By Ajit Varki: Did Human Reality Denial Breach the Evolutionary Psychological Barrier of Mortality Salience?

Here is the latest talk by Dr. Ajit Varki on his MORT theory given April 18, 2018 at a conference on The Evolutionary Perspectives on Death held at Oakland University.

This talk repeats some content presented in previous talks, but also adds some important new ideas. There is evidence here that Varki, despite a large important unrelated day job, is still thinking about and developing his theory. That’s great news because, as I’ve said many times, MORT is the most important new idea since Darwin.

This slide depicts the emergence of the unique behaviorally modern human mind.

Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT)


This slide shows that most behaviors unique to humans no longer exist (grayed out) if you remove the adaptations for an extended theory of mind and reality denial.

Unique Human Cognittive Features


This slide explains the implications of the Mind Over Reality Transition theory.

Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) Implications

Varki introduces a new idea that incomplete suppression of mortality salience may explain the need for Terror Management.  I wonder if Varki might be trying to get Sheldon Solomon, who has to date been juveniley dismissive of MORT, on board?

Mortality Salience Incomplete Supression

I found this slide on ontogeny recapitulating phylogeny interesting because I’m reading Michael Pollan’s new book on psychedelics in which the human brain’s Default Mode Network is explained to be the seat of self and theory of mind, and which is suppressed by psychedelic drugs thus re-creating what may be the tripping mind of a baby. I wonder if our adaptations for an extended theory of mind and reality denial somehow affected or created the Default Mode Network? I’m hoping a neuroscience expert will weigh in here.

Ontogeny Recapitulates Phylogeny


This new idea from Varki on sex differences resulting from MORT is, I suspect, important, but I need to digest it more before commenting.

MORT Gender Phenotype


At the 23 minute mark Varki addresses climate change with a quote from his co-author Danny Brower which is a very nice summary of why I created this blog. If we do not acknowledge and manage our tendency to deny reality we are doomed as a species.

Brower on Denial of Climate Change

Aside 1: The video at 15:15 that Varki took on traffic from the window of his hotel room in India is hilarious.

Aside 2: The Q&A begins at 25:00 and I observe that, as with previous talks, no one in the audience seems to get the profundity of his theory.

Aside 3: I observe that the most important new idea in science, and the idea whose broad awareness may offer the only hope for our species, has 12 views on YouTube. Apparently, the only topic more unpleasant than human overshoot is our genetic tendency to deny unpleasant realities.




By Nate Hagens: Where are We Going?

Nate Hagens

Nate Hagens followed up his recent talk with a very nice essay in which he explains our predicament using his rare and broad understanding of the issues.

The possible outcomes for our near-term future fall on a curve of probabilities ranging from an optimistic gentle decline to a pessimistic zombie apocalypse collapse.

Nate leans to the optimistic side of the curve and makes a good case for it here. His most persuasive argument, for me, is that we use much more energy and materials than we need to have pleasant lives, and so a 30% haircut, which Nate thinks will happen soon, need not be cause for undo concern.

I lean more to the pessimistic side because of the instability we have created by using extreme debt to kick the can, the Seneca Effect on resource depletion, accelerating decline of our ecosystem (especially but not limited to climate change), nasty human nature in times of scarcity, and our evolved tendency to deny unpleasant realities and thus near certainty we will blame the wrong actors.

I hope Nate’s right but I would not put money on it.

We cannot know the future, but we have reasonable confidence of what it will not be.  The peak in fossil sunlight flow rates and resultant higher costs will mean major changes in our lifetimes. We can be reasonably sure the average energy/material throughput for Americans – and global citizens, particularly in advanced economies, will decline in coming decades.  It’s important to point out that a 30% drop in material wealth per capita (for those in the United States and Canada) though sounding draconian, brings us back to 1993 levels – a 50% drop would bring us back to 1977 levels– both periods nobody considers economically challenging.  How we respond to this energy descent as individuals and as a culture will be a deciding moment in our history.

All the ‘cultural’ and ‘individual’ observations above coalesce to a fine point: we are capable of much more, but are unlikely to alter our current trajectory until we have to. And when we add in the economy and environmental points: we will soon have to.  Recognizing this, the next step is urgently discussing and cataloguing what initiatives might be worked on by small groups using intelligent foresight nationwide.

