I’m Listening to The Moral Maze, Get Me Out of Here …

Radio 4’s The Moral Maze is usually interesting, despite its confrontational format. The panel of ‘interrogators’ constantly interrupt the guests as they struggle to complete a single sentence. In the 1990s the historian David Starkey used his appearances on The Moral Maze to his own advantage. After the tabloids labelled him “the rudest man in Britain” he was delighted and stated: “It’s worth at least £100,000 a year.” Even worse than Starkey is the long-standing chairman Michael Buerk, as he is accountable for several heinous crimes against good taste and decency. Firstly, he’s directly responsible for creating Saint Bob Geldof the humanitarian campaigner. Buerk’s BBC TV news report (23/10/84) about the Ethiopian famine instigated the Band Aid record, and the 1985 Live Aid concerts. Buerk’s bombastic commentary (“a Biblical famine”) is celebrated as a landmark broadcast, but this and most of the subsequent media reports about Ethiopia made little or absolutely no attempt to understand the politics of famine. Crucially, it was rarely mentioned that a substantial amount of grain was still being produced in the horn of Africa, but most of it was being exported to the West for animal feed.

Live Aid (the first global pop charity event) established the idea of huge portentous charity concerts as a panacea for all the world’s problems. Buying the crappy Band Aid record or sending donations to Live Aid allowed people to feel very good about themselves, and then they could instantly forget about starving Africans. Any proposal for eating less meat, or going veggie as an effective method of alleviating hunger, would have been laughable in 1985. Today there is more awareness about the unsustainability of meat production, but global demand for meat is still increasing and about 45% of the global grain harvest is wasted as animal feed. It’s over 30 years since Live Aid, and nothing much has changed in Ethiopia, although Bob Geldof is now very rich (he avoids paying any UK tax).

The edition of The Moral Maze (17/2/16) tackled the subject of boycotts. In his introduction Buerk employed his trademark sneering tone as he dismissed various campaigns, including one against the use of kangaroo skin for football boots. Subsequently, Claire Fox (from the very unpretentiously titled Institute of Ideas) made this semi-literate statement: “A lot of animal rights activists boycott pharmaceutical companies, etc, because they believe in animal rights. You could say that [for] the overall good of society it’s that actually animal experimentation is what’s needed [sic] for medicine. So if those boycotts are successful, if they cause enough trouble for the firms that they actually stop doing something, then society is going to be damaged. What’s ethical about that?”

It’s ironic that she poses the ethical question, because of

course ethics is the key issue in any debate about vivisection. But for Claire Fox, apparently, ethics is a purely human affair, its function being to provide “what’s needed” by human society. Unfortunately, her speciesist viewpoint probably reflects what most people think about animal testing. It certainly reflects the thinking of chairman Buerk, an intemperate enemy of the animal rights movement.

Meanwhile, Michael Buerk is attempting to emulate the greed and hubris of Sir Bob. He does voice-overs for TV adverts (a very lucrative business). In 2014 he “went into the jungle” as a contestant on the reality TV show I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here. This involves a bunch of so-called celebrities being stranded in the Springbok National Park in Australia. They compete against each other to avoid an early exit, and have to endure various unpleasant trials, some of which involve eating live insects. Buerk was paid £150,000 for taking part, and conceded that he only did it for the money (well, he had to admit that didn’t he?). It all sounds like the lowest level of worthless and demeaning entertainment (but obviously I’ve never watched it). It’s a TV show which manages to exploit both humans and animals. The ‘celebs’ themselves are there for the publicity and a fat fee, even though they are exposed to 24 hour scrutiny and potential ridicule. But why does anybody want to watch this distasteful voyeurism? They must enjoy seeing these individuals going through a humiliating experience, and perhaps this echoes the pleasure that some humans derive from hunting and shooting wild animals in similar settings. Anyway, this TV show typifies the sort of thing that Buerk himself would usually regard with contempt. After all he is a highly respected journalist and broadcaster, but then (as they say) everybody has their price.

