Book review: What can we learn from the wild child?

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Thu Aug 17 13:25:01 UTC 2006

The Forbidden Experiment
What can we learn from the wild child?

Rebecca Saxe

Encounters with Wild Children
Adriana S. Benzaqun
McGill-Queens University Press, $34.95 (cloth)

 In the seventh year of the French Republic (1799 to the rest of the
world), some peasants of Tarn and Aveyron, in southern France, encountered
a naked boy scavenging alone in their fields and forests. He did not
speak, and seemed not to understand any French. At first he ran away from
other humans. More than once he was captured and brought to town; each
time, he escaped. Later, the boy became familiar to the mountain farmers.
He would appear in their houses during the day to be fed, and then
disappear again every night. Some claimed he moved unusually fast, on four
limbs. Others claimed he rejected meat, and inferred from this that human
beings are not naturally carnivorous. One night in 1800, while he was
taking shelter from a storm, the boy was captured for good. His family and
past were unknown and became the topics of intense speculation. Had he
been abandoned at birth? Had he intentionally escaped from brutal parents?
Because he did not understand language, he was initiallybut
inaccuratelyassumed to be deaf. Eventually he was transferred to the care
of Abb Sicard, the head of the Institute for Deaf Mutes in Paris, and to
the protection and investigation of the Society of Observers of Man.

In Paris, the wild boy, now named Victor, was initially an object of
immense curiosity, but the public quickly lost interest. The first team of
philosopher-observers from the Society despaired of any progress
(concluding that there was the greatest degree of probability that the boy
had been born either an idiot or insane) and gave him up. Then a new
teacher emerged: the physician Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard took over Victors
care and worked with him daily for over two years. Using a combination of
food rewards and physical punishments, Itard forced Victor through set
after set of newly devised linguistic exercises. Eventually, Victor did
learn some basic signs, but, critically, he never learned to speak. Itard
gave up in 1806. From then until his death in 1828, Victor lived in
anonymity with a guardian, Mme. Guerin. Itard, on the other hand, remained
prominent throughout his lifetime and was later remembered as a pioneering
scientist, psychotherapist, and teacher of disabled children.

Scientists thoughts returned to Victor and Itard in 1970, when a radically
isolated girl was discovered in Los Angeles. Genie was 13 at the time but
unable to walk or talk. She had, it seemed, spent most of her life in a
room of her parents house. Initially scientists saw her as an
extraordinary opportunity to study and teach a wild child, and she was
taken to live in the home of one of the psychologists. She made very
little progress, though, learning just a handful of words over the next
four years. In 1975 the federal grant that funded her care was not
renewed. For the next few years, writes the historian Adriana S. Benzaqun,
Genie lived in a succession of foster homes; she was mistreated and
physically abused again; she lost the few skills she had learned . . . and
she stopped speaking altogether.

The life stories of Genie and Victor fit a pattern established over
centuries of scientific and philosophical encounters with wild childrenthe
title of Benzaquns new book. Benzaqun illustrates and seeks to make sense
of this pattern: the extreme high hopes, proportionate disillusionments
and dubious moral choices that have cycled through societies responses to
children deemed wild. In other words, she tells the tales of our
encounters and only secondarily the tales of the children encountered.
Ultimately, her aim is to expose the intellectually and ethically suspect
decisions made by those involved in the construction of the tales.
Although Benzaqun sometimes lapses into dense academic jargon, especially
in the first two chapters, her book is a compelling read. We are both
caught up in the fascination of the stories and forced to confront this
fascination, to regard with suspicion the search for the truth about wild
children (and the truth in wild children) that continues to this day.

In every generation, the idea of a child growing up in isolation from
society provokes deep and persistent questions about what it means to be
human. Which parts of ourselves are determined by biology and which by
culture? To what extent is language innate? Can moral instincts develop
without instruction? Is even walking on two feet dependent on cultural
transmission? Some philosophers have argued that society contaminates
human beings, others that it ennobles us. For both sides, the way to
resolve these questions, to definitively reveal ourselves to ourselves,
has seemed in equal measures tantalizing and taboo: the forbidden
experiment, Benzaqun calls it.

