Left Over

Every once and awhile, you encounter a piece of culture which comes to feel to you like a beloved person.  These works are precious to us: they help us understand ourselves and the world.  They move us the way only people move us, normally – we care about them and they become part of the architecture of our lives.

For me, these adored and integral works are almost always books.  I love some music, am transfixed by a few pieces of visual art, and enjoy movies, but my whole self is built of books, and no other medium has ever moved me the way the written word has.

I especially disdain T.V. and film.  I consider these, categorically, lesser arts than the written word.  Yes, I recognize that this is ignorance and rank prejudice masquerading as a critical opinion, but I don’t really care.  I believe that written language is humankind’s paramount achievement; movies I consider mere entertainment.

Which is why it is emotionally confusing for me on the extremely rare occasions when I love a film or T.V. show with the same strength and admiration I feel for books.

And when I lose one of these movies or shows, I am as bereaved as I am when I finish a great book: lost and bewildered, thrown back into my real life but now without the benefit of a companion I had cherished.

The leftoversThis past week, I lost the best television show that I have perhaps ever seen, certainly the one which has moved me the most, with the airing on HBO, after three short seasons, of the finale of ‘The Leftovers’.

Critical opinion is, I gather, sort of split about ‘The Leftovers’: half of people feel as rapturous as I do, and half seem to have been left completely cold.  Or, as an acquaintance of mine put it, “I can tell that it’s very good, but I can’t watch more than about 30 minutes at a time – it’s too weird and too stressful.”

‘The Leftovers’ is about a world exactly like ours where, one day, 2% of the population, a seemingly random 2%, suddenly vanish out of thin air, never to return.  It’s about the people left, how they cope, how they understand, how they fall apart.

leftovers 3It’s difficult to find the language to describe how I feel about this show.  Or, rather, it isn’t difficult , but I am reluctant to use it, because it is so global and so far-ranging, and I’m worried that it will make me seem soft-headed.  But there is no point in writing about something you love if you aren’t going to tell the truth, so I suppose I might as well.

leftovers 4
This is exactly what the show feels like.

‘The Leftovers’ is the best depiction I have ever seen of grief on a screen.  It is the best depiction I have ever seen of people grappling frantically with the need to create meaning in their lives.  It is the best depiction I have ever seen of the quiet, desperate madness which descends on you when you learn that something which you believed impossible is actually quite possible.  It is the best depiction I have ever seen of the fact that we both need each other but cannot change to keep each other.  It is the best depiction I have ever seen of faith as a crutch, of faith as a lifesaver, and of the fact that faith can be both to the same person.

It’s hard not to admire a show that has the discipline to stop when it’s done, even if it’s only three seasons long, but I will confess: I’m crushed that ‘The Leftovers’ is over.  When you encounter that clear and confident a vision, you’re not quite content with seeing only what they want to show you.  You want to see more and more of the world through their eyes.  You feel like they have more to tell you.

leftovers 2I guess that’s what I’m trying to say: I’m not done with the world ‘The Leftovers’ showed me.  I watched the finale – I recognize that it is a complete vision, but I’m not finished.  They might be done, but I’m not done with them.  I have more to learn, about grief and rage and love.  I think that they had more to show me, but I’m grateful for what I saw.

Make America Cynical Again

     Recently, during a discussion of current events, my own beloved father looked at me gloomily and said, “You’ve become cynical.  That makes me very sad.”

     “Why?” I asked.

     “Because if you’re cynical, it means you aren’t hopeful about people,” he said.

     I was surprised, and for two reasons.  The first was his use of the word ‘become’.  Whether I am, as he says, cynical, or whether I am, as I would argue, realistic, I have certainly always seen the world through this lens.  It is familiar by now.  I have always been this way – I have never been optimistic.

Trump Rally
Quick, what color are all these people?

     (Although, in my father’s defense, it is true that the election of Donald Trump to the presidency of the United States of America jarred me and, perhaps, sharpened the edge on my cynicism.  I had not believed my countrymen would be willing to elect a man that xenophobic – I was wrong.  I don’t intend to overestimate them again.)

