Harry Harlow, the Undead

Catching up with my back copies of the Journal of Neuroscience, I come across a paper with this title: ‘The Signature of Maternal Rearing in the Methylome in Rhesus Macaque Prefrontal Cortex and T Cells’. It’s a clear enough title, if hard going for amateurs, but the reference to the maternal rearing of monkeys ought to be a tautology. Is there any other sort of rearing? Yes, indeed there is, as the research protocol soon makes clear: rhesus macaque monkeys [nineteen of them] are randomly assigned at birth to differential rearing conditions by either their mother or an inanimate, cloth-covered surrogate.” Among the effects of the less natural infant upbringings, we learn, are “emotional and social disturbances . . . behavioural abnormalities . . . inadequate social skills . . . increased voluntary alcohol consumption.” The ‘signature in the methylome’ and so on are the corresponding neural evidences of these distresses. (Incidentally, that word “voluntary” has its own unhappy story to tell.)

If something seems unpleasantly familiar to you about this research, then one of its lead authors, Professor Allyson Bennett, is the very person to correct you. Writing less formally, in fact in ill-advised satirical style, she has posted a sort of mock news-story on the web-site of Speaking of Research (she’s a member of its governing committee). “Harlow Dead, Bioethicists Outraged”, says the heading, and the text begins “The philosophy and bioethics community was rocked and in turmoil on Friday when they learned that groundbreaking experimental psychologist Professor Harry Harlow had died over thirty years ago.” There follows some lumbering fun with the theme that philosophers and animal activists have relied on Harlow as a sort of bogey-man to discredit animal research. Then Professor Bennett brings in, by way of contrast, a group of “fringe” philosophers who aim at “cross-disciplinary partnerships in public engagement with contemporary ethical issues”. This sounds a bit solemn in the context, but it’s meant seriously, for their message is, again, Harlow is dead. Move on. New facts, problems require thought plus action.”

Professor Harlow did indeed die in 1981, and, contrary to what Bennett supposes, it would be wholly welcome news to find that he was dead also in the sense intended by her: i.e. that the research methods, values, and attitudes represented in his experiments on rhesus macaque monkeys were discredited and finished with, that his story and theirs was over. But it isn’t, and what keeps it alive is not its campaigning value, such as that might be; it’s his fellow-professionals.

Here, then, is the explanation for Harlow’s deathlessness, and that article in the Journal of Neuroscience is a good place to start. Among Professor Bennett’s co-authors (thirteen of them) is Stephen J. Suomi. Back in the 1970s, Suomi was one of Harlow’s star post-graduate students, and his assistant in some of the notorious ‘pit of despair’ research into infant isolation. He has since continued that work in various forms, creating “monkey models of depression and excessive alcohol consumption” among many other achievements, as cross-references in the article show. Indeed, those citations go right back to a paper of 1976 titled ‘Effects of maternal and peer separation on young monkeys’, which he co-authored with Harlow. And now Professor Suomi, who must be at the senior end of that line-up of co-authors in the JN article, is evidently passing on the Harlow legacy to younger practitioners. After all, the last sentence of the article is looking forward: “Future experiments need to examine . . .” I’m sure that some of those other thirteen will be keen to oblige.

Of course, to say that more research is needed is a common enough winding-up trope; it was certainly one that Harry Harlow himself favoured. See, for instance, a paper which he wrote in 1965 about causing brain-damage to six new-born macaques by feeding them too much of the amino-acid phenylalanine in the milk of their artificial mother. At the end of it, he plants suggestions of uncertainty: “probably”, “perhaps”, “one suspects”. These unresolved things are for others to pursue. Or they might, he suggests, set about over-feeding “other amino acids” to other monkeys, on the same principle. Allyson Bennett rightly calls Harlow’s work “groundbreaking”, and Harlow meant that ground to be thoroughly developed by others as well as himself. He promoted macaques as behavioural models, manipulable in ways which he pioneered. He devised specialized cage-systems and holding-equipment for them. He lent out his ‘prepared’ infant monkeys to other institutions. He spoke of his work to public as well as professional audiences. Above all, he trained a new generation of scientists in the discipline which he had created. As an obituary in the American Journal of Primatology said in 1982, Harlow was “a legendary source of inspiration”.

