As far as careers go, comparative psychologist Harry Harlow had a pretty good run of things. The guy founded and chaired the internationally renowned Primate Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He generated over 320 research papers during his 50+ year career, won the National Medal of Science, and was even elected president of the American Psychological Association back in the 50s.
He’s also been described as a “sadistic rapist,” single-handedly responsible for the rise of the animal liberation movement.
As a comparative psychologist, Harlow believed that by studying the minds of animals, we could gain insight into our own psychology. His research dealt with the effects of maternal separation on one of God’s most cuddliest of creations, the baby rhesus macaque (pictured above looking ingenuous as all hell).
But enough necessary background information. The best way to get a feel for Harlow’s research is to hear about it from the man himself. So here’s a clip of Harlow discussing what’s probably his most highly regarded experiment:
Now for a mad scientist, Harlow’s methods weren’t all that absurd (oh man, wait till I get to guys like Demikhov and Bruyukhonenko). There were a number of researchers studying the effects of maternal deprivation on baby monkeys at the time.
What really got peoples goat, however, were the outrageous, dare I say evil, names he devised for his experimental contraptions. One particularly controversial set of studies involved sequestering monkeys for periods of up to a year in a so-called “well of despair,” a sunken isolation chamber devoid of virtually any sensory stimulation. The goal was to create an animal model of human depression, and it worked, the monkeys emerged horribly maladjusted. When they refused to mate, he created a forced mating device he called the “rape rack” in order to study how the isolates performed as parents. They turned out to be violently abusive, with one mother reportedly chewing off her child’s fingers, and another crushing her kid’s head.
One of the major criticisms echoed throughout the animal rights community is that these results are simply common sense. If you severely isolate a social creature, of course it’s gonna get fucked up. If you give a child the choice between cold wire and comfy cloth, of course it’s going to choose the cloth. But when you look closely, it’s hard to dismiss Harlow’s work as nothing more than a validation of the obvious.
His research came at a time when the psychological establishment was busy warning parents against the dangers of “mother love.” John Watson worried that too much mothering would turn our children into dependent sissies. “Never hug and kiss [your children],” he wrote, “Never let them sit on your lap.” B.F. Skinner’s second daughter spent the first two and a half years of her life in a box. A box people!
Harlow’s experiments on maternal deprivation reaffirmed the importance of close, physical contact in healthy child development (be it from a mother’s touch, or a cotton-pleated surrogate). His “well of despair” proved to be, at the very least, a reliable means of inducing depression in rhesus monkeys, and bears more than a striking resemblance to some of the world’s worst third world orphanages. Who’s to say what Harlow or others would have discovered if they used this model to test treatments for depression.
Though to Harlow’s credit as a mad scientist, he was out for more than just models of depression and parental advice. In his famous 1958 address to the American Psychological Association entitled “The Nature of Love,” Harlow set out his methodical raison d’etre: “Love is a wondrous state, deep, tender, and rewarding. Because of its intimate and personal nature it is regarded by some as an improper topic for experimental research. But, whatever our personal feelings may be, our assigned mission as psychologists is to analyze all facets of human and animal behavior into their component variables.”
Harlow wanted to be remembered as the scientist who cracked the mystery of the human heart. But in order to study love, he knew, he must also study hate.
Like a god he was to these apes, and they his Job!
All this high-concept high-faulutiness earns Harlow a well-deserved spot as the very first mad scientist on Mad Scientist Blog.
Alright fine here’s another freaky clip: