If I worked in a field or in an institution associated with the name Harry Harlow, I too might think that his work needed defending; he was, and is, after all, an icon of the complete inability of an industry to regulate itself; its lack of a moral compass; and a willingness to rely on arcane and meaningless theoretical minutia to justifify cruelty.
Some (most?) within the industry must bear an unspoken sense of guilt over Harlow’s career. Some, even his past students, have spoken about their ethical failures:
Harlow’s colleagues, me included, never challenged him on the ethical points,” [John ] Gluck says, flatly and with regret. “The strength of our spines were [sic] not sufficient to carry the weight of our professional goals and our conscience.” (Blum. Love at Goon Park. 2002.)Frank C. P. van der Horst and Rene van der Veer published three papers in the journal Integrative Psychological & Behavioral Science in 2008 that, in part, argue that Peter Singer’s criticism of Harlow is unjust or inaccurate. (See: Harlow and Bowlby for links to these papers.)
In “‘When Strangers Meet’: John Bowlby and Harry Harlow on Attachment Behavior” they write in the introduction: “Although it has been argued (Singer 1975) that Harlow’s experimenting had no influence on Bowlby’s theorizing, here it will become clear that [it did].” They follow up more forcefully in the conclusion:
We may conclude that Harlow’s scientific influence on Bowlby has been demonstrated beyond reasonable doubt: Harlow’s experiments showed in a remarkable way what Bowlby had been theorizing about since his introduction to ethology in the early 1950s. Our findings make abundantly clear that Singer (1975) was completely wrong in asserting that Harlow’s findings had no impact on Bowlby’s theory whatsoever….That’s a strong statement. But it refers to a straw man.
Singer does not argue that Harlow didn’t influence Bowlby’s theorizing.
Here’s the only passage in Animal Liberation (Singer, 1975) that mentions Bowlby and Harlow:
In another article Harlow and his former student and associate Stephen Suomi described how they were trying to induce psychopathy in infant monkeys by a technique that appeared not to be working. They were then visited by John Bowlby, a British psychiatrist. According to Harlow’s account, Bowlby listened to the story of their troubles and then toured the Wisconsin laboratory. After he had seen the monkeys individually housed in bare wire cages he asked, “Why are you trying to produce psychopathology in monkeys? You already have more psychopathological monkeys in the laboratory than have ever been seen on the face of the earth.”This is the sum total of Singer’s comment. He says nothing about Bowlby’s theorizing. Singer says only that according to Bowlby, the matter of a child’s need for maternal care was resolved, yet in spite of that, Harlow and his colleagues demonstrated the effect of maternal deprivation in monkeys; ad nauseam, I would say.
Bowlby, incidentally, was a leading researcher on the consequences of maternal deprivation, but his research was conducted with children, primarily orphans, refuges, and institutionalized children. As far back as 1951, before Harlow even began his research on nonhuman primates, Bowlby concluded:The evidence has been reviewed. It is submitted that evidence is now such that it leaves no room for doubt regarding the general proposition that the prolonged deprivation of the young child of maternal care may have grave and far-reaching effects on his character and so on the whole of his future life.This did not deter Harlow and his colleagues from devising and carrying out their monkey experiments. In the same article in which they tell of Bowlby’s visit, Harlow and Suomi describe [details of their efforts to induce depression.]
The story of Bowlby’s visit to Harlow’s lab has been retold often. It is repeated by Debra Blum in Love at Goon Park as well as by Stephen Suomi in “Rigorous Experiments on Monkey Love: An Account of Harry F. Harlow’s Role in the History of Attachment Theory.”
It raises the question of Harlow’s and his students’ insight and qualifications. You have to wonder what they missed, what they couldn’t see, what passed them by without notice. They seem to have been nearly blind. If someone who claims to be studying the behavior of an animal is unable to see the animal's distress, then how likely is it that his or her observations of the animal's behavior and motivations are accurate, complete, or at all meaningful?
According to Horst and Veer, Harlow and Bowlby were introduced to each other by British ethologist Robert Hinde. Hinde visited Harlow’s laboratory some time in the late 50s or early 60s:
I must have next met Harry when I visited Madison and was appalled by his room full of of cages with babies going “whoowhoowhoo” [a distress call] and Harlow had no sensitivity at that point that he was damaging these infants.Notable too, is the fact that Harlow had been studying the behavior of primates since the early 1930s, and yet, more than twenty-five years later he was unaware that the monkeys in his lab were psychopathic. How sensitive to the implications of his research data could he and his students have really been?
Horst and Veer base their high opinion (defense?) of Harlow on his contributions to Bowlby’s theories. But Bowlby’s theories were just that. By the time Harlow entered the scientific argument in 1958 concerning the theoretical reason that children suffer when deprived of contact with a caregiver, the matter that children needed such care was not in dispute, no matter the rewriting of history that Harlow’s defenders are wont to rely on.
