The War with the Newts, by Karel Čapek

(Supplementary Chapter)

The sex life of the newts.

One of mans favourite activities is to imagine how the world might be in the distant future, what technical wonders will have been perfected, what social problems solved, how far science and civil organisation will have progressed, and so on. But however much improved, progressed or at least more technically perfect these utopias are, they never fail to take a lively interest in the question of how one of the most ancient of institutions might be. Sex, reproduction, love, marriage, family, the status of women and so on are as popular now as they have always been. Consider, in this respect, the works of Paul Adam, HG. Wells, Aldous Huxley and many others.

Taking his example from these authors, and considering that he has already begun to speculate of the future of our planet, the present author regards it as his duty to speculate on what the sexual behaviour of the newts will be. He will settle the matter now so that he will not have to return to it later. In its basic outlines, the sex life of Andrias Scheuchzeri is, of course, no different from that of other tailed amphibians; there is no copulation in the proper sense of the word, the female carries the ova through several stages of their development, the fertilised ova develop into tadpoles in the water and so on; this is something that can be found in any primer of biology. So let us refer then to just a few peculiarities which have been observed in Andrias Scheuchzeri.

According to the account given by H. Bolte, the male and female come together in early April; the male will usually remain with just one female throughout any one mating season, and for a period of several days will never leave her side. He will take no sustenance during this period, whereas the female will evince a voracious appetite. The male will pursue the female in the water and attempt to keep his head closely beside hers. If he is successful in this, then he will position his paw in front of her snout in order to prevent escape. He will then become stiff. In this way, with male and female in contact only at the head while their bodies form an angle of approximately thirty degrees, the two animals will float motionless side by side in the water. After a short time has elapsed, the male will begin to convulse with sufficient vigour for their two bodies to collide; after which he will again become stiff, his limbs extended to each side, and touching only the head of his chosen mate with his paw. During this, the female shows a total indifference apart from eating whatever comes within range. This, if we may call it thus, kissing lasts several days; at times the female will pull herself away in pursuit of food, at which the male will pursue in a state of clear agitation if not fury. Eventually the female ceases to show further resistance or attempt to remove herself from the male and the couple will remain floating motionless, resembling a pair of black logs attached to each other in the water. The body of the male will then begin to undergo cramps and convulsions, during which he will discharge large amounts of somewhat sticky foam into the water, immediately after which he will abandon the female and climb away between the rocks and stones in a state of extreme exhaustion; during this period it is possible for the observer to cut off a leg or tail without his showing any kind of defensive reaction.

The female will remain for some time in her stiff and motionless posture; she will then show vigorous movement and discharge from her cloaca a chain of eggs inside a gelatinous covering, making frequent use of her rear limbs to assist this process in the way seen among toads. The eggs number between forty and fifty and hang from the female’s body. She will swim with them to a safe place and attach them to seaweed, algae or simply to a rock. After a period of ten days, the female will bear another litter of twenty to thirty eggs without any union with the male having taken place; it seems clear that the eggs were fertilised within the cloaca. There will usually be a third and a fourth discharge of eggs after a period of seven or eight days, each of fifteen to twenty eggs variously fertilised. The feather-gilled tadpoles will emerge after a gestation period of between one and three weeks. The tadpoles grow into adult newts after just one year and are able to reproduce in their turn.

The behaviour observed by Miss Blanche Kistemaeckers of two newts in captivity was somewhat different. At the time of spawning the male approached only one female and pursued her quite brutally; when she escaped from him he beat her with heavy blows of his tail. He disapproved when she tried to take food and drove her away from it; it was clear he wanted to have her just for himself and simply terrorised her.  Once he had discharged his milt he threw himself on another female and tried to eat her, so that he had to be taken from the tank and placed somewhere else. This second female nonetheless produced fertile eggs, numbering sixty-three in total. Miss Kistemaeckers noticed that the cloaca of all three animals was very sore, and she writes that fertilisation of the ova of Andrias Scheuchzeri seems to take place not by copulation, nor even spawning, but by what she called the sexual milieu. It is already evident that the two sexes need not come together at an appropriate time for fertilisation of the eggs to take place.  This led the young researcher to carry out further experiments. She separated the two sexes; at the appropriate time she extracted the sperm from the male and put it into the water where the females were, at which the females began to discharge fertilised eggs. In another experiment Miss Kistemaeckers filtered the semen to remove the sperm; this gave a clear, slightly acidic liquid which she put into the females water; the females then began to discharge eggs, about fifty at a time, of which most were fertile and produced normal tadpoles.  This is what led Miss Kistemaeckers to the important notion of the sexual milieu, which can be seen as a process in its own right, existing between parthenogenesis and sexual reproduction. The eggs are fertilised simply by a change in the chemical environment (a certain level of acidity, which has not so far been successfully created artificially), which is somehow connected with the sexual functions of the male although these functions themselves are not essential; the fact that the male does conjoin with the female is clearly no more than a vestige of an earlier stage of evolution when Andrias reproduced in the same way as other newts. Miss Kistemaeckers rightly observes that this form of mating is peculiar, some kind of inherited illusion of paternity; the male is not the real father of the tadpoles but only an impersonal provider of the chemical environment which is what really fertilises the ova. If we had a hundred newt couples together in a tank it would be tempting to think that a hundred individual acts of mating would take place; but in fact there will be just the one, a collective a sexualisation of the given environment or, to put it more precisely, the acidification of the water to which the mature eggs of the species will respond by developing into tadpoles. If this unknown acidification agent can be created artificially there will be no more need of males. So the sex life of this remarkable species is actually no more than an illusion; the erotic passion, the pair-bonding and sexual tyranny, fidelity for the time needed, the slow and cumbersome act of intercourse, all these things are actually unnecessary and no more than an outdated and almost symbolic act which, so to speak, decorates the impersonal creation by the male of the procreative environment. The strange indifference shown by the female to the frantic and pointless activity of the male is clear evidence that she instinctively feels that it is nothing more than a formal ceremony or a prelude to the real love-making when they conjoin with the fertilising medium; it could almost be said that the female of Andrias Scheuchzeri understands this state of affairs clearly and goes through it objectively without any erotic illusions.