     But I was also surprised by his juxtaposition of cynicism and hopefulness.  He seemed to feel that these were necessarily opposite conditions – I don’t believe that they are.

     ‘Cynical’ can mean several things.  My father, in this context, probably meant ‘distrustful of human sincerity or integrity’.  I suppose I am that.  It’s not that I don’t believe that humans lack either sincerity or integrity, or even that those qualities are rare.  However, I believe that those qualities co-exist, in all humans, with cowardice, malevolence, and a facility for dishonesty, and that, therefore, those virtues are unreliable in any individual or population over time.

Nuremberg Rally
The Annual rally at Nuremberg in 1936

     As I have said before (several times), I believe that all peoples, in all places, at all times, are capable of evil.  That this capacity for evil, like our capacity for good, defines us as a species.  That we will never outgrow it, evolve past it, or become too smart for it, and that we must be ever vigilant against it.  I believe that the data, both historical and contemporary, support my conclusion.  I believe that this conclusion, to put it plainly, is true.

     And the truth is never cynical.  No belief, no matter how rosy it may seem, if it is not premised on the truth, can be really hopeful.

hiroshima5-crop

     The belief that we are better than our ancestors or the people of other nations, this is a self-flattering lie, a delusion which is easier to bear than hard truth.  And lies are never really hopeful; they are, in fact, a surrender to a much darker cynicism than I am capable of: that it is better to believe yourself good than to acknowledge your own capacity for evil and so avoid doing it.  That it is better to seem than to be.

     I believe that it is far more hopeful to be a cynic who looks out for ordinary evils than an optimist who insists that evil is always freakish, because only the cynic will see the evil coming far enough away to stop it.  Only someone who believes in evil will trouble themselves to learn about it, and learning is the best way we can avoid it in ourselves.

     Any view of the human race which denies an essential and ineradicable part cannot be hopeful.  Hope is not hope which is premised on ignorance.  There can be no true hope without honesty first.

     So, no, Dad, I may be cynical, but I’m not hopeless.  On the contrary, Dad: I find that you have much less hope than I.  People who, confronted again and again with the wickedness of their fellow men, with their small-minded hatreds, their tribalisms and rages, people who nevertheless insist on finding them essentially good, they are hopeless.  People who are then always surprised when evil happens, they are hopeless.  People for whom the good opinion of each other means more than actually saving each other, they are hopeless.  If you must lie to yourself about man’s nature in order to accept him, that is hopeless.

Memorial Rwanda
Memorial shrine in Ntarama for victims of the Rwandan genocide

     I believe I have seen man in all his despicability, and I still see a way forward for him.  He’s not a saintly ape, he is not basically good, but, with attention, he might learn.  And, as long as that is true, he will never be completely hopeless.  

     I’m trying to learn, and so I’m not hopeless.

Featured Image: This is a real product, sold on Amazon, ‘Election 2016 Donald Trump Make America Great Again Booty Shorts

Worth

I was catching up on my Radiolab episodes the other day, and I listened to one called ‘Worth’.  In the way of Radiolab, it was a collection of stories loosely organized around a theme, in this case, the monetary value of things not normally valued in those terms: the environment, human lives, or time, in particular, time in your life.

The take-home message of this last was that, when developing and marketing drugs, we, both as individuals and as a society, should think about how much additional years of our lives are worth.

If you were 75 years old, and had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and there were a drug available which might extend (might being one of the operative words) your life by 12 – 24 months, would you take that drug if it cost nothing?  Yes, almost certainly.  How about if it cost $100 per year?  $100 per month?  $100 per day?  $100 per hour?  There are drugs that cost more even than that.  How much is it rational to spend to prolong life?

In general, I think it’s overly optimistic to expect people to be rational about death; nevertheless, these are questions which we should be able to at least entertain, if not answer.  I’d like to think I’d be able to have a discussion about my own end of life care, what I’d be willing to spend and endure, and what I would be willing to ask my family to spend and endure.  I am comfortable, at least intellectually, with the idea that my life is of finite and measurable worth.

