Feral Children

Michael Morgan

  • The Forbidden Experiment by Roger Shattuck
    Secker, 220 pp, £6.95, August 1980, ISBN 0 436 45875 6

The Forbidden Experiment is about cases of children reared in isolation from other human beings and, in particular, about the celebrated ‘Wild Boy of Aveyron’, who emerged from the woods near Saint-Sernin in Southern France in 1800. What make cases of social deprivation of this kind so fascinating are the obvious questions they raise about the determinants of human nature. (See, for example, Seamus Heaney’s poem ‘Bye Child’, about the plight of a neglected boy reared in a henhouse.) The enfant sauvage himself was 11 to 12 years old when caught, and it was known from earlier sightings that he had been living by himself in the mountains and forests, summer and winter. Unfortunately, it was not known, either then or now, how long he had been living in this state, which greatly diminishes the scientific value of the observations that were subsequently carried out on him. What is certain is that he had many disagreeable animal habits and, most important of all, he had no human speech. News of the boy spread to Paris and led to intense interest in the progress of his education, which posed many questions that were central to the concerns of philosophers and scientists of the time, locked in the traditional debate between nativists, who believed that much of human nature was fixed before birth, and the empiricist followers of Locke and Condillac, who believed that people’s behaviour was mainly determined by their education and experience. Was the boy so degraded because he had lacked human contact? Could he by patient re-education be made to join the human family? Would he have innate ideas of justice and so on, and, if not, could he be taught them?

Condillac had previously used the metaphor of a statue which obtains its faculties, as it were, in slow motion to describe the development of children. Now, as Shattuck nicely puts it, it was as if Condillac’s statue had itself come to life and lumbered out of the forest. He engendered the same kind of interest as Cheselden’s cataract patient in 1728, and for very much the same reason. The boy came under the care of the 26-year-old physician Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard at Abbé Sicard’s Institute for Deaf Mutes in Paris. Education of the deaf is a key element in the story, for Itard was to apply to ‘Victor’ many of the educational techniques that de l’Epée and Sicard had already developed for deaf people. Both Sicard and Itard were greatly influenced by Condillac, and Condillac used some of de l’Epée’s educational work in his philosophical writings. The story of Itard’s heroic efforts to educate Victor is well-known. His own account was translated with an informative introduction in 1962. Harlan Lane’s The Wild Boy of Aveyron (1975) brilliantly covers the intellectual background of the story and the contemporary history. Lane unearthed much original material, including the report of the psychiatrist Pinel to the Society of the Observers of Man, in which he argued that Victor was congenitally mentally deficient. Shattuck makes use of this and other material in an absorbing retelling of the story.

The book may be a bit disappointing to any-one seeking an understanding of Victor in the context of modern psychological research. It is a pity, in my view, that the principal influences upon Shattuck seem to derive from psychoanalysis, the contribution of which to this story is obscure to say the least. The critical point about the wild boy, and the one that so much depressed Itard, was his failure to acquire speech. Ruling out simple physical defect as an explanation (although Victor did have the scar of a throat wound when discovered), two principal hypotheses remain: Victor’s intellect was too feeble for language acquisition, which could have been the reason he was abandoned by his parents in the first place; or by the time of his capture he was already too old to profit from education. These were the possibilities supported by Pinel and Itard respectively.

Itard himself was obviously in a philosophical dilemma here. On the one hand, he wanted to stress the fact of Victor’s low intellectual and moral status when he was caught, in order to prove that man requires the proper social conditions for his development; or, as he put it, ‘the moral superiority said to be natural to man is only the result of civilisation which raises him above other animals by a great and powerful force.’ It was confidently expected that poor Victor could be used to bait the followers of Rousseau (one savant on seeing the boy is said to have exclaimed: ‘I would really like to see [Rousseau] here with all his rantings against the social state!’). On the other hand, it was equally important that the boy should respond to education, in the way that deaf-mutes under the tutelege of de l’Epée and Sicard had done: otherwise, it would be said that Victor was a wild boy because he was an idiot – not the other way round. Thus Victor’s failure to learn speech was a severe blow to Itard’s philosophical position, and one that he made no attempt to hide. It was at this point that he invented his ‘Critical period’ hypothesis, in which he attempted, like others after him, to have his cake and eat it:

An infant of 18 months to two years may know nothing but he possesses to a high degree the capacity to learn everything: an innate tendency to imitate; great sensitivity and flexibility in all his organs; constant mobility of the tongue; and a larynx still of an almost gelatinous consistency ... Give me an infant to work with and I can guarantee, he results But Victor had none of an infant’s advantages that I have just mentioned. He was already an adolescent.

Shattuck himself seem to incline towards this hypothesis, and goes one step further in suggesting that Victor may have failed to establish cerebral laterality for speech within a critical period. He suggests that some later cases ‘probably suffered irreversible brain damage from isolation’. Unfortunately, as Harlan Lane remarked with rather more knowledge of the facts, the hypothesis of a critical period for speech development lacks firm evidence and the ‘period’ lacks definition. This whole matter has been dealt with fairly and exhaustively by A.M. Clark and A.D.B. Clark in their book Early Experience: Myth and Evidence, which makes it very clear that it is wrong to generalise from a single case such as Victor’s. Some isolated children have failed, like Victor, to acquire speech: but ‘Isabelle’, who was discovered in 1938 at the age of six and a half, subsequently developed excellent speech and normal behaviour.

Shattuck further muddies the waters by claiming that ‘there is a critical age before which kittens must learn to see and avoid vertical obstacles; otherwise they will never discriminate such objects and will bump into them.’ This is a gross oversimplification of some controversial physiological work, and it is hard to see what it contributes to a discussion of language acquisition in feral children.

It is unlikely that we shall ever finally establish whether Itard or Pinel was right about Victor. Part of the trouble is that much important evidence was not collected. Although Itard’s psychological tests were extraordinarily innovative, we should not forget that the whole idea of testing psychological function without the intermediary of language is quite recent, and testing methods have advanced enormously since Itard’s day. There was, for example, no accurate determination of Victor’s sensory capacities: he may have been partially deaf or have had impaired vision. His non-verbal spatial abilities were not adequately assessed, and so on.

The Forbidden Experiment is a useful contribution to the literature on a perennially fascinating topic, even though it lacks the scientific judgment of Harlan Lane’s book. Incidentally, although it is charitable of Shattuck to assume that a deliberate experiment in this field would be ‘forbidden’, he is unfortunately incorrect. An account of just such an experiment was published in the Journal of Genetic Psychology in the 1930s in which the experimenters say, inter alia: ‘We wished ... to know whether positive responses towards us would develop if we refrained from smiling at the twins and from petting, cuddling or fondling them. In order to determine the answer to this question we avoided these expressions during the first 26 weeks. With holding of affection of this sort was not an easy task to impose upon ourselves.’ Luckily, these twins at least had each other for company, and one can only hope that this protected them to some extent from the adverse effects of such insensitive treatment.