15 June, 2006Issue 5.2Science

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Brave Old World

Jacob Foster

Rebecca Lemov
World as Laboratory
Hill and Wang, 2005
291 pages
ISBN 0809074648

A list of the ideas and technologies that mark the twentieth century as distinctly modern might look something like this: computers, the internet, atomic weapons, automation, mass transit, mass agriculture; communism, Darwinism, post-modernism, post-colonialism, feminism, civil rights, and so on. In the back of our minds, we’re aware that these aspects of modernity were made. You might even know the story behind some of them. But there’s another story that goes largely untold: a story of ‘advertising, polls, focus groups,’ a story of moulding needs and desires to fit state or corporate ends, a story of ‘social engineering.’ Its founders are dead, discredited, and forgotten. Its fruits are all around us—and yet we give them barely a moment’s notice, let alone realise that they, too, were invented. Unlike the laser, where one might wonder, Who the hell thought up that?, no one thinks, Who invented group therapy?

Rebecca Lemov, an anthropologist by training, tells us in her fascinating first book, World as Laboratory. The title reveals the basic idea: through the efforts of social engineering, we have come to live in a world that mirrors the rats-in-a-maze laboratory of the experimental psychologist. That we are collectively the objects of control and experiment has a proud heritage in dystopian science-fiction—The Matrix, Dark City, Brave New World are the tip of the iceberg—but our cultural memory seems to have forgotten that this was once considered a very good thing.

Lemov starts at the turn of the twentieth century, when biology was still in its infancy and the idea that living things might be mere machines was radical. Jacques Loeb, a German-born physician, initiated a mechanical approach to animal behaviour at the University of Chicago, literally crafting living matter into a freakish bestiary: ‘two-headed marine worms, metamorphosed slime moulds, hydras with mouth and anus reversed, and artificially propagated sea urchins.’ Loeb’s study of tropisms, such as the tendency of plants to grow towards a light source, drove him to treat living things as mechanical systems, as material to be shaped, much as an engineer would treat steel. This novel ‘engineering standpoint’ drew intense criticism; William James remarked that scientists in Loeb’s mold ‘defin[ed] the world so as to leave man’s soul upon it as a sort of outside passenger or alien.’

But Loeb was just the prophet. His graduate student, John B. Watson,had a far grander vision of explaining everything in terms of ‘stimulus-and-response reactions,’ and dreamed of being able to ‘take a baby and “build” any type of man.’ What Watson did with babies is incomprehensible by today’s standards: ‘How many trials would it take to stop an infant from reaching for a candle flame? Was a six-month-old naturally afraid of living furry animals?’

His macabre baby experiments aside, Watson’s principal contribution to the new ‘engineering’ science of behaviour—what we call behaviourism—was the emphasis on stimulus-and-response. Like the quantum physics flourishing contemporaneously in Europe, behaviourism was a form of positivism, ‘focus[sing] on what we can know scientifically and ignor[ing] the rest.’ Watson formalised the analogy that was to dominate early behaviourist research, between the responses of rats in mazes and the behaviour of men in ‘problem situations.’ The maze was a metaphor for the ‘choices, confusions, blind alleys, and difficulties’ of life itself. The rat—well, the metaphor is obvious.

Watson’s meteoric rise from a poor Southern background to momentary eminence as the dean of American behaviourism provided the template for his successors: the fathers of social engineering were generally ‘classic up-by-the-bootstraps’ American types, and the zeal for social engineering was principally an American one. Watson’s career ended in sexual scandal but his science would live on, both in the business world and the academy.

It would take money to bring the vision of social engineering out of the laboratory and into the real world: big money, like that provided by the mighty Rockefeller foundation. Under the direction of another Chicago man, Beardsley Ruml, a branch of this charitable trust dispensed $50 million to launch American social engineering. As part of this project, Ruml became the first to formalise the social sciences as ‘any field that contributed “a body of substantiated and widely accepted generalizations” about human capacities and behaviour.’ The University of Chicago received considerable support, as did Yale’s new Institute of Human Relations. The goal was simple: to gather empirical data on human behaviour and relations, data that could ultimately be applied to ‘order and control.’

From these theoretical and financial foundations, American social engineers experimented, catalogued, and theorised in circles of ever widening ambition. Under Ruml’s indirect supervision, the infamous Hawthorne experiments revealed that merely monitoring the work process in factories—making the workers aware of their observation—boosted productivity, an eerie confirmation of Bentham’s vision of the Panopticon. But Hawthorne, Chicago, and Ruml were only the beginning. Yale was to take the next steps toward the Brave Old World.