But I know that I will never, ever be to think rationally about what my father’s life is worth.  I can accept that the value of my life is not unlimited, but the simple, emotional truth is that, to me, his life is priceless.

It is not that I love my father, in any meaningful way, more than I love my mother, or my brothers, or my spouse.  But my father’s death has been the great terror of my life since I was a young child, and I would do anything to postpone it.

I once told him, when I was very little, that I hoped I would die before he did.  He told me with great emphasis that that was the unkindest thing I could ever wish for him, that no parent should ever outlive their child.

I didn’t want to upset him, so I negotiated: I told him that, in that case, I hoped that we died at that exact same instant.  He failed to appreciate the compromise I was offering him, and told me that he hoped that he would die many, many years before I did, that I would have a long and happy life even after he was dead.

I didn’t tell him, but I didn’t think that was possible.  I still don’t.  The idea of living a happy life in a fatherless world is incoherent – it does not compute.  It’s like telling me you wish me a long and happy life after the sun goes dark for good.

When I was young and the black dog of my father’s death would appear at the edges of vision, my mother told me that that fear would diminish as I got older, as I started my own family and had my own children.  She told me that, when my own offspring were in the world, the death of my parents wouldn’t obliterate it.

I don’t have children.  Maybe I will one day, and maybe she will be proved right – she usually is.  But perhaps all she is really describing is the replacement of one apocalypse for another.  I cannot bear the thought of my father’s death – will I be able to bear the thought of my child’s any better?

I think what I’m trying to say is this: ‘worth’ is a concept with meaning only when there are choices.  “What’s it worth to you” suggests two options: the thing you want and the price you might pay, both with value you can understand and which you can compare.  Death of the most loved ones, this does not have value against which something else can be measured.  This is the scaffolding upon which the world has been built, and without it, nothing has value.

And the point is moot.

“The Perfect Love Affair Is One Which Is Conducted Entirely By Post”

A Review of ‘The Affair‘ on Showtime

This post contains spoilers and refers only to Season 1.

I’ve been binge-watching the first season of ‘The Affair’, which is a T.V. show about a likeable but resentful married man, Noah (played by Dominic West), who has an affair with a unlikeable but fuckable married woman, Alison (played by Ruth Wilson).  The show, which seems to have gotten mixed but largely positive reviews, has some problems: there’s a whole lotta plot for not a ton of pay-off, and everyone spends a lot of time in Montauk looking agitated and unresolved.

But there are some things I really like about ‘The Affair’, and one of those things is the relationship between Noah and his wife Helen (played by Maura Tierney).  It seems, despite his affair, like a happy relationship, a long and companiable marriage between two people who essentially like each other.

Normally, when a relationship with a cheating member is depicted on T.V., the blame for the infidelity is put, in part, on the spouse cheated-on.  They are cold; they are mean.  I appreciate that ‘The Affair’ is willing to have a spouse step out on a good relationship.

Or I did like that, until, in the middle of the first season, Helen learns about Noah’s affair, and, in couple’s therapy, comes out with this little speech:

“”Do you know why I married you?”

“Because you love me?”

“I thought you were safe…Do you remember how quiet you used to be?  You got paralyzed if there were more than three people in the conversation.  I mean, you only spoke to me; everyone else thought you were mute.  And I could have had anyone, when I was young – I’m sorry if that sounds crass, but it’s true, and I chose you.  And I knew you were never going to be President or famous or rich, but I didn’t care about that because I had a rich, famous father and he’s such a fucking asshole and you adored me.  I knew you would never cheat; you wouldn’t leave and you would be a good father and we would have a nice life and we would grow old and die together and everyone would talk about how lucky we are and what a smart choice I made.””

This is some bullshit right here.

She’s horrible!  For the entire first half of the first season, she’s been doing a very good impression of a devoted wife and mother, but she fooled you!  She’s a narcissist – she only chose him because she thought his mediocrity would trap him with her and make her look good by comparison.  Their life, their marriage, their children, all were props in her one-woman show: Smart Choices of Helen Solloway.  She is revealed as moral monster.

