Theory (short)

It's Not Denial (alt)


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 God¹


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 an excellent video version is here. I also wrote a broader narrative here.

The human brain is much more powerful than the brain of any other species.


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.

Evolution frequently re-discovers successful solutions. For example, the eye independently evolved in several different species.

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.

Crossing the 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 (complex cell common to all multicellular life).

About 100,000 years ago, one small group of hominids in Africa broke through the barrier by simultaneously evolving an extended theory of mind with denial of death.

While denial of death may appear to be a suspiciously complicated behavior to evolve quickly, it can, for example, be implemented by a modest tweak to the fear suppression module that mammals use when fighting. A side effect of this solution 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 clearly 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, just as the eukaryotic cell emerged only once.

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

¹This sentence attempts to communicate the three most amazing things about the human brain:

  1. Higgs: Extreme curiosity and intelligence that successfully explained the creation of the universe, life, and one very special brain.
  2. Overshoot: Aggressive denial of all evidence and appropriate responses to its own overshoot and imminent demise.
  3. God: Near universal belief in life after death despite zero supporting evidence and plentiful contradictory evidence.



5 thoughts on “Theory (short)”

  1. It’s a just-so-story based on zero evidence. “… 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…” Why would awareness of INEVITABLE, not conditional, death reduce risk taking. On the contrary, if you thought you would, barring accident, live forever THEN you would become hyper-careful and avoid all risk (like childbirth). That you’re going to die no matter what you do makes risk taking an easy decision. As I tell my friends, “The older you get, the less you have to lose.”


    1. I disagree. If you think you are invincible you take risks as demonstrated by teenage boys in cars. The first person in a tribe to evolve awareness of their own mortality would have had a very difficult time coping with no one else to talk to that understood their fears, and no religion to fall back on.

      Plate tectonics was a just so story until the scientists who could not see the obvious were replaced by a new generation.

      Varki is searching for a fact that slays his MORT theory. If you have such a fact I will pass it on to him.


    2. The human brain has been seen as triune with the reptilian as the base on which the other systems limbic ,emotional and intellectual structures evolved. The lower instinctive reptilian centres are survival instinctive fight or flight. This survival base has been layered over but unconsciously infects the limbic and other brain structures ,amplifying our fear of being rejected or ostracized. Having the ability of putting ourselves in the other mental space allows us to socialize and find some mental comfort even though what we ascribe to as truth is outside reality,as seen with some religious beliefs political and economic ideologies and doctrine. This unconscious fear of our mortality ,the fear of death is the fear that must be overcome and thus gain our freedom. This is the meaning of the great myth of religion ,the shaman goes inward to face this fear and resurrect the body ,which is the tree of life,the kundalini. The purpose of life or more correctly the purpose of the universe the manifest and un manifest is evolution to greater love, the experience of union of the opposites . We made the first breakthrough ,for our very survival we must come to an understanding of the next stage in our conscious evolution, which is known as the perennial mystical experience.


        1. The perennial mystical experience : which experiences the unity behind the universe / side by side with the diversity perceived by the senses,posited as the next stage of human evolution. Mortality salience gives rise to a divided state as to our mind,body . A divided state of being is incomplete, and one of self doubt,consequently consciousness is ego centric. The perennial mystical experience is experienced when the egoic fear has been overcome and consciousness that is our awareness experience is centred in union or resonance with what is behind the phenomenal plane. Think here of the great quantum physicist David Bohm’s implicate and explicate order. Wilhelm Reich, who worked with Freud asked the question when did man turn against himself . Theory of mind and denial may well be the answer. Understanding the next conscious breakthrough will be best expressed by those who have made the breakthrough. The perennial philosophy is the truth behind all religions, the Magnus Opus the great work of discovery of this next stage of conscious evolution, a consciousness that embraces reality because it is centred in union of the experience of the whole. I agree it would seem woo woo, partly due to my deficient explanation. I haven’t read Varki’ book but Depth psychology as to Jung and Reich and religious truth and myth and higher physics would seem to all point in this direction of the this next conscious breakthrough.Tom Campbell who wrote my big Toe ie theory of everything made two basic assumptions “the fundamental process of evolution along with primordial consciousness as a fundamental source or structural energy. ”
          I know that I haven’t really got to the core of the experience but have touched on some areas that may be of interest. The real power of this theory is when it is seen as both a break through and how it’s negative ie, fear aspect fit into the next stage in human conscious evolution. I am not a woo woo guy and have a fairly good grasp on peak oil and abrupt climate change, and do not deny the inevitability of near term human extinction. It is a big subject but the pieces do fit and really is there any more satisfying and joyous endeavour. Totally understand if you delete ,probably do so myself.


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