On Religion and Denial

Let’s pretend an alien came to earth to study the evolution and behavior of humans. What would it observe and conclude?

The alien observed that every human group, in every location of the planet, throughout all of human history, has had some form of religion. The alien logically concluded that religions must be associated with a reproductive fitness advantage.

The alien observed that the human species succeeds in large part due to social cooperation, and that religions serve to define, unite, govern, motivate, and entertain groups, and (especially in times of scarcity) define outside groups as enemies. The alien then understood that the reproductive fitness advantage of religions is to increase the probability of survival through enhanced social cooperation.

The alien observed that there are thousands of different religions, each with a unique story, and that each religion thinks it is the only (or most) true religion. The alien logically concluded that all religions are human imagined stories.

The alien then noticed something very odd.

The one and only thing common to the thousands of religions is that they each have some form of life after death story. Religions can and do tell every conceivable story, but religions do not need a life after death story to define, unite, govern, motivate, and entertain a group. It might be reasonable for a few random religions to include life after death in their stories, but it is not reasonable that every religion has a life after death story.

Unless, observed the wise alien, the need for a life after death story has an important genetic foundation.

The historical record suggests that religions with their life after death stories emerged at the same time that humans with enhanced intelligence and an extended theory of mind emerged. The alien concluded that the two must be linked. The alien reconfirmed this conclusion by observing that no other species has an extended theory mind, and no other species has a religion.

The alien was stumped to explain the link but knew that there were a few good human scientists so it went to the library and found a book on human evolution by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. The alien learned that a mutation for an extended theory of mind, which enables an individual to understand the mind of another, would be advantageous to a social species, and would have enabled an individual through normal daily observations to understand her own mortality. All mammals have a useful inherited fear of injury and therefore mortality awareness would have caused the individual to become depressed and less likely to take the risks necessary for survival and reproduction. The mutation for an extended theory of mind would therefore not fix in the gene pool.

Varki went on to explain that if a mutation for an extended theory of mind occurred simultaneously with a mutation for denial of reality, then what was a reproductive fitness disadvantage would become a powerful fitness advantage, and the two mutations would fix in the gene pool.

The probably of two rare mutations occurring simultaneously is small and the alien now understood why other social species like dolphins, elephants, crows, and chimpanzees, which would also benefit from an extended theory of mind, had not evolved one.

The alien saw that inherited denial of mortality reality would have caused each human group to believe a life after death story, which over time through transmission errors, became a unique religion.

The alien observed that denial of mortality reality is a very strong inherited behavior. Groups frequently devote all of their surplus wealth to constructing structures to please and communicate with gods in the after life. Pyramids and cathedrals being two of many examples. The alien observed that the behavior remains strong in modern times because new religions, like Scientology, continue to have life after death stories. And atheists often believe in some form of spirituality which usually includes life after death.

Varki went on to explain that the mechanism within the brain for denying reality would be relatively simple to create by mutating the fear suppression module used by mammals when they need to fight, but by necessity of how it works, is quite broad in scope. This means that humans not only deny their own mortality, but also tend to deny anything they find unpleasant which creates an optimism bias that is useful when not facing limits to growth, but harmful with limits to growth, and harmful with lifestyle choices like insufficient exercise and nicotine.

Ah, said the alien, now I understand why almost no humans acknowledge or discuss or act on their severe state of overshoot. And why climate scientists frequently fly long distances to conferences where they criticize fossil energy use, promote green growth, and never mention population reduction.

The human brain, the God it believes in, and the overshoot it enabled and denies, all resulted from the same improbable genetic mutation that occurred about 100,000 years ago.

The alien was finally able to tie up the loose ends that had been troubling it.

The alien saw, on the one hand, an intelligent species capable of impressive intellectual feats such as visiting the moon, and on the other hand, a species in a severe state of overshoot dependent on rapidly depleting non-renewable resources that was destroying the habitat it needed for survival.

