Feral children was a subject that garnered my attention during my undergraduate studies in symbolic interaction. I did a good deal of reading and discovered to my disappointment, that reports of children raised by animals have been greatly exaggerated, mostly for fun and profit.
Such stories were all the rage in the Victorian Age. Along with Social Darwinism and the “rise” of man, the “noble savage” found a ready audience in the pulps of the era. Tarzan remains the most well known of these stories, but the general idea of the uncivilized, a-cultural being, was thoroughly ensconced in the “science” and lore of the time and persists to this day. I am just now finishing James Bradley’s very disturbing book “The Imperial Cruise“, which can be read as an account of just how ubiquitous the rather convenient but nonsensical idea of the uncivilized being who lies on a continuum between human and animal, was. (Recommended entertaining history of consciousness reading)
Careful study of these stories reveals that the evidence is that the human infant does not, and presumably cannot, survive when isolated from interaction with human others. Victorian reports to the contrary appear to have been ginned up in much the same way as UFO reports are ginned up in contemporary pulps. The cultural context for our models is determinative. Why did the myth of feral children flourish in Victorian culture? Why has UFO myth flourished in our own time? The USSR did try some interesting if unethical collectivist social experimentation that involved isolating children from what G. H. Mead called “significant others”. Their idea was to rear ideologically pure beings. The practical results were quite disturbing. (I need to dredge up a reference for this one.)
It appears that the readiness to be awakened to consciousness through symbolic interaction occurs during the formative years of child development and once those years have passed, consciousness in language can no longer be acquired. Helen Keller’s story remains a touchstone for me. She had the benefit of sight and hearing up to the age of two and I believe this is why she was able to acquire language at a somewhat later point in life. An indelible foundation had been laid during her formative experience. It was enough—just enough—to allow social interaction to trigger her awakening through a process that is engrained in the human genome. Her attempt to characterize in consciousness, her pre-conscious state continues to fascinate me.
“Have you ever been at sea in a dense fog, when it seemed as if a tangible white darkness shut you in, and the great ship, tense and anxious, groped her way toward shore with plummet and sounding-line, and you waited with beating heart for something to happen? I was like that ship before my education began, only I was without compass or sounding-line, and had no way of knowing how near the harbour was. “Light! give me light!” was the wordless cry of my soul, and the light of love shone on me in that very hour.”
In consciousness at last awakened, she attempts to re-collect the moment of her awakening from animal awareness. Over a long and arduous period of interaction with her “teacher”, the teacher struggled to call Keller’s consciousness forth by signing onto the palm of her hand, the names for various sensory experiences in her environment. Eventually it is her teacher’s insistent connecting of the experience of flowing water with the sign for “water”—an anticipatory pattern of interaction with the world and through an other’s inter-action, repeated incessantly— that marks the moment of her awakening.
“Someone was drawing water and my teacher placed my hand under the spout. As the cool stream gushed over one hand she spelled into the other the word WATER, first slowly, then rapidly. I stood still, my whole attention fixed upon the motions of her fingers. Suddenly I felt a misty consciousness as something forgotten–a thrill of returning thought; and somehow the mystery of language was revealed to me. I knew then that “w-a-t-e-r” meant the wonderful cool something that was flowing over my hand. That living word awakened my soul, gave it light, hope, joy, set it free!”
The genetic coding that enables and requires this awakening to consciousness in symbolic interaction, is unique to human beings. No amount of similar repetition can awaken consciousness in a polar bear or dog or chimp, any more than the flight triggering behaviors we observe in birds can cause us to flap our arms and fly.
Is this really so difficult to understand?