The existence of feral children poses an interesting challenge to our conception of human nature. The feral child reflects not only the tenuousness of our ability to learn abstractions that make us human but also the fragility of our emotions and creative efforts. What is missing in the feral child is the element of socialization that connects the inner and outer worlds.
Feral children have seldom been born mentally or physically handicapped. Children who were and were then exposed to die clearly did not survive, nor could they. Rather, feral children have been evicted from their homes by abusive parents or have of their own volition fled them. Such would have been the case of the famous wild child Victor in 1790’s France, documented by contemporaries and made famous by the François Truffaut film L’Enfant Sauvage or The Wild Child. Occasionally children were kidnapped by animals, as in the stories of Amala and Kamala of India kidnapped by wolves from the field where their mothers worked, and then, socialized by animals, became feral.
The great question is whether such children can at all generate human functionality after a certain number of years of ferality. Brain scans of the extremely abused Genie (not really a feral child in the sense of living in nature) showed virtually no left-side brain development, in other words, no capacity for logical, symbolic, verbal processing or communication. This is a condition of autism and mental disability but is not the original condition of the child who becomes a feral child.
Apparently, the brain functions that demarcate the child as “human” atrophy in the wild, and become irrelevant. Yet if a “normal” developed person lived in the wild, one may speculate if a human being would lose these logical and communicative functions, would go from an appreciation of nature to a certain ferality.
That seems not the case for the cultivated solitary who has in fact nurtured those aspects of the brain to a fine degree of harmony with both left-side brain and nature, as in the famous hermits. That they do not exhibit the superficial conventions of socialization and etiquette does not matter. What is true is that functions of both sides of the brain are retained and nurtured. Nature complements the thought-processes of the mind, and honed to a perfect relationship dispose of the necessity to consult society and culture for insight.
Granted that the obvious evolution of socialization among human beings brought the many characteristics we call human into existence, it did not resolve all of our shortcomings. As Rousseau pointed out, the fate of the individual may not be better off in society than it would have been in the wild. Admittedly, the feral child will never develop characteristics we define as human, or develop them well when “rescued” from the wild. And as Rousseau notes in the preface to his novel Emile, or An Education (1762), “a man left to himself from birth would be more of a monster than the rest.” A child left on his own in the wilderness will develop only the animal nature that is at the core of our evolutionary development.
What then of socialization, that has still left us with undecipherable instincts and drives which nature knows how to channel in its animals but which humans do not know how to assess and control? Rousseau does not see socialization, given its present form, as yielding much better results for the person than being left in nature.
Prejudice, authority, necessity, example, all the social conditions into which we are plunged, would stifle nature in a person and put nothing in her place. She would be like a sapling by chance sown in the midst of the highway, bent hither and thither and soon crushed by the passers-by.
Rousseau is more emphatic in his celebrated opening phrases of Emile.
God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil. Man forces one soil to yield the products of another, one tree to bear another’s fruit. He confuses and confounds time, place, and natural conditions. He mutilates his dog, his horse, and his slave. He destroys and defaces all things; he loves all that is deformed and monstrous; he will have nothing as nature made it, not even man himself, who must learn his paces like a saddle-horse, and be shaped to his master’s taste like the trees in his garden.
For Rousseau the perversion of human nature by society is only offset by the close nurturing of a kind and attentive mother, who alone can engender the psychological values that will make the child perceptive, thoughtful, and ultimately independent and free. Thus we come round again to the cause of ferality in the feral child, namely the absence of a nurturing mother — or, rather, in the case of feral children, the absence of a certain kind of nurturing mother, namely, a human.
The important point, however, is not just the absence of such a mother but the superfluousness of society and culture to the developmental process. For all its complexity, society and culture cannot compensate for the conditions and emotions Rousseau describes. Only in the deep psychological values of self-image and other-worldliness engendered in the social bond of mother and child (as so many psychologists from Freud on have repeated) can the individual emerge with the potential for the perennial and benign virtues we associate with the best wisdom.
And this relationship can be entirely substitutive or symbolic, if one wishes — say, mother as religious entity or community, as Gaia, as surrogate parent, etc., though this can have no efficacy until at a later stage of development that requires a different emotional effort not the same as the biological.
Ferality is not at issue for the child in society, but elements of the bad aspects of human nature will always haunt some individuals more than others. Meanwhile, the rest of society takes on culture and authority as its mother-source. We need to observe closely in our selves where the absence of nurture is acute and at the same time how society and culture are not sources of nurture intending to cultivate our true selves. We can cultivate our natural selves, but only with nature, the only primordial source of nurture, not with the contrivances of human culture and society.