from Charlas de café [Coffee-Shop Chats]
by Santiago Ramón y Cajal
Translation and Introductory Note
by Emily Tobey
Santiago Ramón y Cajal (1852-1934) was a pioneering neuroscientist from Spain who is best known for receiving the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1906. Cajal was the first Spanish laureate in medicine, and cities around the country responded to the honor by re-naming streets for the scientist. As a child and a young man, he demonstrated an affinity for art, sketching in particular, that would prove to be unexpectedly advantageous to his medical career. After serving as a medical officer in the Spanish Army in Cuba, he returned to Spain and received his doctorate in medicine in 1877. In connection with his research, he applied a particular staining technique to the densely-packed and therefore previously unstudied neurons of the brain and spinal cord, enabling him to see their structure with more detail than theretofore had been possible. This in turn facilitated his conclusion that the relationship between nerve cells was not continuous, but rather contiguous, a discovery now considered a foundational principle of modern neuroscience. His meticulous handmade illustrations of his findings combine two fields in a relationship that proves to be characteristic of Cajal: he synthesizes the sciences and the humanities in his interpretation and depictions of neuroscience and social systems alike. In addition to his not only notable but also prolific scientific work in which he published over one hundred articles and books, Cajal produced a collection of science-fiction stories, Cuentos de vacaciones (Vacation Stories) in 1905, and essays, Charlas de café (Coffee-Shop Chats), in 1920. While the stories in the collections diverge from what might be considered a “typical” (whether through unusual organizational divisions or their intent to teach a bit of science to a layperson), they reflect Cajal’s ability to weave together science and art. The same can be said of his story “Carta de una hormiga esclavista” (“Letter from a Slave-Making Ant”), published in Charlas de café in 1920.
In the translation of the latter story I have taken into account two main principles: Cajal’s combination of the scientific and the literary; and the parallels between this letter and the early conquest narratives of Hernán Cortés and Christopher Columbus. The style of Cajal’s imagined correspondence between a worker ant and his queen imitates the reverential form of address, attitude of an expert by experience, and superiority in the face of colonized people that those conquering authors employed in corresponding with the monarchs they served. In translating the piece, I have endeavored to maintain those elements through word choice and sentence construction. I have attempted to be as faithful as possible to the original text, though clarity for an English-speaking readership required some changes throughout the piece. Where possible I have maintained original punctuation, but again, some differences in sentence construction necessitated small departures. Where Cajal includes Latin names of existing species, I leave them in Latin; where he invents names in Spanish that allow the narrating ant to name orders of humans, I render them in English. It is my hope, in so doing, to allow the description of each caste to speak for itself. Cajal’s decision to place these observations in the unlikely voice of an ant that is set on colonizing humanity encourages us to recognize their destructiveness. In this piece, Cajal masterfully brings up one of the darker parts of humankind’s behavior and uses it to admonish a post-World War I audience, encouraging them (and by extension, us) to consider our motivation for actions, our treatment of each other, and the ways in which we allow our worst impulses to govern not only ourselves but our societies.
Letter from a slave-making ant (Polyergus rufescens), written during his travels through Europe, to the queen of his colony
My dearest mother: Fulfilling the charge that you gave me to secretly explore the colonies where dwell Man (formica ferox as classified by our underground naturalists) I now briefly convey my impressions.
These exceptional ants, not so in their education or wisdom, but rather because of their size, live almost as we do, but with several essential differences that speak little to favor their instincts and customs. Verily, they occupy colossal colonies that they call cities, formed by a labyrinth of family chambers and of avenues and of connected streets; but these seem to be filled with all kinds of litter; and the dwellings, lacking the underground apartments where we keep out of the heat, become unbearably torrid in summer and glacial in winter. In a select few more refined locales, the humans have begun to care for and pave the streets with cobblestones, though not with the perfection of our American relative.1
We must recognize various types of Formica ferox: the farmer ant, who resembles our farmer sister Aphenogaster barbara (I employ here the ridiculous and pedantic nomenclature of Man), and above all the ingenious Attini of South America,2 who make their living through the sowing and harvest of seeds; the milkmaid ant, who, imitating the conduct of many of our sisters, dedicate themselves to raising a type of monstrous giant flea called a cow, which they milk daily; the gardener ant, more docile imitator of our lasius niger and of other hymenoptera, and who feeds on fruit and leafy vegetables; the sugar-making ant, dedicated to the production and sale of sugar, like our cousins the bees and the Myrmecocysfus melliger, from Texas; the mason ant, builders of solidly closed houses, shamelessly plagiarizing our cousins the calicodomas bees; with all this said, they do not lack a special warrior caste who, following in our footsteps, has war as their exclusive occupation, etc.