The alien had been perplexed at how such an intelligent species could be in such peril without acknowledging, discussing, or acting on its predicament.

The alien now understood and concluded its report with “Denial created humans, and denial will destroy humans.”

As it boarded its ship for home, the alien reflected on how lucky it was to have come from a planet where life had evolved without the need for death and therefore was able to evolve intelligence without denial.

Denial not only makes us believe in god, it is god, because denial created us, and denial may destroy us.

8 thoughts on “On Religion and Denial”

  1. You might want to check out Dave’s post here:

    http://www.declineoftheempire.com/2012/10/the-optimists-brain-redux.html

    and see my comment – unfortunately the link no longer works so you would have to find a hard copy as far as I can tell http://regmorrison.edublogs.org/1999/07/20/plague-species-the-spirit-in-the-gene/

    I wonder if it isn’t more likely that virtually all mammals have a denial gene in order to allow them to take risks that often pay off, and that human intelligence evolved over and around that already existing trait – as opposed to some miraculous one-off double mutation.

    Life without the need for death? Would it have any value? Most of the vampires I know are distinctly unhappy!

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    1. Thanks.

      It seems Dave Cohen is likely discussing a different behavioral expression of the same denial mechanism but he makes no attempt to identify its origin nor its linkage to the evolution of a powerful brain.

      I’m aware of Reg Morrison’s work. I own his book and am part way through it but have been procrastinating. I do not yet know how close his theory is to Varki’s.

      Every mutation must build on an existing system or structure. In this case the denial of reality mutation probably only required a minor tweak to the fear suppression module that most mammals have and use when they need to fight (I updated the essay to include this idea).

      Life at its core is chemical reactions that replicate. Life is therefore probably not possible anywhere in the universe without death. I added that last paragraph in case some reader pointed out the logical inconsistency of an intelligent alien that avoided extinction long enough to visit earth. I suspect all planets in the universe will have the same energy sources and constraints, and all life will evolve following the same basic rules, and therefore there will be no aliens more intelligent than us capable of visiting earth. There will, on the other hand, be plenty of bacteria everywhere in the universe, and on earth after we have destroyed most of the interesting and rare complex life.

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  2. Hi Gail.

    I read more of Reg Morrison’s theory and have been reflecting on how it fits with Varki’s theory.

    Here is a summary of my understanding of Morrison’s theory: As the rational cortex of the hominid brain evolved to become larger thus making them “smarter” they simultaneously evolved “spiritual” and “moral” behaviors. These behaviors were necessary to prevent the rational brain from overriding the older lower instinctive brain when quick survival decisions were required, and increased tribal unity and the willingness to sacrifice one’s life to help others that were essential for the survival of individuals.

    If my understanding of Morrison’s theory is correct (please correct me if it is not) then I see a perfect fit between Morrison and the first two conclusions of the alien. The first conclusion was that there must be a reproductive fitness advantage (i.e. genetic basis) for religion because all human groups in all locations for all time have had a religion. The second conclusion was that religions must be stories invented by humans because all religions are different and each thinks it is the most valid religion.

    So far so good.

    The next observation of the alien was that all religions have life after death stories. Here I see Varki’s theory picking up where Morrison left off. I see no need for life after death stories in Morrison’s theory. We need a genetic explanation for life after death stories that is consistent with all known data. Varki provides one. Namely that life after death stories were added to religions to support denial of mortality. And because the method available for evolution to implement denial of mortality in the brain was broad in scope, it resulted in a species that denies many unpleasant realities in addition to mortality.

    So it seems that Varki’s theory builds on Morrison’s theory and provides a plausible explanation for three important questions not answered by Morrison.

