At the beginning of this year I read a story in the media about Rochom P’ngieng a Cambodian girl who went missing from her village when she was eight years old. Eighteen years later, she reappeared from the jungle. She was ‘clambering along on all fours like an ape’ and hunting for food when she was discovered. She couldn’t speak any intelligible language. This is one of many historic and mythical cases testifying to the human fascination with children raised by animals in the wild, the most famous of which is the myth of Romulus and Remus, twin founders of the city of Rome who were raised by wolves.
After reading several articles about the fascinating and almost unbelievable story of Rochom P’ngieng, I was intrigued enough to look for some other real-life stories of children who have been found living in the wild, alone or in the company of animals. I searched on IBSS for articles on feral children and surprisingly I found an article called ‘Forteana’ by P. Sieveking (1991), which referred to several stories of children who have been found living in the wild, alone or in the company of animals. I also found a review of Savage Girls and Wild Boys: a History of Feral Children, a book by Michael Newton Faber (2002) which explores the ‘philosophical complexity’ of nurture versus nature and the rightness of interference in the socialization of these children.
What is, then, the importance of nurture? What can we learn from the discovery of the existence of feral children? It has always been considered that nurture played an important part in human development. It was assumed that feral children would not be able to communicate or show empathy with other human beings. Feral children would typically be entirely unaware of the needs and desires of others. The concepts of morals, property and possessions would be strange to them, and they would be unable to show empathy with other people. If brought up by animals, they would not identify themselves as human.
The phenomenon of feral children could lead us to conclude that our upbringing is entirely responsible for providing us with language, the ability to think and the concept of our own humanity. What happens in early childhood would thus have a profound, overriding impact on neurological development.
However, nature also plays an essential role too. Firstly, the brain is the control centre of the central nervous system, responsible for behaviour. Secondly, genetic variations have a considerable effect on the intellectual abilities and other characteristics of human beings.
We could conclude, therefore, what we are is the result of interactions between the environment and our genes, and the cases of feral children represent a significant source of evidence for the understanding of such complex interactions.