The Soul of the White Ant

By Eugène N. Marais

7. Somatic Death

IN an earlier chapter I drew attention to some of the effects on the human body of somatic death.

The final result may be expressed as follows: The chemical constituents of the cell walls or organic material are very unstable. In ordinary circumstances they tend to break down into simpler elements, or else new and more stable combinations take place. The final result is that organic matter as such disappears. The coherence of these unstable constituents is maintained by the mere presence of living moving matter in the vicinity of the cell walls. I used the example, for a special purpose, of the common phenomenon which occurs after death, the solubility of the human skin in water, and I emphasized the fact that although the living elements in the blood-stream, which heal the skin and keep it healthy, do not actually come into contact with the outer skin, yet their mere presence in the vicinity is sufficient to maintain the stability of the unstable components. In other words, the presence of these living elements safeguards the skin against its ever-present tendency towards dissolution. This is the first function of what we call life or soul.

One can always tell by superficial examination whether a termitary is alive or dead. In general the process of dissolution is not only analogous to the dissolution which takes place in the human body, but it is also similar. We find exactly the same appearance of undisguised lifelessness; there is the same change in smell, not the same smell, ascribable to the same causes, namely the dissolution of chemical constituents; there is the same immediate loss of the defensive toughness of the skin. The innermost cell-structure falls to pieces, only dust and ashes remain.

The similarity of the two phenomena becomes even more convincing if you examine the termitary in detail. Look at the skin. The covering layer of an old termitary in dry seasons is thick and impenetrable, hard as cement. After long rain it becomes softer, in the same way that human skin becomes softer after long immersion in water. The living stream of termites constantly circulating through the termitary never comes into contact with the outer skin. The termites never renew the skin from the outside. Sometimes you see patches of renewal. The growth or healing, as the case may be, always occurs from within outwards, as in the human skin. But the construction of new patches is a peculiar phenomenon, with a particular purpose. As far as the skin is concerned in an old full-grown termitary, you will never observe the termites doing anything to keep it in condition. Such an old termitary is exposed year after year to torrents of rain, terrible droughts, scorching heat, frost, hail and wind, yet the skin remains undamaged. In cases of actual trauma, through hail for instance, healing takes place by the functioning of the two little creatures in the blood-stream -- I mean the two kinds of termite. The living skin in general appears to be insoluble in water. Even during continuous rain you will not find the least portion of the living skin washed away. I am speaking generally, as of course we do occasionally find exceptions to every rule. For instance, we sometimes find various forms of abnormal growth, real diseases which expose the whole structure to danger. The termites are in these cases just as stupid as the blood-stream in a human may be. Sometimes the reason is obvious. You can encourage abnormal growth artificially by stimulation and other influences both in the human and in the termitary. A common abnormality is the growth of a long narrow tower which is constantly destroyed by wind and bad weather. This is an abnormal deviation from the usual pointed summit, which is found on termitaries amongst trees. The base of the tower is often so small that it is impossible for it to carry the superstructure. Yet every time the tower falls over it is built up anew. This is not only great waste of energy, but the abnormality often becomes a danger to the whole community.

A termitary split open to reveal the fungus gardens

A close-up of a fungus garden

What constitutes the difference in quality between the skin of a dead termitary and that of a living one? What keeps the outer layer whole and healthy as long as the living stream continues moving within? What causes the cell walls to retain their structure intact, and what causes them to fall apart as soon as the termites die? There appears to be only one theory which conforms to modern scientific knowledge: there must be some kind of power projected from the living stream which influences the chemical constituents of organic bodies. This functions in the termitary as in the human body.

