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Every civilization rests on common assumptions about human nature, including whether such a thing actually exists. Civilization’s foundational idea, the proposition that human nature is not infinitely plastic, that no society can socialize its people to accept or to do anything whatsoever, necessitates a belief that human beings have a common nature, a shared moral sense that comes out of a universal human nature. And yet, as we have seen, people do seem to have the capacity to acquire an infinite variety of cultures, however vile some of them turn out. The toxic idea at the core of all the most murderous ideologies of the modern age claims that human nature is a fiction, that all people have malleable minds, like clay that peer pressure and other techniques can mold to turn their owners into creatures both submissive and violent. Naziism gives us a prime example of people playing out that idea.
But human nature does exist, demonstrably so. We do have innate instincts, though they do not control us as intensely as instinct controls other animals. A major part of the reason for that latter fact lies in one of our instincts, the instinct to learn and to respond to teaching. Unique to humans, that instinct guides us in reshaping our minds, our pre-existing personalities, not in shaping our minds from nothing. We do not exist merely as passive receivers of what others impose upon us. We actively seek knowledge, a feature of human nature that you can see in any toddler pointing at things. We know that pointing exists as an important part of human nature, because only humans understand what pointing means, as experiments with chimpanzees have shown. Other primates simply don’t get the point (literally).
But early thinkers believed that our ability to learn, indeed our obsessive need to learn, bespoke a human mind born into this world as a tabula rasa. But while Romantics believed that we could only write certain things on that blank slate without breaking it, the scientists, in their cold, rational thinking, claimed that the slate could bear any message.
Through the first half of the Twentieth Century positivism gave us behaviorism, the science of merely looking at human behavior without attempting to relate it to internal states. After all, the psychologists argued, one cannot scientifically measure an internal state of mind. That attitude led many psychologists to dismiss internal states altogether as unreal, even though (we might think) they could detect their own internal states. In particular, for our purpose, they believed that any display of affection toward children served no serious purpose: they dismissed it as a mere sentimental gesture more likely to spread disease and lead to psychological problems in adulthood. By pushing this doctrine, behaviorists, such as John B. Watson (1878 Jan 09 - 1958 Sep 25), created a generation of what Bruno Bettelheim called "refrigerator mothers".
In the late 1950's and through the 1960's that cold doctrine was shattered by a series of experiments performed by a man described as one of the most unpleasant people you never want to meet – Harry Harlow (1905 Oct 31 - 1981Dec 06). In the 1950's Harlow had studied the effects of brain damage on learning in rhesus monkeys. As so often happens in experimental science, Harlow chanced upon a serendipitous discovery: he noticed that the monkeys, kept alone in wire cages, would cling tenaciously, even desperately, to the cloth pads used to line the cages for hygiene. That observation led Harlow in 1957 to begin a series of experiments aimed at demonstrating the innate need for physical affection in primates.
The iconic image from those experiments shows us a cylindrical dummy made of chicken wire, a block-like depiction of a monkey face, and a protruding nipple that provides milk. Next to that dummy sits an identical dummy covered with terrycloth and topped by a more realistic monkey head, but with no milk-providing nipple. And in that sparse scenario a baby monkey clings to the cloth-covered dummy. In the experiments that image represents Harlow demonstrated that deprivation of physical affection made the monkeys emotional cripples. The effects that he discerned in rhesus monkeys meshed well with observations of neglected and abused children and thus proved and verified the existence of an innate human nature, one that needs proper nurturing.
Unfortunately, Harlow’s experiments were as sadistic as they were brilliant. Today no legitimate scientist would conduct such trials nor would any authority grant permission to conduct them. It should not surprise us, because at the same time that Harlow’s experiments came into the public consciousness the great demographic swell of the Baby Boom generation, which had grown up on a strong dose of Walt Disney’s talking-animal cartoons, came of age. The modern animal rights movement originated at that time.
Although Harlow and his students performed their experiments only upon rhesus monkeys, their results gained much of their potency from their verification of observations that social workers and other caregivers had made in children beginning in the late 1940's. In England John Bowlby (1907 Feb 26 - 1990 Sep 02) had worked with maladjusted and delinquent children and he discerned that such maladjustments originated in a lack of maternal care. Like Harlow’s baby rhesus monkeys, children need a secure base from which to explore their world and a loving mother provides that base. In working out his theory of attachment and loss, Bowlby applied Freud’s belief that each person unconsciously builds their adult relationships on a foundation consisting of the feelings and reactions originally evoked by their childhood caregivers.
Against that background of growing knowledge Bettelheim produced his theory of how fairy tales direct the growth of children’s personalities. Trained in the theories of Sigmund Freud, he applied the Freudian techniques of analysis to fairy tales of the Western Canon to see how they would affect the growth of the children who heard them. In "The Uses of Enchantment" Bettelheim presented his report on his findings. He presented his theory in Freudian terms, which many people, me included, do not easily understand. Thus I have devised this project to translate those results into plain English and to comment on them. Of course, in order to carry out that plan I must retell the fairy tales themselves. After each story I then include one or more essays on the story, both critiquing Bettelheim’s comments on it and adding any more information that may seem relevant to me.
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