Psychologist Harry Harlow proved that children need warmth and affection -- but he tormented dozens of monkeys to do it.
The psychologist Harry Harlow was a workaholic, a drunk, a bad father, a neglectful husband and, arguably, an unethical scientist. If his name isn’t ringing any bells, that may be why. But Harlow also revolutionized psychology. As Deborah Blum’s painstakingly fair “Love at Goon Park” conveys, Harlow’s uglier foibles are the fraying edges of an eccentric figure. At his center, though, Harlow was committed to an undeniably good cause: love.
Such complexities make Harry Harlow a biographer’s dream — and nightmare. Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and self-described “primate junkie,” criticized Harlow for his treatment of primates in her book “The Monkey Wars.” It’s clear that in this effort she wants to give Harlow’s science, if not necessarily Harlow himself, its due. Regardless, it’s a wonderfully written and maddening book, provoking, by turns, both delight and horror.
Born in small-town Iowa in 1905, Harlow was a dreamy but ambitious child who made it to Stanford University and, after doing poorly on an English paper, abandoned writing for psychology. (He continued to take notes in verse.) Having the last name Israel didn’t make applying for professorships easy in the anti-Semitic 1930s, so the Episcopalian Harry Israel became Harry Harlow and gained a position at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Off-campus at 600 N. Park — an address often typographically mistaken for “Goon Park” — Harlow built a primate lab and started to work on the then-bizarre theory that mother and child have a unique and vitally important relationship.
For Harlow, love was a common-sense affair; humans must have it to prosper and to be happy, and he intended to prove this. Blum evocatively illustrates Harlow’s campaign as a brave, uphill battle, but it’s a formidable task to demonstrate this to modern readers. We take the need for maternal love and affection for granted; whatever we may have heard about our stricter, less indulgent grandparents, we assume that mothers always touched and held their babies, that they knew that anything short of constant tenderness was cruel. Not so.
Until Harlow’s substantive research appeared in the 1950s, psychologists were vehemently anti-cuddling. Freud thought parental love childish and narcissistic. In the 1920s, John B. Watson, a president of the American Psychology Association who dreamed of motherless baby farms, warned: “When you are tempted to pet your child remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument.” According to the experts, such excess caused irreparable damage that would turn babies into dependent adolescents and dysfunctional spouses. Likewise, physicians, facing hysteria over childhood disease, argued for sterility and isolation when dealing with children: “Human contact was the ultimate enemy of health,” Blum writes of the prevailing attitude. A rigidly enforced distance would save babies from their dirty, decadent mothers.
The alliance forged by physicians and psychologists yielded parenting manuals that advocated tepid mother-child relations. Meanwhile, psychologists continued to push the envelope when it came to recommending physical isolation, the apotheosis of which was B.F. Skinner’s notion that babies were better off being raised in a box. (If we’re lucky, a biography of Debbie Skinner, the box baby, is next on Blum’s list.) The controlled nature of box-rearing appealed more to Harlow’s colleagues than unquantifiable ideas about affection did; psychologists were anxious for the rest of the world to recognize their field as serious and methodical.
“If love couldn’t be measured, it wasn’t real,” Blum writes. “And if it wasn’t real, it could be done without.” To Harlow, “it was as if the whole world were colluding to pretend that our first loves, those of childhood, don’t matter at all.” While observers in orphanages and hospitals argued that loneliness threatened children’s lives, they lacked the scientific data likely to attract respect and acclaim. Harlow, the “blue-collar scientist,” supplied the proof they needed.
One of Harlow’s most significant and famous experiments was a series involving monkey babies and fake mothers. Some stand-in moms were made of cloth, others of stiff wire. The baby monkeys preferred the plushy cloth mothers even when the wire moms were the only ones rigged with milk bottles. Still, the cloth mothers weren’t enough. Eventually, when the unloved babies grew up to be withdrawn adults, Harlow reasoned that babies needed to be hugged back, as well. To a baby, Harlow believed, the need for mother love was similar to an addiction.
