Awareness of Death

The central idea behind Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition theory (MORT) is that awareness of death creates a barrier to evolving a more powerful brain, and humans are the only species so far to have broken through this barrier, about 100,000 years ago, by simultaneously evolving denial of reality. Two maladaptive behaviors, awareness of death enabled by an extended theory of mind and denial of reality, when improbably combined, become highly adaptive, and in a geologic blink, humans dominated all other life.

This elegant theory fits all known data, and no known data slays it. For curious students of odd human behaviors that conflict with rational intelligence, like denial of overshoot and religion, and other hard to explain human evolutionary singularities, the MORT theory is deeply satisfying. I listed my reasons for MORT enthusiasm here.

In March 2017 the Center for Academic Research & Training in Anthropogeny (CARTA) held a symposium on awareness of death at which Dr. Varki presented his theory. Included in the symposium documents was a compilation of quotations on awareness of death which I found interesting and therefore present here.

What we have here are observations by some smart people on the profundity of human awareness of death, yet none of them were able to devise a scientific theory to explain their observations.

Just as with evolution by natural selection, which in hindsight seems obvious but required Darwin to explain it, someday Mind Over Reality Transition will seem obvious and Varki will be recognized for a great leap forward in science.

Unless of course the implications of the theory prevent the theory from being understood. 🙂

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Reality Denial Harm Prevention: A Proposal for Screening and Licensing

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All 7 billion humans originated from one small tribe of hominids in Africa about 100,000 years ago. Despite their close relatedness individuals are born with considerable genetic variation in physical and mental characteristics. Examples of genetic variation include height, weight, strength, speed, eyesight, intelligence, aptitudes, demeanour, sexual orientation, dietary tolerance, disease susceptibility, addiction tendency, mental health, and longevity.

The laws and practices of most countries have acknowledged that genetic variation exists and that certain levels of variation can be harmful to society, or may prevent the individual from performing certain tasks. Examples include:

  • Most professions such as engineering, medicine, science, and law implicitly screen candidates for adequate intelligence and aptitude with challenging university entrance and degree requirements, exams, and professional certifications.
  • Airline pilots, air traffic controllers, train engineers, and truck drivers are required to have vision acuity and color vision above a minimum level.
  • Law enforcement, firefighting, and some military roles require adequate strength and agility to perform the work.
  • Many professional sports require a minimum speed, height, weight, or strength.
  • Many employers screen for substance abuse which is known to have a genetic predisposition.

A recent scientific breakthrough by Varki and Brower shows that the behaviorly modern human brain was enabled about 100,000 years ago by a simultaneous mutation for an extended theory of mind and denial of reality.

Denial of reality is therefore central to the behavior of most humans, and is characterized by a tendency to deny the reality of anything unpleasant, regardless of evidence or science. As with other genetic characteristics like color blindness, the level and type of reality denial varies widely in the population from benign to dangerous.

Benign forms of reality denial may benefit or harm the individual, but rarely do serious harm to society, future generations, or other species. Examples of benign reality denial include:

  • Belief in a god that promises life after death.
  • Unhealthy lifestyles and diets.
  • Use of mind altering substances.
  • Wacky beliefs like miracles, fate, luck, conspiracy theories, and UFOs.

Dangerous forms of reality denial, on the other hand, often benefit the individual or society in the short-term, but cause severe mid and long-term harm to society, future generations, and other species. Examples of dangerous reality denial include:

  • Denial of human overshoot.
  • Denial of species decline and extinction, and damage to ecosystems.
  • Denial of climate change severity, actions required to make the future less bad, and personal responsibility.
  • Denial of many limits to growth, including some imminent threats like low-cost oil depletion.
  • Denial of the implications of excessive debt and low interest rates.

Clearly, the risks and potential harm from genetic variation associated with reality denial, which for example could cause the collapse of civilization or extinction of many species, far exceed the risks and potential harm from the already regulated genetic variations, like vision accuracy, which could cause a fatal surgery mistake or a plane to crash.

