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The Forbidden Experiment

Jessica Wurtz's picture

      When searching for a book to read and review, the title of the book by Roger Shattuck, The Forbidden Experiment stuck out and caught my attention.  It had a more interesting title than others I had looked at, so I looked it up to see what it was about; what could the forbidden experiment be?  When I discovered it was about one of the many cases of a child who had lived in the wild for a good part of his life until discovered by civilization, my decision was made: I wanted to read this book.  It is human nature to be interested in somewhat bizarre cases concerning their fellow man, and I was interested in finding out the story of the Wild Boy of Aveyron and those involved in his life.  The Forbidden Experiment is an interesting examination of the course of the Wild Boy’s life with a focus on the most important people in his life.  While this was not a subject discussed directly in class, general ideas can be applied to the story of the Wild Boy’s life.

      The author focuses the most on the relationship between the Wild Boy, and his adopted guardian and teacher, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, who became attached enough to the boy to name him Victor (1).  The reasons for this are two-fold; the time spent with Itard was perhaps the most important time of his life apart from his childhood in the forest, and it is the most well-documented part of his life as well.  Itard kept thorough notes on their daily progress as well as writing letters to the interested authorities to update them on the boy’s condition.  One of the interesting things about this book is that at the same time the reader is being informed of the story of Victor, the author is also giving his opinions on the events of the story.  This is interesting and helps to illuminate some points of the story that one might not have picked up on otherwise.  For example, Shattuck points out that Itard has a major flaw in his effort to teach Victor to communicate, and that is that he never considers the option of teaching him sign language as opposed to spoken language, despite the fact that Itard worked at a school for deaf-mutes and taught those students sign-language (1).  I do not think I would have thought of this had Shattuck not pointed it out at the time.  However, this detracts somewhat from the reading of the story of Victor’s life.  It would be interesting to be able to read the reports that Itard made directly as opposed to through an interpreter with his own ideas about the situation.

      Aside from this however, the book brings the “forbidden experiment”; or the ability to see what a human would really be like if one had not been exposed to culture and human society, to life.  It would obviously be immoral to take a child at birth and somehow let it grow up without these things just to see what would happen.  But such cases as the Wild Boy of Aveyron produce this experiment on their own without human intervention.  This idea of what human nature is and where it comes from is related to another common theme in the book, the tabula rasa.  The term tabula rasa is a Latin phrase meaning clean slate or smooth tablet, which is used to describe the condition of our brains at birth.  Many philosophers believe that we come into this world as a tabula rasa and only become human as we receive and record information from outside influences (1).  There has long been a debate about how much we are born with and how much we learn as we grow as children.  The book portrays the Itard’s efforts to put something on Victor’s blank slate, and how he was able to do so for some things, such as some social etiquette, but not for others, such as the ability to speak (1).

      I felt that this concept of the tabula rasa was related to the ever present discussions about the I-function in class.  There was always the question of how much of a person’s behavior is controlled by the I-function and how much is not.  As we learned in class, a surprising number of things are done without the control of the I-function.  The I-function seems to be in charge of more complex attributes of humans such as emotions and other cultural aspects.  Meanwhile, the rest of the nervous system is in charge of maintaining all of the daily processes humans go through just to function, such as sight and bodily functions.  To me, this seems related to the tabula rasa idea in that humans are usually born with the ability to function on a daily basis, as their basic nervous system takes care of all those things.  Perhaps the tabula rasa only really applies to the I-function part of the nervous system.  Wherever the I-function is, perhaps it is the part that is completely blank at birth and rapidly is filled with the things of life that are not controlled by the other parts of the nervous system.

      However, since we did not discuss the development of the brain from babyhood to adulthood, it is hard to say if this could be the case in the context of this course.  I feel like perhaps it would be helpful to learn some about the development of the brain for this class.  There is a lot of information to learn about the development of the brain and would be difficult to fit in to the course, but it might help to understand the processes of the brain if it was taught how they got there in the first place. 

      Another aspect of the class that this book touched on in an abstract way is that of the variability between each person.  Victor was very much an individual and his brain operated in different ways from other people for certain things.  As a child, he very much resembled a wild animal in some of his behavior.  He was only concerned about food and sleeping for much of his childhood after he was discovered by the rest of the world, and preferred to go around naked, even in the cold outside.  His ability to communicate at a higher level was impaired when compared to others of his age, and even others of a much younger age.  While these differences can be attributed to the fact that he was left in the wild for his young childhood, I believe that were another child left in the same circumstances, their story would be different from Victor’s.  The book had some short examples of other stories of people who were isolated from culture and society for a period of time, and they were all greatly varied.  I think this was a helpful addition for the reader, as it helped to put Victor’s story in a context that was related to his own.  It was helpful to see the ways the other cases unfolded such as that of Helen Keller and Genie.  Helen Keller was such a success story despite the fact that her sensory world was so limited by her loss of sight and hearing.  Genie however did not progress much further than Victor did in the development of language, but it seems that Victor was more developed emotionally than Genie was (1).

      Overall this book was a very interesting look into the life of a boy who was deprived of the normal things that children are given on a daily basis, such as general human contact and interactions.  I felt that this book also helped to further illuminate such aspects of the course such as the variability between each individual and the differences between the I-function and the rest of the nervous system, although without the background of what affects the development of each in our early formative years.




1). Shattuck, Roger. The Forbidden Experiment. Farrar Straus Giroux, New York. 1980.


Frances Marlow's picture

thank you for sharing your interesting book review

Thank you for your book review; it helped me to know what this book is about and what ideas a reader might find themselves encountering. I happened upon your review because I found an old scrap of paper noting the book The Forbidden Experiment by Roger Shattuck and googled it since I couldn’t remember anything about it.
No doubt your studies have led you to many ideas and authors, but if you haven’t yet read the English biologist Rupert Sheldrake, you may find of interest his theories of morphic resonance and their possible impact on the human brain and mind.
- - Best Wishes.