The Soul of the White Ant

By Eugène N. Marais

4. What is the Psyche?

THAT which is known as the psyche or soul is something far beyond the reach of our senses. No one has ever seen or smelt, or heard or tasted or felt the psyche, or even a piece of it. There are two ways in which we can come on the track of the psyche. In my own innermost self I become aware of something which is not a tangible part of my physical body. This awareness of course is limited to a part of my own psyche. That of my brother is just as far beyond my direct reach as the psyche of the termite. I must accept the existence of other psyches because I am told of them. Introspection is thus one method by which I am able to affirm the existence of the psyche. But this is a separate branch of knowledge which at the moment does not concern us. Now we come to a question which will prove more interesting to us in regard to our observation of the termite. I will try again to be as little scientific and technical as possible. But I must enlarge on it and you must be patient and try to read it and understand it if you wish to grasp all the wonders of a termite nest, which will be revealed to you later on.

Remember that most of the important definitions which follow are my own and made on my own responsibility for what that may be worth. You will search scientific books in vain for confirmation of what I say. Nevertheless I flatter myself that, if you really study nature, not only will you find that all I say is true, but that it is the only key with which to unlock many dark secrets in the behaviour of living creatures.

Let us first see what science says. The psyche, so say scientific and very logical people, is a state, of matter. This was also their first definition of magnetism; you dare not say the psyche is something which causes a certain state of matter, for there is no proof of that. But the analogy with magnetism and later discoveries gives us a certain right to say:

First: 'The psyche is something outside the reach of our senses; it causes certain states in matter, which states are within the reach of our senses.'

It is of course only through movement that we can become aware of this state. Then comes the question, What is a psychological movement? Our whole life is a world of movement. We see dust and leaves blowing about in the wind; we see streams flowing and water plants swaying in it. We hear the wind and feel it; we see a little ant carrying a piece of food to its nest, we see an egg apparently unmoving, but if we have the chance of watching it long and carefully enough we see a continuous movement, which eventually results in a chicken. Which of all these movements are movements of the psyche and which are not? We need not dig too deeply into logic and metaphysics to find a definition. We will be practical and say: Only movement which has a definite motive can be a 'psychological movement'.

Secondly: Our own psyche is naturally the criterion which enables us to establish whether there is a motive or not.

Very logical people may not be satisfied with this part of our definition, but for the practical naturalist it is sufficient. Secondly we learn by experience that such movement occurs only in certain kinds of matter -- namely organic; that it mostly originates in the organism itself, and is not dependent on forces outside itself. I purposely say mostly because there are many motivations in nature which are really dependent on outside forces and yet are psychological movements. There is the case of the seed of what we call the 'flute' reed. Like a little powder-puff in shape the seed floats on the lightest breeze like a tiny airship, but as soon as it arrives over a pond or a marsh, the seed sinks to the ground like a bird settling on the water or damp ground. At first sight this appears to be a true psychological motive movement coming from within the seed, such as we very seldom find in the plant world. But on closer examination the explanation is merely this: through friction by the wind the little powder-puff, before it wrenches itself from the mother stem, receives a charge of negative electricity. The result is that all the fine hairs of the puff spring apart. As long as the hairs are spread open, the seed floats in the air; but as soon as it comes in touch with water vapour, the electricity is discharged and the puff folds up and slowly sinks to earth. By this means the plant makes certain not only that its seed shall be spread afar, but, what is of greater importance, that every seed will land on damp ground or actually in water. Here you have a number of objects which the plant achieves by utilizing natural forces outside of itself; nevertheless all these fall inside our definition as movements with a motive and therefore psychological.

Thirdly: Mostly -- but only mostly -- the movement originates in the organism itself.

The above definition will suffice for the practical naturalist. He will at times come across some puzzles, as for instance the pretended death of the toktokkie or the growth of a crystal; but after reflection he will find our definition still suffices.

A few words more about our classification of these motivated movements in nature and then we have finished this dry-as-dust topic and can continue with our termites. That all this has been very necessary you will see later.