    First, why has no other species that would benefit from a more powerful brain evolved a brain similar to humans? Answer, because it requires an improbable simultaneous double mutation (more powerful brain + denial of reality). Further on this point, can you think of any big invention of evolution, other than high intelligence, that has not been discovered more than once such as eyesight, hearing, strength, speed, flight, swimming, etc. There really is something special about human intelligence. Actually there are a few other one-of inventions: the eukaryotic cell and photosynthesis are two, but these also appear to have required highly improbable events. Furthermore, making something bigger (think bone), or repeating a structure (think vertebrae), is one of the easiest tricks for evolution to accomplish. So mutating a more powerful brain should be relatively easy, yet it has only happened once.

    Second, what happened in that single small tribe from which we all descended that enabled it to out-compete and cause to go extinct all other tribes and similar species? Answer, same as the first question.

    Third, how is a species with such high intelligence and access to so much rich scientific theory and data not able to see and act on its severe overshoot predicament? Answer, because the mechanism evolution used to deny mortality is broad in scope and results in many forms of reality denial.

    I’m also thinking there may be a timeline synergy between Morrison and Varki. The human brain did not become powerful overnight. The growth of brain power started over a million years ago and may have been enabled by our mastery of fire. I imagine spirituality and morality as described by Morrison slowly emerging as the brain’s power grew. Then at some point the brain’s ability would have bumped up against full theory of mind and its awareness of mortality. Further growth of brain power would have stalled until the improbable mutation for denial of reality about one hundred thousand years ago that enabled our final leap forward to god worshiping moon visiting iPhone carrying climate changing Anthropocene denying apes.

    This timeline is consistent with the first archeological signs of funeral customs about one hundred thousand years ago. And is consistent with when the small tribe of about 150 individuals from which all 7 billion of us descended started to take over the planet.

    There is some evidence that other species have bumped up against but not crossed the full theory of mind barrier. For example, elephants and crows have been observed to exhibit behaviors consistent with mourning their dead.

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  3. For those who think this theory for why we do not acknowledge our overshoot predicament is hogwash, here is the best article I’ve found that presents an alternate explanation.

    I do not find it satisfying because it is not consistent with what I have observed. And it is a laundry list of specific behaviors that mostly have denial of reality at their core.

    http://energyskeptic.com/2016/the-psychology-of-why-no-one-does-much-about-climate-change-and-peak-oil/

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    1. I was just directed to your blog – Interesting. Seems to compliment Terror Management Theory, which I find has many satisfactory answers.

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      1. Thanks. I have looked briefly at Becker’s theory in the past. Becker provides an explanation partially similar to Varki’s for human belief in life after death. Unlike Varki, Becker does not try to explain other interesting and probably related aspects of human evolution and behavior such as 1) Why did humans erupt from one small tribe that out competed all other hominids and took over the planet? 2) Why has no other social species evolved full theory of mind and a brain as powerful as humans? 3) Why do we deny many other unpleasant facts such as peak oil and climate change? I find Varki’s theory more satisfying because it is broader and more deeply grounded in the laws of natural selection. In full disclosure, I am biased as an engineer that puts more stock in genetics than psychology.

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        1. 2) Why has no other social species evolved full theory of mind and a brain as powerful as humans?

          do we really know that they haven’t ? *

          whale beachings are often put down to poor health or confusion – or maybe , just maybe , they’re religious?

          And also we communicate with each other , often with stories , control can be achieved to the genetic advantage of one group of humans over another . consider not kings but the top elite as group , access to the best food ( any food) and the ability to get lower order to die to protect your kith and kin .

          Forbin

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          1. It is true that some animals may be very close to full theory of mind and an understanding of mortality. Elephants and crows, for example, have been observed to exhibit behavior consistent with mourning their dead.

            There is however no evidence that elephants and crows have built pyramids and cathedrals to visit their gods, or that they kill each for believing in different gods, or that they have designed an iPhone, so it seems they have a ways to go yet.

            Given that full theory of mind enabled us to take over the planet, the question that must be answered, and which Varki’s theory provides an answer, is what has held back animals like elephants and crows from evolving minds as powerful as humans?

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