There was no good reason to pathologize this character or this relationship this way.  It shows an intolerance for the fact that most humans are complicated.  If a husband (or wife) is unfaithful, it does not mean that their spouse must be secretly awful.  There are plenty of people who like, or even love, their spouses, and still cheat on them.  Not every unfaithful spouse is escaping a rotten marriage: people get bored, or lazy, or have some other existential crisis, or they meet someone else they really, really want to have sex with.

In order to make sure that we stayed with Noah, that we continued to care about his story, they threw his wife under the plot bus: they made her the villain so that his fidelity would make sense.

But infidelity already makes sense – it doesn’t need explaining.  Anyone who has ever wanted to have sex understands the idea of wanting to have sex with someone else.  And it’s an old and cheap trick, making the wife emotionally responsible for the husband’s failing.  It’s retrograde and stupid.

And I can’t help but notice that while Helen, Noah’s wife, must bear the weight of his error, Alison’s husband Cole (played by Joshua Jackson) is allowed to remain sympathetic.  In each relationship, it is the woman who is ultimately responsible for the infidelity

The Affair’ got a lot less interesting when it decided to make Helen horrible.  Before, things were murky and hard and muddled.  There were four complicated people in a mess, and the fact that the mess was of their own construction did not mean that I did not feel for them; now, there are only irritating people acting badly.  The show is flat now, and I can’t seem to care anymore who sleeps with whom, or leaves whom, or knows what.  They can all go to hell in a handbasket for all I care, and good riddance.

Features image from imdb.com.  Title quotation by George Bernard Shaw.

Always She Will Be Present in My Memory and I Shall Never Cease to Bewail Her

I just do not know what to do about Marie Antoinette.

Yes, I realize that there isn’t, strictly speaking, anything to be done about her at this point – our decision-tree was pruned dramatically when she was guillotined.

But she is one of the most polarizing figures in European history, and she was killed during one of its most morally complicated upheavals; it feels incumbent on even the most casual consumer of history to have an opinion about her.

Still, making a close read of Marie Antoinette’s life wouldn’t have felt like an urgent priority except that one of my favorite writers, Stefan Zweig, wrote a biography of her, Marie Antoinette: The Portrait of an Average Woman.  Despite the title, it’s an essentially sympathetic biography (and let’s not forget that, on the spectrum of things said about Marie Antoinette over the years, ‘average’ is positively kindly) and based largely on her own letters.

It’s always interesting watching a biographer try and force their uncooperative subject into their narrative mold.  I had a similar experience a few years ago reading Antonia Fraser’s biography of Mary Stewart, Queen of Scots, which was a long and heroic attempt to make a real dimwit seem like a sophisticated, evolved, and politically subtle monarch (interesting side note: Antonia Fraser, patron saint of lost causes, also wrote a biography of Marie Antoinette).

Likewise, even Zweig’s best efforts can’t hide the fact that Marie Antoinette was a bizarrely spoiled young woman who, for most of her life, spent her limited mental energies entirely on the superficial and, particularly, on herself.  Despite receiving a great deal of very sound, very clear advice from a number of qualified people (not least her mother, the forbidding and formidable Maria Teresa of Austria), she persisted in acting in an extravagantly self-destructive way.

But I don’t always listen to my mother, either, and if Marie Antoinette was sometimes a self-involved mental midget, she was also complicated.  She loved her children, and seems to have had abiding and deep friendships.  At the end of her life, she displayed great bravery and great composure.

She also, at least according to Zweig, had one great and lasting love, Axel Comte de Fersen (and really, who could resist a man with such a name!).  The two of them, the Queen and the Swedish nobleman, loved each other for many years; Fersen even orchestrated the royal family’s attempted escape from the Tuileries.  Fersen never married, writing to his sister, “I cannot belong to the one woman to whom I should like to belong and who loves me, so I will not belong to anyone.”

