Thursday, June 05, 2008

The wire universe

A half-century ago, the American psychologist Harry Harlow did a provocative experiment with baby monkeys. He wanted to know if mother love in infants is generated by the satisfactions of feeding, as had long been postulated by psychologists. He placed eight infant monkeys in individual cages, each with equal access to two surrogate "mothers." One "mother" was made from bare welded wire surmounted by a wooden head. The other "mother" was comfortably sheathed with soft terry cloth. For four of the infants, the wire "mother" was provided with a nursing bottle with its nipple protruding from the mother's "breast," from which the infants took their nourishment. For the other four monkeys, it was the terrycloth "mother" that provided the source of milk.

The wire and cloth "mothers" proved to be physiologically equivalent: All of the infants drank the same amount of milk and gained the same weight. But the "mothers" were not psychologically equivalent. The infants that took their nourishment from a wire "mother" spent no more time with her than feeding required. All of the infants spent most of their non-feeding time clinging to their warm and fuzzy cloth "mothers." It is apparently not satisfactions of feeding that generate affection in infants, but a sense of cozy security.

It is tempting to see the wire "mother" with the milk-producing nipple as metaphorically representing science, and the terrycloth "mother" as traditional religion. Science -- like the wire monkey for four of the infants -- is the source of our health, wealth and physical well-being, but it provides little in the way of emotional support -- it places us in a universe of incredible vastness apparently governed by inexorable law. What is our response? As a culture, we pretty much divide our time between science and religion -- the wire monkey and the terrycloth monkey -- going to the former when in need of physical sustenance (technology, medicine, creation of wealth), but spending most of our time clinging to the latter. When faced with a large, frightening and impersonal universe, it is not to science that we turn for reassurance, but to the warm and fuzzy consolations of traditional religion.

At the risk of both hubris and condescension, can I take the metaphor further? Growing up has something to do with putting aside our teddy bears and security blankets. It would be comforting to think, as did our ancestors, that we live in a nurturing universe, centered upon ourselves, watched over by attentive gods. The scientific version of the truth, however, is rather different. Our Earth is apparently a typical planet in an immensity of morally silent space, and it is a measure of our maturity as a species that we have the courage to accept this difficult truth. It would be nice to imagine that we had our origin in a secure nursery presided over by a warm and fuzzy parent, but the truth -- alas -- seems otherwise. The universe is not warm and fuzzy. It can even be capricious and sometimes cruel. It does, however, have one thing that recommends it; it is a fact by every criterion of science.

But not to despair. In that big, indifferent, wire universe, we create our own islands of terrycloth love. And that is meaning enough, and challenge enough, for any one life.