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
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