Thursday, October 7, 2010

What's so bad about Harry?

c. David Grim (taken 8/19/08)

Sometimes I do get flummoxed by politics and the various pet causes that people adopt. For instance I recently read "Love at GOON Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection" (2002), and its author (Deborah Blum) attached an epilogue to the book that outlined the objections animal rights activists have to Harlow's legacy. Harry Harlow was an eminent psychologist who put together a lot of essential work using rhesus monkeys in the mid-20th Century. Apparently he has also been vilified for his approach.

Specifically Harlow did studies involving the isolation of baby monkeys from their mothers. He put them in cages with artificial constructions meant to simulate the basic shape of female adult monkeys. In some instances they were hooked up to a milk supply, and in others they were wire structures wrapped in terry cloth, with basic wooden croquet balls for heads. The infants who had to contend with these surrogates experienced significantly debilitating stress that had long term measurable effects on their ability to socialize throughout their life spans.

For other trials the scientist developed apparatuses that he informally referred to as the "Pit of Despair" and the "Rape Rack". By all measures these inventions were torture devices used to provoke severe emotional difficulties in the animals. It certainly didn't help that Harlow demonstrated a cavalier approach to the sensitivities of those disturbed by his methods. While the times during which he operated were radically different, he still managed to stand out for his caustic wit and lack of social graces. He managed to offend feminists, administrators, and his cohorts.

But his work was in the service of a vitally important end- proving the importance of love and affection in the normal development of the higher-order animals. Before he published his results, the scientific community believed that mothers should keep a certain distance from their offspring in order to discourage overdependence and maintain a sterile environment for infants. People scoffed at the ideas that touch was crucially important for ideal human development and proper socialization.

It was only after the horrifying results of his experiments (some of the monkeys actually expired from the emotional distress) that society in general realized just how inhumane subjecting animals to social isolation could be. Of course this had serious ramifications for the parenting experts that had been advising a "hands-off" strategy for decades. An entire paradigm was shifted through Harlow's controversial work. Without it modern day critics wouldn't even know the true extent of damage that could be caused simply by separating a mother and child. It seems therefore a little ridiculous for the armchair ethicists to take pot shots at the man's legacy from the 21st Century.

Anyway, I don't understand the complete resistance that some have to animal testing. While replicating these experiments for the purpose of training future researchers seems excessively cruel, I maintain that the initial work was absolutely necessary for our scientific advancement. And it so happens that we can now identify the causes of so much suffering, and legitimize the avoidance of practices that hinder ideal growth patterns. The alternative is to stumble blindly through life, relying on what can be fatally-flawed "conventional wisdom". No thanks.

No comments:

Post a Comment