Given we have ~100:1 exosomatic surplus buffer, there remain a great deal of benign, and even excellent futures still on the table.  But they won’t arrive without effort.  The world isn’t irretrievably broken, the Great Simplification has barely started, and there are quite a few people who are discovering exactly the shape of our predicaments, and the nature of the things which could substantially change them.

NB: While I believe education itself is insufficient for major change, it is still a necessary first step so that pro-social engaged citizens work towards feasible and desirable goals and react to events in more rational ways. My own goal with this content is threefold:

  • Educate and inspire would-be catalysts and small groups working on better futures to integrate a more systemic view of reality
  • Empower individuals to make better personal choices on navigating and thriving during the Great Simplification coming our way
  • Change what is accepted in our cultural conversation to be more reality based


By Tom Murphy: The Future Needs an Attitude Adjustment

Peak Oil

I’m resurrecting a 2011 essay by one of my favorite minds on the planet.

Tom Murphy is a brilliant physicist with an impressive catalog of essays on energy related issues. If you prefer to watch rather than read, then this video is a favorite of mine.

After searching for a solution to our energy predicament and concluding that we are in serious trouble, and that we are being extremely unwise by not planning for a world with less, Tom Murphy went quiet. As have many other great minds. A worrying sign.

Here are a few excerpts but the whole thing is worth a read.

Over the years, my diligent observation of people has led me to a deep insight: people want stuff. I know—bear with me as I support my argument. Donald Trump. Okay, I think I’ve covered it. No, it’s true. On the whole, we don’t seem to be satiable creatures. Imagine the counter-examples: “No thanks, boss. I really don’t need a raise.” “I’m done with this money—anybody want it?” “Where should I invest my money to guarantee 0% return?” (Answer: anywhere, lately.) I’m not saying that the world lacks generosity/charity. But how many examples do we have of someone making $500,000/yr (in whatever form) and donating $400,000 per year to those in need, figuring $100,000/yr is plenty to live comfortably? I want names (and actually hope there are some examples).

This basic desire for more has meshed beautifully with a growth-based economic model and a planet offering up its stored resources. The last few hundred years is when things really broke loose. And it’s not because we suddenly got smarter. Sure, we have a knack for accumulating knowledge, and there is a corresponding ratchet effect as we lock in new understanding. But we have the same biological brains that we did 10,000 years ago—so we haven’t increased our mental horsepower. What happened is that our accumulation of knowledge allowed us to recognize the value of fossil fuels. Since then, we have been on a tear to develop as quickly as we might. It’s working: the average American is responsible for 10 kW of continuous power production, which is somewhat like having 100 energy slaves (humans being 100 W machines). We’re satisfying our innate need for more and more—and the availability of cheap, abundant, self-storing, energy-dense sources of energy have made it all possible.


See the Do the Math post on peak oil for particulars on one scenario that has me worried. In brief, a declining petroleum output leads to supply disruptions in many commodities, price spikes, decline of travel/tourism industries, international withholding of oil supplies, possibly resource wars, instability, uncertainty, a sea change in attitudes and hope for the future, loss of confidence in investment and growth in a contracting world, rampant unemployment, electric cars and other renewable dreams out of reach and silly-sounding when keeping ourselves fed is more pressing, an Energy Trap preventing us from large scale meaningful infrastructure replacement, etc.  There can be positive developments as well—especially in demand and in “attitude adjustments.”  And perhaps the market offers more magic than my skeptical mind allows.  But any way you slice it, our transition away from fossil fuels will bring myriad challenges that will require more forethought, cooperation, and maturity than I tend to see in headlines today.


People often misinterpret my message that “we risk collapse,” believing me to say instead that “we’re going to collapse.” It’s interesting to me that the concept of collapse is taboo to the point of coming across as an offensive slap in the face. It clearly touches an emotional nerve. I think we should try to understand that. Personally, this reaction scares me. It suggests an irrational faith that we cannot collapse. If I did not think the possibility for collapse was real, I might just find this reaction intellectually intriguing. But when the elements for collapse are in place (unprecedented stresses, energy challenges, resource limitations, possible overshoot of carrying capacity), the aversion to this possible fate leaves me wondering how we can mitigate a problem we cannot even look in the eye.

