Ajit Varki: Our Only Hope is Legitimate Fear-Mongering

OK Now You Can Panic

Dr. Ajit Varki, the scientist who inspired this blog with his book, published a paper for a new book today, which expands on his Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

Varki, in the past, has been self-critical of his 2013 book feeling that it did not receive the time and polish that his theory deserved. It is clear that Varki set out to remedy the defects of his book with this paper because it’s beautifully written, concise, logically structured, and well referenced. I encourage you to read the paper in full here, or you can download a pdf here.

What follows are a few excerpts from the paper that I thought were noteworthy, and some new ideas from Varki. I also discuss any points where Varki and I differ.

Did Human Reality Denial Breach the Evolutionary Psychological Barrier of Mortality Salience? A Theory that Can Explain Unusual Features of the Origin and Fate of Our Species

Some aspects of human cognition and behavior appear unusual or exaggerated relative to those of other intelligent, warm-blooded, long-lived social species––including certain mammals (cetaceans, elephants, and great apes) and birds (corvids and passerines). One collection of such related features is our remarkable ability for ignoring or denying reality in the face of clear facts, a high capacity for self-deception and false beliefs, overarching optimism bias, and irrational risk-taking behavior (herein collectively called “reality denial”). Such traits should be maladaptive for reproductive success when they first appear as consistent features in individuals of any species. Meanwhile, available data suggest that self-awareness (knowledge of one’s own personhood) and basic theory of mind (ToM, also termed mind-reading, intentionality etc.) have evolved independently several times, particularly in the same kinds of species mentioned above. Despite a long-standing opportunity spanning tens of millions of years, only humans appear to have gone on to evolve an extended ToM (multilevel intentionality), a trait required for optimal expression of many other unusual cognitive attributes of our species, such as advanced linguistic communication and cumulative cooperative culture. The conventional view is that extended ToM emerged gradually in human ancestors, via stepwise positive selection of multiple traits that were each beneficial. A counterintuitive alternate possibility is that establishment of extended ToM has been repeatedly obstructed in all other species with the potential to achieve it, due to a “psychological evolutionary barrier,” that would arise in isolated individuals of a given species that develop the genetic ability for extended ToM. Such individuals would observe deaths of conspecifics whose minds they fully understood, become aware of mortality, and translate that knowledge into mortality salience (understanding of personal mortality). The resulting conscious realization and exaggeration of an already existing intrinsic fear of death risk would have then reduced the reproductive fitness of such isolated individuals (by favoring personal survival over reproduction). This “psychological evolutionary barrier” would have thus persisted until hominin ancestors broke through, via a rare and unlikely combination of cognitive changes, in which two intrinsically maladaptive traits (reality denial and extended ToM) evolved in the minds of the same individuals, allowing a “mind over reality transition” (MORT) over the proposed barrier. Once some individuals broke through in this manner, conventional natural selection could take over, with further evolution of beneficial aspects of the initial changes. This theory also provides a unifying evolutionary explanation for other unusual features of humans, including our recent emergence as the dominant species on the planet, and replacement of all other closely related evolutionary cousins, with limited interbreeding and no remaining hybrid species. While not directly falsifiable by experiment, the MORT theory fits with numerous facts about humans and human origins, and no known fact appears to strongly militate against it. It is also consistent with most other currently viable theories on related subjects, including terror management theory. Importantly, it has major implications for the human condition, as well as for many serious current issues, ranging all the way from lack of personal health responsibility to ignoring anthropogenic global climate disruption, which now threatens the very existence of our species.

The yaksha asked: “What is the greatest surprise?” Yudhisthira replied: “People die every day, making us aware that men are mortal. Yet we live, work, play, plan, etc., as if assuming we are immortal. What is more surprising than that?”

—The Mahabharata

Perhaps because I’m an electrical engineer who specialized in operating system design, rather than a life sciences practitioner, I’ve never been totally comfortable with MORT’s focus on the evolution of an extended theory of mind (ETOM).  There are many unique properties of the human brain, in addition to ETOM, such as symbolic language and advanced intellectual abilities.

It feels more accurate to speak about a barrier to evolving a brain with higher computing power. We all know that a more powerful desktop computer can do more advanced things like speech recognition and video editing. Ditto for a biological CPU. A more powerful brain can better understand the thoughts of others AND extrapolate its own mortality AND implement complex speech AND read symbolic text AND calculate quantum mechanics AND fly to the moon AND invent technologies to dominate all other species.

This more general way to think about MORT does not change or invalidate Varki’s thesis because it’s the same mortality awareness barrier, but provides a clearer explanation of what probably happened when we broke through the barrier, or at least it does for this cranky old engineer.

I think reality denial unlocked nature’s ability to evolve a more powerful CPU, with the first enhancement being an extended theory of mind, and subsequent enhancements being other uniquely human intellectual capabilities.

In case you doubt that 1-200,000 years is enough time to evolve sufficient computing power to figure out the laws of physics and fly to the moon, recall that we created a Chihuahua from a wolf in about 32,000 years.

I also want to mention that there is another complementary theory for the evolutionary requirement that high brain power co-evolve with reality denial.

All life must obey the Maximum Power Principle (MPP) because life at its core is replicators competing for finite energy.

Any evolved behavior that might tend to override MPP, such as sufficient intelligence to understand Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, with wisdom to constrain offspring and consumption, will be weeded out by selection pressures. Put more succinctly, free will on behaviors relevant to overshoot, cannot exist.

If true, this means it is impossible for high intelligence to exist without reality denial, and MORT is one solution evolution has discovered to implement this. On another planet, evolution by natural selection might discover a different means of unlocking high intelligence with reality denial.