I am trying my utmost to prove that the termitary must be looked upon, not as a heap of dead earth, but as a separate animal at a certain stage of development. You must take my word for it that all this is very important and necessary if we are to get even a faint inkling of the perfect group soul and its characteristics. To be sure that we are quite clear in our minds, let us tabulate the similarities between our own physical body and the termitary:

  1. We have just seen that both possess some mysterious power which exercises an influence on the whole structure and is the cause of its stability.
  2. Both the human body and the termitary consist of a structure of cells covered with a thick skin. An inhabitant of Mars who had learnt enough of our earth to divide matter into organic and inorganic would not hesitate for one moment to classify a piece of termitary as organic. The only difference would be that, for a piece of human body, he would need a microscope to study the structure, whereas in a termite he could see it with the naked eye.
  3. Moving through the cell structure under the skin we find a living stream consisting of two kinds of organisms which both in man and the termite have the same functions. The white blood corpuscles quickly form a defensive circle round a wound. They are there for apparently one purpose only, to prevent the invasion of strange hostile organisms. The other, or red, blood corpuscles busy themselves with repairing the injury. From the innermost part of the body these latter bear material for new cells which eventually are covered with new skin
    ---If you make a wound in a termitary, the living stream is seen at once. The red syringe bearers form a circle of defence round the wound. Their only function is to prevent the entry of enemies by their fearful appearance or by actual defence. For purposes of defence they secrete a clear, sticky, stinging acid. The other termites of the living stream at once begin repairing the wound. They carry material from the depths of the termitary to build up the new cell structure, which eventually is covered with new skin.
  4. The human body takes food through a foramen -- the mouth. The food is carried to certain organs where it undergoes a chemical change; afterwards it is taken up by the blood-stream and utilized by the red corpuscles for building purposes.

In the termitary, food is taken through several foramina and roughly masticated. It is then carried to different centres, where a certain kind of termite transforms it chemically; it then enters the living stream and is used as food for the different members of the community and for building purposes. With a magnifying glass you can observe how each termite uses a drop of fluid from his own body to cover each minute grain which is used for building. This fluid holds the structure together. Most of the water used is carried up the vertical shaft leading from subterranean sources of moisture.

I wish to digress here in order to discuss normal and abnormal growth from another angle.

Physical growth is the most perfect example in nature of the psyche of inherited memory. It always appears very wonderful and inexplicable. We humans use our own consciousness as a criterion for classification. Eventually we discover that this consciousness can never be a criterion for psychological processes different from our own. We are inclined, for instance, to be amazed at the abnormal functioning of the subconscious mind. When we discover, however, that the subconscious mind is no more than the rudimentary animal psyche still present in man, and that all the wonders which abnormal functioning bring forth are merely usual everyday occurrences in lower animals, we need to be less mystified. In the same way we are amazed at our own physical growth. But when we study similar phenomena in nature; when we begin classifying our knowledge, we are forced to surrender our false criterion. We tend to believe that the psyche which directs human growth is something far beyond our own comprehension. This power we think does miracles which we could not do, and it appears to have some purpose far beyond our own understanding. Then, however, we begin to discover that the psyche which directs physical growth is in some respects more stupid and more ignorant than the psyche of a child. Even the 'roadmaker' ant which we observed a short while ago, which would take years to learn that twice two always makes four, is a genius compared to this psyche. The psyche of physical growth comes lowest in the scale when 'Learn by experience' is our rule of measure. If you take reasoning powers as your measure, this psyche comes even lower.

Of course when you realize that the same psyche which will from its own experience never learn that two and two make four, can, beginning with a single cell, build up an elephant or a person, or an oak tree cell by cell, then you begin getting a little muddled. That is because you use different measures.

If you were to discover that in every elephant, every human, every oak tree, there were parts which were built wrongly in a most stupid fashion; if you were to find elephants with five legs, with deformed jaws, with regular but abnormal cell structures which form a danger to the whole body; if you were to discover that abnormal growth is often persevered in, in spite of constant destruction through the inherent weakness of structure -- just as we saw in the termites with their little tower -- then you would become aware of the fact that one measure cannot be used for classification.