We should therefore urgently act on the recent discovery of Varki and Brower and pass laws to screen and license people before they are permitted to function in roles inappropriate for certain levels of reality denial.

Upon reaching the legal age of consent, all citizens should be assessed for their inherited level of reality denial using a scale from 0 to 6 as follows:

  • full reality acceptance (0)
  • benign reality denial: low (1), medium (2), high (3)
  • dangerous reality denial: low (4), medium (5), high (6)

The screening process would include a review of activities in the community, social media, interviews with teachers and acquaintances, and a written examination.

The process would focus on assessing the strength of the following beliefs:

  • There are no limits to growth.
  • Green growth is better.
  • Technology is the solution to all problems including energy.
  • There are two sides to the climate change debate.
  • We must increase food production to keep pace with population growth.
  • iPhones, the internet, and Tesla are more important innovations than Haber-Bosch, concrete, and the diesel engine.
  • I’ve already done enough by shopping with a reusable bag.

In the future as brain scanning technologies improve, it is expected that the screening process will be replaced with a quick and inexpensive brain scan that will detect activity in the region of the brain responsible for reality denial.

Upon completion the individual will be issued an official government identification card stating the level of reality denial that they were born with.

Critical occupations and activities in society may not be filled or conducted by anyone exceeding a specified level of reality denial. Examples of maximum allowed levels include:

  • right to vote (3)
  • right to run for elected office (2)
  • right to make political donations (3)
  • senior position in any company (3)
  • senior position in government (2)
  • teachers and professors (1)

Please contact your elected representatives and make them aware of the new science associated with reality denial and lobby for this vital extension to existing harm prevention laws and practices.

By Vaclav Smil: Energy Revolution? More like a Crawl

Vaclav Smil is an intelligent, wise, and knowledgeable expert on a wide range of scientific and social topics related to energy. He is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and is a respected author of many books.

In this September 2015 talk at McGill University he touches on many important topics including:

  • We are a fossil fuel civilization and will remain so for a long time.
  • Over the last 25 years we have reduced our dependence on fossil energy by only 3%.
  • Power density is critical when comparing energy alternatives.
  • Renewable energy is not renewable and does not have the density to replace fossil energy.
  • Green products are not green.
  • Nuclear energy is dead. What’s left is being developed in the wrong places.
  • CO2 capture is not a solution for climate change.
  • Developed countries do not use energy rationally. Canada (and the U.S.) are the worst offenders in the world.
  • Food and energy have never been cheaper and we should expect to pay a lot more in the future.
  • The solution to reducing waste and energy consumption is higher prices.
  • Innovation is an overvalued and exaggerated topic. All of the critical technologies civilization depends on were invented over 100 years ago.
  • There are more important issues to worry about than peak oil including water scarcity, money printing, low interest rates, and high youth unemployment.
  • Most big events in history were unexpected. We can expect surprises in the future.
  • Reasons for hope include the peaceful breakup of the Soviet Union, and the fact that we can have comfortable lives at a much lower level of consumption.

I agree with almost all of Smil’s points except:

  • Smil believes we are unable to accurately predict the effect of rising CO2 and therefore he is not worried about climate change. I’ve done enough reading of climate science to be confident we should be very worried.  While we are not able to precisely predict the outcome, the probable outcome of our current path ranges from dangerous to catastrophic.
  • Smil believes that with fracking and other technology improvements we will have plentiful oil for at least a hundred years. I think we will have energy shortages within 10 years. Our different views are probably rooted in different assumptions about the link between energy and the economy. Smil thinks any oil shortages will increase the price of oil thus enabling new and more expensive sources. I think rising oil prices will reduce worker productivity and incomes which will make more expensive oil unaffordable and therefore supply will reduce in an escalating feedback loop as inexpensive oil is depleted. I also think that oil depletion and consequent rising production costs are the main cause of rising debt, money printing, and low interest rates that Smil worries about.

