Children (and especially animals) don’t only learn through imitation, however. A child learns to stand up and toddle without copying the muscle movements of adults or other children. The body comes with an innate awareness of how to function in its environment. Cases of feral children in many ways resemble autistic children[i], but one obvious difference is that low-functioning autistic children are dependent on their caregivers to survive, while feral children are dependent on no one. One thing we can deduce from this is that culture and socialization has little to do with physical survival. So what is it for?
The body’s innate ability to function within its environment (at least a natural environment) is called instinct. The cultural assumption (the consensus) is that instinct is not enough. In fact, at a certain point, instinct is seen as the enemy of culture. Socialization and enculturation, as Freud described, entails the suppression of instincts in order to prevent unchecked sexuality and barbarism (i.e., mimetic violence). Yet animals get along fine without a culture, and whatever else they may be, humans are animals. Culture is meant to represent our superiority over the other animals; it is seen as an expression of our higher nature. But all the evidence would suggest the reverse. Bees know how to build complex structures. Birds know when and where to migrate to. Pigeon, eels, and most other creatures know their way home no matter how far they are from it. It’s as if they have their own GPS system, which may in fact be so. In Magical Child, Joseph Chilton Pearce writes,
[J]ust as you can divide a holographic plate and find the whole picture in any piece, so the brain can be considered just such a piece of the earth, reflecting within it the picture or workings of the whole life system. The human brain may be a kind of microminiature replica of the living planet [and] we can consider our brains pieces of the earth hologram, just as any and all parts of the earth are pieces of a greater hologram. . . At birth, the brain, as a hologram fragment, must have exposure to and interact with the earth hologram to achieve clarity, to bring the brain’s picture into focus. . . Those brains reflecting highly specific aspects of the earth, such as the brain of a homing pigeon or a bee, achieve rapid autonomy. The greater the potential content of the brain hologram, the slower the process of clarification. . . . In moving from simpler to more complex thinkings [sic] organs, life’s growth has been towards a more open intelligence and a more flexible logic. The more open the intelligence, the greater the totality of the earth that hologram can express. . . . Each animal is able to interact with the earth within certain strict limits. Lower brains are not holograms of the whole earth, only certain aspects of that earth. The simpler the brain, the more specific its programming and the more readily it can efficiently interact with the earth. . . . Human infants have a long, slow development of autonomy, they are more helpless for a longer period than infants of any other species.
If human beings have a similar, more advanced, internal guidance system to animals, then learning by imitation — adopting the social language — may not be essential to our survival at all. There may be no need for culture or for externally shaped group arrangements. These things may only be a distortion of our true natures and a distraction from them. They may also cause a disruption of our internal guidance system.
[i]A perhaps less than unimpeachable source, Bruno Bettelheim, wrote about this in “Feral Children and Autistic Children,” The American Journal of Sociology, Vol. 64, No. 5. (Mar., 1959), pp. 455-467.: “Study of the so-called feral children, and comparison of them with known and well-observed wild autistic children, suggests strongly that their behavior is due in large part, if not entirely, to extreme emotional isolation combined with experiences which they interpreted as threatening them with utter destruction. It seems to be the result of some persons’ — usually their parents’ — inhumanity and not the result, as was assumed, of animals’ — particularly wolves’ — humanity. To put it differently, feral children seem to be produced not when wolves behave like mothers but when mothers behave like non-humans. The conclusion tentatively forced on us is that, while there are no feral children, there are some very rare examples of feral mothers, of human beings who become feral to one of their children,” p. 467. See also Not Even Wrong: Adventures in Autism, by Paul Collins, in which the author, compares his autistic son to the case of Peter the Wild Boy, a feral, nearly mute child found naked in the German countryside in 1725 and eventually given an adoptive home. Jill Dawson’s Wild Boy (which I haven’t read) presents the theory that “the wild boy of Aveyron” a feral child who allegedly “lived his entire childhood naked and alone in the woods before being found wandering the woods near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance, France, in 1797,” was history’s first autistic child. The wild boy was the subject of François Truffaut’s film L’Enfant Sauvage, released in 1970. One website offers an interesting theory about feral children that might also be applied to autists (as well as Zen monks and samurai warriors!): “This explains their inexplicably blunt responses to life. In other words, they respond bluntly to their life events, not because they lack socialization skills but rather because they do not blame (as in civilized blaming). Or perhaps a better way to say this would be that the essence of what we consider being ‘socialized,’ and ‘civilized’ in fact, is that we can explain our suffering. Thus feral children remain uncivilized because they do not attempt to explain their suffering. They simply react to it.” http://www.theemergencesite.com/QandA/QA051219-Conscious-Subconscious-Unconscious.htm