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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 Aveyron, the psychiatrist Pinel came to the conclusion that Victor, as he was now christened, was in all probability a congenital idiot and that he therefore had not the necessary ability to profit from remedial instruction. Still, the Institute had contracted an obligation to try and in December 1800, Sicard appointed a young surgeon, Jean-Marc-Gaspard Itard, to take charge of the boy’s education.

Unlike his colleagues Itard was comparatively optimistic about the child’s potential. According to him Victor’s problem was not so much that he lacked intelligence but that any intelligence he had had been starved and distorted by isolation. Itard was a devotee of Condillac’s theory of human intelligence (as indeed were the more skeptical members of the Society), and as such he believed that the rehabilitation of the child was largely a matter of restocking his under-nourished senses and of directing his natural curiosity into paths of profitably stimulating experience.

In the first half of his admirably researched book, much of which consists of reports, letters, and descriptive memoranda, many retrieved and published for the first time, Professor Lane traces the course of this pioneering experiment, taking great care to show how the procedures were systematically underpinned by the epistemology of Condillac. As the narrative slowly unfolds so does one’s admiration for Itard’s courage and ingenuity. This, it seems, was no ordinary physician but an educational pioneer of the first magnitude.

When confronted by a child like this the modern therapist brings to him an elaborate apparatus of well-tested theoretical assumptions. Most of these are inherited from the experience of Itard, who had to work them out as he went along. In an atmosphere of gentle reassurance and systematic encouragement the child was reintroduced to the varieties of his own sensory experience. Consistent regularities were acknowledged and reinforced, and from day to day Itard tried to build up familiar and convincing associations between concrete experiences, personal appetites, and certain conventional signs. By teaching Victor to classify his experiences Itard hoped to reconstruct the ruined mind from its primitive sensory elements. The experiment had only a modest success and after a few years Itard abandoned the project entirely. The boy, still unable to learn to speak, died in 1828.

Perhaps the child had deteriorated too far already. Perhaps Pinel’s diagnosis contained more than a grain of truth. In any case there were no theoretical precedents to support and maintain Itard as he conducted the experiment. It is true to say, however, that the principles which he succeeded in extracting from this encounter form the basis of modern pedagogical theory. Itard went on to elaborate them in his work with deaf mutes and mentally retarded children. His protocols, modified by Maria Montessori and other nineteenth-century educators, are now part of the conventional wisdom. In play groups, nurseries, and remedial establishments throughout the world children and teachers are still profiting from the enormous discoveries made during the course of this heroic failure.

Of course, the myth of the “savage child” has an ancient pedigree. It is easy to understand why. Apart from the fact that it dramatizes a widely shared fantasy about the negligence and cruelty of our natural parents, the idea that an abandoned infant might be able to survive and even flourish in the wilderness counteracts our normal fears of the indifference or hostility of nature itself. In fact, the will to believe a story of this sort is so strong that if there had not been any “savage children” we would certainly have invented them. When genuine cases do occur fact and fiction tend to become hopelessly confused. Even now. For instance we still read the claim that these children have been raised by wild animals, although the evidence on this score is very shaky to say the least. In one of the most fully documented accounts of this century—the case of Amala and Kamala, the Indian wolf children—an otherwise reliable witness insisted that the two children were found in the company of wolves. This part of the story did not hold up to closer examination however, but when the case was included in a subsequent survey of so-called “feral” children, the author himself reverted to the traditional account, as if it were the only way to explain the children’s “bestial” behavior.

And yet these children don’t really behave like animals at all. Admittedly they are dumb and uncouth, they make peculiar sounds, rock on their hunkers, and a careless observer could, I suppose, confuse their eating habits with those of a dog, say. But in fact their conduct is much more characteristic of abnormal human beings than of any normal animal. So how does the belief in animal upbringing arise in the first place and why does it persist? According to Bruno Bettelheim it is not simply a matter of careless observation. The theory helps to explain facts which might otherwise imply something unacceptably bestial in human nature, and once you opt for a theory which insists that these children must have been taught their peculiar habits, it is almost inevitable that the observations will be edited and shaped until they too confirm the theory of acquired bestiality.

Curiously enough, when it came to the creation of an imaginary character of this sort, the theory of animal upbringing was not invariably invoked. The “wild man” of the Middle Ages is a case in point. As far as the medieval storytellers were concerned, enforced solitude was quite enough to deprave the human personality, and although their purely fictional biographies of the Wild Man sometimes include an “animal” childhood, many of the stories account for his dumb ferocity in terms of loneliness and hardship. In his remarkable book The Wild Man in the Middle Ages,* Richard Bernheimer suggests that the repressed desire for unhampered self-assertion may finally be projected outward as a colorful fiction representing someone who is as free as the beasts, able and ready to try his strength without any regard for the consequences to others.

