Book Reviews

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Did the evolution of human intelligence depend on an ability to deny reality?

Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower is fascinating theory linking the evolution of human intelligence to our unique ability to deny reality, and ultimately, the realization that "you are going to die."

Ever wonder why, of all the various life forms on this planet, humans are the only creatures with the brainpower necessary to plan far in advance, collaborate, tell stories, and pass along information in ways that help future generations succeed? If you answered yes, this book will interest you, unless your answer also included “because god.” Religious types and climate change skeptics might want to give this a pass.

Authors Ajit Varki a distinguished physician and researcher, and Danny Brower, an insect geneticist, came up with a fascinating theory to explain our incredible, almost ludicrous success thanks to our unique brains. (Brower died in 2007 and really only contributed the fundamental argument to the theory in a long-ago conversation; crediting him was a nice touch). The theory posits that developing a full theory of mind, meaning one is self aware and realizes other people have similar minds and thoughts—and thus are predictable and able to be influenced—faces an almost insurmountable evolutionary barrier. The realization that you are going to die (‘mortality salience”) is maladaptive, refocusing precious energy on preservation instead of procreation. In other words, once you are truly self aware, you would be better served ignoring biological dictates to reproduce at all costs, and focus on living longer.

The authors believe that it’s highly likely our ancestors, and even other animals (elephants, corvids, etc.), bumped up against this barrier many times in the last few hundreds of thousands of years. And, unable to continue reproducing effectively, those new traits—that would have been so beneficial – were out-bred changes that increased overall reproductive fitness. And so, we were doomed to never get thse sexy brains of ours until we, luckiest of all creatures—at this point, a group of maybe ten thousand or so proto-ancestors—developed full theory of mind while simultaneously developing the ability to deny reality.

We all are pretty clear on how good humans are at denial. If you really think about how short our lives are, how meaningless in the grand or even the mediocre scheme of things, we would probably just curl up at home with a jug of whiskey and Netflix and wait for the end. Instead, we march around the world doing things and fighting wars and building skyscrapers and generally just strutting about being confident that what we do is important and matters.

The theory is simple, brilliant and completely un-provable, but makes a great deal of intuitive sense and offers an explanation of why humans have thrived. Of course, there are some issues that accompany our expertise in reality denial, including building our own religious straight-jackets, and the current skepticism around climate change, to which an entire chapter is devoted.

Here are a few great lines:

“Anxiety attacks represent a sudden episodic failure of the human reality denial system, transiently unmasking the fear of death. The fact that there is no known naturally occurring equivalent of this disease in other animals … suggest that it is telling us something about human cognitive origins.”

And, when writing about how lying to procure mates (an adaptive reproductive strategy) might have created the full theory of mind: “Males would be selected to be better and better liars [to convince females to mate], and females would counter by being selected to be better and better lie detectors [to ensure mate choices were based on the best available information]. Evolving something approaching a full TOM [theory of mind] would be very helpful to both sides in this mental gamesmanship.”

It’s a good read, a little repetitive at times, but built on a solid foundation and filled with interesting and thought provoking asides. For example, I couldn’t help but wonder if some of the current mental health issues humans deal with are a by product of the genetic mutations that allowed us to develop our significant reality denial mechanisms.

This book is intriguing and well worth the time, and hopefully an area that will get more scientific research attention.