Hunting for Humanity

The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron

by Roger Shattuck
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 220 pp., $10.95

Nearly two centuries have passed since the wild boy known as Victor was captured in Aveyron, France, and trotted around Paris on a leash as a specimen of natural man. Although he was the talk of the town for a few months in 1800, he had been forgotten by the time he died, half-tame and mute, in 1828. Why does he still haunt our consciousness? Why in the last few years has he aroused such interest among psychologists, psychiatrists, anthropologists, linguists, literary scholars, educators, and artists?

Roger Shattuck’s book suggests an answer to those questions, although it has little new to say about Victor himself. According to Shattuck, the wild boy personified the “forbidden experiment” that has hovered over all speculation about human nature. If a child could be cut off from family, language, and all exchange with other human beings, what sort of creature would he be? Does a bedrock humanity exist beyond culture? And how would it develop, if one could transfer it from the state of nature to society? Victor seemed to stride straight out of the presocial world imagined by Hobbes and Rousseau into the postrevolutionary world constructed by Bonaparte.

Bonapartist France reacted in predictable ways. Peasants gathered around their catch in the village of Saint-Sernin, gaping and poking and spreading wild stories of how he had scampered through the trees like a squirrel. Philosophers posed questions. Would the boy have a concept of property as Locke had maintained? Would his mind come to life slowly in the manner described by Condillac? Would his social affections ripen from the sentiment of pity predicated by Rousseau?

Then the state took over. A letter arrived from Lucien Bonaparte: “I claim him and request that you send him to me forthwith.” Victor was passed up the bureaucracy from the provincial commissioners to the minister of the interior in Paris, who watched him sniff incomprehensively at the innermost corridors of power and handed him over to a committee of experts. The experts, distinguished members of the Society of Observers of Man, examined him and pronounced him human.

In some ways, Victor resembled an ordinary twelve-year-old boy. He possessed the correct number of teeth, the right length of limb, five senses in workable order. Although he was not yet housebroken and still hated to wear clothes, he did not run around on all fours, as the peasants had reported. But he remained enclosed within an impenetrable shell of indifference to other people. He could make guttural noises and recognize some sounds, for he turned and tried to seize a walnut when it was cracked behind his head. But he showed no interest in anything but escape from his captors, and food.

“You might say his mind is in his stomach; it is his life center…. I am embarrassed to find natural man such an egoist,” reported J.J. Virey, a protoanthropologist, who gave Victor a place among the monkeys, Hottentots, and Eskimos in his Histoire naturelle du genre humain. The Observers…

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