Maternal deprivation experiments by neurobiologist Margaret S. Livingstone evoke nightmares of Harry Harlow
CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts––Multi-millions of dollars in National Institutes of Health funding allocated to Harvard Medical School maternal deprivation researcher Margaret S. Livingstone were on February 8, 2023 challenged by more than 380 scientists, medical doctors, and other academic researchers rallied behind Harvard primatologist Richard Wrangham by the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic.
The 380, co-signing an open letter to the National Institutes of Health, asked that the Livingstone experiments be defunded for a combination of reasons including ethics, animal welfare, redundancy, and scientific uselessness.
Guns across Harvard Yard
Harvard Yard has often been caught in intellectual and sometimes literal crossfires since July 3, 1775, when George Washington formed the Continental Army on the adjacent Cambridge Common, within sight of the British garrison holding Boston.
Perhaps most memorable in recent times were the 1970s debates between faculty members E.O. Wilson and Stephen Jay Gould over the entomologist Wilson’s theories of sociobiology and evolution, which Gould, a paleontologist, found racist, sexist, and actually counter-evolutionary.
Wilson and Gould, though, were more-or-less equally matched in resources and academic stature. Livingstone, 72, is among the longtime Harvard Medical School faculty stars.
History suggests Harvard Med can’t win the fight
The Harvard Medical School, founded in 1782, soon after the Continental Army vacated the neighborhood, is perhaps the most prestigious in the world, consistently ranked first in biomedical research among U.S. institutions by U.S. News & World Report.
No three faculty members associated with the upstart Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic, founded in 2019, have combined tenure at Harvard or professional status comparable to that of Livingstone.
On the other hand, no maternal deprivation research project undertaken in the present century has long survived public exposure, once word of what was going on leaked out.
Lost the New England Primate Research Center in 2015
Further, the Harvard Medical School lost bigtime the last time it tried to defend questionable experiments on non-human primates in the court of public opinion.
The New England Primate Research Center, operated by the Harvard Medical School, closed in May 2015, at reported expense to Harvard of more than $10.8 million.
Other costs included “the relocation of some 2,000 monkeys, mainly to other centers, layoffs of staff members, loss of faculty, and the end of roughly $25 million a year in research funding,” reported Boston Globe staff writer Carolyn Y. Johnson.
The New England Primate Research Center housed about 1,500 rhesus macaques plus colonies of cotton-top tamarins and squirrel monkeys, when the decision to close it was announced in 2013. About 200 scientists and primate caretakers worked at the center on approximately 130 funded projects.
Low profile helped Livingstone to keep her primate lab
Located in Southborough, Massachusetts, 30 miles from the main Harvard campus in Cambridge, the New England Primate Research Center was among eight regional primate breeding and research facilities funded by Congress in 1960.
Opened in 1962, it was among the first in operation, reportedly received the most federal money over the years, and became the first to close.
Livingstone’s laboratory, however, housing 42 primates in the Longwood Medical Area in Boston, was unaffected.
Controversy over Livingtone’s work developed only after Livingstone in the September 2022 edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences “reported her observations that distressed mother monkeys will clutch a soft toy—which she calls an ‘inanimate surrogate infant’—when their babies are taken from them soon after birth,” summarized the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic in a February 8, 2023 open letter to the National Institutes of Health signed by the 380 scientists, medical doctors, academics, and others who are demanding that her work be defunded.
Welding masks & electrode implants
“These observations are incidental to the routine maternal separation that occurs in this Harvard Medical School laboratory, which uses baby monkeys as its primary test subjects,” the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic added.
“As detailed in the letter,” said Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic publicist Sarah Pickering in a media release accompanying the letter, “neurobiologist Livingstone has used infant macaque monkeys to study visual recognition by depriving them of the ability to see faces, either by sewing their eyes shut or by requiring staff to wear welders’ masks around them. In some cases, the lab implants electrode arrays into the monkeys’ brains.
“By design, these experiments require maternal deprivation—a fact that drew the ire of scientists last fall, when Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences published an Inaugural Article by Livingstone entitled Triggers for Mother Love.”
