The Soul of Eugene Marais and the Origin of a “Revolutionary Theory”

Eugene Marais

How can one describe a man as brilliant as Eugene Marais? Perhaps accounts of such men are best left to the bards. Robert Ardrey, who wrote a lengthy introduction to Marais’ The Soul of the Ape, was a bard (or, more accurately, a playwright) for much of his career. I will leave the task to him:

Eugene Marais was a human community in the person of one man. He was a poet, an advocate, a journalist, a story-teller, a drug addict, a psychologist, a natural scientist. He embraced the pains of many, the visions of the few, and perhaps the burden was too much for one man… As a scientist he was unique, supreme in his time, yet a worker in a science then unborn.

A South African, Marais’ first book, The Soul of the White Ant, was a compilation of a series of articles about African termites originally published between 1923 and 1925 in his native Afrikaans (the same word is used for “soul” and “mind” in Afrikaans). His work was crudely plagiarized by Maurice Maeterlinck, winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1911, in his Life of the White Ant. The incident is described in a preface to Marais’ book by his translator:

About six years after these articles appeared, Maurice Maeterlinck published his book The Life of the White Ant, in which he described the organic unity of the termitary and compared it with the human body. The theory created great interest at the time and was generally accepted as an original one formulated by Maeterlinck. The fact that an unknown South African observer had developed the theory after many years of extensive labor was not generally known in Europe.

Marais’ masterpiece, The Soul of the Ape, is the first prolonged scientific study of primates in the wild (in this case, the baboon) ever published. Although he had published vignettes of his life with baboons in a little volume called My Friends the Baboons, the unfinished manuscript of his great work was not discovered and published until over a quarter of a century after his death. Like The Soul of the White Ant, the work virtually sparkles with remarkable hypotheses. Some were wide of the mark. Others were of enduring brilliance, and one such has recently been reborn, unattributed and described as a “revolutionary theory.”

Marais devised the terms “phyletic memory” and “causal memory” to describe his observations of animal behavior. The former referred to instinctive behavior. As Marais put it,

There are many analogies between memory and instinct, and although these may not extend to fundamentals, they are still of such a nature that the term phyletic memory will always convey a clear understanding of the most characteristic attributes of instinct.

By causal memory Marais meant the higher cognitive ability we usually associate with the term, or, as he described it, “the ability to memorize the relation of cause and effect.”  He believed that this type of memory had assumed a dominant evolutionary role in primates, giving them the ability to quickly adapt to rapidly changing environments.  As he noted in the case of his baboons, who quickly learned to avoid men with guns after their first encounter with them,

Here we have behavior shaped entirely by the new memory. The animal is burdened by no ready-made hereditary memory useful only in meeting customary events in its environment and likely to become highly disadvantageous in the presence of new and unaccustomed conditions.

As I alluded to earlier, Marais’ idea recently had a curtain call on an episode of Nova’s Becoming Human series, where it is described as a “radical new theory,” and attributed to paleoanthropologist Rick Potts.  To the best of my knowledge, Potts himself never made such a claim.  However, according to the account in Becoming Human, the brain size of human ancestors had “flat-lined” for around four million years after they had first begun walking on two legs.  Then, over a period of no more than half a million years, there had been a remarkable increase in brain capacity.  Asking the rhetorical question, “Why this sudden take off,” Nova goes on to describe research confirming “wild climate changes” in Africa during the period.  For example, core samples indicated that a massive lake had appeared, disappeared, and reappeared on the same spot many times under climactic conditions of constant flux, including radical changes over periods of as little as a thousand years.  Enter Rick Potts, who, in Nova’s account, had just formulated a “bold theory of human evolution,” according to which our ancestors had acquired large brains in the process of “adapting to change itself.”  Elaborating on this theme, once again touted as a “revolutionary idea,” Nova describes the process as an “adaptation to versatility,” by which our ancestors rapidly acquired big brains and high intelligence in response to these cataclysmic climate swings.

