Outside of war crimes, it’s hard to think of a crueler experiment than the infamous Harry Harlow “Cloth Mother, Wire Mother” experiments where the mothers of infant monkeys were removed and replaced by inanimate hardware and some padding.
Wire mother was a wire effigy of a “mom,” complete with a nipple and bottle. “She” was for food provision. Cloth mother was soft, designed for clinging, but provided no food. When the baby monkeys were intentionally frightened (by a stuffed bear toy) they inevitably clung to cloth mother.
“Later experiments showed that infant monkeys would open a door hour after hour just to see cloth mother through a small window. I used to show the Harlow films in class. I don’t anymore because they routinely make students cry. There is nothing as pathetic as a pink-faced baby monkey getting experimentally frightened only to cling inconsolably to a fake mother.”*
Objectively, this is a very callous, cruel treatment and don’t forget, as a controlled experiment, there were other infants who only knew wire mother. Imagining the study can elicit rage at the experimenters and seeing them as human monsters, lacking all compassion. The exasperated question bubbles up:” Why? Why would you even think of that, let alone do it?” The answer may blend our black and white feelings toward something grayer.
“Here is the historical context: The behaviorists and the psychoanalytic school were arguing about the mechanisms that connect an infant to his mother. Namely, they focused on feeding and food. The upshot, these theoreticians thought that if you feed a baby, he will associate you with food and develop positive feelings for you, the feeder.”*
The behaviorists were the long-established dominant modality in psychology. They were disinterested in any internal, subjective human experiences, only the observable, measurable externals, the behavior. The were mechanistic by design. Every scientific discipline in this period embraced maximum reductionism, the least complex explanation.
Simple reductionism is scientifically responsible, even necessary. But every community develops a culture and every culture has purists motivated to outdo the “causals” by their extreme display of cultural purity. This is what drives sanctimony in religion and outrage among the politically correct. Whatever the medium of purity is, it becomes virtue and power in the community. Many ascend to power within their culture by riding this balloon. The culture of science is distinct from the practice of science but it does bend and shape it.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.”
– attributed to Einstein (though maybe not accurately)
The idea of scientific reductionism became distorted by this one-upmanship of cultural virtue signaling. Simple reductionism gave way to rejecting complexity where it was encountered in favor of something less true but more acceptable. Nothing could be greater than the sum of its parts. Reductionism became unscientific, even anti-scientific to the extent that it rejected facts for not conforming to policy. Theories born in this period have a Stalinist harshness about them. In some disciplines, this was not very destructive but the study of warm, complicated humanity by the behaviorists celebrated only the mechanistic and minimal in us. There was contempt toward tenderness, scorn for softness.
“There is a sensible way of treating children. Treat them as though they were young adults … Never hug and kiss them, never let them sit in your lap … Shake hands with them in the morning. Give them a pat on the head if they have made an extraordinarily good job of a difficult task…”. – John Watson, famous behaviorist, and child care expert
This was popular, best practice, expert advice. The kind you would have been given. After all, behaviorists know the real facts, scientifically, it’s proven!
In other words, this was the age of wire mother. Placed in power by the Behaviorists, she reigned over our culture for decades, demanding the sacrifice of comforting our children.
The behaviorists over-invested in for-its-own-sake reductionism to the extreme point of ignoring or rejecting Biology as a driving force. The heartbreaking, awful wire mother experiments, gave behaviorism a broken nose, partly BECAUSE of their shock value. The shocking news that babies (and the rest of us) need tender cuddling seemed afterward, kind of obvious and made the crackpot minimalism of behaviorism visible (to most) at last.
This is how a hard science, Biology, rescued us from the cold theology of behaviorists. And how an act of blatant cruelty and engineered suffering reduced cruelty and suffering for millions born since.
*From: “Three Lessons From Wire Mother”, Patricia H. Hawley Ph.D., Psychology Today, 2018