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.
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.