The Dawn of Wonder

There’s an interesting discussion happening over at helmintholog about the evolution of foresight/insight…It reminded me of Melvin Konner’s The Tangled Wing (which has just had a second, revised, edition published – very exciting). The last section of The Tangled Wing contains the following, in a section headed “The Dawn of Wonder”:

One of the most fascinating and least discussed discoveries in the study of the wild chimpanzees was described in a short paper by Harold Bauer. He was following a well-known male through the forest of the Gombe Stream Reserve in Tanzania when the animal stopped beside a waterfall. It seemed possible that he had deliberately gone to the waterfall rather than passing it incidentally, but that was not absolutely clear. In any case, it was an impressive spot: a stream of water cascading down from a twenty-five-foot height, about a mile from the lake, thundering into the pool below and casting mist for sixty or seventy feet; a stunning sight to come upon in the midst of a tropical forest.

The animal seemed lost in contemplation of it. He moved slowly closer and began to rock, while beginning to give a characteristic round of “pant-hoot” calls. He became more excited, and finally began to run back and forth while calling, to jump, to call louder, to drum with his fists on trees, to run back again. The behavior resembled that observed by Jane Goodall in groups of chimps at the start of a rainstorm–the “rain dance,” as it has been called. But this was one animal alone, and not surprised as the animals are by sudden rain–even if he had not deliberately sought the waterfall out, he certainly knew where it was and when he would come upon it.

He continued this activity long enough so that it seemed to merit some explanation, and he did it again in the same place on other days. Other animals were observed to do it as well. They had no practical interest in the waterfall. The animals did not have to drink from the stream or cross it in that vicinity. To the extent that it might be dangerous, it could be easily avoided, and certainly did not interest every animal. But for these it was something they had to look at, return to, study, watch, become excited about: a thing of beauty, an object of curiosity, a challenge, a fetish, an imagined creature, a god? We will never know.

But for a very similar animal, perhaps five million years ago, in the earliest infancy of the human spirit, something in the natural world must have evoked a response like this one–a waterfall, a mountain vista, a sunset, the crater of a volcano, the edge of the sea–something that stopped it in its tracks and made it watch, and move, and watch, and turn, and watch again; something that made it return to the spot, though nothing gainful could take place there, no feeding, drinking, reproducing, sleeping, fighting, fleeing, nothing animal. In just such a response, in just such a moment, in just such an animal, we may, I think, be permitted to guess, occurred the dawn of awe, of sacred attentiveness, of wonder.

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The Tangled Wing

The second edition of Melvin Konner’s The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit is reviewed here and the book has a website, here which includes the notes Konner used to write the book (yay!) and his afterword about the dangers of so…

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