The Movie Diary
April 20, 2016

The beasts within

By Dom Cioffi

Since the dawn of psychology, mankind has wondered, Is it nature or nurture that makes us who we are? Is it our genes or the environment in which we are reared that determines the kind of person we will be? No one can argue that each side plays an important role in human development, but the question remains: Does one side overshadow or dominate the other?

We know as scientific fact that within each human cell there is coding that determines the different traits that we have, like eye color, ear size, height and skin tone. However, it is still not known whether more abstract attributes like personality, intelligence and sexual orientation are gene-coded in our DNA, as well.

In recent years, epigenetic marks (chemical modifications of DNA that don’t change the underlying sequence) have suggested that some behaviors could be hardwired. The most famous of these is probably the “gay gene,” whose discovery was announced by a team of scientists from the University of California at the end of last year (and later refuted).

But for all the inroads that are being made, science can only go so far with experiments. It is simply unethical to push human experimentation to the extreme. However, certain rare and perverse situations (like the cases of feral children), have given scientists a peek into an otherwise inaccessible stream of information.

A feral child is a human child who has lived isolated from all or most human contact from a very young age, and has little or no experience of human care, behavior or language. Through the study of feral children, scientists are offered a rare glimpse into seeing how the absence of nurturing can effect human development.

Take the case of Oxana Malaya.

Born on Nov. 4, 1983, in an impoverished area of the Ukraine, Oxana was born to alcoholic parents who were poor and uneducated. At a young age, her parents began a disturbing trend of neglect by forcing Oxana to live outdoors in the company of stray dogs who subsequently cared for her by bringing her scraps of food. She slept in a kennel behind the house and was never spoken to or shown affection by humans.

She learned to growl, bark and crouch like a wild dog, sniffed at her food before she ate it, and eventually developed an acute sense of hearing, smell and sight.

Thankfully she was discovered by authorities at the age of seven and was given years of specialized therapy and education to address her behavioral, social and educational issues. Oxana eventually learned to speak and write, but remained intellectually impaired.

The same can’t be said for for a 13-year-old girl who was discovered in Los Angeles in 1970.

As a baby, Genie Wiley’s father concluded that she was mentally retarded so he locked her alone in a room inside the family home and restricted other family members from seeing her. During this time, she was almost always strapped to a child’s toilet or bound in a crib with her arms and legs completely immobilized.

The extent of Genie’s isolation prevented her from being exposed to any significant amount of speech or other human stimulation. Needless to say, Genie was the size of a six-year-old and severally disabled when authorities freed her.

Soon after her discovery, scientists realized how important Genie could be with her near-total isolation being a unique chance to study multiple aspects of human development. With intensive therapy, Genie progressed rapidly in the months following her release, but she still remained severally impaired for her age.

A team of doctors and psychologists managed Genie’s care for months, but her subsequent living arrangements eventually became the subject of a rancorous debate. In late 1971, she left the hospital to live with her teacher, but a month and a half later authorities placed her with the family of the scientist heading the research team. Later in 1975, she returned to live with her mother but the arrangements soon fell through.

As a result of the constant displacement, Genie’s condition deteriorated and she was eventually placed into an institution for disabled adults where she remains to this day. Genie’s mother also got a court order to end all scientific observations, severing any chance for further study and rendering any insights from her situation void.

This week’s film, “The Jungle Book,” also features a young feral child. His name is Mowgli and thankfully his fictional life makes for a much more endearing story.

Based on the classic tale from Rudyard Kipling, “The Jungle Book” has been brilliantly reimagined for the big screen with the latest advances in computer generated effects. In other words, this is the most realistic live action CGI film ever created.

I must admit that I was in awe throughout this picture. I have never seen such detail in CGI work or witnessed so much nuance in digitally created characters.

Of course, no amount of eye candy can carry a film; a picture’s ultimate success will rest within its story. Thankfully, “The Jungle Book” provides ample fodder for adults to chew on, while less discerning youngsters will find nothing but whimsy and adventure.

A wild “B” for “The Jungle Book.”

Got a question or comment for Dom? You can email him at moviediary@att.net.

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