Denial of Death and the Origin of the Human Mind

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* Book: Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind. By Ajit Varki Danny Brower. Twelve, 2013


Contextual Quote

"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."

- Kirkus Reviews [1]

"I used to believe denial was caused by a lack of awareness and understanding, but having made an effort to educate many people, and observing that they almost always aggressively choose not to understand, I began to look for a different explanation.

I concluded that denial must be an inherited behavior because every country, culture, political party, and religion is in denial. And denial must be central to who we are as a species because of its depth, breadth, and aggressiveness."

Un-Denial [2]


From the publisher:

"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."




"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."



1. Daisy Yuhas:

"About 100,000 years ago something in our ancestors changed. Humans began to show new behaviors that set them apart from all other animals on the planet. Most notably, they began creating symbolic art and ornaments. For the first time, people wanted to adorn themselves and their dead, activities that suggested a newfound interest in the perceptions of others.

These artifacts may be the earliest evidence of a human theory of mind, the recognition that every individual has unique intentions, beliefs and desires. In Denial, biologists Varki and Brower (Brower died in 2007) propose a novel explanation for why humans surpassed all other species in mental prowess. The authors argue that as humans contemplated the intentions of those around them, they began reflecting more deeply on the meaning of life itself, and this examination led to the frightening awareness of their mortality. To assuage such fears, humans evolved the unique ability to deny reality. The authors reason that religion and philosophy represent some of our best efforts to do so.

A wealth of evidence documents the human talent for disregarding reality. Sometimes this ability benefits us, as when optimistic cancer patients outlive their pessimistic peers or when an athlete tricks himself into believing he has plenty of reserve energy to push his body past its limits. At other times, our self-deceptions are detrimental. According to Varki and Brower, humans are the world's ultimate risk takers, ignoring scientific facts such as the dangers of smoking and climate change.

The authors believe that this denial mechanism became essential once our brain evolved a more comprehensive understanding of ourselves and others. Before this point, they suggest, we were more like birds and elephants, possessing some—but not much—self-awareness.

Although pivotal to their thesis, Varki and Brower's claim that our fear of mortality predicated our capacity for denial remains somewhat unconvincing, in part because it is impossible to gather evidence of how we developed the relevant abilities. 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.

The authors acknowledge that much of their proposal is untestable, and readers seeking conclusive answers will be disappointed."


2. Chad Gracia:

"Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind, by Ajit Varki and the late Danny Brower, is an important book about the evolutionary origin of the human mind. It begins with the premise that the appearance of human intelligence required the evolution of a full “Theory of Mind” (ToM), the ability of an organism to be both self-aware and cognizant that others are, too. The book inventories the uniquely human activities (from acting and playing sports to developing laws and religions) that seem to require ToM. Equally important, the authors argue that ToM ushers in a novel problem: an awareness of personal mortality, with the resultant terror and paralysis this triggers. Thus, the authors argue, in order to be evolutionarily viable an organism must co-evolve, along with ToM, the ability to deny its death. Without this capacity, advanced self-awareness is an evolutionary dead end, as it creates individuals unlikely to stop trembling long enough to successfully hunt, gather and reproduce, no matter how intelligent they may be.

Possessing a full ToM has wide-ranging consequences, some salutary (healing the sick) and others not (torturing one’s neighbors), but from an evolutionary perspective, without a concomitant ability to deny reality, it would turn evolution “on its head,” replacing the transmission of one’s genes with “personal survival” as an organism’s primary objective (131). As an example, an organism with an awareness of its own mortality would likely forgo dangerous mating rituals, thus failing to pass along any newly acquired genes for ToM.

But reality denial offers a solution for those lucky enough to acquire it at the same time they evolved higher intelligence. This “peculiar, paradoxical, and potent quirk of the human mind” (287) allows its possessor to navigate a dangerous world with relative equanimity, simply by denying that the world is so dangerous after all. It’s clear just how effective we humans have been at suppressing this awareness of mortality. Not only are most of us able to manage the terror of finitude on a daily basis, but we also engage in a panoply of behaviors, from driving automobiles to eating ice cream and starting wars, the dangers of which we understand rationally but nonetheless are quite able to filter out of consciousness. In fact, “despite all rational evidence to the contrary, humans generally don’t actually believe that they will die” (139).

