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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Earth and Science and Moms and Babies ... A Love Story

Earth and Science and Moms and Babies ... A Love Story

Author: Reilly Capps/Tuesday, April 21, 2015/Categories: natural history

[Photo of Earth and Moon as captured by a spaceship created by the methods of science. Photo by NASA/JPL]

Lots of people hate Earth Day. I get that. You're devoting an entire day to the planet on which everything in our history plays out? What is every other day, Mars Day? 

I'd rather think of it as Science Day. Without science, we wouldn't know enough about the Earth to realize we were hurting it, and ourselves, and to try to protect it, and thereby ourselves. 

Science Day, by the way, does not exist. There is a Secretary's Day, but no Science Day. Meanwhile, religion has holidays left and right.

That makes sense. Lots of people don't much care for science; or they're intimidates and offended by it; its stodgy methods and wonky jargon can feel remote and cold, like a foreign language used by a secret society. 

But here, on the Earth Day, is a story that might change a mind or two. It's a story of science doing real good in the real world … maybe in your life. It's a story about parent-child love. 

Despite the declarations that God is Love, the truth is that old religions often didn't think much about love. Abraham seemed fine with killing Isaac. Aztec priests showed their love for the bird-god by cutting the heads off children. Jesus and Buddha made some nods toward love, but only one or two saints listened. 

Even back in the heady days of Freud and Jung (who weren't true scientists), the world's preeminent thinkers on the subject of human emotions, psychologists, theorized that love wasn't very important -- even love as elemental as what a child feels for her mother. Psychologist theorized -- without much evidence -- that babies didn't feel real love for their mothers. They were "attached" to them, but mainly for the milk. And so moms shouldn't feel or express much love in return, beyond offering the teat. Any more affection than that, they theorized, and the mom risked spoiling the kid. John Watson, president of the American Psychological Association -- the largest such organization in North America, said as late as the 1940s, "mother love is a dangerous instrument." He recommended that kids not be kissed goodnight. He thought a business-like handshake was better. And no need to visit your babies in the hospital, since a nurse with a bottle is every bit as good. Hospitals restricted parents' visiting hours. Psychologists theorized that orphanages were just as good as mom, since both have milk.  

Men especially were supposed to toughen up their kids. Comedian Bill Burr says his father didn't hug him because he thought it would make him gay. In the novel "The Thought Gang," a grandfather shows his love by being hard on his grandson -- siccing an alligator on him, dropping him off in the middle of nowhere with no map and no bus fare. The basic idea, the psychologists preached, was to treat kids as though they were military recruits. 

So what happened? Why do we now live in a child-worshipping culture, where backpacks are on wheels so the kids don't have to lug them, where even the yogurt has become go-gurt, and where most dads hug and kiss their kids goodnight? 

Science happened. First, instead of spouting theory, responsible psychologists actually looked at real kids in the real world, especially kids deprived of love, and took notes. A man named Rene Spitz filmed love-deprived kids in orphanages going "psychotoxic." Then, a slew of experiments showed that mammals need the love of their parents, or else they will literally die. The most famous experiments were by Harry Harlow. He put baby monkeys alone in a "pit of despair" for a year, without light or monkey or human warmth. Then he noted that the monkeys came out sad. If this seems like the most obvious scientific findings in history, it's only in the light of history. Without the methods of science -- which starts with observation -- the witchcraft of the Freudians might have won out. Harlow didn't stop. To see if all babies really want is milk, he set a monkey up in a cage with two different doll monkey mothers: one was plush and soft; the other was made of hard wire. The wire one had milk; the plush one didn't. If all babies want is food from their mothers, as the theory went, they should love the wire mom. But it didn't turn out that way. The baby monkeys spent 5 percent of their time with the milk-giving wire mom, and 95 percent with the snuggly mom. Love, science showed, is nourishment, too. 

All of this real science had a tremendous effect. It helped change parenting guides, put an end to orphanages -- although they still exist in second-world countries -- did away with "visiting hours" as a concept for kids in the hospital, and caused lots of dads to hugs their kids a little tighter, even if it makes them gay. 

If you look closely, this is the natural way of things, and evidenced in all of nature: mother birds bringing worms to their hatchlings, bears hibernating with their cubs. Science even identified the chemicals that make us love our children, like oxytocin (though it can never fully explain the magic and mystery of love, and it doesn't try to).

The transition away from cruelty and murder and toward love and compassion is the greatest story in the history of humanity. And while certain religions are often given credit for that, let's not leave out science, and diligent practitioners like Harry Harlow, who showed empirically the good that love can do. 

Earth Day is, in a sense, the feeling of affection and attention expanded greatly outward … a feeling of love not for a single person or animal … but for the whole pulsating, breathing, borning and dying network of being. Science might eventually test, empirically, whether that affection and attention -- that love -- helped the Earth, and thereby helped the most dominant species on the Earth: us. 


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