Epiphany at the Waterhole, Part Two

(Wherein we dump the obsolete Adam and Eve tale of the Advent of Consciousness for a more radical and contemporary one based on evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience)

by Fred Zackel

“Something fell out of the mirror.”
“Did you hold it upside down?”
“Did you shake it?”
“After I told you not to?”
“I got curious.”

We must congratulate ourselves. Name another animal capable of creating its own meaning for its existence and then imposing it on the universe. We might even be the ones who most delay their own extinction.

We may not be alone on this evolutionary journey. The journey itself may not be exclusive to any one species but open to any species that ruminates over its reflection in the waterhole. Other species may be in the process of following in our footsteps. (Don’t look back. They might be closing in.) Other species have seen themselves in the mirror. Well, individuals within those species have. Have they told the others yet? Have they brought them to the mirror? As they tell the others of their Herd … could they too have their epiphany? Even more ominously to some of us, once they see themselves in the mirror, can reading (and writing) be far behind?

We human beings saw our reflections, had that epiphany, and got aimed in a different evolutionary trajectory. We survive the Crucible of the Veldt. The Crucible of the Savannah. We went looking for greener grasses elsewhere and we went everywhere on this planet. Being desperate to survive, we adapted ourselves to almost every geography and climate. Over the multitudinous millennia, we have been tempered like swords or plowshares. We survived and thrived.

Mirrors and reading – now we are capable of symbolic thought and we can pass that information on to anyone in Our Herd. We can pass the Good News onto the Next Generation. And the one after. And the one …

Galileo-church-pope-cartoon (That’s why libraries are so very dangerous to the religious, by the way. As the pulpit bullies always say, Quick, let’s burn the books. All we need is my Holy Scriptures. No, not yours but my Holy Scriptures. Yours are alternatives to mine, options to my agenda, and therefore these “choices” must be heresies. You and your ideas, your visions and priorities, must be destroyed and eradicated.)

I do not know how many epiphanies we as a species have had and learned from. But a dangerous few knocked us for a loop. They have threatened us as few others have done since the inaugural Epiphany at the waterhole.

Let’s start with Galileo’s telescope. Let’s go back 400 years almost to the month. In 1610, Galileo published his “Sidereus Nuncius” (aka “The Starry Messenger”), describing the surprising observations that he had made with the new telescope. That epiphany changed how we looked at our place in the Cosmos, our position in the Great Scheme of Things.

In a famous letter to the German astronomer Johannes Kepler of August 1610, Galileo complained that some of the Church philosophers (i.e., pulpit bullies) who opposed his discoveries had refused even to look through a telescope.

My dear Kepler, I wish that we might laugh at the remarkable stupidity of the common herd. What do you have to say about the principal philosophers of this academy who are filled with the stubbornness of an asp and do not want to look at either the planets, the moon or the telescope, even though I have freely and deliberately offered them the opportunity a thousand times? Truly, just as the asp stops its ears, so do these philosophers shut their eyes to the light of truth.

These scaredy-cats wouldn’t look through a telescope for fear of seeing the Cosmic Situation. Like dumb animals, they wouldn’t look at their reflections in the waterhole.

Hey, Galileo used the word “Herd.” No kidding. You think he’s been looking over my shoulder? Do we think he understood the Epiphany of his Telescope?

Remember Cardinal Robert “Bobby Baby” Bellarmine, folks.

On 12 April 1615 Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who was one of the most respected theologians (i.e., pulpit bullies) of his time, wrote to the Carmelite provincial Paolo Foscarini who had publicly supported Galileo, saying,

But to want to affirm that the sun really is fixed in the center of the heavens and only revolves around itself (i. e., turns upon its axis ) without traveling from east to west, and that the earth is situated in the third sphere and revolves with great speed around the sun, is a very dangerous thing, not only by irritating all the philosophers and scholastic theologians, but also by injuring our holy faith and rendering the Holy Scriptures false.

The following year the Congregation of the Index — founded by St. Pius V in 1571 and now headed by Cardinal Bellarmine acting in the name of Paul V — was forced to take action. Without naming Galileo, it banned all writings which treated of Copernicanism as anything but an unproven hypothesis. Literally, the Epiphany of the Telescope was a heresy.

