Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection

By Deborah Blum

Perseus. 336 pp. $26 Pick up a child-care manual from 70 years ago, and you may be stunned at what once passed as conventional wisdom. Back in the 1930s, no less an expert than John Watson, the president of the American Psychological Association, ominously warned expectant parents that "when you are tempted to pet your child, remember that mother love is a dangerous instrument." Like many of his contemporaries, Watson believed that anything more than a modicum of affection would produce a weepy, dependent child. It necessarily followed that parents should keep their distance from their children from Day One, treating them with the kind of "rational" attention that scientists lavished on laboratory cultures. Watson went so far as to dream of a golden future when babies would be removed from their parents at birth and raised on farms away from corrupting maternal influence.

That we don't live in the dystopia envisioned by misguided modernists like Watson is due in part to the pioneering work of psychologist Harry Harlow, the subject of Deborah Blum's engrossing biography, "Love at Goon Park." Blum, who examined the ethics of primate research in her previous book, "Monkey Wars," has now turned her considerable talents to sketching out the contributions of the controversial but brilliant scientist who begat a revolution in the way we think about the role love and affection play in everything from child-rearing to intelligence.

Blum's book opens with an engaging account of Harlow's origins in small-town Iowa, his education at Stanford and the many obstacles he overcame in his rise to prominence. Harlow, who had a speech defect that made him sound like Elmer Fudd, characterized himself as a "shy, retiring youth," and recalled that he "tended to apologize to doors before opening them." He nonetheless landed a professorship at the University of Wisconsin. His new home in the psychology department, nicknamed "Goon Park" due to its street address (600 N. Park), was a bastion of behaviorism. Psychologists of this school viewed animals, and to a certain extent humans, as automatons driven by the stimulus and response mechanisms exemplified by Pavlov's dog, and the idea that animals might feel anything as complex as curiosity, attachment and love was thought laughable, or at least beneath consideration.

Harlow's contribution was to challenge this orthodoxy, and the experiments he conducted at Wisconsin are at the heart of Blum's book. Instead of using rats (the preferred test subject), Harlow studied monkeys. He quickly demolished several behavioral shibboleths. In a typical experiment, he put two groups of rhesus monkeys to work solving a puzzle. One received food rewards for successful completion of the task; the other received nothing. Behavioral theories predicted that monkeys given the food would do best, but Harlow's experiments showed the exact opposite. Monkeys, in other words, had more than just food on their minds; they were curious, too.

This is pretty obvious stuff today, but back in the 1950s it came as a shock, and Blum does a splendid job of recapturing the attitudes that dominated experimental psychology at the time. Equally adept is her narrative of how Harlow eventually came to explore the role of affection and love in an animal's development.

Almost everyone today has seen the props used in these experiments, particularly the terry cloth "mother" with the bulbous head (a croquet ball) and bike-reflector eyes. Harlow raised groups of baby monkeys who had the choice between the soft surrogate mother and a forbidding wire counterpart, both of which could be equipped with a bottle. The babies always chose the soft mother -- even when the wire mother held the bottle. Later versions of the same experiment showed the different ways in which babies looked to the cloth "mothers" for approval, reassurance and, yes, love. Parenting, in other words, was not just about food.

The remainder of Blum's book traces the extension of these early experiments. After all, as Harlow soon learned, monkeys raised by mute cloth dolls turned out to be rather maladjusted; babies also needed warmth, motion, affection and stimulation. All perfect common sense today, but this was the tail end of an age when at least one parenting manual informed mothers that rocking a child in a cradle was a "vicious practice." Harlow effectively put a stake through the heart of these cruel doctrines, and Blum tells the story well as she traces the growth of his reputation.

She also captures his personality and private life in considerable detail. Harlow was more than a brilliant experimenter; he was also an incorrigible punster, the author of silly poetry and an alcoholic of legendary proportions. One ditty he penned said it all: "Clover club's a nice girl/ Vodka is a shrew / Corn whiskey is the old love/ Scotch whiskey is the new." Not surprisingly, his home life was far from idyllic, and Blum explores his failed marriage and his ironically distant relationship with his own children.

Harlow had an even darker side, struggling with depression in his later years. It was an experience he attempted to re-create for his monkeys, subjecting them to terrible isolation experiments, ostensibly to prove that animals cannot live without social interaction. Blum doesn't shy away from these unpleasant dimensions of Harlow's personality and research. Nor does she play down his ambivalent relationships with women. Harlow promoted the careers of female graduate students, but he also clashed with feminists, often retreating to chauvinism when mocking his detractors.

Harry Harlow was no saint. Neither, though, was he a villain, and Blum walks the line between these two extremes better than most biographers. Her subject's experiments may have been cruel at times, but thanks to Harlow, child-rearing today remains a bit messier -- and a bit more humane -- than the heartless methods endorsed by his predecessors. And that, in the end, is a good thing.