Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Thoughts on Harry Harlow

The Four Corners show ‘Monkey Love’ on Monday night left me thinking again about the issue of animal rights and welfare. The program focused on the work of the American research psychologist, Harry Harlow, who performed controversial experiments on rhesus monkeys in an animal laboratory. Because monkeys could experience the emotions that humans feel, Harlow believed we could better understand how to raise human children by looking at how baby monkeys responded to alternative approaches to upbringing – this was superior to insights based on ‘rat-driven’ psychology since rats did not have these human capabilities.

Early experiments involved separating infant monkeys from their mother and providing surrogate ‘wire’ or ‘soft-cloth’ mothers. The infants preferred the soft-cloth mothers even though the wire mothers had the food supply. Harlow concluded that infants need ‘contact comfort’ as well as milk. He also experimented by placing baby monkeys in new or even frightening environments – those monkeys with a ‘soft cloth’ mother adapted better to such environments and having this sense of security even emboldened them to explore such environments.

Harlow’s work was useful in suggesting to human parents that physical contact (‘hugging’, ‘security’) were as important as providing food. It also promoted the role of motherhood and maternal love and nurturing. These precepts seem obvious today but this was not so in the 1940s and 1950s where the conventional wisdom was not to turn infants (particularly male infants) into ‘sooks’ or ‘sissies’ by comforting them if they cried or were unhappy. The experiments carried by Harlow to demonstrate these points clearly had damaging psychological and social consequences for the young monkeys – they seemed callously cruel - but there was a social payoff for humans in terms of better understanding the upbringing of children. .

But as Harlow continued his work he himself became subject to person problems. His first marriage collapsed and he became an alcoholic. He suffered depression, extreme 'status anxiety' and embarked on a new series of almost sinister experiments. The Four Corners program notes summarise the main idea:

‘On Harlow’s ‘Rape Rack’, disturbed female monkeys were forced to breed against their will. In his ‘Pit of Despair’, baby monkeys were left in total darkness for up to two years. With his ‘Iron Maiden’, infant monkeys were drawn to a placid surrogate mother that began suddenly to tear at their flesh.

Why? Bizarrely, it was all done in the name of love. Harlow was on a quest to understand the nature of love, especially the unique bond between mother and baby. Harlow believed that to understand the heart, he first had to break it.

Harlow’s defenders say that he brought love into science, and warmth into the way we parent our children; and that he influenced crucial policies that operate in today’s child welfare and birthing sectors.

But did he have to go to such extremes with his experiments? What are the limits to a scientist’s right to hurt animals? Was the animals’ suffering worth the knowledge we gained about raising children today?’

Harlow at times seemed almost to hate the animals he was experimenting on. ‘The only thing I care about is whether a monkey will turn out a property I can publish. I don't have any love for them. I never have. I don't really like animals. I despise cats. I hate dogs. How could you love monkeys?’ Indeed Harlow’s bizarre later experiments, that explored the depths of depression in animals by ‘breaking their hearts’, occurred while Harlow himself was severely depressed. One positive feature of these ghastly experiments is that they led to the animal liberation movement in the US and to thinking of ethical issues involved in human interactions with animals.

These ethical issues remind me of classical paradoxes in utilitarianism. Assuming that primates do experience pain in the way that humans do and that they have moral rights to be protected from the deliberate inflicting of pain, is it reasonable to make them suffer so that humans can derive what is claimed to be a great benefit? Primates are selected for these experiments because they react as humans might – they feel the same types of physical and emotional pains as humans.

From the viewpoint of pain and suffering inflicted, it is impossible morally to distinguish the case for using primates in such experiments rather than humans. Putting it even more starkly the moral problem here is close to the ‘ticking bomb’ problem – do humans have the right to torture a small group of humans to provide information that will provide great benefits such as preventing mass deaths due to a terrorist attack?

I was disturbed by Harry Harlow’s experiments though I recognise that child-rearers learnt a lot from them. I am not convinced that many of the insights were not rather obvious – that social animals, like monkeys, become psychotic when placed in a ‘pit of despair’ for two years is unsurprising. I also just empathise with the sufferings of these sentient beings. I am also disturbed by the bland approach that some psychologists take to the work of Harlow – consider this or this for example.

