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Love at Goon ParkReview - Love at Goon Park
Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection
by Deborah Blum
Perseus Publishing, 2002
Review by Alex Sager
Sep 24th 2003 (Volume 7, Issue 39)

In the early 20th century, infants in foundling homes died at an alarming rate. Doctors recommended sterility and isolation, keeping children separated and contact to the minimum. Contact spread pathogens which spread disease which killed. Besides, affection and contact were unscientific, unnecessary, a sign of feminine weakness which, if anything, damaged the child. It never occurred to them that infants were dying from a lack of love.

Harry Harlow, a psychologist trained in the behaviorist tradition and a man who claimed that he didn't like monkeys, helped change this. As we know now, holding, stroking, and cuddling, beyond being necessary for normal social development, contribute to normal growth and boost the immune system. We accept that abuse can be emotional and that neglect can hurt a child more than physical abuse. While the psychoanalyst John Bowlby and others provided important research about the devastating effects orphanages had on children, their insights were proved beyond a doubt by Harlow, who used rhesus monkeys for a seminal group of experiments which clearly established the role of contact as a fundamental need.

Harlow made an earlier appearance in Blum's book The Monkey Wars, which reports on the animal rights movement and the often horrific research carried out on non-human primates. Harlow was condemned for his experiments studying the effects of isolation, which created monkeys who mutilated themselves and mothers -- when forced to have children, employing a restraining device with Harlow dubbed a 'rape rack' -- who neglected, abused or even killed their children.  Love at Goon Park is a more sympathetic look at her subject, exploring a wide range of subjects, including Harlow's early work on intelligence, psychology in the mid-twentieth century, behaviorism and psychoanalysis, attachment theory, feminism and animal rights.

Harlow stumbled on his area of research largely by chance. A newly minted Ph.D. recruited  by the University of Wisconsin, he found that the substandard  research facilities made it impossible to carry out research with rats -- what Harlow came to call "rodentology" -- driving him to create his own lab and stumble onto primates as a more appropriate research subject for intelligence tests.

At the time, behaviorists like John Watson and B.F. Skinner reduced humans to rats (whose capacities were also generally underestimated) admitting only stimuli and responses as respectable scientific entities. Attachment, affection, and the emotions in general, were deemed unscientific and irrelevant to scientific study. True to the intellectual milieu of his time, and for sanitary reasons, Harlow made the mistake of keeping his monkeys in separate cages. But for social animals like primates, isolation had the effect of causing a kind of monkey psychosis. Monkeys would huddle in corners, rocking back and forth, be unable to relate socially to other animals or reproduce.

Harlow's genius was to exploit this situation and construct well-controlled experiments that showed the bond between mother and child, and the desperate need rhesus monkeys have -- and by analogy, humans and other primates -- for a social support network. His most famous experiments involved two surrogate 'mothers', a cloth mother and a wire mother. Following the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, most psychologists considered breast feeding the primary impulse. The bond between mother and child were derived from the baby meeting its physical needs. Harlow showed that this is wrong, since even when only the wire mother lactated, baby monkeys would cling to the cloth mother, approaching the other only to suckle. When threatened, they would leap onto the cloth mother, seeking comfort. It was a stark snapshot of the bond between mother and child, a step forward in the scientific study of an aspect of love.

Blum's book is generally admirable, providing a well-written introduction to Harlow and his research. One criticism is that the references at the back of the book are given by chapter, not page, making it difficult to determine their relevance. Another drawback is that Blum seems less interested in Harlow's scientific research than in more general questions about psychology in the 20th century. This tendency to ask large questions made The Monkey Wars effective, but the lack of detail fails to capture Harlow, the working scientist. We hear about his battles with the psychological establishment, but don't learn when, where and how they took place. Blum tells us that Harry was a workaholic, whose extended family was his laboratory of researchers, but we rarely get a sense of its everyday workings. Harlow himself remains somewhat of a mystery, hidden behind a series of quips and limericks (he was given to leaving quirky poems on graduate students' desks). What was he aiming at? What did he expect? What obstacles did he encounter? What refinements were necessary?

These are minor criticisms, since the book aims only at presenting an overview of the science of affection and Harry Harlow's contribution. Still, it is useful to read Blum's biography along with Harlow's own The Human Model: Primate Perspectives, where he lucidly presents his life's research. Together, they provide a fascinating glance into the role of love in monkey and human nature.

 

Alex Sager writes about himself:

I'm a philosopher and writer, married to a Mexican lawyer.I am currently doing a Ph.D. in philosophy at L'Université de Montréal. In my thesis I am proposing a model of our moral psychology combining the insights of cognitive science, developmental psychology, evolutionary psychology and other disciplines. I believe that most philosophers are still using psychology from the 18th century, ignoring many of the recent scientific advances, and suggest that there is evidence our minds contain a number of innate, distinct faculties that allow us to make moral judgments in different domains.


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