Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Feral Children

From Romulus & Remus, the mythical founders of Rome, to Mowgli, immortalized by Rudyard Kipling, stories of children raised by animals fascinate students the fictional boyof introductory psychology. The Legend of Tarzan isn't complete fiction. There are plenty of real cases of "feral children" who have grown up to be something other than human, halfway between man and beast. The children seem genuinely wild; having no language, they communicate only in grunts resembling the sounds of whatever animal raised them. Many crawl rather than walk. It takes years to socialize them to live semi-normally among humans and many never learn to talk.

One of my enterprising students showed me this neat website devoted to feral children.

Some wild children have been raised in isolation, as was Genie, who was kept in a closet most of her life with no interaction with anyone. She is probably the best known case of a wild child in this country, but looking at this list it's clear she's got no shortage of company. It seems that many feral children turn up in India. "One explanation is that women with young children or babies would leave their infants at the edge of a field while working, and wolves would emerge from the forest and steal them," says the feral children website.

I think these cases are fascinating because they reveal just how vital early experience with other members of our species is to normal human development. Without contact with others of own kind, particularly adults, humans don't grow up to speak, walk bipedally, or wear clothing. It's not 100% instinctual to do so.

These stories also demonstrate that some animals, dogs and primates, may actually take care of a human infant. One theory is that maternal care is instinctively "released" by cuteness (small body, big head, large eyes, soft wimpers) and that humans are sufficiently cute to some other animals to stimulate the maternal instinct to care for them. It's a little like a vireo feeding the cherry red gaping mouth of the cuckoo who parasitized the nest simply because it's instinctual to drop food into a gaping mouth. Brood parasitism is one of the neatest things that happens in the animal world.

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