's lumbering and unpredictable. And a Golem is all we have after career-building has replaced learning.

We might as well try to learn German by writing irregular verbs on our crackers. And, as for the tantalizing question of chemical memory transfer, Collins and Pinch simply say, "The gaze of the Golem turned elsewhere."

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Collins, H., and Pinch, T., The Golem: What Everyone Should Know About Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993, Chapter 1.

I am grateful to Larry C. Witte for bringing the Collins and Pinch source to my attention. The full text of the Biblical reference follows:

7 But in the days of the voice of the seventh angel, when he shall begin to sound, the mystery of God should be finished, as he had declared to his servants the prophets.
8 And the voice which I heard from heaven spake unto me again, and said, Go and take the little book which is open in the hand of the angel which standeth upon the sea and upon the earth.
9 And I went unto the angel, and said unto him, Give me the little book. And he said unto me, Take it, and eat it up; and it shall make thy belly bitter, but it shall be in thy mouth sweet as honey.
10 And I took the little book out of the angel's hand, and ate it up; and it was in my mouth sweet as honey; and as soon as I had eaten it, my belly was bitter.
11 And he said unto me, Thou must prophesy again before many peoples, and nations, and tongues, and kings.
Revelation 10