 

[References: for an account of the effectiveness of the Live Aid campaign, see http://www.theguardian.com/world/2005/jun/24/g8.debtrelief ]

                                                                                                                                Paul Freestone

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Truths, Euphemisms, and Statistics

Thursday 22 October was publication day for the Home Office statistics of animal research conducted in the UK during 2014. BBC Radio 4’s Inside Science programme, broadcast on the same day, discussed the subject, and especially the inclusion in these statistics for the first time of information on the actual (as opposed to predicted) ‘severity’ of the experiments recorded. The presenter, Adam Rutherford, began by establishing the necessity of such research, its strict regulation in the UK, etc., so the programme’s point of view was made clear enough. Then he interviewed Dr Sarah Wells, Director of the MRC’s Mary Lyon Centre (mouse genetics) at Harwell. Dr Wells said that scientists themselves cat-animal-testing-pictureenthusiastically welcomed the innovation, and that the new statistics would be, for the general public, an “absolute true reflection” of the costs to animals of what happens in laboratories.

I’m sure she meant what she said about the enthusiasm, although as a matter of fact this kind of tonic response to public attention is what subscribers to the portentously named ‘Concordat on Openness on Animal Research’ promise each other to make (see their Annual Report, September 2015). But in the event neither participant could quite live up to the ideal of the absolutely true. When Adam Rutherford was asking Dr Wells to give Radio 4’s listeners an idea of what the different categories of pain implied, he seemed to feel that her truths had better fall some way short of absolute: “without being too graphic”, he warned her. And certainly her answer was reassuringly obscure. Her preferred word for pain of all types was ‘discomfort’ – plainly a euphemism when applied to anything worse than indigestion. When she came to define the ‘severe’ category, she blurred that somewhat unpleasantly evocative term by attaching it to the duration rather than the intensity of the animals’ suffering: “quite a severe period of time where they’re under discomfort”. It’s a strangely oblique, almost tortured bit of English, evidently the outcome of a struggle between candour and its opposite.

At the beginning of 2014, the Home Office published its own guidance on these categories specifically for the scientists. These Advice notes on actual severity reporting of regulated procedures are necessarily free of euphemism: free, that is, except in so far as the scientific outlook and terminology, having to be accurate at the expense of personal engagement, are themselves a variety of euphemism (“altered gait”, “autotomy”, “challenge with an inflammatory agent”, “repeated vocalisation”: yes, these surely are euphemisms, though with a motive behind them different from Dr Wells’s). Anyway, the Home Office text is surprisingly plain-spoken. Words like ‘pain’, ‘suffering’, ‘distress’ are used just as any reasonable person might use them of his or her own experience. In fact a reference to what we humans know of pain is indeed made at one point, when ‘severe’ is said to include “any state that a person would find difficult to tolerate”. It’s a great pity that this human reference is not used more in such discussions, but of course it violates a long and convenient tradition in science of resisting any suggestion that human experience can guide us in our understanding of animals. That would be called anthropomorphism, and accordingly unscientific. The way in which a quite proper scepticism has been stretched so as to justify denying to animals the rights of ‘painience’ (Richard Ryder’s term), makes an especially dishonourable theme in the story of animal research.

Still, a matter-of-fact bureaucratic survey, such as the Advisory notes provide, of all the varieties of suffering in laboratories (no, not all: suffering not caused by experiments, but by confinement itself, or by transport, or unintended illness, or fighting, or non-procedural accidents, etc., are not part of these returns) is liable to sound pretty heartless, and this one often enough does. See, for instance, a note on the ‘moderate’ category: “Pain of any significant intensity is of no more than a few hours duration.” Only a few hours? That’s all right then. Or “generalised seizures (in excess of one hour) with recovery will generally be considered severe.” There’s a history and prospectus of casual cruelty implied even in that one word “generally”.