To judge by the widespread appearance of this entirely mythical character, the desire in question must have been very strong indeed. In addition to his frequent appearance in literary romances, the Wild Man peeps out of monumental sculpture and illuminated manuscripts and his place in daily life was commemorated in almost every conceivable form of folk art. In fact, the invented image of feral man is so colorful that when genuine cases occurred they were bound to be described in terms that were borrowed from the antecedent fantasies.

This is one of the reasons why the case of Victor is an important example in the history of ideas, quite apart from any influence which his career might have had on educational theory. From Professor Lane’s account one can see that for the first time a conscious attempt was being made to reduce the confusing influence of fantasy and folklore. For instance, in one of the first reports on the child, the author takes special pains to note that there were no roughened callouses on the hands or on the knees, as there would have been presumably if the traditional picture of four-footedness were true. When the Swedish taxonomist Linnaeus tried to paint a generalized portrait of “feral” man earlier in the eighteenth century, he confidently and without any good reason included four-footedness as a leading feature.

By the end of the eighteenth century we are, in Charles Coulton Gillispie’s happy phrase, on the edge of objectivity, and as Professor Lane’s interesting new material allows us to see, the authorities who took charge of the “savage child” did their best to describe what was in front of their eyes. Even so, there are touching reminders of traditional superstition. For example, the accounts repeatedly claim that the child would laugh when the weather became stormy, and although this may have been true, it can’t be altogether irrelevant that one of the most consistent features of the folkloric Wild Man was the way in which he was said to sulk in the sunlight and roar with savage laughter whenever it thundered, Evidently the myths of antiquity die hard and, although these students of human nature would have been shocked to acknowledge it, their accounts are recognizably contaminated by elements drawn from traditional fantasies.

But even if they had been able to rid themselves of traditional bias, the attention which the members of the Society gave to this case was bound to be influenced by the vested interests of their own time. Just because these interests happen to be more sophisticated, more recognizably “scientific” than anything hitherto, it does not mean that their reports are necessarily reliable. In fact, the relative credibility of late eighteenth-century thought makes it even harder to distinguish the truth. The difficulty is that the intellectual assumptions of the eighteenth century are just close enough to our own to make one believe that the facts gathered under their aegis might be true, but not quite close enough to make one absolutely certain that they are. In other words although the investigations of the “savage” child were prompted by interests that are not altogether foreign to our own it would be optimistic to imagine that the reports could be filed along with modern researches on the subject of child development and the origin of language.

It is not that the published facts are wrong or even misleading. They simply don’t have the right character to count as science; and although Professor Lane has performed an important historical service by retrieving so much previously unsuspected material, anyone who hopes to gain scientific enlightenment is bound to be frustrated and even bored by these amiably talkative reports. They certainly give the impression that the authors belong to the modern world, but it is largely to the extent that the writing, unlike the previous literature on the subject, is refreshingly free from scholasticism and superstition. In this sense it is like reading Stendhal as opposed to, say, Chrétien de Troyes. Or like looking at the head of a madman by Géricault rather than at a gargoyle on a choirstall. But compared with the forceful inquiries of a contemporary chemist and physicist like Lavoisier, for instance, these careful observations do not really begin to rate as scientific literature.

Perhaps it is unreasonable to make comparisons between the analyses of Pinel and Itard and the others in Lane’s book and those of a quantitative science like chemistry, but the fact remains that chemistry only became quantitative when Lavoisier’s thought had developed the necessary logical structure. And this is precisely what is missing in the case of the Wild Boy of Aveyron. General curiosity about the existence of innate ideas was not enough to promote a fruitful line of investigation, and although Itard’s inquiries were inspired by the epistemology of Condillac it is hard to deduce any intelligible program of research from Condillac’s metaphor of man as a sensitive statue.

To my mind this is why the attempt to diagnose Victor’s condition is now doomed to failure. Through no fault of his own, Professor Lane’s material cannot really be expected to throw any further light on this issue. A clinician reports his cases in the light of his own diagnostic interests and the questions which a modern investigator would want to ask would not have occurred to a physician in the late eighteenth century. For instance, it is almost impossible to know what the boy’s hearing was like. He certainly was not deaf, but a modern pediatrician would want to know whether there had been any selective impairment. The psychiatrist Pinel believed that the child was an imbecile, but without a number of subtle cognitive tests it is almost impossible to weigh this conclusion retrospectively. In any case the diagnosis of idiocy would seem hopelessly elementary to a modern clinician who would want to discriminate between many more conditions than Pinel could possibly have suspected.