He was devastated by her execution in 1793, and never really recovered, though he lived for nearly two more decades:

“She for whom I lived, since I have never ceased to love her…she for whom I would have sacrificed everything…she whom I loved so dearly, and for whom I would have given my life a thousand times – is no more.  God, why have you crushed me thus…I do not know how I go on living, I do not know how to support my suffering, which is intense and which nothing can ever efface.  Always she will be present in my memory and I shall never cease to bewail her…The sole object of my interest has ceased to exist; she alone meant everything to me…I care to speak of nothing but her, to recall the happy moments of my life.  Alas, nothing is left of them but memories which, however, I shall preserve so long as my life lasts.”

He died in 1810, beaten to death by an angry mob that believed he had murdered the heir to the throne of Sweden.

The whole story sounds incredible, I know, but, at least in Zweig’s hands, it’s also moving.  I wasn’t prepared to find so many sympathetic coordinates in Marie Antoinette.  Zweig didn’t talk me all the way around to liking her – the image of her and her bullshit peasant hut in Petite Trianon is hard to shake, and impossible to like.

But most of us are some part bullshit, and some part real; maybe Marie Antoinette was, too.  And I’m disconcerted to feel that I dismissed with prejudice someone on whom I should have spent more careful attention; she was a ditz, and so, like a ditz, I ignored her.  More fool I, it appears – if Zweig hasn’t convinced me that Marie Antoinette was “average”, he has at least convinced me I was wrong.

Image, which is a portrait of Marie Antoinette by Martin van Meytens, is from Wikipedia.

Blood-Fluke Monogamy

You know how upsetting it is when a celebrity couple to whom you’ve become attached breaks up?  And you know how it’s the worst when they break up because of infidelity?

Then perhaps you can imagine how distressed I was this week when I learned that Schistosoma mansoni, the endoparasitic blood-fluke, wasn’t really monogamous.

Schistosomes are a genus of class Trematoda, or parasitic flatworms.  They are the cause, in humans, schistosomiasis, which kills tens or hundreds of thousands of people every year (depending on whom you ask), and which is the second-most impactful parasitic infection worldwide after malaria.

Unlike other flatworms, schistosomes are dioecious.  During mating, the male, which is much larger, essentially encloses the female in something called, unsexily, a “gynacophoric canal”, where reproduction will occur and where the female will spend the rest of her life.

Or so we thought!  Turns out, blood-fluke couples split up, or, as scientists kind of preposterously put it, “divorce”.  Schistosome divorce was apparently first reported in 2000 by Pica-Mattoccia et al., in the journal Parasitology, but I don’t read Parasitology (although clearly I need to), and so I missed it.

However, my attention fell this week on a 2009 paper by Beltran et al., ‘Adult sex ratio affects divorce rate in the monogamous endoparasite Schistosoma mansoni’.  The authors of this paper found that they could dramatically increase the blood-fluke divorce rate by flooding the bloodstream of infected animals with male schistosomes, thus increasing the number of unpaired, available males.  However, increasing the number of female schistosomes in the bloodstream, i.e. creating a population of unpaired female blood-flukes, had no effect on divorce rates.

There are two possible explanations for this gendered effect.  The first is that the female schistosome is the choosier sex, and so, when there are more available unpaired males from which to choose, some number of paired females will upgrade.  Supporting this view is the observation that there is greater genetic variety among male blood-flukes than among females; this means that a female schistosome may gain a significant advantage from switching mates, while a male probably will not.  For a male schistosome, one female is very like another, and so when you have one, best just to hold on to her; hence the lack of effect on divorce rate when the number of available females was increased.

The other possible explanation is that the free schistosome males act in a predatory manner, and may physically break-up happily joined couples.  Since the male schistosome is much larger than the female, it makes sense that this would only happen when the number of males was increased: the smaller females would be incapable of separating another blood-fluke couple, even if there were more of them.

Of course, these two hypotheses need not be mutually exclusive: as the authors of the study mention in a slightly victim-blaming aside, “the possibility exists that female schistosomes choose not to resist takeover attempts by rival males if they perceive their higher phenotypic and/or genetic value.”

