HUMAN beings, such being their nature, desire to know. So wrote Aristotle, more or less, thereby describing one characteristic of being human and perhaps providing one possible distinction between human beings and their fellow creatures.
Inquiring human beings of our day have been taught that among the distinctions between humankind and animal life are, first, the ability to use language; second, the ability to make and use tools; third, a sense of consciousness about oneself; and, fourth, the ability to transmit culture. Each of these distinctions, as is true of all icons scientific and scriptural, has crumpled and fallen to make dust and detritus. As human beings have come to invest in the study of animal life, they have come to understand also that whatever may be thought to be unique and defining about human beings is also characteristic of other animals. The remaining candidates for distinction are metaphysical and spiritual, such as the idea that only human beings are conscious of death or that humankind, alone among animal life, desires to know. These icons may not be as solid as we think.
This book concerns the attempts by human beings to know about themselves by trying to understand the minds of other creatures, both those of other people and of other animals. How people have tried to do this tells us much about ourselves and the ways in which we human beings attempt to learn and to know. One way that reveals itself in European ideas of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was to examine "feral" children--that is, children presumably raised outside culture and civilization--who were presumably raised by animals. In this book, I first reexamine what is known about some of these so-called feral children: namely, Peter, Victor, and Kaspar Hauser, and the "wolf-girls" of India, Amala and Kamala. In Chapters 1 and 2 I examine not so much the dramatic aspects of the children, but why we human beings selected these forms of life for study in the expectation of reaching an understanding of what, precisely, inheritance gives and what society and socialization contribute. These children would be oddities in any age, but different