Wrangham calls monkey @#$%
Offered Wrangham, who holds the Ruth B. Moore chair for biological anthropology at Harvard, “As a primatologist with decades of experience in the field, I can say with complete confidence that we know that infant primates and their mothers suffer greatly when they are separated.
“We also know that depriving infants of the ability to see faces will have adverse impacts on their brain and eye development.
“Taking infant monkeys from their mothers to use in invasive brain experiments could only be justified by expectations of extraordinarily important benefits for the monkeys themselves, or for humans. Because that high ethical bar has not been met, I see no legitimate need for any such research.”
Noted Pickering, “Livingstone has received over $32 million in NIH grants since the 1980s.”
“Studies fail on both scientific and ethical grounds”
Following publication of Triggers for Mother Love, Catherine Hobaiter, principal investigator at the Wild Minds Lab, a project of the University of St. Andrews School of Psychology and Neuroscience in St. Andrews, Scotland, sent a letter to Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, cosigned by 260 animal behavior scientists, demanding that the Livingstone study be retracted.
“These studies fail on both scientific and ethical grounds,” alleged Hobaiter. “The doublethink argument that maternally-separated individuals represent appropriate models for conditions such as anxiety, while arguing these methods do not cause significant distress [to the experimental subjects] is fundamentally flawed.
But Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences did not publish the Hobaiter letter.
The mother/infant primate bond
Neither did the Harvard Medical School’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee respond to a request from the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic that “Livingstone’s research protocols with the aim of ending cruel experiments,” Pickering said..
Observed the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic letter to the National Institutes of Health, “Science already has a deep understanding of the mother/infant primate bond from decades of work. The infamous original maternal deprivation tests conducted by Harry Harlow” from 1930 to 1970, “described the effects on infant primates of months of isolation as ‘devastating and debilitating.’
“The experiments occurring in Livingstone’s laboratory also raise significant animal welfare concerns,” the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic letter continued.
“Stress & abnormal behavior patterns”
“Scientific studies have long shown that—just as would be the case with removing human infants from their mothers—separating non-human primate infants from their mothers increases stress and abnormal behavior patterns in the infants (such as pacing, finger sucking, and self-grasping), causes depression, increases distress, and has a negative impact on social behaviors.
“The specific protocols in Dr. Livingstone’s laboratory also raise many ethical concerns, the letter explained. “For example, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences article describes forcibly separating a mother macaque from her infant, and then returning the infant to her just six hours later, at which point, not surprisingly, the traumatized mother rejected the infant. Practices like this raise profound ethical concerns for both mother and infant and are clearly not in the best interest of either.
Eyes sewed shut
“The primary line of research at the Livingstone laboratory involves subjecting baby monkeys to ‘abnormal visual experiences of faces,’” Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic letter explained. “This was achieved by having laboratory staff wear welders’ masks ‘that prevented the monkey from seeing the staff member’s face,’ or raising monkeys ‘under conditions of binocular-visual-form deprivation via eye lid suturing for the first year.’
“In other words, the researchers sewed shut the eyes of the infant monkeys so that they could not see in order to ascertain whether this would have a negative impact on their visual and brain development.
“The laboratory has defended these experiments,” the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic letter acknowledged, “asserting that ‘eyelid closure was and remains routine protocol across research labs that study vision disorders,’ and that the ‘technique, in fact, paved the way for the modern non-invasive methods we use now.’
Concluding the obvious
“However, in actuality,” the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic letter clarified, “these ‘modern’ methods are face masks and goggles. In our opinion, there is absolutely no need to fund researchers to sew infant monkeys’ eyes shut simply to conclude the obvious—i.e., that non-invasive goggles and face masks, which have been available for centuries, could be used instead for ocular deprivation.”
The Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic letter went on to address Livingstone’s assertion that her “work points to possible interventions for children with autism who might choose not to look at other people or their faces.”
Pointed out the Harvard Law School Animal Law & Policy Clinic letter authors, “In addition to being deprived of the ability to see, these macaques experience general overall sensory and social deprivation that makes their world experience, and thus their brain development, very different from that of a child who avoids looking directly at an individual’s face.