I have classified it as follows:

  1. Motivated movements in the plant world. These consist of four kinds:
    (a) Growth (for instance the turning towards the light by plants).
    (b) Tropism. Induced by outside influences.
    (c) Movements dependent on natural forces outside the organism.
    (d) Movements which appear to originate from within the organism, for instance the extension of tendrils towards near objects by certain creepers; this may also be a tropism.
  2. Motivated movements in the lower animal world. The most common and most important are movements which originate in the organism itself, external forces of nature are used, but in a manner differing from that of the plants. The peculiarity of these movements is that they always follow a fixed course; the organism can never modify or change its behaviour; and this fixed behaviour is as much inherited as the organs of the body.

The investigator very soon comes to the conclusion that all motivated movements are dependent on what we call memory. These predetermined inherited motivated movements we call instinct. You come across this in all its original perfection in insects; and through the whole lower animal world you find it unchanged until you come to the apes and man and then only you find a vast and striking change in motivated movements, both in quality and in quantity.

Let us return again to the psychology of instinct. I said that the memory which constitutes this instinct is hereditary in the same way that the physical organs of the organism are hereditary. The following experiment which I myself carried out will explain what I mean.

The well-known yellow South African weaver bird, there are many kinds, but any kind may be used for this experiment, plaits a wonderful little nest at the extreme tip of a flexible branch, generally over water. You often see their nests at the end of the thin drooping twigs of the graceful weeping willow, but have you ever taken the trouble of watching to discover how the very first piece of grass is tied to the twig and what kind of knot the little bird uses? The full-grown bird is a seed eater, but the little ones are fed on worms until it is nearly time for them to leave the nest. Remember these two instinctive memories:

  1. How to build the nest, and
  2. How to feed the fledglings.

I hatched the eggs of the yellow weaver under canaries, for four generations. The new birds were forced to lay eggs each time without being able to build their characteristic nest. This is the most difficult part of the experiment, but it can be done. Every time these eggs were hatched under canaries, the young ones were fed on a synthetic diet and were never allowed to see a worm or an insect. Nor did they ever see a piece of grass which might be utilized for building. Then I took this fourth generation and provided them with everything which they would need in their normal environment. Remember now that for four generations they have not seen a plaited nest or tasted a worm. From personal experience the bird cannot possibly know what to do. There can be no question of individual memory. I expected at least that there would occur some deviation from normal behaviour, but it was not so. When the time arrived for nesting, the birds began plaiting vigorously. They made more nests than they required. This often happens in nature as a means of protection. The eggs were hatched and the young ones were fed on worms!

This experiment shows what I mean by the inherited memory of instinct.

The second characteristic of this psyche is that the individual is incapable of deviation from a certain fixed way of behaving, in other words he cannot acquire any individual causal memory. He is bound to his inherited memories. This inherited memory is in every respect a terrible tyrant. Even when death threatens there is no escape, if escape means behaviour contrary to the inherited memory.

I will give you two examples. The black 'road-maker' ants -- real ants this time, not termites -- are found in many parts of South Africa. They make footpaths, hundreds of yards long at times, along which they bear all kinds of plant and grass seed to their nest. At a distance you see two streams of these ants, one apparently white, the other black. The approaching ants each carry a white seed; the retreating ants carry nothing. The ant carries the seed in its husk down into the nest. Here the husk is carefully removed. The seed is stored, and the husk is deposited outside the nest in a heap. One kind of 'road-maker' ant is a master of a wonderful natural secret which even man has not discovered. It knows how to prevent the germination of seed, even when this is placed in damp ground in the dark. I think they must whisper an incantation which bewitches the seed. The microscope can discover not the least flaw in such seed, yet if you pick some of the same seed and place it in exactly the same spot where the ant places his, it germinates within a few hours. But there, just see how one is led astray involuntarily when one is dealing with ants! To come back to our subject. These 'roadmakers' are very much afraid of water. A flood is their greatest natural enemy. Do you know why? They were originally a desert ant, more or less modern emigrants to more privileged districts, therefore they have not yet learnt how to protect their subterranean nest against long continuous rains.

Deeply rooted in them therefore is the fear of this arch-enemy of their race. The only solution they have is flight -- early and as far as possible.

