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Wednesday, 16 March 2011

The wolf-child phenomenon: a modern view

CounterAnyone familiar with Mowgli of Kipling's Jungle Book has heard of such a thing as a wolf-child. The idea of a child being raised by wolves runs deep in human experience, dating back to the founding of Rome. But on more of an historical note, I recently came across this tidbit in a 1930 book by E. Stanley Jones, an incarnational missionary to British India:
A wolf-child, captured near where I live in India, had lived with wolves from the age of two to the age of eleven. It ran on all fours. Its knee joints were stiff and enlarged from running in this fashion. It would eat only raw meat, and when it was put on a more civilized diet, it took dysentery and died.
Now, Jones never said that he himself witnessed any of this, so we are forced to first examine this story for apparent veracity. Let's begin by listing the alleged facts:

1) Nine years previous to a given date, a two-year-old child had disappeared from society.
2) Shortly before the given date, a being was captured in the wild who met the description of a wolf-child.
3) This creature was identified as being the lost child, now age eleven.
4) The child was then brought back into society, whereupon it died of dysentery.

Now, notice the inferences made from these facts:
1) The child had lived among wolves for nine years.
2) The child had eaten nothing but raw meat for nine years.
3) The child could only walk on all fours, due to its being raised by wolves.
4) The child could only tolerate a diet of raw meat, due to being raised by wolves.

Well, these may or may not be true. All humans start out without the ability to walk upright, and some never attain it; others lose it quite early. Without studying a wolf-child in its natural habitat--something that has never been done by a scientist--it's impossible to say for sure which of these were true. In researching the subject of wolf-children, I found that one universal characteristic is that they lack human language--so Mowgli heads back to the fairy tales where he belongs. It's also rather common in a wolf-child narrative that the child spends somewhere between eight and fifteen years in the wild before making contact with society.

One glaring problem with the veracity of the wolf-child phenomenon is that it has never been studied scientifically. The closest anyone has come is in the case of a Los Angeles girl known as "Genie," who was kept locked in a bedroom by her father until she was 13 years of age. Although she learned some speech after being brought out into society, she has never progressed beyond a most rudimentary level of communication. And she was so traumatized by scientists squabbling over the exclusive rights to study her that she regressed as an adult to the autistic state in which they had found her.

Many 'wolf child' stories can be attributed to an autistic child who is abandoned in the wild but manages to survive until later discovery. His autism makes any transition back to civilised life all but impossible, and he often dies from the sudden change in diet. One should therefore not approach a 'wolf-child' account as showing what happens to someone who is raised in the wild; rather, it shows how animalistic autistic children are by nature, making it all the easier for them to live among animals than among humans.

The idea of a child being raised by wolves runs deep in the human psyche. But when examined in the light of science, it turns out to mostly just be a good story.

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