born to be wild

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.

Read More: ---François Truffaut, L'Enfant Sauvage, 1970 Based on the true story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron Truffaut himself plays Dr. "Citoyen" Itard (the fact that this took place in 1798, shortly after the Revolution, is significant). His high speed deadpan narration - which I've always found smacks of Brecht as well as Hitchcock, as in "don't get emotionally involved it's only a movie" - and attempts to teach the child basic language skills, and with them, a sense of morality, are both amusing and touching.---

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.

Read More: ---Itard felt that the boy didn't demonstrate any cognitive impairments. Instead, he thought the development of his childhood had been thwarted by his environment and upbringing, but his capacity to learn remained the same. When conventional pedagogical methods did not work with the boy, Itard invented his own techniques. From simple exercises to more complex tasks, Itard worked towards an education of the senses, or what he called a "medical education". His fundamental insight, by which Maria Montessori developed her appreciation for education, was that the continual formation of the mind comes from the action of the senses. It is through our senses, or what Arakawa and Gins would call a body-wide learning, that we come to understand the world. ---

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.

Read More: ---Though initially successful—Victor showed significant progress, at least, in understanding language and reading simple words—he eventually slowed down to the point that Itard abandoned the experiment. The only words that Victor ever actually learned to speak were lait (milk) and Oh Dieu (oh God). Modern scholars now believe, partly by studying such feral children, that language acquisition must take place in a critical period of early childhood if it is to be successful. Though Itard failed at teaching Victor language, he had a breakthrough in the realm of the emotions. Victor lived with Itard and his housekeeper Madame Garhar. One night while setting the table, Victor noticed Madame Gerhar crying over the loss of her husband. He stopped what he was doing and consoled her, thus showing empathy. Itard took this as a major breakthrough in the case, proving that the wild child was capable of human emotions.---

efforts to obtain definite information about the origins of the wild boy were unsuccessful. The leading psychiatrists concluded he was retarded and abandoned but this was false. It is hard to see how a severely retarded child could survive alone in the woods for five years. Whatever the case, he was eventually transferred to the Institutes for Deaf Mutes and given under the care of a young doctor named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard, under the director Abbe Sicard.

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:
…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:

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