If you dig a little furrow across their path and fill it with water you cause the greatest bewilderment amongst the ants. On both sides of the furrow there congregates an excited throng and it takes them a very, very long while to discover that an easy solution would be to make a detour. Before they think of this, however, you place a grass stalk across the waterway to serve as a bridge and at once you will be enabled to watch very peculiar and mysterious behaviour. The ants begin to test the dangerous bridge. One by one, they try the bridge with their forelegs, stretching their bodies across it, while they cling to the bank with their back legs. They feel the bridge with their forelegs and antennae, then become aware of the water and hastily retreat to tell their companions that undoubtedly the bridge is quite unsafe. This is what happens on the bank which is on the same side as the nest, where the unladen ants congregate. On the other side of the bridge, the side farthest from the nest, the behaviour of the ants is quite different. The ants arrive here, each laden with a grass seed. Generally the seed is so heavy that the gait of the ant is very much impeded and difficult. What happens at the bridge? With apparently not the least hesitation each ant steps on to the straw with its gigantic burden. Sometimes it capsizes, but clings to the bridge with all its legs, and crosses. Always it succeeds in bringing its load to safety and hastens homewards to the nest as though nothing untoward had happened.

Here you are confronted by a riddle; the unladen ant is afraid to risk its life on the bridge; the laden ant crosses with a load which makes its passage a hundred times more dangerous. The carrying of the burden cannot lessen its awareness of the water. Now take a square piece of tin covered with earth and push it under the ants congregated on the nestward side of the bridge. When they are gathered thickly on the tin, pick this up with the ants. With a fine camel-hair brush mark as many ants as possible with a small red mark on the hinder part of the body, and then shake them on to the ground beyond the bridge. Immediately they all dash off along the path, to return shortly each carrying a grass seed, and they cross the bridge without a qualm, as if they had been crossing bridges all their lives. After a while some of your marked ants will return from the nest, having safely deposited the seed. When they come to the bridge they stop, and nothing you can do will give one single ant the courage to cross the bridge. And so you may continue from morning till night, if you have the patience of a naturalist, until almost every ant is marked with a red spot. In the end you will have learnt two things:

First, that you will never teach the ants by their own experience that the bridge can be crossed in safety. Secondly, you will never teach the ants that if the bridge is safe for a heavily laden ant it must be, proportional to the load, so much safer for an unladen ant. They prove this for themselves hundreds of times. If you were to continue this experiment for months, the ants would be able to prove this fact thousands of times, but their behaviour never changes, until at last you will give them up as hopeless. The unladen ant will never dare to cross the bridge, but as soon as he returns with his heavy burden, he crosses without hesitation.

Can you guess why the unladen ant refuses to cross and the laden ant does not? If you have investigated the psychology of animals, the behaviour of the ants will not remain a secret for very long. The behaviour of the unladen ant which leaves the nest is determined by only one instinctive urge -- to fetch food. In any case it is not a very strong urge, for it always operates in opposition to the ever-present and very great urge -- the homing instinct, the strongest of all psychological urges, except the sexual, where this is present in individuals. Higher up the scale of animal life we call this urge 'home-sickness', heimweh. The ants returning with the seed are drawn by two of the strongest urges:

  1. Homing instinct, and
  2. Bringing the food to safety.

It is as if you had tied threads to the ants and were pulling them. The thread pulling the ant away from the nest is very weak. When the ants become aware of danger and become afraid, the thread breaks. But the returning ants are drawn by two strong threads, which even a fear of death cannot break. We see therefore that the riddle was not such a very difficult one after all.

You understand now what the psychologist means when he says that the instinctive psyche cannot deviate from the inherited formula of behaviour, and that no individual can acquire a causal memory -- in other words he cannot learn by his own experience.

I also said that the psyche of inherited memories is a force which cannot be turned aside even by death if escape means behaviour which conflicts with the race memory. As an example of this I will tell you about the case of the springboks on the Springbokvlakte in Waterberg. This vlakte or plain is an island of open veld in the middle of the Transvaal bushveld. The springbok is highly specialized for life on the open plain, in other words all his inherited memory is of open plains. He knows how to escape the perils which threaten him there; he knows which is the best food for him there and how he can find this; he knows when and how to change his quarters. He can see and smell over great distances. On this plain there were, twenty years ago, thousands of springboks. Now they have been exterminated. Slowly but surely people have crowded there, made farms, fenced off camps, and destroyed the springboks. To the west rose the mountains and to the north lay the endless bushveld, where they would have been absolutely safe. Death lay on the one hand and safety on the other, but they could not take the step which would have saved them. Thousands of other big game, less specialized, fled into the bush and saved themselves from extinction. Often it happened that herds of springbok were chased by hunters into the bushveld. Always they returned -- sometimes the very same day -- to meet death on the open plain.

