Although “Wire Mothers” highlights several aspects of Harlow’s career and alludes to the work of Pavlov, Watson, and Skinner, the bulk of the story focuses on Harlow’s best known work with infant rhesus monkeys beginning in the late 1950s. These studies included questions related to the fear responses of these animals (see some original footage), the effects of contact comfort (see The Nature of Love), and the effects of social isolation (see Total Isolation in Monkeys). The authors also seem to capture a fair characterization of Harlow himself.
Overall, the project is well done – ex. the wire and cloth “mothers” will be easily recognizable to Historians of Psychology – and even concludes with a two page list of recommended primary and secondary source readings. This could be a great way to introduce our students to the topic – or perhaps just a fun read this summer when you want to goof off but still feel productive.
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.
For your Friday viewing (and listening) pleasure, we bring you a love song on Harry Harlow’s famous maternal separation and social isolation experiments. In Harlow’s experiments, rhesus monkeys were forced to choose between a terrycloth surrogate mother and a wire surrogate mother equipped with food. Ultimately, the monkeys preferred contact comfort over food, only going to the wire monkey for as long as it took to eat. Set to the tune of Jason Mraz’s “I’m Yours,” the song in the video above tells the story of monkeys forced to choose between contact comfort and food. The video was created by teacher Brad Wray and his students at Arundel High School in Maryland.
Read more about Harlow in the recent Observer piece, Love According to Harry Harlow, wherein Deborah Blum revisits a Psychology Today interview with Harlow from 1973. Download the 1973 interview with Harlow here.
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 June 2010 issue of History of Psychiatry, dedicated to “A Hundred Years of Evolutionary Psychiatry (1872-1972),” has just been released online. This special issue features a number of articles of interest to historians of psychology, including, among others, an article on Harry Harlow (left) and the nature of love by Marga Vicedo of the Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology and an article on the work of Lauretta Bender and the African American psyche by Denis Doyle. Titles, authors and abstracts to these and the other articles in the June issue follow below.
“The evolutionary turn in psychiatry: A historical overview,” by Pieter R. Adriaens and Andreas De Block. The abstract reads:
Ever since Darwin, psychiatrists have been tempted to put evolutionary theory to use in their efforts to understand and explain various aspects of mental disorders. Following a number of pivotal developments in the history of evolutionary thought, including degeneration theory, ethology and the modern synthesis, this introductory paper provides an overview of the many trends and schools in the history of ‘psychiatric Darwinism’ and ‘evolutionary psychiatry’. We conclude with an attempt to distinguish three underlying motives in asking evolutionary questions about mental disorders.
“Schizophrenia, evolution and the borders of biology: On Huxley et al.’s 1964 paper in Nature,” by Raf De Bont. The abstract reads: Continue reading →
As described on the Mind Changers website, in the 30 minute program, host Claudia Hammond,
visits the Primate Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin, where Harlow conducted his experiments, and meets his former assistant, Helen LeRoy, and the current director of the lab, Professor Christopher Coe. At the University of Massachussets, Amherst, she meets Harlow’s last PhD student, now Chair of Psychology, Professor Melinda Novak. She also talks to Roger Fouts, Professor of Psychology at the University of Central Washington, about the perceived cruelty of Harlow’s work, and to Dr John Oates, lecturer in the Centre for Childhood, Development and Learning at the Open University.
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 →