On the Emergence of Behaviorally Modern Humans: The Denial to Domesticate (DtD) Theory

Bizarro.com on Evolution

In 1953 Watson and Crick wrote a brief letter to the journal Nature to lay claim to being the first to identify the mechanism for replication of genetic information.

It has not escaped our notice that the specific pairing we have postulated immediately suggests a possible copying mechanism for the genetic material.

I’m following Watson and Crick’s example to lay claim to a new idea here on this blog that is read daily by millions of people that are curious to understand the evolutionary origins of a religious fire ape that has used its unique intelligence and behaviors to dominate its planet, while at the same time denying its obvious state of overshoot and the damage it is doing to the ecosystems that sustain it.

About 1 or 2 million years ago our primate ancestors mastered the use of fire to cook food. Cooking increased the energy available from food thus enabling the evolution of a larger brain. These primates used their more powerful brain to cooperate and create technologies like stone tools and weapons that enabled them to prosper and expand their range.

Several hundred thousand years ago the evolution of increased brain power and associated social cooperation bumped up against a barrier. This barrier resulted from a reduction in reproductive fitness when the brain became powerful enough to understand its own mortality. Several different hominid lines were blocked by this barrier. Then about one or two hundred thousand years ago, one small tribe in Africa evolved a mechanism to break through this barrier. The evolutionary trick was to simultaneously evolve an extended theory of mind with a behavior to deny unpleasant realities like mortality. The two otherwise maladaptive features when combined became a powerful adaptive advantage by enabling the evolution of a more powerful brain with an extended theory of mind.

Having broken through the mortality awareness barrier, the tribe became what we now call behaviorally modern humans, with religions rooted in life after death, and exploded out of Africa to populate the entire planet, initially displacing all other hominids, and today is well underway to displacing many other species, including perhaps itself.

The cognitive barrier, and the mechanism for breaking through it, is explained by Ajit Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory. I created this blog to explore and broadcast MORT because it answers many important questions for students of human overshoot.

Varki has shown that an extended theory of mind explains many of the behaviors unique to humans.

What Varki does not explain is why did humans use their extended theory of mind to cooperate more frequently than to fight?

I’ve recently read a new book by Richard Wrangham titled “The Goodness Paradox” in which Wrangham explores the paradox of humans having low reactive violence and high proactive violence.

As an aside, Wrangham is also the originator of the “cooking made us human” theory that I discussed above, and I recommend his earlier book on this topic.

Wrangham argues that the success of behaviorally modern humans is due to social cooperation which enabled more effective resource acquisition, defense, offense, technology advancement, trade, and the specialization of skills that are characteristic of our species.

Wrangham’s novel idea is that social cooperation was enabled by self-domestication. The self-domestication process was accomplished by tribe members ganging up on and killing any overly aggressive males in their tribe. Over time we thus became a kinder gentler species that can walk into a Starbucks filled with strangers and not be at risk of being torn limb from limb as would happen to a chimpanzee in the same situation.

Domestication of a species often results in many non-selected side effects such as neoteny, white patches of fur, and the floppy ears of dogs. Wrangham explores many characteristics of humans that may be side-effects of domestication such as our unique tendency to enter exclusive same-sex relationships.

Wrangham thinks the key enabler for human self-domestication was the evolution of an extended theory of mind that permitted tribe members to conspire and plot against their aggressors.

What Wrangham does not explain is what enabled the evolution of an extended theory of mind?

So here’s my big Watson and Crick like idea that I’m laying claim to for future generations to admire.

It’s called the Denial to Domesticate (DtD)™ theory and is a unifying bridge between the two brilliant theories of Varki and Wrangham.

DtD states that MORT enabled Self-Domestication.

More specifically, mastery of fire for cooking enabled a big brain, which was blocked from being used to its fullness by mortality awareness, which evolved reality denial to enable an extended theory of mind, which enabled individuals to conspire to kill aggressors, which self-domesticated our behaviors, which enabled large groups of humans to cooperate, which enabled us to take over the planet.

