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New Left Review I/74, July-August 1972

New Left Review

Introduction to Mannoni

The observation of wild children, re-captured after years in the forest or jungle, provides the most elementary disproof of the myth of ‘human nature’. These mirrors, in which man strives to recognize his own essence, exhibit none of those ‘human’ characteristics which he flatters himself are his by ‘nature’. The philosophical anthropologist finds himself confronted, not with natural man, in all the purity of his true origin, the veneer of civilization and culture stripped away, but with the grotesque travesty of a wolf, a bear or a sheep, mis-shapen, furry, running on all fours, howling, snarling and bleating. As Lucien Malson points out, in his book on Wolf Children, [1] Lucien Malson, Wolf Children and Jean Itard, The Wild Boy of Aveyron, NLB 1972. there is no better demonstration that man has no nature, only a history, and that biological heredity has no psychological counterpart. (This is not to rule out, of course, the existence of innate capacities, as Chomsky argues; indeed, the plasticity of wild children, able to grow up as wolves or sheep, within their limits, seems to support this thesis.) The forms of human psychology—whose content are combinations of social practices to be specified differentially for each individual—are determined by the structures of society and history. A-social and a-historical feral man—savage in the true sense—is fated to be inhuman, an anomaly in the animal kingdom. The biological man is no more than the material support of social man; we can no more understand ‘man’ through biology or physiology, genetics or behaviourism, that we can understand language through phonetics.

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