As far as diagnosis goes Itard’s conclusion seems much more plausible. According to him the child’s uncommunicative simplicity was probably due to the absence of human tuition at what might have been a critical phase in his linguistic development. In the light of modern work on the acquisition of language—which suggests that children are peculiarly susceptible to learning language only for limited periods after the age of two—this is at least a plausible suggestion. At the same time it is impossible to know whether Victor had been in the wilderness as long as this theory would have needed him to be. Although there is no reliable evidence to support his assumption I tend to favor Bruno Bettelheim’s suggestion that we often overestimate the length of time children of this sort have been on the run. According to Bettelheim children like the wild boy may be abandoned because they are defective and not the other way around. He adds, however, that they may have become defective through being psychologically abandoned while still nominally in their parents’ care. The garrulous accounts reprinted here provide tantalizing glimpses of what may have been an autistic child. But it is almost certainly a waste of time trying to clinch the issue with the available evidence.

It is interesting to note however that Itard seems to overlook what might have been the influence of emotional deprivation. According to him, Victor’s simplicity was caused by a gap in his cognitive training, through not having been exposed to normal language at a critically impressionable phase in his mental development. And we now recognize, of course, that cognitive ability can just as easily be impaired by early failures of emotional attachment and that intelligence can wither in the absence of sustained parental love. By insisting on a cognitive cause for a cognitive defect Itard was affiliating himself with the mechanical empiricism of Locke, La Mettrie, and Condillac, a tradition which made little or no allowance for the intellectual effect of so-called moral experience.

This is ironical since Itard’s associate, Pinel, was a pioneer in the “moral” treatment of insanity, and although the pedagogical regime of Itard was justified as based on scientific epistemology it would be a great mistake to overlook the facilitating effects of permission and respect. In fact when, at the end of the nineteenth century, Maria Montessori commandeered Itard’s method and successfully applied it to the education of normal children, she explicitly emphasized the need to encourage what the child himself brought to the educational experience—that is to say an energetic and spontaneous urge to explore.

This was not a new idea of course. Something like it had been vividly expressed by the statistician Sir William Petty in the seventeenth century. Writing to Samuel Hartlib in 1647 Petty suggested that children should be introduced to things rather than to a “rabble of words.” “For we see children do delight in drums, pipes, fiddles, guns made of elder sticks and bellow’s noses, piped keys, etc., painting flags and ensigns with elderberry and corn-poppy, making ships with paper and setting even nut shells a-swimming, handling the tools of workmen as soon as they turn their backs.” In other words, Petty insisted on the serious significance of play. Although this was later to be dignified as a scientific principle, the recognition of play expressed a new moral attitude to the child, acknowledging his personal interests as an essential part of the learning process.

To judge by the career of another memorable child, creative playfulness is not the only road to educational fulfillment. Less than ten years after Itard had given up his experiment with Victor, James Mill successfully steered his infant son through the very “rabble of words” despised by Petty. No tinkering with painted flags for John Stuart Mill. “I have no remembrance when I began to learn Greek,” he wrote. “My earliest recollection on the subject is that of committing to memory what my father termed vocables, being lists of common Greek words with their signification in English”! No doubt it would be foolish to extrapolate from the career of such an exceptional child; in any case it is comforting to assume that Mill’s famous depression in early adulthood was a delayed after-effect of this Gradgrindian infancy. All the same, at a time when middle-class parents in England and America are becoming increasingly alarmed by the results of an education founded on “creative play,” it is understandable that there should now be a widespread nostalgia for vocables—even English ones.

It is probably unreasonable to panic about the affable incoherence of the modern primary school graduate, and anyway there is a substantial body of opinion which argues plausibly, although not altogether convincingly, in favor of such an outcome. Nevertheless the current suspicion of verbal mastery shows signs of becoming a dangerous cult, and although it would be irresponsible to trace the origins of this cult back to Itard, the fashionable interest in Truffaut’s film L’Enfant Sauvage, not to mention Peter Handke’s play about Kaspar Hauser, indicate that the image of the speechless child has infiltrated the popular imagination to become, perhaps against their authors’ wishes, one of the charter myths of a new primitivism. In fact, as far as a large part of the general public is concerned, the hero of these remedial encounters tends to be appreciated for the way in which he resists rehabilitation. (The boy in Equus is a more mischievous case in point.)

There is a growing tendency, in other words, to identify the therapist with all that is corrupt and depraved in modern society and to see his efforts at rehabilitation as an elaborate and persuasive form of cultural kidnapping. Nearly twenty years ago Jacques Barzun recognized the danger in the following words.

Whatever is formed and constituted, whatever is adult, whatever exerts power, whatever is characteristically Western, whatever embodies complexity of thought is of less interest and worth than what is native, common and sensual; what is weak and confused; what is unhappy, anonymous and elemental.

It would be a shame if these regrettable tendencies were allowed to overtake and obscure the significance of an important and valuable book. The Wild Boy of Aveyron is not a sentimental account of noble savagery but an indispensable contribution to the history of ideas.

  1. *

    Harvard University Press, 1952, reprinted by Octagon Books, 1970.

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