readings> wolf children and the bifold mind
This is a chapter from my 1993 book, The Myth of Irrationality, that tells about feral children - kids growing up alone, or sometimes even raised by wolves. Yes really! Together with deaf children, they are as near a natural test of the Vygotskian hypothesis as can be found.
In the chill dawn of a January morning in 1800, a filthy 12-year-old boy was spotted scrabbling for potatoes in fields on the edge of Saint Sernin, a small farming village in Southern France. There was an odd animal twitchiness to the boy's movements. Even stranger, the boy was stark naked apart from the tattered twist of an old shirt caught up around his neck.
The owner of the field, a local leather tanner named Vidal, grabbed the nude youngster and marched him home. Vidal found the boy was not deaf yet seemed unable to hear human voices or to talk. The only noises that came from his mouth were worried grunts and whines. His eyes were like those of a frightened beast's and kept twisting away from Vidal's curious gaze.
Thus began the story of the wild boy of Aveyron, an abandoned child who was to become a celebrated test of Rousseau's belief in mankind's innate nobility and the many other claims made about the innate qualities of human beings. No one ever discovered how the boy came to be running wild in the forests and mountains of the Aveyron region. There were rumours that he had been born dumb or retarded and abandoned by his woodsman father at the age of six. From a jagged scar across his neck, some suggested the boy had had his throat slit like a pig's and been left in the woods to die.
These tales were probably untrue. But whatever the truth, Victor - as the boy came to be christened - must have survived alone in the wilds for many years, living off the acorns and small animals he could scavenge in the forests and the vegetables he would sneak from farmers' fields.
Victor's appearance in Vidal's field was not his first contact with villagers in the region. Victor had been spotted two years earlier in woods near Lacaune, 70 miles to the south. On that occasion, he had been trapped by peasants and taken, kicking and struggling, to be displayed in the village square.
Victor escaped but a year later was caught for a second time by three hunters out in the woods. The huntsmen left him with a widow in Lacaune who fed and clothed him for a week. Despite her care, Victor prowled restlessly around the house and at the first opportunity, ran off back to his forests. Yet perhaps emboldened by the kind treatment he had received at the widow's, Victor now was a little less wary of human company. He would show up hungry at farmhouse doors. When given a potato, he would toss it into the hearth, a trick he had learnt at the widow's, and pluck it from the flames to eat while still burning hot.
However, in spite of the bitter cold that winter, Victor seemed uninterested in the comforts of the fireside or human company. He never lingered and usually was to be seen as a fleeting, distant figure in the forests, either swimming in streams or running along with an odd loping gait, occasionally dropping to run on all fours like an animal. Adding to the impression that Victor was more beast than human, it was said that when strong winds blew up from the Midi, Victor would throw back his head to the skies and wail or burst into great gales of laughter.
Eventually, with winter at its worst, a hungry Victor wandered near another village, Saint Sernin, and was captured for a third time. This time, there was to be no return to the wilds. At any other date, this strange tale of a savage and mute child surviving alone and without a stitch of clothing, might have passed unremarked. But the France of the first month of the new century was in a state of unusual optimism and expectation.
The French Revolution of 1789 had been followed by a decade of terror and war; years in which the fate of a lost child counted for nothing. However, in the winter of 1799, Napoleon Bonaparte had seized power and declared emotionally: "it is over!". Napoleon's first act was to present his countrymen with a constitution that appeared to promise an era of peace and prosperity. Almost immediately, in the euphoria that followed, a group of eminent doctors, scientists and philosophers formed the Society of Observers of Man. In tribute to the new freedom of thought, the society dedicated itself to resolving the unanswered questions about man's fundamental nature.
Within weeks of the society being formed, news of Victor's capture filtered in from the provinces. The response was instant. It was Napoleon's brother himself, Lucien Bonaparte, the Minister for the Interior, who sent summonses demanding the boy be brought to Paris to be examined by members of the society. The questions it was expected Victor might answer were many. As a child brought up in "a state of nature", apart from civilisation, Victor seemed the perfect test of what qualities would be inherent in human nature.
