World as Laboratory

In her 2005 book, World as Laboratory, Rebecca Lemov takes her readers through the turn of events culminating into “the American Experiment.” Not only does she outline behavioralism’s coming of age, she also explores the personal histories of the influential anthropologists, sociologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists, or simply “human engineers,” who helped shape modern America through their attempts to control society by controlling man. Lemov expertly captures the zeitgeist that consumed these social scientists from the 1920’s through the peak of hard-cold-war era 1960’s.

Lemov sets the tone describing the work of Jacques Loeb. She describes the German-born biologist as a proto-biotechnologist, which seems apt as Loeb is famous for his experiment whereby he induced artificial parthenogenesis in the eggs of sea urchins. Loeb was particularly interested in tropisms, that is, the force of nature in organisms that compel certain behaviors under certain conditions. His body of work created a framework by which an engineering perspective could be applied to life. Organisms could now be treated as automata, whose mechanisms and programming could be manipulated in predictable ways once sufficient experimentation and observation were conducted. Some of his experiments were less revealing that others—such as water blasting portions of brains from dogs to observe their ability to regain neurological functions—but his materialist’s assertions were happily adopted. Without will, spirit, or vital force, the black box of metaphysics is taken off the table, leaving only physical matter and biological stimulus-response to remain.

The punishment grill

This new approach was a godsend for sociologists seeking to validate their field with the yard stick of Science. It was John B. Watson who took the stimulus-response ball and ran with it. Watson applied Loeb’s principles to study the behavior of animals, extended it to include humans, and began leveraging the scientific method to bolster as-of-yet not widely adopted applied psychology. The objective of his new field of “behavioralism” was clear: The prediction and control of behavior. The subject of Watson’s most famous experiment was a nine-month old baby. In 1920, he began experiments with Little Albert whereby he began conditioning him to fear a white rabbit, toward which the infant initially expressed no fear. The conditioning involved clanging a steel rod with a claw hammer each time the rabbit was presented to Albert. The experiment was so “successful” that not only did Albert fear white rabbits and rats, he was conditioned to fear any white, furry object. With Watson at the helm, the field of behavioral science was ready to steam forward. This kick-started the lab rat craze and the innovation of various stimulus apparatuses such as mazes, punishment grills, and the viewing apparatus, all assumed to be acceptable models the Real World.

Testing baby reflexes

Another phenomenon arose that had a legitimizing effect on behavioralism, and it manifested itself in Cold Hard Cash. In the 1920’s, philanthropic foundations established from the coffers of mega-millionaires, especially Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, began looking for wider-sweeping methods to improve social welfare. In particular, Beardsley Ruml who headed a Rockefeller fund began showering grants on programs and institutions working to develop quantitative behavioral science. What Lemov makes clear is that social welfare here is analogous to social control. It was in the previous decade that Ludlow Massacre occurred, and union-busting corporations were seeking a way to placate workers. It is no accident that one of the first experiments funded on big foundation money was conducted in a factory setting. The result known as the Hawthorne effect showed that of all the variables observed, the greatest impact on workers was the attention scientists paid them. Flush with cash, the golden age of behavioral science had arrived.

The book goes on to describe the Yale Institute of Human Relations—a benefactor of Rockefeller trust moneys—focusing on two phenomena. The first being the birth of pseudo-Freudian behavioralism, whose thesis was everybody wants to be normal. The second is an account of military government sponsorship in WWII, and the use of anthropologists and sociologists to predict behavior and negotiate with Oceanic denizens. This sets a trajectory for later milt-gov sponsorship during the Cold War, when brainwashing was the topic, and the CIA wanted to know how to do it and how to resist it.

Lemov gives us plenty of gruesome details over the developmental course of behavioral science. She also investigates the lives and motivations of the main proponents of behavioralism, and while she’s critical of their work, overall she reserves judgment on them as people. What makes this book special is Lemov’s conclusion that laboratory is no less a model of the world as it is completely isolated from the world. She maintains that the link between World and Laboratory is what has allowed the experimental techniques of behavioral scientists to pervade everyday life, while implicitly urging scientists to think carefully about the nature of their experiments and its relation to the world at large.

As an anthropologist, Lemov keeps the black box of metaphysics off the table in World as Laboratory, but there are so many parallels that could be drawn. Lemov’s conclusion about the World-Laboratory system brushes against Baudrillard’s hyper-reality, for instance. Clark Hull, the head of YIHR exhibits an obsession with mathematical descriptions of the Environment-Organism system that is suspiciously Kantian. And Lemov avoids altogether any reference to Hayek’s criticisms of scientism that were zealously applied to the social sciences. Nevertheless, World as Laboratory is a fascinating read. You may find me coming back to it again and again.

Hull's schematics of the E-O system