Note: Varki’s book, which provides a plausible explanation for our inability to discuss, let alone act on, obvious human overshoot, was published after this essay.


Others react by an over-use of the word “just.” We just need to get fusion working. We’ll just paint Arizona with solar panels. We’ll just switch to electric cars. We just need to go full-on nuclear, preferably with thorium reactors. We just need to exploit the oil shales in the Rocky Mountain states. We just need to get the environmentalists off our backs so we can drill, baby, drill. This is the technofix approach. I am trying to chip away at this on Do the Math: the numbers often don’t pan out, or the challenges are much bigger than people appreciate. I have looked for solutions to things we can just do to alleviate the pressures on the system. With the exception of just reducing how much we personally demand, I have been disappointed again and again. I’ll come back to personal reduction in the months to come: lots to say here.


Aside from the cadets, the message was clear from reactions that growth is a sacred underpinning of our modern life, and that we must not speak of terminating this regime. After all, how could we satisfy our yearning for more without the carrot of growth dangling in front of us? Some argue that we need growth in the developing world in order to bring humanity up to an acceptable standard of living. I am sympathetic to this aim. So let’s voluntarily drop growth in the developed countries of the world and let the underdogs have their day. Did I just blaspheme again? I keep doing that. I perceive this compassion for the poor of the world as a cloak used to justify the base desire of getting more stuff for ourselves. Prove it to yourself by asking people if they would be willing to give up growth in (or even contract) our economy while the third world continues growing for the next half-century. You may get rationalizations of the flavor that without growth in the first world, the engine for growth in the third world would be starved and falter: they need our consumer demand to have a customer base. I’m skeptical. I think people just want stuff—even if they’ve got lots already.


Many look to political leaders for, well, leadership. But I’ve come to appreciate that political leaders are actually politicians (another razor-sharp observation), and politicians need votes to occupy their seats. Politicians are therefore cowardly sycophants responding to the whims of the electorate. In other words, they are a reflection of our wants and demands. A child who has just been spanked for throwing a tantrum would probably not re-elect their parent if allowed the choice. We all scream for ice cream. Why would we reward a politician for leading us instead to a plate of vegetables—even if that’s what we really need. Meanwhile we find it all too easy to blame our ills on the politicians. It’s a lot more palatable than blaming ourselves for our own selfish demands that politicians simply try to satisfy.


My basic point in all this is that I perceive fundamental human weaknesses that circumvent our making rational, smart, adult decisions about our future. Our expectations tend to be outsized with respect to the physical limitations at hand. We quickly dash up against ideological articles of faith, so that many are unable to acknowledge that there is an energy/resource problem at all. The Spock in me wants to raise an eyebrow and say “fascinating.” The human in me is distressed by the implications to our collective rationality. The adult in me wants less whining, fewer temper tantrums, realistic expectations, a willingness to sacrifice where needed, the maturity to talk of the possibility of collapse and the need to step off the growth train, and adoption of a selfless attitude that we owe future generations a livable world where we can live rich and fulfilling lives with another click of the ratchet.  Otherwise we deserve a spanking—sorry—attitude adjustment.  And nature is happy to oblige.

By Jack Alpert: Unwinding the Human Predicament

Jack Alpert

I’ve been following Jack Alpert for many years. He’s an intelligent clear thinking engineer that was apparently born without any denial of reality genes.

I’ve posted other work by Alpert herehere, and here.

Alpert’s devoted much of his life to diagnosing and prescribing remedies for the human overshoot predicament.

This interview by James Howard Kunstler provides a nice summary of Alpert’s work and includes a “solution” that would minimize suffering as fossil energy depletes and that would create a sustainable civilization of about 50 million people with comfortable lives that could continue to make progress in science, technology, and the arts.

The catch is that 3 billion people have to understand the nature of our predicament and vote to drastically constrain personal freedoms, especially the right to breed. We of course would be lucky to find 3 hundred such people, let alone 3 billion.

As a consequence, Alpert concludes that the best case scenario we can hope for over the next 75 years is a painful involuntary reduction of population, mostly due to starvation,  from 7.6 billion to about 600 million subsistence farmers, with little preservation of science, technology, and the arts.

That’s a pretty big price to pay for personal “freedom”, and a tragedy given how rare intelligent life probably is in the universe.

So sad.

