Ever since Romulus and Remus were suckled by a she-wolf and Semiramis, the founder of Babylon, was brought up by birds, legends of feral children have fired the imagination. But fable turned to fact only with the Age of Reason. As science supplanted faith, answers to the question ‘What is it to be human?’ began to be couched developmentally: man is what he has become. The child is father of the man, the civilised can be explained in terms of the savage, and the human through evolution from the apes. If, as John Locke insisted, the mind begins as a tabula rasa, a blank sheet of paper, then being human is altogether a matter of education.
And bang on cue, as if offering themselves up as ready-made experimental material , a succession of feral children conveniently appeared on the scene. Captured in the woods, these isolated wild boys and girls had supposedly been reared by bears or wolves – or at least had grown utterly brutish for the sake of survival in the ‘state of nature’. So would their behaviour once ‘in captivity’ square with psychological and sociological theory? Most crucially, would they oblige social scientists by allowing themselves to be domesticated and proving to be educable? These are the issues explored by Michael Newton’s ambitious first book.
First came Peter. Found in the woods of Hanover, he made a splash in fashionable London circles right after Jonathan Swift had put all these questions in speculative, fictional form in Gulliver’s Travels. Swift himself perhaps, and Daniel Defoe certainly, went into print on the subject of this wild boy,