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Human evolution: Before the “ape man” there was the “wild child”

Gravestone of Peter the Wild Boy at St Mary's Church, Northchurch, Hertfordshire
The wild boy's grave

In “Peter the Wild Boy” (History Today Volume 60 Issue 4 2010), Roger Moorhouse recalls for us the “wild child” myth of the early days of modern science: “If we could just get hold of a genuinely wild child, raised in the woods by animals, we will learn about human nature.” In 1725, a 12-year-old boy was found in the woods, naked, mute, and quadruped (at the time) – later baptised as “Peter,” What to make of him? Absent Darwin, they couldn’t decide that he was a human-ape hybrid, but other theories abounded.

Of the numerous thinkers and writers who addressed the subject, Daniel Defoe did so with the most clarity in his pamphlet Mere Nature Delineated, published in 1726. He described Peter as an ‘object of pity’ but cast doubt on the story of his origins, dismissing it as a ‘Fib’. On the issue of Peter’s soul, he was more charitable. Possessed of the gift of laughter and thought, Peter clearly had a soul, he wrote, but its powers did not yet act within him. He was, in sum, ‘in a state of Mere Nature … a ship without a Rudder’. And it was the task of his tutors to bring him to ‘the Use of his Reason’.

Sounds like a good enough plan because something had to be done for the boy. But he didn’t learn much and speculation flourished. Then,

The 19th-century German anthropologist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach (1752-1840) then rather spoiled the intellectual party. Examining contemporary accounts, which suggested that Peter had been tonguetied (hence his inability to speak) and had webbed fingers on one hand (a common corollary to mental impairment), he concluded that ‘the Wild Boy’ was most probably mentally retarded. If this was the case, he argued, it would help to explain Peter’s peculiar origins – a point that had also bothered Defoe.

Moorhouse suggests, sensibly, that Peter, far from being a “wild child,” had been abandoned by distraught kin – perhaps only weeks before his discovery. So,

all the noble theories of development and socialisation which relied on his example were rendered lame. The ‘noble savage’ had been a simple charity case, worthy of pity certainly, but not philosophical enquiry.

That’s the usual case with children who supposedly grew up wild – raised by wolves or by whatever. It would be extraordinarily difficult for a human being to survive such an environment, and these stories have usually got way less skepticism than they merited.

After all, who is going to come forward and say, “I abandoned my son to die in the woods”?

Fortunately, Peter was granted a pension from the British crown and lived to be over 70 in relative peace and comfort. Too bad most developmentally delayed people do not have such luck.

There's a wikipedia article on wild children that is worth a quick read. The particular case of Genie has been much studied. (I hope that shows up properly. The preview function does not seem to like the url for Genie.) Neil Rickert

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