This lecture is a must watch for people seeking to understand the issues that really matter to our experiment with civilization.

By Tim Morgan: Why Mr. Trump can’t raise American prosperity

A must read by the brilliant Tim Morgan.

https://surplusenergyeconomics.wordpress.com/2017/09/05/104-why-mr-trump-cant-raise-american-prosperity/

Essentially, two things are happening to the average American. First, his or her income is rising less rapidly than the cost of essentials, squeezing the “discretionary” income which is the real definition of prosperity. Second, increases in income are being far exceeded by increases in debt, and also by growing shortfalls in pension provision. So the citizen feels both less prosperous and less secure.

As SEEDS measures it, per capita prosperity was 10% lower in 2016 than it was back in 2000. Neither is this trend likely to reverse – by 2025, the average American is likely to have seen his or her prosperity decline by a further 8% in comparison with 2016. At the same time, per capita debt has increased by almost $54,000, in real terms, since 2000, a problem now being compounded by a rapidly-growing systemic shortfall in pension provision.

‘Conventional’ economics cannot capture any of this. A perspective which ignores both “borrowed consumption” and the trend cost of energy is baffled by popular discontent, in America and elsewhere. Moreover, ‘conventional’ analysis tends to be misled by the apparently-buoyant values of stocks, bonds and property. These values are misleading, because they cannot be monetized – the only buyers for homes, for example, are the same people to whom they already belong.

For as long as these issues are overlooked, popular anger is likely to go on taking ‘the experts’ by surprise.

 

The concept of prosperity needs to be understood clearly. Prosperity is not simply the size of someone’s income. Rather, it is the sum left over after essentials have been paid for. This means that prosperity equates to “discretionary” income, which is the sum that he or she can choose how to spend.

The fundamentally energy-based nature of all output creates a natural distinction between “two economies” – the real economy of goods and services, and the financial economy of money and credit. Used properly, the financial system can deliver many benefits. Equally, though, it can be harmful, if it diverges too far from the real economy.

The potential for harm is simple. Money functions only as a “claim” on goods and services, which really makes it a claim on surplus energy. Likewise, since credit is a claim on future money, it is really a claim on future energy.

Financial “claims” – money and credit – can be manufactured out of thin air, and we can create as many of these claims as we like. But, if we create claims that exceed what the real economy can deliver, the excess cannot be honoured. Therefore, it must be destroyed. Inflation is one way of doing this, though default is another.

 

America is by no means unique in experiencing downwards pressure on prosperity – the same is happening in many other countries, often more severely than in the United States.

The problems posed for America are twofold. First, the deterioration in prosperity makes it impossible for the President to improve the material prosperity of the average American – in attempting to do so, he is about as powerless as was King Canute when he tried to turn back the tide.

Second, the use of cheap money to ‘manufacture’ nominal economic growth is already creating an escalating level of forward risk. Just as Americans are getting less prosperous, they are also becoming ever more indebted, and face ever greater insecurity as provision for pensions deteriorates.

The time cannot be too far off, for America as for the world more generally, where the future (represented by the collective balance sheet) overwhelms the present.

Why my interest in denial?

I’ve been aware of our overshoot predicament for a decade and have moved on from studying specific aspects of human overshoot. 

What fascinates me now is our collective denial and inability to discuss or act on overshoot, despite some threats being imminent.

I used to believe denial was caused by a lack of awareness and understanding, but having made an effort to educate many people, and observing that they almost always aggressively choose not to understand, I began to look for a different explanation.

I concluded that denial must be an inherited behavior because every country, culture, political party, and religion is in denial. And denial must be central to who we are as a species because of its depth, breadth, and aggressiveness.