The Epiphany was too shocking, thus too damning to any Organized Religion. This Revolution in Cosmology, as the textbooks call it, was a heresy because it offered an alternative to Our Perceived Place in the Grand Scheme of Things. It threatens our monopoly of the Story.

In 1930 Roberto Francesco Romolo Bellarmino (his real name) was canonized a saint in the Roman Catholic Church, which should still be seen as a deliberate and conscious insult to Galileo Galilei’s successes. Looking back, the actions of the Church appear unfair and unbalanced.

Oh, I know the Church’s position on Galileo has changed. Let’s take a look at this statement by Pope John Paul II, in his 4 November 1992 “L'Osservatore Romano N. 44 (1264.)”

The Pope wrote:

Thanks to his intuition as a brilliant physicist and by relying on different arguments, Galileo, who practically invented the experimental method, understood why only the sun could function as the centre of the world, as it was then known, that is to say, as a planetary system. The error of the theologians of the time, when they maintained the centrality of the Earth, was to think that our understanding of the physical world's structure was, in some way, imposed by the literal sense of Sacred Scripture….

The Pope had to repudiate the literal sense of the Bible (at least in this case.)

Look how long the Church took to state the obvious.

But there is more, of course. Recently we learned that Pope John Paul ll regularly flagellated himself while pope. He mortified himself with a leather belt he kept in the closet.

Why did the ol’ whippersnapper do it? Beats the hell out of me. Oh, and he slept on the hard floor as part of this mortification, this asceticism, this self-denial.

An old man – a lifelong celibate – whips himself daily.

And we should listen to him? Or take his “authority” with a grain of salt?

And the church wants to make him a saint?

And let us remember that Jews, Christians and Muslims all revere Abraham, that 99 year old man with the flint knife who in the dead of knife not only circumcised himself but all the males of his tribe, blood dripping down his wrist, as the roots of their religion …

Let us back away slowly, slowly …

Did we make a wrong turn in the dark?

We should consider the Next Astonishing Epiphany of the Telescope. Namely, the Epiphany that Edwin Powell Hubble (November 20, 1889 – September 28, 1953) had when he discovered … the Universe.

Hubble was an American astronomer who profoundly changed our understanding of the universe by demonstrating on New Year’s Day, 1925, the existence of other galaxies besides the Milky Way. (Oh, he did much more, too, but let’s save that for later.)

Until Hubble, we thought the Universe and the Milky Way were one and the same.

We never knew other galaxies existed. Millions of them.

We never knew the Cosmos is lousy with galaxies.

The Universe has gazillions of galaxies!

Sidebar: In our new Cosmic POV, we in the West annually hand out the Nobel Prize to those who have managed to usurp the Power of the Divine for Humanity, a sort of Prometheus Prize. You stole fire from the gods! Hubble died before he could be awarded his Prometheus Prize. But his name — with all the proper respect from our species – has been associated with the Hubble Telescope. Oh, and think what that reflector has done for our species. Oh, the wonder, the magnificence!

At the same time the Hubble Space Telescope teaches us a profound humility. Its Ultra Deep Field shows us some reddish smudges that are light from ordinary spiral galaxies like ours from 13 billion years ago. Think in reverse the time and place that light posits us in.

Let us look at the Landing on the Moon. A dozen men walked on the moon. Only six landings in all. Hundreds of thousands of civil servants in NASA and other agencies worked and got paid to let a dozen men walk on the moon. Even televised as it was, the landing is still disbelieved. It’s a fake, it’s a fraud! I saw the documentary on Faux News! I refuse to admit the Epiphany that the Eagle has Landed!

Was what Neil Armstrong said an epiphany for our species?

“This is one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Forty years later we still dither over what to do next.


The last Epiphany I offer comes from the British naturalist Charles Robert Darwin. In 2009 we celebrated the 200th anniversary of his birth. In 2009 we celebrated the 150th anniversary of the publication of his book On the Origin of Species. The Epiphany of that book sent us all back to the waterhole.

In fact, Darwin said, we never left the waterhole.

Oh, the horror! Oh, the horror!

One hundred and fifty years later we are still in shock.

Hey, how many people do you know who disbelieve in the theory of evolution?

The displacement from evolution is too great.

Too many of us suffer from PTSD.

According to the Mayo Clinic, “Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. It can occur after you've seen or experienced a traumatic event that involved the threat of injury or death.”

We desperately needed our every Divine.