Would he be - as Hobbes had argued in Leviathan - a nasty, brutish animal that needed to be tamed by society and taught the habits of reasoned thought? Or would he be - as Rousseau and other romantic thinkers would expect - a child of the Garden of Eden; a generous, open-hearted sort as yet untainted by the fruit of knowledge.
Whichever nature Victor might turn out to have, one thing the philosophers were not expecting was that he might be mute. It had always been assumed that speech came to man as naturally as breathing. Even a person growing up in isolation like Victor was expected to have the power of speech. As the Bible said, in the beginning was the word and Adam, the first man, gave name to all the animals. The only question for the ancients was just which tongue out of all those spoken would turn out to be man's "natural language".
The riddle of which language was mankind's original voice led to some of the earliest psychological experiments. In the 7th Century BC, the Egyptian king, Psamtik, reputedly shut up two infants in a mountain hut, alone apart from a servant who had been ordered on pain of death not to speak to them. Psamtik was most gratified when their first words were the Phrygian for "bread" - Phrygian being the native language of the Greeks who ruled Egypt at the time, so "proving" the greater antiquity of Greek culture.
The Holy Roman emperor, Frederick II, tried the same experiment in the 13th Century, but the children died before they could say anything. Then in the 16th Century, King James IV of Scotland wanted to demonstrate the ancient origins of his own country and was pleased when the children of his experiment turned out to speak fluent Hebrew (Hebrew being assumed to be the language of Adam, the Bible's first man).
Of course, such experiments told more about the vanity of kings than anything of the mechanisms by which children acquire speech. But even in 19th Century France, the belief in man's innate gift of speech was so strong that Victor's muteness came as a surprise. In explanation, it was thought that his "voice organs" must have withered for lack of use. Parisian society felt Victor's natural language should soon return under the stimulus of contact with his fellow humans and was impatient to hear Victor's first words and to be told his memories of his harsh life in the wilds.
The authorities in Aveyron were not in any hurry to send Victor to Paris because if he turned out to be a fraud, a mere runaway, then heads literally might roll. Stalling for time, the Aveyron officials persuaded Lucien Bonaparte and the Society of Observers to allow Victor to be examined first by a local professor of natural history, Abbe Pierre-Joseph Bonnaterre.
The boy that Bonnaterre described was small for his age, about four and a half feet tall. He was deeply tanned and covered in scars and scratches from his years in the forests. While he could not speak and did not react even if Bonnaterre shouted in his ear, his hearing was acute enough for a walnut cracked across the room to make him twist around with hungry attention. Nor did there appear to be anything wrong with his vocal chords because he could make a full range of expressive noises, such as grunts, laughs, and murmurs.
Unsurprisingly, Victor's wild life had left him ill-equipped for a life indoors. He refused to wear clothes, ripping them off whatever the weather. He slept curled up in a ball like an animal and defecated without shame whenever and wherever the urge took him. He would only eat familiar food such as his half-burnt potatoes or raw walnuts and acorns. These he would snatch with ill-grace and chew on with complete absorption. His gait was peculiar. He walked uncertainly and preferred to lollop along in a shuffling run. Occasionally he would revert to all fours as earlier he had been seen to do in the forests.
However, while Victor's appearance was strange, it was his animal blankness and lack of interest in other humans that most unsettled Bonnaterre. Victor appeared to have no other thoughts than for food and sleep. The only time he showed any excitement was when he glimpsed the greenery outdoors and struggled to make an escape. The rest of the time he would spend long hours hunched on the floor, rocking slowly back and forth and staring off into space. In this position, he made a constant dull murmur and occasionally, small spasms and convulsions would twitch across his body and face.
Bonnaterre wrote of Victor: "One would say that there is no connection between his mind and his body, and that he reflects on nothing; consequently, he has no discernment, no imagination, no memory. This state of imbecility is reflected in his gaze, for he does not fix his attention on any object; in the sounds of his voice, which are discordant and inarticulate, and can be heard day and night; in his gait, for he always walks at a trot or a gallop; or in his actions, for they lack purpose and determination." Bonnaterre concluded: "If it were not for his human face, what would distinguish him from the apes?".
