For explaining why humans are odd
To Varki and Brower we applaud
A great mystery they solved
With denial we evolved
And created the Higgs, overshoot, and God
This is my short version of Ajit Varki and Danny Brower‘s Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory. A longer more complete version by the authors is here and here. I also wrote a broader explanation here.
The human brain is much more powerful than the brain of any other species. Why?
Most people ask “what’s special about humans?”.
It’s the wrong question.
A powerful brain with an extended theory of mind is clearly a useful adaptation for an intelligent social species because it has permitted humans to take over the planet.
The correct question is “what’s prevented other intelligent social species like chimpanzees, elephants, crows, and dolphins from evolving brains similar to humans?”.
The answer is that a more powerful brain with an extended theory of mind becomes aware of mortality by observing common dangerous activities like hunting and childbirth, and this awareness of death causes depression and reduced risk taking, thus preventing the trait from being passed on to the next generation.
This barrier has prevented the evolution of a more powerful brain in all but one species.
About 100,000 years ago, one small group of hominids in Africa experienced an improbable simultaneous mutation for an extended theory of mind plus denial of death.
While denial of death may appear to be a suspiciously complicated behavior to evolve quickly, it can be implemented by a modest tweak to the fear suppression module that mammals use when fighting. A side effect is that not only is death denied, but anything unpleasant is denied, thus the adaptation manifests as denial of reality aka optimism bias.
On its own, denial of reality is maladaptive because it causes behaviors not optimal for survival. However the two maladaptive behaviors, an extended theory of mind and denial of reality, when combined, become highly adaptive by enabling the evolution of a more powerful brain, which is very useful for an intelligent social species.
The probability of an extended theory of mind plus denial of reality emerging at the same time is very low, and apparently has occurred only once on this planet.
In a geologic blink, that small lucky group outcompeted all other hominids and every other species on the planet.
Denial is not a defect. Denial is what made us human.
Denial now prevents us from acknowledging and changing behavior that threatens our long-term survival and therefore denial may destroy us.
Hence this site’s tagline…
unmasking denial: creator and destroyer