The wild boy of Aveyron inspired the philosophers of the Enlightenment to seek answers to the question, what is the nature of man? To do so, they looked to a deaf mute child found running wild in the forest. In the summer of 1798 he was captured by woodsmen and put on display in the public square, but the curiosity toward the dirty, mut urchin waned quickly and he managed to escape back into the forest. Captured again by hunters the following the summer, he was put into the care of an elderly widow and he succeeded in returning to the wild after eight days. Finally in the middle of a hard winter in 1800, he approached the workshop of a dyer named Vidal and the phrase ” enfant sauvage” took root and gave rise to a number of tangled philosophical issues which tended to undermine the standing of the traditional criteria for manhood: human appearance, vertical station, and speech. Evidently, the behavior of wild of wild children was critical in the controversy.
They were relevant to a major controversy of the times, associated with the name of Descartes: the existence of innate ideas. Some hoped to learn from wild children the secret of what man was like before language, what his ideas were like before they were filtered and shaped by convention. Dis man, for instance, have an innate idea of god? Such inquiries were frustrated, of course, by the wild children’s mutism.
The girl from Sogny, captured in 1731 after spending some years in the wild with a companion, did late acquire language. The validity of the available descriptions is doubtful, but in any event, when asked, she revealed that she did not initially have an idea of the Supreme Being. She rapidly acquired one however, no doubt abetted by the nuns who were responsible for her care.
Another great controversy of the Enlightenment that focused attention on wild children concerned man in society. According to one view, man was nothing without society. The opposing view, which Rousseau’s name invokes, emphasizes the many ills that man contracts in the process of socialization. A wild child testifies to the extraordinary physical resistance of natural man, able to live naked and without protection in the most rigorous climate, enjoying robust health, free of the many vices of society.
Most philosophers rejected the concept of man in the state of nature, but for Rousseau and Kant there had been an era in which “the state of culture necessary to family life did not emit the birth cry for fear of detection by predators.” Was the wild child an atavism of the noble savages?
Rousseau had an idea however poorly documented, of what wild children were like, and it is doubtful that he saw in their traits a throwback to the nature of man before it was corrupted or masked by artificial education. In the perspective of man as a social animal, the wild child does not pose a problem. However, if society is not the natural end of man but the fruit of an accident, then why should social isolation have such disastrous consequences?
Thus, most observers expected to find, with the wild boy of Aveyron, more evidence that man in the state of nature would be an ignoble savage; that, in any event, this state could never have existed because man is so patently disenfranchised of his humanity when outside society. If man is perfectible, it is only as a social animal.
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Itard was ready to attempt the boy’s education even when others were convinced of its futility, because he had already formed opinions on the metaphysical questions of the Enlightenment. In particular, he held the sensualist philosophy expounded by the philosopher Etienne Bonnot de Condillac in his essay on the origin of human knowledge. The enfant suavage, in this system, was not necessarily defective; he merely needed language if he was to perform the higher mental processes. Cut off from society, from social intercourse, and from language, having lived in the wilds for nearly half his life, the savage was nothing other than what he had to be.
Jean-Claude Auger, an anthropologist from the Basque country, was traveling alone across the Spanish Sahara (Rio de Oro) in 1960 when he met some Nemadi nomads, who told him about a wild child a day’s journey away. The next day, he followed the nomads’ directions. On the horizon he saw a naked child “galloping in gigantic bounds among a long cavalcade of white gazelles”. The boy walked on all fours, but occasionally assumed an upright gait, suggesting to Auger that he was abandoned or lost at about seven or eight months, having already learnt to stand. He habitually twitched his muscles, scalp, nose and ears, much like the rest of the herd, in response to the slightest noise. He would eat desert roots with his teeth, pucking his nostrils like the gazelles. He appeared to be herbivorous apart from the occasional agama lizard or worm when plant life was lacking. His teeth edges were level like those of a herbivorous animal. In 1966 an unsuccessful attempt was made to catch the boy in a net suspended from a helicopter; unlike most of the feral children of whom we have records, the gazelle boy was never removed from his wild companions. Read More:http://listverse.com/2008/03/07/10-modern-cases-of-feral-children/
…Mr Newton’s most disturbing chapter concerns a girl who became known as Genie. Genie was not a wild child as such. She was not raised by animals, or at least not the quadruped kind. She lived in a house in a suburb of Los Angeles. For 13 years she was locked in a dark room, either bound to a chair or tied into a sleeping bag. Her father communicated with her only in dog-like barks. If she cried, she was savagely beaten. Even once she had been released, in 1970, from this living hell, she never fully learned to speak or to relate to others, and remained lost in a private world of unimaginable darkness and terror. Those who studied her concluded that the crucial factor behind her lack of linguistic development was the late age at which she began to learn to speak….Read More:http://www.economist.com/node/975503