With regard to this singular profession, I have noticed one curious thing. Instead of fighting for the sake of taking useful slaves, as we do, mercifully limiting our slave-making to the larva of other races of ants (these, even having reached adulthood, remain ignorant of their condition and serve us most selflessly and solicitously), Man fights fiercely with those of his own race with no other object than the pleasure of exterminating one another, taking and returning hungry and mutilated prisoners, and exhausting the provisions of the community. Just recently I watched with astonishment a general conflagration of nearly all of the great colonies of Europe, whose result has been the death of ten million workers and the terrifying ruin and desolation of all of the human communities. (The date of this writing being 1919.)
Further regarding the war, permit me to note a particularly strange contradiction. Homo sapiens – as he is content to call himself – is possessed of a peaceful body and warlike mind. Can we conceive of an earthworm endowed with warlike instincts? But as his body has lost the ability to model within itself the arms of aggression and defense, the brain has taken it upon itself to supplement this lack, constructing deadly and varied, enormously costly annihilating machines that he puts away when he goes to work. How different from us, who never allow ourselves to be separated from our formidable mandible claws! Such inability to manufacture organic defensive instruments has brought about the gravest of inconveniences: the creation of a social class, highly onerous at that, of armed slackers with the objective of protecting the defenseless workers. In spite of this, there is not a day that passes without raids and instances of violence. It is no surprise, then, that beings endowed with irresistible predatory impulses would find it more convenient and expeditious, in order to satiate their hunger, to exchange the heavy tool of work for the light and efficient revolver of the robber! . . .
Representatives of the Formica ferox puff themselves up with vanity at having invented flight (such a novelty!) several million years after insects, reptiles, bats, and birds had done so. But this so-called flight does not move beyond being an unobstructed method of suicide; they dishonor it, besides, using it not in order to love within the azure sky as we do, but rather to assassinate without fear of reprisal. They do not understand, therefore, the sublime nuptial flight of the hymenopterans. It would be better for the aviators, imitating our queens, to amputate their wings and live hidden in their homes.
Each nation lives fighting fiercely within itself, once they no longer have foreigners to despoil. All social classes, as we would refer to our soldiers, workers, and queens, are at each other’s throats. And not few of them have taken up imitating the communism of bees and ants! Could they be more foolish? They even plan to install a new regime, maintaining a plurality of females, the separation of families and the full freedom of love!…We resolved this struggle millions of years ago, but with logic and foresight, which is to say, rejecting outright corruptive individualism ad delegating to a singular female, our revered queen, and to a few select males, the work of the perpetuation of the species. And we, the neuter, do not feel nostalgia toward love, because we know from experience that love, slavery, and death are all the same.3
Another incomprehensible custom has shocked me enormously. The Formica ferox is educated in schools where they teach to speak and to understand the Universe somewhat. Studying for learning’s sake! Such idiocy has never been seen. Even without demanding teachers or blighted professors, we know how to communicate our preferences and emotions, educate our children and slaves, get our bearings in unknown lands, distinguish between noxious plants and animals and those that are useful, begin long hunting expeditions without faltering, and work in a coordinated and peaceful manner in favor of the community. As being embarrassing, vile and fallacious, we disdain rational logic, which we have instead replaced with the celebrated method of direct vision or intuition, a supremely intellectual perfection which all animals, including Man, envy in us. Fabre, one of our oldest counsellors amongst the humans, has compared instinct to genius.
In sum, and here I conclude my lengthy epistle. Nothing transcendental has grown out of the human vermin: they still discuss the enigma of understanding versus instinct; they only begin to decipher the mechanism of the Cosmos; they do not know the essence of life, and with regard to practical and legal order, they have not even resolved the pressing problems of social stability and an ideal political system. Not to mention the riddle that is death. It must not worry them, whatever the preaching of their apostles, given that the most densely populated colonies of the Formica ferox, having just shaken the dust from the ruins and dried the blood, hurry on to new wars, infinitely bloodier and more destructive. The future contest – or so they say – will be resolved purely by air, hurling at harmless peoples balloons full of germs and suffocating gasses.
Let us not rush to deplore this incredible dementia. In the form of human cadavers, many insects of the muscidos family will find inexhaustible rations, which are also the favorite delicacy of the nomadic tribes of hunting ants (Myrmecocystus viatitus, Aphenogaster tertaceopilosa, Tapinoma erraticum, etc).
And since I have nothing to learn here, but rather much to endeavor to forget, I will return as soon as possible to the anthill, our beloved homeland.
Embracing you effusively with my antennae, R. y C.
1. P. barbatus, who pave their nests with very small stones.
2. Admirable ants, who within their nests pile pulp of mashed leaves where they sow a fungus (Rhocites gongyophora, Müller), from which they sustain themselves.
3. Lest the reader forget, the queen is cloistered and absorbed entirely in the work of motherhood, and the scarce males perish once the queen is impregnated, whereas the workers can live for many years, as Lubbock has shown.