An Elevator Pitch for MORT


Having studied Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory, and connected many unexplained dots, it is obvious to me that MORT has a high probability of someday being proven to be true.

Most people when introduced to the theory either aggressively ignore or reject it, without offering a more plausible alternative explanation for the observed data.

I speculate the theory has not gained traction due to some combination of:

  • the theory predicts most people will resist embracing the theory;
  • one author of the idea is dead and the other author has a different day job;
  • the profundity and discomfort of the theory’s implications.

I believe any hope of mitigating our overshoot predicament will require many people to understand MORT.

I’ve thus been searching for the perfect elevator pitch to persuade a skeptic to open her mind to the idea. This is my latest attempt:

  1. Intelligence can only emerge via natural selection.
  2. Thus, intelligence will not initially survive if it conflicts with the gene’s objective.
  3. Thus, intelligence can only initially exist in a state of denial.
  4. Thus, intelligence will often result in a state of overshoot.
  5. Thus, intelligence will be rare and usually short-lived in the universe.
  6. It is difficult but not impossible for intelligence to override inherited denial.
  7. Given our rare place in the universe, and our ability to understand it, we should try to save it.
  8. Breaking through denial and embracing reality is our best hope.

Has anyone got a better elevator pitch?


36 thoughts on “An Elevator Pitch for MORT”

  1. Individual and Cultural Development is a blind spot to many people, many theories (E.g. Integral, Sprial Dynamics, etc) show that we develop in stages/waves that have unfolded over the past few thousand years AND every individual is born at fulcrum zero and subsequently develops “up the spiral” -thus there are (and will always be ) people at various stage of development (and– Key point — what is “over their heads” is a world view/onlogical space that DOES NOT exist for them. An estimate 70% of the Planet AND 30% of America is atr/or below “Blue/Amber” Stage (Tradtional/Fundamentalist level — pre-rational — people willing to die or kill for a belief system. Much of what you write about is also “over their heads” and yes then also have different forms of Denial.

    Those at “Orange” (Rational/Modern) And especially “Green” (Post Modern/Pluralistic) have the greatest chance of resonating with what you are attempting to convey. (Green worldview in 1960s — brought forth the Woman’s Right, Civil Rights and Environmental movement. Keep up the hope — for 10% of a Population evolving to a New Level of Consciousness/Worldview seems to be the Cultural Tipping point — an Integral Age is upon us (Yellow — Spiral Dynamics) with about 3-5% of global population here ….

    Click to access Integral_Theory_Overview.pdf


  2. Taking your points one at a time:
    #1 I imagine everything emerges via natural selection?
    #2 Still thinking about that one, but very likely.
    #3 I know plenty of people in denial who aren’t particularly intelligent. In fact I’d say lack of intelligence leads to denial.
    #4 Well, we’re intelligent (or supposed to be) and we’re in overshoot so yes, agreed.
    #5 Reminds me of a quote by biologist E O Wilson (paraphrasing): ‘maybe intelligence in the wrong sort of species is destined to be a fatal combination for the biosphere.’ We seem to be proving that one!
    #6 Yes, agree on that one.
    #7 I assume by ‘it’ you mean our place and not the universe. Is it rare? We really don’t know what else is out there.
    #8 Oh, very definitely.
    I haven’t got a better sales pitch, so good luck with that!

    I haven’t finished Varki’s book yet…must get back to it. I have watched his excellent video.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I do not. By and large people will have to face consequences and deal with the anxiety which is covered by denial before changing. I’m a big fan of Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death and terror management theory – related to the conclusions of your author’s theory.

    Our concept of saving the future, of course, is our own evasion of existential anxiety. It does not matter if we avoid oil/environmental collapse. We are all going to die and be forgotten – soon and forever. And that is all. Let us not think about it too closely and try to take it easy on each other. After all, WASF.


  4. Your conclusions are similar to Dave Cohen’s ‘Adventures in Flatland’ essays and for the same reasons even though he never mentions MORT. He was probably not aware of it. In one essay he concludes that only 10,000 people on the planet ‘get it’. More than that methinks and the ones that do won’t be talking bout it at work or socially, lest they become unemployed and social outcasts.

    I see cultural evolution as a powerful force, but think all life operates under the direction of the The maximum power principle (MPP) and it’s not optional.

