Monday, June 2, 2014

Eugene Marais, baboons, and religious "instinct"

Not remembering correctly, I searched African Genesis (written by Robert Ardrey) looking for references to Raymond Dart in regard to the baboon story, only to learn it was not Dart but Eugene Marais who had written about the baboons. 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 Baboons.

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: 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 “instinct”?

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: I read this book years ago and no longer have it, but if I recall correctly 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. 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 matter.

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