Science, Fallibility and Love

Harry Harlow with a “wire mother” surrogate nurse and a rhesus monkey subject

Hard as it is to believe, during the early Twentieth Century, a whole school of mental health professionals decided that unconditional love was a terrible thing to give a child. The government printed pamphlets warning mothers against the dangers of holding their kids. The head of the American Psychological Association and even a mothers’ organization endorsed the position that mothers were dangerous — until psychologist Harry Harlow set out to prove them wrong, through a series of experiments with monkeys. Host Ira Glass talks with Deborah Blum, author of Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection.

~ NPR, This American Life, episode 317, “Unconditional Love“, 15 Sep 2006

I recently listened to the above NPR podcast of This American Life, and it apparently was a rebroadcast of an earlier one (now I know why the numbers were oddly arranged).  It was one of those things, that so often happens, that fell into my lap at a specific time and in a specific way that demanded an article to be made out of it.

The podcast pondered whether or not there is such a thing as unconditional love.  The first story was background material on studies of love, but in particular that of Harry Harlow.  He pondered whether or not children, and by extension human beings, need love to survive and thrive.

The last two stories give heart-wrenching stories of families that have to deal with mental and emotional difficulties in their children.  The first was an adopted son with severe issues that don’t immediately surface, and the second was their own genetic offspring that becomes larger and more violent as time goes on.  Each family has to weigh as to whether or not they should institutionalize the individual, if for no other reason than to literally protect the safety of the other family members.  They ponder the meaning of unconditional love, and it wasn’t just a one time philosophical thought for them.  If you have time, you may want to listen to their stories and ponder for yourself the same types of questions.

My intent is not to focus in so much on the last two stories but rather on the story of Dr Harry Harlow, the psychologist who performed the experiments on the rhesus monkeys,  and on the state of psychology at that time.  It’s actually been a long time since I’ve thought about his experiments, and the versions I had previously read somehow now seem quite sanitized.

I have little doubt that Harlow had some issues of his own, and his experiments were so cruel that they are credited with the birth of the animal liberation movement in the United States.  One of his colleagues who agreed with crediting the rise of that movement to Harlow’s experiments also stated that Harlow would go beyond what was considered reasonable in his experiments and often gave arbitrary and cruel names to some of his props and tools.

I suppose that the lessons that could be drawn from this story could be many, but in keeping within the context of this blog I wish to narrow it down to two real lessons.

“It’s Just a Theory”

The first thing that struck me about the story was the environment in which Harlow’s experiments sprang from.  Disturbed or not, he went against prevailing notions that today would seem quite odd.  He obviously believed love was important — important enough to study.

One of the things the podcast had stressed in the beginning was that behaviorists like John B Watson warned against “motherly affection” as “dangerous”!  While I am not sure about the entire “Train a Child” theory of child rearing (and even have some concerns about it), they do give a good quote from Watson:

…Robert Karen (1994) states, “In his famous 1928 book on child rearing, Watson wrote: ‘Treat them as though they were young adults.  Dress them, bathe them with care and circumspection.  Let your behavior always be objective and kindly firm.  Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit on your lap.  If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight.  Shake hands with them in the morning.  Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinary good job of a difficult task'” (p. 3).  The behaviorists were perhaps the first “baby trainers” believing that as long as the infant’s physical needs were met within a strict schedule, the infant should not be coddled….

~ Why Not Train a Child?, “Attachment Theory- Why NOT to Train a Baby

On the podcast, it is stated that when Watson was asked how often was too often to “kiss them on the forehead”, his answer was once a year!

One reason I wanted to point out the Why Not Train a Child? article is because they provide more details about a study on infant hospitalism.  Infants were breastfed by their mothers, or, if their mothers were not available, they were breastfed by one of the other mothers.  This happened for the first three months, and afterwards the infants were separated from their mothers.  They were given all the physical care they needed, but each nurse had 8 -12 babies to look after, so their emotional needs could not be adequately addressed.  Eventually, motor development halted.  They stopped crying, and they just laid there.  34 out of 91 children died by their 2nd birthday.  Those placed in loving homes after two or more years were 45% of what was considered normal development.

Yet, in spite of this and other evidence, the psychologists and medical professionals were pushing the idea that motherly love was smothering love as far as development goes.

What to bring away from this?  If nothing else, it should be realized that the ideas promoted at this time were “just theories”.  Science admits it can and will be wrong, and so adjustments in knowledge, new theories, more discovery, more experiments, etc., are constantly needed.  Science is built on theory, and hopefully it relies heavily upon verifiable facts as input to those theories.

However, theories are nonetheless man-made.  Even theories like Einstein’s Theory of Relativity have been shown to have holes in them.  Einstein himself wasn’t satisfied with the theory and continued searching for the “theory of everything” the rest of his life.  By definition, previous theories must be discarded and new ones take their place if science is to learn and grow.

There isn’t anything inherently wrong with that notion when it comes to the physical sciences.  Life is about learning, and one often learns best from their mistakes.  Some of the best discoveries only took place after numerous mistakes.  In fact, some huge mistakes were later made into some pretty wonderful inventions.  The Post-it Note was initially a failed experiment in coming up with a super glue.

