One of the more interesting deviations from the norm in child development is that of children that have been raised by animals. These children are called feral or wild children, and they are children who have been lost or abandoned by their parents and somehow adopted by animals who raise them and help them to survive. Actually, not all feral children are adopted by animals and some are simply deprived of human bonding as a result of abandonment or confinement by their parents. However, for the purposes of this article, we will focus on the feral children who have been adopted by animals. Some of these children have been known to have been snatched by wild animals, when their parents weren’t looking. The animals known to have adopted children include wolves, wild dogs, apes, monkeys and even in one case, ostriches. It is true that many of the stories about feral children and animals have proved to be hoaxes. But for many others of these stories, there is definite evidence.
Children that have been adopted very young by animals become animalized. They make the sounds of their animal, crawl like their animal and later have difficulty learning to talk and walk when they are among humans again. Mentally they tend to live more in a world of imperfectly differentiated figures that are partly submerged in a field of grounding, much the way the natural world actually is. In other words, the children have not been stimulated by a lot of defined discrete stimuli like words to think in clearly defined cognitive concepts. They pull themselves out of the undifferentiation of their blurry grounded mental base through the shock stimuli of sharp instinctive reactions to impinging external figures that seem threatening to them. But most of the time, these children live in a state of immediate feeling connectedness to their living environment without the reflexive awareness that would distance them from their environment and help to define them as fully human.
But isn’t it true that many wild animals have a much more developed sense of smell and a much more developed sense of hearing than humans? Shouldn’t this lead to differentiation of the sensory realms of figures in areas where humans are normally limited? First of all, smells tend to have much more blurry boundaries than visual phenomena and tend to be filled with continual stimuli that don’t stimulate clear cognitive thinking. Sounds tend to have more discrete stimuli than smells, but are not enough by themselves to stimulate the evolution of clear cognitive thinking in non-human animals. And anyway, a human who becomes feral is not going to develop smell or hearing on the level of the animals that have adopted him.
At any rate, children that have been adopted young by animals miss the critical windows of opportunity in their development for being stimulated by other humans to develop uniquely human cognitive traits.
When we hear about stories of feral children adopted by animals, we are stimulated to feel great sympathy and compassion for them. The idea of a child being abandoned or lost and then being raised by creatures lower down on the evolutionary scale is a very threatening idea to us. In effect, the child is being denied the opportunity to become fully human. Part of the human condition is a long period of dependence in childhood during which the child is stimulated to become more fully human through his interaction with his parents and other more mature human beings. Through mirroring and modeling and later through education, the child evolves out of his natural human incompleteness. Of course, this can’t and doesn’t happen in the case of feral children adopted by animals.
Most of us are very protective and wouldn’t allow the opportunity to occur for our children to become feral children. And in modern technological society, we assume that we are giving our children enough protective advantages that there would be no opportunity for them to grow up in a negative state of abandonment.
Wild animals are one kind of significant complex behavioral entity. Not as complex as humans, but complex enough to draw a child into a relationship of mirroring and modeling and to guide a child both directly and indirectly along his path of growth and development. Of course, as I have pointed out, wild animals do influence human behavior in certain more controlled situations for certain groups of people. I am talking about the totemic relationships with certain animals which were established in traditional ancient societies and which have been established in preliterate societies. These are highly symbolic relationships that are significantly activated in certain ceremonial situations. I discussed previously how the only equivalent that we have today is our relationship to our complex consumer technology. I am talking about our televisions, video games, computers and smartphones among other devices, and in particular, the different types and brands among which we can choose. Our loyalty to Apple or to PC in computers and to iPhone or Blackberry or Android in smartphones. A type or brand of a particular consumer technology device as well as the consumer device itself as a generic category can be the source of a kind of tribal identity.
However, the influence of consumer technology devices can be very pervasive and enveloping at ages before strong brand loyalty is consciously made. The relationship to a consumer technology device is not simply a formal symbolic relationship based on living in the midst of but apart from this entity as is the case of a totemic relationship with a wild animal. And a relationship with a consumer technology device impinges on the consciousness of an individual much more, in most situations, than the relationship with a pet or a farm animal.
As parents abandon their children for longer and longer periods to modern consumer technology devices, the best analogy I can think of is that of a feral child to the animal or animals that adopt him. And just as a feral child is mentally transformed as a result of his sustained interaction with the adopting animal or animals, so a child today is mentally transformed as a result of his sustained interaction with the consumer technology devices with which he spends so much time.
The behavioral world of a modern consumer technology device is just the opposite of the mental world of a wild animal. Whereas the wild animal perceives the world in terms of partly differentiated figures in an enveloping ground environment, the virtual world of a consumer technology device is a vacuum filled with vacuumized figures that are entirely lacking in grounded material substance. To the extent that modern humans spend a lot of time in this virtual world, it spills over into the primary experience world in which their physical bodies live. Everything that modern children experience in the primary experience world begins to have the vacuumized qualities of the figure entities in the virtual world. It is hard to bond with vacuumized entities floating in a vacuum. On one level, lacking corporeal substance, these vacuumized figures just don’t seem to be fully real. And then even other real entities including people start lacking reality. And because other people don’t appear to be fully real, one can manipulate them and even hurt them without feeling pangs of guilt. One can turn off the TV show or delete the computer e-mail or program in one’s mind, before one has to feel accountable for anything one has been doing to a real human being.
Very simply, it is very difficult for humans to establish meaningful bonding without the template of some real grounding in the primary experience world. But a child can become so transformed by sustained interaction with consumer technology devices that he becomes incapable of fully connecting to physical grounding even if it is present. And he becomes incapable of forming deep-bonded relationships with the people around him. This explains the scene of a group of children sitting together, each of whom is talking to someone on his smartphone who is not present. And the meaningful connection is with the smartphone, not with the person at the other end of the smartphone connection. This situation has significant ramifications for the future maintenance of the organic human family and the organic human community as we know them. Somehow, we are arriving at a point in our evolution where what we have defined as appropriate human relationships may no longer continue to exist, unless we are able to do something to reverse or, at least, slow down the present trend in people, namely, connecting more and more to machines.
It gets down to this. We all know that we would never voluntarily allow our children to be raised by wolves, wild dogs, monkeys, apes or ostriches. We want our children to be fully human. Then why would we allow our children to be raised by televisions, video games, computers or smartphones? Why would we do something like that?
© 2013 Laurence Mesirow