John Garcia relishes the story he heard as a child about how his mother came to detest that most vaunted of sweets, chocolate. Just before taking a boat voyage at age 3, she contentedly ate several chocolate candies. While on board later that day, she became terribly seasick and vomited. From then on, she found the taste of chocolate abhorrent, even though the grown-up Mrs. Garcia knew that chocolate treats do not cause seasickness.
Working on farms and ranches in Northern California as a youth, Garcia heard more stories of food aversions caused by illness-these occurring in a different corner of the animal world. If a coyote or other wild creature eats poisoned bait and survives, the budding scientist was told, it never again picks up bait. As a result, older predators prove nearly impossible to kill with standard baits.
It seems fitting, therefore, that Garcia's more than 40-year career in psychology has revolved around the study of such taste retreats. He refers to the behavior as conditioned taste aversion, but many animal investigators call it simply the Garcia effect.
In brief, creatures up and down the food chain readily associate nausea or other bodily signs of illness with the taste of what they have most recently consumed. That flavor is then shunned, often after only the initial bad experience. What's more, the effect ensues with equal force whether nausea strikes a few minutes or many hours after a tainted snack or slurp.
Garcia's research sparked intense controversy in the 1960s and 1970s because it contradicted the basic tenets of psychologist B.F. Skinner's then-dominant radical behaviorism. Skinner held that general laws of learning shape the behavior of all animals, regardless of a particular creature's evolutionary history or biological makeup. …