Varki has created several new graphics to help explain his theory. I particularly like this one:

Mind Over Reality Transition Extended View


I was pleased to see that Varki now draws a link between his theory and that of Trivers’ theory of self-deception:

It is also noteworthy that the ability to hold false beliefs, self-deception, optimism, and confidence might support a successful mating strategy, especially for males. This suggestion is congruent with Trivers evolutionary theory of self-deception that includes denial of ongoing deception, self-inflation, ego-biased social theory, false narratives of intention, and a conscious mind that operates via denial and projection to create a self-serving world.

Varki makes an interesting case that human physiological ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny in that postnatal development mirrors the expected transitions to an extended theory of mind:

Human Psychological Ontogeny Recapitulate Phylogeny


I was pleasantly surprised to find that Varki, perhaps due to my encouragement, has drawn a stronger link between religion and his MORT theory:

Depending on the lens through which it is studied, one aspect of religion can also be considered as strong evidence in support of MORT. Most human behaviors exist in other species on a continuum of development, as one would expect from evolution. But religion appears to be a well-established near universal only in human cultures and there are many obvious fitness advantages that have been discussed by others. But most of these advantages should not require a belief in life after death. Nevertheless, almost all religions have at their core some form of such afterlife beliefs, which would serve as another mechanism to blunt the impact of mortality salience. Of course, atheists do not live in constant fear of their mortality, so the underlying reality denial appears to be the primary mechanism.

Not having to worry about farting in a sandbox filled with kids I have to play with every day, I go a step further and assert that MORT created God.

I also make a stronger claim that all religions, not just most religions as stated by Varki, have at their core a belief in life after death.

It is also a theory that appears to fit with all known relevant information, and is not apparently negated by any other facts, but also cannot be definitively falsified at this time by an experiment.

For me, MORT will be be falsified if we can find a single religion anywhere in time or place that does not believe in some form of life after death.

I love that Varki draws a link between MORT and the many peculiar things humans do to distort reality:

…could the well-known human craving for mind-altering substances also be partly due to the need to escape reality? Could the same be true of the positive value of meditation methods that focus on mindfulness of the present, or the shutting out of irksome reality? Conversely, could episodic panic attacks represent a sudden failure of the neural mechanisms of reality denial?

Varki introduces a new and very interesting idea that reality denial first emerged in males and an extended theory of mind in females, and that it took considerable time for the alleles to mix and stabilize:

MORT Gender Features

Assuming that such an evolutionary transition did occur, what might have been the contributions of sex and gender? As illustrated in the very speculative Fig. 8, human males are at greater risk of autism spectrum disorders, more prone to selective reality denial, systematizing, optimism bias, and risk-taking behavior. Conversely, human females are more prone to empathy, cooperation, theory of mind, depressive realism, and major depressive disorder. Considering these sex and gender differences (which are of course on a continuum, and affected by many cultural and genetic factors), could it be that the original evolutionary transition involved mating of males with a complex genotype manifesting as maladaptive reality denial––with females having an equally complex genotype, suffering from mortality salience due to an enhanced theory of mind? Although we cannot know for certain, could such mating have generated an unusual collection of alleles, as an explanation for the origin of humans? Assuming that generating and stabilizing the optimal combination of such alleles were was difficult, perhaps it took a very long time. Perhaps there was a prolonged interim state of recurrent cognitive instability, with ongoing dangers resulting from reality denial and/or existential angst, and possibly even high rates of suicide. Could this difficult transition explain the >100,000-year gap between the genetic origin of modern humans and archeological evidence suggesting our emergence in Africa and then elsewhere?

I personally think it slightly more likely that the 100,000 year gap can be explained by the time it took natural selection to evolve a more powerful CPU once the MORT barrier was breached.

I chuckled at Varki’s awareness of the reality that his theory will not be acknowledged as true in his lifetime, and I admire his self-confidence that it will be acknowledged after he’s dead:

The theory is also consistent with all known facts, compatible with all other related theories, and not negated by any currently known facts. On the other hand, it is not directly testable by experimental reproduction and not directly falsifiable by experimental approaches. Given also the counterintuitive nature and unusual origins of this theory, as well as the lack of expertise of the originators in many relevant disciplines, MORT is very likely to be attacked from many quarters, and resolution is unlikely during the lifetime of this author. Only the passage of time will tell if MORT is as important as plate tectonics or as completely fanciful as “phlogiston” (or something somewhere in between). Fortunately, concern for posthumous legacy is a largely meaningless exercise.

“I cannot possibly believe that a false theory would explain so many classes of facts as I think it certainly does explain…..on these grounds I drop my anchor, and believe that the difficulties will slowly disappear.”—Charles Darwin, letter to Asa Gray, shortly after Origin of Species was published.

I’m less confident MORT will ever be acknowledged as true because denial of denial is and must be the strongest form of denial. If denial is ever acknowledged by the herd, the whole house of cards that defines us will collapse. Of course it’s going to collapse eventually regardless, thanks to the laws of thermodynamics. But it’s too bad, tragic in fact, because with MORT awareness we could reduce future suffering, and retain more of our best accomplishments.

It’s also sad because MORT is the most important new idea since Darwin’s evolution by natural selection for explaining the existence of an extraordinarily rare type of life in the universe. Too many people drift through life without ever appreciating how amazing their existence is.

Varki concludes the paper by discussing the implications of his theory, and says that it’s time for legitimate fear-mongering.

