[lit-ideas] Eugene Marais, baboons, and religious "instinct"

  • From: "Lawrence Helm" <lawrencehelm@xxxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • To: <lit-ideas@xxxxxxxxxxxxx>
  • Date: Tue, 27 May 2014 17:09:42 -0700

Thanks, JL, for the African Genesis (written by Robert Ardrey) reference.  I 
searched page after page looking for references to Raymond Dart only to learn 
it was not Dart but Eugene Marais who had the baboon story.  He wrote a book 
entitled The Soul of the Ape in 1919, published posthumously in 1939.  He also 
wrote some articles one can find collected under the title My Friends the 

I’ve gotten Dart and Marais confused, but I’ll leave them that way and simply 
quote Robert Audrey describing the Baboon story I sort-of remembered.  The 
following is from pages 82-83:

“Marais could always tell when a leopard was in the neighbourhood of his own 
band.  Protected by nothing but the rocky hollows in the krans and concealed 
only by the limbs of the massive wild fig, the troop would begin to move 
uneasily.  He would sense the restlessness, and then hear a particular cry of 
disturbance.  Helplessly the troop would wait for unseen death to pass 
unseeing.  But one night the leopard came early.

“It was still dusk.  The troop had only just returned from the feeding grounds 
and had barely time to reach its scattered sleeping places in the high-piled 
rocks behind the fig tree.  Now it shrilled its terror.  And Marais could see 
the leopard.  It appeared from the bush and took its insolent time.  So 
vulnerable were the baboons that the leopard seemed to recognize no need for 
hurry.  He crouched just below a little jutting cliff above him.

“The two males moved cautiously.  The leopard, if he saw them, ignored them.  
His attention was fixed on the swarming, screeching, defenceless horde 
scrambling among the rocks.  Then the two males dropped.  They dropped on him 
from a height of twelve feet.  One bit at the leopard’s spine.  The other 
struck at his throat while clinging to his neck from below.  In an instant the 
leopard disemboweled with his hind claws the baboon hanging to his neck and 
caught in his jaws the baboon on his back.  But it was too late.  The dying 
disemboweled baboon had hung on just long enough and had reached the leopard’s 
jugular vein with his canines. 

“Marais watched while movement stilled beneath the little jutting cliff.  Night 
fell.  Death, hidden from all but the impartial stars enveloped prey and 
predator alike.  And in the hollow places in the rocky, looming krans a society 
of animals settled down to sleep.”  

Comment:  I have this account in quotes because I’m quoting Ardrey, but he 
doesn’t have it in quotes.  I checked a few Wikipedia references, couldn’t find 
any other reference to this story but found this one interesting: 
http://www.authorsden.com/categories/story_top.asp?catid=32&id=22445 I 
especially noted the paragraph, “In 1948, twelve years after Marais’ death, 
Nikolaas Tinbergen[2] (1907-1988) reformulated Marais’ extremely important 
concept of the phyletic (inborn) and causal (acquired) memory.”  

I’m assuming that Marais had informed the difference between instinctive and 
acquired memory in apes in some clever way; which caused me to wonder if the 
human genes governing the learning of language are considered “instinct.”  
Growing up I was taught that nothing in us is instinctive, Locke’s influence no 
doubt, but does anyone still say that?  The ability to learn language is 
instinctive – or does the fact that we don’t all know the same language but can 
instead at a certain age rapidly learn any language, disqualify it as 

Nicholas Wade argues that our religious inclination is as instinctive as 
language, contra Locke.  We don’t all practice the same religion – no more than 
we learn the same religion, but most (not those raised by wolves or apes, 
perhaps) of us learn some language.  But we all (perhaps) have the God-shaped 
vacuum referred to by Blaise Pascal.  But what about the fact that some of us 
have become atheists?  Does that disprove this idea?  Not necessarily.  I’ve 
noticed that many who claim to be atheists have taken up other religious-like 
beliefs.  Carl Jung wrote a very interesting book on Flying Saucers: 
http://www.amazon.com/Flying-Saucers-Modern-Things-Skies/dp/0691018227 I read 
this book years ago and no longer have it, but if I recall correctly (a 
doubtful ability as is evidenced above) Jung argued that the belief in Flying 
Saucers was driven by the modern “abandonment” of religion.  He argued that 
humans have something like an “Oversoul” that satisfies the human need for 
religion, or God, by projecting the image of perfection (the mandala) in the 
sky.  Also, many turn to other things, astrology, for example.  Blaise Pascal 
believed that people couldn’t be completely satisfied by such ideas, but they 
did have the Locke-like freedom to fulfill this instinct-like need for God with 
other things.  But if Wade and Jung are right, could a person still manage a 
sort-of “pure” atheism in which he felt no “toward-God” urge?  I don’t know.  I 
have known people who claimed to have managed something like that, but then 
some of them later became believers in God.  Perhaps also there is the option 
of continuing in a state of unbelief, without flying saucers, astrology or 
anything equivalent, but having to suffer psychologically for this state.  I 
suppose one could choose to not-believe in God . . . or even speak for that 


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