A few years ago I stumbled on Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition theory and a light went on. Varki’s theory provides the most simple, logical, plausible, and probable answer to the big questions that demand an answer:

  1. Why has no other species achieved our brain power despite common evolutionary forces and fitness advantages? Other advantageous inventions, like the eye, evolved several times, yet our brain, which is so advantageous it enabled us to take over the planet, has evolved only once.
  2. Why did the technology and culture of hominids stall for over a million years until somethng happened in one small tribe in Africa about 100,000 years ago?
  3. Why did all 7 billion of us emerge from one small tribe in Africa? And why did that tribe replace the many other similar hominid species?
  4. What genetic change occurred about 100,000 years ago that must be both modest in complexity and extreme in effect to explain the explosive emergence and dominance of behaviorally modern humans?
  5. Why do most people deny the many obvious dimensions of human overshoot like over-population, climate change, sea level rise, peak oil, resource depletion, soil loss, aquifer depletion, nitrogen imbalance, species extinction, fisheries collapse, and ocean acidification?
  6. Why do many people deny personal health realities like smoking, poor diet, lack of exercise, and obesity?
  7. Why do people who are aware of denial (like myself) deny the cancer risk of red meat? 🙂
  8. Why do many people deny scientific realities like evolution, climate change, thermodynamics, vaccine utility, and the improbability of UFOs?
  9. Why do most people deny economic realities like the impossibility of infinite growth on a finite planet, unsustainable debt, and asset bubbles?
  10. Why do many people choose to believe fake news, like the Russians are to blame?
  11. Why do many people seek to avoid all forms of reality with mind altering drugs?
  12. Why do democratic elections never discuss, or debate, or even whisper about, the issues associated with overshoot? What could be more important to vote on?
  13. Why don’t environmental political parties, like the Green party, have overshoot policies in their platforms?
  14. Why do experts commonly and aggressively ignore or deny the most important (and unpleasant) facts associated with their domain? Economics, climate change, renewable energy, and nutrition being notorious examples.
  15. Why do people who understand climate change rarely modify their lifestyles to reduce CO2 emissions?
  16. Why are humans the only species with religions?
  17. Why did religions emerge simultaneous with the behaviorally modern human brain?
  18. Why has every human group everywhere through all history had some form of religion?
  19. Why does every one of the thousands of religions think it is the only (or most) true religion?
  20. Why does every religion, including new religions like Scientology, have a life after death story? Many aspects of religion can be easily explained by their positive affect on group survival, but it is not easy to explain why every religion denies death with a life after death story. A few random religions with life after death stories might be reasonable, but not every religion, unless the need for a life after death story has a genetic basis.
  21. Why do many atheists retain some form of spirituality which usually includes a belief in some form of life after death?

A good place to go next is You know you are in trouble when…

By Alice Friedemann: Big Fight: 21 top scientists show why Jacobson and Delucchi’s renewable scheme is a delusional fantasy

This summary by Alice Friedemann of a dispute in the scientific community over the viability of renewable energy is excellent and worth reading in its entirety.

What really stands out for me is that the 21 scientists that criticized the absurdly optimistic renewable energy plan of Jacobson and Delucchi completely missed the most important points that require criticism.

It is amazing that otherwise intelligent experts frequently ignore THE most important things they should understand.

Other examples include:

  • economists who ignore debt and the relationship between energy and wealth;
  • climate scientists who ignore the relationship between CO2 and wealth;
  • dietary health experts who ignore the link between sugar and obesity;
  • environmentalists who ignore over-population;
  • citizens who believe in life after death and deny other unpleasant facts.

This denial behavior is so common and so powerful that it requires an explanation like Varki’s Mind Over Reality theory.

http://energyskeptic.com/2017/big-fight-21-top-scientists-show-why-jacobson-and-delucchis-renewable-scheme-is-a-delusional-fantasy/

Many authors have been writing for years about why Jacobson and Delucchi’s (J & D) plans for a 100% low-cost renewable energy is a cloud cuckoo-land fantasy (references below).  But never so many, so loudly, and in such a prestigious journal (Clack 2017).

The 21 authors of the PNAS article felt compelled to write this because J & D’s irresponsible fairy tales are starting to influence actual policy and waste money.  If cities and states set renewable goals of 100% and try to achieve them with the J & D plan, their spending will be wasted because the J & D plan leaves out biofuels, grid-scale battery storage, nuclear, and coal energy with CCS.