I observe with some irony that the existential threats, besides climate change, that Varki lists are insignificant compared to the threats he does not mention, such as human overshoot and the depletion of low-cost non-renewable resources, and other limits to growth, that are currently roiling social unrest around the globe, and creating unsustainable debt growth, zero or negative interest rates, money printing, and a widening wealth gap.

Coda: Relevance to the Current Human Condition and the Future of Our Species.

The 2007 draft of Danny Brower’s incomplete manuscript that I modified and expanded into a co-authored book (Varki & Brower, 2013) included the following prescient observations: “We are polluting the earth and changing the climate in ways that we can’t predict, and likely at some point, can’t easily reverse. If we’re so smart, why do we continue to sow the seeds for our eventual destruction? Because we are saddled with a brain that is designed by selection to cope with the ultimate disaster (death) by denying that it will occur, and so we treat other impending disasters by denying that they will ever happen ……Indeed, it is arguable that we are destined ultimately to destroy ourselves as a species.”

Although many of our follies arising from reality denial can at least theoretically be eventually reversed, there are two that definitely cannot be turned back once they occur: global nuclear holocaust and anthropogenic climate change. Although not an expert on climate, discussions with such individuals lead me to the conclusion that the human-induced climate disruption is already occurring, and that absent major changes in current human behavior and/or human intervention there is a very high probability of irreversible global catastrophic climate disruption before mid-century (Gilding, 2012; Gore, 2007, 2013; Guterl, 2012; Hansen, Sato, & Ruedy, 2012; Mann, 2012; Wallace-Wells, 2019), i.e., a “climate holocaust.”

In other words, we are putting our children on an airplane with a very high probability of a catastrophic crash (McKibben, 2019; Rich, 2019). If this theory regarding the evolutionary origins of human reality denial is true, the first step to reversing the situation would seem to be a full awareness of our genetic tendency to reality denial by the media, and by our scientific and political leaders. Sadly, it is unlikely that rational discussion or scientific details will be sufficient to sway the average human to do what is right for the future of our species, let alone leaders who are focused on near-term political and economic goals.

The only solution then may be “legitimate fear-mongering ”! It is notable that it was such fear-mongering that once brought all the nations of the world together during the Cold War, to minimize the risk of a nuclear holocaust (Caldicott, 2017). The only other hope may be to combine fear with shame and guilt, imposed upon adult humans by adolescent school children, who can better imagine the dire future we are leaving them to face (Kjeldahl & Hendricks, 2019). As the 15-year-old Greta Thunberg said to the elites at Davos: “I want you to feel the fear I feel every day. And act as if your house is on fire. Because it is.” Of course, even if we manage to avoid catastrophic climate disruption, there are the other existential threats to our species that reality denial makes us prone to, such as widespread and indiscriminate applications of artificial intelligence (Müller, 2016) to the generation of “deep fake videos” (Stover, 2018) and other gross distortions of reality at a population-wide level.

If this theory turns out to be the correct explanation for the origin of the species, it might ironically also be now sowing the seeds of our demise.


Varki’s last sentence captures the essence of this blog:

un-Denial = unmasking denial: creator and destroyer


I am very grateful, and pleasantly surprised, that Varki credited me in his paper despite the fact that this blog will probably be viewed by his colleagues as a cave for doomer whack jobs. 🙂


I Want You to Panic

41 thoughts on “Ajit Varki: Our Only Hope is Legitimate Fear-Mongering”

  1. Here is some research that seems to support Varki’s MORT theory. The paper will be published next month.

    Avi Goldstein, a senior author on the paper, said: “This suggests that we shield ourselves from existential threats, or consciously thinking about the idea that we are going to die, by shutting down predictions about the self, or categorising the information as being about other people rather than ourselves.”

    These guys seem to be studying the elliptical motion of planets without being aware of the laws of gravitation. I make a prediction, based on MORT, that the researchers will not be aware of MORT, and if made aware, will continue to ignore MORT. Let’s see if they mention MORT in their citations.



    h/t James @ http://megacancer.com


    1. This got me thinking.

      Jung’s archetype of The Shadow is made up of the good and the bad that is denied about the self.

      Studying The Shadow is studying our denial mechanism.


  2. Congratulations for being credited in Varki’s paper. I have no idea if Varki’s theory is correct or not but it seems like a good an explanation for the lack of awareness for our predicament. I am a big fan of Tim Watkins but he has joined JH Kunstler in promoting alt-right conspiracy theories in his latest post: A Curious Lack of Imagination.


  3. Today the atheist’s rock star Richard Dawkins was interviewed by Joe Rogan.

    Rogan asks Dawkins at 4:23 why every civilization has had some form of religion? Dawkins doesn’t have a clue. Obviously Dawkins has not read Varki’s book, although I’ve asked him to do so on several occasions.

    Then at 32:00 they discuss how odd it is that atheists, despite their large numbers, are the only special interest group that does not wield any political power. And how odd it is that people will vote for a gay, or a black, or a woman, but not for an atheist. And how odd it is that people will vote for someone that believes in a different god than their own god, despite both gods demanding exclusivity. They speculate that the reason for these oddities is that people think moral behavior requires a belief in god. This explanation is also odd because the gods of our most popular religious texts are anything but what we would consider moral today.

    All of this strangeness makes perfect sense in the light of Varki’s MORT theory. Religions exist primarily to support our genetic need to deny mortality. If someone does not believe in god, that person subconsciously threatens our belief in life after death, and must be marginalized. I would add that most atheists seem to retain some form of “spirituality”, which if you dig into what that means, usually rests on the bedrock of some form of spirit after death.

    Varki’s MORT theory explains much of the strange water we swim in every day, and also explains why most can’t see the water.