Play Audio

Kunstler’s site with an introduction to the interview:

By Nate Hagens: Contrasts and Continuums of the Human Predicament

Here is this year’s annual Earth Day talk by Nate Hagens.

My introduction to last year’s talk by Nate is still valid:

I used to preface Nate’s talks by saying he provides the best big picture view of our predicament available anywhere.

While still true, I think Nate may now be the only person discussing these issues in public forums.

Everyone else seems to have retired to their bunkers and gone quiet.

If you only have an hour this year to devote to understanding the human predicament and what needs to be done, this may be the best way to spend it.


On Superior Pattern Processing, Magical Thinking, and Human Success

Cerebral Cortex

A friend brought to my attention an interesting paper by Mark P. Mattson titled “Superior pattern processing is the essence of the evolved human brain“. It discusses the uniquely powerful capabilities of the human brain, and provides a partial theory for why these capabilities evolved.

Here is summary of what I consider to be the paper’s key points:

  • Humans have a uniquely powerful brain.
  • The human brain has the same structure and components as the brains of other mammals; what distinguishes the human brain is a higher quantity of neurons and synapses that enable superior pattern processing (SPP).
  • SPP is sufficient to explain unique human capabilities such as creativity, imagination, language, and magical thinking.
  • The human brain began to enlarge about 5-8 million years ago via a self-reinforcing feedback loop created by the synergy of increased brain power in a social species with an upright posture able to forage longer distances.
  • Human survival depended on social cooperation which created another self-reinforcing relationship between social interactions and SPP ability, and which led to an extended theory of mind with which humans understand that others have thoughts and emotions very similar to their own.
  • SPP led to language emerging about 100,000 years ago, and language is likely a major reason for the current dominance of Homo sapiens.
  • The ability to draw came after language about 30,000 years ago and enhanced the ability to communicate important spatial information like maps.
  • SPP enabled human imagination and invention which enhanced the success of humans via tool making, but also created a human tendency for magical thinking such as religious beliefs.
  • Gods were fabricated as explanations for phenomena that were not understood. As those phenomena were later explained by science those Gods were abandoned. With one exception, there is exceptional resistance to the science of human evolution and magical thinking persists on the origin of humans.
  • Psychiatric disorders result from abnormal SPP that blurs the boundaries between reality and imagination.
  • Homo sapiens is the only hominid to survive from an original pool of from 8 to 27 species. This suggests that only Homo sapiens evolved superior pattern processing which it used to outcompete its cousins.

So far so good, but then Mattson veers off into what feels like just so stories for his SPP theory:

  • Mattson thinks differences in SPP between populations today explains why some groups prosper and others struggle. For example, Africans must have a low SPP because they are poor, and Americans, Europeans, and Asians must have high SPP because they are affluent. Mattson might be right here, but I think it more likely that the self-reinforcing relationship between early access to low-cost energy, wealth creation, and wealth multiplication via growth enabled debt is a more likely explanation.
  • Mattson thinks differences in SPP between groups today is likely explained by epigenetics. For (my) example, malnourished mothers may have babies will less powerful brains.
  • Mattson concludes with a cheery prediction that humans will continue to evolve SPP which they will use to make better decisions and to invent technologies that eliminate suffering and ensure long-term survival. This sounds to me like a grade 12 valedictorian speech.
  • Mattson also concludes that we should educate everyone about how SPP works so that we can once and for all end our silly beliefs in god and the suffering this causes.  Here he seems almost as delusional as my earlier hope that awareness of genetic reality deny might help mitigate our impending overshoot collapse.
  • Finally he suggests further research into SPP might help us design better AI computers.

Setting aside Mattson’s concluding unicorns and rainbows, I agree with his earlier points. Unfortunately he spends a lot of time discussing the obvious bits and ignores the interesting bits:

