Proving the Obvious
Peter Singer & Lori Gruen
Excerpted from Animal Liberation: a Graphic Guide, London, 1987, pp. 80-81

When presented with examples of mindless animal experiments, scientists usually claim that we, as lay-people, do not understand the importance of their work. But the fact is that, like Ulrich's, many animal experiments are performed merely to prove the obvious. Nowhere is this more true that in experimental psychology.

Among the best-known psychology experiments are those of H. F. Harlow, who in the late 1950s began a series of maternal deprivation experiments at the University of Wisconsin Primate Research Centre. The first experiments involved the separation of a baby monkey from her mother in order to study 'the nature of love'. Harlow devised fake 'monkey mothers', one made of cloth and one made of wire. Not surprisingly, all infants showed a preference for the more comfortable, cloth-covered 'mother'.  Harlow concluded that comfort has a role in the formation of bonds between infants and their mothers.

Harlow and his colleagues the proceeded to modify the surrogate mothers in order to produce bizarre behaviour in infant monkeys:

[F]our surrogate monster mothers were created. One was a shaking mother which rocked so violently that the teeth and bones of the infant chattered in unison. The second was an air-blast mother which blew compressed air against the infant's face and body with such violence that the infant looked as if it would be denuded. The third had an embedded steel frame which, on schedule or demand, would fling forward knock the infant monkey off the mother's body. The fourth monster mother, on schedule or demand, ejected brass spikes from her ventral surface, an abominable form of maternal tenderness...

(H. Harlow, Learning to Love, New York, 1974, p. 38.)

Terrifying as the monster monkeys were, the unfortunate infants continued to return to them, no doubt because they had no other source of comfort.

Over the next two decades, Harlow moved away from studying 'affection' in favour of creating a 'primate model of depression'. He created such horrors as the 'well of despair', 'the tunnel of terror', and living 'monster' mothers who had themselves been brought up in isolation, and had developed such antisocial behaviour that they had to be forcibly tied down in 'rape racks' in order to be mated. These experiments, and similar ones still being carried out today by Harlow's former students, epitomise the deliberate abuse of animals which occurs in some laboratories.

Experimental psychology raises, in an especially acute form, a central contradiction of much animal experimentation. For if the monkeys Harlow used do not crave affection like human infants, and if they do not experience loneliness, terror and despair like human infants, what is the point of the experiments? But if the monkeys do crave affection, and do feel loneliness, terror and despair in the way that humans do, how can the experiments possibly justified?

Utilitarian Philosophers :: Peter Singer :: 'Proving the Obvious'