A few years ago, an anthropologist told me an amazing story about a wild chimpanzee she had observed in Senegal. A bushfire had ignited in the summer heat, and she saw a chimp stand upright on its hind legs, face the fire and perform “a really exaggerated slow-motion display.”

The chimpanzee then started barking, apparently communicating with other chimps sheltering nearby. The anthropologist, Jill Pruetz of Iowa State University in Ames, said this kind of barking had never been heard in her roughly 2,000 hours of observations of chimps.

What was the chimpanzee doing? It appears it was monitoring the fire. The community of chimps retreated a short distance as the fire approached, but remained calm. Other animals panic and stampede when they encounter fire, but these chimps, perhaps because they have experienced bushfires in the past, apparently knew what it was — they understood the concept of fire.

But what was that weird, slow-motion dance? I couldn’t help but imagine it as a primitive kind of worship to some kind of fire god. Other chimps have been reported performing strange dances when they encounter unusual natural phenomena such as rainstorms or waterfalls. Perhaps it is an expression of awe in the face of natural power? As a flight of fancy, I like to think that this sort of behavior lies at the evolutionary root of our worship of natural spiritual powers.

I remembered all this a couple of weeks ago when, to my surprise, I experienced the same feelings of awe.

I was in Yosemite National Park in California. Tired after a day in which I had hiked some 20 km, I arrived at the Tuolumne Grove of Giant Sequoias. Tired? Who am I kidding — my legs had practically given out. I was hobbling with the aid of a stick I’d found on the path.

My friend and I walked another kilometer or so through a forest of giant conifers. It was around 5 p.m., and no one else was around. The only sound was the occasional echoing drumming of woodpeckers.

We stared open-mouthed at what we thought were sequoias, towering above us. Amazing, we said. We walked some more. Then we came upon what was self-evidently a real giant sequoia. The others had just been big trees.

The giant sequoia is the world’s largest tree and, measured by volume, is the largest living thing in the world. This one was truly massive, some 80 meters tall and maybe 3,000 years old. I felt something stir inside me. To be next to this thing was mind-boggling. I felt like a chimp that had discovered a waterfall, or a forest fire.

There are some 25 giant sequoia in the Tuolumne Grove. A couple have fallen. I clambered on one, which lay like the backbone of some gigantic sea monster across the forest floor. I took some photos, but it’s hard to capture the scale, and even more difficult to communicate the pine-scented chilled mountain air, the isolation and the feeling of diminishment.

What I was experiencing, of course, was awe. The feeling is captured in Japanese in the phrase ikei no nen, meaning reverence, awe and respect. I felt all these things.

But why? That’s the question evolutionary biologists (and children) always ask. Why did such-and-such a behavior evolve? What is the evolutionary reason for feelings of awe?

Dacher Keltner of the University of California, Berkeley, and Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, considered this question in a paper published in the journal Cognition and Emotion.

They suggest that awe evolved from the hard-wired response automatically felt when a low-status individual encounters a more powerful, high-status individual. We’ve all experienced that and, in Japan at least, the high-status/low-status ranking is embedded in the language. This “know-your-place” feeling helps reinforce rankings in a social group.

Keltner and Haidt believe the awe response developed from the status-response, and arises when people — and maybe other animals — encounter any powerful natural phenomenon or work of sublime beauty: a waterfall, a breaching whale, a giant sequoia. It also arises when we hear a sublime piece of music or art or understand a profound scientific explanation — such as natural selection.

Many things in biology can be better understood by examining how they evolved. They start off as one thing and are later used for another. An example is feathers, which probably evolved to keep dinosaurs warm and were later used to help them fly.

Keltner and his colleagues also believe that awe helps to direct attention to the environment. When encountering something new, complex and powerful, the feeling of awe helps the brain focus and process the information it is receiving. This, Keltner and his colleagues argue, gives a survival advantage and so is favored by natural selection.

Could awe help focus the mind on environmental issues? A sense of wonder about natural beauty can drive support and action for environmentally sensitive policies. This was not what Keltner and his colleagues were referring to, but the point is worth making. Giant sequoias, found only in the Sierra Nevada mountains, are classified as endangered. They live in humid climates where summers are dry and winters are snowy. Climate change may well pose a threat to them.

While giant sequoias are only found in limited parts of the western United States, there is a related tree in Japan that rivals the majesty of the sequoias: the Japanese redwood, or sugi.

The sugi is the national tree of Japan. You don’t need to hike in the mountains to see them; sugi are typically planted at shrines and many have been designated special natural monuments.

Ishikawa Prefecture, for example, has the great sugi of Kayano, a 55-meter-tall tree that is some 2,300 years old. I say “planted at shrines” but when a tree is this old, it is more likely the shrine was built near the tree.

The Jomon sugi of Yakushima Island is named after the prehistorical period of Japanese history and the Jomon sugi has been estimated to be anywhere from 2,100 to 7,000 years old — though the lower end seems more likely. Around some ancient sugi, artefacts from the Jomon period have been discovered.

That, as the kids say, is awesome.

Rowan Hooper is the news editor of New Scientist magazine. The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru” (“The Evolving Human”).

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