On Eugene Marais

Robert Ardrey

Robert Ardrey
Robert Ardrey

Early in the 20th century Eugène Marais, South African journalist, lawyer, poet and natural scientist, travelled to the wild Northern Transvaal and lived for three years at close quarters with a troop of chacma baboons.

The Soul of the Ape is the record of his experiences and observations. Lost for forty years, the manuscript was rediscovered by Robert Ardrey, who dedicated his African Genesis to Marais. Ardrey believed that Marais’ work “presents better than any other book published thus far the dawning of humanity in the psyche of the higher primate.”

Ardrey was an American playwright, screenwriter and science writer perhaps best known for The Territorial Imperative (1966). After a Broadway and Hollywood career, he returned to his academic training in anthropology and the behavioral sciences.

The following is his introduction to the original edition of The Soul of the Ape, and is included in A Distant Mirror’s The Soul of the Ape & My Friends the Baboons.

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, and a natural scientist. He embraced the pains of the many, the visions of the few, and perhaps the burden was too much for one man. But perhaps, also, none but such a human community could have written, almost half a century ago, The Soul of the Ape. This manuscript, which was lost for so long, must rank today as a significant contribution to a science that did not exist at the time of its composition.

When in 1961 I dedicated African Genesis to Marais’s memory, I wrote:

As no gallery of modern art can fail to be haunted by the burning eyes of Vincent Van Gogh, so the pages of no future science can fail to be haunted by the brooding, solitary, less definable presence of Eugène Marais.

At that time, we knew of the existence of the manuscript through his letters. And we knew its theme: the evolutionary origins of the subconscious mind in man. But after his death in 1936, the manuscript could not be found. And a quarter of a century later it seemed lost forever.

Eugene Marais

But then with the recovery of The Soul of the Ape, and its publication by Human and Rousseau Press (Johannesburg, 1969), Marais’s presence in the sciences has taken on a more arresting definition. But it remains no less solitary, no less brooding; no less, like some lost and recovered portrait itself, a tragic masterpiece.

Eugène Marais was born in South Africa in a farming community near Pretoria in 1871. In a letter he described it as “an isolated uithoek, as completely cut off from the rest of the civilised world, as the loneliest isle in the Pacific”.

His family was Afrikaner, of the same people who in the 1830s had abandoned the Cape of Good Hope to the new domination of the English and had driven their ox-teams, their covered wagons, and their herds far north into the African interior to found their own republics, the Transvaal and the Orange Free State.

These people, in turn, were descendants of the original settlers sent out to the Cape by the Dutch East India Company in the later 1600s. Although we tend to think of the Afrikaner as entirely Dutch-derived, in fact there were many French among them. Huguenots, they had taken refuge in Holland; and the Dutch government, not knowing quite what to do with them, sent off many along with their own colonists to that shining end of the world, the Cape of Good Hope.

Marais is a common name in South Africa. I have heard the joke made that had there not been among those early settlers two Frenchmen named Marais, both of enormously prolific potential, South African telephone directories would be many pages shorter. French though the name may have been to begin with, today it is as typically Afrikaner as Van der Merwe. Within a very few generations after the founding of the colony in 1652, Dutch and French had merged their peoples into the identity we know as the Afrikaner, speaking the language we call Afrikaans. The history of his people and their language, we shall see, entered like some old, fated burden into the life of Eugène Marais.

There are contradictory versions of Marais’s early life, even of his place of birth. His son, for example, believes his father to have been born in Pretoria, but I am drawing my version largely from Marais’s own account (however unreliable) as described in letters to his translator in London, Dr Winifred de Kok, all written shortly before his death.

The letters have never been published, but each is a testament to his wit, his compassion, and his perception – not to mention his mastery of the English language. In one he writes,

My first schoolmaster – in fact the only one procurable during my boyhood days – was a missionary of the Church of England, who is still alive and has risen to high honours in the hierarchy of his communion. He has never learned to speak a word of Afrikaans.

From the years of his earliest education Marais was acquiring his admiration on the one hand, and his resentment on the other, of all things English.

He seems to have spent some of his early years in Pretoria, some in the Orange Free State, and he finished his schooling in Paarl, the lovely vineyard-fenced town in the Cape. When he settled in Pretoria, the capital of the Transvaal Republic, he began the first of his careers, as a journalist.

Such was his energy that by 1890 he was editor of Land en Volk, and by 1892 when he was twenty-one, he owned it. His son reports that his father’s comments as a parliamentary reporter were so caustic that he received the first of many honours, exclusion from the press gallery by resolution of the entire Volksraad. Later, as a consequence of his resolute attacks on the mighty Paul Kruger, president of the Transvaal, he received a still higher honour: indictment for high treason.

He was acquitted by the Pretoria Supreme Court.

It was during this period of journalism that he was introduced to morphine. He suffered severely from neuralgia, and the drug was easily available. In 1894, when he was only twenty-two, he married, only to see his young wife die the following year after the birth of their son.

How much this blow contributed to his later, lifelong addiction we cannot know. Quite shortly, he gave up his career in Pretoria and went to London, where on the advice of friends he studied law. He refers in his letters to medical studies as well, and his understanding of physiology would seem to confirm it. But by the time of his admission to the bar at London’s Inner Temple, there had come the Boer War.

No episode in modern history so acted to give imperialism a bad name as Britain’s war against the Boers. So long as the little republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State consisted of nothing but a few communities of outland farmers with a peculiar language and peculiarly independent ways, there was little to tempt the acquisitiveness of great powers. But when in 1886 gold was discovered on the reef where Johannesburg now stands, and there began a rush for the Witwatersrand to which not even the Klondike can be compared, then it could have been predicted with certainty that the peaceful years had ended. Britain launched its war of conquest in 1899, and in London Marais became an enemy alien on parole.

With ease we forget our own past obscenities: with difficulty we forget the obscenities of others. We tend today to dismiss the Boer War as a tiresome episode in somebody else’s history. But it was a war obscene in both purpose and execution.

Unable to inflict final defeat on the Afrikaner commandos with their guerrilla tactics, Lord Kitchener turned to a scorched-earth policy and introduced to the language of the twentieth century the term concentration camp.

The high veld was devastated, crops and farmhouses burned, livestock driven off, Boer families pressed into camps. It is true that over a hundred thousand survived the concentration camps. But it is also true that by the war’s end, twice as many Boer wives, children, elderly had died of Kitchener’s new invention as Boer men had died before Kitchener’s guns. The Afrikaner would never forget.

Eugène Marais never forgot. The private tragedy which morphine would bring to his life was now compounded by the public tragedy of his people. While according to his letters his intention had been to qualify in medicine as well as law, by the end of the war in 1902, he had escaped from Britain and was in Central Africa with an expedition trying to get munitions and medical supplies to his countrymen across the Limpopo.

He was too late. Decades later, in September 1935, writing to his translator in London, he recalled the circumstances of his education in English, of his long experience in London, and of the final defeat. And he wrote:

You will perhaps be astonished to learn what my psychological ‘reactions’ were to the jumble of circumstances. The most enduring result was that it made me far more bitter than men who took part in the war at a more advanced age and who had had less to do with the English before the war. It was for purely sentimental reasons that I refused to write in any language but Afrikaans, notwithstanding the fact that I am far more fluent and more at ease in English. I have written several monographs in other languages; but they were all scientific and most of them were at once consigned to the oblivion of archives of learned societies. The nearest I ever attained to ‘publication’ in this connection was a monograph of mine included in the annals of the Smithsonian Institution, a thing which I believe is regarded as a desirable honour by scientists throughout the world.

Ours is the good fortune that he wrote his lost, unfinished masterpiece, The Soul of the Ape, in his own easy English. Eugène Marais, Jr, believes that his father intended it for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. But it was Marais’s tragic fortune that the pain of his people became so intensely his own that he confined almost all of his writing to a language understandable by so few. Not until after his death were translations of his two minor classics, My Friends the Baboons and The Soul of the White Ant, published in English.

There is a degree of disagreement as to the exact date when Marais initiated his studies of animals in a state of nature. In African Genesis I wrote that

…so deep was his depression immediately following the war that, renouncing the society of men, he retreated to the Waterberg, a mountain fastness in the northern Transvaal, and accepted the society of animals. The date, one must calculate, was 1903.

The internal evidence of The Soul of the Ape roughly supports this calculation. As Marais describes the situation, his intimacy with the baboons of the Waterberg was only possible because for years the area had been depopulated, the animals had heard no gun fired, and it would still be some time before the ruined farmers and their families would return to resume their lives. We now know, however, that in Central Africa Marais contracted malaria, an affliction which would recur throughout his life. In 1903 he was hospitalised in Portuguese East Africa, and not till the following year did he return to Pretoria.

We may never know the exact date when Marais retreated to the Waterberg. We can be sure only that it was at an early moment in the century, and that when he and a companion took up residence near a large, wild troop of chacma baboons, he became the first man in the history of science to conduct a prolonged study of one of man’s primate relatives in a state of nature.

But we must not overstate his then role as a scientist. He was a novice. No boy could have grown up as did he, of course, in the South African back country and fail to be fascinated with animals and their ways. Whatever medical training he may have had in London to forward his sophistication in the natural sciences, his legal training sharpened his sense of observation and proof.

But Marais was untrained and, in the field of animal observation, unsophisticated. In The Soul of the Ape he emphasises the handicaps of isolation – the lack of libraries, and the means of finding out what others had accomplished.

But wisely he adds:

We approached this investigation without any preconceived ideas, and although at the beginning inexperience may have left much to be desired in our methods, we had at least no theories to verify.

Since Marais was scaling a scientific Matterhorn that no man had ever attempted before, it was well for him – and for us – that he carried no obsolete luggage. The early vignettes of his life in the Waterberg are the substance of the volume My Friends the Baboons. They are among the most charming tales ever told by a naturalist. It would be almost sixty years before a comparable study of the wild baboon would be made by trained observers, and the wonder is not that this untrained pioneer should have made errors of observation and interpretation, but that his sight in general should have been so true.

Nevertheless, the reader seeking the facts rather than the joys of life should proceed with care. In his letters Marais wrote:

As a matter of fact, I have always been a little ashamed of these tales, they lie so far outside the sphere of what I have always regarded as my real work. They appeared as feuilletons in an Afrikaans newspaper and were never intended to assume a more enduring apparition.

The scientist who in his maturity would write The Soul of the Ape may well have been embarrassed by the early tales. But My Friends the Baboons has endured, despite its author’s qualms, as a slim, unforgettable volume, the first of its kind in our literature. And the three years in the Waterberg not only relieved Marais for at least a time from the pain of a world from which he had fled, but immersed him in animal wonders that, taking shape in his mind, would provide the frontier for a new science.

Later in this essay I shall come back to the years in the Waterberg, since they furnish a main stage as well as major inspiration for The Soul of the Ape. His work there no longer possible, he returned to Pretoria to establish himself as an advocate and resume to an extent his career as a journalist.

Through the years, however, he seems never to have ceased his serious progress as a scientist, or to have lost contact with the bush and veld. His main preoccupation took form: the human psyche. With that preoccupation his life work took two roads – the study of those animals most like ourselves, the primates, and the study of those most unlike ourselves, the social insects. And as if all this were not enough, he began to find in his native language the materials of the poet.

Throughout its history the Afrikaans language had been largely of a vernacular sort. Then perhaps as another psychological consequence of the Boer War, a surge of literary activity came about. Given Marais’s morbid dedication to Afrikaans, his fascination for the movement may be easily understood.

As early as 1885, when he was fourteen, he had written his first poem in English. But Winternag was one of the earliest of his Afrikaans poems to find high place in the new literature. In it, and in all his poetry, one finds a brooding, a melancholy, an expression of man’s fate. One of the most memorable is Mabalel, a haunting fable of the chieftain’s lovely daughter who in all gay innocence ran down to the bank of the Limpopo for water:

Vinnig langs die paadjie trippel Mabalel
Vrolik klink die liedjie
Wat die klingelinge van haar enkelringe vergesel

Swiftly down the footpath comes tripping Mabalel
And gaily sounds the song she sings
To the rhythm of her tinkling ankle rings.

Nothing could warn her that in the depths waited the crocodile, Lalele. No word, no thought, no hint could penetrate the innocence to speak of a monster ever-waiting. Marais’s lifelong burden of pain, of compassion, of perception, all combine in the single poem. And somehow, too, the poem speaks of that devouring secret side – despite all gaiety, despite all charm – like Lalele, lying, always waiting, in the depths of Marais’s own nature.

A good many years ago Professor J. S. Weiner, Oxford’s celebrated anatomist, told me a story about Marais that better than any other I have ever heard probed the hidden darkness. Weiner is a South African who grew up in a district of Pretoria called Sunnyside and many years later achieved world fame when, with Kenneth P. Oakley of the British Museum, he proved that the Piltdown skull, then presumed to be the remains of man’s earliest ancestor, was a hoax. I had never met Weiner when, in Rome for a conference, he came to our apartment to spend an evening. And he startled me, for he had no more than found a chair before he asked why I had dedicated African Genesis to Marais.

There was little to explain. I replied that I felt science had neglected Marais, and that, while I was not a scientist, it had seemed the least I could do.

“I’m glad you did it,” said Weiner, “I know I’ve always felt guilty about him.” And he told his story.

When Weiner was a boy in Sunnyside, one of the most thrilling of events was the sight of Eugène Marais – dignified, dressed always in immaculate white – walking down towards the river in the evening. It was a signal to all the children along the street. They came piling out of yards and gardens and upstairs rooms to follow Marais to the river. There he’d find an old stump or a log to sit on, while they arranged themselves on the ground. And he would tell stories.

All of his acquaintances recall him as one of the most consummate story-tellers of his time and place, but the mightiest of witnesses were the children at his feet, listening with held breath to his stories of bush and veld and dusty roads where mambas slink. The dark would come on. He would rise and go home, and the children, full of magic, would return to new worlds.

Marais had a room in a house just a few doors down the street. Weiner’s sister, friendly with several girls who lived in the house, had come to know him, and one day asked Weiner to return a book to Marais’s room. Clutching the book, consumed by the excited possibility of meeting the magic-maker alone, he went to the house, found the room, and knocked. There was no answer. He tried the door. It was unlocked. He entered cautiously. The room was dank with disorder. And there was a strange smell. He put down the book and fled.

Many years later – in 1940, years after Marais had died – Weiner was a medical student at St George’s Hospital in London. In a pharmacological course the students were learning to identify a variety of pharmaceutical items. He was handed a sample of some drug with a very strange smell. Instantly he had a vivid recollection – a total recall – of a room somewhere. He struggled to identify the room, and knew it must be somewhere in South Africa. Then it came to him – it was Marais’s room. And the drug was morphine.

Throughout Marais’s life there were the long periods of intense study and outpourings of work when he was in command of his life at whatever inner cost. During such periods, he continued his observations of the termite and organised his revolutionary conclusions concerning the insect’s social life. Also during such periods, he continued his observations of the baboon both in the wild and in captivity. He also planned and executed his experiments with the human subconscious and its hyper-sensitivity under hypnosis, and wrote (but did not quite finish) The Soul of the Ape.

And then there were the periods of breakdown, when friends spoke delicately of his ‘bad health’. But always, he regained command of himself, and returned to his work. And so it is reasonable to surmise, I believe, that the plagiarisation of his work by a world-famous European author was a major factor in his last collapse.


So far in this essay I have emphasised his work with baboons. Of equal importance, and at the farthest point removed on the animal spectrum, was his study of the termite, in his day called the ‘white ant’. His scientific scheme was clearly disciplined: to investigate on the one hand the evolution of mind in that family of animals leading to man; and to study on the other hand the evolution of instinct in that branch leading to the most complex of insect societies.

And he came to a stunning conclusion.

Termitaries, as one sees them so frequently in Central and Southern Africa, are tall, compacted columns of earth sometimes twelve or fifteen feet high. Within lives the society, with its castes and its ranks, in countless number.

Marais concluded that all members of the colony and the termitary itself form what is essentially a single organism. The termitary itself is the body. The various castes in the society have the functions of the body’s organs, with fungus gardens contributing the digestive tract, soldiers and workers acting as the cells of the blood stream, the queen the brain as well as the reproductive organs, and even the sexual flight executing the function of sperm and ova.

How they all communicate we do not know, but the ‘soul’ of the white ant – the psyche, we could say – is the property of the entire society.

Marais’s conclusion was new and quite radical. Intending to gather all of his studies into a book one day, he began in 1923 to publish a series of articles in Afrikaans newspapers and the widely circulated magazine Die Huisgenoot. While Afrikaans is all but a secret language to the world at large, Dutch and Flemings read it without difficulty. And Maurice Maeterlinck was a Fleming.

A definitive article was published by Die Huisgenoot in 1925. Maeterlinck, dramatist and poet, was then a reigning figure in continental literature. Early in his career he had published The Life of the Bee, a mixture of philosophy and natural history, but he was not a scientist. Maeterlinck’s reputation rested solidly on a long line of poetic dramas, and in 1911, shortly after the production of The Bluebird, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.

How a man of such stature could in later years commit such a crime, I do not know. But in 1926, the year after the appearance of Marais’s article, Maurice Maeterlinck published in French a book that by the following year appeared in English and in several other languages. In that book, and without acknowledgement, Maeterlinck took half of Marais’s lifework and published it as his own. The Life of the White Ant stands even today on many a library shelf, but the name on its cover is that of a shameless plagiarist.

In South Africa there was a furore. When Dr de Kok in London, in 1935, was beginning her translation of Marais’s The Soul of the White Ant, he wrote to her, recalling the episode:

You must understand that it was a theory which was not only new to science but which no man born of woman could have arrived at without a knowledge of all the facts on which it was based; and these Maeterlinck quite obviously did not possess. He even committed the faux pas of taking certain Latin scientific words invented by me to be current and generally accepted Latin terms.

The publishers in South Africa started crying to high heaven and endeavoured to induce me to take legal action in Europe, a step for which I possessed neither the means nor the inclination.

The press in South Africa, however, quite valorously waved the cudgels in my behalf. The Johannesburg Star (the biggest English-speaking daily in South Africa) published plagiarised portions which left nothing to the imagination of readers.

The Afrikaans publishers of the original articles communicated the facts to one of our ambassadorial representatives in Europe, and suggested that Maeterlinck be approached.

Whether or not this was done, I have never ascertained. In any case, Maeterlinck, like other great ones on Olympus, maintained a mighty and dignified silence.

That a Nobel Prize winner and a literary figure of such renown could have stolen half the life-work of an obscure South African genius must leave one bewildered. How could he have done it? Yet Maeterlinck’s guilt is clear. With the admirable cooperation of the Johannesburg newspaper to which Marais referred, I have obtained from the 1927 file copies of the original report. An excerpt is reproduced in this book.

Marais’s was a star-struck, star-crossed life; and with the Maeterlinck episode the stars, I suggest, crossed once too often. The Crocodile, Lalele, lay always waiting within the dark pools of his being. Despite his objective, even humorous, recollections of the crisis in letters of later years, I do not believe that he ever regained the scientific urgency that had commanded his earlier investigations.

He wrote several popular summations of his work. He published several excerpts from The Soul of the Ape, rewritten into Afrikaans. But I find no record of scientific accomplishment after 1927. And we may recall that it was 1929 when young Weiner encountered the smell of morphine in Marais’s room.

Morphine and misfortune beyond mortal endurance combined slowly, ever so slowly, to put out the light. It flared once more, however, undimmed and undaunted, in a letter to Dr de Kok written on 20 October 1935. Earlier he had written that after she finished the translation of his termite articles, they might consider what was to be done about his unfinished and unpublished The Soul of the Ape. “But,” he confessed, “I write this in bed under the spur and inspiration of enduring pain,” and spoke of his inability to find energy or enthusiasm for the work. Now, however, he wrote:

You see that your kindly enthusiasm has infected me! The thought of reaching a bigger public intrigues me. You must know that a great deal of the work I did and my interpretations of the results will be new to science. No other worker in the field ever had the opportunities I had of studying primates under perfectly natural conditions. In other countries you are lucky if you catch a glimpse of the same troop twice in a day. I lived among a troop of wild baboons, and for three years I followed them on their daily excursions; slept among them; fed them night and morning; I learned to know each one individually; taught them to trust and to love me – and also to hate me so vehemently that my life was several times in danger. So uncertain was their affection that I had always to go armed – with a Mauser automatic under my left armpit, like an American gangster!

But I learned the innermost secrets of their lives. You will be surprised to learn of the dim and remote regions of the mind into which it led me. I think I discovered the real location in nature of the hypnotic condition in the lower animals and men. I have an entirely new explanation of the so-called subconscious mind, and the reason for its survival in man. I think that I can prove that Freud’s entire conception is based on a fabric of fallacy.

No man can ever attain to anywhere near a true conception of the subconscious in man who does not know the primates under natural conditions.

Please don’t worry about the health business. It was silly of me to write in the strain – just a period of gloom to which I am occasionally subject. Accept my thanks and salutations.


Sincerely yours,
Eugène N. Marais

On the following 29 March, he killed himself.


Back in 1895, when Eugène Marais’s wife lay dying, Sigmund Freud, working in Vienna, made one of the supreme discoveries of modern science. Using hypnosis as a tool, he discovered in patients suffering from hysteria the influence of unconscious forces on our psychic processes. The existence of these forces has never since been seriously disputed.

Beneath all our actions, our decisions and dreams, our regrets, our hopes, the little lies that we tell each other and the big lies that we tell ourselves, works an engine of which we are unconscious, reinforcing or distorting our conscious, seemingly rational minds.

The human psyche has frequently been compared to an iceberg. And in the early days of the polar flight from Copenhagen to California, when planes were smaller and still flew low enough and slow enough for the passenger to see something, there was a wonderful sight along the way.

Crossing the Denmark Strait between Iceland and Greenland, you looked down on icebergs floating south. Each was a white jewel glittering in the low northern sun, and were you a passenger viewing the icy mountain from a ship’s deck, this would be all that you would see. But from one’s window in heaven you saw far more. Painted turquoise by the waters, the immense underwater mass of the iceberg spread all about beneath your eyes. Majestic the frosty mountain of ice might be; but hidden in mighty mystery was the force that supported it. And such is the unconscious mind.

While I believe it true that the reality and the significance of Freud’s discovery have never encountered other than superficial dispute, the same cannot be said of its nature. We have argued to this day as to just what the unconscious consists of. And if we are to set our compass as we approach Marais’s venture into the unknown, then we must acquire a little perspective: we must see it as a portion of one of our century’s most profound scientific controversies.

To begin with, we should understand that The Soul of the Ape is a poet’s title for a scientific work. It is symbolic. I suggested earlier that where Marais used the word ‘soul’, we should more prosaically say ‘psyche’.

But beyond that, his reference to the ape may prove for some disconcerting. The principal object of his study was the baboon; not an ape at all, but an overgrown and extraordinarily intelligent monkey. The difference is immaterial. What Marais was observing was the evolution of mental processes in higher primates, and what he concluded from the baboon could only carry greater force in the more highly developed chimpanzee or gorilla.

A second point of early reassurance should be demanded; that concerning the authenticity of the document. We have, of course, the original manuscript in Marais’s handwriting, and for anyone familiar with his work and thought, the question would probably not arise. Nonetheless, it must be admitted that we know very little, at least at present, about the manuscript’s history. Letters to his son suggest that it was written in 1922, and friends of the period recall that at that time he talked of little else.

But what happened to it? We know that in 1935, writing to his translator, he referred first to his inability to finish the work, and then to his excitement concerning it. When some months later Dr de Kok received the news of his death, she immediately wrote to his son inquiring about the manuscript.

On 12 May 1936 Eugène Marais, Jr, replied:

I also received your letter asking me for the field books and notes of my father. I am sorry, there are none. All that I got was about a third of a sack of papers – old letters, accounts, and your contract. There is no sign of a manuscript, and no notes…

Dr de Kok was unaware of the existence of the manuscript until I wrote to her in the spring of 1968, after receiving a copy myself from the Cape Town publishers. They in turn had been unaware of its existence a few months earlier, when they had invited me to write an introduction to a volume of Marais’s minor pieces.

In the meantime, the manuscript was submitted to them by the son. Where had it been in the meantime, through all the years? Truly lost? Or hidden? And by whom? And why?

The mystery must remain a vexing question. But the reader has the right to ask; is it authentic? Is it possible that a document almost half a century old can today make a dynamic and original contribution to the evolutionary approach to human understanding, a scientific trend that has thrived only for the past few years?

By good fortune, we need not speculate. Solid evidence exists concerning the author and the approximate date of his work. In 1926, just before the ruin of the Maeterlinck episode, Marais published in English a paper called Baboons, Hypnosis, and Insanity, in a journal called Psyche, almost as obscure as himself. Several years ago my younger son excavated it in the library of Harvard University, and I have in my possession a photocopy.

In that article, Marais briefly summed up what one now recognises as the material and general conclusions of The Soul of the Ape. He wrote:

Inevitably the conviction gathers force that the so-called ‘subliminal soul’ – the subconscious mentality – is none other than the old animal mentality which has been put out of action by the new mentality.

It was the essence of his discovery. Had the book been published in its own day, so scanty was our then understanding of evolution that it would have been ignored. Today, it will still be disputed by the more retarded minds within our academic community, but just as there is little question about the manuscript’s authenticity, there is also little question but that our sciences of human understanding are only now beginning to catch up with Marais.

And so a larger question than authenticity looms before us: How can it be that this lonely man, pursuing his lonely work amid tortured thoughts, could have been quite so far ahead of his time?

Or to turn the question around: How can it be that in the first seven decades of the century after Charles Darwin’s, world science – the core of modern civilisation – is only now getting around to certain probable facts of life so apparent to Eugène Marais? It is a story as remarkable as that of Marais himself, and, so far as the welfare of man is concerned, even more tragic.


Let us return to Freud.

The discovery of the role of the unconscious in the human psyche took place, as I have said, near the turn of the century. Sigmund Freud then pioneered the technique of psycho-analysis as a more practical substitute for hypnosis in exploring the hidden psychic channels of a disturbed patient, and bringing out into the area of consciousness the guilt and repressed memories which had contributed to the disturbance.

But the Viennese master became enamoured with the sexual impulse as the central force in the human unconscious. His preoccupation with sexuality brought him into furious conflict with the prim intellectual leftovers of the Victorian age. It brought him also into conflict with his two most eminent colleagues and disciples.

Alfred Adler, unable to stomach the sexual monopoly, saw in the drive for power and dominance a more profound ingredient in the unconscious forces of our behaviour. (Present research into animal behaviour may confirm Adler’s position, and bring about a resurgence of his reputation.)

Carl Jung turned from the overheated corridors of sex to the cooler rooms of myth and religion for fresh explanations.

But Freud continued to dominate the main stage of psychic investigation. To him, the sexual drives and frustrations of parents and children dominated the formative struggle for the adult unconscious mind. He gave us the Oedipus complex as a universal attribute of man, inherited from primal days when within the confines of the family the sexual desire of the son for his mother encounters the implacable hostility of the father.

Freud’s errors were many, and in his time perhaps unavoidable. He saw man’s primal social unit as the family, as it unquestionably was not. He saw the sexual drive as dominating the actions of all higher animals, which just as unquestionably it does not. He lived and worked in a special corner of the bourgeois western world at a time when sexual repression was at its most severe; and from this passing, parochial base he extended timeless generalisations to all mankind. And besides all this, he worked exclusively with the sick, drawing from them improbable conclusions concerning the healthy.

We may be grateful to Freud that he presented us with the concept of the unconscious mind. And we may be grateful also that it was largely his sensational preoccupation that in the end would crush the sexual taboos of his time. Yet we may note in passing that today, when sexual repression is vanishing at such a startling pace, we see no comparable reduction of mental illness.

This was the ‘fabric of fallacy’ to which Marais referred in his letter to his translator. He did not live to witness the spread of a new fabric of fallacy which would challenge the old.

Sigmund Freud published Beyond the Pleasure Principle in 1920, two years before Marais wrote The Soul of the Ape. In this work Freud went beyond anything earlier and postulated the presence in all organisms, including man, of a life force which he called Eros, its most obvious manifestation being the sexual drive, and a death wish. We – man, snail, baboon, grizzly bear – come into this world with a will to live and a wish to die. When the wish overcomes the will, we have had it.

With this far-out excursion into metaphysics, Freud in time would shake off all but his truly most devoted adherents. And the concept of the death wish, impossible for any biologist to accept, may for all we know have opened the door for equally implausible concepts put forward by younger psychologists. But we should make the gravest of errors if we dismissed Freud’s theory simply because it is preposterous.

From first to last throughout all his long career, Freud granted the force of instinct in the human psyche. With his newest theory he reasserted his belief in the unity of all living things, and he still saw man as a portion of the natural world. Then in 1924 the University of Chicago’s John B. Watson published his Behaviorism. Watson believed in neither.

It is an accident of history that Marais recorded his thoughts concerning the human psyche at that moment, in 1922, when psychology’s arrow was over the mid-Atlantic halfway in its flight from Vienna to Chicago. It left behind a fractured, doubting, bitterly divided remnant of twentieth century psychology’s pioneering band, to fall into the hands of a man who had not a doubt in a single bone of his head. Psychology’s pioneers had been human, sensitive, courageous, wild in their wonderings, magnificent in their frailties. They had been artists. Psychology’s inheritor was a one-man advance agent for the computer age. For the delicate intricacies of Viennese thought, Watson substituted a meat-hook, borrowed, we may assume, from a local South Side stockyard. His breath-taking confidence rivalled that of a Karl Marx issuing his Manifesto. Watson’s most famous quotation runs as follows:

Give me a dozen healthy infants, well-formed, and my own specified world to bring them up in, and I’ll guarantee to take any one at random and train him to become any type of specialist I might select – doctor, lawyer, merchant-chief, yes, even beggar – man and thief, regardless of his talents, penchants, tendencies, abilities, vocations and race of his ancestors.

In other words, man is born a perfect cipher, bringing nothing into this world but malleability under the pressure of environment. He is invariant, and we need not concern ourselves with individual differences, since every human baby born has precisely the same potential as every other baby born. Talent, intelligence, capacity for leadership or the perfect crime – all are products of learning and experience within the lifetime of the individual. If as adults we vary, it is only because of the varying environmental experiences that have come our way, some adding to, some subtracting from, the uniform human potential.

This was Watson’s behaviourism. He drew heavily on the work of the famous Russian physiologist I. P. Pavlov, who initiated systematic study of the conditioned reflex. Behaviourism was the perfect psychology for a materialist society.

There is an irony in our supposition that the United States and the Soviet Union live in worlds apart as well as opposed. Both of our societies are founded on materialism – the dialectic materialism of communism, the utopian materialism of capitalism. We must both believe in the omnipotence of the material environment. If we lose that faith, then the Soviet Union must cease to believe that the environment of a perfect socialist society will produce a new and perfect man. If we lose that faith, then the United States of America must cease to believe that in a society of perfect, universal affluence all men will be good and true.

The American dream and the Russian dream are of course constructed of nonsense, bearing minimum relation to human reality. And we may speculate that the dream has contributed its incisive share to the deepening and, seemingly insoluble, troubles which both super-powers are experiencing today. Most demonstrable is the fact that behaviourism – or environmentalism – dominates the political philosophical, and scientific thought of America and the Soviet Union in equal measure, and more successfully than in any other countries in the contemporary world.

With very slight modifications in the direction of common sense, behaviourism in the United States passed from Watson at Chicago to Clark Hull at Yale to B. F. Skinner at Harvard. No figure in American psychology today rivals Skinner’s authority. All over the American academic map, there are maverick scientists attacking the postulate of man the born goose-egg, man the uniform replaceable part, man the strangest being in all the animate world, containing no ingredients other than those that his environment has placed in him.

Yet the rule of the conditioned reflex remains unbroken. (Today we speak of ‘reinforcement theory’.) One of the most influential of American anthropologists, M. F. Ashley Montagu, could recently write, without qualification, that ‘man is man because he has no instincts, because everything he is and has become he has learned to be from other human beings.’

It is a fairy-tale world that was born two years after the writing of The Soul of the Ape. It is a fabric of fallacy far more rigid, far more impenetrable, far more wishfully, sentimentally persuasive than the Freudian postulates that Marais deplored. It has become, indeed, a disease confined not at all to the laboratories and text-books of psychologists. Its dogma of human uniqueness and human omnipotence has spread at epidemic pace to infect, to a considerable or great degree, all the sciences of human understanding, and much of lay thought as well. If the educated world is in trouble, then the wonder is small indeed. This has been its education.

We have here, then, the broad answer to my original question: What has happened to the sciences in the first seven decades of the century after Darwin’s? The answer is as simple as it is brutal: we have lost our way. And so we may find also the answer to the question as to how a lonely man in his lonely work could have been quite so far ahead of his time. Marais did not lose his.

One glimpses few omens of fortune in Marais’s obscure life. And yet luck came his way – once. When circumstances combined, just after the turn of the century, to place him in the neighbourhood of a huge troop of wild baboons, fortune cloaked him as it had no other man. Even the Boer War, otherwise a force that so darkened his life, brightened the fortune.

In farming country, baboons, because of their persistent looting of crops, are regarded as vermin, and a bounty is placed on their scalps. Nature has provided us with no more accomplished bandit other than man himself.

One must assume that the war between man and baboon has prevailed since the first black farmers, a thousand or more years ago, invaded baboon country. The baboon, no simpleton, has come to the natural conclusion that man is a poor companion. But, as I have briefly suggested, when Marais arrived in the Waterberg, for four years his baboons had heard no gun fired. Farms had been burned, families taken off to concentration camps, and the farmers themselves had been with the Boer commandos.

While Marais continued his studies, the men slowly came drifting back from prison camps to restore their demolished farms. But they had been disarmed. Eventually, of course, they regained guns and ammunition. In the meantime, however, peace still prevailed between baboons and men.

In Marais’s day, only the most peculiar of circumstances could have made his observations possible. As he himself suggests, the condition was not quite natural. His troop was larger than any studied recently in the limited areas of African game reserves, and its size was probably due to isolation and low mortality over so many years. The ruling oligarchy of dominant males was necessarily larger. Also, there was a higher ratio of males to females than is normal; it is the irrepressible male who suffers higher mortality at the hands of man.

I do not believe, however, that any of these slight aberrations affects his conclusions concerning the psyche of the baboon. His was the luck to have available before him, year after year, the repeated testaments of daily life in a higher primate. Freud, with lesser luck, had only theory. Eugène Marais, the damned and the saved, with all his complexities of inner pain and overwhelming insight – so difficult to explain in terms of the conditioned reflex or human uniformity – could gain from long, direct experience materials for his basic conclusion that the human psyche, like the human body, has evolved from the world of lesser animals.

There was still another element of luck in Marais’s isolation: his protection from the ups and downs of scientific thought. His faith in Darwin was undiluted. In all charity to Freud – and, indeed, to Watson, though I grant it grudgingly – it must be recorded that in their day, the theory of evolution was in bad shape.

From 1859, when Origin of Species was published, Darwin’s theory remained dominant in all the natural sciences until nearly the turn of the century. But laboratory gremlins were eroding its validity. Natural selection did not seem to work in the fashion which Darwin had anticipated. Many rejected the theory entirely. Others turned to Lamarck and the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Marais himself was tempted by Lamarck, as letters to his son make evident, but the temptation had no influence on his own theories and does not enter into The Soul of the Ape.

It was a time, however, of biological trouble from which Marais was fairly well insulated. Not until 1930, when the work of an inspired trio of geneticists – Sir Ronald Fisher, J. B. S. Haldane, and Sewall Wright – founded the new science of population genetics, was Darwin’s natural selection placed on an inarguable basis. Today we speak of ‘synthetic’ evolution – as first synthesised by Sir Julian Huxley – or ‘neo-Darwinism’ to describe evolution as biologists now understand it.

The wheel came around, in other words, to the number which Marais had originally chosen. But it must be admitted that for those in the midst of the pressure of scientific fashion, evolution did not offer a firm structure with which to deny the validity of false hypotheses. (For those who still cling to them, society can offer little but the benevolence of an old scientists’ home.)

But there was a far more practical lack than sound theory in the early decades of our century, and that was our total ignorance of the behaviour of higher animals in a state of nature.

Until 1961, when S. L. Washburn and Irven DeVore published their paper The Social Life of Baboons, with a single exception science possessed no reliable information whatsoever concerning the life of our nearest evolutionary relative, the primate, in a natural state. The exception was the work of the great American psychologist C. R. Carpenter, who, some thirty years after Marais, entered a Panama rain forest to conduct a systematic study of the howling monkey. Through the 1930s he followed on with similar studies of the gibbon and the rhesus monkey. They were ignored, just as I am sure that Marais’s study would have been ignored had it been published in its time.

Tides of fallacy were running too strong to be intercepted by a few rocky facts. We had not in this lengthy period ignored animal behaviour, but we had confined our observations to captive or domesticated animals in laboratories and zoos.

One of the most ill-starred events of our scientific century took place in 1932 when Sir Solly Zuckerman – another South African removed to Britain – published his Social Life of Apes and Monkeys. The book was a thorough, convincing study of the behaviour of baboons.

But the baboons were in the London zoo. That they were obsessed with sex lent support to the Freudian hypothesis. That in Zuckerman’s opinion this sexual obsession provided the basic motive for primate society – a motive so different from human society, in which the temptations of fornication are a socially disruptive force – lent support to the notion that ‘people are different; which in the coming years would be the bread and meat of a sociology and an anthropology ignoring any evolutionary influence on man.

Until 1960 the book stood as a keystone in the tightly constructed arch of contemporary fallacy.

Then in 1961 began the new attack of evolutionary thought and techniques on academic orthodoxy. That was the year Washburn and DeVore published their study of baboons in the wild. Even their single study demonstrated that the behaviour of primates in captivity bears little relation to their behaviour in a natural setting. The former is a frustrated being; the latter a busy fellow with much to absorb his energies besides sex.

Then through the 1960s came a regiment of scientists observing all manner of primates in a state of nature. All confirmed the complexity of primate life recorded by Marais in 1922. All proved that sexual obsession in the primate is a myth. Zuckerman’s book stands today totally discredited.

But social scientists beyond counting remain still uninfluenced even today by the revolution taking place in the natural sciences.

Biology’s revolution began in an inconspicuous way in 1937, the year after Marais died. It was announced by a scientific paper called The Companion in the Bird’s World by Konrad Lorenz, an Austrian scientist who for years had been observing a variety of birds and mammals at his home on a wild stretch of the Danube shore. It presented a series of highly original hypotheses concerning the relation of instinct to behaviour in animal life. And with that paper, the science that did not exist during Marais’s lifetime came into being.

Konrad Lorenz is known today as the father of ethology, the rapidly exploding science concerned with the biology of behaviour. C. R. Carpenter’s early studies indeed preceded Lorenz’s, but it was the impact and continued activity of the Austrian naturalist that brought ethology into being. Closely allied with him in the early years was Nikolaas Tinbergen, who transferred his activities from the continent to Oxford, where he established a pioneering department of animal behaviour. In 1951 Tinbergen’s Study of Instinct established ethology as a scientific discipline that could be ignored not even by its angriest opponents.

Such opponents existed in plenty. Although the earlier studies by the new ethologists confined themselves strictly to animals, the essential concern with evolution implied that sooner or later we should be involved with the behaviour of men. Still, however, the quarrels remained within the sciences, and not, indeed, until 1966, when by singular fortune the English translation of Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression and my own The Territorial Imperative appeared almost simultaneously, did the debates of the scientists reach out to a large, informed, and profoundly concerned public.

Are there truths about man which have been hidden from our eyes and shielded from the education of our children? Marais believed so. If Konrad Lorenz is the father of biology’s new challenge, then Eugène Marais was its prophet. But before we turn our attention to his book lying before us, we must inspect one relevant scientific development which Marais did not and could not anticipate.

It is a final irony in his story – and the story of our times – that in 1922, when he was writing The Soul of the Ape in Pretoria, a young Australian anatomist named Raymond A. Dart was arriving at the Medical School in Johannesburg, only thirty-odd miles away. And two years later, Dart discovered Australopithecus africanus.

Any understanding of the evolutionary nature of man must rest on two sources of information: We must know the world of the animal, gaining insight from it with which to view our own; this Marais pioneered.

But we must also know as precisely as possible the evolutionary course by which, from the condition of the lower animals, there arose that most remarkable of animals, man. This Dart pioneered. But whereas Marais’s work remained unknown, Dart’s became the focus of a controversy which is being resolved only in the present day.

The problem of human evolution may be stated simply: When Raymond Dart discovered the fossil remains of a being who lived on the African savannah over a million years ago, who was a hunter following a carnivorous, predatory way of life, and who resembled man in every way except in brain size (about a third that of ours), he upset almost every preconception – philosophical, religious, biological – concerning what the human ancestor should be like.

Since the time of Darwin we had assumed that our primal ancestors must have resembled the shy, inoffensive, vegetarian ape of the forest. I know of only one thinker, the British psychologist Carveth Read, who departed from that universal assumption. In 1920 he published his conclusion that our pre-human ancestor should be called Lycopithecus, for his way of life must have been similar to that of the wolf. Nobody paid any attention to Read.

Then four years later, Dart found the creature.

We speak of such predecessors as hominids, a primate line evolving independently of the lines of the ape and the monkey. When Dart claimed that his australopithecines were true hominids, that we lived in bands systematically and effectively killing for a living, and that we used tools and weapons long before the development of the enlarged human brain, it all combined to produce a bad case of scientific indigestion.

Today, at last, his case is all but closed. In late 1967 Alfred S. Romer, the world’s foremost palaeontologist, wrote:

with one or two exceptions, all competent investigators in this field now agree that the australopithecines of the early Pleistocene are actual human ancestors.

The question before us today concerns not the legitimacy of our carnivorous ancestry, but its antiquity. And it is the work of that Christopher Columbus of human evolution, Kenya’s Louis S. B. Leakey, that we shall probably find the answer.

The 1960s, which have witnessed the explosion of discoveries in the area of animal behaviour, have witnessed a simultaneous explosion in our knowledge of the human past. I shall not detail the rapid advance, but merely describe the most recent of discoveries, announced only a few weeks before the writing of these pages

In May 1968, Leakey delivered a shock that will probably once again put science into a state of trauma. At a site near Fort Ternan, in East Africa, he had been studying a creature which Leakey calls Kenyapitchecus, and who was probably ancestor of the australopithecines. There, in the midst of a fossilised bone pile to rival those of their descendants, Leakey has found stones used to smash up antelope bones in order to extract the marrow.

By modern techniques of radiogenic dating, the time may be reliably fixed at between twelve and fourteen million years ago. Dart’s australopithecines were but yesterday.

The antiquity of the hominid hunting way – aside from all its implications in terms of human behaviour – separates our evolutionary track from that of the vegetarian ape or monkey through a span of time quite beyond our limited powers of imagination.

And so in reading The Soul of the Ape we must avoid at all costs the easy pitfalI of equating the amiable nature of the chimpanzee or, indeed, the aggressive behaviour of the baboon with facets of human behaviour. We are all the end-products of quite varying evolutionary paths, and equally varying conditions of survival. But we are of the same primate family. And – all-importantly – we are all of us products of the same evolutionary process.

Eugène Marais could not know what the science of the future would reveal concerning the distinctiveness of human evolution, mediated by that long-surviving hominid, the wolf-ape. Dart’s early discovery was too lost in controversy, too late in Marais’s declining life, to have influenced the course of his thought.

It is our good fortune, as well as his, that his concern with psychic evolution was so profound as to be applicable to us all – the harmless ape, the belligerent baboon, and killer man.


His was the first human mind to penetrate the secrets of the wonderful world of the animal, and to apprehend the legitimate mysteries of the wonderful world of man.

I wrote these words in African Genesis, and have now neither reason to modify them nor inspiration to improve them. Marais was not the first thinker to see in Darwin’s theory implications concerning the continuity of our evolution in factors other than body.

In Les Sociétés Animales, Alfred Espinas attempted to demonstrate the gradual transition from animal to human societies, but his ideas were dismissed to oblivion by the master sociologist Emile Durkheim.

Carveth Read, as we have seen, took a hard look at the history of human ferocity and forecast with accuracy the wolf-like nature of the human ancestor. None before Marais, however, had the living materials of nature to guide him. And none before Marais had the audacity to peer into the inner recesses of the primate mind, and to draw from his observations conclusions concerning the continuity of evolution of the human mind itself.

The bewilderment of man is the bewilderment of all higher primates. Mind was the essential blessing bestowed by an accident of mutation on the earliest of Eocene primates perhaps sixty million years ago.

We differed, otherwise, little from rodents. But since at this date we were all of us arboreal, we developed hands instead of paws, with fingernails to protect sensitive finger-pads so valuable to a life in the trees. And we had the social inclination; not since the most primitive of lemurs do we find a primate species of solitary disposition.

But the brain was our hall-mark. If the primate was to succeed as a natural experiment, then he must succeed by his wits.

Thus by whatever evolutionary track we proceeded – the ape and most monkeys in their forest setting living off forest foods; the baboon and a few other terrestrial monkeys, like the patas and the vervet, living an all-fours life largely in the open and eating a far greater variety of foods; or the advancing hominid with his bipedal posture, his hands freed for the use of weapons and tools, his diet more and more dependent on the fruit of his kill – in all of them, we find the pressure of natural selection favouring the better brain, and the better use of what brains we had.

The psychic dilemmas of the hominid and baboon – both of us citizens of the dangerous savannah – can with little likelihood have included qualitative differences. We both in our most ancient origins had been largely guided by the confidence of instinct.

Learning, we must recognise, plays a part in all animal life: the amoeba can ‘learn’. Such learning, however, for the most part reinforces instinct and adapts its inherited directives to circumstances of time and place; it is still instinct that guides.

But in the progressive primate, and in many predators as well, such ancient wisdom fixed in the genes was not quite good enough. And so there developed the conflict, as Marais saw it, between the ‘old’ mind, the inherited animal mind, and the ‘new’ mind, developed in the individual by experience.

The new mind would make possible the human achievement of adaptation to almost every environmental condition the earth has to offer. If genetic wisdom could offer us no information as to how to meet some new state of affairs, then experience and learning would succeed.

But, as Marais sets forth, the baboon, like man, has so succeeded. He has accepted all manner of climates, of conditions of survival, of enemies, of existence on lush plains or forbidding deserts, in mountain fastness or tempting valley. Like man, the baboon thrives on anything that passes for food.

Marais knew of baboons that killed lambs to gain the milk curd from their stomachs. He knew of none that ate meat.

But in recent years we have found areas in East Africa where baboons have crossed the rubicon that the hominid once crossed, and prey systematically on the gazelles’ newborn fawns.

The baboon has faced everything, including the implacable animosity of man. Yet he survives as the second most successful of primates, surpassed only by ourselves.

I suspect that it was Marais’s attention to traditions of behaviour varying from troop to troop that presented him with his first hard evidence for the significance of the new mind in baboon life. This forms a major scientific contribution in The Soul of the Ape. Even in studies of most recent years, we have been far too preoccupied with forms of behaviour common to an entire species – what we call ‘species-specific’ – and are therefore probably under genetic control.

That we find in man such varying traditions of behaviour in different peoples has been a principal argument on the part of those who see the human species as differing radically from subhuman animals. Marais nullifies the argument with his careful documentation of varying traditions in baboon life.

A chief function of any society, human or subhuman, is education. Sir Arthur Keith once described education as the first industry of any species; should the industry fail, the species will become extinct.

Few higher primates centre their social life on the family. And so, with their slow-growing young, education is mostly accomplished through the traditions of the entire troop. The young learn from their elders what the elders when young learned from theirs; and so, whatever the wisdom gained from experience the troop may possess, it is handed down from generation to generation.

Man has the immense advantage of the oral or written word. But the process is the same.

I cannot believe that Marais would have been surprised that Japanese scientists, in their superb studies of the Japanese monkey, have found among ten troops three in which high-ranking adult males invariably take charge of all year-old infants when mothers give birth to new babies; three in which the tradition is sporadic; and four in which it never occurs at all.

In terms of the natural selection of groups, the first three troops have developed a tradition which through reduction of infant mortality is of superior survival value. And a thousand years from now, if there is still a Japan with Japanese monkeys, what is today a social invention may have become a tradition common to the species.

Obsolete information, cluttering the minds of those who speak for human uniqueness, still tends to inform us that there is a sharp line between animal and man because the animal is guided by rigid instinct, while man is guided by flexible rational powers.

Both propositions are false.

Our developing knowledge of human evolution must tell us that so gradual was our coming, no clear moment could ever have occurred when before it we were animals and after it, men. And any honest appraisal of the human being – any ruthless inspection of one’s own inner self – must inform us that we are guided again and again by impulses lying deeper and more powerful than our rational determinations.

Man has his instincts. And so it was that Marais exposed the other side of the psychic coin: the baboon, a primate of quite undistinguished brain as compared with the chimpanzee, must still gain most of his directives for living from his power to learn.

Human Aggression, a recent book by the London psychoanalyst Anthony Storr, presents better than any other published thus far the evidence for man’s hidden animal nature. And The Soul of the Ape, though written so long ago, presents better than any book published thus far the dawning humanity in the psyche of the higher primate.
One cannot be so innocent as to presume that the two books together will forever destroy the mythical line between animal and man; but one may modestly hope to see some damage done.


Marais’s observation of the role of learning and tradition and consequent varying behaviour in the life of the baboon is thus a major advance in our new evolutionary literature. His central contribution, however, is of course the book’s central hypothesis: the evolutionary origins of the unconscious in man’s mind. For this contribution we have little precedent.

If one has groped through the existing scientific literature devoted to instinct and learning, then one must grasp with relief at Marais’s invention of two simple phrases, phyletic memory and causal memory.

By this I do not imply that they can be swallowed without a bit of chewing.

But ‘phyletic’ is not too difficult a word. In biology we refer to phylogeny when we speak of the history of a species and its antecedent species, as we speak of ontogeny to describe the history of the individual. A phyletic memory, then, is one whose cause we are unaware of, since the memory itself is carried in our genetic make-up as a result of evolutionary crises long ages past.

Let us think, for example, of some ancestral baboon species recently emerged from the life of the forest. Apes and arboreal monkeys have as a rule loose social organisations. But on the savannah the baboon met lethal dangers rare in the forest. Even the small-brained hominid himself, to judge by the fossil remains of his kitchen-middens, had a hearty appetite for baboon flesh. Now, the baboon is a powerful animal, but even so his only defence on the savannah lay in concerted social action. Those troops that kept to their undisciplined ways met disaster. Only those capable of leadership, willingness to obey, and cooperative defence could survive to leave descendants.

The hamadryas is an aberrant baboon species with its own desert ways. But in all other species, throughout the passing millennia, the basic baboon society took form. There is a group of powerful males who never quarrel, who enforce order in the troop, and who assume the most dangerous responsibilities in the troop’s defence. And there are all the other members who submit to authority and do their part. The leaders may be three in a troop of eighty and could be overwhelmed by revolution tomorrow. But it will not happen. Phyletic memory inhibits the impulses of the many with its genetic wisdom derived from ancient happenings, just as it commands the actions of the few to go forth at all risk, and face the cheetah.

Phyletic memory forms the unconscious portion of the baboon psyche. Causal memory is the conscious portion, the learned portion, the portion springing from experiences within the baboon’s lifetime. As Marais saw them, the two exist side by side, or, more accurately, the old beneath the new. And the story of psychic evolution has been the gradual ascendancy of causal memory over the phyletic. Yet never does the one wholly succeed in displacing the other.

Turning to Marais’s investigations of the phyletic memory in man, the startled reader may be wary of conclusions drawn from hypnosis. But we must recall that Freud too used hypnosis as a technique in his discovery of the unconscious mind.

Sir Julian Huxley, in Essays of a Humanist, writes:

One of the darker chapters in the history of science and medicine is the way in which pioneer hypnotists were attacked and often hounded out of the medical profession. Even today, there is still a great deal to be discovered in this strange and exciting subject.

Just how strange it may be is illustrated by an experiment at Pennsylvania State University reported as recently as 1968. A group of college students were hypnotised and told that they were nine years old. Each was then instructed to write a letter to a friend. The letters were then mixed with similar letters written by actual nine-year-old children, and all were presented to a faculty committee that knew nothing of the experiment.

The letters by the hypnotised college students and those of the true nine-year-olds could not be distinguished on any basis, whether style, content, or handwriting.

Contemporary theories of learning tumble in the face of such an experiment; and it is not impossible that hypnosis was placed beyond the scientific pale because it asked more questions than our sciences could answer. Such a fate befell extrasensory perception.

But in Marais’s day hypnotism was still regarded as a valuable and legitimate tool. If in our day it is very nearly taboo, then we may comfort our suspicions by reflecting that, strange though hypnotism may be, the ways of science can be stranger.

Phyletic memory is Marais’s term for what we would call ‘instinct’. Yet the word instinct is so loose, so difficult to explain or define, so surrounded by controversy, and so subject to manipulation by those who would justify the worst or the best in human behaviour as instinctive, that many authorities refuse to use it.

Marais, it seems to me, has provided us with a superior term for a quality in life which, if we cannot explain, we still cannot deny. With his phyletic memory and his causal memory he described two psychic forces cleanly and with sufficient definition to permit his investigation of the evolutionary origins of the conscious and unconscious minds.

Marais, as I have indicated, saw phyletic and causal memory as existing apart, with the latter increasingly dominant over the former. They may, however, combine. Ethology is aware today of many forms of behaviour which, while having a genetic basis, require learning to become activated.

Such is the behaviour of a robin defending his acre, or a man defending his home. Both have ancient phyletic memories that possession of an exclusive territory forwards the survival of adult and offspring. But causal memory must help robin or man in gaining a territory, knowing its boundaries, its resources, and the character of potential intruders, or the pattern of behaviour will be incomplete.

Causal and phyletic memory may form an alliance in another fashion, and perhaps it might be useful in our own thinking to retain a distinction between the unconscious and the subconscious.

The truly phyletic memory would then be the true unconscious, something beyond any recollection since its causes lie buried perhaps tens of millions of years before the birth of the individual.

But in deference to the psychologists of Freud’s generation as well as to our own commonplace experience and observation, we must recognise the existence of a murky half-world, the subconscious. Here repressed causal memories sink, to join with rising phyletic memories to form powerful unions distorting or vetoing the rational procedures of the causal mind.

But there is a difference from the true unconscious. These unremembered memories, being causal, have their sources in the lifetime of the individual. And so, whether by psychoanalysis or other tools, they may be probed and, if we are lucky, brought back into the realm of rational disposition.

Let us take an example: Konrad Lorenz has demonstrated that no organism lacking aggressiveness has the probability of living to maturity and reproducing itself. Anthony Storr has applied the Lorenz principle to human life.

We may therefore regard aggression as one of the most powerful of phyletic memories.

But aggression in human life may take many forms, from the painting of masterpieces to competing in business to the killing of strangers.

Now let us assume that we live in a society that praises selflessness, condemns aggressiveness, provides few outlets for its healthy display, and instils in us a sense of guilt concerning temptations and experiences which are in themselves quite normal.

May not such causal memories – perhaps of the excitement of violent action acquired in early childhood – be forced by guilt into our subconscious, there to form union with phyletic command and to lurk in our depths like Lalele?

Might not such a social attitude, judged in the terms of a future psychology, accomplish the precise opposite of its objectives?

There are few areas of human life, few moments of human decision, to which The Soul of the Ape does not bring a measure of clarification. I have said that the bewilderment of man is the bewilderment of the animal; and I firmly believe it is so.

We are caught, all of us, at our differing levels of psychic evolution between the opportunities of the new mind and the commands of the old. And perhaps in the end it will be recorded that we were all tragic species playing out the successive charades of a natural experiment called ‘the primate’, in which the last terrible writing on the wall was inscribed by the dainty hand of some forgotten lemur in the long-lost Eocene.

It need not, however, be true.

Man today has reached a bewilderment that no ape, no monkey could envy.

But we have something that, so far as we know, they have not: self-awareness. We have the power to investigate ourselves. And however foolishly we may use that power, denying by our folly even our rationality, still the power exists.

The evolutionist, looking wryly about at a world that sweet reason has produced, may well conclude that the efforts of the individual must in the end prove futile: that man makes no sense.

Yet while he could be right, he would also be wrong. Man may make no sense, but evolution does. And if through our self-awareness we can come to an understanding of ourselves and our place in nature, then through a simple faith in something far larger than ourselves we may find a hope which we so singularly lack today.

Perhaps a sense of individual futility was too strong in Eugène Marais. Perhaps causal memories of misfortune made union in his own subconscious with the phyletic memory of the monster Lalele. Perhaps his tragic sense as a poet overcame the creative optimism of the scientist. Perhaps he was a man born too soon, and knew it.

Or perhaps it was nothing at all so large, so profound, but that in an hour of inspiration he returned to his labours on The Soul of the Ape and found, as the weary months slogged by, that he was not too soon, but too late, too late. And so he blew himself to pieces with a shotgun on a farm near Pretoria.

We shall never know.

Nor does it matter that much. His manuscript is rough. It lacks a proper conclusion. In certain areas of his argument one longs for further demonstrations, for those more detailed observations which he could undoubtedly have supplied.

Had Marais, in the southern autumn of 1936, been able to finish his manuscript, polish the rough parts, to rethink a few conclusions, add further ideas that had come to him in recent years, then beyond all question, he would have left us more than we shall find in the following pages.

But he left us enough. He gave us certain imperishable thoughts still new and useful in a time of human crisis. And he gave us something else: the memory of his own life, in itself an imperishable testament to the awesome wonders and the legitimate mysteries of the being called man.

Robert Ardrey

Be the first to comment