A common question related to sociology deals with the nature of the human being versus the way it is raised. Does one know if he is a boy or a girl upon birth, or does he make this distinction based on the actions and words of those around him? How does prison affect the functionality of a person once he is released to the world? These questions are strongly related to the nature versus nurture – does a human enter the world with basic human function, or does he develop these functions as a result of those around him.
One topic sociologists may study is feral children. These are children that were deserted at a very young age, with death usually the intention of the parents, but were rather raised and groomed by animals. Sociologists found that children raised by animals acquired the instincts and behaviors of the species that raised them. One example of this occurred in the 1700s, when a feral child known as “the wild boy of Aveyron” was discovered by scientists of the day. He was found in France in 1798, and it was observed that he walked on all fours, did not indicate pain related to cold temperatures, and pounced on small animals – devouring them raw in ravenous fashion. Although most sociologists will discard the significance of feral children because of the sparseness of cases, it still teaches us a lesson that children must learn how to act at a young age. This essential time of youth is when children develop many essential social behaviors.
A slightly more common study is on isolated children. These are children that were raised by one person or a small group of persons in an isolated area with minimal or no contact to a typical society. One girl, Isabelle, was raised by her deaf, mute mother in the attic of her grandfather. Upon being discovered at the age of 6, it was found that she could not talk, and rather relied on gestures to communicate with her mother. She also had a disease called rickets as a result of an inadequate diet and a lack of sunshine. This basically made her legs useless. Her behavior towards strangers, men especially, was like a wild animal. She treated them with fear and hostility – and could only make noise in the way of strange croaks. Initially she scored nearly zero on an IQ test – but because Isabelle was discovered at such a young age, she was able to reach the learning level expected from her age in two years. It is possible that results of isolation can be reversed if the child is younger than twelve. The primary problem, however, was a lack of a language, which is basic to all human interaction. All other interaction can be divided into sub categories to vocal communication.
These first two studies, isolated and feral children, can be viewed through one of Charles Horton Cooley’s theories on human interaction. Cooley, who lived in the late 1800s, created a theory that summed up how human development occurs, capturing the theory in the concept of ‘the looking glass self’. This theory had three primary elements: we imagine how we appear to those around us, we interpret others’ reactions, and we develop a self concept. The basic gist of it is that we look at those around us, and base our appearance and social interactions on what they do and what they expect. If a feral child is raised by animals, he is going to acquire the attributes of those animals. Likewise, an isolated child will base his actions on other isolated individuals or no one, and will develop little or no basic interaction skill.
Still more common than isolated or feral children is institutionalized children. Two or three centuries ago, orphanages were much different than they are now. Children were raised with little or no care on a strict schedule. On top of this, children were often beaten, ragged, and denied food. As a result, children coming from orphanages tended to have difficulty establishing close bonds with others, and have lower IQs. In an account of a good Iowa orphanage in the 1930s, children were raised in the nursery until about six months. They were placed in cribs that had tall sides, effectively limiting vision to the world around them. No toys were hung from the cribs, not mother held them closely. The interaction they did get was limited to nurses who changed diapers, bedding, and provided them medication. Although everyone assumed that mental retardation was a “he was just born that way” issue, two sociologists investigated and followed the lives of the children who were raised in this Iowa orphanage. H. M. Skeels and H. B. Dye began to understand that a lack of mental stimulation was depriving these children of the basic human interaction skills they needed to be effective members of society. In a study, they took thirteen children who were obviously retarded and assigned them a retarded woman who would look after them. They also chose twelve children who would be raised in the orphanage the usual way, and tested both groups for IQ. The first group was noted to develop an intense relationship with their respective ‘mothers’, and received much more
attention than their counterparts. While all of the studied children were still retarded, it was noted that the first group’s IQs spiked by a jaw-dropping average of 28 points. In an equally startling statistic, it was found that the other group’s average dropped by an average of 30 IQ points. This study demonstrated the importance of human interaction at a young age.
A final lesson can be taken from deprived animals. These are animals that were stripped from their mother at a young age and raised in isolation. A famous study regarding this topic was conducted by Harry and Margaret Harlow, who raised a baby monkey in isolation. They constructed two ‘mothers’ for their monkey, one which was a wire frame with a nipple on it from which the monkey could nurse, and one that was covered in soft fabric. They found that even though the first mother provided nourishment, the baby would cling to the soft mother when frightened, showing that the monkey felt more comfortable through intimate physical contact – or cuddling.
When the monkey was introduced to a monkey community, he was rejected, and had no concept of how normal monkey civilization was structured. He knew neither how to play normally with the other monkeys, nor how to engage in sexual intercourse, despite several feeble attempts.
Upon conducting this study with female monkeys, they found that those that did become pregnant became vicious mothers – they struck their babies, kicked them, or crushed them against the floor. These were monkeys who were raised in this isolated environment for years, and had no chance of integration to society. Other monkeys were observed to overcome these disabilities with increasingly positive results: a corresponding relationship with the amount of time spent in isolation. Monkeys isolated for three to six months were relatively easily integrated, while monkeys isolated for years suffered irreversible effects. When applied to humans, we understand that social interaction is key to a socially efficient product.
In short, society makes us human. Babies do not naturally develop into adults, and social ideas are not transferred via DNA. Although the body may grow, isolation victimizes them to be little more than mere animals. In fact, a lack of language skill results in an inability to even grasp the relations between people – such as father, mother, teacher and friend. In order to develop into an adult, children must be surrounded by people who care for them. This process called “socialization” shows that we are crafted by those around us.