A prince could do a beautiful experiment, wrote Montesquieu. Raise three
or four children like animals, with goats or with deaf-mute nurses. They
would make a language for themselves. Examine this language. See nature in
itself, and freed from the prejudices of education; learn from them, after
they are instructed, what they had thought; exercise their mind by giving
them all the things necessary to invent; finally, write the history of the
experiment. Centuries later, the secret appeal of such an experimentif
slightly updatedis unabated. Wild children intrigue and enthrall because
they seem to offer a morally permissible version of the forbidden
experiment, one whose initial conditions are created not by cruel
scientists but by cruel parents or cruel accident. Historically, though,
this natural forbidden experiment has invariably failed to deliver. The
scientists, philosophers, and pedagogues involved have left records of
disappointment. The children themselves have died young, sunk into
anonymity, or been abandoned to further neglect and abuse. The grand
questions about human nature remain unanswered.

Three patterns of failure recur. In the first, the wild child is never
sufficiently rehabilitated to serve as a witness, perhaps because the
consequences of linguistic, emotional, and social deprivation are too
devastating. Instruction fails, so the observers can never learn from
them, after they are instructed, what they had thought.

In the second pattern, rehabilitation works all too well. Instruction
destroys the unique wildness of the child. The former wild child can talk
about his or her life experiences but has become a suspect witness, just
as contaminated by society as the rest of us. (Some scientists anticipated
this quandary, prompting sentiments that Benzaqun finds unsavory. She
quotes Harlan Lane, for example, contemplating the 20th-century discovery
of John of Burundi, thought to have been raised by monkeys in the Ugandan
jungle: All this teaching the boy is well and good, but it is obliterating
the traces of life in the wild and is destroying his value as a scientific

Whether instruction succeeds or fails, the true wildness or isolation of
the child inevitably comes into doubt, amounting to a third kind of
failure. In general, almost nothing is known about a putative wild childs
life either before or during the period of isolation. Either there are no
witnesses to the childs life pre-capture or the few existing witnesses
contradict themselves and are in any case not disinterested. So far, the
claim that any specific child has survived for more than a few weeks away
from human society has never been proved. As a result, the consequences of
isolation per se are almost impossible to determine or defend. If a child
is responsive to instruction, skeptics charge that the child was never
truly isolated. If the child cannot be instructed, they (or the
disappointed scientists themselves) conclude that the child is a
congenital idiot, that incurable language delay or emotional trauma were
inevitable in this child from birth, and not the consequence of isolation.

In spite of this record of failure, each successive generation has faced
its own encounters with wild children with renewed high hopes. Why?
Benzaquns answer is the one really disappointing part of her book.
Largely, she assigns the blame to the blind and hubristic ambition of
scientists seeking personal fame. About Genie, Benzaqun writes: For people
in general, she was an object of pity; for scientists, she was an object
of knowledgeWhat professional and personal rewards would Genie not have in
store for whoever was there, ready to grab them? About the scientists who
set out to study John of Burundi: Their words and actions betrayed the
over-confidence of the Western scientific researcher (and the white
American male) storming into the unsuspecting Third World.

Scientists do have personal ambitions, its true, and like most human
beings, scientists can be racist and hypocritical and can make bad moral
choices in complex situations. Benzaqun may be right that in the treatment
of wild children bad moral choices have been all too common, and poor
scientific judgment has certainly been rife. (Alarmingly, as Benzaquns
book was going to press, in March 2006, the BBC announced the discovery of
five siblings in rural Turkey who walk quadrupedally, claiming that this
family never made the leap to a bipedal gait and serves as a living
example of how our ancestors walked. The scientists in this case simply
ignored the fact that the five siblings are the first and only generation
of their family who walk quadrupedally. The first group of Turkish
scientists even announced that the family represented an evolutionary lost
link, exhibiting only primitive languageuntil it was subsequently revealed
that the family spoke Kurdish.)

And yet, simply vilifying the scientists is too easy. There are forces
more interesting than personal ambition at work in these successive
failures. The progress of science in the last three centuries has been so
remarkable partly because scientists are trained to regard the failures of
the preceding generations as non-definitive, as marking a space for
improvement and innovation. As scientific tools and techniques improve and
bodies of knowledge expand, we see what was previously invisible. By far
the most common kind of failure in the history of science has been this
temporary kind, the kind that can be overcome by the next generation.

