Nature, Nurture, & Feral Children

For a long time, scientists have argued whether it is nature or nurture that determines how humans behave (also called the nature versus nurture debate). While one view states that our genetic make up is mostly responsible for determining our behavior (nature), the other view states that our environment and culture shapes how we behave (nurture). As the book stated, most people seem to understand that nature and nurture both play a part in the way humans behave and the interaction of both can lead to a variety of things.


Something that I found really interesting and seems to support this idea is epigenetics, “the study of changes in gene expression that are produced without changing the underlying genetic code.” Your DNA will stay the same, but the kind of person you turn out to be can be different and that’s because of social factors.


In our textbook, there was a section that talked about humans being raised without any sort of culture or socialization. A girl named Isabelle was kept in isolation with her mother and after she was found, she basically behaved like an animal without the ability to speak or interact with humans. Eventually though, she was able to learn and function normally with her peers. What’s really interesting though is that this is not always the case.

A popular psychology study that I learned about in high school had to do with a girl named Genie. Her father kept her isolated in a room since she was a baby (tied to a toilet seat) for 13 years until she was found abused and malnourished.


Numerous people worked with her motor, communication, social, and learning skills and she was able to improve to some extent, but she was never able to learn a full language, walk properly, or have normal social skills. In this case, Genie went through most of her adolescent years with no culture or socialization. Bringing back epigenetics, she had the genes to grow up to be a normal kid and adult (nature), but because of her social and environmental factors (nurture), she was unable to grow to that full potential and never recovered from it.

(In case anyone wanted to watch the documentary on Genie- definitely recommend!)

Another case that I learned about similar to this dealt with a boy named Victor from France. Unlike Isabelle and Genie, Victor was not found isolated. He was found in the woods in 1800 at the age of 12. One thing that they noticed was how he was quite comfortable in the cold and snow, even when he was naked. They attributed this to his upbringing in the woods, because there was obviously no way for him to make warm clothes in that environment. Eventually, it lead him to get accustomed to the cold weather. Just like Genie though, Victor was also unable to recover completely in terms of communication and social skills. His situation also shows how great of an impact nurture can have on human behavior.


I’m not sure what causes this difference between Isabelle and Genie/Victor where one was able to recover her skills completely while the other two were unable (maybe brain development and length/nature of isolation), but it is certainly something I’d love to learn more about!


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  1. Lauren Salzstein

    Another person like Isabelle, and Genie is a boy named Peter. He grew up in the woods, walked on all fours and could not be taught, nor could speak. His so called “culture” changed him. Like Isabelle, he was thought of as animal like. Peter is now used in numerous theories of child development, socialization and the role of language.

    • I’ve never heard of this case, but it’s interesting! Peter was found even before Victor was. A lot of researchers seem to pounce at the chance to study feral children like these because they obviously cannot make up their own studies and isolate children on purpose.

  2. Lots of variables here…conditions, length of time, age of child, treatment given, etc. But, yes, these cases have attracted considerable interest over the years.

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