L’enfant sauvage was a wild boy found in the woods near Aveyron, France, in 1797. Twelve years old, he stood four and a half feet tall and wore no clothes. He’d been abandoned: a child to whom no one had ever spoken.
What is the nature of man?—was the central question of the Enlightenment. Linnaeus, scandalously placed him and the primates within the same order. Descartes described the existence of innate ideas. Rousseau’s noble savage…Was the child an atavism to a more natural and noble way of living?
The boy was not diagnosed as retarded. However, the endeavor to teach him to speak by imitating what he heard failed; he remained mute. Reflecting on nothing, enfant sauvage had no discernment, nor imagination, nor memory. He remained insensitive to expressions of affection.
Thus, a conclusion was reached by the early 1800s: The moral superiority said to be natural to man is entirely the result of civilization. Further:
The critical period for language acquisition wanes rapidly with age.
Isolation at an early age inhibits thought and speech and the expression of emotion, the effects of which are irreversible.
After years of intense training and socialization, the enfant sauvage died in his forties, still “fearful, half-wild, and unable to speak.”
……From the book Childhood:
I have crawled over into my sand box. Am working filling cans. With me is my teddy bear. The sand has many cans: between my legs are cans. I see Them there under the sun. I am working.
They speak to me but I don’t look up.
“Well say Hello,” says Aunt Beth.
“Such intense scrutiny!” says Mama.
I am working.
“Look up and smile,” says Aunt Beth. She points a little hole.
Finally my eyes look up. I’m not done, but my eyes look up.
“Give it a good chew,” says Mama.
Aunt Beth clicks the hole.
I stare over my teddy bear held up.
“Oh how cunning!” says Aunt Beth.
I go back to filling the cans up with sand.