  • After 8 million years of slowly improving brain power in many hominids species, there was a dramatic jump about 100,000 years ago in one of the species that enabled language and enhanced tools making, and that species used its unique skills to outcompete all the others.  That species also simultaneously began to believe in life after death which was later elaborated into religions, something no other species does. Using Mattson’s reasoning, brain power should have simultaneously improved for all hominids with no unusual discontinuity.
  • Mattson is mistaken about the adaptive value of religion. He thinks that the magical thinking associated with religion has some adaptive value. I think the evidence is clear that humans apply magical thinking to many aspects of their lives, including religion. The adaptive value of religions is not magical thinking, rather it is that religions serve to define, unite, govern, motivate, and entertain tribes, and (especially in times of scarcity) define outside tribes as enemies. In other words, religions improve survival via enhanced social cooperation.
  • Mattson acknowledges that magical thinking about human divinity is a unique and fascinating persistent behavior but does not offer an explanation. I think the explanation is clear. Given the human brain’s tendency for magical thinking we should expect religious beliefs to include every conceivable wacky story, as they do, and we should statistically expect a few of those wacky stories to involve life after death, but they don’t, instead every one of the thousands of human religions has a life after death story which suggests there must be a separate genetic reason for the universal belief in life after death.
  • Mattson thinks the primary cause of anxiety disorders and depression is defective SPP resulting in a blurring of reality, self-doubt, and hopelessness. While no doubt true in some cases, Mattson does not consider that a defective ability to deny unpleasant realities can be the cause of mental illness. For example, fully accepting the science of human overshoot, climate change, and net energy decline coupled with an understanding that an individual cannot influence the outcome is a plenty strong reason for depression. In other words, magical thinking likely improves mental health.

All of these interesting bits, and more, are explained by Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory.

Following are a few excerpts from Mattson’s paper that highlight ideas I thought were noteworthy, but I recommend you read the entire paper for proper context.

The cognitive repertoire of humans far exceeds that of all other animals, and understanding the neurobiological basis of this superiority is therefore of interest not only to scientists, but also to society. As humans evolved from their anthropoid ancestors, and the size of their cerebral cortex expanded, novel pattern processing capabilities emerged.

The main purposes of the present article are to describe the superior pattern processing (SPP) capabilities of the human brain, to forward the hypothesis that SPP is the neurobiological foundation of human sociocultural evolution, and to describe the roles of aberrant SPP in some major neurological disorders.

The types of pattern processing that appear to occur robustly, if not uniquely in the human brain and are therefore considered as SPP include:

  1. Creativity and invention, which have resulted in the development of tools, processes and protocols for solving problems and saving time, and the arts (Goel, 2014; Orban and Caruana, 2014; Zaidel, 2014). Examples include all aspects of agriculture, transportation, science, commerce defense/security, and music;
  2. Spoken and written languages that enable rapid communication of highly specific information about all aspects of the physical universe and human experiences;
  3. Reasoning and rapid decision-making;
  4. Imagination and mental time travel which enables the formulation and rehearsal of potential future scenarios; and
  5. Magical thinking/fantasy, cognitive process that involves beliefs in entities and processes that defy accepted laws of causality including telepathy, spirits, and gods (Einstein and Menzies, 2004).

A major purpose of the present article is to forward the proposal that not only is pattern processing necessary for higher brain functions of humans, but SPP is sufficient to explain many such higher brain functions including creativity, imagination, language, and magical thinking.


The human brain has retained many features of brain structure and cellular organization of the brains of birds and lower mammals, but has greatly elaborated upon them by developing more robust cortical neuronal networks involved in the processing of visual and auditory patterns. As in lower mammals, being aware of one’s position in the environment, and remembering the locations of resources (food, shelter, etc.) and hazards (predators, cliffs, etc.) is of fundamental importance for the survival of humans. However, the encoding of visual inputs into “cognitive maps” of spatial relationships between objects in the environment (spatial pattern separation), and the encoding of auditory inputs, is necessary but not sufficient for the advanced pattern processing  abilities of humans including imagination, invention, and pattern transfer (language). The evidence suggests that expansion of the visual cortex, prefrontal cortex, and parietal—temporal—occipital (PTO) association area enabled the SPP that defines the human intellect capacity and all of its manifestations, including consciousness, language and mental fabrication and time travel. The remainder of this article describes some of the salient evidence for SPP as the basis of most, if not all, higher cortical functions in humans.


Thus, findings from neuroscience research has confirmed the general conclusion of Charles Darwin who proposed in The Descent of Man that the minds of humans and related species are fundamentally similar (Darwin, 1871).