None of this lightens the emotional blow to those of us who had pinned our hopes on blood-fluke monogamy, of course.  It’s over – it was all a lie.  Love is dead.

Image from National Geographic.

You Marry Who You Know

     My grandfather used to say, “You marry who you know”.  When I was young, this seemed blindingly obvious; now, it seems apt.  You do marry who you know, and most people know people like themselves, and so marry people like themselves.  Humans marry assortively, which means that they pick mates that resemble them, and they make this selection along an impressive number of traits, including intelligence, race, religion, class, beliefs, hobbies, personality traits, smoking, drinking, weight, height, even lung volume.

     In 1986, David Buss from the University of Michigan and Michael Barnes from Yale published a study, ‘Preferences in Human Mate Selection’, which examines the characteristics that human select for, and the traits that come along with those characteristics.

     Buss and Barnes interviewed 92 married couples (all heterosexual, from what I can tell), and subjected them to a battery of personality tests.  Their findings confirm many of this author’s private and ungenerous suspicions, which makes them the best kind of findings:

  • Traits that women value more than men include: honest, dependable, fond of children, well-liked by others, good earning capacity, and tall.

  • Traits that men value more than women are: physically attractive, good looking, good cook, and frugal.

  • Men and women who especially want kind-considerate partners are more likely to be emotionally reliant and to score high on the feminine end of the spectrum.

  • Women who “scored high on this preference factor [kind-considerate] tended to score in the neurotic and submissive direction”.

  • Women who value “professional status” in their husbands “tended to score low on CPI Tolerance, CPI Achievement via Independence, CPI Intellectual Efficiency, and Psychological Mindedness…IDS Emotional Reliance and Machiavellianism.”  The authors note dryly that perhaps these women “seek in mates attributes that they themselves do not possess”.

  • Women who want politically conservative husbands tend to get poor grades in college, have bad SAT scores, and to be very feminine.

  • Men who want politically conservative wives tend to be masculine, dominant, and tall.

  • Women who wanted easygoing-adaptable husbands were then surprised to learn that their mates were “unambitious”.

  • The husbands of wives who preferred kind-considerate husbands “appeared to be weak, unassertive, and socially passive”.

  • Women who wanted “socially exciting” husbands got “husbands who are somewhat undercontrolled and underachieving”.

  • Men who wanted artistic-intelligent wives married women who “scored high on…masculinity”.

  • Wives who wanted artistic-intelligent husbands got men who were “somewhat lazy, quarrelsome, emotional, feminine, and arrogant”.

  • Women who wanted husbands with high professional status tended to marry men who had small vocabularies.

  • Women who wanted politically conservative husbands married men who “appeared to be relatively tall and heavy”.

     So, to re-cap: women want tall men.  Men want women who can cook.  Women who marry conservatives are dumb.  Easy-going guys don’t get much done.  Artistic guys are needy and dickish.

     I knew it.

 

Monster Mothers

     When Harry Harlow completed his cloth mother experiments, he concluded that “mother love is indispensable”, and that it provides the infant a safe haven from which to explore an often dangerous world.  He also became interested in exploring the limits of that love.

“Knowing that a mother could give an infant love and security, we thought many years ago that we could produce anaclitic (dependency) depression by allowing baby monkeys to attach to cloth surrogate mothers who could become monsters.”

     Harlow built four monster mothers, all modified cloth mothers.  The first would blast the clinging baby with highly pressurized air.  “It would blow the animal’s skin practically off its body”, he wrote.

     The second mother would shake so hard that “the baby’s head and teeth would rattle”.  Neither of the first two monster mothers were able to dissuade their babies; the little monkeys “simply clung tighter and tighter to the mother, because a frightened infant clings to its mother at all costs.”

     The third mother had a wire frame embedded in its body; the experimenter would release the frame, which would thrust out suddenly and propel the infant off its mother.  The fourth mother Harlow called the ‘porcupine mother’: she would eject brass ‘spikes’ (which were dulled) all over her body, again compelling the infant to release her hold.

