Experimenting with Mother

I have a constantly growing collection of ‘They’re smarter than you think’ news stories. Here, for instance, is one from the Washington Post a few months ago. It’s headlined “Make Way for Ducklings; they’re smarter … [etc.]” Make Way for Ducklings is a classic children’s book, published in the U.S.A. in 1941 and often re-printed since then. It would therefore be familiar to most Washington Post readers, and the reference is a sub-editor’s way of sweetening the science. But the main theme of that book is the trouble which Mrs Mallard takes to be a good mother to her brood, whereas in the research reported in the news story, which was done in Oxford University’s Zoology Department (of hideous aspect: see post for 12 June 2016), there was no mother duck: the experiment involved creating substitute mothers out of assorted coloured shapes. I shall make a 2-paragraph summary of it, which can be skipped (a more complete non-technical report, illustrated with a video, can be found at http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/ducklings-make-way-abstract-thought-oxford-study-finds/).

Newly hatched ducklings (in common with chicks and other baby fowl that quit their nest straight away) have to learn very promptly to identify, and to go on recognizing, their mother. The phenomenon is termed ‘imprinting’. It might seem a very basic act of perception, to know one’s own mother and recognise her anew on each sighting, but imprinting is by no means infallible. These young birds will very readily imprint on anything which stands in for the mother at the crucial time. It’s possible, therefore, to take advantage of this pathetic gullibility in order to discover exactly what faculties of perception and cognition the baby birds are using. Certainly they must rely on such indications as colour and shape, but can they detect and use the more abstract properties in what they see? After all, the apparent colour and shape of the mother must vary with changing light and movement.

The abstract properties or relations which the Oxford research tested were sameness and difference. The newly-hatched mallard ducklings (154 of them) were each given time to imprint on a linked pair of coloured shapes – to call them ‘mother’, in short. They were then presented with two variations of these pairs, one of which preserved an essential relation from the first – sameness or difference of shape or of colour – and one of which did not. The ducklings did indeed seem to use these relations in order to fix upon the right or original ‘mother’. Very much needing a mother, they apparently searched for and found one even in such abstract qualities; or in case that sounds anthropomorphic, here’s how the research summarizes it: “For a duckling critically dependent on proximity to its mother and siblings, defining the attachment stimulus configuration as a library of sensory inputs and logical rules increases the likelihood that the mother and sibling group will be identified with high fidelity in spite of considerable variations in how they are perceived.” You see? Yet such a capacity for conceptualization has hitherto “only been demonstrated … in species with advanced intelligence”. In short, they’re smarter than you think, or used to think.

This phenomenon of imprinting has been a subject of study for many years. One of its pioneers was the ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who in the 1930s famously induced greylag goslings to fix upon him as their mother. In his popular and excellent book King Solomon’s Ring (first English publication 1952), he describes the same accomplishment with mallard ducklings, the species used in the Oxford research, although Lorenz’s ducklings seemed to demand vocal identification as well:

If I ceased for even the space of half a minute from my melodious “Quahg, gegegegeg, Quahg, gegegegeg”, the necks of the ducklings became longer and longer corresponding exactly to ‘long faces’ in human children – and did I then not immediately recommence quacking, the shrill weeping began anew. As soon as I was silent, they seemed to think that I had died, or perhaps that I loved them no more: cause enough for crying! [42]

This scene – Lorenz quacking and waddling along in a squatting posture (for the ducklings ‘lost’ him when he stood up) – is worlds and minds away from the blank cubicle with suspended geometrical shapes in which, each one alone, the Oxford ducklings made their decisions. Both have their strengths and weaknesses as science, no doubt.

The original German title of King Solomon’s Ring was Er Redete mit dem Vieh, dem Vogeln und den Fischen (he spoke with animals, birds and fish), for it was a legend about King Solomon king-solomons-ringthat he had a magic ring which gave him this communicative power. And much of Lorenz’s research, as well as his home life, was indeed conducted in that style: “It is only by living with animals”, he said, “that one can attain a real understanding of their ways” [147]. Of course he was often charged with imputing, to the animals, strictly human thoughts and emotions. He defended himself in this way:

You think I humanize the animal? … Believe me, I am not mistakenly assigning human properties to animals: on the contrary, I am showing you what an enormous amount of animal inheritance remains in man, to this day.” [152]

I mention this because the question  of “assigning human properties” is a controversial one in all research into animal minds. One academic psychologist, Jennifer Vonk, by way of comment on a study of reasoning power in crows, has summarized the two parties to the controversy thus: on the one side are those who too readily grant “abilities to animals that are interesting largely because they potentially break down the human-erected divide between humans and other animals”; on the other are those who insist on “Morgan’s canon” – that is, the rule pronounced at the turn of the twentieth century by the experimental psychologist Conway Lloyd Morgan, that animal behaviour ought never to be interpreted as showing a ‘higher’ human-like faculty, if it can be adequately explained by a faculty “which stands lower in the psychological scale”.