    1. I identify as an atheist who retains some form of spirituality. Feel free to dig into that and see if you can find anything that rests on the bedrock of some form of spirit after death. I doubt you will. The abyss of death is real to me and its presence is felt everyday, like a background noise. But at the same time I have no problem living my (I would say happy) day-to-day life. I feel this has not much to do with denial (I feel no need to plaster over the reality of death), much more a question of focus. And the incomprehensibility of death. And the living of a gift.

      I enjoy reading your blog, but when it comes to MORT, often it seems that “If all you have is a hammer, the whole world looks like a nail”. MORT explains whatever you throw at it. If people (like Dawkins) only knew what you know, they would understand much better why things are the way they are. You might be right. But you might also be wrong. Explaining human traits through the lens of evolutionary biology seems to be a modern intellectual sport. But why would every human trait have to be explicable as an evolutionary advantage?

      Doesn’t the better grasp of humans of the immediate future over the far future explain just as much? At the very least, that allows for atheists like me to exist. Something that MORT doesn’t seem to do.


      1. Fair criticism. There are many other genetic behaviors that have contributed to our overshoot and inaction. I probably don’t talk about these enough, perhaps because I think (maybe incorrectly) that these behaviors couldn’t exist in an intelligent being unless they denied reality. For example, we instinctively place a higher value on short term rewards than long term rewards. If I logically explain to someone that this is destroying our planet, they will not change their behavior, meaning that instinct dominates intelligence. But how can instinct dominate intelligence unless reality is denied?

        So yes, I do believe denial is the keystone, which is also supported by religion’s simultaneous emergence with the explosion of behaviorally modern humans 1-200,000 years ago.

        The best chronicler of other destructive behaviors is probably Nate Hagens. I have posted some of his best work here: https://un-denial.com/?s=Nate+Hagens

        Another excellent source is James with his RNA model at http://megacancer.com/.

        Another is Dave Cohen with his Flatland model at https://www.declineoftheempire.com/.

        My comment about most atheists believing in some form of life after death spirit was based on my personal conversations with a small number of people. I probably should read what the literature says on this. Ajit Varki, above, I believe cited a paper supporting my claim.

        I am curious how you think a human trait can be explained without it being an evolutionary advantage? Please provide some examples.


        1. “If I logically explain to someone that this is destroying our planet, they will not change their behavior, meaning that instinct dominates intelligence.”

          I don’t think that’s a logical conclusion. I think a true understanding of something the size of ‘our planet’ is not something any human being can have. It’s just too big. ‘Our planet’ will never be more than a concept, will never be part of our reality. As I see it, humans are optimized for short term, short distance. To illustrate: I live near the sea, and one summer evening I sat gazing at the horizon. I think I can see a stretch of horizon roughly 50 kilometers wide, and I could see the slight curvature of the earth. When I tried to imagine how big the whole planet had to be for that almost imperceptible curvature to be part of a circle, my mind just stalled. This had nothing to do with my intelligence not being sufficient, or that I deny the planet exists, but purely with a scale my mind is not made to handle.

          “I do believe denial is the keystone, which is also supported by religion’s simultaneous emergence with the explosion of behaviorally modern humans.”

          The story of life after death (which is indeed a big part of religion) no doubt arises as soon as a certain threshold of consciousness is crossed. But I don’t think people came up with those stories because they realized what was really going on and felt the need to plaster that over. The incomprehensibility of death is a void that begs to be filled, and what better candidate than a perfect version of the life on earth? As there is no empirical way to prove or disprove any afterlife stories, those stories could become the reality for believers. Not to deny something, but to fill a void and integrate a defining part of the human condition in their lives.

          “I am curious how you think a human trait can be explained without it being an evolutionary advantage? Please provide some examples.”

          I’ll say right away I’m not an expert, but depression comes to mind. I did some reading and it seems Stephen Jay Gould already argued not everything that evolved is there for a specific reason. Some things might as well be byproducts. He mentions the human chin for instance, which according to him simply is a result of smaller jaws. It has no function of itself.


          1. I respectfully disagree.

            People who refuse to change their lifestyles when presented with hard facts do not refuse to do so because they do not understand the scale of the problem. They simply do not want to change and they make up reasons to carry on. Sometimes its outright denial of the problem. Other times its denial of the reality of their “solution”, like electric cars, solar panels, or carbon credits. There are hundreds of reasons people give for not changing.

            When we make stuff up it’s not a valid argument to defend it by saying it can’t be proved or disproved. Any assertion must be testable or you can’t make it. Our ancestors did not understand the scientific method, but today there is no excuse, other than reality denial.


            1. Disagreement welcomed, but I don’t feel you have made the case that the same denial is at the heart of everything you mention any stronger.

              For MORT to be true, it has to prove that that our ancestor’s reaction to emerging consciousness of their own mortality was first and foremost denial. Without that it falls apart. And I’m not sure if that was their reaction. Have a look at old sea maps. The oceans were filled with stories. But was that to deny the reality of the unknown depths of the ocean? No, that was what humans always do with unfathomable voids: They fill them with stories.

              Knowledge of the reality of death is a pretty modern phenomenon I would say, one of the results of the enlightenment. Only when it became plausible that the void of death was really a void, that was when clinging to the stories that worked for millennia and denial of that void became a strategy. You seem to agree with that in your last sentence. I think my crucial argument is that stories came first, denial second.

