The forbidden experiment this title refers to concerns experiments that would lend a great deal of understanding to the world of science but for moral and ethical reasons are unperformable. Raising children in closets to see what happens to their language learning ability is one of those experiments. However, every once in a great while, a child comes into the limelight who has been raised in some completely non-standard [or unknown] way as to make them a tabula rasa of sorts. Then, of course, the scientists come flocking.
This book concerns one such child, a boy who was captured living seemingly wildly in the woods of France in 1800. He was shuffled around a bit but came under intense scrutiny by one particular scientist who made it a part of his life’s work to teach this “savage” to talk and perhaps even to read. His detailed notebooks have been translated and commented on by the author and make for very fascinating reading. The experiment ultimately failed, in some respects, but the insights gained both by the professor at the time, and the author of this book in the present, are worth the read. Concepts explored include the nature of wildness, people’s fascination with the “natural state” the learnign and teaching profess, the appropriateness of differing levels of closeness in the student/teacher relationship, etc. Shattuck is able to take an event that happened over 200 years ago and make it still entertaining but also thought provoking and somehow poignant. Many of the questions that the wild boy’s teacher sought to answer remain unknown and in this new age of improved communication and information, the liklihood of discovering any future “wild boys” that are not also victims of some sort of terrible abuse seems very remote indeed.