Question 9 of the Rabit Island Experiment

timer Asked: Oct 16th, 2015
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9. We respect Dr. Trudeau and all those earlier scientists who did the best they could within the contemporary understanding of the problem they addressed and utilizing the materials and technology they had at hand. Modern-day biologists like to talk about resistance/susceptibility genes and patterns of inheritance, rather than family blood. They think about infectious disease in terms of microbes and pathogenicity, rather than speaking of bad humors. They have identified vitamins and other nutrients that are abundant in some foodstuffs and lacking in other that are essential for optimal immune function. Without the benefit of such modern formulations, Dr. Trudeau, by a disciplined application of scientific curiosity and careful, clever methodology, shed light on each of these concerns, light that helped to illuminate the minds of scientists who came after. Still, a look at his original paper leaves us wondering, were the rabbits genetically identical? Probably not! Why? Were they all of the same sex and age? Couldn’t he have given the animals kept on short rations just a smaller amount of the same varieties of food available to the animals fed abundantly—after all, there might be some important nutrient missing in potatoes. In light of the title of the paper, why not measure bacterial numbers in the rabbits on post mortem rather than just survival time? (In a subsequent paper, he did exactly that.) Once you start critiquing an experiment from 100 years ago, or 10 years ago, or sometimes even last year, it’s hard to stop. Can you think of anything else you would have changed about the Rabbit Island Experiment?

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Carnegie Mellon University

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