Mark's Reviews > Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection

Love at Goon Park by Deborah Blum
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's review
Feb 23, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: history, psychology, science, non-fiction

It's hard to believe that less than 100 years ago, psychologists believed that affection between parents and children was unnecessary, and recommended that the best way to raise children was to touch them and coddle them as little as possible. The behaviorist B.F. Skinner actually built a box to raise his young daughter Debbie in, with a window and filtered air and regular times when she could emerge to play or eat meals.

Harry Harlow, a primate researcher at the University of Wisconsin, though hardly remembered today, was one of the people who changed all that, and brought science into line with what, as he put it, mothers had known all along.

He did it by showing how necessary motherly love and affection were for rhesus monkeys in his lab. His most famous experiment involved inventing two kinds of surrogate moms for baby monkeys -- a cloth one and a wire one -- and showing that even without the interaction of a breathing, living mom, the babies would cling desperately to the cloth moms, even if the wire moms held their milk.

Deborah Blum, a professor at the University of Wisconsin and Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, has written a marvelous biography of Harlow in this book, but more than that, she has illuminated how animal researchers paved the way for other psychologists to champion the importance of touching, loving and paying attention to others in a social network.

One reason Harry Harlow remains so little known today is that in his passion to understand all the ramifications of family affection, he also explored its dark side. Later in his career, he put some monkey babies in pits with sides so steep they couldn't scramble out of them, to see what effects isolation from other monkeys would have on them, and he invented some surrogate mothers who seemed cruel, including one that would thrust blunted metal prongs out of its body to dislodge its tiny charges. He also was sarcastic and sharp tongued, and even though in his professional life he championed women researchers, he didn't react well to criticism of his work by the nascent women's liberation movement in the 70s, some of whose leaders felt his research was designed to relegate women to staying at home to raise children.

Blum doesn't shy away from Harry's warts, including the way that he ignored his own children to dedicate himself to his work. But she treats him sympathetically because of his seminal role in demonstrating that the early experiences of infants -- and their absolutely intense need to be touched, held, loved and supported -- were essential to healthy physical and mental development later on.

A really, really good book.

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Reading Progress

February 23, 2008 – Shelved
January 8, 2009 –
page 2
0.57% "Just started, but my, she's a good writer"
January 13, 2009 –
page 31
8.81% "Explains how Harry Israel became Harry Harlow ..."
January 15, 2009 –
page 60
17.05% "Let me tell you, chapter 2 on the influence of the Watsonians is reason enough to get this book"
January 22, 2009 –
page 69
January 28, 2009 –
page 142
40.34% "The psychologist who mostly ignored his own children is about to study love ..."
February 6, 2009 –
page 206
58.52% "Mother love is a complicated thing; absolutely necessary, yet at risk of smothering"
Started Reading
February 7, 2009 – Finished Reading
February 8, 2009 – Shelved as: history
February 8, 2009 – Shelved as: science
February 8, 2009 – Shelved as: psychology
February 8, 2009 – Shelved as: non-fiction

Comments (showing 1-9)

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message 9: by Manny (new)

Manny What an interesting review! Hadn't heard this story about Skinner's daughter before. Horrifying! What happened to her?

Mark I don't know, but it's worth investigating, isn't it?

message 7: by Trevor (new) - added it

Trevor Fascinating review, thank you

Thanks Trevor

message 5: by [deleted user] (new)

All right, I had to go look up what happened to Skinner's daughter. It seems she turned out just fine:

"I Was Not a Lab Rat," by Deborah Skinner Buzan. The Guardian, 12 March 2004.

Still, it seems so counterintuitive to bring a baby into the world and then stick her in a box.

Mark I'm glad you did that. And who knows how long that lasted, or what she would say now to avoid such a stigma, to hereself or her father. But I'll have to look it up myself. Thanks.

message 3: by Manny (new)

Manny M wrote: "All right, I had to go look up what happened to Skinner's daughter. It seems she turned out just fine:

"I Was Not a Lab Rat," by Deborah Skinner Buzan. The Guardian, 12 March 2004.

Still, it se..."

Well! Rather different. Thanks for posting that!

message 2: by Trevor (new) - added it

Trevor Still seems suss to me. "And, contrary to hearsay, I didn't shoot myself in a bowling alley in Billings, Montana. I have never even been to Billings, Montana." If she has never been to Billings, Montana how can she be sure who has or has not been shot there? I would rather have an objective, eyewitness account from a local of Billings, Montana, than having to rely on the spurious speculations of someone who even admits to never having even been there.

You don't reckon she is also related to Tony Buzan by any chance, do you? Mind Maps and Rats in Mazes... Gosh, I'd even consider shooting myself in a bowling alley if that was the case.

message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

She does seem overly emphatic about never ever having been to Billings, Montana. Hmmm. Baby in a box...bowling...Billings...I think there's a cryptic message in there somewhere.

It looks like she is Tony Buzan's sister-in-law, which must make for some interesting conversations during family get-togethers.

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