Finally, I was interested in the portrayal of Harlow as an aggressive, entrepreneurial, academic who was embarrassed by his own Jewish-sounding name and so changed it (he wasn’t Jewish). While preaching the value of motherhood and the love of children, he showed very little of it to his own children. His hatred of feminists and animal rights supporters became pathological and his collapse into alcoholism, depression and Parkinson’s Disease was a tragic conclusion to a strained and difficult life. His biography is Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection. I ordered it today.

14 comments:

Patrick said...

As a first-year soon-to-drop-philosophy student, I wrote a paper, only half-seriously, comparing the parallels between racial and sexual equality and animal liberation.

I concluded, from somewhat hazy memory , (no .DOC file of this!) that the recognition of animal rights was surely an inevitable consequence of ever-growing prosperity. I believe I compared recognising the 'rights' of 'other'-groups, be they black, female or orangutan, to vegetarianism - luxuries of the privileged.

I would largely disown the analysis and most of the reasoning but I can't convince myself of the error in the actual conclusion.

For my part, I'm anything but a vegetarian, I like my meat raw or as little cooked as possible, and haven't met a dish that I couldn't eat. I detest animal rights groups and cannot understand why the Japanese (and I for that matter) can't eat whales if they please. But for all that I would never myself be needlessly cruel to an animal nor condone such behaviour.

conrad said...

There are a few things to note:

1) Harlow did these experiments a long time ago. Looking through a 2006 perspective is biased.

2) We do stuff that is just as bad now. Single cell recording, the pharmecutical industry, some modern farming (let alone Southern China farming)! etc. They just don't seem as bad because we do them now, or have habituated to them.

3) The most harm we do to animals is thanks to things like deforestation and environmental degradation.

I think Harlow is unjustly singled out as the nasty guy.

hc said...

Patrick, The standard animal liberation story (e.g. Peter Singer) starts from the analogy between sexism and speciesism. Almost no-one advocates needlessly cruelty - the difficulty is cruelty with justification. There are questions about the justifiability of Harlow's experiments - were the results obvious?

Conrad, I did repeatedly say in the post that you needed to consider things historically. Some of the 'obvious' attitudes to nuturing might not have been obvious 60 years ago, agreed.

Harlow was a strange character. An innovative thinker but a bit of a showman who liked to irritate people.

Even with historical justification I find his experiments horrific.

Of course the fact that horrificly cruel practises towards animals are widely practised does not justify cruelty in a 'sanitized' laboratory.

Sam Ward said...

"One positive feature of these ghastly experiments is that they led to the animal liberation movement in the US"

And one positive feature of the cold war is that it led to the formation of Al Qaeda.

How can you possibly think the "animal liberation movement" is a good thing? They are terrorists who go out of their way to sabotage medical and scientific research.

I personally couldn't give a toss if 1 million monkeys have to die to find a cure for AIDS or cancer. They are monkeys, they are not people.

If the cost of curing cancer was the extinction of Chimpanzees, would you take it? I would.

hc said...

Sam there is some illogic here.

Not all animal liberationists are terrorists - most arn't. They are just people who care about animals.

Harlow didn't provide a cure for cancer - he provided guidance to families in bringing up kids. Most see this as a valuable output but some see it as unnecessary cruelty since the insights they claim are almost self-evident. And, yes, its true that most people are wise after the event.

Can I ask you this? Do you enjoy seeing an animal deliberately harmed? My guess is you don't. Like most people you do assign animals certain rights. The issue is where you draw the line on the extent of these rights.

The extreme animal libbers say animals should have the same rights as humans. With you I disagree. But I guess I would assign them greater rights to protection than you would. It is not a simple or obvious call.

Anonymous said...

I only watched the last 10 minutes of the program and found the images of the baby monkeys distressing and it angered me how sadistic and cold Harlow was in his experiments.

I am proud to say I am a believer in animal rights. In relation to Sam Ward's comments, animal right activists are not terrorists; they're people who care enough about animals to fight and protect their rights. Are you saying those white folks back in the 50's and 60's (or whenever) who fought for the rights of coloured people in the US terrorists? How about all those in South Africa who committed acts of violence to get their message about apartheid across to the wider public? Are they terrorists?

Sam Ward, you're a selfish, inconsiderate *** and I hope there's not more like you in this world.