     While these second two mothers were able to literally force their babies to relinquish their hold on them, neither induced Harlow’s desired ‘psychopathology’; the babies would simply wait for the offending apparatus to recede back into its mother’s body, and then cling to her again.  Harlow was unsurprised by this result; he wrote, “the only recourse of an injured or rebuked child – monkey or human – is to make intimate contact with the mother at any cost.”

     Harlow did eventually succeed in inducing psychopathology in monkeys, through social isolation.  By taking infant female monkeys and keeping them in total isolation for the first six to nine months of their lives, he created adult female monkeys two-thirds of whom “turned out to be inadequate or evil mothers”.  Evil is not a word often applied to non-human animals; Harlow uses it repeatedly and deliberately.  These mothers might completely ignore their babies; worse, many of them displayed behaviors that were “brutal or lethal” towards their young.  They would crush the baby’s head in their teeth, or they would smash the baby’s head against the ground and drag it along the floor of the cage.

Evil Mother - Harlow

     Harlow may have caused psychopathology, but he couldn’t exterminate mother love.  The infants of these evil mothers “never gave up unless they were killed.  The babies went back and back and back to their mothers, trying forever to attach”.  If the baby survived, this often worked:

“In a manner of speaking, the infants healed the mothers.  And these mothers, who eventually became maternalized by their first babies, were, on the second, third, or fourth pregnancies, for all practical purposes, perfectly normal mothers.”

Image taken from Harlow’s 1970 paper, ‘Induced Psychopathology in Monkeys’

For a very good scientific biography of Harlow and explanation of his social and scientific context, read Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection.

‘The Nature of Love’

     In 1958, Harry Harlow gave the Address of the President to the 66th Annual Convention of the American Psychological Association.  The speech, called ‘The Nature of Love’, outlined for the first time Harlow’s now-famous ‘cloth mother’ experiments.

     “The position commonly held by psychologists and sociologists is quite clear: the basic motives are, for the most part, the primary drives — particularly hunger, thirst, elimination, and sex — and all other motives, including love and affection, are derived or secondary drives”, explained Harlow.  However, he found this explanation, that infants attach to their mothers for the sake of food alone, insufficient to explain the “lifelong, unrelenting persistence” of a child’s affection for its parent.

     Harlow’s experiment was elegant, if heart-rending: he took eight newborn rhesus macaque monkeys, and gave them each a choice.  Alone in their cages with them were two surrogate mothers.  Both had cylindrical wire-mesh frames, enclosed a light bulb to create a radiating warmth, and had affixed to them repulsive croquet-ball faces with bicycle-reflector eyes.  One of the mothers, however, was wrapped in sponge rubber and terry cloth.  This was the ‘cloth mother’; the other mother was left with her wire innards exposed, the ‘wire mother’.  In four of the cages, the wire mother held the food bottle; in the other four, the cloth mother.

Wire and Cloth Mothers

     If infant love is based on food production, Harlow reasoned, the babies should prefer whichever mother held the bottle.  They did not.  The baby monkeys overwhelmingly preferred the cloth mother, spending as much as eighteen to twenty-three hours a day clutching and rubbing her.  If the cloth mother held the bottle, the babies ignored the wire mother completely; if the wire mother held the bottle, the little monkeys would dash over to her to feed, and then dash back to the cloth mother, curling around her for support.  If the babies were separated from their cloth mother, they would “rush to the center of the room where the mother was customarily placed and then run rapidly from object to object, screaming and crying all the while.”  The wire mother could not pacify them.  They would rock and cry, wrapping their arms around themselves: “continuous, frantic clutching of their bodies was very common”.

Open Field Without Mother

     If the cloth mother was replaced, “the babies rushed to her, climbed up, clung tightly to her, and rubbed their heads and faces against her body”.

Baby with Cloth Mother

     Harlow compared the behavior of these monkeys with two babies whom he allowed to stay with their biological, monkey mothers.  He concluded that “love for the real mother and love for the surrogate mother appear to be very similar…whether the mother is real or a cloth surrogate, there does develop a deep and abiding bond between mother and child.”

