Context, My Boy! Context!

By | Friday, August 17, 2007 Leave a Comment
I don't know why this took a couple weeks longer to arrive at my LCS than Levitation, but in any event, I picked up Jim Ottaviani's other new book: Wire Mothers: Harry Harlow and the Science of Love.

Raise your hand if you've taken a psychology class? High school, college, whatever. Any level. Almost every class that provides a general overview of psychology will make mention of Harlow's famous experiment. I'm sure this will ring some bells, even if the specifics escape you at the moment. (Notice that I'm refraining from making any bad jokes about Pavlov's bells here!)

The experiment Harlow conducted was essentially that he provided a monkey with one of two possible surrogate mothers: a wire-frame one that dispensed food, and a cloth-covered one that had no food. (The monkeys who had cloth mothers did get fed, just not from the surrogate.) When he would place the monkey in a frightening situation, the monkey would inevitably run to the cloth mother for comfort regardless of which surrogate mother raised them. And monkeys who were raised in total isolation exhibited signs often seen in autistic human children.

This sounding familiar?

The experiments were to prove that animals (including humans) needed parents/guardians for more than just food and shelter. We need parents for warmth, love and affection. Harlow's experiments proved that pretty conclusively.

At the time I first heard of it, the experiments sounded INCREDIBLY cruel. And, indeed, no one has really even tried to repeat these experiments precisely for that reason. I'm not a big animal rights activist or anything, but that always cast Harlow as an evil, evil man to me.

Now, flash forward to me reading Wire Mothers. The story follows Harlow, on the eve of his presenting his findings to CBS for a television special in the 1960s, showcasing/practicing for a new janitor he happened to run into. Harlow tells most of his life story, and how he began and streamlined his research. And here's where the revelation comes in...

The book shows the context in which Harlow began his experiments. Namely, it shows that the scientific community at large had recently learned of this new, scary thing called "germs." More significantly, these "germs" led to a general consensus that one shouldn't get that close too children, physically or emotionally. All they needed, according to some scientists, was an occasional pat on the head. Some were even reared in relative isolation, their only real human contact through a pane of glass.

Harlow was directly reacting to this mindset, and was actively trying to show that nurturing your children -- as mankind had been doing for the previous several thousand years -- was not the wrong way to raise offspring. There was evidently quite the vocal and steadfast group he rallied against who argued that "love" was not a valid concept for science to even address, preferring instead to only refer to "proximity." So, yeah, Harlow's experiments were unbelievably cruel, but less so than what was being perpetrated on mankind itself. (At least, here with the dumb-as-a-bag-of-rocks-citizens of the U.S.)

If you've read this blog before, you'll probably know already that I'm a fan of Jim Ottaviani's work. It should be needless to say that he's written yet another well-researched, well-crafted story providing depth and perspective to a small corner of history. My recommendations of all of his works are pretty much unconditional any more. Artist Dylan Meconis does a good job throughout the book. While his illustration style doesn't particularly stand out for me, it works well and his storytelling ability is commendable. Especially in lieu of the numerous flashbacks that Ottaviani incorporates into the story. As with Levitation, I was never at a loss for knowing when I was in the overall tale.

So chalk another success up for Ottaviani. If you haven't bought his other books, I'd suggest starting to pick them up now because he's only going to keep doing more and it's going to take that much larger a hit on your wallet if you try to buy them all at once later!
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