Autistic children are not kept in cages
“In sharp contrast, autistic children and children with face blindness are not deprived of many typical human life experiences and continue to live with their families. Any scientific argument for these studies is compromised, as it is impossible to disentangle any possible effects arising from the deprivation of human faces from the significant widespread impacts of maternal deprivation and abnormal social environment on these primates.
“As a result, it is extremely difficult to understand the applicability of these experiments to human children, whether autistic or not.”
The Livingstone research appears to build directly on Harlow’s studies, done mostly at the University of Wisconsin.
Summarizes a web page posted by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals [PETA], condensing extensive scientific critiques, “Harlow tore newborns away from their mothers, gave some infants ‘surrogate mothers’ made of wire and wood, and kept other traumatized babies in isolation in tiny metal boxes, sometimes for up to a year.
“Realizing that such horrific conditions resulted in long-term, debilitating psychological trauma for the infants, Harlow began expanding his project. He and his then-student Stephen J. Suomi created the ‘pit of despair,’ a dark metal box designed to isolate the monkeys from everything in the outside world.
Mothers killed their own babies
“Within days, the monkeys kept inside the pit were driven insane, incessantly rocking and clutching at themselves, tearing and biting their own skin and ripping out their hair.
“When finally removed from isolation, they were too traumatized to interact with other monkeys, and some were so shocked and depressed that they starved themselves to death.
“To see what would happen when tormented monkeys became mothers themselves, Suomi and Harlow created what they called a ‘rape rack’ in order to restrain and impregnate female monkeys. Then they would later watch and photograph the mentally ill mothers physically abusing and killing their own babies.”
Even before there was an animal rights movement calling itself by that name, and more than a decade before PETA existed, Harlow’s monkey experiments were in such disrepute that a 1970 failed bombing attempt at the University of Wisconsin Primate Research Center was at first believed to have been directed at Harlow.
Years later the bombing was found to have been a failed attempt by four anti-Vietnam War protesters to bomb the Army Mathematics Research Center across the street.
The four succeeded on second try, killing post-doctorate math student Robert Fassnacht, who also opposed the war, and severely injuring three other students who had no involvement with the war.
Suomi did it again
When Harlow semi-retired in 1971 to spend the last 10 years of his life at a part-time post at the University of Arizona, Suomi and fellow graduate student researcher Gene Sackett dismantled the lab where they had helped Harlow.
Sackett later attributed the rise of the animal rights movement in part to public outrage over Harlow’s experiments.
Suomi returned to doing maternal deprivation experiments on infant macaques circa 1983 at the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development in Bethesda, Maryland, receiving more that $10 million in NIH funding just from 2008 to 2015, when funding for his research on live primates was finally defunded.
The University of Wisconsin at the same time announced that maternal deprivation experiments to have been done there by senior faculty member Ned Kalin had been redesigned to eliminate the maternal deprivation component, after a multi-year campaign led by former Alliance for Animals executive director Rick Bogle.
John F Robins says
It is very necessary that people who work with children should be fully evaluated to ensure children are going to be safe when with them. Why are people who want to “work” with animals not scrutinised just as thoroughly? This sadistic research repeats similar horrific experiments carried out decades ago. The researchers should be studied to find out what deep character and emotional flaws make them believe what they are doing could ever be justified or acceptable in anything approaching a humane society.
Jamaka Petzak says
It’s indefensible, unjustifiable and beyond tragic that these redundant experiments are STILL occurring decades after Harlow et al. Of course it’s a money mill.
As society grows less compassionate and caring, and people are increasingly isolated and wary, it’s abundantly clear that lack of caring and kindness to us all is making for more of the same. We don’t need studies, torture, or universities to tell us that.
Sharing with gratitude.
Susan C. McDonough says
Dah! I think that nearly every mother on the planet can tell you that babies need love, attention, and affection from their Moms.
It doesn’t take an ongoing multi million dollar tax payer funded program by MAD scientists to prove this.
Put these people in jail!
Sharon Page says
Yay to my former professor at U-Mich-Ann Arbor, Dr. Richard Wrangham, for organizing the protest letter. Dr. Wrangham was Jane Goodall’s assistant for years at Gombe. He made some calls for me to get into grad school to study wild monkeys at the U-Wisc back in the 90s, despite me having a chemistry degree prior to starting grad school (rather than anthro or zoology).