You’ll notice that, in this last quotation, “recovery” seems to be regarded as compounding the severity, as well it might. And indeed failure to recover, a.k.a. death, is not regarded, in official animal-research ethics, as an existential evil, though it may be a professional nuisance: again, there’s a grim wisdom in that. The actual business of killing – the Home Office advice sensibly does call it ‘killing’, only once using the more refined ‘euthanasia’ – is expected to belongcosmetic-testing-equipment to the ‘mild’ category. (Let’s try not to picture those occasions when it strays into ‘moderate’ or ‘severe’.) But killing does not by itself count as a procedure at all. In fact the grand euphemism at work in every Home Office report on the animal research scene is the making invisible of this killing, not just of all or very nearly all the animals that feature in the ‘procedures’, but also of all the animals never used – the ones bred in excess of need, or found in some way unsuitable, and therefore dispatched uncounted. Yet much, perhaps all, of the mental distress felt by these animals while alive must consist in the very well-founded fear, however imperfectly understood, of premature death. Oxford University’s web-site boldly addresses this situation with its own prize-winning euphemism: “At the end of its life, the animal is humanely killed.” If only the animals themselves could read those consolatory words, and realize that they won’t, despite all their fears, be killed until the end of their lives!

Euphemism or heartlessness: it’s evidently a hard subject for practitioners to speak or write about without offending in one direction or the other. That’s a very strong indication, I would suggest, that there’s something wrong with the practice.

Brigid Brophy

Princess Michael of Kent’s recent unthoughtful observations about animal rights were the occasion for a piece in last week’s Sunday Times, written by Charles Clover. He’s the author of a most important book, The End of the Line; How Overfishing is Changing the World and What We Eat, but the very modest claims to significance of this particular article were indicated by its title: ‘With One Wild Pot Shot Princess Pushy Fells Our Animal Rights Folly’. Clover’s argument, or journalistic drift, was that allowing rights to animals – which he absurdly formulated as “the doctrine that animals deserve the same rights as humans”, and then as “treating animals like humans” – would lead to more suffering than it saved, even to the animals. But his case was really that of the haves throughout history, namely that we humans had so much to lose in convenience and pleasure (he lists it all) by conceding such rights, that “we should tip our fur hats to Princess Pushy for making us think twice”: a vulgar conclusion to a very slight piece of writing.

Therefore the article wouldn’t be worth mentioning, except that its time and place are reminders of a glorious anniversary. It was on 10 October 1965 – almost exactly fifty years ago, then – that the novelist Brigid Brophy wrote her momentous article ‘The Rights of Animals’ for that same newspaper. “The relationship of Homo sapiens to the other animals”, it began (establishing at once the Darwinian collective which Clover noticeably avoids conceding), “is one of unremitting exploitation.” Then, in a manner which must have astonished her readers, she flew at the subject, and at all that it entails of weakness and wickedness in human character. Her piece had none of the columnist’s flourishes or (of course) the man-to-man worldliness with which Clover euphemizes the subject. In particular she spoke unequivocally about vivisection, “the only one of these matters” – as she said in a later essay – “to raise a moral dilemma at all.”

It was not, for her, an insoluble dilemma: “I believe it is never justified because I can see nothing (except our being able to get away with it) which lets us pick on animals that would not equally let us pick on idiot humans (who would be more useful) or, for the matter of that, on a few humans of any sort whom we might sacrifice for the good of the many.” There, in its parentheses, is the true and durable rationale for subjecting other species to experimentation: our being able to get away with it. The arrogance, cowardice, and essential scoundrelism of vivisection are hit off in that aside.Matthew S 1

Brigid Brophy’s Sunday Times article was a prospectus of the animal subject as it was about to become – as indeed she prompted it to become: not the former miscellany of cruelties, calling for particular remedies, but a single story of systematic wrong requiring a fundamental change of mind and conduct. And that was how the subject appeared in the 1971 book of essays Animals, Men and Morals, a book which can be traced back to her Sunday Times article, and which was in its turn the founding text of the modern animals rights movement. It was edited in Oxford, and most of the contributors had Oxford connections, including Brigid Brophy herself (St Hilda’s, 1947). Her chapter is mainly about vivisection, and constitutes a thorough deconstruction, in plain and dispassionately accurate English, of its politics, sociology and psychology. Like George Bernard Shaw, she sees, living on in vivisection, the ancient superstition of expiatory sacrifice, with the animals, as ever, paying our price. More largely, she sees in vivisection man’s timorous refusal to grow up and become what we really are: “the species uniquely capable of imagination, rationality and moral choice.” We catch exactly what she means when Charles Clover writes, “why should human beings have obligations towards animals if animals don’t have obligations to humans or to other animals?”