A Christian can easily understand the cliché “it’s just a theory”, for it carries with it the valid notion that theories, scientific or not, are man-made, subject to correct and inherently fallible.  It isn’t necessarily a slam against science (although admittedly that is the way some use it).  It shouldn’t be considered as such, in fact, for even science itself admits that science is a learning adventure of discovery in which there will be missteps along the way.

It also points out that the “experts” are often wrong.  Just because someone engages in science, claims to hold to the objective and rational view or states they only believe in what can be observed, does not mean they are correct.  James B Watson was not correct, and he is only one example in a long list of “experts” that were wrong!

Now, if God, religion and the Bible are all likewise man-made inventions, then they too will be fallible and wrong.  However, if the Bible is divinely inspired and carries objective truth, then it cannot by definition be wrong.  The participants in the stories in it can be wrong, but God’s utterances will not be.

So, while “it’s just a theory” stings a bit to the objective scientist (I’ll wait while the irony catches up), and perhaps it is not the best choice of words (especially when people ignorantly sling around slogans without discerning their true meaning), there is a justification for the sentiment behind it.

Attachment Theory Vs Love

Harlow set out to study love, but like all experiments, he had to narrow down the problem to a manageable size.  So, he chose to experiment on rhesus monkeys and attachments to their mothers.  Or, should I say he set out to study attachments to surrogates?

There were two “mothers” set up.  One was simply a wire monkey, and another was similar but covered in soft cushioning and terry cloth on top.  The first was obviously a rather cold and hard device, literally, and the second was soft and could collect body heat.  Which would the infant monkey bond with?

With that set up, one group of monkeys was fed by the wire mother.  Both groups were observed, but there was little difference in the time that the monkeys spent with the terry cloth mother.  The group fed by the wire mothers would only approach her when they were hungry.  Some would wait until they were very hungry, in fact.  One picture of Harlow’s monkeys even shows one with its lower claws clutching the terry cloth mother while stretching over to the wire mother to feed.

Harlow even desired to explore the notion of an abusive mother to see if the monkey could be persuaded to cling to the wire mother more often.  He called these the “evil mothers”, and they would shake vigorously, requiring the monkeys to hang on with all they had or risk being flung off.  The monkeys always returned to the terry cloth mother, and none of them would bond with the wire mother in spite of all of this.

Critics of Harlow say, among other things, that what he really was studying was attachment.  He was studying the familial bond between infant and mother.  That may be true, but is that not a type of love?

I don’t know about you, but I would bet my cat loves me.  I know this because I’m the only one she won’t hiss at, and she begs me for attention from time to time even when she’s not hungry.  It may not be human love, it may be a more elemental love, but it is love nonetheless.

Human beings may not be rhesus monkeys, but I do not doubt the need for attachment/love is still there.  In fact, it was things like the condition of hospitalized infants of the day that drove Harlow to search out if love is real and needed.  It was a committed love that won out in the second story of the NPR podcast, although there is an interesting twist to it at the end.

One more thing should be noted.  Harlow might be legitimately criticized for his tactics.  Many have considered his experiments cruel.  However, he did make an effort to rehabilitate the monkeys used in the experiments.  The interesting thing?  Not a one was able to be rehabilitated, and every single one had difficulties relating to other monkeys or being parents of other monkeys.

What Is Love?

What all of this should do is challenge our traditional views on love and challenge the way we look at and define it.  I believe HWA had a decent working definition of love, but:

  • I believe we need to move beyond it for there is so much more to it.  There is love, and there are different types of love, and there are different facets of love.  HWA had a knack for distilling things down to a single point, but the downside is that slogans can gloss over or even trivialize all the nuances and details involved.
  • Some, and especially some of those who like to invoke HWA’s name in the discussion, have perverted even his limited definition of love.  He was quite specific about how he defined it, and he was quite specific on how it is shown.  Too many have taken to defining love by how it is shown, and that is a confusing and illogical message to send out to the world who desperately needs a clear idea of God’s love.

This article started with a look at NPR’s This American Life podcast asking if unconditional love exists.  It discusses the psychological need for love in humans, and then it details two other stories on the difficulties of families dealing with emotional problems that are out of control and weighing exactly what is the right thing to do for everyone concerned.  Does unconditional love exist?  Is it enough?

Well, the second question of whether or not it is enough probably isn’t all that black and white.  “Enough for what?” would be my natural pushback.  To a large extent, there’s the rub.  Different people have different goals, and that includes the people who need love the most.  If love is a war, then the stories in that podcast certainly bear out that sometimes it is a war of wills as well as a test of unconditional love.

In that respect, it should point out the truth that unconditional love does not mean the object of that love can unconditionally act in a self-willed manner.  That is an important item to ponder when considering the unconditional love of God.  The stories in the podcast show that unconditional love is not a license to do harm.  God defines sin as harmful.

However, I hope we all know and agree that unconditional love does exist.  It exists in spite of what we do.  However, we are still required to latch onto it in order for it to be any benefit to us at all.  Still, God extends unconditional love towards humanity in this respect:

16 For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.

Jn 3:16

The question isn’t whether or not it exists.  The question is whether or not it will be valued and even treasured by each and every one of us.


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