NOTHING can justify the torture of animals. Killing an animal in an abottoir is more humane than what (so called) scientists do to animals, particularly social animals like chimpanzees, in a lab, who are tortured slowly to death. It's sick and people with Sam Ward's attitudes are sick!

A human life should not be seen as being more important than an animal life. My life is no more important than the life of those chimps in the labs. Certainly, Sam Ward's life is neither. Unlike "richard head", Sam Ward, I'd rather accept death than to use any of those medicines that are a result of cruel experiments performed by people who call themselves scientist.

conrad said...

I'm afraid to say I agree with the first part of Sam's comment -- most animal rights people are illogical, as is possible to see from the anonymous responses.

Killing an animal in an abbatoir isn't more humane than killing an animal in a lab (and you don't even need ethics approval), if the animal has to sit in conditions like most pig or chicken farms until it gets killed. I also doubt it is very much more fun than dying of starvation due to habitat destruction, climate change etc.

If animal rights people were really concerned about animal rights in a logical manner, then the latter two of these things are what they should be concentrating on, as the number of animals dying in cruel lab experiments is minute in comparison

Anonymous said...

In response to Harry, I agree with what you said, but I don't agree that animals should have lesser rights than humans. Why do you believe animals should not have the same rights as humans?

In response to Conrad, I don't support using animals as experiments (for whatever reasons) and I don't support killing animals for consumption (I am vegetarian).

The message I was trying to get across in my initial post is that animals, particularly chimps who are intelligent and social animals, suffer enormously when kept in cages injected with all sorts of diseases and then subjected to all sorts of medicine to see the side-effects. That sort of suffering cannot be equated to a cow's or a fish's life, who spends a relatively more idyllic life until we decide to kill them for meat.

Having said that, I don't support either. I'm merely making a comparison.

Animal rights activists are emotional and passionate about what we believe in, not illogical. People like Sam, and there are lots of them, make us even more passionate about protecting their rights.

BTW, I would have proudly put my name against my comments if I wasn't requested by someone to remain anonymous.

Sam Ward said...

"Can I ask you this? Do you enjoy seeing an animal deliberately harmed"

Of course not, Harry. I don't enjoy it all. I also don't enjoy taking out the garbage, cleaning my bathroom or brushing my teeth, but I do these things every day because they are necessary nonetheless.

Just because I support scientific and medical research doesn't mean I am a sadist. It would be great if there was a way to get the testing done without hurting any animals.

Unfortunately, there isn't.

You can't really test drugs on plants, and the only other option is testing it on people.

"Not all animal liberationists are terrorists - most arn't."

I take "animal liberationist" to mean "people who actively participate in jailbreaking animals from labs or farms". So yes, they are all terrorists. People like anonymous aren't animal liberationists, just greenie idiots.

"The issue is where you draw the line on the extent of these rights."

Very simple. The rights of animals end wherever and whenever human safety or property is threatened.

Im quite happy to watch the ants crawling along my footpath during the day. However if one bites me, it's dead. That's the long and the short of it.

As for Harlow, his experiments sound like a waste of time and money (not to mention monkeys). I find psychology and psychiatry to be bullshit at the best of times anyway.

I wasn't arguing with your assessment of his experiments, I was arguing with your implication that the rise of the animal liberation movement was a good thing. On the contrary, they have been nothing but a hindrance to science and a source of pissweak pseudo-scientific magazine articles since they began.

"A human life should not be seen as being more important than an animal life."

You're a moron, anonymous. By your standards, spraying a house for mosquitos to prevent malaria is genocide. You are a waste of oxygen who doesn't deserve the good fortune to be born into a scientifically advanced era.

FXH said...

I watched the program and I must admit it seemed hard looking at it from today's perpective as to why he would have even performed the experiments.

However I can remember when his cloth mothers stuff was used to persuade certain people and programs that warmth and hugging and relationships with say, mother, were important. It's not so long ago that this wasn't "common sense"

Julia said...

It is true that Harlow is often pictured as the "bad guy". I hardly think it is so.
As for his hate of Feminists, the outward expression of this was only a way of adjusting. If one were to ask his female students you would find he was not mean, sexually provocative, or rude. He was a joking kind of guy, but he never meant any real harm by it.

