AHP: As a historian and philosopher of biology how did you first become interested in the various ways we’ve conceptualized human instincts and the nature of love?
I have always been interested in understanding our views on human nature because those views inform our ideas about how to lead a moral life. How should I act? What should I do in order to be a good person and have a life worth living? Those seem to me the most fundamental questions we all confront in our lives. The more we understand who we are, the better we will be able to answer those questions. Thus, very early in my philosophical and historical studies I wanted to explore what biology and psychology have to say about human nature.
A central debate in those fields focuses on how much and in what ways our biological constitution influences our mental and emotional makeup. Scientists have used different concepts over time: instincts, innate drives, evolutionary stable strategies, human nature, genetic makeup, … but the question is basically the same: how much does biology shape the way we think, feel, and act? The answer to that question is central for explaining human behavior in psychology and biology. In addition, it also informs our ideas about biological or environmental determinism, standards of normality, conceptions of ethics, and views about individual and social responsibility. Trying to understand all those fundamental issues and their interrelations is what led me to focus on instincts.
One striking feature of the discourse on instincts is the profound “gendering” of some behaviors and emotions. Although the search for instincts aims to locate those characteristics that are part of all human beings, many scientists claimed that human nature came in two forms: male and female. Aggession became the defining instinct for males. And the maternal instinct became the defining characteristic of women’s nature. But how did love become “gendered”? How can we differentiate maternal and parental love? And how did we come to think that maternal love is fundamental to the emotional development of a child?
In this book, I explore ideas about mother love in the United States from World War II until the 1970s. My central claim is that during that period prominent researchers from various fields of study established the view that emotions are an integral part of the self and that mother love determines an individual’s emotional development. One theory in particular played a key role in the establishment and permanence of those views: John Bowlby’s ethological theory of attachment behavior. This was not the only theory that put forth maternal care and love as the cradle of the emotional self, but it has become the most enduring and successful one. My book tries to explain why.
The notion that maternal care and love will determine a child’s emotional well-being and future personality has become ubiquitous. In countless stories and movies we find that the problems of the protagonists—anything from the fear of romantic commitment to serial killing—stem from their troubled relationships with their mothers during childhood. How did we come to hold these views about the determinant power of mother love over an individual’s emotional development? And what does this vision of mother love entail for children and mothers?
In The Nature and Nurture of Love, Marga Vicedo examines scientific views about children’s emotional needs and mother love from World War II until the 1970s, paying particular attention to John Bowlby’s ethological theory of attachment behavior. Vicedo tracks the development of Bowlby’s work as well as the interdisciplinary research that he used to support his theory, including Konrad Lorenz’s studies of imprinting in geese, Harry Harlow’s experiments with monkeys, and Mary Ainsworth’s observations of children and mothers in Uganda and the United States. Vicedo’s historical analysis reveals that important psychoanalysts and animal researchers opposed the project of turning emotions into biological instincts. Despite those criticisms, she argues that attachment theory was paramount in turning mother love into a biological need. This shift introduced a new justification for the prescriptive role of biology in human affairs and had profound—and negative—consequences for mothers and for the valuation of mother love.
Interested in learning more about history of scientific views on human instincts? Marga Vicedo (whose work has been featured on AHP here and here) discusses this history in the video above, focusing especially on the history of views on maternal instincts. Vicedo is currently at work on a manuscript entitled “Human Nature and Mother Love: The Search for the Maternal Instinct,” in which she explores evolving views on human instincts from the nineteenth century to the present. Among those whose work Vicedo discusses in the video are ethologist Konrad Lorenz, psychologist Harry Harlow, and psychoanalyst John Bowlby. It is the work of such individuals on attachment theory that has been used as a basis for the idea that individuals have an innate need for mother love. Vicedo argues that the idea that there is an innate need for mother love has been largely accepted by society, with important social consequences.
The September 2011 issue of the British Journal for the History of Science (BJHS) has been released online. Included in this issue are two articles of interest to historians of psychology. The first, by Marga Vicedo of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology at the University of Toronto, examines the American reception of John Bowlby’s (left) work on attachment in the 1950s. Part of Vicedo’s ongoing project on “Human Nature and Mother Love: The Search for the Maternal Instinct” the paper examines Bowlby’s contention that mother love was a biological need and the social ramifications of this contention. Also in this issue of BJHS is an article by Chris Renwick in which Renwick explores the motivations behind Francis Galton’s proposed eugenic programme and argues that Galton’s eugenic ideas were influence more by the social than biological science. Titles, authors, and abstracts follow below.
“The social nature of the mother’s tie to her child: John Bowlby’s theory of attachment in post-war America,” by Marga Vicedo. The abstract reads,
This paper examines the development of British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby’s views and their scientific and social reception in the United States during the 1950s. In a 1951 report for the World Health Organization Bowlby contended that the mother is the child’s psychic organizer, as observational studies of children worldwide showed that absence of mother love had disastrous consequences for children’s emotional health. By the end of the decade Bowlby had moved from observational studies of children in hospitals to animal research in order to support his thesis that mother love is a biological need. I examine the development of Bowlby’s views and their scientific and social reception in the United States during the 1950s, a central period in the evolution of his views and in debates about the social implications of his work. I argue that Bowlby’s view that mother love was a biological need for children influenced discussions about the desirability of mothers working outside the home during the early Cold War. By claiming that the future of a child’s mind is determined by her mother’s heart, Bowlby’s argument exerted an unusually strong emotional demand on mothers and had powerful implications for the moral valuation of maternal care and love.
“From political economy to sociology: Francis Galton and the social-scientific origins of eugenics,” by Chris Renwick. The abstract reads,
Having coined the word ‘eugenics’ and inspired leading biologists and statisticians of the early twentieth century, Francis Galton is often studied for his contributions to modern statistical biology. However, whilst documenting this part of his work, historians have frequently neglected crucial aspects of what motivated Galton to establish his eugenics research programme. Arguing that his work was shaped more by social than by biological science, this paper addresses these oversights by tracing the development of Galton’s programme, from its roots in a debate about political economy to his appeals for it to be taken up by sociologists. In so doing, the paper not only returns Galton’s ideas to their original context but also provides a reason to reflect on the place of the social sciences in history-of-science scholarship.
The most recent issue of the Journal of the History of the Behavorial Sciences contains several articles on the history of mother-child research. In her article, Marga Vicedo, whose historical work on Konrad Lorenz and mother-child research has previously been discussed on AHP, examines the now infamous work of Harry Harlow on mother love. In “Mothers, machines, and morals: Harry Harlow’s work on primate love from lab to legend” Vicedo examines the oft perpetuated results of Harlow’s attachment research with rhesus monkeys.
In her article, “‘Monkeys, babies, idiots'” and ‘primitives’: Nature-nurture debates and philanthropic foundation support for American anthropology in the 1920s and 1930s,” Kersten Jacobson Biehn looks specifically at the history of American cultural anthropology. Jacobson Biehn’s abstract reads, Continue reading History of Mother-Child Research in JHBS→