In fact that 1971 essay provides an answer to Clover’s bluster about rights, and Princess Michael’s too, supposing they do raise a serious question. For it starts by analysing one of the classic statements of human rights, the American Declaration of Independence, and showing that it is founded on exactly that essence of our nature – the sentience that impels us to seek pleasure and shun pain – which is in fact the property of all animal life. Hence Brigid Brophy’s beautifully absolute statement of the case (quoted on all VERO’s leaflets): “Once we acknowledge life and sentiency in the other animals, we are bound to acknowledge what follows, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

This was Brigid Brophy’s conviction throughout her writing life. In fact her first published novel, Hackenfeller’s Ape (1953), had already expressed it in the witty and subversive story of a monkey confined in Regent’s Park Zoo and marked down for an even worse confinement in a space shot. And the conviction was part of a wider faith in liberation – of women, of sexuality, of all that was unwillingly subject to arrogated authority. She was a dauntless, highly original and intelligent woman, whom everyone that values freedom – their own and that of all who can enjoy it, including the other animals – should remember with love and gratitude.

 

[The photograph of Brigid Brophy is kindly provided by Kate Levey. Quotations from ‘The Rights of Animals’ are taken from The Extended Circle (see ‘Victorian Attitudes’ below), and other quotations from ‘In Pursuit of a Fantasy’, Animals, Men and Morals, pp.125-45.]

I’d rather be bonkers than ignorant …

Before her promotion to the Shadow Cabinet, Kerry McCarthy was interviewed for the Viva! Life magazine. In the published article she states: “I really believe that meat should be treated in exactly the same way as tobacco, with public campaigns to stop people eating it.” Unsurprisingly, this generated a lot of media interest owing to her much publicised appointment as the Shadow Minister for DEFRA. All the nationals covered the story, and they all used a variation of this banner headline: “Treat meat eaters like smokers, says Labour’s vegan MP.” Obviously, this a distortion of what she actually said, and one paper described Viva! Life as “a magazine for vegans” (which means nobody else could possibly be interested in reading it?). Anyway, KM’s main point was that eating meat is unhealthy, and the more you eat the greater the risks. Therefore, people should be encouraged (via government health campaigns) to reduce or stop eating it. This makes perfect sense to anyone with the slightest awareness of the impact of increased meat consumption on the nation’s health. Basically, there is a direct correlation between the amount you eat (especially red meat) and the risk of serious medical conditions and reduced life expectancy. The biggest killer in the western world is heart disease, and saturated animal fat is the crucial factor.

Subsequently, on R4’s Any Questions (25/9/15) a specific question was asked about KM’s comment in Viva! Life magazine. The panel of esteemed idiots rose to the occasion with these statements. Firstly, Dr Ruth Lea (chair of Economists for Britain) stated: “I thinks she’s bonkers. Meat eating is, on the whole, meant to be good for your health. I don’t think anybody would dispute the fact that smoking is unhealthy, but it’s just not comparable [with eating meat]. The comment is just bonkers.” Secondly, this was followed by the dazzling insight of Sir Vince Cable (ex-Business Secretary in the Coalition Government). He stated: “The remark she made is fatuous. The problem with smoking is passive smoking; it harms others. I’m trying to work out what passive meat eating is [audience laughs] and how you harm other people by eating meat.” At this point the chairman (Jonathan Dimbleby) interjected: “Gas is given off by cows, and this damages the atmosphere.”