Because of this generally successful tradition, each failure to learn from
a wild child in the past may be just a technical failure. Each new
generation rests its hopes on modern methods for teaching language, or for
measuring cognition in the absence of language, or for assessing or
improving emotional functions. As Harlan Lane wrote, comparing the
scientists who would study John of Burundi in the late 20th century to
Itard, Victor of Aveyrons teacher in the early 18th: How much more could
we discover about what it means to grow up in society from this terrible
experiment of nature, which chance had designed and which science could
exploit? And how much more could we contribute to the education of
handicapped children everywhere by undertaking the training of this
latest, and perhaps last, wild child, raised in the forests utterly cut
off from society? These continuously renewed hopes spring most
fundamentally not from the weaknesses of individual scientists but from
one of the greatest strengths of science as a whole.

But heres the catch: the forbidden experiment may belong to a smaller
group of experimental problems that persistently seem meaningful but are
not. Intuitively, we expect that while human nature interacts with human
society in a typical childs development, the natural and the social are in
principle independent and distinguishable. If this intuition is wrong, the
forbidden experiment is incoherent. In fact, the social and the natural
may be irretrievably entangled in development. In part this is because a
social environment that includes other human beings is inevitably more
natural for a human infant than any wholly artificial environment that
could be constructed to replace it. Even the unfolding of innately
determined human traits relies on a social environment. For example,
virtually every human infant is exposed to a language and learns it; an
infant who was never exposed to any language could not possibly speak one.
Yet it is the children who do learn a languagethrough social
interactionswho illustrate the natural human capacity.

If the forbidden experiment is indefensible not just because it is immoral
but because it is incoherent, Benzaqun hasdespite her sometimes dismissive
attitudedone modern scientists an important service. Her book teaches us
about failures in our history to which we must pay more attention than
usual because these failures cannot simply be overcome.

In her final paragraphs, Benzaqun extends her moral condemnation from the
specific scientists who have figured in the lives of wild children to
everyone who studies, teaches, or theorizes about children. All adults who
care for children face a key moral challenge, she says: to reconcile the
conflicting demands, on the one hand, to approach the child as another
subject whose integrity, separateness, and freedom ought to be maintained,
and on the other, to care for the child, intervene, interfere, educate,
mould, change. Benzaquns charge is that by making children the object of
study, experts on childhood actually oppress children and undermine their
agency by turn[ing] a moral question into a scientific one.

I am moved by the moral challenge that Benzaqun describes here but
strongly disagree with her conclusions about the sciences of childhood. In
fact, even the stories in her own book contradict her pessimistic
assessment. Over the past three centuries, the language impairments of
wild children have often been contrasted with those of deaf or
developmentally disabled children. As a result, contemporary expectations
for the lives of deaf and disabled children make regular appearances in
this history. In 1801, when Victor of Aveyron was first brought to Paris,
for example, the common wisdom was that deaf children were incapable of
thought. Victor was initially under the care of Abb Sicard, whose new
school for the deaf was considered a revolutionary experiment. The
successes of his students brought Sicard immense fame and helped win
recognition of the now unremarkable fact that deaf children are fully

The trajectory of the developmental sciences more generally has proceeded
in the same direction, continuously increasing our appreciation of young
children as worthy of interest and respect and as conceptual thinkers in
their own right. Itard struggled and finally failed to lead [Victor] to
the use of speech by means of imitation and the urgent law of need. What
we now know is that learning the meaning of words is one of childrens most
striking accomplishments. By the time an English speaker is 17 years old,
she knows, on average, about 60,000 words, more than ten for every day of
her life.

Even more interesting, though, is how children are learning all these
words. The simple way to learn the meaning of words, one might imagine, is
to hear an unfamiliar sequence of sounds (whisk) and associate that word
with a concurrently visible object. In fact, childrens word learning is
much more sophisticated. In one experiment, scientists give an
18-month-old child an interesting novel object (e.g. an eggcup). Once the
child is absorbed with the object in her hand, the experimenter looks into
a box and says Oh, a whisk! If children just associated novel sounds and
novel objects, then the child should learn (erroneously) that the object
in her own hand is a whisk. But thats not what children do. Instead, they
look up at the scientist, follow her gaze into the box, and conclude that
a whisk is whatever is in the box. Asked later to find me a whisk, these
children pick the whisk, not the eggcup. In short, what we have learned
from studies of very young children is that they are already making rich
and sophisticated inferences about the object to which the adult intends
this new word to refer.

In all, the tales of wild children are striking and instructive but
atypical. The history of the developmental sciences is not merely a
history of failures. Through experiments that are not forbidden, we do,
slowly, reveal ourselves to ourselves. Learning from and about childhood
can be both a scientific endeavor and a moral one. <

Rebecca Saxe is an assistant professor at MIT in the department of brain
and cognitive sciences.

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