Friday, 2 December 2011

Without the bare necessities

So Mowgli went away and hunted with the four cubs in the jungle from that day on. But he was not always alone, because, years afterward, he became a man and married.

But that is a story for grown-ups.

Rudyard Kipling The Jungle Book

My first introduction to the mythical archetype of children raised by wild animals was probably a showing of Disney's 1967 version of The Jungle Book at the Scarborough Odeon* but the idea goes even further back than those distant days when I were a lad.  Right back to some of civilisation's founding legends, in fact, and the tales of Enkidu, Atalanta  and Romulus and Remus.

Did these legends have any basis in reality? I find it hard to believe. Human babies at the suckling stage are so vulnerable, helpless, immobile and relatively big that I can't imagine any wolf or boar being capable of keeping them alive, even making the massive assumption that such a wild animal might be so awash with maternal hormones that it would categorise a human infant as "offspring" rather than "snack". Toddlers aren't much more self-sufficient and I'd have thought that to have the tiniest hope of survival in the wild, a human child would have to be at the very least four years old or so and remarkably self-sufficient and lucky (by which stage some humans must have been involved in keeping the child alive through infancy, so this wouldn't be a true "wild child").

Real life-examples of children raised by animals have been claimed, from an Irish boy allegedly brought up by sheep, cited by Dr. Tulp, the star** of Rembrandt's painting The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, to "Mowgli's Sisters", Amala and Kamala, two wild children allegedly raised by wolves in Midnapore, India and discovered by a missionary in the 1920s. In the absence of much surviving evidence, I'm happy to put Sheep Boy down to somebody puckering up to the Blarney Stone, whilst the more recent and better-documented tale of Amala and Kamala looks pretty dodgy under examination.

There are more credible stories of feral children who have lived wild after presumably being abandoned or losing parents or guardians at a later stage (some, but not all, of these stories involve the child allegedly being raised by animals, or living with them in the wild). Most of these children appeared to have no language; possibly because they were been abandoned before having leaned to speak, or, more probably, so early in their language development that they lost the ability to speak.

As we move from legend to better-documented facts, the story gets bleaker (although the fate of Amala and Kamala was itself pretty bleak, whatever the children's true story was):

Feral children have long fascinated scientists. Apart from the sheer pathos of their stories, they raise some gut issues: how do we become human? If we fail to learn critical skills as children, is it impossible to do so later?

Most feral children have been severely stunted and remained so all their lives, suggesting that early human contact is essential to normal development... Being a wild child may conjure up visions of some Blue Lagoon-type idyll, but the reality is unspeakably cruel.
Cecil, The Straight Dopes's ├╝ber-polymath

 For obvious reasons, nobody today is prepared to perform a controlled experiment on the effect of withdrawing human contact and interaction from small children. According to Herodotus, the Egyptian Pharaoh Psammetichus had no such ethical worries and ordered two children to be raised without anybody speaking to them, in order to settle a hot debate about whether Egyptian or Phrygian was the world's most ancient language. The idea was that the first sounds the children produced without prompting would represent humankind's primordial tongue.

Herodotus wrote that the children were heard to make a sound that resembled "becos", the Phrygian word for bread, so Psammetichus' researchers concluded that Phrygian was the more ancient language.

In modern times, children aren't deliberately withdrawn from human contact in the name of academic research, but a lot of academics have spent a lot of time studying the effect of isolation on children who have been raised without human contact due to abuse or neglect, like "Genie", the pseudonymously famous victim of horrific childhood incarceration and abuse from the 1970's. A common theme is that language skills, emotional development and the capacity for independent living are stunted, usually irreversibly, by lack of human contact in the early years.

It's a tragic reversal of the archetype of the heroic child of nature, freed from the stifling, artificial straitjacket of human society, flowering into an independent, emotionally unconstrained free spirit.

Spinoza 1 - Rousseau 0

* Scarborough's Odeon closed over twenty years ago, which makes me feel very old. More happily, the 1930s art deco building escaped the usual destiny of old cinemas - demolition or a shabby afterlife as a bingo hall - and still survives as the well-maintained home of the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

** Or maybe just the impresario. The real star real of the show is the pallid cadaver of just-hanged ex-robber Aris Kindt, laid out on the slab for our instruction.