Where to begin with these comments? Firstly, they demonstrate a staggering level of arrogance and ignorance. Do these people really have no knowledge about the modern western diet with its high intakes of saturated animal fat, and the diseases of affluence (obesity, heart disease, diabetes and bowel cancer, etc)? Secondly, the huge environmental impact of meat production. At least this was mentioned by the chairman, but are they really unaware of the fact that the vast global livestock population is responsible for more greenhouse gasses than all of the world’s transport systems? Thirdly, Ruth Lea and Vince Cable should have a basic understanding of the economics of sustainability. It’s pretty simple really; if (for example) red meat production requires a feed conversion ratio of 10:1 (that’s 10 kilos of feed for each kilo of meat) then it’s unsustainable. In fact, it isn’t just unsustainable, it’s bonkers.

Paul Freestone

 

She can’t do that job, she’s “a committed vegan” …

The new Labour leader (Jeremy Corbyn) has selected the only vegan MP in the Commons (Kerry McCarthy) as Shadow Minister for DEFRA (Dept for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs). This is brilliant news for all animal welfare and animal rights groups, and such a decision would have been unthinkable only a few weeks ago.

However, this appointment has infuriated the National Farmers Union (NFU) and every other sector of the meat and dairy industries. It has also generated a lot of negative and unpleasant comments on social media. Most of the controversy seems to revolve around the fact that she is (as described by the presenter of R4’s World at One) “a committed vegan” and this in itself makes her “unsuitable” for the job. Johann Tasker from Farmer’s Weekly (a bastion of enlightened thinking) made these comments: “This is like appointing a pacifist as Shadow Defence Secretary. This isn’t just somebody who’s vegetarian, or against the badger cull, as farmers could work with someone like that. Kerry McCarthy believes that the livestock sector is dirty and cruel, that dairy farming is about forcing cows to give more milk than is natural, and the poultry industry is about getting hens to lay more eggs than is natural.” Bizarrely, the hapless Mr Tasker has actually highlighted specific points that are all true. Livestock production is “dirty and cruel”, dairy farming is obsessed with forcing cows to produce “more milk than is natural”, and the paramount aim of the poultry industry is to maximise the output of chickens which includes laying “more eggs than is natural”.

Crucially, one of McCarthy’s most damning critiques of DEFRA ministers is that they are simply “a spokesperson for the NFU”. Obviously, the NFU isn’t going to welcome anyone who makes this sort of assessment (especially when it happens to be very accurate). Any idea that their long standing cosy relationship with every DEFRA minister for decades could be disrupted will be anathema to them. Paradoxically, instead of being “totally unsuitable”, Kerry McCarthy is the ideal choice for this role. Firstly, she is passionately concerned with the key issues of animal welfare and sustainability. Secondly, she will confront all those appalling vested interests with a detailed knowledge of what really happens within factory farming and all methods of meat and dairy production.

Unsurprisingly, the tabloids have had a field day typified by The Daily Mail which referred to her as a “Militant Vegan MP” and proclaimed: “She has been vegan for 20 years and refuses to wear wool.” In fact, she presents her so-called “militant veganism” in a very reasonable way. On R4’s World at One (16/9/15) she stated: “It’s about sustainability and good welfare standards, and I’m very happy to work with the NFU and the farming community on this. I’m opposed to the move towards ever more intensive industrialised farming and huge dairy and pig farms. Also, I’m not opposed to the badger cull because I’m vegan. I’m opposed to it because very authoritative reports by scientists and experts have said it’s ineffective, and it’s not the way to stop bovine TB.”

Finally, it’s noteworthy that the widespread objections to McCarthy’s appointment echo those made against the new Labour leader. Apparently, it’s unacceptable to employ politicians in senior positions if they have deeply held principles and genuine beliefs. These individuals want to change the world, and make it a better place for everyone (which includes all sentient species across the planet). And personally, I really like the idea of a pacifist Shadow Defence Secretary.

Paul Freestone

To hear Kerry McCarthy speaking on Radio 4’s The Food Programme, about being vegan in the House of Commons, go to Feeding the Commons – Part II: Lunch to Lights Out (Her interview begins after about 7 minutes).

