Monday, September 17, 2012

Children of the wilderness

A young girl disappears in the forest while playing with a cousin. The cousin is found several days later, but no one can find the girl. Some time later, stories emerge from the forest about a girl seen walking alongside a tiger, about a wild woman walking around with long hair and nails, but she is never found and the search is eventually abandoned. Thirty-eight years later, she is finally rediscovered at the age of 42, after having wandered through the forests on the borders of three different countries. 

This sounds like a chapter from a magical realist novel, or some fairy-tale fable, but it is the true story of Ng Chhaidy from the district of Mizoram in India, close to the border with Myanmar. Chhaidy’s story is astonishing for the length of time that she has been missing, long enough for her to lose the ability to use language, even though she was fluent in her native Mara when she disappeared as a four-year-old. It seems remarkable to those of us living in the developed and urbanized world, far removed from close contact with forest and wilderness, that such a thing could happen in modern times. 

Chhaidy joins the annals of those termed “feral children” – humans who whether from deliberate neglect or accident have ended up living in the wild away from human contact. The article by Lhendup Bhutia (linked above) describes some well-known cases:
“One of the best known cases of a feral child was that of The Wild Boy of Aveyron, who was captured in a French forest back in 1797. He was around 10 years old, but could neither walk upright nor speak. A physician tried to rehabilitate him, but without much success. Then there is the case of the Ukrainian girl Oxana Malaya, who came to be known as ‘The Dog Girl’. She was found in 1991 living with several wild dogs in a shed. She was only eight, and had lived for over five years with canines. She walked on all fours, survived on raw meat and barked like a dog. She is currently believed to be living at a home for the mentally handicapped.”
The shock and horror that we feel when thinking about such cases stems from the very core of our concept of what it means to be human. Far from “mere biology”, humanity prides itself on culture, and what is culture but the accumulated fruits of society? Although a theoretical understanding of sociality, in the context of biology, was only possible after the acceptance of Darwin’s ideas on evolution, and their synthesis with modern genetics in the 20th century by William Hamilton and other pioneers of sociobiology, I think all humans have an intuitive understanding of the importance of social life both to our species and to other social animals that we observe in close quarters, such as our pets and livestock.

Feral children therefore appear impaired, being somehow incomplete people. The most striking characteristic is their loss of language. Unlike the popular saying, the true window to one’s soul is language, not the eyes. It’s the best way that we humans can communicate what’s going on inside our heads, with which no amount of mute eye-gazing can compare. A person without language remains a cypher, cryptic and unknowable.

Carolus Linnaeus, the “father of taxonomy”, must have recognized this, even if his conception of human nature (grounded in the classics and Christian religion) might be very different from ours. He circumscribed a boundary between feral people and the rest of humanity in the 1758 edition of his masterwork, the Systema Naturae (via Biodiversity Heritage Library). The Systema Naturae was an attempt to classify all known species—Animal, Vegetable, and Mineral—into systematic kingdoms, classes, orders, genera, and species. Holding pride of place were the humans, genus Homo in the order Primates, foremost among the mammals. In lieu of describing this special group of animals, he merely enjoined the reader “nosce te ipsum” – know thyself. 

Description of "Homo sapiens ferus" from the Systema Naturae, 1758.
Within the species Homo sapiens were several races, reflecting the attitudes of his time towards human diversity: Americanus, Europaeus, Asiaticus, Afer, and Monstrosus (the monsters and “freaks” such as conjoined twins). But heading the list was Homo sapiens ferus: the feral people, of whom he cited the cases known to him from previous reports: the “Bear Boy of Lithuania”, the “Wolf Boy of Hesse”, the “Sheep Boy of Ireland”, and so on. What were their distinguishing characteristics? He confidently states that they go on all fours, are mute, and hairy, which perhaps matches our mental archetype of a “wild man”. The word “mute” stands out: it is the ability to use language that stands between normal life and the wilderness. 

In an age when aristocrats collected purported “mermaids” for their curiosity cabinets, when two-headed calves were seen as inauspicious portents, and when people like the Hottentot Venus were exhibited for a paying public, maybe it is only to be expected that Linnaeus would want to put feral people in a box of their own, away from the rest of teeming humanity. But it is significant that he didn’t group them with the “monsters”, where one might find the one-testicled Hottentot and the pointy-headed macrocephalous Chinese. Linnaeus saw a difference between the results of abnormal nature and abnormal nurture; it was the lack of human society that made the feral children what they were, not something wrong with their biology, and this was an important distinction for him to maintain. They were still an anomaly, having no place in his neat stereotyped racial system, but an anomaly of culture not physiology. Unfortunately, for Linnaeus, this understanding of the power of culture to shape a person could not overcome the boundaries between the races. He could not see, as we now do, that our upbringing and education have a stronger effect on our dispositions and character than our ancestry. 

Ng Chhaidy’s case is sad, but her story ends (and continues) optimistically. She is able to communicate with others in her village, non-verbally and also through a small idiosyncratic vocabulary. She can be sociable, and helps out with a number of tasks around the house. Although she has “received no medical or psychological attention”, she has the benefit of returning to a village where people are sympathetic and willing to interact with her. Perhaps the first four normal years of her life also help her readjustment, despite the thirty-eight intervening ones in the forest. The journalist’s turn of phrase, that “she has only just begun to experience childhood and adolescence”, is apt. These are stages of life which all of us have to go through, where we step beyond the immediate family and become socialized. It is being a part of wider society that makes us fully human. 

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