You will come to another important conclusion. Every psychologist who studies the group soul in nature seeks an answer to the question: Is there some powerful group soul above and beyond nature which dominates all natural phenomena and directs them to some goal? It appears a hopeless task to seek an answer in nature. Every truthful naturalist, who is not led astray by his own hopes and longings, will always doubt his ability to give a truthful answer. It is possible that we see only a small arc of a gigantic circle, that the means and ways of the universal soul lie far beyond our human understanding.

It is often said that the purpose of life is natural development, it being taken for granted that the development of living creatures leads to a state of absolute perfection, not relative perfection. All that development does, however, is to equip the organism to withstand the enemies that assail it in a special environment. For every new weapon it receives, it must lay down an old one. Man who has developed the furthest psychologically, has paid the dearest for his psyche of individual causal memory. We have seen that the psyche which directs growth possesses no vestige of the powers of learning by experience, of reasoning, of intelligence, as we call it. When we make our own deepest feelings the arbiter, we are dismayed. For we seek in vain in nature for love, sympathy, pity, justice, altruism, protection of the innocent and weak. From the very beginnings of life we hear a chorus of anguish. Pain is a condition of existence. Escape from pain the purpose in all striving.

And Nature? Pitiless cruelty, torment, and destruction of the weak and innocent. The thief, the assassin, the blood-stained robber, these are her favourites, these are the psychological types which are the triumphant victors of the strife.

The psyche, which we see faint and barely recognizable in the higher mammals, attaining its highest pinnacle in man, seems to be an exception to the great principles which dominate the universe. So the hope arises there is some purpose in nature, whose guiding principle is a psyche similar but infinitely more developed than the soul of the primate. If this is so, we seek in vain for evidence in our natural surroundings. We are as little able to comprehend such an exalted psyche as the termite can comprehend man, who orders his own aims and purposes throughout life.

If Nature possesses a universal psyche, it is one far above the common and most impelling feelings of the human psyche. She certainly has never wept in sympathy, nor stretched a hand protectively over even the most beautiful or innocent of her creatures.

8. The Development of the Composite Animal

I HAVE taken great pains to prove the termitary is a separate and composite animal in exactly the same way that a man is a separate composite animal. Only the power of locomotion is absent. We must not forget, however, that there are other animals who have not the power of movement.

All this may remind you of the mountain in labour, which eventually produced a very small mouse. The facts I have given, however, are as strictly true as any other established biological phenomenon, and it is necessary to accept them if you wish to understand the life history of the termite.

If you make a wound in the round termitary made by Eutermes later called Trinervitertnes -- a small round vertical hole with a walking stick, for instance, and then isolate the wound with a sharp circular cut through the skin, the termites begin as usual to repair the wound. But what you have done causes in many cases a curious reflex. The termites begin abnormal building. Instead of repairing the cells and passages and growing a new skin over this, they build a tower. I believe the stimulus is the entry of sunlight. If the base is too small, the tower topples over again and again as soon as it reaches a certain height, and just as often the termites reconstruct it. The tower is not only unnecessary to the termitary, but actually a disadvantage.

It is a disturbing influence which throws the normal course of life of the organism into disorder. It is analogous to the growth of a cancer.

Catch a pair of our common house lizards and tame them. With a lancet make two or three longitudinal cuts in the tail. In some cases you will initiate a curious reflex and an abnormal growth will begin. Instead of merely repairing the wound, a new tail is grown. If you amputate the new tail, you may find a double tail sprouting. In this way you can -- if all goes well -- manufacture a lizard with seven tails. In the same way we can manufacture a termitary with seven towers, to the great disadvantage of the whole community. We cannot make a lizard's tail; nor can we make a tower with the same materials and in the same way as the termite. But we would be far too clever to build in such a faulty, unnecessary fashion.

I will not try to bring any further proofs of the similarity between the termitary and other animals, but if this theory is borne in mind, constant proof will be forthcoming when the termite is studied. The insects themselves should always be thought of as blood-stream and organs of a single animal.