However, the key contribution of this book is not that it posits the ubiquity of denial, a fact that is well understood both theoretically and empirically, but that it fixes the origin of both human intelligence and reality denial in a specific evolutionary time and place, thus lending another potential pillar of support to Ernest Becker’s thesis. And by looking at these paired developments through the long lens of evolution, it provides tantalizing hints to the resolution of several mysteries.

The first derives from the fact that the development of ToM and a cognitive system for denying reality are “a highly unlikely combination that happened only once during biological evolution on this planet” (273). The sophistication and rareness of these two highly complex behaviors – both likely controlled by an immensely complex suite of genes and dependent on a particular pre-existing social environment in which these novel traits could thrive – effectively explains why homo sapiens is the only species among millions to have evolved higher intelligence. This is a truly significant notion, for it resolves what has long been a vexing conundrum: since evolution has had ample time to evolve a myriad of extremely complex behaviors, often independently, and since human-like intelligence is obviously enormously beneficial from an evolutionary perspective, why is it not widespread?

The theory could also shed light on another, equally troubling mystery: why, if there are billions of “earth-like” planets in our galaxy, and if life seems to fill nearly every niche made available to it, have we not encountered signs of extra-terrestrial intelligence (via radio communications at the very least)? If Varki and Brower are correct, this so-called “Fermi paradox” results from the same reason that we can’t partner with any of the millions of species that share our planet in a game of bridge or in a discussion of Shakespeare. The handful of species that seem self-aware but not aware that others are self-aware (whales, dolphins, elephants, chimpanzees, and possibly magpies) may have been “bumping up against this psychological evolutionary barrier” for many millions of years (133). And nascent intelligence in the universe will continue to bump against this barrier until its stumbles upon the highly unlikely co-evolution of cognitive systems for reality denial at the same time that it develops ToM.

Varki and Brower’s book is powerful and persuasive. However, as the scholar Sheldon Solomon has mentioned in a recent review of the same work,1 there are several objections that professionals may raise. First, as Solomon points out, the basic insights of Denial are not entirely novel. The idea that denial is an essential evolutionary development has been present in the existential psychodynamic community for more than fifty years, and has been elaborated by several thinkers, including Solomon and his team in 2004.2 Another criticism is that the book fails to consider that the origin of the human capacity for denial may not rely upon a second order theory of mind. "


More information

* Article: Did Human Reality Denial Breach the Evolutionary Psychological Barrier of Mortality Salience? Evolutionary Psychology book series (EVOLPSYCH)


"Some aspects of human cognition and behavior appear unusual or exaggerated relative to those of other intelligent, warm-blooded, long-lived social species––including certain mammals (cetaceans, elephants, and great apes) and birds (corvids and passerines). One collection of such related features is our remarkable ability for ignoring or denying reality in the face of clear facts, a high capacity for self-deception and false beliefs, overarching optimism bias, and irrational risk-taking behavior (herein collectively called “reality denial”). Such traits should be maladaptive for reproductive success when they first appear as consistent features in individuals of any species. Meanwhile, available data suggest that self-awareness (knowledge of one’s own personhood) and basic theory of mind (ToM, also termed mind-reading, intentionality etc.) have evolved independently several times, particularly in the same kinds of species mentioned above. Despite a long-standing opportunity spanning tens of millions of years, only humans appear to have gone on to evolve an extended ToM (multilevel intentionality), a trait required for optimal expression of many other unusual cognitive attributes of our species, such as advanced linguistic communication and cumulative cooperative culture. The conventional view is that extended ToM emerged gradually in human ancestors, via stepwise positive selection of multiple traits that were each beneficial. A counterintuitive alternate possibility is that establishment of extended ToM has been repeatedly obstructed in all other species with the potential to achieve it, due to a “psychological evolutionary barrier,” that would arise in isolated individuals of a given species that develop the genetic ability for extended ToM. Such individuals would observe deaths of conspecifics whose minds they fully understood, become aware of mortality, and translate that knowledge into mortality salience (understanding of personal mortality). The resulting conscious realization and exaggeration of an already existing intrinsic fear of death risk would have then reduced the reproductive fitness of such isolated individuals (by favoring personal survival over reproduction). This “psychological evolutionary barrier” would have thus persisted until hominin ancestors broke through, via a rare and unlikely combination of cognitive changes, in which two intrinsically maladaptive traits (reality denial and extended ToM) evolved in the minds of the same individuals, allowing a “mind over reality transition” (MORT) over the proposed barrier. Once some individuals broke through in this manner, conventional natural selection could take over, with further evolution of beneficial aspects of the initial changes."