The Great Story (A Reality Based Religion led by Michael Dowd)


Michael Dowd recently introduced himself in a comment on one of my blog posts. Reviewing his large body of work has been a pleasant surprise because I thought I was aware of most of the thinkers and activists in the overshoot space, and Dowd has some excellent fresh ideas.

We seem to share a few things in common. We were born within 7 days of each other. We have been deeply influenced by many of the same great minds. We have come to similar conclusions about the severity of human overshoot. And we both would like to find some path to making the future less bad.

I’ve long thought there might only be two possible paths to pulling humanity back from the precipice. All of our destructive behaviors were created in the crucible of evolution when daily survival was paramount and overshoot was a distant future problem. Any “solution” must acknowledge the genetic underpinning of our behaviors and find a way to shift those behaviors in a positive direction.

One possible path is to acknowledge the genetic disposition for spirituality in humans, and the power religions have had throughout history to influence behavior, and to create a new religion with an overshoot harm reduction agenda. This is the path it seems Dowd has chosen.

Dowd leads a new religion grounded in science and reality that worships the universe and life, and that acknowledges the special responsibility our species has because of its rare and possibly unique ability to understand how the universe and life were created, and how our behaviors are placing us and other species in peril.

Here are the ten commandments:


This is the third of a three-part series of videos Dowd recommended as an overview of his movement. I think this sermon is excellent and worth your time.

Dowd thinks that religions are stories created by humans to explain the reality they currently live in. Our reality today is much different from the reality 2000 years ago. Today we understand the science of lightning and floods and famine and plagues and life and death. Dowd says we need to update our religious stories to reflect our current understanding of the world. He makes a persuasive case that this new story is much more majestic and inspiring than any of the old stories. An example Dowd gives is that everything in the universe, including amazing brains capable of understanding this paragraph, emerged from a cloud of hydrogen that obeyed a few well understood physical laws.

Dowd thinks the genetic underpinning of religion is the brain’s propensity to give human characteristics to non-human things in our world. I do not disagree with Dowd that the brain has this behavior but I would explain it differently. The human brain is a computing machine that creates models to explain and predict reality. We create new models using fragments of models we already have to explain what we see and to influence what we hope will happen. Some of these models (or stories) have evolved over time into thousands of religions and gods.

So far so good. Where we may disagree is that I think Varki’s MORT theory points to a deeper and more important genetic foundation of religion, denial of mortality. There is much evidence to this claim which I explored here and here. An important point being that if religions were mainly about explanatory stories and not about denial of mortality we would expect to see a few random religions with life after death stories, but not as we observe, a life after death story central to every single one of the thousands of religions, including new religions like Scientology. As a famous comedian/actor whose name we may no longer speak once said, “I don’t want to live on in the minds of my fans, I want to live on in my apartment”.

The reproductive fitness of an intelligent social species is often improved by a more powerful brain. Therefore there is evolutionary pressure in some species to become smarter. As a brain evolves increased computing power it reaches a point at which it can understand its own mortality. The MORT theory rests on the assumption, which I believe to be true, that the human brain is the only brain on our planet that has evolved this level of power. MORT explains that sufficient brain power to understand mortality, on its own, lowers reproductive fitness through reduced risk taking and depression because all complex species have evolved behaviors to avoid injury and death. Thus there is a barrier to increased brain power that can only be crossed by simultaneously evolving denial of mortality. Crossing this barrier requires an improbable evolutionary event, analogous to the energy per gene barrier that blocked complex life for 2 billion years until a rare endosymbiosis (merging) of prokaryotes (simple cells) created the eukaryotic cell.

Humans are the only species, so far, on our planet to have crossed the barrier. Several other intelligent social species like elephants, dolphins, chimpanzees, and crows may be blocked at the barrier. It seems likely we outcompeted or killed all of our many hominid cousins that were blocked at the barrier for over a million years.

Evolution appears to have implemented denial of mortality in humans by tweaking the fear suppression module in our brain, which resulted in behavior that manifests as broad denial of all unpleasant realities, including mortality.

This then leads to the second promising path for trying to make the future less bad.  I believe it is our inherited denial of reality that is the most important obstacle to shifting human behavior in a positive direction.

There are several encouraging examples that suggest broad awareness of a harmful inherited behavior can shift society’s average behavior in a positive direction. I plan to explore these examples in a later essay.

So my chosen path is to try to increase awareness of our strong genetic tendency to deny the behaviors that cause overshoot, and to deny the imminent dangers of overshoot.