If the highly developed, highly specialized animals originally developed from communities like the termite, one should be able to find instances of such symbiosis, which is more than mere partnership, low down in the scale of organic life. There are many such instances, which justify us in believing that organisms of several kinds can result in a successful amalgamation. Of this nature is the union between fungus and alga to form a lichen, which differs enormously from both original ones. But the object and actual results of the process are much more clearly seen when we meet it fairly high in the animal kingdom. In the sea around the African coast there can be found a hundred kinds of a certain species of marine creature. Its scientific name is Hydromedusa, and there is a related species known as Siphonophora. We will observe Siphonophora. There is no other animal of its size in the ocean which can boast of so large a bibliography. Ernst Hackel and other famous naturalists spent years studying, describing and classifying them. The great peculiarity of these creatures is that every full-grown specimen is a composite animal composed of hundreds of individuals. The single individual is born by a budding process from the generative group of the composite animal. These newly born individuals swim round freely and are able to continue life singly and reproduce themselves. Each is a perfect marine creature with mouth, stomach, swimming apparatus and sexual organs. If by chance a group of Siphonophora happens to meet, they cling to each other. In some species organic union takes place immediately, in others something less than this. But apart from this small difference the final result is the same. Immediately after the union the single individuals undergo a curious change. One group forms a complicated swimming apparatus; another group becomes the stomach and digestive system; and yet another group develops into the sexual organs of the composite animal. One group even takes on hepatic functions and becomes the liver. Each individual of such a group loses all its separate organic functions. Those of the stomach group, for instance, forget they ever sought food or had a sexual life of their own. The new organism is a perfect whole animal. Were you to see it in its perfect stage you would not dream that it had been formed in this way from separate individuals. Yet one can break it up again! One can tear apart each individual until the whole animal has been disorganized. One might suppose death would be the result, but not at all. Each little part begins to stir in the water. Slowly it repairs its lost organs and functions until at last it once again is a perfect individual, as different from the composite Siphonophora as the camel from the whale.

One can repeat this process innumerable times without apparently injuring either the individual or the composite creature.

In such a way our termitary has been formed; in the same way the individuals have undergone wonderful changes in order to form group organs. In every termitary there is a brain, a stomach, a liver and sexual organs which ensure the propagation of the race. They have legs and arms for gathering food; they have a mouth. If natural selection continues to operate, the final result may be a termitary which moves slowly over the veld. There are hundreds of facts, biological and psychological, in nature which prove all highly developed animals have been formed from separate organisms. Once I collected all the facts and classified them, hoping to startle the scientific world. Unfortunately my tower collapsed, not because it was wrongly built, but because other naturalists had already become aware of all this. Claude Bernard in his opening address to the French Academy (1869), Dr Durand Gos, in his Electrodynamique Vitale (1855) and Variétés Philosophiques (1857), tried to show that the vital organs of man were separate animals.

In our own time Jean Finot in his optimistic demonstration on Life and Death wrote: 'The teaching that the human organism is composed of separate animals, each with a separate system, will, we hope, find more and more proof in the scientific investigation of our time."

Another fact one should constantly remember is that, if there is the least grain of truth in this theory of development, then just as certainly the termite was originally a perfect flying individual insect, of which the queen and king are the prototypes. The union of these individuals and the wonderful changes which resulted from it is a late development in the history of the race. If the blind, wingless, sexless soldiers and workers are not a degeneration of the perfect king and queen type, then, the opposite conclusion will have to be accepted: the perfect king and queen must be a development from one or other of the sexless types, and that cannot be the case. There are other biological facts which indicate that the imperfect types are the result of degenerative change of the perfect insect. The rudiments of wing buds and of sexual organs in the sexless types show clearly the way development, or rather degeneration, has gone.

Next: 9. The Birth of the Termite Community

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