Readers of this blog will know that our core enablers, fire (think climate change) and reality denial (think peak oil, species extinction, etc. etc.), do not bode well for our future. We are fire apes that deny reality.

Being an electrical engineer well past his prime, and having completed the important work, I leave it to keen young geneticists to flesh out the details of my revolutionary DtD™ theory.

P.S. I’ll bet you a Starbucks donut that one of the side-effects of DtD will prove to be symbolic language.

P.P.S. 1905 was the big year for Albert Einstein, and 2019 may be my big year. I will of course offer to share the Nobel with Varki and Wrangham because without them I’d be nothing.

P.P.P.S. Note how an engineer can pack so much profound insight into a few words:

Fire to cooking to intelligence to denial to god to plotting to capital punishment to self-domestication to Apollo 11 to 7 billion too many.

October 15, 2021 edit

Here is a very good interview with Wrangham on his theories.

28 thoughts on “On the Emergence of Behaviorally Modern Humans: The Denial to Domesticate (DtD) Theory”

  1. Why is in-group co-operation and out-group violence a paradox? Sounds pretty sensible to me. Guess I’ll have to read the book.


    1. Most male mammals are not cooperative. Those that do cooperate exhibit signs of domestication. For example, chimpanzees are not friendly with strangers. Bonobos are. It seems Bonobos did not have to compete with Gorillas for scarce food which meant the females could stay closer together and collaborate to punish any nasty males.


    2. I was hasty in my choice of words. Its more accurate to say Wrangham explores the paradox of humans having low reactive violence and high proactive violence. I changed the essay.


  2. It’s hard to disprove these combined theories, but doesn’t intelligence alone make a species more technologically successful, regardless of denial mechanisms? The brain power was already there, so why was an additional “breakthrough” really needed? Too much time has passed to truly know all coincidental factors.

    In other words, less intelligent apes (or animals w/o opposing thumbs and upright walking) were already at a disadvantage for those reasons. Humans didn’t have the stiffest competition once they got bright enough to create weapons. Is seems that brainpower itself outweighs emotional impediments to its use. One can move forward knowing full well that life is finite, and how do you gauge levels of depressive motivation-loss?

    Any species that fears danger would seem to grasp its mortality and have mechanisms to carry on, even if they’re crude.


    1. 1) I think we need to answer these question: https://un-denial.com/2017/06/25/why-my-interest-in-denial/
      If MORT is not the answer then what is?

      2) We had lots of competition from big brained hominids. Why did one small tribe displace all the others, without leaving any hybrids?

      3) All animals fear harm. We are the only animal that understands our death is inevitable. And we are the only animal that believes in gods. That can’t be a coincidence. Like a fish that can’t see the water, these uniquely human characteristics are hard for us to see.


      1. 1) No doubt people have built-in denial, but my only disagreement is whether it really matters. The life force itself seems to be enough to motivate all species. Luck can’t be ruled out among competing primates, or simply just the smartest ones getting more territory. As with modern humans, those who invent the best technology and weapons (ascribed to brainpower) prevail over others.

        2) I’m not learned enough on those different competitors to give a useful answer now. That may indeed be the key thing.

        3) How does one prove that other animals don’t understand aging and mortality? They see others of their kind die that way and it must sink in. I think belief in Gods is just another aspect of creative brains, but not one of the better ones!


          1. Oh, I’m fully aware that denial is a big problem, and suffer from the same lack of that “gene.” From as young as 10, I’ve noticed that most people are driven by faith & ego over logic. Environmental problems made me realize it’s a dangerous default behavior.

            This blog has plenty of purpose with or without MORT as a foundation, IMO. The issue to me is whether it’s a physical defect in certain brain structures or something learned in youth. If it’s somehow fixable with surgery or chemicals, would people want to be cured? That’s like asking people to stop drinking or using drugs.

