What if we’re denying something else?

Man in the Mirror

Thanks to a friend for bringing my attention to this recent essay on human nature.

The bad news on human nature, in 10 findings from psychology


It’s a question that’s reverberated through the ages – are humans, though imperfect, essentially kind, sensible, good-natured creatures? Or are we, deep down, wired to be bad, blinkered, idle, vain, vengeful and selfish? There are no easy answers, and there’s clearly a lot of variation between individuals, but here we shine some evidence-based light on the matter through 10 dispiriting findings that reveal the darker and less impressive aspects of human nature:

  1. We view minorities and the vulnerable as less than human.
  2. We experience Schadenfreude (pleasure at another person’s distress).
  3. We believe in karma – assuming that the downtrodden of the world deserve their fate.
  4. We are blinkered and dogmatic.
  5. We would rather electrocute ourselves than spend time in our own thoughts.
  6. We are vain and overconfident.
  7. We are moral hypocrites.
  8. We are all potential trolls.
  9. We favour ineffective leaders with psychopathic traits.
  10. We are sexually attracted to people with dark personality traits.

The essay concludes with the obligatory happy thoughts that most mainstream journals require today:

Don’t get too down – these findings say nothing of the success that some of us have had in overcoming our baser instincts. In fact, it is arguably by acknowledging and understanding our shortcomings that we can more successfully overcome them, and so cultivate the better angels of our nature.

There’s no reason to dispute the accuracy of this article because it’s written by a respected scientist, is backed by peer-reviewed research, and is consistent with human history.

It’s interesting and diagnostic that this list of behaviors does not include reality denial as explained by Varki’s MORT theory. Perhaps the author was able to discuss our unpleasant behaviors because he denies he shares any of these behaviors as his concluding paragraph suggests.

The lack of reality denial on the list is consistent with my belief that denial of denial is and must be the strongest form of denial. This belief was constructed from much observation of how people (don’t) react to Varki’s MORT theory, and the following thought experiment:

If you believe genes control life, as of course they must, then how could intelligence emerge without denial, and how could an intelligent species function (not be depressed and/or go insane) unless it denies its denial?

This blog has had the following central themes:

  1. We dominate the planet because humans are uniquely intelligent and this intelligence evolved because of an improbable adaptation to deny unpleasant realities.
  2. We are in a severe state of overshoot and our modern civilization will not survive for many more years.
  3. We are increasing the suffering that will occur by denying the reality of our predicament.
  4. We will not act to reduce future suffering until we acknowledge and override our genetic tendency to deny reality.

I’ve assumed to date that we are not acting appropriately, by which I mean optimally, rationally, ethically, and morally, because we deny the severity of our overshoot predicament.

What if I’m wrong?

Perhaps we see our predicament and don’t give a damn if it means we have to sacrifice something for someone else, even our own children.

Maybe the reality we’re denying is our own human nature.

Perhaps this explains why meaningful debate about the dangers of excess debt is now absent from political discourse.

Perhaps this explains why we never discuss saving some precious non-renewable resurces for future generations.

Perhaps this explains why we never discuss population reduction.

Perhaps this explains why 28 years after the first IPCC report, CO2 emmissions are 65% higher and still climbing.

Perhaps this explains why the only thing citizens from both sides of the political spectrum can agree on is to spend an outsized proportion of their collective wealth on weapons of war. 

15 thoughts on “What if we’re denying something else?”

  1. There are probably billions of kind, generous, thoughtful “morally” commendable acts everyday, but most of them are on the individual level, although institutions and governments still help some of their citizens everyday (while simultaneously bombing someone else’s citizens). It depends on the circumstances. Why & when humans behave the way they do is a giant mixed bag. “Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst” by Robert Sapolsky, is great for diving into that.

    I do not like that word morally or altruism either since it’s been demonstrated rather convincingly that there is no such thing as a selfless act, but I still give praise to folks who are charitable and such. I never praise elite charity because they are fucking scum, but I stay silent because it still helps some unfortunates out and I’m pragmatic.

    I have yet to see any evidence that the humans have ever or will falsify the MPP or their bondage to the second law or any of their inherent behaviours. Periodic bouts of better angels is all I see. I’ll wager the Fermi paradox has played out repeatedly all over the universe and the humans went on the list of potentials once they evolved to Behavioral Modernity. It could have been a different story line with fossil fuels being widely used a few thousand years ago or just starting last week, but once that brain became like it is, I believe it was inevitable that we would have ended where we are at some point and where we are going, which looks to be bye bye. Who can say for certain, but the mother of all human culls is locked in at the very least.


    Behave by Robert Sapolsky review – why do we do what we do?

    This magisterial account of human behaviour journeys from immediate brain response back to long-term social causes. It also suggests we have no free will



    1. Thanks, I’ve read Sapolsky’s book. I particularly liked the chapter on his battle with depression.

      Your point about MPP being supreme is good. I remember someone, maybe it was you or James, saying that “thermodynamics, expressed through genetics, creates beings incapable of not maximizing energy consumption.”

      It’s true.


  2. “Maybe the reality we’re denying is our own human nature.”

    Well, duh!

    ..sorry, that sounds harsh. I’ve had people tell me recently that I’m too harsh, so I’ll try to soften things. Yes, most all the doom bloggers (but also enviro bloggers, not to mention religionists and social-justice types throughout history) have seemed to beat their heads against this same wall: “why, oh why don’t we do [list of things that are completely at odds with our immediate self-interest]?” We don’t, because we can’t.

    I’ve said it before: If we could, we would, but we can’t, so we don’t.