When we moan about “living a life of quiet desperation,” yes, this is our human condition. But the Herd loves it. Desperation among a few individuals is not a problem, when the Quietude of the Herd is the True Goal. (And so Organized Religion was invented.)

Is it any wonder that Existentialism erupts inside our minds after Darwin?
After the Horror comes the Anxiety.

Perhaps you are reading this book on a city bus. Or maybe in a noisy coffee shop. Or maybe in a cubicle in a high rise where the windows don’t open.

This story is not about you. Not you personally. Not me either.

This story is about our species.

Prior to Augustine, the Christian perspective followed the traditional Judaic perspective that the Biblical story of the Garden of Eden was about Humanity’s discovery of death. Alone of all the species on this earth, according to this narrative, we understood what Death was, and the Divine was angry for us for having Discovered it. We ate the Apple from the Tree of (Fill in the Blank.) The other critters stayed behind because they were not aware they would die.

Not only did we imagine the Divine. But we sinned against it so terribly that its dark mark is retroactive to the very first pair of us. We were so evil, so special, so different. Thus we revel in our guilty feelings. (Don’t believe me? Talk to a Pentacostal.) So we had to be banished. We alone were no longer like the other animals in the Garden. We are aware and conscious of our awareness.

Without a nudge, we can see this narrative is also a story that Being Human means Becoming Aware, Becoming Conscious of Our Selves as distinct from all the other animals – all other organic life — on the planet.

So we have a choice. Would we rather believe in the traditional Garden of Eden, or in seeing Our Reflection in the Waterhole? Which one splashes cold water on our faces?

Personally, I have little problem with either. But that’s me.

Augustine, being the traditionalist, changed (i.e., rewrote) that creation myth and said it was all about Original Sin, which is far easier for most congregations to believe … and much more useful to the Church’s agenda for Absolute Authority over Everybody in Sight.

Let us face the Truth.

Let us face our reflections in the waterhole.

Let us come face-to-face with the mirror.

Let’s chart our course from here.

Yes, some animals, other than ourselves, see their reflections in the mirror and know what it signifies. The self-reflection implies a second step, that there may be some “thought language” going on inside their animal skulls. It may well be internally mediated, even though they are unable to pass this information on to others in their Herd. On the other hand, perhaps they can communicate to their “kin,” but we cannot discern what gets transmitted. They may express this in ways we cannot grasp.

In 2010 researchers at San Diego Zoo announced that they have been studying what they describe as the “secret language” of elephants. Around two-thirds of all their communications happen at these frequencies that are too low to be picked up by human hearing. This language (this “growling” sound) is used within a herd to help the herd and individuals within that herd “interact and intercede.”

The team from the zoo have been monitoring communications (“growling”) that cannot be heard by human ears and they have already learned that pregnant females use this low frequency communication to announce to the rest of their herd that they are about to give birth.

In another experiment with different researchers, it appears that wild elephants inhabiting the plains of Amboseli National Park in Kenya can discriminate between different human languages. The animals are most likely to be alarmed when they hear the semi-nomadic Maasai (with whom they are in constant and often fatal conflict) and least threatened by the English-speaking tourists who just want to watch and take photos. Humans speaking Swahili seem to represent a middle ground between the Maasai and the English languages.

Other researchers – including Karen McComb, an animal psychologist at the University of Sussex, UK – are busy, too. McComb’s team has calculated that elephant matriarchs were able to learn the identity of at least 100 other individual elephants by voice. Meanwhile psychologists from the University of St Andrews believe that elephants keep track on up to 30 absent relatives by sniffing out their scent and building up a mental map of where they are.

We humans convince ourselves that animals don’t think, feel, and suffer like we do.

That’s why the concept of “umwelt” is also so foreign. That phrase means we simply cannot conceive what “seeing through an animal’s eyes” can mean. So we stumble and blunder and fall over our theories as if they were gigantic tongues we couldn’t stuff back into our mouths.

As I think I said somewhere else, elephants have poor eyesight, but they can recognize themselves in a mirror. They also die earlier in zoos than in the wild, just as killer whales sometimes do go crazy in theme parks. Packs of hyenas, it seems, are nothing compared to the stress of living in cages.

By the way, how would we do in similar circumstances? Would we be too docile, too ready to submit ourselves to total subjugation because we’ve civilized our restless souls?

Are we there yet?