Such was the empty vessel that came before the learned men of Paris, apparently offering little evidence in support of either Rousseau's noble savage or even Hobbes' angry beast. The naturalist, Jean-Jacques Virey complained after seeing Victor: "He seeks no harm, he doesn't know what that means. He just sits there in innocence...Therefore it is not possible to affirm that our boy from Aveyron is either good or bad; he is just mild...and has no relation to us at all."
What sounded like the final verdict on Victor's condition was given by Philippe Pinel, France's leading authority on mental disorders. Victor was kept at the National Institute for Deaf-Mutes for several months in an attempt to get him to talk and to bring him out of his animal state, but he made no progress.
After a lengthy examination, Pinel said scholars should forget their hopes of discovering anything from Victor because, to put it bluntly, he was a retarded idiot. His lack of speech, his wandering attention, his weak memory and his low intelligence all pointed to the same damning conclusion. Pinel pronounced it a waste of time trying to rehabilitate Victor mentally and said the whole embarrassing episode of the wild boy of Aveyron was best forgotten.
In the best of Hollywood traditions, at just the point when the world was turning its back on poor Victor, into the story came a brash young doctor who felt he could see a glimmer of hope in the damaged youngster. Jean Itard, a 26-year-old doctor from Paris's Deaf-Mute Institute, felt the diagnosis of retardation was ridiculous because Victor could not have survived in the wilds so long if he truly was an imbecile. Itard also detected a wily intelligence in the way Victor stole and hid food.
Itard was well versed in Enlightenment philosophy and felt like Hobbes, Locke and Condillac that reason was the product of language and civilisation. Seeing Victor's lack of speech as the root of his problems, Itard took on the task of nurturing language and reason in the Wild Boy, devoting five long years to giving Victor daily instruction. Itard began by using a system of rewards and punishments. To get Victor to say water, for example, he would hold up a glass in front of Victor when he was thirsty and refuse to let him drink until he said the word "eau". At first, Itard rewarded any sound Victor made. But over time, he insisted on a more and more accurate utterance. Using this simple but painstaking method, over some months Itard taught Victor the names of other household objects.
There was to be no fairy- tale ending to this story, however. Itard did make considerable strides with Victor, but the boy never became anything near approaching a normal adult and never properly learned to speak. Itard at least managed to bring about a marked change in Victor's outward demeanour.
Victor's blankness towards his surroundings and other people gradually turned to interest and affection. He appeared to show simple human emotions such as gratitude and remorse. He was trained out of his unsuitable personal habits, learning to sleep in a bed, wear clothes, eat at a table and accept baths. His toilet habits and lack of modesty still could embarrass Itard in public, but generally Victor was brought under control.
In a famous test of these new-found manners, Victor was taken to a dinner party of generals and playwrights hosted by the wealthy socialite, Madame Recamier. As one witness described, Mme. Recamier sat Victor at her side: "...thinking perhaps that the same beauty which had captivated civilised man would receive similar homage from this child of nature." Victor, however, ignored the fine company and wolfed down his food. After stuffing as much dessert as he could cram into his pockets, he slipped away from the table and was next seen stripped to his underclothes leaping through the trees in the garden with the agility of a squirrel.
It could hardly be claimed that Itard had turned Victor into a polite member of society. Still, in managing to tolerate clothes, sit up at a table and not snatch food from other people's plates, Victor was now more of a "domestic" animal than a wild one.
While Victor's outward behaviour was tamed during his five years with Itard, far less progress was made with his ability to speak and think. Itard had some initial success teaching Victor a number of simple words but his articulation always remained poor - Victor would call out "Ili!" for Julie, the name of the housekeeper's daughter to whom he had become attached.
Itard tried every way he could think of to teach Victor language, even to the point of abandoning his attempts to get Victor to speak and trying to teach him to read and write instead. Using large metal cut-out letters, Itard would spell out words like "bring book" and then demonstrate the action to Victor so that he would understand. Yet after learning his first few dozen words, Victor seemed to have struck some invisible wall as far as language was concerned.
Itard had expected Victor to be like a child and that once he had grasped the idea of speech, he would have raced away learning new words effortlessly by himself. Between the ages of two and four, normal children develop an active, almost explosive, passion for speech and will play and experiment with words incessantly.
