Most of us, if not all, have heard about Mowgli - the boy who was raised in the jungle by a pack of wolves. Fortunately, Mowgli is just a fictional character from Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book stories. However, a great deal of similar cases have occurred in real life as well and children like Mowgli are called feral children.
A feral child (colloquially, also know as wild child, wolf girl, gazelle boy, monkey boy) is a child who has been isolated from human contact from a very young age, and has grown up with little or no human contact, care, love, or exposure to social behavior and language.
Just like Mowgli, some feral children are thought to have been raised by animals. Some have allegedly survived on their own in the wild and some have been confined by people (often by their own parents). There have been over one hundred reported cases of feral children.
Besides Mowgli, there are numerous other legendary and fictional feral children. As it was extremely difficult for Mowgli to fit into human society, he is one of the most realistic fictional feral children. Others, such as Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan, J.M Barrie's Peter Pan and many others, were portrayed less factually. They were depicted as being extraordinarily strong, intelligent, and as having better moral standards than "normal" human beings. In reality, feral children are rarely that fortunate.
What characterizes feral children? How does being isolated from human contact from a young age affect a child's development?Feral children often lack even the most basic social skills. They have extreme difficulties or are unable to learn simple yet pivotal tasks like using the toilet or getting dressed. They are often cognitively impaired and learning a human language proves to be severely challenging or even impossible.
The fact that feral children have acute difficulties or an inability to grasp the concept of language proves the validity of critical period hypothesis, which states that the first few years of a child's life are crucial for learning a first language and if the child is not surrounded with a language during this period, he or she will never achieve a full comprehension of any language.
What do feral children show us about ourselves?What we know about feral children makes us ask a question about ourselves - are we a product of our genes or a product of our experiences?
A five-year-old Russian girl was discovered to be living among a herd of cows. Just like the cows, she used mooing to communicate. She could not speak a human language, she was unable to feed herself, and she only drank milk from a saucepan. Besides her, there have been several other cases of feral children found living with animals and most exhibited behavior identical to the animals that reared them, instead of the humans that bore them. Most never learned to speak and many died shortly after their reintroduction to human society. In the few cases where the child did learn to speak, it was because they were separated from humans at an older age, after they already obtained a grasp on language.
These children show us that the few first years in a child's life are crucial to the child's lifelong growth and development, bringing up the nature vs nurture argument that has been a topic of debate for decades. We cannot say that who we are, how we behave, how we communicate, and how our brain develops has nothing to do with our genes, but feral children show that our nature alone does not make us human. The genes we are born with and the experiences we have combined makes us human.
If you are interested in reading more about different cases of feral children, here's a good article to being with - Feral Children (Mowgli Syndrome)