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, here, and 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 forced to fight. 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:
- Higgs: Extreme curiosity and intelligence that successfully explained the creation of the universe, life, and one very special brain.
- Overshoot: Aggressive denial of all evidence and appropriate responses to its own overshoot and imminent demise.
- God: Near universal belief in life after death despite zero supporting evidence and plentiful contradictory evidence.
25 thoughts on “Theory (short)”
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.”
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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.
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Humans do still have fight (fight or flight) these days its called anxiety or panic attack. And I dont think anyone is denying death… Even if you believe in god ot to like you all of a sudden lost your survival instint. Good theroery but unless Im totally misunderstanding it has some serious flaws.
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Happy to engage with you but I’m not following your argument. Please elaborate on the flaws you see in Varki’s theory.
Below are some surface points I question about MORT theory, though I’ve yet to know it in detail. I certainly find it interesting, as someone who sees most people as lacking profundity. They behave like partying apes with technology that only a handful could have invented.
A) Other smart species like elephants and dolphins lack the physical form to do much with their intelligence, e.g. opposable thumbs. Denial or not, you can only do so much with only a trunk or mouth to grasp objects. Neither of those species can build anything significant so their intelligence could be considered overkill. Dolphins are also stuck in the water.
B) Other apes that got fairly smart might have just lost the final brain lottery, so to speak. Some branch had to make it further and Earth could have ended up like Planet of the Apes (far-fetched plot notwithstanding).
C) How do we know that other species aren’t also in denial? Every time a deer eats it has to take a leap of faith that attackers won’t show up. That’s actually braver than many people if they knew a serial killer was lurking in the woods. Completely “dumb” species like slugs seem to have no awareness that they could be stepped on, so denial effectively exists at much lower levels. It could just be a case of “I have to eat so I have to take chances.” Does the male praying mantis or black widow have genetic awareness of its final romp?
D) If denial exists in all species, we just happen to be the smartest one with it. The 100,000-year-ago shift could have been a spike of luck, not exactly happening overnight. Evolution has been shown to happen in bursts. I’m inclined to think that any species remotely aware of its mortality is in denial of death, but life is also worth living in the meantime, so what else can they do? Investigation of suicides (among seemingly OK people) may shed light on why some quit and others press on.
Those are just tentative arguments and I plan to read the book someday, especially if Trump gets reelected.
All good questions that I’m a little too busy to answer in detail now but I’ll be back with a reply later.
If you are skeptical and seek alternate explanations for our destructive behaviors Nate Hagens has probably done the most thinking on this. He has compiled a long list of evolved human behaviors that contribute to overshoot. Nate is publishing a book soon, and until then you can find his best work on this blog.
Also, you don’t need to read Varki’s book to get his central arguments. He does a good job explaining in this video. I suggest you pause the video from time to time to read his slides because there’s a lot of information he does not have time to speak to.
I’d already watched much of the Varki video and know of Hagens, but will check them out more. If most of it hinges on a big change around 100,000 years ago, I assume they’ve applied Occam’s Razor to other causes.
A modified MORT theory could be that any animal aware of its morality and overgrazing the land (so to speak) is in denial but humans can cause the most permanent damage. Denial as unique to people doesn’t quite have the ring of truth.
How could other animals be “in denial”, other than figuratively speaking? They don’t have the mental capacity to conceptually think about the world like humans do, that’s the point of MORT. Those higher mental faculties unique to humans could only develop together with psychological defense mechanisms like denial, otherwise they would have been a disadvantage, evolutionarily speaking. (You may claim that now denial is coming back to bite us, but our overshoot is actually a proof of the success of homo sapiens, it’s a unique and never-again-to-occur situation, and as long as humanity isn’t completely wiped off the planet, the coming die-off doesnt’t disproof it, again from the standpoint of natural selection – by measure of common sense or rationality we’re indeed insane).
The “dumb” animals are just not aware of their mortality. They might have an emotional / hard-wired fear response when in danger, but they have no concept of what it means to cease to exist.
I agree that non-ape species couldn’t make much use of human-level intelligence.
Thanks kindly Chris for answering Respect’s question.
“You could never convince a monkey to give you a banana by promising him limitless bananas after death in monkey heaven.”
― Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
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That’s because it is too dumb to imagine anything like monkey heaven. If it were smart enough it too would probably be in denial of death. It’s a matter of fear not of intelligence. Humans are only selectively rational.
Apneaman wrote: “…The “dumb” animals are just not aware of their mortality. They might have an emotional / hard-wired fear response when in danger, but they have no concept of what it means to cease to exist….”
But how can you know that without being inside their minds? Other species are known to grieve for dead kin and it’s arrogant to assume they have no inner-lives (a common excuse to kill them for utility & sport). Some animal families like corvidae, exhibit unusual intelligence from mere bird-brains, and no human has been inside those minds. See: https://www.google.com/search?q=are+animals+aware+of+their+mortality
Again, if MORT rests on some big change around 100,000 years ago, all co-factors must be eliminated to isolate denial. The theory has elements of a belief in search of evidence or a memorial to Brower himself. I’ve had trouble finding videos of him speaking (for personality clues) but it’s worth reading a popular professor-review site.
https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mind-reviews-denial/ “…As they observe, there is no specific neural circuitry to explain how we evolved a theory of mind or a propensity for self-deception. It seems equally probable that these qualities co-evolved or that they are unrelated to each other…”
Like that reviewer, I have trouble seeing denial as a driver instead of a passenger. Other decently-smart species also need a means to overcome fear and we can’t know their full motives. Even though denial is pervasive, it has chicken & egg qualities, like whether fear came before pain or water before rain.