For instance, in 1962, the World Health Organization published Deprivation of Maternal Care. A Reassessment of its Effects. Public Health Papers No. 14 as a follow-up to John Bowlby’s 1951 landmark WHO report: Maternal Care and Mental Health. From the Preface:
Bowlby’s monograph Maternal Care and Mental Health was published by the World Health Organization in 1951, and was at once acclaimed as an unequalled contribution to its subject. Its success is shown by the frequency with which it has been printed and the many languages into which it has been translated.It is this arcane argument that Harlow contributed to. In his 1951 Maternal Care, Bowlby mentions a single animal study—one using twin goats—to bolster his supposition that differences in rearing conditions were adequate to induce behavioral abnormalities. In his 1952 follow-up work and restatement, Child Care and the Growth of Love, he cited only two animal studies. He again mentioned the goats:
The conclusion Bowlby reaches in his monograph is that prolonged deprivation of the young child of maternal care may have grave and far-reaching effects on his character and so on the whole of his life; and he draws the corollary that the proper care of children deprived of a normal life is not merely an act of common humanity, but essential to the mental and social welfare of a community. His indictment on that score of the nurseries, institutions, and hospitals of even the so-called advanced countries has contributed to a remarkable change in outlook that has led to a widespread improvement in the institutional care of children.
While the practical effects of Bowlby’s monograph in the realm of child care have been universally acknowledged to be wholly beneficial, his theoretical conclusions have been subjected to considerable criticism….
Though there can be no mistaking that these findings all point the same way, their value is frequently questioned on the grounds that many children in institutions are born of parents of poor stock, physically and mentally, and that heredity alone might well account for all the differences. Those who make this objection do not seem to be aware that in the majority of the studies described, care has been taken by the investigators to ensure that other groups of children, brought up in either their own home or in foster homes and of a similar social class and as nearly as possible of similar stock, were studied at the same time for purposes of comparison. The only certain method of ruling out the effects of heredity is by comparing identical twins. Though there are no human twin studies of the problem, one psychologist is doing experimental work on twin goat kids, one of whom is separated from its mother for a brief spell each day and the other is not. Except for the daily experimental period of forty minutes, both kids live with and feed from their mother. During the experimental period, the lights are periodically extinguished, which is known to create anxiety in goats, and this produces very different behavior in the twins. The one which is with its mother is at ease and moves about freely; the isolated one is ‘psychologically frozen’ and remains cowed in one corner. In one of the first experiments the isolated kid discontinued suckling from its mother and, the experimenters being unaware of this and so unable to help, it died after a few days. This is ample demonstration of the adverse effects of maternal deprivation on the young of mammals, and disposes finally of the argument that all the observed effects are due to heredity.He also cited Konrad Lorenz’s work on imprinting in goslings.
Horst and Veer argue that Harlow’s work influenced Bowlby. In fact, the opposite seems to be a more accurate characterization of their interaction. Harlow based his work on Bowlby’s. Harlow wasn’t even original.
Stephen Suomi, in "Rigorous Experiments" writes:
…Two years later [in 1964] Hinde did essentially the same thing in a slightly different setting, and indeed maternal separation studies are still being carried out today, but if one goes back to the very first published studies carried out in Harlow’s lab (Seay et al. 1962, and Seay and Harlow 1965), in the Introduction and in the Discussion sections of those papers there is nothing but Bowlby. These monkey studies were modeled exactly on Bowlby’s published accounts of the effects of maternal separation on children, including the use of exactly the same terms—“protest,” “despair,” and “detachment,”—that Bowlby had employed in describing the reactions of children following separation from and reunion with their mothers….Horst and Veer argue that Harlow was a “giant” in his field. But Harlow was well known and a standout before he began his experiments on attachment in monkeys. "The Nature of Love" was part of his inaugural address as the new president of the American Psychological Association in 1958. His published papers, prior to 1958 (and after) do not seem to warrant the leadership positions he has held.
Harlow’s fame and notoriety appear to have been based on a remarkably strong personality rather than on any contribution to human well-being. This is probably why psychologist and colleague Duane Rumbaugh could observe, “It was surprising to me how fast the citations dropped off after his death.” (Love at Goon Park) And it explains why no one had the spine to stand up to him.
Harlow’s affect on childcare is little more than a myth. Even in the 1964 WHO reassessment of Bowlby’s work cited above, of the six papers, two include a single reference to Harlow ("Nature of Love") and one includes "Nature" and two others simultaneously, out of about 273 other referenced works between the authors. From 1959 through 1964 Harlow had published at least 27 papers.
There is a large dollop of irony in all of this. Some psychologists, so-called experts in human behavior, are unable to overcome the power of Harlow’s dominant personality, even decades after his death.