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Skinner’s Twin: The Back Story

Skinner’s Twin: The Back Story

This whole thing started a few months ago when I needed a photograph of some pigeons for a presentation I was preparing for the Aubrey Daniels Institute. I Googled, “Pigeons” and then clicked on “images.” Among the many choices displayed before me was the following photograph:

It was one unfamiliar to me, but I was really intrigued. It looked like it might have something to do with behavior, so I followed it back to a website, entitled “What if Finland had been prepared for the winter war?” The website turned out to be a rather detailed history of what has come to be called the Winter War, which began with the invasion of Finland by the Soviet Union on November 30, 1939 and ended in March, 1940. The part that intrigued me was the part in which the photograph appeared, “The history of the LLP/-40 Lintu-Liito-Pommi Malli-40 (Bird Glide Bomb Model 40).” As I scrolled through it, I first saw the photograph below of a man named Johannes Nahkuri, taken in 1939. My first thought was “WHOA, is that photo mislabeled or what? That guy looks enough like B. F. Skinner as a young man to be his twin.”

As I read on (not knowing anything about the winter War), for a fleeting moment, gullible person that I am, I thought I was in the Twilight Zone. What was being described could be nothing other than Skinner’s Project Pelican, complete with photographs familiar to me from other contexts. But here it was in a completely different context and with a completely different story line. Have you ever come to a place where you know you are familiar with it, but you just can’t quite get oriented? Or see a magician do a sleight of hand that “tricks the mind”? That’s how I felt. I knew this material well, and yet I couldn’t assimilate the context. Then I quickly realized the whole thing was a hoax. As I researched the material more carefully, I found that the website included huge sections of Skinner’s writings verbatim being woven into the tale of this imaginary psychologist, Johannes Nahkuri, who was credited with saving Finland from the Red Army with his bomb-guiding pigeons. I subsequently learned that Finland indeed lost the Winter War and with it 11 percent of its land and 30 percent of its economic wealth to the Soviet Union. I must say, however, that the piece was very thorough and in its way convincing, or at least plausible.

It was at that point that an April Fool piece for the Institute website began to take shape. With my first reaction on seeing the photograph of Skinner, “Skinner’s twin,” I had my plot. I thought that a nice segway to the twin story could be the famous Minnesota Twin Project, especially with Skinner’s history of association with the University of Minnesota. From there it just flowed.

The Winter War website, as those of you who visit it will discover, describes a detailed  “alternative history” to what really happened. Alternative history seems to be a popular activity and is defined by the Wikipedia site as “a genre of fiction consisting of stories in which one or more historical events occur differently from reality.” As such, it can be an entertaining and even intellectually stimulating activity. It takes a good story teller to twist the historical record and follow the various paths that such twisting engenders, as the author of this website has done. 

The one thing that gives me pause about the alternative history that led me to the April Fool’s Day piece was that large chunks of Skinner’s writing were embedded into the story without acknowledging their sources. The piece also takes liberties with photographs, but that wasn’t so bothersome to me, perhaps because I can recognize them for what they really are (of). The unacknowledged borrowing of text is more uncomfortable for me.  On the one hand, to be credible, alternative history has to be embedded in factual material and events. On the other, in this instance much of the material is that of someone else whose contribution is never acknowledged. A lot of time, thought, and energy was put into this history, but at the end of the day a lot of material still was incorporated without acknowledgement. Who knows what is in the other sections. I would have been more comfortable if somewhere the borrowed material had been acknowledged as such, but if it is there I didn’t find it.  I don’t know the “rules” for writing alternative history, but I think they should include acknowledging the sources of material that is not original. I would be very interested in readers’ comments about this, so please let me know your views on this issue.

Regardless of the present case, this alternative history thing has intriguing possibilities for behavior analysis. What would have happened if Skinner had been nominated for, and won, a Nobel Prize in Medicine? What if the 1948 Hixon Symposium that is credited with starting the “cognitive revolution” had been canceled? What if Watson had not left Johns Hopkins? Or what if Skinner “really did” have an identical twin? Anyone want to try their hand a rewriting history? The possibilities are endless!   

A final note: At first I thought the photograph of the pigeon that started me on this path was confabulated for the article, for I had never seen it before, or at least did not remember it. A little more research, however, revealed the following photograph of a display of the Project Pelican project at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. The photograph appears above the “Pelican” nose cone. 

Posted by Andy Lattal

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.