Harlow wanted to determine just how desperate the monkey babies could become in their craving for affection. (Blum’s descriptions of Harlow’s most terrifying experiments still make me ill.) He rigged some cloth mothers with air-blasters, others with blunt-tipped thrusting spikes. Some shook the baby monkey until its bones rattled. Another type flung the baby to the floor.
What were the results? If the monkey babies could, they clung to their “monster” mothers even harder, scurrying back even when thrown off, showing the dummy mothers even more love than before, with increasing vigor, begging to be accepted and risking physical pain again and again. With real mothers, the results were the same: “No matter how abusive the mothers were, the babies persisted in returning,” wrote Harlow.
Harry Harlow was determined to go as far as possible to understand the darker side of love. He observed how his ill-raised monkeys, many of them psychopathic, behaved, especially when raising their own young. (They would crush their babies’ skulls and chew off their toes.) Inspired by what he saw in his dysfunctional subjects, Harlow sought to unmask the neglect and loneliness he believed to be the cause of depression, a condition he felt “results from social separation when the subject loses something of significance, has nothing with which to replace the loss, and is incapable of altering this predicament by its own actions.”
Harlow placed monkeys in a featureless, vertical isolation chamber that he called “the pit of despair” for a month. These monkeys would emerge psychologically ruined, unable to function in normal monkey society. Why did Harlow inflict such patently terrible suffering by secluding living things at the bottom of what even he called a dungeon? “Because that’s how it feels when you’re depressed,” Harlow said.
According to Blum, Harlow was all too familiar with depression and isolation, although, except for a brief stint at a mental hospital, the scientist never spent time rotting in an actual pit. Blum suggests that Harlow was profoundly lonely after his divorce from his first wife in 1946, after 14 years of marriage: “We aren’t meant to be alone,” Harlow said. “Isolation is only a punishment.” But from Blum’s too-hazy depiction, it’s hard to conclude that Harlow’s personal life directly affected his professional endeavors. His first marriage — a failure due to his neglect of his wife and two children — is covered in a disappointing handful of pages.
Harlow remarried in 1948 and was a better husband and father the second time around. Did Harlow’s experiments on love and childhood force him to face his own inadequacies as a parent? That’s difficult to say for sure, but what’s clear is that, while losing his second wife to cancer and corrosively depressed, stumbling around drunk, cigarettes burning down to his fingers, Harlow began to conduct his harsher isolation and depression experiments.
His eccentricity also devolved into deliberate provocation. When confronted by a feminist movement in full swing — one none too happy with Harlow’s suggestion that mothers need to spend a lot of time at home with their young — Harlow shot back with caustic commentary, burying himself deeper in what seemed like chauvinistically motivated science. “Isolation-reared monkeys were forever confined to a stage of infantilism,” Harlow once said, “which wasn’t so bad if you were a female.”
These are some of the most vivid passages in “Love at Goon Park”; when he’s falling apart, Blum’s Harlow comes alive. It’s also at the end that Blum takes a deep breath and tackles Harlow’s treatment of animals. Harlow remained unapologetic for his scientific sins — “If my work will point this out and save only one million human children, I really can’t get overly concerned about 10 monkeys” — and his biographer seems more heartbroken about it than harshly critical. “The path to wisdom isn’t well marked,” she writes.
It might have been more helpful, and maybe more interesting, to consider the ethical issues of Harlow’s experiments as they unfolded, as Harlow and his family of graduate students observed the destruction that science can wreak. Blum’s biography has the advantage of hindsight, of knowing how important the results would be. And as much as we admire Harry Harlow, poetic doctor of maternal love at the book’s beginning, we are forced to confront the dreadful question that haunts his story: How much suffering is justified by the imperatives of science? Is Harlow’s legacy, our understanding of child abuse or our use of “touch therapy,” worth the pain his experiments caused?
Blum’s greatest feat — more so than having written the type of cultural history that tingles with the discovery of new ideas — is that you neither worship nor revile Harry Harlow by the end of “Love at Goon Park.” You are humbled by his brilliant work, torn apart over his cruel methods and ultimately grateful to live, and love, in a post-Harlow age.