The most important problems with achieving a 100% renewable system are not even mentioned (Friedemann 2015c).

Renewable contraptions cannot outlast finite fossil fuels, because they are utterly dependent on fossil fuels from birth to death to mine, crush, and smelt the ore, deliver the ore to a blast furnace, fabricate 8,000 wind turbine parts at hundreds of manufacturing plants all over the world, and deliver the parts to the assembly plant.  For each turbine, dozens of trucks are needed to prepare the wind turbine site so that dozens of cement trucks can pour tons of concrete and steel rebar for the platform, deliver pieces of the huge parts of the turbine, and diesel powered cranes to lift the parts hundreds of feet into the air.

In their 2011 paper, the J & D 100% renewable system would be accomplished with 3.8 million 5-MW wind turbines (50% of power), 49,000 solar thermal plants (20%), 40,000 solar PV plants (14%), 1.7 billion rooftop PV systems (6%), 5350 geothermal plants (4%), 900 hydroelectric power plants (4%), and marine hydrokinetic devices (2%).   Their 2015 paper has somewhat different but equally unrealistic numbers.

It is questionable whether there’s enough material on earth to build all these contraptions and continue to do so every 20 years (wind) to 30 years (solar).  Fossil fuels will grow more and more scarce, which means cement, steel, rare (earth) metals, and so on will decline as well.  Keep in mind that a 2 MW turbine uses 900 tons of material: 1300 tons concrete, 295 tons steel, 48 tons iron, 24 tons fiberglass, 4 tons copper, .4 tons neodymium, .065 tons dysprosium (Guezuraga, USGS).  The enormous demand for materials would likely drive prices up, and the use of recycled metals cannot be assumed, since downcycling degrades steel, perhaps to less strength than required.

The PNAS authors propose grid-scale batteries, but the only kind of battery for which there are enough materials on earth are Sodium-sulfur NaS batteries (Barnhart 2013).  To store just one day of U.S. electricity generation (and at least 6 to 8 weeks would be needed to cope with the seasonal nature of wind and solar), you would need a 923 square mile, 450 million ton, $40.77 trillion dollar NaS battery that needs replacement every 15 years (DOE/EPRI 2013).  Lead-acid: $8.3 trillion, 271.5 square miles, 15.8 million tons.  Li-ion $11.9 trillion, 345 square miles, 74 million tons.

There are dozens of reasons why wind power will not outlast fossil fuels (Friedemann 2015b), including the scale required, the need to increase installation rates 37-fold in 13 years (Radford 2016), population increasing faster than wind turbines to provide for their needs can be built, wind is seasonal – very little in the entire U.S. in the summer, no commercial wind year round in the South East, a national grid, no commercial energy storage at utility scale in sight, plus a financial crisis or war will likely break the supply chains as companies go out of business.

Okay, drum roll.  The biggest problem is that electricity does not matter. This is a liquid transportation fuels crisis. Trucks can’t run on electricity ( http://energyskeptic.com/category/fastcrash/electric-trucks-impossible/  ).

The Achilles heel of civilization is our dependency on trucks that run on diesel because it is so energy dense. This is why diesel engines are far more powerful than steam, gasoline, electric, battery-driven or any other motive power on earth (Smil 2010).  Billions of trucks and equipment worth trillions of dollars are required to keep the supply chains going over tens of millions of miles of roads, rail, and waterways that every person and business on earth depends on.  Equally if not more important are off-road mining, agriculture, construction, logging, and other trucks.  They not only need to travel on rough ground, but meanwhile push, lift, dig and perform other tasks far from the electric grid or non-oil distribution system.

Trucks must eventually be electrified, because biomass doesn’t scale up and has negative or break-even energy return, coal and natural gas are finite, and hydrogen /hydrogen fuel cells are dependent on a non-existent distribution system and far from commercial. In my book, I show why trucks can’t run on electricity, as well as why a 100% renewable grid is impossible. 

