A common question related to sociology concerns the nature of the human being versus the way it is posed. Do you know if you are a boy or a girl at birth, or do you make this distinction based on the actions and words of those around you? How does prison affect a person’s functionality once they are released into the world? These questions are strongly related to nature versus nurture: does a human enter the world with a basic human function, or does he develop these functions as a result of those around him?
One subject that sociologists can study is wild children. These are children who were abandoned at a very young age, with death generally intended by the parents, but who were raised and cared for by animals. Sociologists found that children raised by animals acquired the instincts and behaviors of the species that raised them. An example of this occurred in the 1700s, when scientists of the time discovered a wild boy known as “the wild boy of Aveyron”. It was found in France in 1798, and it was observed to walk on all fours, indicate no pain related to low temperatures, and pounce on small animals, voraciously devouring them raw. Although most sociologists will dismiss the importance of wild children due to the scarcity of cases, it still teaches us a lesson that children must learn to act at an early age. This essential time of youth is when children develop many essential social behaviors.
A slightly more common study is that of isolated children. These are children who were raised by one person or a small group of people in an isolated area with little or no contact with a typical society. One girl, Isabelle, was raised by her deaf and dumb mother in her grandfather’s attic. Upon being discovered at the age of 6, she was found to be unable to speak and rather relied on gestures to communicate with her mother. He also had a disease called rickets as a result of improper diet and lack of sunlight. This basically rendered his legs useless. His behavior towards strangers, especially men, was like a wild animal. He treated them with fear and hostility, and could only make noise in the form of strange squawks. She initially scored near zero on an IQ test, but because Isabelle was discovered at such a young age, she was able to reach the expected level of learning for her age in two years. It is possible that the results of isolation can be reversed if the child is less than twelve years old. The main problem, however, was the lack of a language, which is basic to all human interaction. All other interactions can be divided into subcategories for vocal communication.
These first two studies, isolated and wild children, can be seen through one of Charles Horton Cooley’s theories of human interaction. Cooley, who lived in the late 19th century, created a theory that summarized how human development occurs, capturing the theory in the concept of the “mirror self.” This theory had three main elements: we imagine how we see ourselves to those around us, we interpret the reactions of others, and we develop a concept of ourselves. The basic essence of this 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 wild child is raised by animals, he will acquire the attributes of those animals. Similarly, an isolated child will base his actions on other isolated individuals or no one, and will develop little or no basic interaction skills.
Even more common than isolated or wild children are institutionalized children. Two or three centuries ago, orphanages were very different than they are now. The children were raised with little or no care on a strict schedule. In addition to this, children were often beaten, ragged, and denied food. As a result, children who come from orphanages tend to have difficulty bonding closely with others and have lower IQs. In an account of a fine Iowa orphanage in the 1930s, children were raised in daycare for approximately six months. They were placed in cribs that had high sides, effectively limiting their view of the world around them. No toys were hung from the cribs, nor did Mom hold them tight. The interaction they achieved was limited to nurses changing diapers, bedding, and providing medication. Although everyone assumed that mental retardation was a “he just was born this way” problem, two sociologists investigated and followed the lives of the children who grew up in this Iowa orphanage. HM Skeels and HB Dye began to understand that the lack of Mental stimulation was depriving these children of the basic human interaction skills they needed to be effective members of society. In one study, they took thirteen children who were obviously retarded and assigned them a retarded woman who would care for them. They also chose twelve children who would be raised in the orphanage in the usual way and assessed the IQ of both groups. It was observed that the first group developed an intense relationship with their respective ‘mothers’ and received much more
attention than their counterparts. While all the children studied were still retarded, the first group’s IQ was observed to skyrocket by a staggering 28 points on average. In an equally surprising statistic, the other group’s average was found to drop by an average of 30 IQ points. This study demonstrated the importance of human interaction at an early age.
A final lesson can be drawn from underprivileged animals. These are animals that were separated from their mother at a young age and raised in isolation. Harry and Margaret Harlow carried out a famous study on this subject, who raised a baby monkey in isolation. They built two ‘mothers’ for their monkey, one that was a wire frame with a nipple from which the monkey could suckle, and one that was covered with a soft cloth. They found that even though the first mother provided nourishment, the baby clung to the mother gently when frightened, showing that the monkey was more comfortable through intimate physical contact or cuddling.
When the monkey was introduced to a community of monkeys, he was rejected and had no idea how normal monkey civilization was structured. He did not know how to play normally with the other monkeys, or how to engage in sex, despite several feeble attempts.
In conducting this study with monkeys, they found that those who got pregnant became ferocious mothers: they beat their babies, kicked them, or smashed them to the ground. They were monkeys that grew up in this isolated environment for years and had no chance of integrating into society. Other monkeys were seen to overcome these disabilities with increasingly positive results – a corresponding relationship with the amount of time they spent in isolation. Monkeys isolated for three to six months integrated relatively easily, 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 grow into adults and social ideas are not transferred through DNA. Although the body can grow, isolation victimizes them to be little more than mere animals. In fact, the lack of language skills results in an inability to understand the relationships between people, such as father, mother, teacher and friend. To become adults, children must be surrounded by people who take care of them. This process called “socialization” shows that we are created by those around us.