Pure Pedantry

Book about Children Raised by Wolves

Rebecca Saxe of MIT reviews Encounters with Wild Children by Adriana Benzaquen about historical confrontations with so-called wild children — children raised outside of society without supervision or what the author calls the forbidden experiment. The occurence of wild children has always been a bugaboo of developmental psychologists and philosophers who ask: what is the human nature in its uncorrupted (or unredeemed depending on point of view) state?

However, the review and the book both suggest that historically and most likely categorically, the wild children form an inadequate experimental paradigm even if we ignore the major ethical entanglements working with them. Further, those ethical entanglements may be the message that we should take home from our interactions with them:

“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 such an experiment–if slightly updated–is unabated. Wild children intrigue and enthrall because they seem to offer a morally permissible version of the forbidden experiment, one whose initial conditions are created not by cruel scientists 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.

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But here’s the catch: the forbidden experiment may belong to 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, virtually 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 indefensible not just because it is immoral but because it is incoherent, BenzaquĆ©n has–despite her sometimes dismissive attitude–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. (Emphasis mine.)

The idea that social interaction is so intertwined with development that the two cannot be extracated is certainly the sense that I always got from it. You can’t raise children without love, without affection, and without language and expect them to develop normally. Look at children who stop growing and in some cases fail to reach puberty because of ongoing abuse. Look at children who suffer language deficiencies all their lives because of inadequate early education.

There is no underlying program that goes about its business in the absence of social contact revealing what is truly human nature. Rather, what we learn from the wild children is that the absence of social contact results in persistent developmental maladjustment — a failure to reach one’s potential. It destroys whatever program already existed rather than revealing it.

I really want to pick up this book.

Hat-tip: Mind Hacks.


  1. #1 somnilista, FCD
    September 5, 2006

    So what are the odds that a pair of twins raised by wolves would go on to found a major city?

  2. #2 JT Young
    September 5, 2006

    The problem only becomes a problem for societies and the children if the children are reunited with society. Social expectancies are present only when the norms (or lack thereof) are in conflict. Such a social”experiment” is not only unethical, it is not science. As you say, the result is a non-result in any terms.

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