clear pic with sur-mother

When Harry Harlow began his studies, he had to use monkeys at Madison’s zoo; by the time he retired, the university had about 500 in its own colony. Now Wisconsin is a national focus for primate research, accounting in its various primate research laboratories for 8,782 of the total of 68,257 non-human primates used in US laboratories in 2019. The focus of the behavioural part of that research is, of course, the Harlow Center for Biological Psychology, which is indeed where Professor Bennett does much of her work. And even as she insists that the eponymous Harlow himself is dead, she asserts – what is indeed patent at Madison and far beyond – that his “discoveries cast a bright light on a path that continues to advance new understanding . . . etc.”  If I understand that sentence correctly, the verb ‘cast’ must be a present tense: the Harlow light is still brightly on.

In short, Professor Bennett is a bit like Antony in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who tells the crowd “I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him”, but then shows and indeed ensures that Caesar’s name and fame are as efficacious as ever.

Perhaps recognizing some contradiction here, Bennett has a go at de-toxifying Harlow’s reputation. The really controversial research, she says, the research which has “served as a touchstone [is that the word she wants?] for philosophers, animal rights groups, and others”, was done for “a brief time at the very end of his career”, and consisted in only “a small number of studies”. The most controversial of these, “known by their colloquial name pit of despair (actually Harlow’s own name for the isolation device which he had himself designed), involved fewer than twenty monkeys, who were “placed in extreme isolation for short periods (average of six weeks) following initial infant rearing in a nursery.” In other words, it’s all been exaggerated by that “bioethics community” for political purposes.

But no. Harlow was already reporting such studies in 1965, at least ten years before he stopped work (see the 1976 article referenced above). And what he said then – in a short summary for the journal Science, titled ‘Total Social Isolation: Effects on Macaque Monkey Behaviour’ – was that sixteen macaques (plus at least two “semi-isolated” monkeys as controls) had been put into isolation chambers “at birth”, without sight of any other living being, for periods of three, six, and twelve months.

Bennett’s corrective information is wrong, then. But even if it weren’t, that isolation research was no late aberration. It was one of countless variations upon a steady theme: the producing of mental disturbance in infant monkeys. We’ve seen that this wasn’t being done with changes of circumstance only. Those monkeys overdosed with phenylalanine had likewise been taken from their mothers at birth, and their various pathetic symptoms (convulsions, hyperactivity, head-banging and self-biting, circling the cage, complete torpor) may not have been much better than those suffered by the poor isolates, who at least got unpoisoned food. Among the other material interventions tried out by Harlow were bilateral frontal lobectomy, alcohol in the diet, and radiation.

Remember that these half-ruined young animals were then being tested for mental capacity (the psychology of learning had been Harlow’s starting-point in research). Those torpid monkeys, for instance, “had to be prodded to complete a trial.” Force was indeed a common recourse in the Harlow laboratory – a curious feature in studies supposedly revealing “the fundamental building blocks of human behaviour” (as the Association for Psychological Science believes they did). When Harlow wished his mother-deprived female monkeys to try out motherhood themselves, he got round their natural refusal with what he called, colloquially, the “rape rack”, though in print he was rather more coy about it: “By methods dark, dismal, and devious we impregnated several of these reluctant females over a period of years.” (the “we”, in this case again, were Harlow and Suomi, in 1971.) Incidentally, we’re told that “several” of these forced mothers passed on the violence by killing their importunate off-spring.

I won’t assess here the claims made by Professor Bennett for the human relevance of all this research, since the subject has been discussed elsewhere in this blog (‘How Not to Treat Babies’: see link in notes). However, she also more surprisingly claims that the research was relevant and helpful to non-human animals. At a time when they were regarded by most people as “dumb machines” and “automatons”, so she says, Harlow showed how mentally complex animals really were. So he did animals good, you see, even as he tormented them.

