Ferality and Morality: The Politics of the “Forbidden Experiment” in the Twentieth Century

  • Sandra SwartEmail author
Part of the Interdisciplinary Evolution Research book series (IDER, volume 1)


In the first decades of the twentieth century, several experiments were conducted to compare the development of human and non-human animals. These investigations were premised on “cross-fostering”—raising animal and human babies together in human families. Such experiments were themselves loaded with difficult ethical questions, grappled with in the fledgling fields of primatology, ethology and, particularly, psychology. Yet the antithetical case study, where a human baby was raised by apes—the so-called Forbidden Experiment—violated too many social norms and ethical principles to be conducted. Thus, academics embraced the possibility of “natural” case studies. This essay tracks the various cases of “real Tarzans” that materialised, with special focus on the “Baboon Boy” of South Africa. Researchers used the feral children to bolster their own arguments about nature and nurture, particularly with reference to early child development. The essay delineates the contesting contentions which erupted in international academic circles in the 1930s and 1940s, which created the intellectual context for ensuing cases of feral children. Thus, the essay traces change over time in the shifting understanding of the “Forbidden Experiment”.


Feral child Primatology Baboon Forbidden experiment 


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2014

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.History DepartmentStellenbosch UniversityStellenboschRepublic of South Africa

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