He can’t be a party leader, he believes in what he says …

There is a media storm over the leadership battle for the Labour Party. Against all the odds Jeremy Corbyn is currently the most popular candidate. It’s being claimed that he was only nominated to ensure that “the loony left” was represented, and now there are endless warnings that if he’s successful he will make Labour unelectable. However, some of the most extreme comments about Corbyn simply highlight the fact that he genuinely believes in a whole set of principles. It’s noteworthy that every media report mentions the fact that he’s a vegetarian. And even worse than that, he really is. The Daily Mail referred to him as “a strict vegetarian”, but they probably don’t actually know the difference between “a vegetarian” (you don’t eat any meat or fish) and “a strict vegetarian” (you don’t eat any meat or fish). The confusion for tabloid hacks is probably caused by “celebrity vegetarians” like Gwyneth Paltrow (she claims to be veggie but isn’t).

And when he was interviewed for The Guardian a few years ago, these ridiculous comments appear: “Our meeting was delayed for a few minutes by an amicable disagreement at the hot food counter in the Strangers’ Cafe in the House of Commons. Corbyn was refusing a plate of spaghetti because it was served bolognese. He insisted on being given a dull looking vegetable goulash instead. ‘I don’t eat meat,’ he explained. He takes his vegetarianism, like all his other beliefs, very seriously.”

Please note that the disagreement was “amicable”; instead of him shouting and screaming as most vegetarians obviously would. Also, that he was “given a dull looking vegetable goulash instead”. Of course this dish was “dull looking”, everybody knows that veggie food is always dull. And finally, “he takes his vegetarianism, like all his other beliefs, very seriously”. What? That’s outrageous, I don’t want somebody like this leading the Labour Party. Can you imagine what he might say about the meat industry, the badger cull, fish farming, and vivisection?

After all, this is the MP who led the deputation to No. 10 Downing Street in 2006 to hand in The Primate Nations (the report which showed why we shouldn’t be using non-humanJC at WDAIL 1984 primates in experiments); who won the Gandhi Foundation’s International Peace Prize in 2013 for his work for social justice and non-violence, including non-violence against animals; who has signed 13 of the 14 Early Day Motions currently putting the case for animals before the House of Commons; who in fact has backed campaigns for animals all through his parliamentary career.

OK, I accept the fact that it will be very difficult for Labour to win the next election if they adopt a series of left wing policies under Corbyn’s potential leadership. However, the Labour Party is currently “unelectable” because of the horrendous legacy of Tony Blair. It’s deeply ironic that Blair has publicly stated his objection to Corbyn. Could there be a greater difference between these two politicians? The former is a Messianic nutcase; guilty of a long list of heinous crimes against humanity. He always promoted himself as “a practising Christian”, and after leaving office he converted to Catholicism (which is enough to have him carted off in a strait jacket).

Have we really reached such a dire level in British politics that a man with “serious beliefs” based on fairness and compassion is considered a bad choice as a party leader? Maybe Corbyn is doing so well because he represents something that has been so lacking within our political structure? He might not have enough broad appeal to win a general election, but he’s still a fantastic breath of fresh air. And it’s just wonderful to dream about the possibility of a vegetarian Prime Minister.

 

[The photograph shows Jeremy Corbyn speaking at a World Day for Animals in Laboratories rally in 1984.]

 

Paul Freestone

 

How Not to Treat Babies

monkey-caged-animal-research-deprivation-lab-testing-imageDepriving babies of mother-love might seem necessarily a harmful thing to do, but according to the experimental psychologists who were interviewed for the BBC Radio 4 programme Mind Changers, parents in the mid-twentieth century didn’t take that view. They had apparently been trusting B.F.Skinner and his behaviourist psychology, which taught that the mother’s free expression of her natural affection would tend to spoil the children. It would train them to expect gratifications which the world would later deny them.

Then Professor Harry Harlow of the University of Wisconsin-Madison showed, in a series of experiments on rhesus monkeys, that babies didn’t only need their mothers for the milk; they needed physical affection and reassurance too. When the mothers of these monkeys were taken (permanently) from them, and they were provided instead with a choice of two perfunctory surrogates made of wire, they chose to cling to the one that promised emotional warmth, the one with a hank of terrycloth on it. However repellently it was made to behave towards them, they clung to it in preference to the milk-bearing model without any cloth on it at all. Later, with this crippled up-bringing behind them, the monkeys would unsurprisingly prove incapable of proper motherhood themselves.

