Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower (2013)
Book Review by Scientific American
Book Review by David Charbonneau
CBC Radio Interview with Ajit Varki (19-Jun-2013)
Radio Ecoshock Interview with Ajit Varki (11-Jan-2017)
Ajit Varki discusses his religious childhood and why he became an atheist after entering the medical profession. Varki also discusses his interest in, and respect for, Jesus, the man. (13-May-2016)
Paper by Ajit Varki: Why are there no persisting hybrids of humans with Denisovans, Neanderthals, or anyone else? (2016)
Presentation by Ajit Varki: Mind Over Reality Transition: The Evolution of Human Mortality Denial (3-Mar-2017)
Presentation by Ajit Varki: Did Human Reality Denial Breach the Evolutionary Psychological Barrier of Mortality Salience? (18-Apr-2018)
Paper by Ajit Varki: Did Human Reality Denial Breach the Evolutionary Psychological Barrier of Mortality Salience? A Theory that Can Explain Unusual Features of the Origin and Fate of Our Species (21-Oct-2019)
The history of science abounds with momentous theories that disrupted conventional wisdom and yet were eventually proven true. Ajit Varki and Danny Brower’s “Mind over Reality” theory is poised to be one such idea-a concept that runs counter to commonly-held notions about human evolution but that may hold the key to understanding why humans evolved as we did, leaving all other related species far behind.
At a chance meeting in 2005, Brower, a geneticist, posed an unusual idea to Varki that he believed could explain the origins of human uniqueness among the world’s species: Why is there no humanlike elephant or humanlike dolphin, despite millions of years of evolutionary opportunity? Why is it that humans alone can understand the minds of others?
Haunted by their encounter, Varki tried years later to contact Brower only to discover that he had died unexpectedly. Inspired by an incomplete manuscript Brower left behind, DENIAL presents a radical new theory on the origins of our species. It was not, the authors argue, a biological leap that set humanity apart from other species, but a psychological one: namely, the uniquely human ability to deny reality in the face of inarguable evidence-including the willful ignorance of our own inevitable deaths.
The awareness of our own mortality could have caused anxieties that resulted in our avoiding the risks of competing to procreate-an evolutionary dead-end. Humans therefore needed to evolve a mechanism for overcoming this hurdle: the denial of reality.
As a consequence of this evolutionary quirk we now deny any aspects of reality that are not to our liking-we smoke cigarettes, eat unhealthy foods, and avoid exercise, knowing these habits are a prescription for an early death. And so what has worked to establish our species could be our undoing if we continue to deny the consequences of unrealistic approaches to everything from personal health to financial risk-taking to climate change. On the other hand reality-denial affords us many valuable attributes, such as optimism, confidence, and courage in the face of long odds.
Presented in homage to Brower’s original thinking, DENIAL offers a powerful warning about the dangers inherent in our remarkable ability to ignore reality-a gift that will either lead to our downfall, or continue to be our greatest asset.
About the Authors
Ajit Varki is a physician-scientist who is currently Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Cellular and Molecular Medicine, Associate Dean for Physician-scientist Training, Co-director of the Glycobiology Research and Training Center at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and co-director of the UCSD/Salk Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny.
“This is perhaps the most exciting idea in evolution that I have read since Darwin. Danny Brower’s manuscript survived his untimely death and how it came to Ajit Varki’s hands is an evolutionary story in itself. Varki is a renowned physician-scientist, and what Ajit is doing is to take this manuscript and reworking it, producing a work of beauty and simplicity. It is the tale of the very thing that makes us human. A marvel.”
“Groundbreaking new ideas often come from the most unexpected sources. Here is such an instance, wherein two scholars from disparate disciplines unrelated to human origins have come up with a completely novel theory–to explain one of the most fundamental of human questions: where did we humans come from, and how did we get here? A must read for anyone interested in this age-old quest.”
“A highly readable manifesto for anthropogeny (the study of human origins), DENIAL is written in a lively and engaging style that communicates the excitement of asking the big questions: how are humans different from all other species, and why did other species not evolve a full theory of mind, given the wide-ranging benefits that this brings to humans? Issuing a provocative challenge to future scientists, Ajit Varki’s scholarly journey leads him to speculate about the role of our awareness of our mortality, and our simultaneous tendency to live in denial of it.”
“This book answers the never-ending quest of what sets our species apart with a delightful suggestion. It is not so much our awareness of mortality that is special, the authors claim, but rather our ability to push this awareness to the farthest recesses of our minds. The ostrich has nothing on us.”
“Quite a book, with a revolutionary point of view that I find critically interesting. An enormous effort–an intriguing message and a major contribution.”
“A tremendously engaging story-full of human interest, wit, scientific detective work, and imaginative speculation. It’s great to see Varki and Brower pushing the limits. It makes us fellow-travellers into the field of the known unknowns.”
“I found DENIAL intriguing at first, while perusing it. It soon became fascinating as I started to read it in earnest. I have long held that once they acquired the advanced intelligence characteristic of Homo sapiens, our ancestors became aware of their mortality. Anxiety about death leads to belief in the afterlife and other religious and ethical tenets. That is what I had learned from philosophers, theologians, and others. DENIAL turns these ideas on their head. DENIAL forcefully argues that it was awareness of mortality and its ensuing denial that prompted the evolution of our exalted intelligence. Original, engaging, and beautifully written.”
“Engaging and intellectually exciting. Almost as fascinating as the novel ideas of Brower on the evolutionary origins of a distinctly human consciousness is Varki’s story of how he stumbled upon them, and became preoccupied with their potentially profound implications about what differentiates humans.”