    This doesn’t go over well with most people because it reflects the deterministic nature of the universe, and removes any hope of free will and human Agency. Instead, I find this realization extremely freeing. Glad the light bulb finally went off for you…


    1. Thanks for your honesty. In the early days I had hope that awareness of Varki’s MORT theory might catalyze some change. It’s clear to me now that nothing voluntary will ever change and that civilization’s days are numbered. I have a pretty deep understanding of how rare and special our gig here on earth is. Being an an engineer I want to understand why we’re doing nothing to protect our special place. Is it that we deny the reality of our predicament, or is it that we don’t give a fuck? This essay explored the latter.


      1. “Being an an engineer..”
        Yes, well that’s the thing with engineers: they see every thing as a problem which they can resolve with some sort of technology or tool. By nature and then by training, their instinct is to “fix” everything which seems to be going wrong. But they don’t see that in their “fixes” usually inherently compound the problem.

        There is also a god-complex that can arise, like with surgeons.

        I wanted to study science, but walked away (dropped out) from a prestigious school not least because I just didn’t understand WHY the people there wanted to do what they were doing. WHY did we need genetic engineering? WHY do we need faster airplanes and better satellites? WHY do we need “better living through chemistry”? Nobody around me asked any questions about this stuff; it was all a given that these things needed doing, though to our ultimate detriment.

        I can’t make my way to Luddite-ville fast enough. I’m pissed off at the friggin’ flush toilet these days!


      2. ” I want to understand why we’re doing nothing to protect our special place.”
        Maybe our place isn’t special, though. Thinking of ourselves as special is part of the issue.


        1. We disagree on this point. I’m an amateur student of the origin of life and evolution. Prokaryotic life will be widespread in the universe. Eukaryotic life will be very rare. Eukaryotic life that believes in god and flies to it’s moon will be fleetingly rare. We are experiencing the peak of something very special. It’s a shame more don’t realize it and act accordingly.


  3. Here is James at Megacancer’s take on the same topic…


    “The lizard brain would have us do many bad things to get what it wants. The social brain is trying to moderate that greed to enable group living. The social brain is concerned with both its own actions and the actions of others. If the lizard brain slips it mooring, the social brain of others is there to castigate it. Everyone slips a little here and there while some slip a lot. In order to continue as a social ape, excuses must be made, “He didn’t mean to kill him, he doesn’t know his own strength.” “She didn’t steal it, she borrowed it.”

    What is a human to think when someone dies? Is it a matter of making excuses for them even after they’re dead? “She’s not really dead, her spirit’s gone to heaven.” Also you’ll hear, “She was a good woman” or “He was a good man.” at the funeral, even though they may not have been, the mourners are dissolving or denying the rough spots to assure inclusion in the heavenly tribe. Greedy, self-interested mammals evolved to live in groups and needed to cover-up some of the behavioral misdemeanors that always occur. Climate change may be denied, not because of fear but to make allowances for the greedy, lizardly people of the tribe that truly want to convert every last hydrocarbon into a shot of dopamine. Admitting to climate change is not simply a logical, scientific conclusion, it is an admission of guilt that the lizard cannot abide by.

    Some people with a well-developed medial prefrontal cortex might say, “You know, I think we might have a problem and we ought to do the right thing.” while the limbic, lizard dominated people would say, “You’re wrong, there is no problem, the (reward) show must go on.”

    The reality for most people is that a “spirit” leaves the body upon death and it must go somewhere. This is not denial of death but rather an inaccurate belief. Early humans were not obsessed with death but were preoccupied with rewards. Death was turned into an opportunity to earn an everlasting reward in a place where all your dreams come true. Maybe of most importance was the social brain’s ability to deny the selfish and often socially incompatible nature of the limbic or lizard brain.”

    “Everyone is in denial about something; just try denying it and watch friends make a list. For Freud, denial was a defense against external realities that threaten the ego, and many psychologists today would argue that it can be a protective defense in the face of unbearable news, like a cancer diagnosis.

    In the modern vernacular, to say someone is “in denial” is to deliver a savage combination punch: one shot to the belly for the cheating or drinking or bad behavior, and another slap to the head for the cowardly self-deception of pretending it’s not a problem.

    Yet recent studies from fields as diverse as psychology and anthropology suggest that the ability to look the other way, while potentially destructive, is also critically important to forming and nourishing close relationships. The psychological tricks that people use to ignore a festering problem in their own households are the same ones that they need to live with everyday human dishonesty and betrayal, their own and others’. And it is these highly evolved abilities, research suggests, that provide the foundation for that most disarming of all human invitations, forgiveness.”


  4. Denying our own human nature makes sense. We have to do this first in order to deny everything else. Accepting we’re animals, wanting to maximise resource and energy acquisition, makes all our current behaviour obvious. Deny it all and you’re home and hosed.


    1. “…makes all our current behaviour obvious.”

      Yes, and it’s quite creepy when one starts to notice it in others: where their attention goes, who they suck up to, how they eye the buffet table…


  5. Thank you all for this fascinating discussion. One thing I have been thinking about lately, which is related to denial, is that hope dies hard. If at all. Hope in itself is a form of denial, and, like denial itself seems to be a hard wired feature of human nature. Denial of our predicament expresses itself as hope: hope for a technological solution, hope for a future life after death, hope that humanity will somehow someway get a handle on this problem.


    1. You are right, Denial manifests itself in many human behaviors including hope, faith, optimism, confidence, bravery, etc.. It all began about a hundred thousand years ago when humans evolved an extended theory of mind with denial of mortality by hoping there is a god and heaven.


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