rhesus animal mother

The Importance of Extended Family and What We Can Learn From Our Distant Cousins

“In our study of psychopathology, we began as sadists trying to produce abnormality. Today, we are psychiatrists trying to achieve normality and equanimity.”

–Harry Harlow

The Rhesus Animal Mother and Her Contributions to Science and Motherhood

The rhesus animal mother has contributed more to our knowledge of human development than most people realize, and at a great cost. Harry Harlow, a contemporary of Abraham Maslow, conducted research using rhesus monkeys that demonstrated the importance of caregiving and companionship in social and cognitive development. In 1932, he began a breeding colony of Rhesus macaques in order to study their natural behavior. He then performed scientific experiments and noted how their behavior changed under certain conditions.

In nature, the rhesus animal mother is diurnal, and raises her young both in trees and on land. They are mostly herbivorous, feeding mainly on fruit, seeds, roots and bark. Females can outnumber males by as much as 4:1, and they have a separate hierarchy from that of the males. For breeding purposes, they exhibit philopatry, which is returning to the same breeding ground repeatedly. Females have very strong matrilineal hierarchies. Her rank depends upon the rank of her mother. A single group of females may have a number of matrilineal lines within the hierarchy. Unlike other species of monkeys, part of the ranking is based on fitness and fertility, which results in younger females often ranking higher than their older sisters.

Males provide resources and protection from predators, so the potential rhesus animal mother attempts to mate with larger males that are most likely to ensure the survival of their young. During the breeding period of up to eleven days, females mate with up to four males. The rhesus animal mother reaches sexual maturity at four years of age, and remains fertile until menopause at age twenty-five. Males, aside from their role as protectors and providers, do not participate in raising their offspring, but maintain peaceful relationships with them.

A rhesus animal mother with an infant and one or more older daughters that have not yet reached child-bearing age often delegate infant care to those daughters. These high-ranking females often reject their infants and mate earlier in the breeding season than usual after having given birth. Some even abuse their infants, investing little time in their development. These behaviors are associated with the increased stress of caring for multiple offspring.

In his study, Harry Harlow reared rhesus monkeys in a nursery setting, rather than with their mothers. This controversial study involved a high degree of maternal deprivation. The rhesus animal mother raised in isolation without its own mother has difficulty accepting contact with infants or exhibiting normal maternal behavior. During these experiments, monkeys were isolated for periods of time ranging from 3 months to up to 15 years, then placed in various settings where their behavior was observed. Abnormal behaviors that resulted from the isolation included blank staring, repetitive motion and circling, and even self-mutilation. Consequently, there was a loud public outcry against the cruelty of these experiments.

One of the reasons for the public outcry is that rhesus monkeys are so close to humans, sharing 93% of our DNA. They also have similar cognitive abilities, including the ability to understand rules, make judgments, and be aware of their own mental states. In 2014, it was reported in India that an unconscious rhesus monkey was revived by another giving it a crude kind of CPR. The results of these studies, although they were obtained in such a cruel manner, provide some important information.

For monkeys that were isolated for six months, it was found that they could achieve complete social recovery by being exposed to younger monkeys that provided peer therapy. It was also found that the experience of touch is extremely important. Monkeys that were touch deprived, in addition to abnormal behaviors, also displayed weakened immune systems. The studies showed an indisputable link between the amount of physical contact such as grooming an infant received in the first six months and its ability to produce antibodies by one year of age. Valuable research is still being conducted with rhesus monkeys, but using far more humane methodology.

One of the most important results of Harlow’s experiments was reducing the influence of childcare “experts” that advocated not spoiling children with too much affection. The human mother owes a debt of gratitude to her distant cousin, the rhesus animal mother, for her sacrifices in demonstrating the true power of a mother’s loving touch.

rhesus animal mother
Rhesus monkey, by Aiwok

November 18,2015  |

Child Psychologist

Child Psychologist John Bowlby Presents: The Guilt Factor

Child psychologist John Bowlby

Bowlby is known primarily for his theories on bonding and attachment. For all working mothers consumed by guilt for leaving their children in the care of others, you now have a name to attach to that guilt. Child psychiatrists often hold differing opinions on children’s emotional development, which can be confusing for parents who want to raise their children in the way that will be most beneficial to them.

Learning about the differing views of a child psychologist can be helpful, if only to discover the few things upon which they can all agree.

