Interview with Marga Vicedo on The Nature and Nurture of Love

AHP is pleased to present an interview with historian of science Marga Vicedo on her recent book The Nature and Nurture of Love: From Imprinting to Attachment in Cold War AmericaThe full interview follows below. Many thanks to Marga for agreeing to be interviewed!

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.

AHP: What were some of the factors that supported the post-WWII move toward envisioning maternal love as a biological instinct?

In my view, WWII played a key role by fostering widespread concern about the role of emotions in human behavior as well as concern about children. In turn, the interest in the formation of the emotional self was crucial to the rise of child psychoanalysis and psychiatry around and after World War II. Both factors encouraged research on mother love and love for mother. For example, given the widespreach worry about the devastating effects of war on children, the World Health Organization commissioned a study to find out what children need to become physically and emotionally healthy. British psychoanalyst and psychiatrist John Bowlby (1907-90) was selected for this task. Relying on psychoanalytic studies of maternal deprivation as well as his own studies on child delinquency, Bowlby identified the mother as the psychic organizer of her child’s mind. Children without mother love, he claimed, grow up to be affectionless criminals, psychopaths, or neurotic, aggressive, oversexed, and anxious individuals.

The precipitating factor leading to the conception of mother love as a biological need was Bowlby’s encounter with the work of animal researchers Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen. Lorenz and Tinbergen became highly successful in promoting the new science of ethology as the biological study of instincts and in defending their conception of social behavior as a matter of instincts. Bowlby adopted their views about instincts and appealed to the authority of biology to argue that children’s need for maternal love was instinctual and the result of our evolutionary history. Lorenz supported Bowlby’s views and this afforded them tremendous credibility in many circles.

AHP: In The Nature and Nurture of Love you explore the work of prominent figures like Konrad Lorenz, John Bowlby, Mary Ainsworth, and Harry Harlow. To what extent were these researchers in conversation with one another about their work?

The postwar years and cold war era saw a great deal of interdisciplinary connections and debates. Psychologists such as Harry Harlow and Mary Ainsworth, psychiatrists and psychoanalysts such as John Bowlby and René Spitz, anthropologists such as Margaret Mead, comparative psychologists such as Danniel Lehrman, and ethologists such a Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen talked to each other frequently in interdisiciplinary meetings held in different locations: Palo Alto, London, New York, and other places. Their work often developed in response to each other’s criticisms and their ideas reflect those influences.

I believe that one of the contributions of my book is to show how the discussion about children’s needs and especifically Bowlby’s and Ainsworth’s ideas on mother-infant attachment were developed within that interdisciplinary context. I also show how scholars from different fields, including psychoanalysis, animal studies, and psychology, criticized their views. Bowlby and Ainsworth often ignored those criticisms. In a sense, they used interdisciplinarity to their own advantage. They often appealed to the authority of biology to justify their views. However, when their views were criticized, they argued that the critics did not understand modern biology.

AHP: What were some of the larger social consequences that came along with conceptualizing mother love as a biological instinct? To what extent do concerns about biological determinism come to the fore in your history of research on mother love?

Attachment theory built on and contributed to evolutionary accounts of human behavior and, more specifically, to explanations of human social behavior and emotions that gave a large role to instincts. In doing so, this theory played a key role in a renewed biologization of human behavior and emotions, with important implications for our understanding of maternal love and gendered parental roles. Now, the notion that children’s early relationship with their mothers determines their future personalities has become ubiquitous. In practically any story or movie we find that the problems of the protagonists—from fear of romantic commitment to serial killing—stem from their troubled relationship with their mothers during childhood. Behind every adult vice lies a mother lacking in virtue, a mother who was unwilling or unable to devote all her love and attention to her infant. Moreover, in the wider society this view influences personal decisions, social expectations, and public policies about custody cases, adoptions, orphanages, and child care in general.