Actually, were they commonly regarded as automatons? The first federal law to protect animals in general was passed in 1966, but it didn’t come out of nowhere; there had been particular legislation in their interests (at slaughter, during transport) well before that, as well as state legislation, and the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals had been founded a hundred years back in 1866. The ASPCA’s chief mover, Henry Bergh, spoke with passionate indignation against vivisection. The truth is that Harlow’s work was controversial at the time; in fact two Congressmen tried (unsuccessfully) to block a federal research grant for it in 1962. Nor do I find that Harlow anywhere took from his research any implication that favoured the interests of non-human animals. What he told his public about was not monkeys as sentient beings with corresponding claims on our respect, but monkeys as live models or pioneers of any and every mental disaster that could be imagined. And heaven knows, Harry Harlow had a fertile imagination in that respect.

And here we come to something about Harlow which Professor Bennett doesn’t attempt to manage, perhaps doesn’t quite appreciate, but which has helped to ensure his conspicuousness in the modern history of vivisection. Even in his publications, he seems to gloat over the strange sufferings and perversions that he creates. We’re told in the obituary that he was “an unusually gifted writer”. Certainly he liked fanciful alliterative phrases. You’ll remember those “methods dark, dismal and devious”. The obituary recalls him speaking of the “bold and barren splendor” of his wire and cloth surrogate mothers. Observing his (male) monkeys on their release from isolation, and their pathetic attempts to relate to their new associates, he looks for “the ecstasies and elegances of masculine play” and “the full grandiose gifts of masculinity”. Fine writing possibly, but with a creepy relish about it. In fact a colouring of perversion affects all Harlow’s work and writing. He’s a man one wouldn’t leave alone with the children, and it’s an abiding tragedy that he spent his life freely practising upon their like, and made a legacy of the habit which is still creating work for his successors. Yes, he lives on all right, and therefore the contention over the kind of reputation he ought to have is, in spite of what Professor Bennett says, completely proper and indeed necessary to our continuing attempts to make medical science a humane pursuit.

NIH lab c.2009

Notes and references:

The Journal of Neuroscience article is in the issue for 31 October 2012, vol. 32 (44), pp. 15626-15642.

The ‘Harlow Dead’ post on Speaking of Research’s web-site can be read here: https://speakingofresearch.com/2014/08/03/harlow-dead-bioethicists-outraged/

Suomi’s monkey models of depression and alcoholism are instanced in a statement by the American Psychological Association defending this “world renowned researcher” from “a sustained and well publicized campaign against Dr Suomi’s laboratory by the organisation People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals.” See https://speakingofresearch.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/apa-suomi-letter-01-22-15.pdf

The report on induced phenylketonuria in rhesus macaques was published in Science, 12 February 1965, pp.685-95.

The obituary of Harry Harlow, written by Stephen Suomi and Helen Leroy (Harlow’s assistant as editor of the Journal of Comparative and Physiological Psychology), can be read here: https://www.academia.edu/19008017/In_memoriam_Harry_F._Harlow_1905-1981_ It includes a bibliography of Harlow’s publications.

The 2019 animal research numbers in the USA, including the figure for each state, can be found here: https://www.aphis.usda.gov/animal_welfare/annual-reports/2019/fy19-summary-report-column-B.pdf

Harlow’s report ‘Total Social Isolation’ was published in Science on 30 April 1965, p.666.

The quotation from the Association of Psychological Science, one of the many scientific institutions which have expressed unconditional approval of Harlow’s work, can be found here: https://www.psychologicalscience.org/publications/observer/obsonline/harlows-classic-studies-revealed-the-importance-of-maternal-contact.html

“dark, dismal, and devious . . etc.” is quoted from a paper titled ‘Social Recovery by Isolation-Reared Monkeys’ in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA, July 1971, vol.68, no.7, p.1535. Here Harlow was experimenting with ways to cure the monkeys of their induced psychoses.

The relevance or otherwise to human babyhood of Harlow’s experiments is discussed in this blog here: https://voiceforethicalresearchatoxford.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/18/

The photographs show baby macaques with surrogate ‘mothers’ then and now: that is, in Harlow’s laboratory, and in a National Institutes of Health laboratory a few years ago.