Review of “Love At Goon Park” by Deborah Blum

Deborah Blum won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for her writing and reporting on primate experiments and ethics. In this 2002 book, she undertakes a history of the primate research by University of Wisconsin scientist Harry Harlow’s team, famous for the “cloth monkey” studies that established the importance of a mother’s love.


The author points out that infant care was very different at the beginning of the 20th Century. The influential and respected psychologist John B. Watson “led a professional crusade against the evils of affection.” Too much mother love would warp a child, he taught. Doting parents would endow their children with “weaknesses, reserves, fears, cautions and inferiorities.”

Harry Harlow set out to prove otherwise. In order to do so, however, he had to understand the total nature of love, including its withdrawal. In this respect, many of his studies are today seen as cruel and unjustified. Blum maintains that not only were many studies by others much crueler, but that, before Harlow’s studies, we “didn’t fully believe” that caring was so important to a child.

What Harlow did, in the 1950’s, was to separate infant monkeys from their mothers only hours after birth. He then divided the monkeys into two groups: both were to be fed and “raised” by a machine, but in half, the machine was just a wire monkey, and in half the wire monkey was covered with a soft terry cloth and given a face. The results were dramatic. The monkeys with the wire mothers grew up to be psychologically damaged and even physically sickly, whereas those raised by the cloth mothers were healthier in every respect.

Cloth Mom versus Wire Mom

Cloth Mom versus Wire Mom

More controversially, Harlow’s experiments didn’t stop there. He divided monkey groups by toys versus no toys, or administered random shocks, or put monkeys in isolation, and devised other experiments in order fully to understand the parameters of love and to overwhelm his detractors (of whom there were many).

Harry Harlow

Harry Harlow

Blum ends her engaging book with the plea:

“Let us remember the best of Harry’s contributions as well as the worst. Let us not slip backwards, ever, into believing that we are not necessary to each other’s health and happiness. You don’t have to like the way Harry found his answers. Almost no one could admire every choice he made. But neither should we pretend that he did anything less than arrive at some fundamental truth. Our challenge is not to squander it.”

Evaluation: This is a very readable and informative history about recent theories of childcare, and also of the development of primate studies.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Basic Books, 2002


About rhapsodyinbooks

We're into reading, politics, and intellectual exchanges.
This entry was posted in Animals, Book Review and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Review of “Love At Goon Park” by Deborah Blum

  1. Pam says:

    As a new mom (my 20 month old has currently taken up residence on my lap and is “helping” me type) and a preschool teacher, I read a good deal about this study a while ago. It’s amazing (…or depressing) to me that people still believe that you can spoil or ruin a child with affection.
    I think this is the same study that showed a baby monkey with the option of a wire ‘mommy” with a bottle and a cloth “mommy” with no bottle. The monkey clung to the cloth “mommy” and nursed” from the wire monkey.
    Of course, as dog-mom (of a very loving, affectionate rescued pitbull, if you want to talk about the benefits of nurture and love!) and life long animal lover, I don’t agree with the animal practices but at the same time, you have to reconcile it with the idea that this was (is) going on with human babies, inadvertently, too, so I guess the progress made is better than not. Thanks for the review. I may need to check this out!

  2. Julie P. says:

    Wow! This book sounds very interesting. I took an anthropology course in college and I was fascinated by this stuff!

  3. Jenny says:

    Oh, those pictures of the cloth & wire mothers are so sad – poor baby monkeys. This book sounds great though!

  4. Kathy says:

    Unfortunately a lot of scientific studies seem cruel. The picture of that baby monkey just breaks my heart though.

  5. Aarti says:

    Wow, that seems like a really powerful book, just based on the pictures! Thanks for a really informative review.

  6. Carrie K. says:

    Thanks for stopping by to cheer me on during readathon!

  7. Interesting… Those baby monkey pics are sooo cute!

  8. Jenners says:

    This sounds fascinating and heartbreaking too. I just can’t imagine that anyone would think too much love would ruin a child.

  9. This was really fascinating. I’m not familiar with the study nor the controversy surrounding it. This is totally foreign to my life’s experience. Sure glad my ancestors didn’t pay attention to John Watson.

  10. I’m glad you liked the book — Deb Blum is one of my professors here at UW-Madison, so I heard a little bit about her reporting on this book during some classes. The things Harry Harlow did were so sad, but they’ve taught us a lot about the nature of love and how we love one another. It’s a tricky balance between science and discovery, that’s for sure.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.