A Fascinating New Theory About the Human Mind, Evolution and Mortality
Why have other species failed to evolve human-like intelligence? The answer may lie in our conception of mortality.
June 7, 2013
From the book DENIAL: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. Copyright © 2013 by Ajit Varki. Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All rights reserved.
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Who are we? How did we get here? Why are we the way we are? And where are we going?
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anthropogeny (this classic but long-unused term encompasses the scientific pursuit of human origins and evolution).
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However, the late Danny Brower, a geneticist from the University of Arizona, suggested to me that the real question is why they should have emerged in only one species, despite millions of years of opportunity. Here, I attempt to communicate Brower’s concept.
He explained that with full self-awareness and inter-subjectivity would also come awareness of death and mortality. Thus, far from being useful, the resulting overwhelming fear would be a dead-end evolutionary barrier, curbing activities and cognitive functions necessary for survival and reproductive fitness.
Brower suggested that, although many species manifest features of self-awareness (including orangutans, chimpanzees, orcas, dolphins, elephants and perhaps magpies), the transition to a fully human-like phenotype was blocked for tens of millions of years of mammalian (and perhaps avian) evolution.
In his view, the only way these properties could become positively selected was if they emerged simultaneously with neural mechanisms for denying mortality. Although aspects such as denial of death and awareness of mortality have been discussed as contributing to human culture and behaviour, to my knowledge Brower’s concept of a long-standing evolutionary barrier had not previously been entertained. Brower’s contrarian view could help modify and reinvigorate ongoing debates about the origins of human uniqueness and inter-subjectivity. It could also steer discussions of other uniquely human “universals,” such as the ability to hold false beliefs, existential angst, theories of after-life, religiosity, severity of grieving, importance of death rituals, risk-taking behaviour, panic attacks, suicide and martyrdom.
If this logic is correct, many warm-blooded species may have previously achieved complete self-awareness and inter-subjectivity, but then failed to survive because of the extremely negative immediate consequences. Perhaps we should be looking for the mechanisms (or loss of mechanisms) that allow us to delude ourselves and others about reality, even while realizing that both we and others are capable of such delusions and false beliefs.
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I found this strangely empathetic.
If one is “smart”, one makes a will. My older family members strongly held the false belief that if you made your will, you’d soon die. When my youngest aunt died unexpectedly without a will, they saw first hand how expensive that was. Since, for some reason, I was immune to that meme, I had made a will when I got married. And, had updated it several times without dying. I was able to get them in and get it done. Luckily, no prematures passings resulted.
My wife knew about the bad side of diabetes from her brother growing up, When she was diagnosed, we knew and discussed her life expectancy. She lived life to the fullest. She had 20 more years than the “witch doctors” predicted for her. While we “knew” the facts, her passing was a real punch in my gut. One that I don’t think I’ll ever get over. Funny one discussion I remember, I said: “It’ll be easier on me, if I go first”. Her response: “Don’t do that. Think how hard it would be for me.” Of course, I agreed. Like we had any control over what or what would not happen. Other than those few “planning” conversations, we dealt with it by ignoring it for the most part. She was MUCH better at doing that than I was. But she insisted.
This article really hit home.
Maybe we as a species advanced because of a quite remarkable ability to invoke a “selective blindspot”?
I’m going to read this book. Maybe I’ll get some more insight into my problems.
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