Victor, however, was strangely wooden even in the use of the limited vocabulary he had learnt - as if the words were merely noises, carrying little interest or meaning. When after five years of laborious tuition, Victor's progress remained on this lowly plateau, Itard had to admit defeat. Itard handed Victor over to the care of his housekeeper who faithfully cared for him until he died in his forties, house-trained but still half-wild, fearful and mute.
What are we to make of the sad story of the wild boy of Aveyron? Victor certainly proved wrong those like Rousseau who believed that human beings were innately wise and generous. Itard had to conclude from Victor that man in his state of nature was "vacuous and barbarous"; that the moral superiority supposedly inborn in humans was purely the result of civilising influences. As well as this, Victor seemed to threaten the common assumption that speech was innate in humans. Abandoned to the wild, Victor grew up not only mute but also oddly immune to the very learning of language.
On top of this - although no-one could question him to find out - Victor seemed to lack either a normal human sense of identity or memory for past experiences. In the notes of Bonnaterre and Itard, Victor is painted as a blank creature, locked into the present with no thoughts apart from those of simple recognition and association.
While this list of symptoms puzzled those brought up with a romantic or horticultural conception of the human mind, the facts fit very neatly with our bifold model of the mind. If Victor lacked speech, he also must have lacked a fluent inner voice. And as has been argued, without an inner voice Victor's mind could operate only at the level of an animal's - a highly intelligent animal perhaps, because the human brain is so large, but an animal nonetheless. Yet that still leaves the puzzle of why Victor failed to respond to attempts to teach him speak. Surely if he had gained the gift of words, he would have gone on to develop a human mind as well. But for some reason, speech did not take.
Some modern psychologists have blamed Itard's methods, criticising them for being a little clumsy. But even so, Victor received a far more intensive coaching in speech than any ordinary child would have, so some sort of obstacle must have existed for Victor to have failed to learn. Perhaps, as Pinel claimed, Victor really was an idiot after all.
Or possibly, as many modern writers suggest, Victor
suffered from autism, a condition where a child withdraws into itself
and becomes mute to the outer world. To find an answer, we cannot rely
on Victor's case alone. We must look to the stories of other feral
children who, like Victor, have been abandoned to the wild or even
adopted and reared by animals like the two fictional characters, Tarzan
the tale of kamala and amala
There are well over 35 cases recorded of children either found wandering alone, or more fantastically, discovered being brought up by animals as varied as bears, wolves, monkeys, leopards, and even gazelles. Many of these stories must be considered apocryphal, but a few are both well documented and revealing.
The first reports of feral children were recorded by German monks in the 14th Century. In 1341, a seven-year-old boy was found in the woods of Hesse, who apparently had been kept by wolves. This boy died soon after capture but a second boy, a 12-year-old found in Wetterau three years later, was said to have lived to 80.
The children were described as being as wild and immune to cold and discomfort as was Victor of Aveyron. What startled the monks even more was that the wolf-boys could not stand upright and ran around on all fours. This claim discomforted Rousseau when he was scouring the literature of feral children for evidence in support of his theories about natural man. Rousseau's noble savage was imagined to have a fine, erect carriage so the philosopher had to explain the Hessian wolf-boys away by saying they must have overruled their natural sense of posture in their keenness to be at one with their forest guardians.
Another famous feral child case - one almost as celebrated as Victor's was in his time - was that of Peter of Hanover. Wild Peter was abandoned by his father in woods near the German city in the early 1700s. He returned home after a year, only to be turned out again and was later found roaming the countryside, naked and mute. Hearing of this curiosity, King George I of England had Peter brought over to London where he created a sensation. Again, Peter was seen as a test case of the natural state of humans. There was much debate about what Peter would reveal, but once more people were to be disappointed.
As the writer, Jonathan Swift, commented: "This night I saw the wild boy whose arrival here hath been the subject of half our talk this fortnight...[but] I can hardly think him wild in the sense they report him." Like Victor, Peter was mute but not deaf. Also like Victor, Peter became partly socialised, learning to accept clothes and sleep in beds, but never showed much more intelligence than an animal. He had a blankness and a poverty of ideas about him. Reports say that his guardians thought it quite an accomplishment to teach him to shovel dung into a cart - but as soon as Peter had filled the cart, he would start shovelling the load off again unless he was stopped!