No doubt it’s a matter of emphasis rather than incompatibility: one side looking for Darwinian continuities, the other preferring strictly behaviourist interpretations. We could happily leave them to work out their differences in the specialist journals, except that there are ethical consequences involved. I notice, for instance, that one of Jennifer Vonk’s references for the Lloyd Morgan side is an article from the journal Behavioural Brain Research declaratively titled ‘Darwin’s mistake: explaining the discontinuity between human and non-human minds’. Included among its authors is Daniel J. Povinelli. This is the psychologist whose work with chimpanzees at the New Iberia Research Center (University of Louisiana) is indignantly dispraised by Steven Wise in his book Rattling the Cage (1999). The point which Wise makes against Povinelli is that he treated the chimpanzee mentality with such Lloyd Morganish scepticism (for instance, in the providing of a carelessly bleak physical and social environment for the animals to grow up in), that he had pre-stunted the minds which he then studied and found wanting.

Not that the more Darwinian perspective guarantees a raised status for animals. It’s noticeable that when research of this ‘smarter than you think’ kind gets into the more popular media, it at once becomes affected by the sort of quips and puns which count for merry sparkle in that world. In the case of birds, there’s many a play on ‘bird-brained’, ‘free-range thinkers’, and so on. (Even Dr Vonk gets caught up in it: her comment piece in Current Biology [vol.25.2, 19 Jan 2015] is facetiously titled ‘Corvid Cognition: something to crow about?’) Such jokes are harmless fun, no doubt, if they are fun, but they tag these animal stories as light relief. Essentially the jokes invite a speciesist smirk at our inferiors and their primitive efforts to be more like us. That scene with the ducklings in King Solomon’s Ring comes in a chapter headed ‘Laughing at Animals’. The book itself is very entertaining, but Lorenz won’t countenance laughter at animals: he calls it “deriding things which, to me, are holy” [39]. He tells the story of the ducklings, for instance, as a joke against his own undignified antics as a searcher for the truth, and not because it’s a good laugh to put babies through their paces: in that scene, after all, they know, and he’s only the tyro trying to know, what it is they want.

I needn’t say that the Oxford research is presented wholly seriously, and was indeed an ingenious piece of work, if hardly conclusive. It seems not to have required a licence under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (ASPA), though as Lorenz’s experiment shows, imprinting on the wrong thing surely may involve “distress” of the sort which ASPA is meant to supervise. Anyway, the research did have the approval of its departmental ethics committee, and the ducklings were returned to the Oxford University Farm afterwards (with what mothering prospects there, we don’t know).

All the same, these imprinting experiments make one uneasy for good reason. It’s not just that experimental psychology, essentially the taking apart of behaviour, has often enough entailed taking apart the brain itself (just follow the subject of imprinting into the neuroscience journals). More largely, the theme itself is disquieting. Even Nature (if I may personify it for a moment) with all its frivolous indifference to individual welfare and its short way with weakness, seems to have made an exception in the case of the maternal bond. The mildest of animals is lent anomalous courage during motherhood so that she’ll protect her offspring with selfless bravado. Here, if nowhere else, Nature itself seems to call something in its bloody free-for-all “holy” (to use Lorenz’s word). Or at least we can say factually that it’s in this one bond that the strongest and most absolute passions in animal life – of attachment and of bereavement – are to be found.

And now see how this unique complex of love, fear, and defiance has fared in the laboratory. “Mothers are important, it is generally agreed … but just how important?” – so asked Professor P. L. Broadhurst, introducing animal studies to a new generation in his popular  work The Science of Animal Behaviour (1963). It’s an ominous question coming from an experimental psychologist. In this case, it was preliminary to commending the work of Professor Harry Harlow, the man who had recently set about answering the question, in his Wisconsin laboratory, by depriving baby rhesus monkeys of their real mothers, and tempting them with various inorganic and savagely inadequate alternatives. Harlow’s experiments, metaphorically taking a blunt surgical knife to the principle of motherhood, cast a shadow of real iniquity over the whole of animal research – so much so, that a formal repudiation of them ought to be a condition of getting a licence under ASPA. But especially they have tainted and dishonoured the experimental study of imprinting and all its allotropes. The steady and unapologetic continuation of such study is a reminder, if one needed it, that in bio-science some things may at different times be illegal, but nothing is sacred.