              I think the denial of the reality of climate change, societal collapse, etc. have different causes than the denial of the reality of death. It has more to do with a scale the human mind is not made for, both in time and distance. Another factor is that modern humans, especially in the rich countries, have much invested in the fragile vestige of order that we call society. It keeps us safe from many of the (we would now say trivial!) dangers that threatened our ancestors, and it allows us to build personalities with rich histories and rich futures. Asking people to let go of that would be like asking you to let go of MORT 🙂


              1. “…. but I don’t feel you have made the case that the same denial is at the heart of everything you mention any stronger.”

                To be more precise: “Same denial” = That every form of denial has the same evolutionary underpinning.


              2. MORT can’t prove anything yet. It is a theory that best explains the existing facts. Someday I expect neuroscience will find the change in the brain that enabled behaviorally modern humans and I predict it will be consistent with MORT. Until then we need to look for better theories, and for any facts that slay MORT.

                MORT hypothesizes that the method evolution selected to denial mortality resulted in us denying all unpleasant realities. Denial of reality was a side effect that evolution could not easily avoid, but the advantages of denying mortality outweighed the disadvantages of denying all unpleasant realities.

                Behaviors consistent with denial of death (burial with wealth) emerged simultaneous with behaviorally modern humans. Early tribes spent all of their surplus wealth on structures related to denial of death. No other species does this. Denial of death is central and unique to humans.

                I agree our species creates stories to fill voids. Every tribe created a story (religion). When I look at these thousands of religions I see only one common denominator. They all have a life after death story. None that I can find simply says the lights go out forever.

                I wrote more about this here:



                1. Atheism says the lights go out forever. If you can, please link me to that paper Varki uses to support the claim that all atheists believe in some form of life after death. Almost all of my friends are atheist, and none of them belief that.

                  Definitely not conclusive, but I found some numbers in a research conducted for a Dutch (quality) newspaper in 2015: 25% of the participants identified as atheist, 17% as believers, and only 53% of all participants believed in life after death. According to MORT, the natural reaction to the knowledge of one’s mortality is denial. For you, that means clinging to a life after death. Unfortunately 47% of the Dutch population don’t fit into that narrative. And you’ll probably find similar numbers all over Europe.

                  MORT stands or falls with a simple question: Does knowledge of one’s own mortality automatically lead to denial of the reality of death? As far as I can see, the answer is no.


                  1. “MORT stands or falls with a simple question: Does knowledge of one’s own mortality automatically lead to denial of the reality of death? As far as I can see, the answer is no.”

                    The requirement for denial of death with mortality awareness only applies to the early years of evolved awareness when there is no cultural context or understanding of death. Only one species is aware of it’s mortality and only one species tends to deny death. MORT explains why this is the case.

                    Some people today of course accept the reality of death. Nevertheless it is fascinating that new religions, like scientology, continue to create life after death stories. Check out Wikipedia’s list of modern religions for more examples.

                    Have you read the paper by Varki that is this subject of this post? It provides the complete argument for MORT by Varki. I am not as smart as Varki, nor am I trained as a biologist, so I probably do his theory a disservice. In addition, I freely admit to focussing on aspects of the theory that I find satisfying such as explaining why most humans have whacky beliefs, and why we can drive at high speed towards an obvious cliff without noticing or discussing whether we should apply brakes. Varki focuses on the more important core of MORT which is to explain the singular emergence of a very unique species.

                    If I said that all atheists are spiritual then I stand corrected. I meant to say most. Again, this is based on limited observations in my own life, not research. Here is the relevant section from the paper:

                    But religion appears to be a well-established near universal only in human cultures and there are many obvious fitness advantages that have been discussed by others (Bering, 2011; Boyer, 2001, 2008; Churchland, 2011; Dennett, 2006; Maser & Gallup, 1990; McCauley, 2011; Norenzayan & Shariff, 2008; Schloss & Murray, 2010; Shermer, 2012; Wade, 2009; Wilson, 2002). But most of these advantages should not require a belief in life after death. Nevertheless, almost all religions have at their core some form of such afterlife beliefs, which would serve as another mechanism to blunt the impact of mortality salience. Of course, atheists do not live in constant fear of their mortality (Dawkins, 2008; Harris, 2005; Hitchens, 2009), so the underlying reality denial appears to be the primary mechanism.

                    Here is what Wikipedia says about people without religions in the US.


                    According to Mark Chaves’ review of General Social Survey data, of people who were not religious, 88% considered themselves as at least moderately spiritual.[47]


                    1. “The requirement for denial of death with mortality awareness only applies to the early years of evolved awareness when there is no cultural context or understanding of death.”

                      I think you make a classic mistake about atheism there. Atheism is not a belief system. It’s nothing more than a lack of belief in a higher power: life on earth is all we have. In that sense it’s a return to a pre-religious state (what you call the early years), not a system which is the result of some evolved cultural awareness. And it’s certainly not the result of the understanding of death, whatever that may mean. Nobody understands death, it’s out of bounds for the human mind.

                      “If I said that all atheists are spiritual then I stand corrected. I meant to say most.”

                      You said “most atheists believe in some form of life after death”. Twice. Which I think is nonsense. Now it’s “most atheists are spiritual”. That’s something different. Being spiritual does not have to mean you believe in some form of afterlife. As I said, I identify as a spiritual atheist, but that doesn’t mean I believe in anything beyond this world. I live by the lines of Mervyn Peake: To live at all is miracle enough. I think most atheists use “spiritual” for lack of a better word, not to indicate they believe in some reality beyond the tangible. My hunch is that most atheists would call themselves spiritual (for lack of a better word), but almost none of them believe in an afterlife. Which proves humans (in the Netherlands 47% of the population) can handle mortality salience without much problems. There is no need for reality denial.

                      “Nevertheless it is fascinating that new religions, like scientology, continue to create life after death stories.”