I nevertheless applaud Dowd’s chosen path and wish him well. It will be interesting to see if a religion can succeed that conflicts with the underlying goals of our genes, namely to maximize replication by competing for finite resources.

It must have been so much easier 2000 years ago when the message of religions was to go forth, multiply, and exploit the earth’s bounty that God created for the exclusive benefit of his chosen people.

I know from experience that a message of no more than one child, austerity, and conservation is a tough sell.

I recommend you spend some time at Dowd’s site The Great Story. It has a deep library of wisdom from many great minds relevant to our predicament.

Dowd has invested a large amount of time creating audio versions of important books and documents. I’m currently re-reading his audiobook version of William R. Catton, Jr.’s seminal 1980 book Overshoot: The Ecological Basis of Revolutionary Change.

First Man (2017 documentary)


I watched this video today. It’s a dramatization of human evolution using actors in makeup and is quite well done. They covered quite a bit of detail on what is known about human evolution over the last few million years.

It was in the last 5 minutes of the 90 minute documentary that I became disappointed. They acknowledged that something important happened 100,000 years ago in one small group of hominids in Africa, and that group quickly displaced all of its many close relatives around the world, and then took over the planet. But unlike with other earlier important events like walking, running, hunting, tools, fire, and cooking, they did not even speculate what happened. Nor did they seem to appreciate its significance.

It’s amazing how many people miss the forest for the trees.

This documentary was ripped by MVGroup and is available at the usual torrent places, or you can pay for it here.

Thirty million years ago a new group of creatures appeared on planet Earth: the great apes. From their ranks arose one family, gifted with exceptional skills: our protagonists.

This family would change the face of our world forever.

Moving upright in the trees, they were then lords of the canopy, reigning supreme over limitless forests stretching from Europe to Asia. They founded a new social way of life. They created a language. They invented education as a way of passing on knowledge to their children.

But the day came when the forest no longer sufficed to feed them. Little by little, they ventured onto the ground where they developed hunting skills, and tools to improve their skills.

This early family expanded in number, producing the need to become collectively organized. Politics reared its head. Power structures and warfare soon followed.

Some now decided to risk liberating themselves for good from the world of the trees.

Our ancestors were hungry for freedom. But on the savannah, the predators were absolute kings. So our ancestors invented weapons. And, for the first time, challenged the supremacy of the big cats. A new era had begun.

Man’s early ancestors set off to conquer the world, to explore the unknown, to adapt to every environment. And one day, to conquer fire – a discovery that made them invincible.

They built shelters. They transformed their environment. But still this did not slake their thirst for more. They sought to fathom Nature’s mysteries. They invented stories to explain the inexplicable. Now, they are Men.

Here, for the very first time in television history, is the saga of our origins, told through the story of one single family – an epic journey upon which the latest scientific discoveries shine an exciting new light.

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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Bottleneck or Barrier?

Varki’s Mind Over Reality Transition theory says that awareness of mortality is a barrier to evolving an extended theory of mind and this barrier can only be crossed by simultaneously evolving denial of reality.

Only one species has crossed this barrier and it used its extended theory of mind to take over the planet, while denying the consequences of its success.

One prediction of Varki’s theory is that all 7 billion humans will have descended from the individual that managed to cross the barrier.

Here is a short video that explains why it is generally accepted that all 7 billion humans descended from one woman about 200,000 years ago.

The usual explanation is that humans experienced a bottleneck caused probably by a changing climate.

I think Varki’s barrier explanation is more consistent with the evidence.

By Nate Hagens: Blindspots and Superheroes

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

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.

Varki’s MOR vs. Jaynes’ Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind

I am reading Julian Jaynes‘ “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” and am trying to understand how it relates to Varki’s Mind Over Reality (aka Denial of Reality) theory.


  1. Is Varki a prerequisite for Jaynes, or does Jaynes stand on its own?
  2. Does Jaynes answer questions not answered by Varki?
  3. Does Jaynes conflict with Varki?
  4. Do the two theories offer different explanations for:
    1. the singular emergence of a brain with an extended theory of mind;
    2. the singular emergence of a brain capable of advanced physics;
    3. the singular emergence and universality of religion in the cultures of behaviorally modern humans;
    4. the reason that belief in life after death is the only common denominator between thousands of human religions;
    5. the reason that otherwise intelligent humans deny all aspects of their overshoot and the severe damage they are doing to the ecology that sustains them.

If there are any readers that have pondered these questions I would love to hear your thoughts.

I intend to write a summary and offer answers to the above questions after I finish the book.

Jaynes is quite a dense and unintuitive book so it may require several readings before I have the confidence to tackle a summary.