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A Review: The Forbidden Experiment by Roger Shattuck

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Biology 202
2003 Second Web Paper
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A Review: The Forbidden Experiment by Roger Shattuck

Geoff Pollitt

It is one of the oldest unanswered questions in all of science. Though slightly more grounded in empirical science than the likes of "Where did we come from?" or "Why are we here?" the impossible Nature/Nurture dichotomy has tormented truth-bound scientists for years. Recent advances in genetics have brought forward new possibilities for those who would study the pure effects of environmental variables on animals, but we are far from allowing ourselves to manipulate other human beings in such ways for the sake of collecting data. This strong moral stance does not diminish our curiosity and so the question must be asked: What would we do if a case in which the human had already been manipulated, by no will of our own, fell into the hands of science? How far would we go?

Every couple hundred years, one of these humans, by chance or by a case of true cruelty, falls into the hands of scientists, eager to make the most of such a 'misfortune'. Roger Shattuck's The Forbidden Experiment follows one of the more prominent cases of our recent history, that of the 'Wild Boy of Aveyron.'

The book takes little time to peak the reader's curiosity with the tale of a "savage" twelve-year-old wandering out of the woods of southern France on a cold January evening in 1800. Without a known history or the ability to communicate with his captors, Victor, as he was later named, was assumed to have lived in the wild for at least six years and probably more. In the midst of an intellectually lively France, Victor wandered into immediate fame and was brought to Paris so that the most capable scientists could take advantage of studying a human raised almost completely in isolation. The story is a short one, lasting only the 28 years the Victor lived in Paris society before his death in 1828. The duration of his immediate interest to the scientific community in Paris was far shorter. (1)

To an intellectually enlightened community the contradiction should have been apparent: They detained Victor and forced him to learn how to live as a proper human being in civilized society; he was treated every step of the way as if he were an animal. The inconsistencies were nowhere more apparent than they were in the often times tortured mind of the main scientist overseeing the progress of Victor, the young and gifted Dr. Itard. It was Itard who subjected Victor to inhumane treatment from keeping him on a leash during walks around the grounds, to using violence to arrive at a desired level of obedience. While popular opinion had Victor as some kind of savage creature, which justified the type of treatment he received, Itard disagreed. His own radical beliefs that Victor was more than animal had already condemned his own methods. (1)

The span of Shattuck's narrative falls within the five years Itard spent attempting to give back to Victor human qualities we all grow up with, but which Itard believed had lain dormant for the years that Victor spent in the wild. The author's treatment of Itard makes for most of the interesting reading of the book. Shattuck admires in Itard his determination, his passionate curiosity and his faith in the innate goodness of the almost altogether unresponsive being in front of him. It is through much of Itard's own pen that we get not only the notable events of Victor's progress, but a look inside the mind of a man who needed to believe that we are made of something more than the right combination of a biological foundation and a timely social training. It was the training which Victor lacked, but in his own training Itard was searching for a third element—that which makes us human. (1)

His search was misguided and after his original diagnosis, he never freed himself from a strict idea of what success with Victor would have been. He saw his biggest challenge as that of language and in the end his inability to provide Victor with the gift of speech gives him the feeling of failure. Shattuck aptly jumps on the irony of that situation: Itard kept Victor in an institution for deaf-mutes, and he never once attempted to teach Victor sign language. (1)

At each step of the training he hoped for Victor to act like his idea of a human while treating him still more and more like a caged animal. The most striking series of events arrived with the onset of puberty in Victor. Itard saw the driving sexual force of puberty as a push towards love, the most human of all emotions, and towards the forming of new ties and relationships between young people. He had kept Victor isolated from peers but when the boy began to feel sexual urges, the scientist set up controlled situations with females where he expected Victor's natural urges to lead him towards some kind of more substantial communication. Without any kind of reference to go by Victor felt frustrated and gave up. Itard gave in as well and condemned Victor as an idiot. (1)

Years later, shortly after his death, a younger doctor honored Itard's work in a statement that throws light on Itard's greatest obstacle—his own colleagues. "To train an idiot," praised Dr. Bosquet, "to turn a disgusting, antisocial creature into a bearable obedient boy—this is a victory over nature, it is almost a new creation."(165). It was this way of thinking about people that allowed the experimentation to proceed and a very creative young scientist to find himself walled in. (1)

Sadly, Victor and Itard's case does not stand alone. Among many other claims of "wild" children, the most famous recent case was that of Genie. Thirteen years old when found in 1970, Genie had been deprived by her parents of all social contact for the previous ten years of her life. She was physically debilitated and was not able to speak, a talent she never fully retrieved. As soon as she was discovered by a social worker, scientists apprehended Genie with the same vigor as they had Victor 150 years earlier. (2)

Harlan Lane, a psycholinguist and author of a book about Victor called The Wild Boy of Aveyron, justifies the work done on Genie, pleading, "It's a terribly important case." Lane reasons, "Since our morality doesn't allow us to conduct deprivation experiments with human beings, these unfortunate people are all we have to go on." (3)

Victor was abandoned by Itard after he failed to produce speech. He lived the remainder of his life in social isolation, not at all a deviation from his first 18 years. (1) Genie continues to live but struggles with all aspects of her life. Contact with the researchers assigned to her case was broken off after they were accused of treating her inhumanely for the gain of fame and prestige, without any hint of scientific direction. The suit was settled out of court. (3)

Shattuck approaches the case of Victor with great curiosity and in many way justifies the ignorance and cruelty of Itard and the other scientists of the time. In a more recent book, Forbidden Knowledge, that innocence is less evident as he makes some heavy criticisms of our natural affinity towards inquisitiveness. He alludes mostly to mythology; his examples range from Adam and Eve to Mary Shelley's Dr. Frankenstein. Each classic case demonstrates an instance of temptation overriding intellect. (4),(5) Victor, on the other hand, was unconcerned with knowledge and ego. His mind was freer than ours may ever be. Shattuck speaks of Victor escaping from "humanity into animality"(181)(1). It is an attractive concept.

It makes sense that we would like Victor to speak to us. We want to know what he knows. Itard never thought of Victor's mental state in terms of knowledge, but preferred forgetfulness. (1) Is that what we want; to forget? What are our motives in these 'unfortunate' instances? Would we learn from the dumb how not to speak; how to forget? Or would we teach language and culture so that Victor may live with us and suffer as we do? What does that make us?



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

2)NOVA transcript, transcript for 'Genie' episode

3)The Civilizing of Genie , the story of Genie

4)Online News Hour, Shattuck interview

5)Ethical Culture Book Review, review of Forbidden Knowledge

6)Feral Children Website, a great resource about 'wild' children