There still remain two further kinds of 'soul movements' or instinctive urges in nature, the classification and peculiarities of which you must know if you hope to understand even a little about the behaviour of the termite.

Then lastly:

When you live with baboons you very soon see that the difference between the psyche of the lowest baboon and the highest mammal (the dog or otter, for instance) is far greater than the difference between the psyche of the baboon and that of man.

What exactly is the difference? We know that the difference is there, but to put our meaning into words is diffficult at first. A great deal of very patient work was necessary to enable me to write down in black and white of what the difference consists.

If you ask scientists what the psychological difference is between a baboon and an otter, nine out of ten will say that the baboon possesses powers of reasoning and intelligence, which the otter lacks. It would be just as clear if they said the baboon is a baboon and the otter is an otter. Neither answer takes you very far. Another scientist may say that a baboon can learn new habits more easily than an otter. This is more enlightening but does not help us a great deal.

Let us look at this race memory carefully and see what the result of it is in nature. Let us take a land bird that can fly and is very much the same in every respect as other land birds. Gradually our bird begins finding food on the beach. After millions of years he learns to catch fish in fairly deep water. As soon as this becomes a fixed habit natural selection begins to operate. The deeper the bird goes into the water, the more chance he will have of survival if he is equipped for his new life physically and psychologically. And so it goes on for another million years. The bird loses his wings, they now serve as oars; he loses his feathers, which become down; his legs become adapted for swimming -- and at last we have the penguin. By the way, you will see I adhere to Darwin's theories: I never saw very much in those of De Vries. If we observe the penguin or the otter, for all that I have said applies to both, we notice several important facts. If any sudden change occurs in their environment, they are completely at sea. Let me give you an example of the otter in these conditions. Once in the Waterberg during a drought which lasted for four years and when all the streams became stagnant, you would find otters all over the veld adjacent to the big waterways. There were still pools of water, but these contained no fish or crabs. The otter is a nimble creature, and you can teach him to catch birds and other small land animals in the same way as a cat does. But he cannot teach himself to do this. Hundreds of these wild otters died in the midst of plenty. At this time I managed to get hold of a pair of newly born otters. One of these I sent to Springbokvlakte, thirty miles from the nearest running water. As he was dug out of the nest shortly after birth, he had never seen a river. A bitch reared him with her own litter. He never saw or was given food other than raw meat, birds and other land animals, and he never saw water except when it was given to him in a dish to quench his thirst.

At the same time I took a newly born baboon from the mountains to the plain and reared him with a feeding-bottle. Afterwards he was fed on food which was not his natural diet. No opportunity was given him of catching or eating a living insect. When both these animals were three years old they were taken for the first time to their own natural environments, the otter to Sterk river, whence he came originally, and the baboon to the Dubbele Mountains where his mother had been shot. Both were starved for a short while previously. Here I had a wonderful opportunity of observing the great difference in behaviour of these two creatures. The otter just hesitated for a moment or two, then plunged into the water, and within half an hour had caught a crab and a large carp and devoured them on the rocks.

The baboon, on the contrary, was completely lost. He was in the midst of a plenitude of natural food yet, although starving, he obviously knew nothing of turning over stones and catching the living insects which hide beneath them. There is no doubt he would have died of hunger if he had been left alone. When I turned up a stone for him, he retreated from the wriggling insects, and showed signs of fear and horror. With the greatest difficulty I succeeded in persuading him to taste a dead scorpion, from which I had removed the sting and the poison gland, and at last he was induced to catch a living one, with the result that he was immediately stung on the finger. He chose, amongst other things, to eat a wild mountain fruit which is deadly poison and his life perforce had to be saved. Such accidents never happen to wild baboons. They have learnt. Our tame baboon also eventually understood all these things, but he had to learn by painful experience.