Peter's case may have been different from Victor's in so far as he appeared to suffer a genuine handicap. It was said that his tongue was abnormally thick and was fused to the sides of the mouth. Glued into place like this, it would have been difficult for Peter to articulate words. It is known from modern research that learning language is an active experience in which it is nearly as crucial to be able to utter sounds as it is to hear them.
But whether Peter's dumbness was caused by a physical handicap or prolonged isolation - or a combination of both - the result would have been the same. Without articulate speech, Peter could not have formed an inner voice and without an inner voice, his mind would have remained at the level of an animal's. The facts of the case are, of course, unreliable, but again they appear to fit the bifold model better than they do traditional conceptions of the mind.
Every century seems to throw up its own wild child story to tantalise and confound the academics of the day. After Peter of Hanover in the 18th Century and Victor of Aveyron in the 19th, the 20th Century had its own case when two girls were discovered living in a wolf's lair in India in the 1920s.
Hard as though it might be to swallow that a wolf would steal a human child and bring it up as one of its own, this seems to have been a not uncommon occurrence in India if contemporary reports are to be believed. In the 1850s, an English army colonel, William Sleeman, wrote of six or seven cases that he alone had heard of and felt to be reliable. If such stories were true, the reason for their frequency must lie in the nature of the Indian wolf.
The Indian wolf - sandy coloured and less fearsome than its European counterpart - lives in small groups where only the dominant female breeds. While not producing cubs of their own, the other "sister" wolves share in the suckling and care of the youngsters.
The wolves are also known to take human infants, either after stealing into a village at night or else grabbing a baby left by the side of a field while its mother is at work. When chased, the wolves often drop the babies unharmed. It is assumed that normally the wolves must be taking the children back to their den to eat. But perhaps, for whatever reason, a few of the infants survive. As child psychologist, Arnold Gesell, put it, "warmed by the chemistry of maternal hormones" the wolf mothers may be fooled into treating the helpless, snuffling infants as cubs of their own.
Sleeman's accounts of such wolf-children have some credibility not least because all the children he described behaved so similarly. On capture, every one of them ran crouched on all fours, refused all food except for raw or rotting meat, showed nothing but fear for humans, and, of course, none could speak although they could hear and make wolf-like growls.
Despite this consistency, most scientists dismissed the reports because they did not match the accepted view of how feral children should behave. While no longer believing humans to be innately good or to be born with the faculty of speech, 20th Century psychologists still had their own assumptions about what sort of mind a feral child should have.
Memory, self-awareness and reason were all thought to be natural to humans and the dumb, blank animality of Sleeman's children did not fit in with this preconceived picture. Rather than questioning their assumptions, once again, as with Victor, most academics found it easier to suggest that the Indian wolf-children were simply deaf or retarded children, abandoned to the wild by callous parents.
In 1920, however, a case came to light that was too well documented to be dismissed so simply. In that year, Reverend Joseph Singh, a missionary in charge of an orphanage in Northern India, heard of two ghostly spirit figures seen accompanying a band of wolves near Midnapore in the Bengal jungle. The local villagers were fearful of these apparitions but local custom forbid them to do any harm to the wolves. Intrigued, Singh built a hide in a tree top over-looking the lair of the wolf pack, an old ten-foot high termite mound that had become hollowed out with time. As the moon rose, Singh saw the wolves come out one by one. Then sticking their heads out briefly to sniff the night air before bounding forwards into the clearing came two hunched and horrible figures.
As Singh described the "ghosts" in his diary, they were: "Hideous looking...hand, foot and body like a human being; but the head was a big ball of something covering the shoulders and the upper portion of the bust...Their eyes were bright and piercing, unlike human eyes...Both of them ran on all fours."