Neuroanatomical and neurochemical considerations… section suggest that the superior intellectual capabilities of humans are solely or largely the result of the increase in the number of neurons and synapses that mediate enhanced encoding, integration and inter-individual transfer of patterns. There is little or no uniqueness in the structural or functional properties of the neuronal circuits that mediate intelligence in humans. Moreover, the intellectual capability of any individual requires the integrated function of pattern-processing networks distributed throughout the cerebral cortex, indicating that there is no single brain structure responsible for the mental superiority of humans.


One prominent phenotypic change that is believed to have occurred during the evolutionary transition from the Genus Pan (chimpanzees) to the Genus Homo (approximately 5–8 million years ago), was the acquisition of an upright bipedal endurance/distance runner phenotype (Bramble and Lieberman, 2004; Lieberman and Bramble, 2007; Mattson, 2012). Bipedalism also enabled the evolution of the shoulder in ways that allowed humans to throw objects accurately at a high velocity, greatly improving their ability as hunters (Roach et al., 2013). This was also the period in the evolution of our species when the size of the cerebral cortex increased relatively rapidly, which suggests that the expansion of the territory covered by individuals and groups of humans (enabled by endurance running) played a role in the expansion of the cerebral cortex. Coverage of a larger territory during the great human expansion (Henn et al., 2012) would have provided the opportunity to access more resources (food, water, and shelter), and required a greater pattern processing capacity to remember details of the location and nature of the resources. Importantly, humans evolved the ability to transfer the information acquired and processed in their brains during their journeys to other individuals via gestures, map drawing, and language. Visual and auditory patterns were likely the most commonly processed and transferred because of the ability to readily and accurately reproduce sights and sounds. Accordingly, the regions of the brain that expanded in humans are mostly involved in pattern processing of sights and sounds, and their codification as written and spoken languages. Very interestingly, specialized motor training (sports) enhances language understanding by a mechanism involving recruitment of the left dorsal lateral premotor cortex, suggesting that the language system is functionally connected to motor skill-related areas outside of the core language networks (Beilock et al., 2008). The latter findings suggest that the language SPP capabilities of the human brain co-evolved with development of organized “teamwork,” which may have bolstered functional interactions between brain regions involved in language and those responsible for specialized sensory-motor skills.


Emotions such as fear, anger, pleasure, and love are elevated states of arousal that enhance memory and recall of the events occurring during those emotional states (Bergado et al., 2011; Maren et al., 2013). This is a major, if not singular, function of emotions. Emotions evolved to reinforce memories of patterns of particular significance vis-à-vis survival and reproduction. Remembering the details of the events of an attack by a predator or intra-species rival will increase the probability of avoidance of such potentially deadly encounters in the future. Memories of the pleasurable experience of intercourse with fertile individuals of the opposite sex provides motivation for additional bouts of intercourse, and so increases the probability of passing one’s genes on to future generations.


Humans have evolved as highly social animals (Chang et al., 2013) with close emotional ties to mates, offspring, parents and close friends that enhance their survival and reproductive success (Damasio and Carvalho, 2013). As with other emotions, those associated with social interactions may have evolved to enhance SPP. In this view, there is a self-amplifying reciprocal relationship between social interactions and SPP ability. Thus, advanced PP abilities enable the development of social bonds and networks and, conversely, social interactions stimulate SPP. Success in social interactions requires that one recognize others, remember their past experiences with those individuals, and communicate their intentions. Dunbar’s social brain hypothesis of evolution of the primate brain includes the possible role of emotional attachments to mates and friends in complex social networks in the expansion of the cerebral cortex during anthropoid evolution (Dunbar, 2009; Sutcliffe et al., 2012). Because the memories of specific patterns (faces, places, conversations, etc.) can be reinforced or even embellished by emotions (Holland and Kensinger, 2010), it is reasonable to consider that evolution of the social brain was bolstered by emotional relationships. In addition to their use of complex language (see next Section), humans have added another dimension to social interactions—they are aware that others have thoughts and emotions very similar to their own. Humans therefore not only encode and process patterns representing their own experiences, but also the experiences of their family, friends and workmates. Social interactions require processing of information regarding the histories, behaviors and thoughts of many other individuals. Whether family members, employees or competitors, there are clear advantages to being able to know what others have done in the past, and to predict their future behaviors. Thus, inter-personal SPP is critical for success in most aspects of life, including acquiring and retaining friends, a job and a mate. Emotions reinforce inter-personal SPP, such that interactions involving anger, pleasure, sadness, etc. are retained, recalled and processed more thoroughly than interactions occurring in a neutral emotional context.


