Friday, January 8, 2010

Vulnerability and animal experimentation.

(It has been suggested to me that I post a disclaimer at the top. This post involves graphic sad things. Really messed up and sad. I would put it under a fold, but I've never bothered to figure that one out, before).

Recently Leigh Johnson, whose work on 'weak humanism' is certainly interesting and I've taken it up before here, had an interesting post on the genetic science behind how what has traditionally been taken as vulnerability is really plasticity. This obviously dovetails in nicely with how I've dealing with vulnerability in my own work, and also how Johnson has been dealing with the concept in her own work on weak humanism. I suggest you read her post here, and I suggest you read the article here.
A major part of the article has to deal with a researcher on rhesus monkeys, Stephen Suomi, who was a student of Harry Harlow. This is what the article says about Harlow:

Suomi learned his trade as a student and protégé of, and then a direct successor to, Harry Harlow, one of the 20th century’s most influential and problematic behavioral scientists. When Harlow started his work, in the 1930s, the study of childhood development was dominated by a ruthlessly mechanistic behavioralism. The movement’s leading figure in the United States, John Watson, considered mother love “a dangerous instrument.” He urged parents to leave crying babies alone; to never hold them to give pleasure or comfort; and to kiss them only occasionally, on the forehead. Mothers were important less for their affection than as conditioners of behavior.

With a series of ingenious but sometimes disturbingly cruel experiments on monkeys, Harlow broke with this cool behavioralism. His most famous experiment showed that baby rhesus monkeys, raised alone or with same-age peers, preferred a foodless but fuzzy terrycloth surrogate “mother” over a wire-mesh version that freely dispensed meals. He showed that these infants desperately wanted to bond, and that depriving them of physical, emotional, and social attachment could create a near-paralyzing dysfunction. In the 1950s this work provided critical evidence for the emerging theory of infant attachment: a theory that, with its emphasis on rich, warm parent-child bonds and happy early experiences, still dominates child-development theory (and parenting books) today.

Now, I'm glad that the article at least hints at what Harlow (and indeed Suomi) did. But it mostly glosses over what happened. Let me explain (and before we go any further, I am pulling most of this information from Peter Singer's Animal Liberation. He, in turn, pulls most of this information directly from scientific periodicals. Whatever you think of his philosophy, the information seems fairly legit and straightforward to me). Now, what the article describes certainly does represent the early work of Harlow, but his work didn't stop there. Let me quote another phase of their work, in which they decided they need to construct 'monster mothers':

The first of these monsters was a cloth monkey mother who, upon schedule or demand, would eject high-pressure compressed air. It would blow the animal's skin practically off its body. What did the baby monkey do? It simply clung tighter and tighter to the mother, because a frightened infant clings to its mother at all costs. We did not achieve any pyschopathology (op. cit. p. 33, from the 3rd edition).
Harlow and Suomi go on to explain the series of tortures they devised to try and make an infant stop clinging to its mother. Monster mothers that would rock so violently "that the baby's head and teeth would rattle", another monster mother would forcibly spring the infant from itself, another one would suddenly shoot out brass spikes. In all cases the baby fought to stay with these monster mothers, and would come back as soon as, for example, the spikes went away. But for whatever reason this wasn't enough for Harlow and Suomi, they needed to produce actual monster mothers, not mechanical ones. So they took infant female monkeys, and raised them in utter isolation. However, this meant that these monkeys didn't develop natural sexual urges. What to do? Never fear, Harlow and Suomi came up with a solution, what they themselves referred to as a "rape rake." These mothers, raised in utter isolation, now forced to care for their offspring produced by rape.
And these are not the only experiments, I could tell you about the experiments they did whose goal was to "induce psychological death in rhesus monkeys." And while this work maybe, as the author of the original article contends, controversial, it has not kept Harlow from being considered a pioneer and his work being talked about in almost every introduction to psychology book. It hasn't produced strict standards against making sure this type of thing doesn't keep happening, indeed the students of Harlow have gone on to be the giants in their field (none so much as Suomi himself, who has received massive amounts of money from the NIH to build his own custom laboratories). So you can understand my double outrage when the article describes an experiment in which infant monkeys were ripped from their mothers and raised with other mothers (including abusive ones). Not only am I outraged by this experiment, I am also worried about what was done to produce these abusive mothers.
But this isn't just a litany of the horrors done by someone still revered and respected. This isn't just because I don't think you can read this article and have your only reaction be, "Wow, this science is so cool and interesting," and implore you to think about what is done to animals in such research. Actually, if you are still reading, I have a philosophical point about vulnerability I wanted to get to. But before I get there, we need a short detour.
A while ago I asked in a blog post if it was true that only humans could dance to a beat. Greg responded that it wasn't, and posted this NPR article in support of this claim. After talking about how we recently discovered humans were not the only creatures to dance to a beat, the article ends on this note:
And what would happen if a bird never heard any music for the first few years of its life? Could it still dance later on? That would be an interesting study, Fitch says, and one that could never be done on people.
And while the science might indeed be interesting, I think it takes a perverse outlook on life to discover that we are less unique than was thought, and immediately go to what strange and perhaps horrific experiments we can do on animals because of this discovery. The same thing happens in the Dobbs article. He writes:
But so far, among all primates, only rhesus monkeys and human beings seem to have multiple polymorphisms in genes heavily associated with behavior. “It’s just us and the rhesus,” Suomi says.
This is, of course, the dirty secret of animal experimentation. As Peter Singer pointed out, either animals are enough like us that this data actually does shed light on us, in which case how can you justify to do this, or the animals are not like us, which again begs the question how you can justify doing these experiments.
The basic premise of all behaviorist ethology is that animals are enough like us that studying them allows us to know something of ourselves. That within responses to fear, pleasure, pain, desires, cooperation and competition, that we can then derive understandings of how we all interact. It is upon the needs and drives and sensations of our embodied, vulnerable, finite, animal selves that both the psyche and sociality are based. Under the illusion of teaching us about our humanity, it is teaching us about our shared animality. Just as Ranciere demonstrated that at the same moment the master tries to prove their superiority by ordering the slave, really the master proves the fundamental equality of the two in that moment, the brutality and degradation of animal experimentation proves the fundamental equality of other animals and ourselves. The equality of flesh, of fear, and of fidelity.