(The experiments performed by Miss Kistemaeckers was followed up with some interesting research by the learned Abbé Bontempelli. Having prepared some dried and powdered milt from Andrias he put it in the female’s water, who then began to discharge fertile eggs. He obtained the same result if he dried and powdered Andrias’s male organ or if he took an extract in alcohol or by infusion and poured it into the female’s water. He tried the same experiment, with the same result, when he took an extract of the male’s pituitary gland and even when he took a scraping from the males skin, if taken in the rutting season. In all these cases, the females did not respond at first, but after a while they stopped seeking food and became stiff and motionless in the water, then after some hours they began to discharge eggs in a gelatinous coating, each about the size of pig’s droppings.)

While discussing this matter, it will be necessary to describe the strange ceremony which became known as the dance of the salamanders. (This does not refer to the Salamander Dance which came into fashion around this time, especially in high society, and which Bishop Hiram declared to be the most depraved dance he had ever heard described.) The dance took place on evenings when there was a full moon (apart from in the breeding season). The males, and only the males, of Andrias would appear on the beach, form themselves into a circle and begin a strange, wave-like twisting and bending of the upper half of the body.  This movement was typical of these giant newts at all times, but during these dances it develops into a wild passion, something like the dances of dervishes. Some researchers regard this frenzied twisting and stamping as a kind of cult of the moon, which would mean it is a kind of religious ceremony; on the other hand some researchers see the dance as essentially erotic in character and seek to explain it primarily in terms of the peculiar sexual procedures described above. We have already said that the female of Andrias Scheuchzeri is fertilised by the so-called sexual milieu surrounding males and females rather than by the personal conjoining of individual males and females. It was also said that the females accept this impersonal sexual relationship far more realistically and routinely than the males who, clearly for reasons of instinctive vanity and greed, try to maintain at least the illusion of sexual triumph, leading them to play a role that involves betrothal and a husband’s authority. This is one of the greatest erotic illusions to be found, and it is interesting that the illusion is corrected by these grand male ceremonies which seem to be nothing less than an instinctive attempt to reinforce their sense of belonging to a Male Collective. It is thought that this collective dance has the function of overcoming that atavistic and nonsensical illusion of the males sexual individuality; this whirling, inebriating, frenetic gang is nothing other than the Collective Male, the Collective Bridegroom and the Great Copulator that carries out its celebratory wedding dance and abandons itself to the great nuptial rite - and all the time the females are strangely excluded and left to squelch lethargically over the fish or mollusc they have eaten.  The famous Charles J. Powell, who gave this newt ritual the name, Dance of the Male Principle, writes: “And in this ritual of male togetherness, do we not see the root and origin of the remarkable collectivism shown by the newts? Let us be aware that true animal society is only to be found where life and development of the species are not built on sexual pair-bonding, such as we see among bees and ants and termites. The society of the bee-hive can be described thus: I, the Mother Hive. In the case of the newts, their society must be described quite differently: We, the Male Principle. It is only when the males mass together at the right time and virtually perspire the fertilising sexual milieu that they become the Great Male which enters the womb of the female and generously multiplies life. Their paternity is collective; and for this reason their entire nature is collective and expresses itself in collective activity, whereas the females, once they have laid their eggs, lead a life that remains dispersed and solitary until the following spring. It is the males alone that create the community, the males alone that carry out collective tasks. There is no other species of animal wherein the female plays such a subordinate role as Andrias; they are excluded from communal activities and show not the slightest interest in them. Their moment comes only when the Male Principle imbues their environment with a chemical acidity that is barely perceptible, but which has such power of penetration, such élan vital, that it is effective even when the currents and tides of the oceans have diluted it to almost nothing. It is as if the Ocean itself were the male, fertilising millions of embryos on its shores.

“However vainly the cock might crow,” Charles J. Powell continued, “it is to the female that in, most species, nature has given the dominant role in life. The male is there for his own passion and to kill; he is pompous and arrogant, while the female represents the species in all its strength and lasting nobility. In the case of Andrias (and often in the case of man) the relationship is fundamentally different; by the creation of a masculine society and solidarity the male acquires clear biological dominance and determines how the species will develop to a far greater extent than the female. It may well be because of this marked male input to the direction of development that Andrias has so excelled in technical matters, which are talents typical of the male. Andrias is by nature a technologist and tends towards group activities; these secondary features of the male, by which I mean a talent for technology and a flair for organisation, has, before our very eyes, developed with such speed and such success that we would be compelled to speak of a miracle were we not aware of what a powerful force in life sexual determination is. Andrias Scheuchzeri is animal faber, and it is even possible that he will one day surpass man himself given enough time. All this is the result of one fact of nature; that they have created a society that is purely male.”

Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:34