                      Of course religions have life after death stories. They’re essential. But in my opinion afterlife stories are not central to religions. Central is the ‘better world” story. Every religion at its core denounces life on earth. Earthly life means suffering, sins, work, problems, sorrow, mourning, illness, taxes, death. So they invent a higher reality where all is good. Then they add stories that describe that higher reality, and give instructions for how to reach that higher reality. Of course, that higher reality can not be reached while alive (otherwise life would be good after all), so you will have to wait after you die. But if death means you don’t exist anymore, then the whole story falls apart. So you get life after death as well, it’s an essential byproduct.

                      You could say that replacing the “afterlife” story with the “better world” story is just putting a different face on reality denial, but I don’t think it is. In my opinion, the main function of religion is not to deny the reality of death, it’s to give people hope in their day-to-day life. Hence it’s no surprise that atheism develops in a modern world where life in general is pretty comfortable. And it also follows that if our current problems turn ugly, we’ll see a huge rise in religiousness again. Not because all of a sudden people realize they have to deny death again, but because the situation asks for hope.


                    2. We seem to be using different definitions for spiritual. I define it as the belief in anything that is not supported by science, which is why I associate spiritually with reality denial. I don’t care if my definition is technically wrong, it’s consistent with the spiritual people that I observe.

                      “Nobody understands death, it’s out of bounds for the human mind.”
                      Speak for yourself. I understand fully. Maybe that’s because I’m not spiritual.

                      “Of course religions have life after death stories. They’re essential.”
                      Essential for what?

                      On whether the central point is life after death or hope for a better life I think you’re splitting hairs. Of course nobody prays for a heaven where they return as a malnourished slave.

                      “In my opinion, the main function of religion is not to deny the reality of death, it’s to give people hope in their day-to-day life. ”
                      That might be true if only unhappy struggling people believed in life after death. But we both know that happy comfortable people also believe in life after death.

                      Have you read Varki’s paper?


                2. Hello, Rob. this is my first comment post. Thank your for your outstanding efforts with MORT and the other exceptionally important topics you’ve presented, and clarified, here. I really appreciate it!

                  I don’t know if MORT will ultimately, if ever, be determined valid, but I wonder if maybe you’re conflating denial of death with belief in afterlife. These seem to me to be two different mental processes that don’t require one another for their (desired) outcomes. Denial of death isn’t necessary to want or to believe in an afterlife, is it? Isn’t it possible to not deny death, to accept it, but still to want or to believe in an afterlife? If so, MORT may need to be modified to include other potential factors. Possibly including Mike Mos’s suggestion that the need for stories (fantasies) to counter the extreme harshness of human existence may be a critical component.

                  I must also say that the vast majority of atheists I know well DON’T believe in an afterlife and readily acknowledge and accept the imminent reality of death. In fact, they mostly tell me they think that there is most likely nothing (void) after death. Most definitions of atheism indicate this as well. I, myself, am agnostic and agree with Mike that one can know nothing of death (itself, when it actually happens, and what happens (or doesn’t) afterward) as once one experiences it one will be dead and no longer able to explain or otherwise report on what it involves.

                  Again, much appreciation for all of your work here! And for guiding me to other mindblowing websites such as Surplus Energy Economics, Megacancer, and the work of Nate Hagens. I intend to continue reading un-denial and learning from, and with you, and the others commenting. 😊


                  1. Thanks for stopping by. I’ll accept there may be a lot of atheists that do not believe in life after death. It doesn’t change Varki’s thesis because he’s considering behaviors that existed 1-200,000 years ago when behaviorally modern humans emerged. Nor does it affect this blog which focusses on the fact that 99% of humans, atheist or not, deny human overshoot and are driving us off an obvious cliff.


            2. One last point:

              “People who refuse to change their lifestyles when presented with hard facts do not refuse to do so because they do not understand the scale of the problem.”

              Could you please tell me why you are so sure of this? I tried to argue that there are scales beyond human comprehension, and to me ‘our planet’ is in that realm. You simply reply that’s not true and shift the focus so that people’s inaction is once again 100% due to conscious denial. That’s not very convincing.


              1. Most climate scientists, environmental activists, and political leaders set bad examples with high carbon discretionary lifestyles like long distance travel. No one calls for policies to reduce the population and consumption of citizens.

                These people are well educated on the threat. They do not behave badly because the scale is beyond their comprehension. I’ll concede that they might not all be in denial, it’s possible they’re hypocrites and/or simply don’t give a shit.

                During his 8 years in office, Obama, who claimed to be concerned about climate change, spent about $90 million on long distance family vacations.

                There are a few people setting good examples, like Kevin Anderson, but they are scarce.


  4. This is going to take some reading and thinking so no real comments to make. I bookmarked the Dawkins interview from a Facebook post this morning for later reading. I hope I can stay awake tonight for long enough to get through it all. I love the ‘doomer whack jobs’ comment 🙂
    I’ve noticed that while I’m not in denial about most of the big things, I can be in denial about others (generally personal issues involving other people). I’m trying to work out where that comes from.
    Dawkins’ ignorance on so much evolutionary biology stuff always throws me.


  5. Bill Gates exposes one of the most important realities that we deny: energy.

    h/t Gail Tverberg @https://ourfiniteworld.com/2019/10/24/how-renewable-energy-models-can-produce-misleading-indications/


  6. There are a few people out there that understand what’s going on with energy and the economy, like Tim Morgan, but none understand or talk about genetic reality denial.


    With the Fed now pouring tens of billions into the system on a daily basis, China apparently doing similar, the ECB seemingly paralysed like a rabbit staring into headlights, and the whole ‘unicorn’ nonsense starting to unravel, I doubt if we have enough years of tranquility/stability to operate even a three-year plan. Unrest seems to be spreading around the world, including countries that normally are pretty stable.