    “The maximum power principle(MPP) in ecology states that self-­organizing systems, especially biological systems, capture and use available energy to develop network designs that maximize the energy fluxes through them, which are compatible with the constraints of the environment, and that those systems that maximize the throughput will endure. Thus, the MPP governs expediencies or efficiency in both the ecosystems functional and structural development. In this way, MPP can be used as a macro-level alternative model to interpreting evolution as a process whereby elements within an ecosystem are selected based upon their contribution to the processing of energy through the ecosystem, thus working to maximize the overall energy throughput.”

    There has never been a revolt or revolution for less – WE WANT LESS! WE WANT LESS!

    Even these so called environmentalists promote growth, but it’s a green washed fantasy version and almost to a man say nothing about overpopulation.

    All life is a slave to the MPP.

    I am not expecting the humans to change their behaviour and intentionally slow down. Perhaps some more band aids will be applied to the point blank shotgun wound, but it’s a mere gesture at this point in the big picture.

    The only choice the humans have left is how they want to go down – hard & fast (See USA) or with less suffering. There are still thing s that can be done on the local level.

    With AGW 3C is built in and there are many unstoppable feedbacks already underway that will kick into high gear between now and then. That alone is a civilization destroyer & an threat to the continuation of the human project. Now add on the rest of the biosphere impoverishment and all the stupid human tribal bullshit. What’s that look like?

    Hey, I could be wrong. The humans could have a mass awakening and all get together like that 1970’s Cola-Coco commercial where everyone holds hands and sings in perfect harmony, but to expect such a thing, to hope, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary is setting oneself up for a (another?) major disappointment.

    If I am wrong I will happily stand corrected.


    1. Hi Apneaman,

      I’m familiar with the work of Dave Cohen which I summarize as “humans do not have free will and their behavior is governed by their genes which guarantees overshoot and collapse”.

      Your points about the MPP are really interesting and deserve a new blog post which I will publish soon.

      By the way, it seems a 5C rise is emerging as the new most likely scenario for this century.


  5. Just bought a copy of WIRED magazine at the airport for something to read on my trip. 20 years ago it would have been something I read all the time but now I just do it occasionally for curiosity sake. What stuck me while reading the magazine was how many jobs in the short term are totally dependant on the denial of the future in the long term. There is a lot of people who are profiting in the short term by propagating and publicising a long term delusional dream.


  6. On your recommendation, my wife Connie Barlow (a science writer, evolutionary educator, and climate activist) and I read — listened to, actually — Brower and Varki’s book. We loved it. Thank you!

    We are less persuaded and enthusiastic than you about the overall MORT theory, however, as we find it too anthropocentric.
    I would encourage you to read Carl Safina’s widely acclaimed book, Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel. It’s a really good and healthy compliment to Varki, I think. Part III is a critique of Theory of Mind that you would do well to familiarize yourself with, I suggest.

    In any event, keep up the great writing! Your have become one of my favorite bloggers.
    If you have any specific writings of yours you’d be open to my recording and posting on this page: let me know.
    I’d be delighted to do so.


    1. Thanks for the kind words and the tip on Safina’s book. I skimmed Part 3 as you suggested and have a few comments.

      There is no doubt that Theory of Mind is a squishy topic with much disagreement on the definition. Varki acknowledges this difficulty at length.

      I prefer to sidestep the controversy by simply thinking of Theory of Mind as the computing power of a brain which exists in a continuum ranging from a cluster of cells in a worm to a hundred billion neurons with staggering complexity in the human brain.

      As a brain evolves increased computing power it reaches a point at which it can understand its own mortality. Varki’s MORT theory rests on the assumption, which I believe to be true, that the human brain is the only brain on our planet that has evolved this level of power. MORT explains that the reason the human brain is unique is that there is a barrier that can only be crossed by simultaneously evolving denial of reality. Crossing this barrier requires an improbable evolutionary event, analogous to the energy per gene barrier that blocked complex life until a rare event created the eukaryotic cell.

      I saw nothing in Safina’s book that contradicts Varki’s idea. If you read something different, please point me to the page.

      With regard to your comment that the MORT theory is too anthropocentric, I can appreciate your view if you think there is nothing unique or special about the human brain. I think the human brain is significantly more powerful than the brain of any other species. The simplest evidence being that you and I are discussing this complex topic using highly advanced technology.

      What other animal understands how it came into existence, can debate theories to explain why it can debate theories, and created technologies to communicate these ideas with other members of its species anywhere on the planet, including a few in space? Our closest competitors, such as chimpanzees, dolphins, elephants, and crows, while bright and capable of impressive intellectual feats, are not even in the same ballpark.