Singh returned some days later with a large hunting party to dig the creatures out. In his journal, he says that as the first pick-axe blows landed on the termite mound, the she- wolf came rushing out, baring her fangs and barring the way. She had to be shot dead with a volley of arrows. The hunting party then broke into the lair and hauled out the two human children, along with two wolf cubs. The children turned out to be two girls, aged about three and five. Their ghastly appearance came from the mass of matted hair on their heads and their hunched four legged gait. Otherwise they appeared lithe and healthy.
Surprisingly, the two appeared not to be sisters but girls taken at separate times - further evidence of some distorted maternal instinct in the mother wolf. When no-one in the local villages came forward to claim the girls, Singh took them back to his orphanage, christening the elder one, Kamala, and the younger, Amala.
Singh knew nothing of the stories of other feral children such as Victor and the Hessian wolf-boys, but his description of Kamala and Amala were strikingly similar. The girls seemed to have no trace of humanness in the way they acted and thought. It was as if they had the minds of wolves. They tore off any clothes put on them and would only eat raw meat. They slept curled up together in a tight ball and growled and twitched in their sleep. They only came awake after the moon rose and howled to be let free again. They had spent so long on all fours that their tendons and joints had shortened to the point where it was impossible for them to straighten their legs and even attempt to walk upright.
They never smiled or showed any interest in human company. The only emotion that crossed their faces was fear. Even their senses had become wolf-like. Singh claimed their eyes were supernaturally sharp at night and would glow in the dark like a cat's. They could smell a lump of meat right across the orphanage's three acre yard. Their hearing was also sharp - except, like Victor, the voice of humans seemed strangely inaudible to their ears.
A poor but relatively well educated man, Singh did his best to rehabilitate his charges. Influenced by the horticultural model of child development, he theorised that the wolf habits acquired by Kamala and Amala had somehow blocked the free expression of their innate human characteristics. Singh felt it was his job (not least, for religious reasons) to wean the girls from their lupine ways and so allow their buried humanity to emerge. Unhappily, before his experiment had progressed far, the younger girl, Amala, sickened and died.
This proved a great set-back to Kamala, who had only just started to lose her fear of other humans and her orphanage surroundings. Kamala went into a prolonged mourning and for a while, Singh feared for her life as well. But eventually Kamala recovered and Singh started a patient programme of rehabilitation.
First, as Itard did with Victor, Singh had to socialise Kamala. Through a combination of massage to loosen the limbs and the dangling of food just out of reach, Singh coaxed Kamala into standing and walking. She never learnt to walk smoothly and would often revert to all fours, especially if she wanted to run, however Singh saw this as literally the first step towards getting her to "shake off" her wolf-like habits. Gradually, Singh trained Kamala to accept other human ways, teaching her to eat normal food, to sleep with the other children and to welcome the company of fellow humans.
Singh was relatively successful in changing Kamala's outward behaviour, getting her walking and housetrained within a couple of years of her capture. But when it came to teaching her to speak, Singh struggled. Just before she died, Amala had been making promising progress towards speech, giving voice to the babbling and cooing noises that mark the first stage in a normal child's learning to talk. With Kamala, progress was much slower but Singh persevered. After three years, Kamala had mastered a small vocabulary of about a dozen words. After several more years, her vocabulary had increased to about 40.
This was far more than Itard had managed with Victor (and using far less intensive training methods), but not really much of a victory for Singh. To compare, a normal two-year-old child, at the peak of its language learning, would find it easy to pick up 40 new words in a single week. Also, Kamala's words were only partly-formed and her grammar stilted. The Hindu word for medicine is ashad but Kamala would only pronounce half the word, saying "ud". Likewise, she would say bha for bhat (rice), bil for biral (cat) and tha for thala (plate).
Singh made much of an incident when Kamala was given some dolls to play with and then a box to keep them in. Kamala shut the dolls away and "proudly" told the other children in the orphanage: "Bak-poo-voo." Singh interpreted this utterance as standing for "Baksa-pootool-vootara," - Hindu for "Box-doll-inside."
While this broken sentence marks a significant step forward for a girl who was little more than a wolf cub a few years earlier - showing not just a use of language but the first glimmerings of a social awareness - Kamala's speech still fell a long way short of normally- reared children.