The authors briefly point out that one way to counter wind and solar intermittency is an energy source that can be dispatched when needed.  But they neglected to mention that natural gas plays most of this role now.  But natural gas is finite, and has equally important uses of making fertilizer, feedstock and energy source to make hundreds of millions of chemicals, heating homes and buildings, and so on.  All of these roles will have to be taken on by biomass after fossils are gone, yet another reason why biomass doesn’t scale up.

J & D propose a month of hydrogen storage to power transportation.  But hydrogen boils off within a week since it is the smallest element and can escape through atomic scale imperfections. It is not an energy source, it’s an energy sink from start to finish.  First it takes a tremendous amount of energy to split hydrogen from oxygen.  That’s why 96% of hydrogen comes from finite natural gas.  And a tremendous amount more energy to compress or liquefy it to -423 F and keep it chilled.  It is so destructive of metal that expensive alloys are needed for the steel pipelines and storage containers, making a distribution system too expensive.  A $1.3 million dollar hydrogen fuel cell truck would require a very heavy and inefficient fuel cell with an overall efficiency of just 24.7%: 84% NG upstream and liquefaction * 67% H2 on-board reforming * 54% fuel cell efficiency * 84% electric motor and drivetrain efficiency * 97% aero & rolling resistance efficiency, and even less than that without an expensive 25 kWh li-ion battery to capture regenerative braking (DOE 2011, Friedemann 2016). And far less than 24.7% efficient if the hydrogen were made from water with electrolysis.

J & D propose thermal energy storage in the ground.  The only renewable that has storage are concentrated solar plants, but CSP plants provide just 0.06% of U.S. energy because each plant costs about a billion dollars each, and scaled up, would need to use stone, which is much cheaper than molten salt. A 100 MW facility would need 5.1 million tons of rock taking up 2 million cubic meters (Welle 2010). Since stone is a poor heat conductor, the thick insulating walls required might make this unaffordable (IEA 2011b). J & D never mention insulating walls, let alone the energy and cost of building them.  The PNAS paper also says that phase-change material energy storage is far from commercial and still has serious problems to solve such as poor thermal conductivity, corrosion, material degradation, thermal stress durability, and cost-effective mass production methods.

The authors suggest bioenergy, but this is not feasible. Trucks can’t burn ethanol, diesohol, or even gasoline.  Biofuels (and industrial agriculture) destroy topsoil, which in the past was a major or main reason why all past civilizations failed.  It also depletes aquifers that won’t be recharged until after the next ice age.   And biomass simply doesn’t scale up.  Burning it is far more energy efficient than the dozens of steps needed to make biofuels, each step taking energy. Yet even if we burned every plant plus and their roots in America, the energy produced would be less than the fossil fuel energy consumed that year, and we’d all have to pretend we liked living on Mars for many years after our little experiment. Friedemann (2015a) has many other examples of the scaling up issues, ecological, energy, and other issues with biofuels.

Nuclear is not an option due to peak uranium, and the findings of the National Academy of Sciences about lessons learned from Fukushima. It’s also too expensive, with 37 plants likely to shut down (Cooper 2013).  And leaving thousands of sites with nuclear waste lasting hundreds of thousands of years for our descendants to deal with after fossil fuels are gone in an industrially poisoned world is simply the most evil of all the horrible things we’re doing to the planet (Alley 2013).

The book “Our renewable future” (Heinberg & Fridley 2016) was written to show those who believe in Jacobson and Delucchi’s fairy tales how difficult, if not impossible it would be to make this happen. Though I fear many of their major points were probably ignored or forgotten, with readers deciding that 100% renewables were possible, even if difficult, since the book was too gentle and abstract. For example, they mention that there are no ways to make cement and steel with electricity, because these industries depend on huge blast furnaces that run for 4 to 10 years non-stop because any interruption would cause the brick lining to cool down and damage it.  It is not likely a 100% wind and solar electricity system to be up 24 x 7 x 365.  That’s a real  showstopper.  But the average person believes in infinite human ingenuity that can overcome the laws of physics and doesn’t worry…

J & D include wave and tidal devices, but these are far from being commercial and unlikely to ever be due to salt corrosion, storm waves, and dozens of other problems (NRC 2013).