Language is the quintessential example of the evolved SPP capabilities of the human brain as it involves (once learned) the instantaneous conversion of sounds to visual symbols, and vice-versa. Language is a complex behavior in which auditory and/or visual patterns learned from other individuals or perceived in the environment are encoded, processed and modified for the purpose of transfer of information to other individuals. Language involves the use of patterns (symbols, words, and sounds) to code for objects and events encountered either via direct experience or communication from other individuals. Language-related SPP can create new patterns (stories, paintings, songs, etc.) of “things” that may (reality) or may not (fiction) exist. Language-mediated encoding and transfer of auditory and visual patterns enabled the rapid evolution of the human brain and is likely a major reason for the current dominance of Homo sapiens. (Aboitiz et al., 2006; Berwick et al., 2013).


While birds and non-human primates exhibit auditory communication, their vocalizations convey general information such as danger, rather than detailed instructions. It has been proposed by Tomasello (2008) that the kinds of gestures used by great apes is an evolutionary precursor of language. Studies of infant humans further support the notion that pointing and gestures are an ontogenic precursor to language (Goldin-Meadow, 2007; Liszkowski et al., 2009). Languages involving complex vocabularies and written symbols and words are believed to have arisen in Homo sapiens beginning approximately 100,000 years ago (Berwick et al., 2013). The rapid evolution of language skills, and the underlying neural circuits that mediate language processes, is fully consistent with its fundamental role in the rapid advancement of human societies. Language provides powerful reproductive and survival advantages. A man who engages a woman in stimulating conversation is more likely to attract her as a mate than is an inarticulate man. An army whose soldiers use detailed maps and advanced communication skills is more likely to win a battle than is an army that charges forward “blindly.”


The importance of imagination and invention for the rapid advancement of the human species cannot be overstated. The invention of tools and technologies have dominated the recent development of civilizations throughout the world. The earliest evidence for the invention of tools by our human ancestors dates to approximately 2.5 million years ago in Ethiopia and Kenya where stones were fashioned into cutting tools (Plummer, 2004). At that time hominid brains were about the same size as those of apes (approximately 500 grams), whereas the brain of modern humans is nearly three times larger.


A fascinating aspect of human SPP is the ability to fabricate mental entities that do not exist in the real world, including magical thinking. Magical thinking can be defined as “beliefs that defy culturally accepted laws of causality. In Western culture magical thinking refers to beliefs in, among other things, clairvoyance, astrology, spirit influences, and telepathy.” (Einstein and Menzies, 2004). Superstitions and rituals are examples of types of magical thinking. The cognitive fabrication of imaginary patterns is prominently illustrated in religious beliefs which have presumably provided an adaptive advantage to many societies. Magical thinking is at the core of all major religions wherein specific life events are believed to be controlled by “God,” and the “believers” behavior is designed to please “God” and avoid “his” wrath (Bloom, 2012). Figure 3 illustrates how a type of SPP, magical thinking, has had a major influence on cultural evolution. A recent functional MRI study suggests that religious belief involves neural networks that process information regarding intent and emotion, abstract semantics and imagery (Kapogiannis et al., 2009a). Transcranial magnetic stimulation focused on the left lateral temporal lobe, but not the right lateral temporal lobe or vertex, reduced magical thinking (Bell et al., 2007) providing further insight into the neural networks involved in magical thinking. Interestingly, structural differences between religious and non-religious subjects have been demonstrated including increased volume of right middle temporal cortex and reduced volumes of left precuneus and orbitofrontal cortex in religious subjects (Kapogiannis et al., 2009b). These findings are consistent with psychological theories of the evolution of religious belief which posit adaptive cognitive functions of such magical thinking (Culotta, 2009).


In general, psychiatric disorders result from an abnormal skewing of SPP in ways that dissolve the neural circuit-based boundaries between reality and imagination, between the realms of possibilities and probabilities. There are likely evolution-based reasons that anxiety and depression, and “paranoia spectrum disorders” are so common. Everyone experiences anxiety transiently in situations that involve real threats to oneself or loved ones; this heightened state of arousal is an adaptive response that provides motivation toward actions that can mitigate the danger. However, individuals with an anxiety disorder react to perceived threats that either do not in fact exist or are highly unlikely to occur. Depression is a state of self-doubt and hopelessness that often follows a period of chronic anxiety or a catastrophic life event. It involves a pervasive distortion of reality and an unrealistic catastrophic view of the future.


