26 October 2012

The Heiligenberg Rule

When I was at the International Congress for Neuroethology in August, I tweeted this piece of advice offered for neuroethologists:

Use the champion animal.

Speaker Bill Kristan attributed this Walter Heiligenberg. The idea is simple: study the animal that is the best adapted, or makes greatest use of some feature or ability.

I was fascinated that I had never heard this quote before, even though Heiligenberg is well-remembered in the neuroethology community. (He died in 1994). I was further fascinated by how “sticky” this quote was at the meeting. “Champion animal” turned up in talk after talk, until by day 5, I was calling it “the Heiligenberg rule.”

I wondered if Heiligenberg had ever written that that memorable advice down. After running into a few dead ends in Google and Google Scholar, I found this, which seems to be the origin of the phrase (Heiligenberg 1991):

We have learned that some animal species are champions in particular aspect of sensory or motor performance and that such superior capabilities are linked to highly specialized neuronal structures. Such structures incorporate and optimize particular neuronal designs that may be less conspicuous in organisms lacking these superior capabilities (Bullock 1984, 1986a,b). Moreover, the behavioral repertoire of such “champion” species readily offers paradigms for testing the performance of their special designs at the level of the intact animal.

I was a little disappointed that the verifiable version of punchy, memorable advice is stuck in longer, more mundane scientific prose. I suppose I should not be surprised, given that many other great ideas start off as rather lengthy bits in print, and get shorter (and more memorable!) in the retelling.

For instance, the phrase, “an inordinate fondess for beetles,” is often quoted (or misquoted) as being from J.B.S. Haldane. According to Stephen Jay Gould, who researched the phrase (reprinted in his book Dinosaur in a Haystack), Haldane almost certainly said this in conversation. But the versions of this idea that Haldane wrote down (“endowed with a passion...for beetles”) are nowhere near as good as “inordinate fondness.”

Then there’s the story of how a quote from a business professor in the 1960s became widely attributed to Charles Darwin. And in that case, too, the quote got shorter and more memorable with repeated retelling.

I am sort of hoping that Heiligenberg might have said the short version in conversation. The idea is worth encapsulating in a short, powerful sentence instead of academic prose.


Heiligenberg W. 1991. The neural basis of behavior: a neuroethological view, Annual Review of Neuroscience 14(1): 247-267. DOI: 10.1146/annurev.ne.14.030191.001335

Gould SJ. 1993. A special fondness for beetles. Natural History 102(1): 4.

Photo from here.


Bjoern Brembs said...

It's actually Heiligenberg and not Heilingenberg...

Zen Faulkes said...

But not for long!

poke said...

Thanks for this story; I had never heard the quote/phrase, but it's a useful tidbit!

Dan said...

I agree wholeheartedly, but I think a great deal about how to square this notion with the economies of scale one gets from studying a non-champion species like mouse; brain atlases, genetic tools, lots of grant money... I guess one could argue that the mouse is champion at being selected as a model organism, and maybe by studying how people study mice, we may be better able to study 'champion' species?

Zen Faulkes said...

There was a lot of discussion about this at the Neuroethology congress. The feeling from many seemed to be: you can’t compete with the genetic model organisms (like mouse) head on. As of right now, comparative biology is a boutique field, and may thrive at small universities rather than the big research powerhouses. The hope is that the techniques will be developed to the point where you can do almost the same things with mice and the other members of the "core four."

See these posts from the Congress: http://neurodojo.blogspot.com/2012/08/tenth-international-congress-for.html


Dan said...

Thanks, Zen. Great posts from neuroethology - I think I would have liked that conference. I work in songbirds at the systems level, and I feel the contrast with the rodent/'core four' stuff pretty strongly right now as I'm looking for postdocs and trying to decide whether to jump on the bandwagon, or to 'keep the faith' ;)