I will let Marais himself answer this claim to “revolutionary ideas.”  In The Soul of the Ape, published in 1969, he writes:

If now we picture the great continent of Africa with its extreme diversity of natural conditions – its high, cold, treeless plateaux; its impenetrable tropical forests; its great river systems; its inland seas; its deserts; its rain and droughts; its sudden climatic changes capable of altering the natural aspect of great tracts of country in a few years – all forming an apparently systemless chaos, and then picture its teeming masses of competing organic life, comprising more species, more numbers and of greater size than can be found on any other continent on earth, is it not at once evident how great would be the advantage if under such conditions a species could be liberated from the limiting force of hereditary memories? Would it not be conducive to preservation if under such circumstances a species could either suddenly change its habitat or meet any new natural conditions thrust upon it by means of immediate adaptation? Is it not self-evident that in a species far-wandering, whether on account of sudden natural changes, competitive pressure, or through inborn “wanderlust,” those individuals which could best and most quickly adapt themselves to the most varied conditions would be the ones most likely to survive and perpetuate the race, and that among species, one equipped for distant migrations would always have a better chance than a confined one? Are not all the elements present to bring about the natural selection of an attribute by means of which a species could thus meet and neutralise one of the most prolific causes of destruction?

This is not advanced as a demonstrable theory. It is no more than an attempt to show that it is hardly possible to imagine conditions existing anywhere in nature at any time which would not in some degree tend towards the evolution of such an attribute. If these present conditions are self-evidently likely to select it, how much more likely, for instance, would not its birth and growth have been during the earlier history of the planet, during the Pleistocene period, when cataclysmic movements of its crust and great and repeated climatic changes still belonged to the usual and customary category of natural events.

So much for Nova’s “revolutionary idea.” Perhaps we should not be surprised by this particular case of scientific amnesia.  After all, Marais’ name is closely associated with that of a man of similar talent and genius; Robert Ardrey.  Ardrey dedicated his first book, African Genesis to him, and, as noted earlier, wrote a lengthy and charming introduction to The Soul of the Ape.  Unfortunately, Ardrey smashed the singularly implausible notion of the Blank Slate rather earlier than was convenient to fit the narrative of the modern community of “experts” in human behavior, according to which that brilliant deed was only begun more than a decade after the appearance of African Genesis by E. O. Wilson with his Sociobiology.   As a result, Ardrey has become an unperson among them, and anyone associated with his memory is, no doubt, suspect as well. 

No matter.  The genius of Marais speaks for itself.  Ardrey wrote a much better farewell to him than I could have done:

Just as a remarkable guest, one of vision and many anecdotes and a remote madness, might spend an evening by our fire, then glance at his watch and rise, so Marais takes his leave. There is a suddenness that is part of our knowledge that we shall never see him again. And we watch through the curtains as our visitor from times past walks down the path, touching things with his cane. Beyond the gate he turns down the road to the right, swinging his cane more freely. He passes under a streetlamp and vanishes in the darkness beyond the trees. Whom else did he ever visit? Where else did he go?

Author: Helian

I am Doug Drake, and I live in Maryland, not far from Washington, DC. I am a graduate of West Point, and I hold a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering from the University of Wisconsin. My blog reflects my enduring fascination with human nature and human morality.

4 thoughts on “The Soul of Eugene Marais and the Origin of a “Revolutionary Theory””

  1. It is either the eternal, the inevitable tragedy of mankind or the promise of its survival, that the books of gifted men,as Robert Ardrey’s,are all but forgotten,hidden behind the curtain of selfdelusion, the romantic fallacy, which seems to be a better suited philosophy of life on this planet for the many than the pristine reasoning of a few.

  2. A response for Mr. Mertens; Is it because the nation of humans without a territory have written fables that condemn its reader to believe or suffer in the afterlife that the romantic fallacy still clings to life. Or that on any given night more TV watchers view the evening soup opera than pbs because fantasy is much more digestible than reality. Or that being mature enough to accept the ultimate truth is too painful. Or etc……

  3. How did romantic become synonymous with fallacy. There is observation and deduction, elevated by insight and empathy, history is littered with fallacy; likewise science; there is no such thing as pristine reasoning, but the best is independent.

  4. I don’t know of anyone who really considers them synonymous. Ardrey defined the term “romantic fallacy” as “…the central conviction of modern thought that all human behavior, with certain clearly stated exceptions, results from causes lying within the human experience.” In other words, he was referring to the Blank Slate orthodoxy that prevailed at the time.

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