    The real problem is that decision-makers still don’t get it. They tried credit adventurism, and it failed. Then they tried monetary adventurism, and that is now in end-game. They still believe in the mantra of perpetual “growth”. Even those who recognise the importance of energy don’t understand its role in the economy – and seem to believe in a seamless transition to renewables.

    What we’re witnessing is incomprehension – the bafflement caused by the failure of prior assumptions. One of these is that ‘everyone keeps getting more prosperous, so nobody minds a tiny minority becoming ever richer’.

    This and similar paradigms are over – but decisions are being made in ignorance of this fact.

    h/t James @ Megacancer.com


  7. Tim Morgan again, this time with a nice analogy to explain what’s going on with depletion of low-cost energy:


    Another (if quirky) way to look at this might be to think of a person who, every morning, walks to a forest and picks 100 nuts. He then carries them home in a sack.

    But this sack is wearing out. One year, an average of two nuts fall out of the sack and are lost. Next year, five nuts fall out – and, next year, eight. He still picks 100 nuts, but his ‘prosperity’ has fallen from 98 to 92, even though we could say that his ‘productivity’ (the number of nuts picked) hasn’t.


  8. Nobody has a better handle on our global financial bubble than Doug Nolan. He writes an excellent newsletter like this once a week. And yet, if you pay attention, he has no clue what the underlying cause is. Question: How is it possible that so many smart people don’t understand limits to growth and overshoot? Answer: It’s not possible without the denial of reality explained by Varki’s MORT theory.

    Any central bank head that passes through an eight-year term without once raising rates has some explaining to do. To leave monetary policy extremely loose for such an extended period comes with major consequences (can we at least agree on that?). So, what went wrong? How did policy measures not operate as expected? With the benefit of hindsight, what could have been done differently?



  9. Tim Watkins on the hole in our bucket…

    Lotte can’t see this, of course. If the wind turbine stops working, she tells Hans, “You just have to replace it”. But Hans objects, “Where will we get the steel and the concrete for the base? Where will we get the plastic for the blades?” Lotte suggests that Hans finds a steelworks, a cement works and a plastic factory. But Hans points out that since all three were part of the oil infrastructure that we replaced; and since none of these materials can be made without the fossil fuel feedstock or the heat that only fossil fuels can generate, the only way to manufacture them is with the fossil fuels that we need to – and ultimately will have no choice but to – cease using.

    The song about Lotte and Hans was anglicised in the twentieth century, and became a nursery rhyme that most English-speaking children will have sung at some point in their upbringing. For the English version, Lotte and Hans were replaced with the American Lisa and Henry. The song – There’s a hole in my bucket – sets out precisely why too narrow an assessment of the problem can make simple – but wrong – pseudo-solutions appear plausible. Henry cannot fix the hole in his bucket because he has no straw; he can’t cut the straw because his knife is too blunt; he can’t sharpen the knife because the grindstone is too dry; and, of course, he cannot wet the grindstone because there’s a hole in his bucket…



  10. Tom Whipple is good today.

    The news from the shale oil industry continues to be gloomy. Financing is running dry for large portions of the US shale oil industry, forcing drillers into bankruptcy and threatening the industry’s growth. The financial reckoning has been a long time coming. In the aftermath of the 2014-15 oil price crash, US oil and gas producers managed to raise $56.6 billion from equity and debt capital markets in 2016. This year they have raised just $19.4 billion, even though US oil production has grown by more than a third in the past three years.

    The first- and third-largest oilfield service companies in the world saw their earnings hit in the third quarter due to the slowdown in US shale drilling. Schlumberger took a $12.7 billion impairment charge related to its North American business, a rather dramatic write-down. That led to an $11.4 billion loss for the quarter, the largest in the company’s history. Halliburton also saw its earnings hit by the slowdown in shale drilling and the oilfield services giant shifted its focus to international markets as the signs of a shale rebound do not appear to be imminent.



  11. Replying here, as it seems we’ve reached the maximum number of nested replies.

    “We seem to be using different definitions for spiritual.”

    Definitely. To choose a word that you might better understand, you could say I’m a ‘poetic’ atheist. This doesn’t even begin to capture what I refer to with ‘spiritual’, but for the sake of conversation it will have to do. Like you, I don’t believe there’s anything outside of the observable, but I quite often experience what Freud has called ‘the oceanic feeling’: A full realization of the miracle that is life, so awe-inspiring that the mind stalls and boundaries dissolve. All of this can be perfectly explained by science, just as science can explain being in love. But that doesn’t diminish the feeling. In discussions with friends who have similar experiences, we always run into the problem that the only place where we can find words to describe what we experience, is in the religious traditions. So I have no problem calling myself spiritual.

    You can define ‘spiritual’ any way you want. But the next time you read that x% of unbelievers consider themselves spiritual, don’t assume they mean ‘spiritual’ as you define it, with afterlife and all. As I said, most call themselves spiritual for lack of a better word.

    “Speak for yourself. I understand [death] fully. Maybe that’s because I’m not spiritual.”

    Just out of curiosity… Life holds no mystery for you either?

    “Of course religions have life after death stories. They’re essential.”
    Essential for what? On whether the central point is life after death or hope for a better life I think you’re splitting hairs. Of course nobody prays for a heaven where they return as a malnourished slave.

    Essential to get people to the better world, which is always located outside of time and space. Exactly where people go when they die.