My take on humans is that greed + arrogance + stupidity + denial = destruction, and “you can’t fix stupid.”
I recently finished the book “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel” by Carl Safina that was recommended to me because it provides many examples of impressive animal intelligence, and shows that some animals have a range of emotions as rich as humans. All true it seems and consistent with what I already believed.
My main motivation for reading the book was to find any evidence that another species denies death with gods. I found none, as Varki’s MORT predicts. Nor did I find evidence that another species has invented a symbolic language, discovered General Relativity, or mastered fire.
Well, I didn’t know death had to be specifically denied via gods and nobody’s proved that denial must only occur with the highest achievements. Watch out for cherry-picking, pilgrim!
They never called the theory falsifiable so it could remain in speculative purgatory. Brower’s own wife mentions some doubts in a comment here: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/16131197-denial
I’m not here to deny the denial predicament, though daily impacts of greed (primary survival instinct) concern me more. That’s what’s driving the direct damage to nature.
No gods required. That’s my embellishment and is not approved by Varki. Its destiny is much worse than speculative purgatory. Everyone is and will continue to ignore it, because as the theory predicts, denial is denied.
I disagree that greed, as the word is commonly understood, is a survival “instinct”. It is a function of envy and ambition, which are ultimately rooted in the fear of death (and the need to put something in front of it to not have look into the abyss). The word also carries an emotional baggage.
Indeed, humans are selfish and not seldom quite disgustingly so, both as individuals and as collectives, but the same could be said about all the other species. The most selfish and ruthless organisms tend to thrive best under the conditions prevailing on earth, where the weak get eaten by the strong and “might makes right”.
Greed, arrogance and stupidity are not the core reasons for the destruction of the environment. Even greedy and arrogant people would stop, IF they could, before going on a suicide mission, and humans are certainly not too stupid too see what’s going on, if they cared to be informed (again it is denial which makes people look “dumber” than they are, because it makes them “overlook” certain realities that would be too hard to bear emotionally.)
I don’t know about the inner lives of other species and I’m sure there must be something going on in the brains of mammals, birds, but I believe even the other apes don’t have a full Theory of Mind, nor the ability to think conceptually about death, to imagine things they’ve never seen before etc. Humans needed to evolve denial because our ability to imagine things that are not directly in front of us, to think about possibilites, can produce fear that can be hindering in the challenges of survival and competition.
I’m also not sure I agree with all specific details of MORT, I think rather not, but I believe that denial was the solution evolution “came up with” to deal with the “downsides” of human consciousness.
Nice explanation Chris. I mostly agree.
Safina’s book gave examples of animals planning, so some apparently can imagine and look ahead. The unique human behavior seems to center around the extended theory of mind. Several animals are close and mourn their dead but none show any evidence of a belief in life after death.
As a test of the strength and ubiquity of our tendency to deny unpleasant realities, walk up to a neighbor and explain peak oil. You will see a curtain come down over their eyes. Or they will get aggitated and argue irrationaly against the facts. It’s fascinating when you are tuned to watch for it.
I have an open channel to Varki if you have found any flaws or improvements to the theory you want him to consider.
This is where it gets really difficult, when trying to evaluate the minds of other “smart” animals, as you can only observe their behavior, not their “cognitions”. Can they really creativly imagine things they’ve never seen before? When they mourn their dead, are they concerned about what happened to the “deceased” or just sad they lost a “friend/relative”? Why don’t they show evidence of a belief in life after death (like ritually burying their dead, lol, try to imagine that), beacause they are not in denial, or because it’s too difficult a concept for them to imagine?
Nah, I’m too afraid of PO myself to talk about it, lol, I don’t want them to know…
But you can also go to your typical bible-thumping believer and mention a few inconsistencies in their faith, or evidence of evolution; or, more generally, you could point out some “lies” to someone on which his self-esteem depends, etc. if you like to see the curtain going down.
All not very nice, but sometimes being attuned to reality can be more important than good feelings.
You might also want to take a look at Reg Morrison’s book, Spirit in the Gene: Humanity’s Proud Illusion and the Laws of Nature — https://www.amazon.com/Spirit-Gene-Humanitys-Illusion-Comstock/dp/0801436516 ; https://regmorrison.edublogs.org/1999/07/20/plague-species-the-spirit-in-the-gene/
Thank you, I’ve read most of that book.
The ability to imagine a future is the ability to deny a future.
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Perhaps replace “is” with “requires”?
This theory is new to me so I can’t say I’ve thought much about my objection, but one thing that came to my mind while reading this is that people don’t usually deny the possibility of death or suffering in everyday life. I’d rather say that we think too much about it. We sometimes worry so much about every possible outcome of our choices and actions that we remain stuck, frozen. We lock ourselves inside our mind, not sharing our real thoughts or feelings, because we’re so afraid of being repelled from our group even though every time we actually talk to each other about our inner selves, we realize we’re not alone. We don’t believe in our ability to change things around us, we fear even taking the first step and talk to each other about it. Fear is the main obstacle to a more sustainable living in most people I talk to and meet, not denial. Perhaps the rich and powerful of the world are a different species where this theory makes more sense. Those that creates the unsustainable systems that the rest of us just blindly follow, out of fear and comfort.
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