      Varki itemized a list of unique human characteristics here:

      I created a different list of questions about the uniqueness of humans here:

      If you think Varki’s theory is wrong, and I acknowledge it might be, please propose a different theory that does a better job of explaining these observations and answering these questions.

      P.S. I consume large quantities of audiobooks and podcasts so will explore your site with much interest.


      1. Rob, I greatly appreciate your role as Varki’s bulldog. (You’re great at it!)

        Still, I would be willing to bet that, if you took the time to carefully read (or listen to) Safina’s book, it will make a difference with you. You’ll still be enthusiastic about MORT, of course, but I think you’ll have a more ecocentric, less anthropocentric view of how some other highly social species (dolphins, orca, elephants, etc) think, feel, and relate to mortality and death. Just a hunch. Part 3 skimmed and Part 3 read carefully in the context of the entire book are two very different animals. In any event, again, keep up the great work!


        1. Thanks. I’ve added Safina’s book to my queue. In my quick scan I saw him trying to make the case that animals have sophisticated behaviors and emotions. I don’t disagree with this. We know some species are probably bumping up against the mortality awareness barrier because elephants, crows, and chimpanzees have been observed to exhibit behaviors consistent with mourning their dead. The key question is, are there any other species that understand their own mortality? If Safina thinks yes then please point me to the page because if substantiated this would invalidate Varki’s theory. If Safina doesn’t make the case that another animal understands it’s own mortality then he’s making an argument about animals that may be interesting but is irrelevant to MORT.


          1. Whenever you get around to reading or listening to Safina, let’s schedule a phone or Skype call. (I don’t do conversations via text or email; type too slowly and miss the give and take of a live interaction with nonverbal cues). In the meantime, I’ll re-listen. It’s worth a second read.


            1. I got Safina’s audiobook which means there’s a good chance I will be able to read it over the next few weeks because I do most of my reading while walking and working outdoors. We could save a lot of time if you would point me to the page with evidence that another species understands its mortality.


    2. I scanned your site and your book and I am impressed. I find it odd I have not encountered your work in the past. I thought I was aware of all the important thinkers in the overshoot space.

      I think I get what you’re trying to do. I’ve long thought there are only 2 possible paths for us to pull back from the precipice as a species.

      Option 1 is to acknowledge the human genetic need for spirituality and to create a new religion that worships the wonder and majesty of life and the universe, with scriptures that teach our origin and the need for sustainability with easily understood science. You seem to be on this path. Good on you and best wishes.

      Option 2 is to understand the genetic reason humans deny reality, and to break through this impediment to acting on overshoot by increasing awareness of this most dangerous human behavior. That’s my path.

      Before deciding if I should participate on your site with some of my content perhaps you can answer a question I’ve been unable to assess from your writings.

      Do you believe in some form of supernatural God and/or life after death (other of course than our germ line)?

      If yes, I don’t think I’ll be able to participate. If no, then I am interested.


      1. I am a “sacred realist”, “religious naturalist”, or “evolutionary humanist”. I reject supernaturalism in all its forms, as well as the notion of an otherworldly afterlife. Here is a post of mine to give you a feel for how I interpret the word “God”…
        And there’s tons of great science-oriented stuff on mortality and death linked from here:
        Have fun!


      2. Option 2 is an honorable path, to be sure, and you’re pursuing more effectively than anyone I know (with Nate and DJ nipping your heels). Still, given other equally inescapable and fundamentally real dimensions of human nature – see here and click on each of the 4-part brain links:
        … I would argue that Option 2 is destined to fail miserably without Option 1 succeeding at least in the middle-to-long-term, as nothing will forestall overshoot collapse and die-off. (Connie and I both hold William R. Catton, Jr as one of our main mentors, and his book, OVERSHOOT, as perhaps the single most important book we’ve ever read.)

        Yes, indeed, my life is dedicated to furthering Option 1. My best articulation to-date of how I see the future most likely unfolding is video #3 in my “Standing for the Future” series:

        Here’s the direct link to video #3: “Big Picture Apocaloptimism: The Coming Great Reckoning as Great Homecoming”:

        If you take time to watch it (you’re obviously under no obligation) I’d love to know what you think. I’m good at receiving criticism so you can be brutally honest with me. 🙂


        1. Nate is a friend but we disagree on the significance of MORT. Nate has researched a long list of evolved human behaviors he uses to explain our self-destructive nature. I think MORT is the foundation for most of the specific behaviors he studies. Nate has a much more powerful brain and a much more impressive body of work than I. It’s too bad he’s missed the forest for the trees.

