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Eugene Marais - Writer and Scientist


Eddie Davey (Musician)

Eddie Davey (Musician)

Eddie Davey (Musician)

Eddie Davey (Musician)

Eddie Davey (Musician)

In the summer of 1936, Eugene Marais put the barrel of a shotgun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Almost seven decades later, his story still remains enthralling.

Although Eugene Marais is remembered by South Africans more for his contribution to Afrikaans literature than for science, he has been described as being a scientist far ahead of his time. As a gifted writer, Marais is known as one of the founding fathers of the Afrikaans language. He used this talent and his curiosity about wild animals to publish his profound scientific discoveries.

His life started in 1871, born in Pretoria, which was at the time still a frontier town. By 12 he was a published poet, by 16 he had matriculated and by 19 he was the editor of the Afrikaans newspaper Land en Volk.
In 1896 he sailed for London to study law. But it was not only as jurist that Marais distinguished himself as a brilliant (yet eccentric) character in South African history. He has been described as a human community in one man. He was a poet, an advocate, a journalist, a story-teller, a drug- addict, a psychologist, a natural scientist.

His life was, however, not without problems. His young wife, Aletta, died while giving birth to their first child, and after this Marais turned to morphine as a companion. But even before her death, he used the substance frequently. This addiction could, however, be explained. When Marais was a baby, no well-equipped household was without an opium-based anodyne for pain and he was probably lulled with these concoctions from an early age. This lead to his later addiction.

In 1910, he abandoned his law practice and retreated to the remote Waterberge the mountain area north-west of Pretoria. Here he studied two creatures - termites and baboons which, on the face of it, had nothing in common. Both fascinated him, as did all wild creatures.

He published his conclusions about termites as a series of speculative articles, written entirely in Afrikaans and appearing only in local newspapers, as The Soul of the White Ant. While observing the natural behaviour of these creatures, he noticed that firstly, the whole termitarium had to be considered as a single organism whose organs work like those of a human being. The queen was the brain and the womb; the workers were mouthparts and tissue builders; the soldiers white blood cells and the humus gardens were the stomach. And secondly that the actions within the termitarium were completely instinctive.

Marais began writing Soul of the Ape in 1916, but never finished it. It was published posthumously years later. His theory was that, unlike termites, baboons and by extension all primates had the ability to memorise the relationship between cause and effect. They could therefore vary their behaviour voluntarily. While termites were instinctive, the mind of baboons was based on "causal memory".

The reason for this difference, according to Marais, was natural selection. According to him, natural selection was not, like Darwin had insisted, the survival of the fittest, but rather the line of least resistance. Those species best able to adapt to their specific environment survived, while those not able to, would become extinct. Natural selection, therefore, had the tendency to both localise and specialise species.

These conclusions to which he came were new and radical and might well have had an influence in Europe. But Marais was half a hemisphere away, half a century too soon and writing in a language no one could understand.
The Soul of the White Ant was brought under the attention of the world only by being seemingly plagiarised by a Belgian Nobel prize winner, Maurice Maeterlinck. The Soul of the Ape was incomplete and originally only published in South Africa.

Yet it is impossible to ignore the fact that Marais' work is revolutionary, especially if one takes into account the time and place in which it was written. The social anthropologist Robert Ardrey says in his introduction to Marais' work on ants and baboons published in 1973 "As a scientist he was unique, supreme in his time, yet a worker in a science unborn."

The science is now known as Ethology and Marais made no direct contribution to it, but his ghost continues to haunt the discipline.


What happened to Eugene Marais's son after Aletta died and EM went on his travels. Can anybody help me find out?

Posted by: Nerine Bester

I will be 62 and I pity it that only for the first time I am reading THe Soul of th Ape. What a revelation for a layman like me and how proud I am of Eugene Marais, a SAfrican genius born much too early and died too soon! Stimulating stuff! Will read is more than once. Will also try to read other pubications by this genius!

Posted by: Eddie Davey (Musician)




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