If SPP has played a fundamental role in the evolution of the human brain, then this should be evident in both the historical record and trajectories of different human populations throughout the world. The SPP theory predicts that populations that more rapidly develop SPP capabilities will experience accelerated accrual of resources and prosperity. The examples of major SPP abilities acquired during human evolution that were considered above (language, invention, imagination, reasoning, and planning for the future) should have each provided a survival and resource-accumulating advantage. The SPP theory therefore predicts that populations that did not develop each of these SPP capabilities would have been outcompeted by those populations with brains that did acquire, through evolution, those SPP capabilities. This prediction is supported by the fact that all surviving populations of H. sapiens use language, invent tools and exhibit imagination and complex reasoning. Hominin populations lacking, or with relatively poorer, SPP capabilities presumably failed to compete successfully, and so no longer exist.


The SPP theory predicts that variability in SPP capabilities among current human populations will be associated with variations in resources, health and welfare (indicators of fitness) of the different populations. Studies have documented positive associations of brain size with greater intelligence, faster decision making and greater cultural achievements between and within genetically differentiated populations of modern humans (Rushton and Jensen, 2008). This suggests that variability in SPP among existing groups of humans may be sufficiently robust to influence their relative fitness and so the future evolution of the human brain. The differential SPP-mediated development of technologies to improve transportation, manufacturing, scientific discovery and health care have resulted in the advancement of some populations above others. Individuals in populations that have most heavily utilized the SPP capabilities of their brains currently enjoy the greatest levels of prosperity, better health and longer lives. The disparities between and within countries are in some cases quite striking, with African countries exhibiting considerably less propensity for SPP, as reflected in poverty, low levels of education, high infant mortality and short lifespans. In contrast, the United States, and many countries in Europe and Asia are experiencing economic growth that is arguably resulting, in large part, from development of SPP-based technologies, with computer-based systems being a prominent example of a human invention that enables processing of information at rates many orders of magnitude beyond the capability of the human brain. Clearly, humans have recognized the central importance of SPP for their advancement as a species.


Finally, the SPP theory predicts that human evolution will continue to involve expansion of the prefrontal cortex and functionally associated brain regions, with resulting improvements in the brain’s ability to rapidly process information and make (good) decisions. The specific outcomes of advanced SPP for future generations remain to be determined, but may (hopefully) include the invention of technologies that eliminate suffering and help ensure the long-term survival of our species.

By Jay Hanson: Reality Report Interview (November 3, 2008)

For you old-timers this should be a memory lane treat, and for you young’uns this will be an introduction to the one who started it all: Jay Hanson.

Jay Hanson hosted the first online discussion bulletin board for overshoot issues like peak oil and climate change. He devoted a large portion of his life to researching the genetic human behaviors that have caused our severe state of overshoot. Here is a nice overview of his work by Kurt Cobb.

Ten years ago Jason Bradford hosted a weekly interview format radio program on overshoot issues called the Reality Report. I still consider the Reality Report to be the most intelligent show of its type to this day. Today Jason Bradford manages a progressive investment company called Farmland LP that restores depleted conventional farmland into healthy sustainable organic production.

This 10-year-old interview, is to my recollection, the only audio interview done with Jay Hanson. A superficial look at Hanson’s website might lead you to conclude he is a nut job, but the fact is Hanson is extremely intelligent and well read, which this interview helps to reinforce by showcasing the voice behind the radical writings.

I drug this 2008 chestnut out now because the steadily increasing war drums we hear in the media reminded me of a specific prediction Hanson made in this interview that there would be a nuclear war in 10 to 14 years, meaning we are now in the window.

right click save as to download

As an aside, a few years ago I tried to introduce Hanson to Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory but was saddened when Hanson aggressively and unscientifically rejected the theory before understanding it. Perhaps even the most open-minded of us will deny unpleasant realities, especially when that reality might undermine a lifetime of work. By undermine, I do not mean invalidate, but rather I think MORT provides an umbrella theory to explain the numerous specific behaviors identified by Hanson and others that have contributed to our predicament.