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?”
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:
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:
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:
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. 🙂