            Before commenting any more here, I’m going to read the whole theory at some point. Keep up the good work.


            1. It’s hard for an intelligent species not to be depressed without denial. And you have a better chance of survival if you’re not depressed. That in essence is why we evolved to deny unpleasant realities. No one is going to volunteer to be “fixed”, assuming they could be fixed. Denial on, party on.

              If you don’t have time to read Varki’s book, you can get the gist of it from an excellent video lecture by him, a short summary of the theory I wrote, and the last chapter of his book, all of which are available here:


              Liked by 1 person

  3. Hi Rob.

    Have you heard of the Norwegian Philospher Peter Wessel Zapffe? He wrote an essay called The Last Messiah in 1933 and a book called On the Tragic (Om Det Tragiske not yet translated) focused on humans as a tragic species using defense mechanisms to survive and perpetuate the species. Worth checking out because there’s lots of overlap with MORT, Ernest Becker, Terror Management Theory.

    Tim Oseckas


    1. Thanks for the tip on Zapffe. I read his key idea on Wikipedia. Being an engineer I prefer ideas grounded in thermodynamics and biology rather than philosophy and psychology, but I get the gist of what he’s saying in that our brains are a bit of an evolutionary mess with intelligence bolted on top of reptilian instincts.

      I am familiar with Terror Management Theory. I think it’s a good first generation description of what going on with denial but Varki’s MORT is second generation and provides much more insight. TMT is to MORT as newtonian physics is to general relativity.


      1. Zapffe’s ideas were influenced by the biologist Jakob von Uexküll , particularly his idea of the umwelt, which influenced the development of biosemiotics. What I find interesting is that Zapffe expressed his ideas in the early 1930s and identified the tragic nature of the human species


  4. Rob, do you mean to tell me I’m only one of millions of un-denial fans? Shit! All this time time I though I was a VIP member of an super exclusive sub tribe.

    “You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”
    ― Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind

    Bananas in heaven | Yuval Noah Harari | TEDxJaffa

    “Harari’s central thesis is that Homo sapiens rules the world because it is the only animal that believes in things that exist purely in its own imagination, such as gods, states, money and human rights.”

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I agree with you on Harare’s book. I skimmed the last hundred pages to see where he was going and he barely covered the issues that you deal with on your website. He was particularly impressed with our technological prowess, even stating that our species through engineering may be transformed into a species unrecognizable to us. Kurzweilian thinking. Kunstler has a good take on our techno-fixation.


      1. thanks for the occasional wry humour, fellow h.s.s. canadesis, we of course are the boy scouts of the world. Especially chuckled at the TM for DtD. regards IG in ON.


  5. Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers

    “The title derives from Sapolsky’s idea that for animals such as zebras, stress is generally episodic (e.g., running away from a lion), while for humans, stress is often chronic (e.g., worrying about losing your job). Therefore, many wild animals are less susceptible than humans to chronic stress-related disorders such as ulcers, hypertension, decreased neurogenesis and increased hippocampal neuronal atrophy. However, chronic stress occurs in some social primates (Sapolsky studies baboons) for individuals on the lower side of the social dominance hierarchy.

    Sapolsky focuses on the effects of glucocorticoids on the human body, stating that such hormones may be useful to animals in the wild escaping their predators, (see Fight-or-flight response) but the effects on humans, when secreted at high quantities or over long periods of time, are much less desirable. Sapolsky relates the history of endocrinology, how the field reacted at times of discovery, and how it has changed through the years. While most of the book focuses on the biological machinery of the body, the last chapter of the book focuses on self-help.

    Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers explains how social phenomena such as child abuse and the chronic stress of poverty affect biological stress, leading to increased risk of disease and disability.”


    I read this book in the 1997-98’and found it profound. It’s one of the big ones that propelled me on my journey to big picture determinism. I’m a happy endtimes doomer now. The book also helped me understand & deal with some important things in my efforts to get clean & sober. Knowledge of evolutionary behaviour biology was my ‘higher power’. There are no addicts who don’t suffer higher than normal levels of stress and/or are, because of how they are wired, not as capable of handling similar life situations as well as others.


