QUICK LOOK: Harari on the History of Attachment

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Lately I’ve been blogging about the work of world history professor Yuval Harari, specifically his two books Sapiens and Homo Deus. I found Sapiens by browsing at a local bookstore just up the road. As I flipped through the pages of Sapiens, my eye caught a glimpse of a picture from one of Harry Harlow’s experiments with Rhesus monkeys. The picture shows one of Harlow’s young monkeys hanging onto one of Harlow’s famous cloth monkey mothers. In a series of experiments Harlow separated infant and young monkeys from their mothers and used wire frame mothers to raise them. He did so as a way of scientifically evaluating attachment relationships. As many of you know, Harlow collaborated with Bowlby ultimately providing Bowlby with the empirical data he needed to give his theory of attachment some much needed scientific traction. I immediately thought to myself, “What on earth is Harlow’s work doing in a world history book?” I was hooked and bought a copy.

So, why was Harari bringing in Harlow’s work, and, by extension, Bowlby’s too? Well, the material on Harlow’s work appears in chapter 17 entitled The Wheels of Industry under the subheading of Life on the Conveyor Belt. Here’s how Harari opens this subheading:

Usually, when we think of the Industrial Revolution, we think of an urban landscape of smoking chimneys, or the plight of exploited coal miners sweating in the bowels of the earth. Yet the Industrial Revolution was above all else the Second Agricultural Revolution.

The Second Agricultural Revolution was mainly about applying technology to agriculture. Here are some of the applications Harari lists:

  • Tractors (which greatly contributed to the Dust Bowl of the early 1930s)
  • Artificial fertilizers
  • Industrial insecticides
  • “An entire arsenal of hormones and medications” (quoting Harari)
  • Transportation and storage facilitated by refrigeration, ships, and airplanes

The Second Agricultural Revolution saw to it that “plants and animals were mechanised” (quoting Harari). Ahhhh! Do you see where Harari is going? Harlow looked at what happens when you in essence mechanize animals by raising them using wire frame mothers. Here’s how Harari sums up this period:

Around the time that Homo Sapiens was elevated to divine status by humanist religions, farm animals stopped being viewed as living creatures that could feel pain and distress, and instead came to be treated as machines. Today these animals are often mass-produced in factory-like facilities, their bodies shaped in accordance with industrial needs [usually through confinement in cages or pens that allow for very limited movement].

Pulling from evolutionary psychology (which Bowlby did too), Harari observes that a “wild cow had to know how to form close [attachment] relationships with other cows and bulls, or else she could not survive and reproduce.”  Attachment relationships provide a form of protection from predation. Harari continues thus: “This is the basic lesson of evolutionary psychology: a need shaped in the wild continues to be felt subjectively even if it is no longer really necessary for survival and reproduction.” This is at the heart of Bowlby’s attachment theory. Here’s Harari’s bottom line: “The tragedy of industrial agriculture is that it takes great care of the objective needs of animals, while neglecting their subjective needs.” In essence, what Harlow and his collaborators did was to see how far they could go with respect to the balance between instrumental or mechanical care (e.g., wire frame mothers) on one end and subjective or emotional care on the other. At the extreme, Harlow placed monkeys in a form of sensory deprivation, experiments that he was strongly criticized for. [1] “[H]arlow’s orphaned monkeys grew up to be emotionally disturbed even though they had received all the nourishment they required,” writes Harari. He continues, “The conclusion [we can draw from Harlow’s work] was inescapable: monkeys must have psychological needs and desires that go beyond their material requirements, and if these are not fulfilled, they will suffer greatly.” Here’s Harari’s take home observation:

At present, millions of farm animals are subjected to the same conditions as Harlow’s monkeys, as farmers routinely separate calves, kids and other youngsters from their mothers, to be raised in isolation.

What Bowlby brought to the table was copious evidence that suggests that the same evolutionary attachment mechanisms Harlow looked at are present in humans as well. It is not enough to attend to the instrumental needs of a child (e.g., food, clothing, and shelter); his or her need for attachment must also be attended to otherwise the child could suffer a life of emotional distress. Are we now using industrial technology to raise children? Are children now on the conveyor belt of life? Is feeding kids copious amounts of behavioral drugs like Ritalin and Adderall part and parcel of life on the conveyor belt for children (and many adults now)?

Harari wraps up this subheading by observing: “Without the industrialisation of agriculture the urban Industrial Revolution could never have taken place—there would not have been enough hands and brains to staff factories and offices.” Harari provides evidence that suggests that this pattern has occurred throughout history. As an example, Harari suggests that the Egyptian pyramids could not have been built without a large group of people (mostly slaves) residing in one place for extended periods of time. Looked at another way, hunter gatherer tribes could not have built the pyramids. A large group of stationary people requires food, which, in turn, requires agriculture. Harari also puts  forward the idea that the human-animal relationship changed dramatically with the rise of the first Agricultural Revolution.

Harari presents a painting of an Egyptian farmer plowing his field using a pair of oxen (c. 1200 BC). In the caption Harari writes, “Notice the hunched position of the Egyptian farmer who, much like the ox, spent his life in hard labour oppressive to his body, his mind and his social relationships.” I find it fascinating that Harai points to a historical pattern that repeats itself, one that links technology, groupings of people, and increasing levels of oppression and hardship. Is the digital age about manufacturing people so that they are able to readily adapt to an environment flush with mechanical care and devoid of emotional and subjective care? The field of cybernetics was brought into being as the result of a desire (back in the late 1940s) to find ways of allowing humans (and to a degree animals) to adapt to increasingly harsh environments: space being one of the harshest environments of all. Are Harari’s patterns of technology, groupings of people, and increasing levels of oppression and hardship ultimately pushing us to a place where we can deal with any and all environments, including the cold vacuum of space? Is this the reason that we are in the age of Nerd Rising where evolution appears to be privileging the autistic brain? [2] Are we moving into an age where attachment needs will be a thing of the past? These are the types of questions Harari looks at in Homo Deus—A Brief History of Tomorrow.

PS—As I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I spied the following gruesome article that (sadly) supports this post:

Horrific videos of cows being beaten and burned lead to jail for 2 dairy workers

The video is horrific and not for the faint of heart. But these are the kinds of conditions that Harari writes about. There is abundant evidence that supports the following connection: where there is abuse toward animals, you’ll find abuse toward humans. This is why back in the late 1990s, our Foundation supported The Humane Society of the United States First Strike Campaign, a campaign designed to bring attention to and fight the animal abuse–human abuse connection. To read about First Strike and the supporting research, click on this link to a PDF report.


[1] I’m pulling this information from a great book on Harlow’s work entitled Love at Goon Park: Harry Harlow and the Science of Affection by Deborah Blum. Blum points out that Bowlby found these sensory deprivation experiments to be abhorrent. Bowlby did write to Harlow voicing his concerns. According to Blum, it appears that Harlow conducted these experiments as a way of trying to get a handle on his own encounters with deep depression and isolation. I blogged about Blum’s book in an earlier two-part post entitled The Love Wars—Harry Harlow and the All Night Comfort Food Café (part one—October 18, 2016 ).

[2] Two books that have shaped my thinking here are Nerds: Who They Are and Why We Need More of Them by David Anderegg, and The Essential Difference: Male And Female Brains And The Truth About Autism by Simon Baron-Cohen.