At Yale, Clark Hull speculated grandiosely on the internal stimulus-response mechanisms that govern human behaviour, his goal of building ‘psychic machines’ anticipating the modern mania for artificial intelligence. Following Hull’s lead in peering into the behaviourist black-box, the Yale crew mounted a series of stunning seminars domesticating the ideas of Freud to the behaviourist paradigm. Freud’s subtle theories were boiled down by Neal Miller and John Dollard into the ‘frustration-aggression hypothesis.’ This hypothesis—that when frustrated we vent our anger on other things—has been absorbed by our folk psychology and can be seen at work in the journalistic ‘explanations’ of the recent Muhammad cartoon fracas.

Another Yalie, O. Hobart Mowrer invented an early form of group therapy to address what he saw as a ‘sick society’ around him (now you know who invented that). Mowrer’s group therapy, which emphasised taking responsibility for one’s actions, restored goals, intentions, and freedom to the human subject. It rejected the extreme determinism inherent in the behaviourist program, determinism Mowrer himself had fostered through his early experiments on ‘aversive conditioning.’ Before his group therapy days, Mowrer had discovered that carefully prepared laboratory situations could induce feelings of such extreme anxiety in animals that ‘stimuli which would ordinarily be without visible effect are now capable of eliciting the response.’ In some cases the subject experienced an expected ‘shock’ as almost a relief. But Mowrer was unusual in turning away from stark behaviourism. His colleagues, ignoring his later work on group therapy, planned to drive their determinism even deeper into the psyche.

Of course the promise of the social engineers to regulate human behaviour as precisely as a machine was irresistibly tempting to the military-industrial complex. The love affair culminated in the CIA’s MK-ULTRA experiments. Desperate to understand the terrifying phenomenon of Communist brainwashing in the aftermath of the Korean war, CIA-funded scientists deployed drugs, isolation, and other privations to ‘break down’ experimental subjects and ‘rebuild’ them as desired. Often without consenting, patients were ‘wiped clear of many of their memories, personal habits…and even self-knowledge.’ Watson’s prophecy of a personality made from scratch at last achieved its promise; yet the lives of these new men, built to order, were barely worth living. While far from monsters, the scientists who participated in MK-ULTRA certainly wandered into ethically grey territory, driven by the dream of a perfectly regulated and happy society. The behaviourist paradigm was at last beginning to crack under the strain of its ambition.

The prophets of this Brave Old World of social engineering were united in the utopian universalism of their vision. As Lemov’s (sometimes clumsy) attempts at theorising struggle to articulate—and as her excellent reporting makes painfully clear—these men, for all their ethical blinders and blunders, dreamed of a better world. The progressive project had always depended on an understanding of human nature as deeply malleable. Behaviourism merely took that vision to its natural conclusion, with the tools of twentieth century science. The techniques developed by the social engineers have become accepted elements of everyday life. No one baulks at a poll, our daytime television reproduces the drama of group therapy, and millions tune in to watch the postmodern experimental situation in the form of reality television. Yet each of these tools was born in a social engineer’s laboratory; each has its story, and Lemov tells it.

And while the social engineers failed to make the perfectly ordered society, their ambition lives on, not only in our popular culture but also in the Brave New World of behavioural genetics and evolutionary psychology. We read daily of the genetic basis of everything from intelligence to homosexuality. Our courtship rituals, we are told, were born on the Pleistocene savanna. In an intellectual reversal from the behaviourist paradigm, where man was moulded, stimulus-response, by Nurture, Nature has taken centre-stage.

The time will come when behavioural geneticists and evolutionary psychologists, funded by modern day Rockefellers, step out of the laboratory and into the world, promising to build happier, healthier humans and more just and orderly societies. Mirroring the behaviourist overemphasis on Nurture, they will no doubt go too far in emphasising Nature—but their tools will be infinitely more subtle and dangerous. Behavioural geneticists, who already claim up to half of our behaviour is genetically determined, will advocate the use of gene therapy to eliminate ‘deviant’ psychology. Evolutionary psychologists, tracking down the biological forces that shaped our cultural patterns, will no doubt have plans for the modification of social order to ape more ‘natural’ situations. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with striving for utopia. But we should remember that utopia in Greek literally means ‘no place.’

We must temper our zeal for progress with the conviction that lofty goals do not excuse terrible crimes. Forgetting the latter has been the sin of the twentieth century’s great utopian projects, from Stalin’s Russia and Mao’s China to the Third Reich; it is a sin rehearsed throughout the course of World as Laboratory. Writers from Milton to Unger have argued in a Christian context that while we might strive to make heaven on Earth, in the end perfection is God’s alone. We don’t need the Christian eschatology to take the moral to heart: we must never mistake the vision of society we have as the perfect vision. Truth and justice are to be found in striving, changing, experimenting. The social engineers knew this. After all, the Brave Old World was born in the laboratory—as the Brave New Worlds of tomorrow will be. Our moral duty lies in preventing laboratory dreams of utopia from becoming worldly nightmares of dystopia.
Reading Lemov is a good start.

Jacob Foster is a DPhil student in Mathematical Physics at Balliol College, Oxford.