    1. Thanks. I’m a fan of Sapolsky too. The last chapter in his latest book Behave also has some great self-help tips. Same as you having some biological understanding of the insanity we swim in has provided some mental peace although I still get angry at our species more often than I should.


    1. Thanks. I agree that religions “evolve” to become (among other things) a set of rules to help people collaborate in large groups. But the paper misses the key point which is that the core of every known religion is a belief in life after death.

      As I said in another essay:

      “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 … the need for a life after death story has an important genetic foundation.”


      It’s always amazed me that scholars of history never stop to comment how weird (and idiotic) it is that civilizations spent all of their surplus wealth on mounds and monoliths and pyramids and cathedrals they thought were vehicles to eternal life. My explanation for this blind spot is that scholars have the same denial genes as the people they study.


      1. They do have denial as a feature, but it’s not in the historians job description to make judgements (weird & idiotic) and I’ve read plenty of historians & anthropologists who have discussed the enormous amount (not all) of surplus wealth that has gone into monument building & deity worshiping. Where/who did you learn from about monument building spending? Much of it comes from source material & some estimating. Reading source material is the job of the historian. If you did not get your information directly from a historian then you likely got it from someone who did unless you read the source material yourself which you need credentials for (priceless manuscripts) and the ability to read ancient & often dead languages.

        I started reading my dad’s university history textbooks & required reading when I was 13 – Bernal Diaz, one of Cortez’s religious-psycho conquistadors translated account of their bloody adventures – “True History of the Conquest of New Spain”. It’s considered source material. very matter of fact accounts of their brutality. I’ve been studying history for 40 years & it’s complicated. Much popular history is bullshit, but all we know of human history has been collected, examined, translated & deciphered by more specialty fields of study than what comes out of history depts by people with history degrees. Anthropology, archeology, some economists, political scientists and on & on. There are many fields with hundreds to thousands of sub specialties. There are people whose sub specialty is history of engineering and some who only study certain periods of history (engineering in the early industrial revolution) or major in studying mechanical engineering. Some of these people have degrees in both engineering & history.

        I consider your blog & ideas to be part of the study of humans along with Varki, Nick Lane and others you feature.

        I love it all because, I’m infinitely curious – not a choice. It’s how I am. I love learning new ideas from intelligent, insightful laypeople & pros & one thing I have learned is that all our knowledge cannot change our core behaviours (good for minor tweaks), nor can it do anything to change the fact that we exist in a thermodynamic universe and are slaves to it’s dictates. As our knowledge has increased, so has are ability to reduce gradients. It’s MPP connected.

        Sometimes when I think of how there is no purpose other than to degrade energy, I ask myself does history even matter? Not really. I often think Bierce nailed it.

        HISTORY, n. An account mostly false, of events mostly unimportant, which are brought about by rulers mostly knaves, and soldiers mostly fools.

        -Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary


        1. That’s a good definition of history.

          I’ve seen one documentary too many with a historian standing in a pyramid or cathedral with tears in their eyes describing the “spirituality” they feel.

          Don’t think I’ve ever encountered a historian that understands the thermodynamics that drive history. Listened to a recent interview with Jared DIamond on his new book. He’s ignorant of everything that matters.


  6. Lev Gumilev on “why do people living a calm life, visible to nobody, suddenly happen to rise as one, forming invincible armies and conquering huge spaces, creating states? And after the lapse of several centuries they disperse in space and time, leaving memory only in chronicles and legends. Vandals and Goths, Genghis Khan and Tamerlan, unconquerable Osman knights – they left just memories.”


  7. Don’t give up the day job, my friend!

    (Clearly, you are having WAY too much fun. 🙂

    Together for the future,

    ~ Michael


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s