WHY STUDY ANIMALS?
Animal studies are more properly known as “research involving non-human participants” and they play an important role in Psychology: from Pavlov’s dogs and Skinner’s rats to more recent studies involving the language abilities of apes, animals feature heavily in all the main approaches, but especially the Learning Approach.
A research method where animals are observed in their natural environment is known as ethology. Animal experiments involve manipulating some independent variable, either in the animal’s environment (like Pavlov and Skinner) or in the animal itself (eg by genetically altering it).
This research is based on evolutionary theory. This theory, originally proposed by Charles Darwin, states that humans are descended from animal ancestors – that humans are in fact animals. Moreover, humans retain many biological and psychological characteristics from their animal ancestors that they share in common with other animals with the same ancestors: the human family tree split from other apes about 7 million years ago.
The types of animals used in scientific research in Europe (2005 data). "Non-human primates" means apes and monkeys - a tiny sliver but still (perhaps?) too many.
The main advantage with animal experiments is that things can be done to animals that it would be impractical or unethical to do to humans. For example, animals can be bred to see what effects show up in their descendants; they can also be kept in a controlled environment and observed for long periods, perhaps for their entire lives.
The principle disadvantage with animal experiments is the problem of generalisability. Even if we accept evolutionary psychology, humans have evolved to be very different from most other animals, perhaps all other animals. Drawing conclusions about human behaviour from observing animals might be invalid; at worst, it is reductionist and downright misleading.
THE HORRORS OF HARRY HARLOW
One of the most famous - or infamous - animal studies was conducted in the 1950s and '60s by Harry Harlow. Harlow experimented on rhesus monkeys and wanted to learn more about the nature of love and the attachment between a child and its mother.
Harlow raised the monkeys without a mother, providing them instead with a "wire mother" and a "cloth mother". The "wire mother" was a metal figure that would dispense milk to feed the monkey; the "cloth mother" did not dispense milk but was wrapped in terry cloth and soft to touch.
Harlow noticed the monkeys had as much need for comfort from the cloth mother as food from the wire mother.
Harlow then frightened the monkey with a scary machine. He wanted to see whether the monkey would flee to the wire mother or the cloth mother. The cloth mother turned out to be the source of comfort and safety, even though it did not provide the food that kept the monkey alive.
You may find parts of this distressing.
Harlow's early experiments might be well-designed and produced findings that were beneficial (they tell us a lot about the dangers of raising human children in orphanages and even lab animals in laboratories). However, his later studies went a lot further.
Harlow placed infant monkeys in "the Pit of Despair" - an isolation chamber where they were fed but cut off from all contact and stimulation for up to a year. The monkeys developed intense depression.
One of six monkeys isolated for three months refused to eat after release and died five days later… the effects of six months of total social isolation were so devastating and debilitating that we had assumed initially that twelve months of isolation would not produce any additional decrement. This assumption proved to be false; twelve months of isolation almost obliterated the animals socially - Harry Harlow
These traumatised monkeys lost their sex-drive, so Harlow created the "rape rack" where female monkeys were restrained so that they could be inseminated. Harlow noticed that the mothers later rejected these children, chewing off fingers and toes and even biting off their heads.
If you find this distasteful, you're not alone. Harlow's own colleagues were disturbed by the glee with which he carried out these excessively cruel experiments. The terms "pit of despair" and "rape rack" were his own. It's hard to avoid the conclusion there was a distinct lack of love somewhere in Harry Harlow's childhood too.
Some good came of these studies, because when they were published there was an outcry. Many of the guidelines for animal research in place today were developed in response to Harlow's work. The animal liberation movement, which uses forceful tactics to free animals from laboratories, was founded by students appalled at Harlow's research.
Harlow himself was a rigorous scientist but an unsympathetic human being. He suffered from his own love-problems, with bereavement and marriage breakdown as well as alcoholism. Challenged about his treatment of animals, he responded:
I don't have any love for them. Never have. I don't really like animals. I despise cats. I hate dogs. How could you like monkeys? - Harry Harlow
ETHICAL GUIDELINES FOR THE TREATMENT OF ANIMALS
EVALUATING THE ETHICS OF ANIMAL RESEARCH