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The Forbidden Experiment

A new history of wild children holds the experts to blame

Rebecca Saxe

Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the Study of Human Nature

Adriana S. Benzaquén

McGill-Queens University Press

394 pages, hardcover

In the seventh year of the French Republic (1799 in the rest of the world), the peasants of Tarn and Aveyron, in southern France, encountered a naked boy scavenging alone in their fields and forests. He did not speak, and did not seem 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 initially—but inaccurately—assumed to be deaf. Eventually, he was transferred to the care of the abbé Sicard, the head of the Institute for Deaf-Mutes in Paris, and to the protection and investigation of the Society of the 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 Victor’s 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, the boy did learn some basic signs, but, critically, never learned to speak. Itard gave up in 1806. From then until his death in 1828, Victor lived in anonymity with a guardian, Mme. Guérin. Itard, by contrast, remained prominent throughout his lifetime, and was later remembered as a pioneering scientist, psychotherapist and teacher of disabled children.

It was therefore to Victor and Itard that scientists’ thoughts turned in 1970, when a radically isolated girl was discovered in Los Angeles. “Genie” was 13 at the time, but was unable to walk or talk. She had, it seemed, spent most of her life in one room of her parents’ house. Genie’s story is perhaps the saddest of all those told in Adriana Benzaquén’s Encounters with Wild Children: Temptation and Disappointment in the Study of Human Nature. In the beginning, scientists saw Genie 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. Then in 1975, the federal grant that funded her care was not renewed, and the scientists gave up. For the next few years, writes Benzaquén, “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 children.” Benzaquén’s book 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 with wild children, 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 wild child stories. Although Benzaquén sometimes lapses into dense academic jargon, especially in her first two chapters, the result is nevertheless 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? Does even walking on two feet depend 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 impossibly taboo: the forbidden experiment, Benzaquén 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 a (slightly updated) forbidden experiment is unabated. Wild children intrigue and enthral because they seem to offer a permissible version of the forbidden experiment, one whose initial conditions are created not by cruel experts 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 pattern, 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 type of failure, rehabilitation works all too well. Instruction succeeds and, in succeeding, 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, contaminated by society like the rest of us. (Scientists encountering wild children anticipated this quandary, prompting some of the sentiments that Benzaquén finds unsavory. She quotes Harlan Lane, for example, a 20th-century scientist contemplating the “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 discovery.”)

Whether instruction succeeds or fails, the true wildnesss 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 child’s life either before or during the period of isolation. Either there are no witnesses to the child’s life precapture, or the few existing witnesses contradict themselves and are in any case not disinterested. So far, the claim that any specific child survived for more than a few weeks away from human society has never been proven. As a result, the consequences of isolation per se are almost impossible to determine or defend. If the outcome for one child is optimistic, skeptics charge that the child was never truly isolated. If the outcome is pessimistic, 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 consequences 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? Benzaquén’s answer is the one really disappointing part of her book. Largely, she assigns the blame to the blind and hubristic ambitions of scientists seeking their own personal fame. About Genie, Benzaquén writes: “For people in general, [she] was an object of pity; for the scientists, she was an object of knowledge … What 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, it is true and, like most human beings, scientists can be racist, can be hypocritical and can make bad moral choices in complex situations. Benzaquén may be right that in the lives of wild children bad moral choices have been all too common, and poor scientific judgement has certainly been rife. (Alarmingly, as Benzaquén’s 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 serve 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 language—until 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 nondefinitive, as marking a space for improvement and innovation, rather than for a concession of defeat. 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 have seemed to be just a technical failure. Each new generation rests its hopes in “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 Aveyron’s 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 not only from the weaknesses of individual scientists, but from one of the greatest strengths of science as a whole.

But here is the catch: the forbidden experiment may be different, one of 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 child’s 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, basically 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 language—through social interactions—who illustrate the “natural” human capacity.

If the forbidden experiment is impossible not because it is immoral but because it is incoherent, Benzaquén has done 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. What a pity, then, that Benzaquén has marred the telling with such a dismissive (and sometimes contemptuous) attitude to science and scientists.

In her final paragraphs, Benzaquén turns her scathing gaze 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.” Benzaquén’s charge is that by making children the object of knowledge, “experts” on childhood actually oppress children, and undermine their agency, by “turn[ing] a moral question into a scientific problem.”

I am moved by the moral challenge that Benzaquén describes here, but I strongly disagree with her conclusions about the sciences of childhood. In fact, even the stories in her own book contradict Benzaquén’s pessimistic assessment. Over the past three centuries, the language impairments of wild children have often been contrasted with those of deaf and/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 the abbé 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 human. 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.

In all, Benzaquén’s book is worthwhile and powerfully written, but the history of the developmental sciences is not restricted to the failures that she recounts. Through experiments that are not forbidden we do, slowly, reveal ourselves to ourselves. Learning from and about childhood can be both a scientific endeavour and a moral one.

Rebecca Saxe researches the cognitive neuroscience of social cognition—how we think about other minds—in the Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.