We see then that nature has done two things for the baboon: she has given him a psyche which is able to acquire individual causal memories; and secondly she has done away with his inherited race memory. The baboon is the transition point in the animal world. He has advanced so far that in about fifty per cent of cases there is no inherited orientation of the sexual instinct, the instinct which is the strongest inherited instinct of all. In man we find no inherited orientation of this instinct at all. Sexual desire may awaken, but the orientation must be learnt in both sexes. How has this extraordinary change in natural behaviour taken place? In the first place some great advantage must accrue to the race through the change. You will understand that on the whole the result of inherited memory is to bind a race tyrannically to a special environment. The penguin to the sea, the klipspringer to the mountains, the springbok to the plains. The more perfect race memory is, the more strictly confined will be the organism to his environment. This is the only result of natural selection. The affirmation or belief that selection and development in nature are striving after some ideal state of perfection is childish and false. In every case of highly specialized animals we find a loss of physical perfection. An exchange always takes place and the result is not perfect. When the penguin exchanged his wings for oars, he did not become more perfect; the long neck of the giraffe is a disadvantage in flight and distinctly unsightly. Nature is not a charitable institution. She is always inimical to life, or else there would be no natural selection. It is clear, too, that the race which is bound too closely to a certain environment is at a great disadvantage. If the environment suffers a sudden change, such a race is lost. It cannot change to a new environment and individuals cannot acquire new memories to enable them to cope with the changes in their environment.

In Africa it frequently happens that whole races are exterminated by such changes in nature, as for instance droughts, locust, or the arrival of other unknown enemies. To give a race the great advantage of being able to change its environment suddenly, natural selection must cause a change in the very psyche. No single or even repeated somatic change only can bring this about. There must be psychological change, too. The first and most important step is to wipe out the inherited or race memory. Unless this happens there can be no change in environment. Not only must the race memory be destroyed, but even the possibility of its being inherited must disappear from the psyche -- or the change will be useless. Instead of race memory a psyche must be developed which enables every individual to acquire his own causal memory of his environment. It is this change in the baboons which has given them an advantage which everyone who is familiar with them will concede.

The immediate result of this change was to make the baboon a citizen of the world. He can adapt himself to any environment -- that is why we find our South African baboons in most varying surroundings. You find them on the fruitful mountains of the Cape, in the big forests and river valleys of the interior, and in the waterless deserts of the Kalahari. In every environment he acquired new habits. He learnt to catch sucking lambs and tear them open in order to drink the milk in their bellies -- throughout half of South Africa. In the Northern Transvaal he has not learnt this yet. In one district on Waterberg he has learnt to place a hard fruit on a rock and break it open with a stone -- his first use of an implement. Nowhere in nature will you find these things happening except in the baboons and apes.

From all this investigation we find two facts which are clear as daylight. First there is a vast psychological gulf between the psyche of the baboon and the psyche of the highest mammal below the race of primates; and secondly that the psyche of man and the psyche of the baboon are exactly the same in quality. The difference is found to be only in quantity.

In the case of the baboon we are looking at the stream near its source in the mountains. In the case of man we see the same river just before it disappears into the ocean.

Man has gone farthest in this direction, and that is the reason why he has conquered the biggest and driest deserts, the Gobi and the Sahara, the highest mountains, the deepest valleys, the tropics and the frozen Poles -- and yet survived. But nature demands payment for all she gives. As we have shown there is always an exchange. The baboon and man paid an exorbitant price for their new type of psyche -- a price which is bound surely but slowly to bring about their natural extermination. One day, when I have finished telling you about the termites, I may tell you why I think that.

Only one more word about the psyche of the individual causal memory. The old animal psyche of race memory does not actually get destroyed, but it is paralysed by a kind of permanent inhibition. But it still remains and can be artificially stimulated into function. This, I think, is the greatest discovery I made during an observation of the wild baboon lasting over three years. There is not the least doubt to my mind that the so-called subconscious psyche of man is not a wonderful creation of natural selection which leads to ideal perfection, but is in fact only the old animal psyche in a state of inhibition, and which in abnormal circumstances is released and leads to serious psychological disorders.

We have gone a tremendous detour, but now at last we have reached the point where, with a clear conscience, we can investigate the communal psyche of the termite.

Next: 5. Luminosity in the Animal Kingdom

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