Incidentally, it seems that there was a habit of jocularity in Harlow’s lab. I just mention it.


Notes and references:

The Oxford University research is reported in Science, 15 July 2016, vol.353, pp.286-88. The abstract is available online at http://science.sciencemag.org/content/353/6296/286.

The illustration on the title-page of King Solomon’s Ring is by Konrad Lorenz, and shows a greylag goose with neck “outstretched in that gesture which, in geese, means the same as tail-wagging in a dog”.

The comment piece by Jennifer Vonk appeared in Current Biology, 19 Jan 2015, vol.25, pp.69-71, the research itself being reported in the same issue.

Steven Wise discusses Povinelli’s work with chimpanzees in Rattling the Cage: Towards Legal Rights for Animals, U.K. edition by Profile Books, 2000, pp.230-34.

For more about Professor Harlow, see the post for 15 July 2015, ‘How not to Treat Babies’.




Remembering the Founding Text of the Animal Rights Movement (not by Peter Singer)

It’s now forty five years since the book of essays Animals, Men and Morals was published. Its editors were three post-graduate philosophers at Oxford, and several of their fellow-writers for the book were likewise University people. Accordingly some of its chapters are academic studies of one kind or another, though written with unacademic fervour and impatience. Others lay out the facts of factory farming, fur and cosmetics, and experiments on animals. Although it made no great splash at the time, this book proved to be the pioneering text for the modern animal rights movement, in both its philosophical and animals-men-morals-coverits political forms. The chapter on vivisection was written by Richard Ryder, then a psychologist in an Oxford hospital, and since that’s the unhappy subject of this blog I shall say a little more about his part in the book.

Ryder himself had done research work with animals (I politely use that richly euphemistic “with”). Therefore he knew the things of which he came to write. What he first wrote was a pamphlet titled Speciesism, which he published and distributed round Oxford in 1970. He had coined its title-word on the analogy of ‘racism’ and ‘sexism’, in order to show at a lexical glance that the moral revolution of the 1960s, unfinished as it obviously was, had still another ancient orthodoxy to start to undo. By placing the subject of animal welfare in a political context in this way, he also freed it from its conventional associations with the minor good works of well-off old ladies (i.e. courageous women who meant to get something right done, as fortunately many still do). When another Oxford post-graduate, Peter Singer, reviewed Animals, Men and Morals for the New York Review of Books, and when he went on to write Animal Liberation (1975), he used ‘speciesism’ as his key word for just those reasons and despite its awkwardness (“the word is not an attractive one, but I can think of no better term”[i]). Defining as it does the essential wrong, Ryder’s word remains a complete work of animal ethics and a rule-book in ten letters.

Singer’s review spoke of Animal, Men and Morals as “a manifesto for an Animal Liberation movement”[ii]. In the event, it was his own book which became that manifesto, and it has been so ever since. But it was the earlier book which had established the proper way to look at the subject: not just as a miscellany of improvised cruelties, calling on the services of kindly people to press for remedies, but as an enormous and systematic wrong requiring a fundamental change of mind. As the book’s ‘Postscript’ says – so much in the spirit of that time, as well as of that project – “we want to change the world.”[iii]

Richard Ryder’s chapter of the book, surveying the law and practice of animal research, was a good deal longer than any of the others. It gives many examples of contemporary experiments, illustrative of what animals might be asked to endure: rats in their ‘Wright Auto-Smoker’, dogs having their legs crushed in the notorious ‘Blalock Press’ (ah, those evocative trade-names!), pregnant baboons in car-crash simulations, and so on. A few of the examples are from Oxford’s laboratories. It’s a disgusting read, and it all sits in the baleful shade of the chapter’s epigraph, taken from the works of one of experimental psychology’s leading practitioners, Harry Harlow: “most experiments are not worth doing and the data obtained are not worth publishing.”[iv]

It is often asked of those who oppose vivisection why they don’t bother about the far greater numbers of animals killed for food. The simple answer of course is that they do. As Animals, Men and Morals insisted, it’s all one subject, though some may specialize within it. But there’s a more unpleasant answer too. Factory farming is itself a product of scientific research. Ruth Harrison showed as much in her chapter of the book, and she had already written, in Animal Machines (1964), that “every batch of animals reaching market is a sequel to another experiment or part of an experiment.” The laboratory may exemplify speciesism in an especially stark and modern way, but it also promotes and facilitates it elsewhere.