I’m not as concerned about the incorrect J & D calculations for GHG emissions, because we are at or near peak oil and coal, and natural gas.  Many scientists have published peer-reviewed papers that based on realistic reserves of fossil fuels, rather than the unlimited amounts of fossils the IPCC assumes, there is a consensus that the worst case scenario likely to be reached is RPC 4.5 (Brecha 2008, Capellan-Perez 2016, Chiari 2011, Dale 2012, Doose 2004, Hook 2010, Hook 2013, and 10+ more).  Also, coal is finite, and carbon capture and storage technology so far from being commercial, and uses up 30 to 40% of the energy contained in the coal, that it’s unlikely to be used when blackouts start to happen more and more often (http://energyskeptic.com/category/energy/coal/carbonstorage/).

We’re running out of time.  Conventional oil peaked in 2005. That’s where 90% of our oil comes from at a Niagra Falls rate.  Tar sands and other non-conventional oil simply can’t be produced at such a high rate.  So it doesn’t matter how much there is, Niagra Falls will slow to a trickle, far less than what we use today.  And since energy is the basis of growth, not money, it is questionable if our credit/debit system can survive, since once peak oil is acknowledged, creditors will know they can’t be repaid.

Also, oil is the master resource that makes all other resources available. We don’t have enough time to  replace billions of diesel engines with something else.  There is nothing else. And 12 years after peak the public is still buying gas guzzlers.

By Ajit Varki: Mind Over Reality Transition: The Evolution of Human Mortality Denial

Dr. Ajit Varki, one of the originators of the most important idea since Darwin, gave this talk on March 3, 2017 in which he explains the Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory that he and Danny Brower developed and discussed in their book and which underpins this blog.

Dr. Varki, being a humble and cautious scientist, does not amplify the implications of his theory so I will do it for him here.

The Mind Over Reality theory explains the:

After reflecting on this list, and assuming that in time Varki’s theory is proven to be correct, you may begin to appreciate why I think Varki’s MORT theory is THE most important idea for understanding our origin, our special place in the universe, and our destructive behaviors that threaten our existence. 

A pleasant fact I learned from the talk is that despite having a solemn demeanor Dr. Varki has a killer sense of humor.

Here is the abstract for the talk:

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 such collection of related features is our facile ability for reality denial in the face of clear facts, a high capacity for self-deception and false beliefs, overarching optimism bias and irrational risk-taking behavior––traits that should be maladaptive when they first appear as hard-wired 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 independently emerged 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 then evolved 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“.  This barrier is claimed to arise in isolated individuals of a given species that develop the genetic ability for extended ToM.  Such individuals would then observe deaths of others whose minds they fully understood, become aware of mortality, and translate that knowledge into an understanding of personal mortality.  The 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).  The barrier would have 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) combined in the same individuals, to allow a “Mind over Reality Transition”. Once the barrier was broken, 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 recent emergence as the dominant species on the planet, and replacement of all other closely related evolutionary cousins, with limited interbreeding and no hybrids. While not directly falsifiable by experiment, the 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 the subject including Terror Management Theory.  Importantly, it has major implications for the human condition, as well as for many serious issues, ranging all the way from personal health responsibility to global climate change.

Varki, A. Human uniqueness and the denial of death. Nature. 460:684. 2009.

Varki, A., and Brower, D. Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind. Twelve Books, New York. 2013.

Varki, A.: Thought Experiment: Dating the Origin of Us. The Scientist 27:28-29, 2013.

Varki, A.: Why are there no persisting hybrids of humans with Denisovans, Neanderthals, or anyone else? Proc Natl Acad Sci U.S.A. 113: E2354, 2016.