Know thyself, Primate

“No man can ever attain to anywhere near a true conception of the subconscious in man who does not know the primates under natural conditions.” – Eugène N. Marais, letter to Dr. Winifred de Kok, 20 October 1935.

7 Responses to “Know thyself, Primate”

  1. That’s quite a hefty presumption there.
    One might as well say that because two different species of flowers are both flowers, we can know about one by studying the other.

    We may be classified as primates, too, but that doesn’t mean everything about them (non-human primates) equally applies to us. Just as much as we’re similar, we are also different, and let us not forget that. We build skyscrapers, airplanes, send people to the moon, install artificial hearts, perform brain surgery, write books, compose symphonies, smash subatomic particles together, and build atomic bombs, among a million other things that, for reasons unknown to us, they’ve never done, nor ever hinted that they might.
    Furthermore, we don’t really know the extent of what evolution has and has not changed, nor how many times anything that has changed, has changed. We believe that certain animals can be bred to perform certain tasks, and that after enough generations, an inclination to do such a task, an instinct, gradually appears. If this is so, then we must accept it about ourselves, too, and that means that our so-called “subconscious” may be altered and mutated as we evolve (change, not necessarily toward some better state).
    Additionally, whatever such “natural conditions” for those primates are, we aren’t in them anyway, so it seems rather inapplicable to us.
    And finally, why should we think the species most similar to us in mind is another primate species? Just because they look like us? If we’re drawing inferences about the similarity of the minds of species, then perhaps we ought rather to look at species according to their level of intelligence, not how much they look like us. Why not compare ourselves to dolphins? Or elephants?

    One thing we must always keep in mind is that, when it comes to theorizing about ourselves, it becomes personal. We find to be true about ourselves what we want to be true about ourselves. And given the quite odd nature of the effects of belief, perhaps we make it true by believing it.

    Or, maybe Eugène was just referring to men, so we women can ignore it, and look elsewhere for understanding ourselves! 😉
    (I joke, but the sad thing is, I’m probably more right than I even intend to be, given that scientists only just discovered women a few decades ago, and still haven’t quite yet gotten a handle on us.)

    1. Jelte says:

      “That’s quite a hefty presumption there.”
      How do you know it’s a presumption? I think it’s presumptuous to assert such a thing – for instance, Marais’ statement may be based on insight, experience or knowledge that you don’t have. (Here, I’m assuming that your familiarity with his thinking extends no further than the quotation I provided).

    2. Jelte says:

      “[…] If this is so, then we must accept it about ourselves, too, and that means that our so-called “subconscious” may be altered and mutated as we evolve (change, not necessarily toward some better state).”
      I read nothing in Marais’ statement that suggests that he holds ‘instinct’ or ‘subconscious’ to be static.

    3. Jelte says:

      “And finally, why should we think the species most similar to us in mind is another primate species?”
      First of all, being ‘similar to us in mind’ is different from ‘offering a true conception of the subconscious in man’.
      Secondly, if Marais truly chose his subjects ‘[j]ust because they look like us’, he would probably have selected some species of great ape rather than the Chacma baboon.
      Thirdly, Marais would have been the first to agree with your point, which is why the other animal he devoted his life to was … the termite.

    4. Jelte says:

      “[…] whatever such “natural conditions” for those primates are, we aren’t in them anyway, so it seems rather inapplicable to us.”
      That’s silly. We aren’t under the conditions under which, say Homo erectus once lived. Does that allow us to conclude that we have nothing to learn – for example, about our subconscious – from studying them?

  2. Rob Norton says:

    How does knowing the primates result in true conception of the subconscious?

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