“Atrocities are not less atrocities when they occur in laboratories and are called medical research.” (George Bernard Shaw)
The Pit of Despair is what Harry Harlow, psychologist and University of Wisconsin professor, called his isolation chamber for rhesus monkeys. Harlow and his graduate students were studying the effects of social deprivation on primates during the 60’s and 70’s in an attempt to glean new insight into human depression. In an initial experiment, monkeys were either partially isolated (they could see, smell, and hear others) but afforded no physical contact, or totally isolated (complete deprivation) from their peers. The partial monkeys would stare blankly, repetitively circle in their wire cages, or self-mutilate. For the totally isolated, allow Harlow to explain:
No monkey has died during isolation. When initially removed from total social isolation, however, they usually go into a state of emotional shock, characterized by … autistic self-clutching and rocking. One of six monkeys isolated for 3 months refused to eat after release and died 5 days later. The autopsy report attributed death to emotional anorexia. … The effects of 6 months of total social isolation were so devastating and debilitating that we had assumed initially that 12 months of isolation would not produce any additional detriment. This assumption proved to be false; 12 months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially …
Reintroduced to other monkeys, they were badly bullied. Two refused to eat and starved themselves to death. Unable to have normal sexual relations, Harlow created a rape rack (again, his phrase) in order to study the effects of isolation on parenting skills.
Deborah Blum, author of Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection, quotes Harlow: “Not even in our most devious dreams could we have designed a surrogate as evil as these real monkey mothers were.” One mother chewed off her baby’s feet and fingers, another crushed her baby’s head. The researchers withheld intervention in the greater interest of scientific inquiry.
Yet Harlow was not satisfied. He wanted to create the darkest depths of depression. He wanted his monkeys to feel helpless and desperate, to create despair. Only then, could he study therapeutic techniques designed for humans. And so, three month-old monkeys who had already bonded with peers were kept in total, dark isolation for 3-12 months. Harlow:
Most subjects typically assume a hunched position in a corner of the bottom of the apparatus. One might presume at this point that they find their situation to be hopeless. In our study of psychopathology, we began as sadists trying to produce abnormality. Today we are psychiatrists trying to achieve normality and equanimity.
William Mason, a student participant, said (Blum, The Monkey Wars) that Harlow “kept this going to the point where it was clear to many people that the work was really violating ordinary sensibilities, that anybody with respect for life or people would find this offensive. It’s as if he sat down and said, ‘I’m only going to be around another ten years. What I’d like to do, then, is leave a great big mess behind.’ If that was his aim, he did a perfect job.”
This groundbreaking research was partially funded by taxpayers. Psychological experiments similar to these are still conducted on college campuses today, often motivated by federal grant money and/or academic ego. Some are redundant, while others cannot be extrapolated for human use. Torturing animals in these grisly experiments, regardless of potential scientific progress, should be an affront to all thoughtful and compassionate people. On a more positive note, Gene Sackett, a Harlow student, believes that the Harlow deprivation studies helped to create the modern animal liberation movement.