     He concluded his talk with a persuasive and poignant anecdote.  The first baby monkey intended for the surrogate mother experiment was born a month earlier than they had expected, and they had not yet completed construction of the surrogates’ faces.  The head then placed on this monkey’s cloth mother was featureless; it was simply a ball of wood.  The baby was left with this faceless mother for 180 days, at which point the experimenters replaced both surrogates’ heads with decorated ones.

     “To our surprise the animal would compulsively rotate both faces 180 degrees so that it viewed only a round, smooth face and never the painted, ornamented face.  Furthermore, it would do this as long as the patience of the experimenter in reorienting the faces persisted.  The monkey showed no fear or anxiety, but it showed unlimited persistence.”

She wanted the face of her mother, blank or not.  As Harlow would later put it, “a mother’s face that will stop a clock will not stop a baby”.

Images are all taken from Harlow’s ‘The Nature of Love’ speech, and were shown at the speech itself.

For a very good scientific biography of Harlow and explanation of his social and scientific context, read Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection.

Failure to Thrive

     Scientific language is so wonderfully circumlocutory sometimes.  Here, for example, is a masterpiece of euphemism:

     “It is difficult or impossible to study scientifically the impacts of culturally produced social isolation at the human level.  The variables are multitudinous and recalcitrant to experimental manipulation and control.” [emphasis mine]

     What that means is that, for ethical and logistical reasons, we cannot take two equal groups of human children, raise one in normal social and familial settings, raise the other alone in boxes with no human contact, and see what happens.

     This quote comes from the introduction of Harry Harlow’s famous 1965 paper, ‘Total Social Isolation in Monkeys’.  I have recently become obsessed with social isolation, an obsession triggered by an experiment on natural language carried out by Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor (see previous post).  Frederick wanted to know what language, if any, human children spoke innately, so he took some infants and raised them alone in a room, with minimal care and no affection.  They all died.

     This is the most dire manifestation of a phenomenon, itself a marvel of medical delicacy, called ‘failure to thrive’ (in fact, ‘failure to thrive’ has been deemed too blunt, and is being phased out by ‘faltering growth’, which certainly does sound more hopeful).  ‘Failure to thrive’ refers either to insufficient growth, or inappropriate loss of weight, and among its many exogenous causes is extreme emotional neglect.

     The recognition that affection is a medical necessity for young primates came late to humanity, it seems, and Harry Harlow was one of the first people to scientifically document the fact.  His experiments remain extremely controversial; one of Harlow’s doctoral students, Gene Sackett, apparently attributed the genesis of the animal rights movement to reaction against them.

     For the 1965 paper, which does not contain his most extreme experiments, Harlow placed newborn macaques, only several hours old, in isolation chambers for periods of three, six, and twelve months, and then observed their reintroduction to social groups.  During the period of their isolation, the baby monkeys were fed adequately but deprived of any human or monkey contact.  Despite Frederick’s grisly precedent, none of the monkeys died during isolation; however, when released, two of the three month isolates refused to eat, and one starved itself to death.  Harlow calls this “emotional anorexia”, and describes the effect of coming out of isolation as “emotional shock”.

     Harlow found that the social impairments of the three month isolation could be reversed, while some of those of the six month isolation could not.  Twelve months of isolation “almost obliterated the animals socially”; they were unable even to learn how to play.  Harlow had to stop testing them because the normal, control animals became so aggressive towards the “helpless isolate animals” that experimenters were afraid that they would kill them.

     The paper summarizes:

     “The findings of the various total-isolation and semi-isolation studies of the monkeys suggest that sufficiently severe and enduring early isolation reduces these animals to a social-emotional level in which the primary social responsiveness is fear.”

Harlow 1965 - Figure 4

Figure 4 from the 1965 paper, “autistic self-clutching”, one of the symptoms of “emotional shock”.

For a very good scientific biography of Harlow and explanation of his social and scientific context, read Deborah Blum’s Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection.