The Soul of the White Ant

By Eugène N. Marais

12. The Mysterious Power which Governs

THE termites dig deep boreholes to find water, and from this, source it is conveyed for general purposes. When a breach is made in a termitary, the syringe-bearing or nasicorn soldiers are the first to appear. They inspect the damage slowly and thoughtfully from all sides. If there are no workers at hand, or only a few, the soldiers begin to signal. By quick movements of the throat plates of their armour, they make a sound, a sudden tih-tih-tih. In houses infested by termites, this sound can be heard at night in all directions. By this signal the soldiers summon the workers to the place of attack. The same sound is used as food signal. So urgent is this call that even workers who have been appointed to special tasks, like conveying water, carrying the larvae, gardening, feeding of the royal pair, drop their work and throng to the place from where the alarm has sounded. As I have shown before, the behaviour of the two kinds of termite corresponds in every respect to the functions of the blood corpuscles in higher animals. Just as the white corpuscles make a cordon round the wound, which the red corpuscles begin healing, so the soldiers form a protective circle while the workers repair the breach. If you annoy the soldiers individually with a sharp object like a needle, they go into a kind of convulsion. Their bodies are jerked angrily from side to side and through the syringe-like weapon they squirt a drop of dear sticky fluid in the direction of the danger. This fluid appears to cause extreme pain to other small insects, glues together their jaws and legs and renders them helpless. All these actions are instinctive.

Eutermes nasicorn soldier, with syringe Blind, deaf, sexless. Colour: Head, reddish-yellow; body, blood red. Generally highly pigmented. Mouth parts, rudimentary. Function: 1. Part of the 'blood-stream'. 2. Defence, when outer layer of termitary is attacked.

Now we return to the question: where do they get these instincts? That their behaviour must be inherited cannot be because all the workers and soldiers possess exactly the same instincts as the others of their type. It is impossible for them to have inherited these from their father and mother, because neither the king nor the queen possesses any of these instincts. The royal pair possess perfect eyes and do not fear the light as the workers and soldiers do. On the other hand, they do not possess a special, but inexplicable sense which enables them to perceive the dimmest ray of light as their children do. They know nothing of collective building of termitaries, of squirting poison, or carrying water. They do not even come in touch with the labours of the community; we appear to be forced to the conclusion that the workers and soldiers inherit a large number of environmental memories which none of their ancestors ever possessed. On the other hand they do not inherit one of the special instincts of their father and mother, for they cannot fly, never copulate and never lay eggs. They themselves cannot hand on their instincts to other soldiers and workers, for they never produce young. It appears to be a paradox.

Eutermes nasicorn soldier seen from above.

Let us see what were the observations of Dr Bugnion of Ceylon, and how he explained the mystery. I will quote what he says about his difficulties, and discuss his theories, and then give my own criticism of them.

He says:

'When the biologist, having satisfied himself that (1) the soldiers who are trusted with the task of defence, are totally blind, and that (2) the workers who do the repairs are small, insignificant insects, not more than five millimetres in length, when he sees the collective drive of the termites, he becomes perplexed and amazed. His wonder increases when he tries to discover the power that governs the termites and the moral law which binds them together -- and finds no trace of it.'

It is difficult to understand exactly what Dr Bugnion means. I think what he meant to say was: 'The biologist clearly sees the effects of a governing power and a moral bond.' What the biologist does not discover so easily is the source of this governing power and moral bond.

Dr Bugnion continues:

'Finally, the biologist is forced to conclude that the activity of these little insects, which appear to behave so intelligently and thoughtfully, is entirely instinctive.'

I must admit that intelligence and thoughtfulness, as we humans understand these, never entered my mind in connection with the termites. Perhaps I was lucky enough to discover the secret of the behaviour of the termites too soon for that; and perhaps I knew just sufficient about behaviourism in animals to prevent me from going too far astray. I say this in all humility. I know it is extremely easy to go astray in what we call comparative psychology, when one has had little opportunity of learning to know animals in their natural surroundings and when one uses human intelligence as the criterion of judgement.

Head of Eutermes soldier from below, showing rudimentary mouth parts. In the ampulla is stored the glutinous liquid used in defence.

In describing the wonderful collective activity of the workers and soldiers, Dr Bugnion says:

'It is amazing how they can do all this without a single mistake.' He is wrong, however, for they make many mistakes. They often go to work mistakenly and persevere in their mistakes. Remember the useless turrets in this respect, excrescences forming a danger to the community. As clever as they are in one direction, just so unbelievably stupid are they in other directions. On the other hand, Dr Bugnion must have missed perceiving the real building genius which the termite possesses or else he would not have risked giving so decided and confident an explanation as he gives us later. The solution given above, of course, is not very convincing. To say that the work of the termites is instinctive is like trying to explain the nature of wind by saying it is wind. The actual problem confronting us is not whether the activity of the termites is governed by the reason or instinct, but who is the architect who designs the plans which the workers execute. Let us look at the workers through a magnifying glass. We see them appear one by one from the dark depths, each carrying a tiny grain of earth. Without the least thought, each worker rolls the pebble round and round in its jaws. It covers it with a sticky mucilage, sets it in position in the breach and vanishes again into the depths. No reasonable person can imagine for one moment that every small worker is conscious of the purpose of its work, that it carries in its mind the plan, or even part of the plan of the building operations. The tower or breach may be a million times larger than the termite itself. The workers attack the repairs from every side, and are totally blind. We can convince ourselves that the termites at one side of the breach never come into contact with those on the other side. They may fetch their materials from different parts of the nest. If we have any doubt of this we can easily dispel it. Take a steel plate a few feet wider and higher than the termitary. Drive it right through the centre of the breach you have made, in such a way that you divide the wound and the termitary into two separate parts. One section of the community can never be in touch with the other, and one of the sections will be separated from the queen's cell. The builders on one side of the breach know nothing of those on the other side. In spite of this the termites build a similar arch or tower on each side of the plate. When eventually you withdraw the plate, the two halves match perfectly after the dividing cut has been repaired. We cannot escape the ultimate conclusion that somewhere there exists a preconceived plan which the. termites merely execute. Where is the soul, the psyche, in which this preconception exists? That is the problem which must be solved. Dr Bugnion says it is instinct. If we accept that, then whose instinct? Does he maintain that every tiny worker carries part of the plan in its little soul? The experiment with the steel plate disposes of this theory. Even if one could prove that every worker had an instinctive knowledge of part of the plan, then the ultimate problem would still remain unsolved.

Where does each worker obtain his part of the general design? We can drive in the steel plate and then make a breach on either side and still the termites build identical structures on each side. It cannot be an inherited tendency, for the termites do not always build the same kind of arch or other structure. We can find a dozen different widths of arch near the surface of a large termitary. These arches are one of the amazing features of the termites' building powers. It cannot be due to the instinctive knowledge of the individual termite. If the termite always built one kind of form, one kind of tower, one kind of arch, we might perhaps come to the conclusion that it worked according to instinctive or inherited knowledge. Even then a doubt would exist. We are inclined to imagine the termites thinking and reasoning our own way. Yet we know that they possess perceptive powers a million times more acute than our own senses. They become aware, for instance, by a fleeting touch of another termite, that he belongs to their own nest. They then follow his trail towards food, with unfailing certainty. From this has arisen the theory of 'intelligent communication' which Dr Bugnion and even Forel, still appear to credit. By touch, they can perceive alarm and agitation in a comrade and can apparently tell where the danger lies. They become aware over incredible distances of the signals of the soldiers; all these things they sense without a vestige of a sense organ.

How can one compare this soul with that of a human being? When one sees a tiny worker hastily placing a single grain of sand on the wall of a building which eventually will become a massive tower twelve or fifteen feet high, millions upon millions of times larger than itself, can one assume for one moment that the worker knows, in the human sense, what the final result of its work is going to be? If this were so its intelligence would be that of a god, compared with our own. His work is naturally due to instinct, as Dr Bugnion says, but it is not the instinct of the worker. It is the instinct and design of a separate soul situated outside the individual termite.

If we carry our recent experiment a little further, new light begins to trickle through on our problem.

While the termites are carrying on their work of restoration on either side of the steel plate, dig a furrow enabling you to reach the queen's cell, disturbing the nest as little as possible. Expose the queen and destroy her. Immediately the whole community ceases work on either side of the plate. We can separate the termites from the queen for months by means of this plate, yet in spite of that they continue working systematically while she is alive in her cell; destroy or remove her, however, and their activity is at an end.

If the termitary under observation is in the neighbourhood of other termitaries, we can establish a few more facts experimentally. If there is a termitary within a yard or two one can prove that the termites of both nests mix freely without fighting. Place a piece of wood equidistant from both nests and spray the ground around it with water. If you expose the passages you will find that termites from both nests are destroying the wood. If you break into these two termitaries and put workers and soldiers from one nest into the other you will find they do not get attacked. If, however, you do the same to termitaries twenty or thirty yards from each other, then the strangers are pounced on immediately by workers and soldiers and killed. If you destroy the queen in one of the two nests adjoining each other, then the termites of that nest cease work and move to the adjoining nest where they apparently swear allegiance to the new queen. If, however, you destroy the queen of a nest which is some distance from another, the termites make no attempt to transfer to another nest, but die in their old home. The reason for this difference in conduct is, I think, this: The mysterious power which streams from the queen functions only within a limited distance. Every termite is under the influence of this power. If their two termitaries are situated close to each other, the power of each queen operates in both nests. It is through this psychological power of the queen that the termites of one nest are capable of recognizing their fellow-citizens and discovering strange intruders.

The following control experiment shows this clearly.

Take soldiers and workers from one nest and place them in a far distant nest and make certain that they really are attacked, by waiting until the disturbance caused by the breach has died down; then destroy the queen of the first nest. If you transfer termites as before immediately after you have killed the queen, you will find they are again attacked. If, however, you wait a day or two and then transfer the termites, they are no longer attacked, but are accepted as new citizens of the republic.

It appears therefore as if the workers and soldiers carry with them something of their own queen. We will assume it is something analogous to scent. Personally I do not think it is scent but something much more subtle. But if we think of it as scent it will simplify matters for we are actually dealing with something far and away beyond human senses.

The power of the queen reaches only certain fixed limits. It can penetrate earth, rock and even metal plates. It evaporates within one or two days. It is the mainspring of all the collective activity of the soldiers and workers. The queen is the psychological centre of the community; she is the brain of the organism which we call a termitary.

From this shapeless, immobile object, imprisoned in her narrow vault, there emanates a power which directs all the activities of her subjects, just as our own brain rules the functions of the blood corpuscles and regulates and keeps in order the composite animal we call our body.

Dr Bugnion never discovered the psychological functions of the queen. He assumed that the king and queen possess only sexual functions. He therefore is checked by all kinds of inexplicable difficulties which simply do not exist for me, and the explanations which he gives are at times ludicrous. If only he had had the opportunity of accompanying a professional South African termite-catcher he would without any doubt have discovered the secret. This chance I was fortunate enough to have had. His greatest difficulty was the problem of where the soldiers and workers get their hereditary memory. He found two solutions. The first was founded on the fact that some observers discovered individuals of the sexless forms possessing perfect organs. He assumed, therefore, that the sexless forms were at one time fertile. Then he says:

'Given these facts, we have only to conceive of the period during which the defence methods were perfected as coinciding with the period during which the workers and soldiers were fertile in order to render more plausible the hereditary transmission of the improvements in question and of the instincts (neoform) related to them.'

If this is so, he must accept the theory that the present queen and king types are descended from the present sexless types. That cannot be true, instead the very opposite is actually the case. I do not think any one can fail to accept the theory that the termite was originally a single flying insect of the same type as the present king and queen. The founding of community life was the cause of the physical differentiation into workers and soldiers. With these changes new instincts arose. The laying of eggs by workers is a very rare occurrence. One also occasionally finds rudimentary eyes and wing-buds in a few soldiers. These are all atavisms, which show that the original termite was a fertile flying insect. One thing is certain, both the changed physical characteristics and the new instincts are transmitted by the queen, although she does not possess, nor did she ever possess, either of these things herself.

There is another fact which Dr Bugnion has not touched on. How does it happen that the soldiers and workers not only inherit instincts which their father and mother did not possess, but also do not inherit the specialized instincts the father and mother do possess?

The second explanation which Dr Bugnion puts forward is somewhat surprising. He must have been very much mystified when he wrote the following:

'As the workers and soldiers live in the interior of the compartments in the company of the sexual forms until the moment of swarming, it is not entirely incredible, judging by the above suggestion (that the ants and termites carry on intelligent communication with each other), that while they are living together they should exchange a few ideas. As a result of these communications new instincts acquired by the workers and soldiers would become the property of the community as a whole.'

If Dr Bugnion had said that he had seen a termite soldier giving birth to a whale it would not have sounded more 'entirely incredible' than the above statement. The workers and soldiers are supposed to tell their work and plans to the queen. She remembers what she is told and conveys this garnered knowledge to later workers and soldiers born to her. Dr Bugnion still believes in the 'intelligent communication' of ants and termites. He calls it 'antennae-language'. I was under the impression that this fairy tale had been relegated to the nursery where it belongs. Everyone should be convinced by now, I hope, that there is only one conclusion which accords with all our knowledge of termite behaviour. The individual worker or soldier possesses no individual instincts. He forms part of a separate organism of which the queen is the psychological centre. The queen has the power, call it instinct if you will, of influencing the soldiers and workers in a certain way, which enables them to perform collective duties. This power or instinct she transmits to all queens born from her. As soon as the queen is destroyed all the instincts of workers and soldiers cease immediately. She transmits this psychological power to the future queens just as she transmits to them the power of producing three infinitely differing, forms of insect: the queen, the worker and the soldier.

At times Dr Bugnion, comes extraordinarily near to discovering the secret. He says:

'The multifarious duties, which are carried out under our eyes by the soldiers on the one hand and the workers on the other, give us the illusion of a higher direction, whereas in reality this direction does not exist, or if it does exist resides solely in the community as a whole.'

Again later he says:

'The male and female individuals which are described in the higher termites as king and queen, have no authority and possess no power of any kind. The king and queen termite shut in their closed cell do not even know what is happening outside. It would be impossible for them to give orders from the depths of their prison.' One notices that Dr Bugnion constantly talks of the termites as if they have human understanding: 'to know and to give orders'!

He thinks anthropomorphically all the time. He assumes that the termites are able to 'talk', but that touch is necessary for this. He does not think of a subtle immaterial influence which functions at a distance. If only he had put this question to himself: How does the queen hold the community together from her cell in the depths? There are millions of her subjects which never come in touch with her, which have never seen her. But as soon as she is destroyed there is an immediate end to the community as such. Our 'ant-catchers' here in the Transvaal never attempt to destroy directly the millions of workers and soldiers in the nest, they take out the queen instead. For every queen they receive a fee of two pounds. Dr Bugnion, and every observer, must at least become aware of this sustaining power of the queen; if he becomes aware of this, he must realize that she has functions other than merely sexual; that at any rate in this direction she has some psychological function which neither depth nor imprisonment can thwart. From this realization it is only a step further to the discovery of all her psychological functions. With as much reason for objection he might ask: How can an organ like the brain which is shut up in a vault, direct and know the functions of the blood corpuscles even in the toes?

One more word about explanation of the origin of the instinct of the termites. He says:

'The origin of most of these instincts is a reasoned and conscious action.' I find it difficult to believe that this explanation could be made seriously today. What would Dr Bugnion say of hundreds of our South African desert plants which attain all kinds of far-off objectives by the cleverest plans? Have these plants also reasoned and thought in human fashion, thus solved one difficulty after another, and transmitted this knowledge to their descendants?

All this discussion has been caused by the wonderful change which has taken place in the termitary from the time when we saw the queen feeding her young ones and when a few months later we open the palace cell for observation. It is difficult to make clear to the uninitiated reader why this change is so amazing to the psychologist.

In the first instance we were observing an ordinary flying insect at work, behaving in the normal way with normal reactions, except of course the birth-pain and mother-love reactions. Now, at our later observations, a new soul and a new body have appeared. The queen is no longer an insect. She has received a new soul. What has she become? How can one classify her? The biologist who thinks the matter over carefully will find difficulty in finding a place for her in a classified list. The soldiers and workers? The psychologist would say that these too are not insects. He classifies all living organisms according to their behaviour. The workers and soldiers, with only the merest semblance of an individual psyche, fall outside all classes. We are reminded again of the fairy godmother who waves her wand -- the pumpkin becomes a coach, the mice prancing steeds.