The story of Singh and his two wolf-girls broke in the newspapers in 1926. As one London paper noted: "At clubs frequented by big game hunters and explorers it was the chief topic at the lunch table." In fact arguments became so heated about whether the story could be true or not that the next day, the same paper was reporting on a fist fight breaking out between two members of just such a gentleman's club over the story.
However, the wolf-girls did not become a topic of debate within the scientific community until two books were published over a decade later, one by Arnold Gesell, the noted Yale University child specialist, and one by Robert Zingg, a Denver anthropologist, both of which were based on the diary kept by the Reverend Singh.
Gesell summed up Kamala's progress, saying that at the age of 16, after nine years in the care of the orphanage, she still had the mind of a three and a half year old. But slow though Kamala's progress was, Gesell felt her story demonstrated just how mentally naked humans are when born and how much we rely on society to shape us. As he put it, human culture operates on the mind as "a large scale moulding matrix, a gigantic conditioning apparatus" without which we would remain at the level of animals.
However, while more open-minded than most about the importance of a social mould in forging man's higher mental abilities, Gesell still was wedded to a horticultural view of mental development. He believed that culture "unlocks" our dormant abilities rather than, as the bifold model suggests, that these abilities are grafted on top of the raw material of the animal mind. So, for example, Gesell saw the gradual appearance of smiles and other sociable expressions on Kamala's face as the result of the loosening of rigid muscles rather than thinking that Kamala might have had to learn such emotional signals through contact with her fellow humans.
Like Singh, Gesell spoke of Kamala's wolf-like habits as if they were just an overlay of copied behaviours that thinly papered over her true human nature - or as he put it: "motor sets [which] constituted the core of her action-system and affected the organisation of her personality."
Gesell wondered whether, with a few more years, Kamala would have caught up eventually with other normal children or whether the traumas of her early years had left her somehow permanently stunted. The question was never answered because in 1929, Kamala caught typhoid and died. Her last words to Singh's wife - possibly too poignant to be true - were said to have been: "Mama, the little one hurts."
The writings of Gesell and his fellow populariser, Robert Zingg, prompted a lot of discussion among psychologists but changed few minds. As with Victor of Aveyron, the majority derided the story of the wolf-girls as a hoax or at best an account of two mental defectives. A typical review in a 1941 edition of the Journal of Social Psychology said the claims about the girls rested on one man's testimony and suggested Singh's tale was too like common folk tales to be taken seriously. The backlash was so strong that Gesell quickly distanced himself from the debate, moving on to research in less controversial areas, and Zingg lost his academic post at Denver, ending his days as a railway conductor and salesman for tinned meat.
In the years since the story of Kamala and Amala became public, other reports of wild children have appeared from time to time - some like Ramu, the wolf-boy of Lucknow in 1954, being of doubtful accuracy and others, like the tale of Robert, a boy lost in Uganda's 1982 civil war and brought up by Vervet monkeys, with more substance. Yet none have attracted much attention, appearing to be too undocumented, too unreliable, to meet the exacting standards of science.
Every time a fresh case of a feral child has come along, it has been easier for psychologists to cry fake or claim feeble-mindedness than to challenge existing theories about mental development. However, if we draw a composite picture of a feral child, listing the key characteristics noted in the more reputable stories, we find that it fits well with a bifold model of the human mind.
The most important feature shared by the children was that none of them could speak - and they all had tremendous difficulty learning to speak once captured. The children could hear - and so were not simply deaf - but treated the sounds of the human voice as no more important than the background rumbling of distant traffic.
Almost equally surprising, the stories of feral children suggest that walking upright is not an innate skill in human infants. We may be anatomically designed for such a posture but it seems that we still need an adult model to persuade us to stand up and walk. Yet another disturbing feature of feral children was that they were so unresponsive to their human captors. Rather than welcoming fellow humans, reports agree that their faces showed only fear. Laughter, tears and smiles all came only after some years of socialisation.
A further surprise was that the feral children did not have a normal sexual response. At puberty, feral children like Victor gave every indication of arousal and sexual feelings, but it was somehow undirected and frustrated as if the child had to have a social model to know how to satisfy its urges. Itard described how Victor went up to a woman and flung his arms around her neck, but: "This was all, and these amorous demonstrations ended, as did all the others, with a feeling of annoyance which made him repulse the object of his passing fancy."