The Development of Attachment Theory

To arrive at a universal truth regarding human development and behavior, Bowlby felt it was necessary to utilize several fields of scientific inquiry rather than rely on existing theories of psychoanalysis alone. Psychoanalysis focused on what it regarded as the resolution of childhood fantasies, which Bowlby regarded as real life experiences. His research methods included evolutionary biology, developmental psychology, cognitive science, control systems theory and ethology. Bowlby’s interest in ethology, the study of human behavior and social organization from a biological perspective, led to the development of evolutionary psychology.

As a child psychologist, Bowlby’s theory rests on the concept of monotropy, or attachment to a single individual, which he believed served as a prototype for all future interpersonal interactions. This prototype provides a model for trustworthiness, a sense of personal value and effectiveness in achieving mutually satisfying interactions. He called the lack of such a consistent attachment “maternal deprivation” which he believed could lead to cognitive, social, and emotional difficulties, and in extreme cases, affectionless psychopathy.

To test his theory, in 1944, he conducted a study in which he interviewed 44 adolescents remanded to a juvenile detention facility for stealing. His control group consisted of 44 other youths referred for emotional problems, but who had not yet committed any crimes. The study found that

  • over half of the first group had experienced a separation from their mothers of over six months before the age of 5,
  • 32% of them displayed affectionless psychopathy
  • only 2 percent of the control group had experienced such a separation and none displayed affectionless psychopathy

The study, however, relied primarily on the memories of those interviewed and did not take a number of other variables, such as into account, such as income, education, diet, and other social influences.

Zoologist Robert Hinde conducted several experiments with rhesus monkeys in which he studied their emotional and behavioural reactions to separation from their mothers, as well as their interactions with other monkeys.

In 1959, Harry Harlow, inspired by Bowlby’s attachment theory, conducted an experiment in which a group of rhesus monkeys were bottle-fed by surrogate mothers made of wire mesh covered with terrycloth. These monkeys, in contrast with monkeys that experienced meaningful interaction with their biological mothers during feeding, demonstrated aggressive, antisocial behaviors in adulthood. The results of these studies supported Bowlby’s hypothesis that

“the infant and young child should experience a warm, intimate, and continuous relationship with his mother (or permanent mother substitute) in which both find satisfaction and enjoyment.”

Critics of Attachment Theory—Nature Versus Nurture

Psychology researcher J.R. Harris, in her book “The Nurture Assumption”, asserts that genetics and peer interaction play a much larger role in a child’s emotional development than child psychologist Bowlby’s theory took into consideration. Using studies of twins who had been separated at birth, yet displayed remarkably similar characteristics of personality despite differences in environment, Harris demonstrated the importance of genetic predisposition as a factor in human development.

Tiffany Field, medical researcher and child psychologist, believes that Bowlby’s theory relied too heavily on behavior exhibited during stressful separation rather than on the quality of daily interactions. Like Harris, she also felt that his theory did not take into account the human ability to form multiple attachments over the course of a lifetime.

Social Context of Attachment Theory

When judging the merits of any theory regarding human development, it is important to consider the social context in which the theory gains wide acceptance. It is interesting to note that at the time that Bowlby’s theory gained wide acceptance, women were being discouraged from working in order to increase the number of jobs available for British soldiers returning home from war.

Any child psychologist agrees that it’s important for children to be able to successfully bond with others. However, human children, unlike the monkeys in the experiment, are not faced with the choice between their mothers or a lifeless wire mesh surrogate holding a bottle. Meaningful positive interaction in the form of eye contact, smiling, and physical affection can result in the child bonding with a variety of people, including fathers, grandparents, siblings, or even neighbours.

Mothers who must return to work almost immediately after giving birth rely on family, friends, or day-care providers to care for their babies. While Bowlby’s research focused on the potential harmful effects of separation, other research indicates that the more people a child feels safe and comfortable with, the less separation anxiety they will experience. Many children even develop emotional ties to a blanket or teddy bear which serves as a physical link between them and their emotional “homes”.

While there is still some disagreement about whether the modern nuclear family is the result of the industrial revolution, most people agree that it can isolate people from other family and relationships. This can result in more pressure placed on each family member, especially mothers. Isolation can also result in children learning fewer negotiation and conflict resolution skills, which are so necessary to successfully navigate within society as a whole.

Any child psychologist would agree that it is the pleasurable quality of interaction that is most conducive to children forming meaningful attachments. So rather than feeling guilty for those times when you’re too overwhelmed to radiate happiness during those interactions, view them as opportunities for your child to further develop other valuable emotional attachments.

Here you you will find more about attachment and bonding, and here are some extra sources:

Child Psychologist
Maternal Caress, Mary Cassatt, 1890–91, Credit Line Gift of Paul J. Sachs, 1916. Metropolitan Museum of Art

May 29,2015  |