I find it simple to form an image of the general trend which development took in the case of the termitary. In any case, it seems unnecessary to look for miraculous reasons for this. It is unnecessary to suppose that the termites are capable of talking, thinking, acting and remembering in human fashion. One would have expected an observer to find the simplest explanation first. Dr Bugnion's demonstration shows us that this is not always the case. His two theories are based on the hypothesis that the termites are simply small humans to whom 'an exchange of ideas' is possible. The queen, before her flight, walks round the nest, and comes into touch with the workers and soldiers. She studies their community life, and there is 'an exchange of ideas'. From this point Dr Bugnion becomes more and more difficult to understand. What he appears to mean is that the queen remembers the lessons she learnt from the workers and soldiers, and although she never herself takes part in their labours, although she herself never shows any signs of the specialized instinct which animates the workers and soldiers, yet in spite of this she transmits these lessons to her offspring. According to Dr Bugnion the queen does something which man has not succeeded in doing. Man does not transmit a single acquired memory to his progeny. The son of the greatest mathematician does not inherit even the multiplication table.

This theory savours too much of magic. Dr Bugnion found himself in very deep water. There is not a single fact or condition in nature or in the life history of the termite which justifies his opinion. It must have been pure inspiration. There is one great difficulty which Dr Bugnion never saw, for he leaves it unmentioned. Suppose his theory is right, that the queen transmits in this way the special instincts to her offspring. There still remains the problem, how does it happen that the queen gives birth to two kinds of insect which resemble her as little as a scorpion does a butterfly? This cannot be due to the lessons she learnt from the soldiers and workers in the original termitary. Why does she transmit the special instincts only to two kinds of young, which do not inherit her own instincts, while she does not transmit these acquired instincts to the third offspring, the potential queens? The last type inherit not only her own physical form, but all her special instincts and not a single one of the instincts of the soldiers and workers. His theory cannot be the true one.

His other theory is that the soldiers and workers were at one time fertile and that the present types are the descendants of soldier and worker ancestors when these were fertile.

I have tried to show before that this is a topsy-turvy assumption which cannot be held. Besides, there still remains the difficulty of explaining how the queen manages to divide her inherited memories, some of which are latent, among her three types of offspring.

Let us compare all this with my own theory. I believe that the termite was originally a single flying insect exposed to all kinds of dangers. To keep her eggs and offspring safe she took refuge in an underground shelter. Here, just as happens with the bee, Halictus, she came into touch with her young after they were hatched. This was the beginning of community life.

Finally, to cause the community to function well, there was a division of labour. Some of the insects had to build and look for food, others had to protect the nest. Compare the story of Siphonophora mentioned already. The queen who tended to produce offspring more suitable for the various kinds of labour would have a greater chance of survival than one who did not have this tendency. Natural selection began to operate. The present-day soldiers and workers were the fittest types for protection and building operations and the sexual types for reproduction. The queen who had the tendency to produce these three types had more chance of survival and transmitted this tendency to the females born from her. Natural selection thus operated in two directions. The nearer the workers and soldiers came physically to the present-day types, the more chance had the community of surviving. A queen was selected naturally, therefore, who gave birth to all three types. Finally a queen and king were selected who not only produced these three types, but who possessed the psychological power to influence the community and to take the place of the individual instincts of the workers and soldiers.

It is easy to understand why it was an advantage to the community for the sexual sense to be destroyed in all types. Even the sexual types (potential kings and queens) possess no sexuality while they remain in the termitary. Sex in such a community would have been a disturbing influence which would have suspended all protective and other work over long periods. In order to do the best and ceaseless labour, the workers and the soldiers had to become mere automata governed by the psychological power of the queen. For the same reason, they lost their sight and other senses which are the accompaniment of an individual psyche. The soldiers and workers therefore inherit no special instincts from their parents. It is the queen who inherits the power of transmitting the semblance of such instincts to the automatons who work for her.

Next: 13. The Water Supply

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