A final characteristic shared by the feral children was that they seemed somehow to lack memory and self-awareness. As the detailed accounts of Bonnaterre, Itard and Singh make clear, the thoughts of Victor and the wolf-girls were limited to the world of the here and now. They could make simple associations and learn to recognise familiar people and situations. But they seemed unable to reflect on the past or the future, or to have any insight into their own plight.
This picture of feral children tallies well with the bifold model. With no inner voices to organise their minds, feral children are reduced to the level of an animal. There is little, if anything, about man's higher mental abilities which can be considered innate. Indeed, even sexual behaviour, facial expressions and walking on two legs seem to require the shaping mould of society. We are born into this world with minds as naked as our bodies and we have to rely on society to clothe us.
But there still remains one puzzle: why, having been brought back into the arms of society, did the feral children not learn language and catch up with their peers? What was the invisible obstacle blocking their rehabilitation? To answer this, we will have to look at another type of "feral" child, children born deaf and dumb, a people who have been almost as misunderstood in history as the wolf-children.
>> Extracted from The Myth of Irrationality - the science of the mind from Plato to Star Trek, by John McCrone, Macmillan London, 1993 (ISBN 0-333-57284-X); Carroll & Graf, New York, 1994 (ISBN 0-7867-0067-X).
The wild boy of Aveyron: The most complete account is contained in The Wild Boy of Aveyron by Harlan Lane (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1976). Also good are The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron by Roger Shattuck (London: Secker & Warburg, 1980) and Wolf Children by Lucien Malson, translated by E Fawcett, P Ayrton and J White (London: NLB, 1972). As well as dealing with Victor, both these books take a more general look at feral children stories.
Bonnaterre wrote of Victor: Notice Historique sur le Sauvage de l'Averyron (1800), translated by Harlan Lane in The Wild Boy of Aveyron (Lane, Harvard University Press).
The naturalist Virey complained: Histoire Naturelle du Genre Humain by Jean-Jacques Virey (1800), in The Forbidden Experiment (Shattuck, Secker & Warburg).
Recamier sat Victor at her side: Memoires sur la Vie Privee de Napoleon, sa Famille, et sa Cour by L C Wairy (1830), translated by Harlan Lane in The Wild Boy of Aveyron (Lane, Harvard University Press).
Well over 35 cases recorded: Wolf Children and Feral Man by Joseph Singh and Robert Zingg (New York: Harper, 1942).
As Jonathan Swift commented: The Forbidden Experiment: The Story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron (Shattuck, Secker & Warburg).
Girls discovered in wolf's lair: The original story of Kamala and Amala was contained in Wolf Children and Feral Man (Singh and Zingg, Harper) and Wolf Child and Human Child by Arnold Gesell (New York: Harper, 1941). A good popular account is The Wolf Children by Charles MacLean (London: Penguin, 1979).
Sleeman wrote of six or seven cases: "An Account of Wolves Nurturing Children in Their Dens," William Sleeman (1852), in Wolf Children and Feral Man (Singh and Zingg, Harper).
Rather than questioning assumptions: See "On the Trail of the Wolf-Children," W F Ogburn and N K Bose, Genetic Psychology Monographs, 60 pp.117-93 (1959) and The Wolf Children (MacLean, Penguin).
As one London paper noted: Westminster Gazette (London: October 23 and 25, 1926).
A typical review: "Wolf Child Histories from India," D G Mandelbaum, Journal of Social Psychology, July 1941.
Ramu, the wolf-boy of Lucknow: "Ramu: the Wolf-Boy of Lucknow," Illustrated London News (London: Feb 27, 1954).
The tale of Robert: "Jungle Boy," The Mail On Sunday, (London: 11 October 1987).
Itard described how Victor went up: Rapport Fait a s.e. le Ministre de l'Interieur sur les Nouveaux Developpements et l'etat Actuel du Sauvage de l'Aveyron, Jean Itard, in The Wild Boy of Aveyron by G and M Humphrey (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1932)