The Why Files The Why Files --

The Why Files Book Club presents: Dave & Megan 'Nerd's the Word'

Monkey Do
There's an old Hollywood adage that if you want to create good comedy, add a monkey. We like good comedy. And we love monkeys. Plus, reading about these collapsing societies, disappearing species and flooded plains has us ready for a hug.Red book cover with writing and small photo of monkey doll.

Cue Harry Harlow!

Harry Harlow was a brilliant psychologist. He was also work-obsessed, a bad father, a distant husband, eccentric and an alcoholic. Not the most obvious researcher to uncover the power of love, was he? But that's what makes Harlow's story a good story (that, and there are monkeys involved...).

In Love at Goon Park, Deborah Blum tells the story of how Harlow, as unlikely a researcher as any, defied convention and pursued the idea that love and affection matter.

It seems ludacris, but in Harlow's time, psychologists believed that cuddling and comforting was the worst thing a parent could do for a child. Researchers were only beginning to understand how microscopic pathogens were spread and keeping a child separated from his mother and father was the surest way to prevent infection. Parents were disease-carrying hazards that were best kept far, far away from children.

Blum presents the chilling tale of Martin Cooney's Kinderbrutanstalt ("child hatchery"). Cooney, a German researcher, took the idea of leaving children untouched to a whole new level with the development of his glass-walled incubator for premature infants. Parents readily handed over their infants to Cooney and he promptly took the infants in their glass boxes on a publicity tour, first in England and then on to the United States. In 1932, he exhibited his infants at the Chicago World's Fair, where he made more money than any other exhibitor save one (Sally Rand, a fan dancer).

And, affectionate physical contact was absolutely out of the question. John Watson, president of the American Psychology Association, had "equated baby love with pleasure," but also believed that "too much affection would soften the moral fiber of children."

Love really was a four-letter word when Harry Harlow began his tenure at the University of Wisconsin, a fresh-faced man-boy of 25 years. Slowly, Harlow distanced himself from rat research, then in its heyday, and began to focus on primates. Harlow felt that human behavior could not be compared to rats. After observing primate behavior at a zoo, it dawned on Harlow that primates were better suited for the research questions he had in mind. Now, the pioneering primate psychologist would begin his life's work and would forever change the way we think about human relationships.

A typical Harlow experiment. After this baby rhesus monkey has been purposefully frightened, he clings to his cloth mother with a look of heart-breaking terror on his face. Here is Harlow's proof that a mother's love is stronger than the monster under your bed. But are the means of obtaining his proof justified? Animal rights activists don't think so. Photo courtesy of University of Wisconsin Archives

Small monkey clings to cloth monkey intended to be a surrogate mom.Through a set of experiments involving baby monkeys and cloth mothers, Harlow demonstrated that human affection can be studied and measured. In profoundly disturbing experiments involving cloth mothers rigged with spikes or air-blasters, Harlow studied neglect and its effect on affection. He would have them shaken until their bones rattled, the "mothers" would toss the babies across the cage. And, yet, Harlow found that babies endure unspeakable mistreatment in order to receive the calming touch of its mother.

Harlow, determined to fully understand even the darkest side of love, plunged his monkeys into isolation and blackness, ruining them for life. He believed he was studying the dark beginnings of depression, that the lack of touch as an infant leads to dysfunction later in life.

In Harlow's own later life, he would become a magnet for controversy. Feminists attacked his recommendation that mothers spend time at home with their children. Animal rights activists, sickened by his treatment of the baby monkeys, fought and continue to fight against the legacy of his research.

Blum's book presents many interesting questions. We have much to thank Harry Harlow for, but what is the cost we are willing to pay for knowledge? Judgment, like affection, is powerful stuff.

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Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

©2022, University of Wisconsin, Board of Regents.