          I agree Option 2 will probably fail. In fact the theory itself predicts failure. I have plenty of data points from trying to educate family and friends to know failure is likely.

          Option 1 (your path) has a chance. We know from history that new regions can sweep through society quickly. Of course quick is a relative term and we don’t have much time left. I also wonder if it is possible for a religion to succeed that contradicts what our genes want to do, which is maximize resource capture and replication. Go forth and multiply seems to have a better chance of success than one-child and conservation commandments.

          I’ll try to watch your video and reply later with comments.


  7. To be clear… Varki and Brower (and you) do, indeed, have me convinced that ‘denial of reality’ is a deeply instinctual drive within our species. And I agree that “once you become aware of denial, you see it everywhere.” I’m just not convinced that consciousness of death is the driving mechanism. In addition to Carl Safina’s book that I previously mentionded, “Beyond Words” I’ve also been greatly influenced by “Griefwalker” Stephen Jenkenson — both”Die Wise” and the Canadian Film Board documentary, Griefwalker:


    1. Thanks for clarifying. What theory do you think explains our instinctual denial of reality? And our unique intelligence? And our near universal belief in life after death?

      I had difficulty picking out the underlying scientific theory in Griefwalker. It seems to be a derivative of Ernest Becker’s Terror Management Theory which is an interesting theory but is a small subset of Varki’s theory with much less explanatory power.


      1. Surely we just prioritise short term survival above everything else. It’s a much simpler theory. Obviously we don’t have to fight for survival any more but the instinct is still inside us.


        1. Prioritizing the short term is no doubt a powerful behavior that exists in many species that evolved in times of resource scarcity.

          The interesting question is, how is it possible for an intelligent species fully capable of understanding that its short term actions are harming its mid and long term chances of survival, and which has a surplus of resources necessary to survive in the short term, to not modify its behavior to favor the long term?

          I think you need denial of reality to explain the human tendency to ignore overshoot.


        2. I am convinced that MORT is indeed correct and at the basis of our denial of reality. Humans cannot stand the full realization of their eventual death and their own smallness/futility. People have a strong need to reduce this fear , so we should indeed view denial of the importance of MORT as an expected prediction of the theory, i.e. further evidence to its correctness.

          The theory is not that revolutionary, however.
          Psychoanalysts have described the subconscious defense mechanisms people use to avoid terrifying cognitions in order to keep their equanimity, which is needed to function in everyday life.
          The defense mechanisms work both to deny actual physical threats against which one is helpless, as well as threats to the persons self esteem and their source of meaning in life (which is more common in everyday life; incidentally, our role in society, our children, the stories we tell ourselves about the past and the future are all things from which we derive meaning in life, and those are all threatened by overshoot & collapse).
          The reason for this is that people use their self esteem and sense of value to overcome their fear of death – e.g. they often dedicate themselves to some cause that’s larger and more important than their own lives (the greatness of the Nation, the Future, Science, Art, Business, God, etc.) to achieve lasting meaning, as to be able to say: “Though I may die, still my life counted.”

          Ernest Becker presented it all supremely in his book “The Denial of Death”.

          Varki doesn’t seem to say anything that’s new from the psychological or biological perspective, he just explains better the implications for the evolutionary process of humans.


          1. What’s new about Varki’s MORT theory is that it proposes a barrier to evolving increased brain power that requires an improbable evolutionary event to cross, and once crossed, two previously maladaptive behaviors combine to become highly adaptive. MORT thus provides a clear scientific explanation for many unique characteristics of the human brain and behavior.


    1. Had a look at the Church of Reality. A quick way to tell if someone understands reality is that they immediately focus on the relationships between energy, fossil carbon, life, and lifestyles.

      I’m thinking Perkel is missing the most important piece of reality.


      1. I wholeheartedly agree with you that Perkel is missing the most important pieces of reality — ecology, energy, overshoot, and (a la Teddy Goldsmith) religion as the control mechanism of stable, sustainable societies. If you’ve not yet encountered Edward Goldsmith’s THE WAY: AN ECOLOGICAL WORLDVIEW, there are some really fabulous summary/overviews available on his site, which I have audio-recorded. See here:
        In terms of my intellectual mentors, he’s right up there with Thomas Berry, William Catton, William Ophuls, and Charlie Hall.


    1. Thanks. I’ve read a lot of Greer’s work but I am not a fan. It drives me crazy that he takes 10,000 words to express a 100 word idea. And he has a little to much woo woo for my engineer tastes.


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