Why my interest in denial?


I’ve been aware of our overshoot predicament for a decade and have moved on from studying specific aspects of human overshoot. 

What fascinates me now is our collective denial and inability to discuss or act on overshoot, despite some threats being imminent.

I used to believe denial was caused by a lack of awareness and understanding, but having made an effort to educate many people, and observing that they almost always aggressively choose not to understand, I began to look for a different explanation.

I concluded that denial must be an inherited behavior because every country, culture, political party, and religion is in denial. And denial must be central to who we are as a species because of its depth, breadth, and aggressiveness.

A few years ago I stumbled on Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory and a light went on. Varki’s theory provides the most simple, logical, plausible, and probable answer to the big questions that demand an answer:

  1. Why has no other species achieved our brain power despite common evolutionary forces and fitness advantages? Other advantageous inventions, like the eye, evolved several times, yet our brain, which is so advantageous it enabled us to take over the planet, has evolved only once.
  2. Why did the technology and culture of hominids stall for over a million years until something happened in one small tribe in Africa about 100,000 years ago?
  3. Why did all 7 billion of us emerge from one small tribe in Africa? And why did that tribe replace the many other similar hominid species?
  4. What genetic change occurred about 100,000 years ago that must be both modest in complexity and extreme in effect to explain the explosive emergence and dominance of behaviorally modern humans?
  5. Sapiens successfully bred with both Neanderthals and Denisovans at different times and locations. Sapiens retained a few of the other’s useful genes, mainly for disease immunity, but there is no evidence of full hybrids as you would expect. Why?
  6. Why do most people deny the many obvious dimensions of human overshoot like over-population, climate change, sea level rise, peak oil, resource depletion, soil loss, aquifer depletion, nitrogen imbalance, species extinction, fisheries collapse, and ocean acidification?
  7. Why do many people deny personal health realities like smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, and obesity?
  8. Why do many people deny scientific realities like evolution, climate change, thermodynamics, vaccine utility, and the improbability of UFOs?
  9. Why do most people deny economic realities like the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet, unsustainable debt, and asset bubbles?
  10. Why do many people choose to believe fake news, like the Russians are to blame?
  11. Why do many people seek to avoid all forms of reality with mind altering drugs?
  12. Why do democratic elections never discuss, or debate, or even whisper about, the issues associated with overshoot? What could be more important to vote on?
  13. Why don’t environmental political parties, like the Green party, have overshoot policies in their platforms?
  14. Why do experts commonly and aggressively ignore or deny the most important (and unpleasant) facts associated with their domain? Economics, climate change, renewable energy, and nutrition being notorious examples.
  15. Why do people who understand climate change rarely modify their lifestyles to reduce CO2 emissions?
  16. Why are humans the only species with religions?
  17. Why did religions emerge simultaneous with the behaviorally modern human brain?
  18. Why has every human group everywhere through all history had some form of religion?
  19. Why does every one of the thousands of religions think it is the only (or most) true religion?
  20. Why does every religion, including new religions like Scientology, have a life after death story? Many aspects of religion can be easily explained by their positive effect on group survival, but it is not easy to explain why every religion denies death with a life after death story. A few random religions with life after death stories might be reasonable, but not every religion, unless the need for a life after death story has a genetic basis.
  21. Why do many atheists retain some form of spirituality which usually includes a belief in some form of life after death?

A good place to go next is On Burning Carbon

10 thoughts on “Why my interest in denial?”

  1. Many excellent questions!

    Perhaps consciousness is unbearable unless accompanied by denial? Put another way the precise opposite side of the coin, consciousness is only bearable when accompanied by irrational belief.

    Maybe that is why we cant have nice things Rob lol!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Interesting idea. I’m not sure, but you may be saying the same thing as Varki.

      Best start with a definition of consciousness since it is a squishy topic and we may be talking about different things. I think consciousness is the model of the world constructed by a nervous system. There is a wide range of consciousness depending on the sophistication of the nervous system.

      Stages of theory of mind are a common way of describing the sophistication of consciousness in intelligent social animals. Humans are the only animals that have evolved an extended theory of mind that permits them to understand the mind of other humans.

      Varki’s theory says it is not possible to evolve an extended theory of mind unless reality denial evolves at the same time because resulting mortality awareness would otherwise prevent the extended theory of mind from fixing.

      You suggest an extended theory of mind may be unbearable without denial. Is this not the same thing as saying an extended theory of mind can only exist with denial? Since being unbearable would reduce reproductive fitness.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Denial, or living our lives in never-never land seems to be a prerequisite to have progeny..

    Women, in general, choose a mate who has a strong emotional life and unwavering confidence. Sure status, model looks, the car he is driving, money and fame matter for some women. But in fact they are an minority. To keep the relationship going, or starting one. Women, in general, need that flair of confidence, humor, risk taking, quick conversation wits with her, to start her juices flowing. Then they start to “feel” for that mate. Or continue “feeling”. The bald guy becomes attractive, or the overweight fellow suddenly is her new “thing”. Because of.. feelings

    Mostly such things have little to do with reality. Superior confidence of an alphamale is just show. Its not real. It has very little to do with anything real. Yet women react to alphamales with superior confidence, like its the “only” thing thats real. And without feelings, too bad, there just werent feelings in the relationship..

    So as a species we have on the one side, the women who have a very strong prefrence to choose mates, or just sexual mates, who can dismis reality (I reject your reality, and replace it with my own) and therefore show superior confidence with her. If I remember correctly, 50% of all children through the ages are not actually from the father that thinks he is the father. And then on the other side we have the males that attract hundreds of women to a relationship, or just quick sex, with superior confidence, a trait that has very little to do with the real world.