Now, on what Anonymous said,

"I only watched the last 10 minutes of the program and found the images of the baby monkeys distressing and it angered me how sadistic and cold Harlow was in his experiments."

Maybe you should have watched the whole program. Harlow only permitted experiments to take place if the researcher planned to attempt at fixing the damage. The monkeys were actually helped and the researchers develpoed "peer therapy" to coax the isolates out of their depression. It worked.

"Sam Ward, you're a selfish, inconsiderate *** and I hope there's not more like you in this world.

NOTHING can justify the torture of animals. Killing an animal in an abottoir is more humane than what (so called) scientists do to animals, particularly social animals like chimpanzees, in a lab, who are tortured slowly to death. It's sick and people with Sam Ward's attitudes are sick!

A human life should not be seen as being more important than an animal life. My life is no more important than the life of those chimps in the labs."

First of all, lets not call people names. If I can be an adult about this (and I'm almost positive I'm younger than you), then you can.

Second, Animals in labs are not tortured. Torture's definition is the deliberate, systematic, or wanton infliction of physical or mental suffering by one or more persons in an attempt to force another person to yield verbal information or to make a confession. In labs, animals are experimented on and observed for the bettering of human-kind. Are they confessing? No. Are they yeilding verbal information? No. Therefore, is it torture? No.

And Third, You really feel that an animal is equal to you? Would you let an animal vote? Would you let an animal have a job? I would certainly hope not. I see no reason to give animals rights to these things or anything else. I will take the side of the philosopher, Hobbes, they can have their rights if they can take them. Humans are the dominant species and our whole government works to keep us out of revolts. If the monkeys have a successful revolt (that is they gather their fellow monkeys and plan it, highy unlikely) then by god they'll have their freedom and their rights. But we are the more intelligent species and are in control of our surroundings.

Sam Ward,

"As for Harlow, his experiments sound like a waste of time and money (not to mention monkeys). I find psychology and psychiatry to be bullshit at the best of times anyway."

I completely agreed with you; with the exception of that quote. Just thought I'd notify you.

hc said...

Julia, I plan a post on a biography of Harry Harlow soon. He seemed to want to antagonise people. He was also cruel (or negligent) in relation to his own family.

But what a remarkable thinker.

Julia said...

He was a workaholic, so I'd agree to the statement that he was negligent. However, I still think that the antagonization was a coping method for the changing ways of America and his own personal troubles. I too believe he was quite the remarkable thinker. I think his ideas changed America and helped influence many other places.

Kristi/ Miracle Haven said...

He is my grandfather.



When my grandfather began his research, science implied there was no such thing as "LOVE". Today that's a wild notion, but then it was considered fact. He wanted to prove scientifically, there is such a thing as love. His life journey may seem bazzaar in hindsight, but then don't we all wish we "knew then what we know now" because hindsight is 20/20.



He had both pride and regrets. He was not heartless. At times, his staff was shocked and burdened by the level of suffering the primates manifested. They were not expecting the experiments to have such devastating effects and committed much research and effort to successfully rehabilitate many of the primates, who suffered. Their success at rehabilitation has not been explored to the extent I think it should have been. I think the insights would further revolutionize beliefs maintained by the mental care system.



He remarried my Gram, his first wife, when I was 2. I'm glad to have known him and had a Gramps to grow up with. His journey was difficult, but I am grateful for the insight we can (and should) apply to helping children, mental patients and orphans. His "mistakes" are in the past and we are left with opportunity to effect change w/o having to prove it is needed - because that's already been done.



His discoveries, along with the work of others in his field, had the positive effect of:



1)Allowing premie babies to be cuddled and held (instead of being isolated for fear of germ contamination. Many babies, who would have died, are alive because of this discovery.



2)Stopping the damaging practice of isolating children in orphanages.



3) Spearheading the concept of attachment so children who need foster care or adoption have a better chance of transitioning healthily.



4)Proving that play is an important part of human development and without proper play and separation, children do not develop certain coping and social skills.



5)Proving that emotional or physical abuse can cause mental "illness". Secondarily, that this illness can be therapeutically overcome or "healed".

I hope his contributions will make a positive difference, not because his experiments were right, but because we desperately need love.

Blessings,
Kristi Caggiano, 1st granddaughter of Harry F. Harlow