This is a pretty deterministic view about the role of biology in human emotions. The ethological theory of attachment postulates that babies and mothers are born with a repertoire of responses that evolved through natural selection in the human “environment of evolutionary adaptedness,” the ancestral environment in which human beings evolved. In Bowlby’s view, because the mother is part of the child’s “environment,” her responses must not deviate from the range of behaviors designed by natural selection and needed for the survival of her children and therefore the species. Deviations from the patterns established by natural selection will lead to “maladaptive patterns of social behavior.” According to Bowlby’s formulation, nature and nurture had reached a functional balance whose disruption could only have detrimental effects. This position provided a functionalist justification of gender roles with strong deterministic consequences. The natural became the normal because of its adaptive value. It was also the good because it worked to ensure society’s survival. This vision of a mother-infant dyad designed by evolution entails a normative model of motherhood. In this picture, our past evolutionary history has set clear constraints on our capacity to develop new ways of parenting without disrupting the optimal natural order.

But by naturalizing maternal love, I claim, Bowlby’s theory of attachment behavior devalued maternal sentiments and provided a new justification for gendered parental roles. For Bowlby, natural selection constructed children in such a way that they function properly only with the right amount and type of maternal love. Bowlby’s views about children’s instinctual need for mother love exerted a strong emotional demand on mothers and contributed to an increasing discourse of mother blame. In addition, by turning mother love into an evolutionarily programmed behavior and emotion, proponents of attachment theory left maternal sentiments outside the realm of moral value and praise.

AHP: Do we continue to understand maternal care and love as a biological instinct, or have we come to see mother love as more socially contingent?

In the last couple of decades, studies in the sociology and history of science as well as important work in the history of the family and emotions have shown that conceptions of motherhood and views about emotions are influenced by cultural traditions and historical conditions. We are therefore less likely to accept simplistic views about human emotions being determined by biological instincts.

However, aggression and maternal love remain the two areas in which biology is often accepted as playing a large role. This is not because we have strong and conclusive scientific evidence showing how biology shapes our behavior in those realms. In fact, establishing the nexus between our biological makeup and our behavior and emotions remains extremely difficult. Despite much publicized news about hormones, genetics, and brain research, we are very far from knowing how genes, hormones, and neural pathways can help explain why and how human beings love, hate, envy, or admire others. When those fields advance further, they will illuminate some issues. But I have no doubt that it will also become even clearer that the reasons with some mothers love their babies and others kill them, or why some individuals act aggressively in some situations, is not only a matter of genes, hormones, and neurons.

Practically any scientist would accept this statement today and recognize that individual and social human behavior has to be explained within a complex web of interelated and interacting biological, psychological, and social factors. Probably most scientists would also say that the debate about whether nature or nature determines human behavior is outdated. Yet, we continue to see simplistic accounts of human behavior in the news and even in scientific reports.

The answer as to why our views about the “natural” basis for those emotions are so resilient is complex and I don’t claim to understand the issue fully. I believe an important factor is the increasing visibility of biological explanations of human behavior due to the success of genetics and evolutionary psychology. In fact, the advances in molecular genetics, impressive as they are, still have little to say about behavior. Nevertheless, evolutionary psychology is pretty sucessful in providing easily understandable possible explanations for human behavior that have become quite popular in the larger society.

In the area of maternal care and love, although some psychological and psychoanalytic research that contributed to the discourse of mother love and mother blame in the postwar era did not survive into later periods, Bowlby’s ethological theory of attachment behavior actually became more widely accepted in psychology and the wider culture. His appeal to biology became crucial here, especially his notion of the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, the one in which the basic instinctual responses characteristic of the mother-infant dyad were established.

Yet this particular way of constructing human nature and viewing human emotions was based on a specific view of evolution that received pointed criticism and was fostered by particular sociocultural circumstances. Recovering the history of those criticisms is important for assessing the validity of scientific ideas that continue to inform our beliefs and shape our feelings. I think one of the most important contributions of my book is the “recovery” of those criticims. As I explain in the conclusion to the book, many of them have not yet been adequately addressed.

AHP: Is there anything else you would like to tell AHP’s readers?

The analysis in this book aims to show that science has played a key role in shaping our views about two basic emotions: mother love and love for the mother. I believe we still need to investigate how science and society have constructed the nexus among the biological, the emotional, and the moral selves. We need to examine how biological, psychological, and moral categories interact with each other and influence our social visions. I think this is important because those views shape the way we think and feel about ourselves, the way we construct and measure our lives.

I hope many AHP readers will join my quest to understand these issues better. Please, read my book. Enjoy it, discuss it, criticize it, and use it to increase our knowledge of these difficult but very important problems.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.