The Call of the Wild

The Wild Boy of Aveyron

by Harlan Lane
Harvard University Press, 351 pp., $15.00

In the fifth year of the new Republic a group of peasants in a small rural district of southwestern France reported that they had seen a naked youth scampering through the woods apparently searching for acorns and roots. After a series of captures and escapes the child was finally secured and referred to a local orphanage, on the written understanding that his peculiar case deserved the attention of an expert. By this time the mute, ferocious child had attracted great interest among the local intelligentsia and for the next month there was a heated dispute over who should take charge of him. On January 29, 1800, the director of the orphanage, who had already completed a long preliminary account of the child’s appearance and behavior, received the following official letter from Paris.

If it is true that you have currently in your orphanage a young wild boy, twelve years old, who was found in the woods, it would indeed be important for the progress of human knowledge that a zealous and sincere observer take him in charge, and postponing his socialization for a little while, examine the totality of his acquired ideas, study his manner of expressing them and determine if the state of man in isolation is incompatible with the development of intelligence.

The writer went on to suggest that these studies should be conducted in Paris under the supervision of a committee chosen from the newly founded Society for Observers of Man. The request was backed by a high-level ministerial directive and in spite of their understandable reluctance to surrender such an interesting specimen the local authorities arranged for the boy’s transfer to Paris.

On his arrival he was admitted to the Institute for Deaf Mutes, which was at that time supervised by the Abbé Sicard, a founding member of the Society for Observers of Man and a notable authority on the retraining of the deaf.

As far as the members of this society were concerned the “savage” child represented an ideal case with which to investigate the foundations of human nature. In fact, when a similar case had been discovered earlier in the previous century the Scottish philosopher Monboddo had announced that it would prove to be more illuminating than the discovery of 30,000 new stars. By studying a creature of this sort, just as they had previously studied savages and primates, Red Indians and orangutans, the intellectuals of the late eighteenth century hoped to decide what was characteristic of Man. Perhaps it would now be possible to weigh the native endowment of the human species and to settle once and for all the part that was played by society in the development of language, intelligence, and morality.

It was obviously important to know how much the child could be taught. Was he incurably mute or could this strange, grunting person be persuaded to acquire language? In a lengthy report, painstakingly translated for the first time by Professor Lane in The Wild Boy of …

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