    And I’m pretty sure I’m not splitting hairs. It really is a question of what comes first. And I think the afterlife is just a part of the ‘better world’ story, not the other way around. As you probably know, religions don’t just set out to solve the problem of death, their ambitions go far beyond that. Notice for instance that the basic tenet of Buddhism is “All life is suffering”. It’s not “Death needs to be conquered”. Buddhism wants to solve all suffering, not just the suffering that people feel because of death. Hence the ‘better world’, which in Buddhism is Nirvana, reached after a series of painful reincarnations. I willing to bet that a religion that only promises life after death won’t get many followers. You almost make it sound as if the rest of a religion is just there for decoration.

    “But we both know that happy comfortable people also believe in life after death.”

    “Unhappy struggling people” and “happy comfortable people” are caricatures. Nobody is only happy or unhappy. Even what you call comfortable happy people will have loved ones who die, doubt, illness, climate catastrophe, etc.

    “Have you read Varki’s paper?”

    I’ve skimmed it, but I have no intention to read it completely. Firstly, I’m not really interested in the details of evolution. And secondly, it is still a very theoretical paper, with a lot of details left to be researched. On page 116 for example, Varki talks about how it seems reasonable to assume the emergence of a full theory of mind leads to mortality salience, which may in turn result in a reduction of evolutionary fitness. This is a crucial step for MORT, but observe how there is not a single reference in that paragraph. It’s all conjecture, which needs to be further investigated. When that’s done, I might have a look.

    The thing that triggered me to react in this thread wasn’t Varki’s paper. It was the certainly with which you lambasted many subjects for not seeing that MORT explains everything. Richard Dawkins: No clue. Tim Morgan: OK, but no clue about the genetics. Doug Nolan: Excellent, but no clue. I don’t think Varki’s paper warrants such certainty.


    1. “I’ve skimmed it, but I have no intention to read it completely. Firstly, I’m not really interested in the details of evolution.”

      I think we’ve completed this conversation. This blog is for people interested in human evolution. Nice talking to you.


  12. I have that same uncomfortable feeling I had in 2007 – just a lot worse. The global financial system is self-destructing. Reckless monetary policies have inflamed late-cycle excess. I believe the scope of speculative leverage is much greater these days – on a global basis. The Fed in 2007 (and into ’08) extended a dangerous mortgage finance Bubble. Central bankers these days are prolonging catastrophic global financial and economic Bubbles. The global economy is much more fragile today, with a faltering Chinese Bubble posing an Extraordinary risk. Highly synchronized global financial Bubbles are a risk much beyond 2008. Moreover, central bankers have used precious resources to sustain Bubbles, ensuring much greater fragilities will be countered by limited policy capabilities.

    We will now await the catalyst for an inevitable bout of de-risking/deleveraging. There could be a few Lehmans lurking out there – in Asia if I was placing odds. China remains an accident in the making, with another ominous week in Chinese Credit (see “China Watch”). And near the top of my list of possible catalysts would be a surge in global yields. Sinking bond prices are problematic for highly leveraged holdings. Indeed, it is no coincidence that “repo” market issues erupted the week following a sharp reversal in market yields.



  13. This guy provides the best explanation I have seen for why nothing makes sense in the stock market today. He explains why stock prices are rising for large companies despite poor financial performance. He explains why ETFs are outperforming the best portfolio managers. He explains why the growth assumptions of pension funds are wrong. He observes that interest rates have never been this low in 5000 years, but as usual, has no clue why.

    What could go wrong?


  14. Faster and faster, in the wrong direction…

    How Scientists Got Climate Change So Wrong
    “Few thought it would arrive so quickly. Now we’re facing consequences once viewed as fringe scenarios.”


  15. New report on shale oil by David Hughes…

    Although there is no doubt that the U.S. can produce substantial amounts of shale gas and tight oil over the short- and medium-term, unrealistic long-term forecasts are a disservice to planning a viable long-term energy strategy. The best-case scenario to meet the EIA AEO2019 reference case forecast requires drilling 1,451,771 wells at a cost of $9.5 trillion over the 2017-2050 period.

    The fact that all U.S. tight oil resources would be consumed by 2050 in this best-case scenario, assuming that the EIA estimates of proven reserves plus unproved resources are correct, should be extremely troubling for long term energy security planning and policy development. And given the extremely optimistic nature of most of the EIA’s play-level forecasts, it is by no means assured that even this much oil and gas can be produced. Assuming that production will remain at high levels after 2050 is wishful thinking.

    The “shale revolution” has sparked calls for “American energy dominance”—despite the fact that the U.S. is projected to be a net oil importer through 2050, even given EIA forecasts. Although the “shale revolution” has provided a reprieve from what just 15 years ago was thought to be a terminal decline in oil and gas production in the U.S., this reprieve is temporary, and the U.S. would be well advised to plan for much-reduced shale oil and gas production in the long term based on this analysis of play fundamentals. That is without factoring in any mandates to reduce greenhouse gas emissions or the economics of renewable energy sources. If U.S. energy policy actually reflected the need to mitigate climate change—which the international community mandated in 2016 through the Paris Agreement —the EIA’s forecasts for tight oil and shale gas production through 2050 make even less sense.


    Commentary on the report by Asher Miller…



  16. Notice that Powell does not mention thermodynamics or falling net energy. The idiots running our world don’t have a clue what’s going on and/or they’re in denial.

    Fed Chairman Jerome Powell suggested to lawmakers on Thursday that low interest rates might be a permanent part of the economic landscape.

    “We’re in a world of much lower interest rates,” he told members of the House Budget Committee. “That seems to be driven by long-run structural things and there’s not a lot of reason to think that will change.’



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