A popular account of animal research published in 1963 makes this last point very clearly, and also helpfully illustrates the orthodox thinking of the time. The Science of Animal Behaviour was written for the Pelican imprint by P.L.Broadhurst, a professor at Birmingham. He was presumably aiming the book at the lay-person and the aspiring young scientist, and it is clearly and reasonably intended as an advertisement for his profession. There is not much in it about animals as they can be observed in nature. The laboratory is Broadhurst’s preferred setting, partly because that was his own place of work (rats and the misleadingly fun-sounding “shuttle box” were his customary tools), but mainly because animals in themselves do not quite constitute a subject: “there is essentially only one basic scientific interest in the study of animal behaviour and that is to learn more about man himself.”[v] 

Accordingly, a high point of Broadhurst’s presentation is the contemporary research of that same Professor Harlow into maternal deprivation as it affected baby rhesus monkeys, and therefore might be supposed to concern humans. “Mothers are important, it is generally agreed”, muses our author, himself a family man. “But just how important …?” Harlow’s work with his artificial mothers, carefully graded as to their lovelessness and delinquency, seemed to provide some exciting answers. For instance, as Broadhurst reports, these forlorn babies “preferred a soft cloth model even when it did not provide milk to a hard one which did!” Not just that bumptious exclamation mark, but the cover of the book itself, picturing a monkey in the throes of this pathetic decision, show that the experiment, which ought to bring tears to the eyes of any person of ordinary sensibility, is thought to instance the discipline of animal research at its most thrilling.

I’m sure that Professor Broadhurst was a kind enough man, though of Harlow one can be rather less certain. Both had wives who helped them in their research, if that’s relevant. As Richard Ryder says in Victims of Science, “My intention is in no way to defame scientists, but to question their conventions.”[vi] And the convention in which Broadhurst was working is very clear: it is the old master/slave convention. And not just at work, where what he calls “the lowly rodent and his laboratory master” live out that relationship. Those two are the template for a much larger project, because, so he proposes, the “exploitation in the service of man of the behavioural resources of animals has hardly begun.” In the editorial foreword to The Science of Animal Behaviour, this “service of man” is frankly and enthusiastically called “slave labour”.

It seemed natural at that time, at least to Broadhurst and his editor, to cast the scientist as the designer of our future relations with animals. So at the same moment that Ruth Harrison, in Animal Machines, was warning of the horrors of industrialized farming, Broadhurst was telling his Pelican audience that the present role of animals in food production would soon “seem pitifully small” (a most interesting choice of adverb). It’s true that to some extent science has begun to provide its own corrective in the new academic discipline of Animal Welfare (where Oxford University has been taking a leading part). But I believe that Broadhurst and his colleagues in the profession would have welcomed this, as keeping the story within the laboratory and its variants, and in the hands of scientists. Besides, science has not been brought to a pause in this matter. New ways of exploiting animals for food, indeed new animals, are being thought up and made real now for new forms of slavery.

No, it’s not by inventing techniques for the study and measurement of animal welfare that speciesism, as exposed in Animals, Men and Morals and still going strong now, can be understood and undone, and new varieties of it prevented. What’s needed of mankind is a “re-appraisal of his position in relation to the creatures with which he shares the environment” That quotation is from Ruth Harrison’s chapter in the book. It’s the chapter about factory farming, but it’s also the first chapter, and it acted as an introduction to what followed. Her first sentence accordingly takes a fully re-proportioning view of our standing in the natural world: “It is a sobering thought that animals could do without man yet man would find it impossible to do without animals.” This is a radical fact: if you read “could” as a past tense (‘were perfectly able to’), you have the whole tragic history of human/animal relations before you. Animals, Men and Morals was the first full statement of that tragedy as it looked in the twentieth century, and the first authoritative call to put it right.


[i] Animal Liberation, Pimlico, 1995, p.6

[ii] New York Review of Books, vol.20, no.5, April 5, 1973

[iii] Animals, Men and Morals, ed. Stanley and Roslind Godlovitch and John Harris, Gollancz, 1971, p.232. Later quotations are from p.11.

[iv] Referenced in the text to Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology, 1962

[v] The Science of Animal Behaviour, Penguin Books, 1963, p.12. Later quotations are from pp.74, 73, 100, 135, and 132.

[vi] Davis-Poynter, 1975, preface

This post is a revised version of an article first published in the Oxford Magazine (the University’s house journal) in 2013.

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.