According to Mind Changers, Harlow’s research “revolutionised parenting”.[1] Suddenly we discovered that, for infants, “contact comfort was crucially important”. The suggestion was that it’s Harry Harlow whom the under-60s have to thank for whatever affection they got in their infancy. But it has to be remembered that what Harlow showed was only that maternal affection was necessary to baby rhesus monkeys. If we are easily convinced that this finding translates to humans, it’s probably because we were already perfectly confident that it’s true of them too.

Besides, hadn’t Konrad Lorenz, the Austrian ethologist, shown back in the 1930s what motherhood and infant attachment meant: that is, that love of mother was not just cupboard love (not even cupboard love in some cases when the infant “imprinted” on a parent of the wrong species)? Mind Changers did mention Lorenz, as it did also mention the important clinical work of the psychiatrist John Bowlby. However, it said nothing of the paediatrician Benjamin Spock. Yet parents of the 1950s who had never heard of Skinner, Harlow, or Bowlby would have known of Dr Spock, or if not, were almost certainly following his advice unawares. His best-selling Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946, but still in print) famously begins with the words “Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.” In other words, you didn’t need Professor Harlow to tell you that the affection you felt for your offspring was a prompt in nature that you should act upon, still less Professor Skinner to tell you that it wasn’t. Spock was so widely read and followed that he was later blamed for all the delinquencies of the post-war generations: their distrust of authority, sexual permissiveness, political dissent, etc. Nobody, I think, blamed Harlow, and with good reason.

The BBC’s publicity for this programme refers to “the perceived cruelty of Harlow’s work”. One or two of the academics interviewed certainly did perceive it; others didn’t, or didn’t say so. Is the cruelty, then, just a matter of opinion, as the word ‘perceived’ seems intended to imply? Certainly acute distress was deliberately caused to babies and mothers, the most acute distress that can befall mammals; the traumatic character of such experiences was a premise of the research, and essential to what it claimed to teach. A ruthless programme of violence, then, wrong by any standards known outside the laboratory. But the term ‘cruelty’ implies that the harm is caused recklessly, even with relish. We would have to know that Harlow made jokes about his monkeys in their wretchedness (he did), or that his students inherited that sort of jocular response to the research (they did). We might ask if he himself acknowledged any element of cruelty in the work (he did: “We began as sadists trying to produce abnormality.”) We might ask if the experiments showed more than the strictly necessary contempt for the welfare of the monkeys: Mind Changers showed that they did. In short, Harry Harlow’s experiments were indeed knowingly and shamefully cruel.

Worse, those experiments have corrupted whoever has been induced to admire them. I recall that my ‘O’ level biology book made a feature of them, teaching children to think that science trumped kindness and decency. Likewise, a standard introductory work of the 1960s, The Science of Animal Behaviour (Penguin Books, 1964), had on its cover the famous photograph of a baby monkey making its pathetic choice of the terrycloth mother in Harlow’s laboratory – as if to say, this is our science at its most impressive. The same picture was mentioned in Mind Changers: “I really like this photo”, said the presenter. In such ways is inhumanity handed on.

I hope that this radio series will include, among its “classic psychology experiments” in future, Stanley Milgram’s ‘electric shock’ studies at Yale in the 1960s (already treated briefly in a sister-series on Radio 4, All in the Mind). Those famous experiments tended to show that lay-people can allow their native decency and compassion to be over-ridden by the prestige of an experimental scientist at work. But Milgram’s subjects were caught out in a momentary crisis, with no time to think. We have had sixty years to ponder Harry Harlow’s experiments. It’s time to stop celebrating them, and to agree that they dishonoured his profession and his species.

 

[1]  Except where otherwise stated, quotations are from Mind Changers: Harlow’s Monkeys, first broadcast in 2009, and broadcast as a repeat on Radio 4 Extra, 10 July 2015.