“A magnificent scholarly work, both in terms of the science and the manner in which Varki has ethically tackled a gigantic path opened up by Brower. Wherever one dips into it, one gets involved almost immediately in some fascinating question. A superb book.”
“A surprising and stimulating book that explores a deep insight into those psychological innovations that make us human.”
“A gifted scientist with an encompassing humanitarian vision, Ajit Varki suggests that our blithe but false supposition that we will just go on living, day after day, is an evolutionary adaptation–one that has played a crucial role in the evolution of the human brain. Clear, cogent and compelling, DENIAL makes you ponder our habitual death-denial and why it is so robust. Does this hypothesis convince me? I am constitutionally a tough sell, especially when it comes to big ideas. Still, I do take this one very seriously. The more I kick its tires, the more sturdy it seems.”
A new answer to the question of why Homo sapiens are the only species to have developed a brain with complex mental abilities. Varki (Cellular and Molecular Medicine/Univ. of California, San Diego; co-editor: Essentials of Glycobiology, 2002) and Brower, former professor of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona, shared their ideas about the origin of Homo sapiens in 2005, but Brower died in 2007 before completing his manuscript on the subject. This book is a version of Brower’s draft that Varki has adapted and expanded. They propose that when humans gained not just self-awareness but an understanding that other individuals are also self-aware and have independent minds, they thus became aware of their own mortality. The overwhelming fear that such knowledge produced would have presented an evolutionary barrier had our species not simultaneously developed a neural mechanism for denying reality. According to Varki and Brower, this convergence of self-awareness and self-delusion was a highly unlikely event that has happened only once in the evolution of life on our planet. While some other species demonstrate features of self-awareness, the authors argue that humans are unique in the mental ability to deny reality, which has led to the development of religiosity, death rituals and theories of an afterlife. Reality denial, they write, has both positive and negative consequences on the personal, societal and global level. For example, on the personal level, Varki, a practicing oncologist, cites its positive value in the experience of patients being treated for cancer; however, on the global level, he discusses the negative impact of reality denial on the issue of human-induced climate change. The final chapter presents a number of arguments likely to be offered by those unconvinced by or opposed to the theory of reality denial. A novel idea about the origins of the human mind but long-winded and repetitious in its development.
5 thoughts on “Book”
Ajit Varki has a day job doing respectable mainstream science. Here is a sample of his latest research.
Why are humans the only species prone to heart attacks?
I got around to reading the whole (e)book and see this as a major passage for context:
“But wait, you say: I don’t have much of a problem denying the reality of the fact that I am going to die. I can simply use my native human intelligence to consider the facts and statistics and rationalize away any fears I may have. After all, I might very well live a long time, so why should I worry about it right now? The fallacy in this logic is that you are a modern-day human whose ancestors have already crossed the barrier, and you are thus already capable of denying the unpleasant reality of your mortality. So it seems quite trivial to you. But as we shall see later, it was quite a different matter for the first humans who initially understood their mortality.”
That clears up some casual reactions to the book’s theory, but it’s also a chicken & egg paradox with nothing physical as evidence. The authors knew they had no way to prove that the brain made a “wiring” leap into denial, so it looks like a search in progress. There’s still just the innate will to live and life offering enough rushes to mask the grim parts.
The example of “that very rare young lion with full ToM who has thought about your mortality at length” (so why risk death with a mating rival?) was the most convincing basic argument. Still, it rests on the assumption that lower animals rush into battle merely because they lack ToM. I posit that any species capable of killing has a reptilian ability to “just do it” when there’s enough hunger or peer-pressure. Destruction of passive life like trees comes much easier.
While several pages covered overpopulation denial, I’d have preferred more focus on that vs. climate change denial, which is far more anthropocentric than concerns over open space development (“Greens” supporting “clean” energy sprawl bugs me more than climate apathy). Too many people are still pushing techno-fixes over ZPG and personal restraint.
The book is certainly well done, fully agreed on or not.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book.
It is a valid criticism that the theory reads like a “just so” story, and that it is not currently possible to conduct an experiment to falsify the theory. It reads like a “just so” story because the theory provides the simplest and best explanation for all of the known facts about the singular explosive emergence of an extended theory of mind, and many strange and unique behaviors of our species.
Nevertheless Varki has publicly stated that if anyone can present a fact that contradicts the theory, he will happily agree the theory is wrong.
For me, one such falsifying fact would be to find a tribe or culture anywhere in time or space that does not believe in some form of life after death. There are many sound evolutionary reasons for the existence of religions, but belief in life after death is not one of them.
Another such fact would be to find another animal that believes in gods.
Another such fact would be to find a single country in the world that has decided to implement rapid population reduction policies since that is the only policy that demonstrates an awareness of the reality of the coming energy depletion and climate change disasters.
These are just my personal favorites, there are many other possible facts that could falsify the theory.
Please come back and let us know if you ever find a fact that contradicts Varki’s theory.
The best way I can see to falsify the theory is a Hawkins-style translator for chimps, elephants, dolphins, etc. to describe their ToM firsthand. The ones with nothing close to opposable thumbs or freed-up arms are trapped in limited body structures, even with ideal brains, which I thought the book would cover more beyond chapter 3.
It would help to read more of Brower’s work to gauge his thinking patterns and why he alone triggered this theory. I can’t find any videos to see personality clues. Before, I wasn’t aware that anthropologists sought any one factor to explain Man’s rise, beyond an evolutionary lucky streak.
Brower’s main insight, I think, was to recognize that for many social species, intelligence is a powerful fitness advantage, and therefore the correct question to ask is what has blocked other species from evolving human-like intelligence?