    So a prerequisite to have progeny is to live in never-never land, to be out of touch with reality. One hundred thousand years of evolution, and here we are. Nothing is real anymore. The Central Banks have made sure of that.

    Reality might start again when the collapse starts though.


  3. Rob: Just came to your website because of a link on Our Finite World. If you are indeed looking for company, there are some there who could fit the bill. I have ordered Varki’s book. I believe this theory is the biggest breakthrough in the understanding of human behaviour that has been offered in a long time. As you predicted, now that I have read about this, I’m seeing it everywhere. Comedy cannot exist without an irrational acknowledgment and fear of death and at the same time the propensity to deny it – by laughing about it. But these genetic mutations are very new, and therefore unstable. They wax and wane over your life. Even walking upright is relatively new, and we are still feeling the untoward effects of the host of new mutations that made it happen – back problems and difficulty with childbirth, to name two. The silmultaneous mutations for a theory of mind and reality denial operating at the same time are clearly incompletely suppressed over a lifetime and developmentally unstable. Both mutations develop at irregular speeds during infancy and childhood and young adulthood. Some adolescents don’t make it through the bottleneck and end up with schizophrenia. As you get older (I’m 70) your fear of death increases and your willingness to deny it recedes. Why do people seek mind-altering drugs? Because we crave something to “please make it stop!” These impulses are sometimes too much to bear. I miss Robin Williams.

    I imagine some animals watching people bungie jumping. “Why do they do this? They could die! They don’t get any food from this, I don’t understand it!”

    In the long run, I agree that these mutations got us where we are today and will at the same time be our downfall. Much to the relief of all the other species on this planet. Good luck to the next applicants. They’ll need it.


    1. Hi, it’s very nice to meet someone who sees what I see. I had not thought about comedy being linked to denial. I’ll pay more attention. I’m a regular reader of Our Finite World and I’ve posted here some of my favorite essays by Gail Tverberg. I sometimes wonder if Tverberg’s religiosity is what enables her to research what she does, and function normally.


      1. Her latest post should answer your question, Rob. We all need our drugs, I suppose. Keep up the good work, I’ll check back often, especially after I have read the book. Is there any point in trying to persuade people now? Personally, I have given up.


          1. Saw that. I hope you’re strong enough to take the heat you’re gonna get over there. Some will agree and some will mount vicious attacks on your character. I have already ordered the book through amazon.ca thanks.


  4. I’ve just posted elsewhere on your site my idea on teleologism, and your questions here largely relate to that. What distinguishes us from all other animals is sophisticated tool-making, which depends on having a brain that can conceptualise technical challenges, i.e. can formulate complex, abstract ideas, and then puts those ideas into practice, meaning having the anatomy to execute the creation and use of these tools (eyes, language, hands). Language fits in here, as no individual human can survive alone, ever – being the prime social animal, we all depend on cooperation from others.
    Our ability to conceptualise, to seek purposes in things and events, and causes, means we know about our past, and our future – and we all know where that inevitably leads. Our dependence on others means we have to have an intimate acquaintance with those who are important to us, i.e. other members of our extended family-clan-tribal groups, plus be able to instantly recognise strangers, potential sources of danger (skin colour and facial features can be critical here). Dunbar’s number is important: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number
    The resulting tribal identity (which manifests in multiple ways in modern societies) leads us to believe that our group is special, if not unique, a belief symbiotically cemented by religion, which also aims to dispel concerns about mortality. Having our own special deity means that we must be the specially chosen group. Conspiracy theories arise from this – when things go wrong, it’s the fault of our enemies, often undefined. Such beliefs also enhance one’s feelings of importance – why would someone be conspiring against you if you were just a nobody? Obviously, you must be special . . .
    In other words, our brains evolved to serve us well while we were still members of small, dispersed, hunter-forager bands on the savannahs of Africa, and possibly even in trees and caves, but they let us down badly now, when most of us have to live in large cities, comprising groups from multiple ethno-cultural backgrounds who harbour incompatible religious beliefs. And, instead of talking to our direct neighbours, we belong to far-flung groups united by electronic social media, such as here.
    Why do we behave selfishly? Never having used recreational drugs (never felt the need), I fail to understand their attraction, but clearly they must satisfy some fundamental need, providing some form of essential pleasure. Food maybe fits into this category, too – and we did evolve to eat voraciously in order to store fat reserves for the lean years which dominated our ancestors’ lives.
    As for fossil fuel consumption, why should I stop going on flying holidays when everybody else still keeps on doing it? My contribution in the overall scheme is infinitesimal, especially when you look at what the military burns up, or President Trump on one of his golfing weekends. My altruistic behaviour in this regard, essentially a sacrifice for a bunch of dispersed, total strangers, will not be appreciated, or even recognised. Even if I vanished off the planet, it would make no difference to the future of humanity, so why should I restrict myself, especially when my self-indulgent behaviour is actually “good for the economy”? I bet Al Gore still jets around to spread his dire climatic warnings. Here in Australia, large numbers of people even question why we, as a nation, should stop burning fossil fuels, when we contribute less than 2% of global CO2 emissions. If our island continent sank under the waves tomorrow, would anyone else notice?
    Humanity doesn’t have a good track record in anticipating big problems, responding to them only when they become overtly manifest, making life uncomfortable. It’s all about the tragedy of the commons, and the need to take massive, coordinated action – which requires effective, highly motivated and cooperating political leadership, something which seems to have vanished from today’s world.


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