By 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. Scott Atran, for example, posits a more straightforward explanation in his book, In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion:
existential anxieties are by-products of evolved emotions, such as fear and the will to stay alive, and of evolved cognitive capacities, such as episodic memory and the ability to track the self and others over time. For example, once you can track even the seasons—and nuts—you cannot avoid the overwhelming inductive evidence favoring your own death and that of those you are emotionally bonded to.3
However, whether the trigger for the evolution of reality denial is a full ToM or the suite of cognitive faculties outlined above (or some combination thereof), the contention that we required the evolution of a brain module dedicated to reality denial remains an important and compelling assertion.
Finally, while the straightforward two-step process of ToM and denial that the book describes is likely an oversimplification of a complex dance between scores of cognitive modules, Denial does an excellent job introducing this powerful and significant theory to a wider audience. Varki admits that he is not an expert in any of the relevant fields the book discusses and suggests that “it is now up to others to consider the ideas put forward and follow through with attempts to either falsify or support what appears to be a justifiable hypothesis” (283). Scholars influenced by the thought of Ernest Becker have long ago begun just this work, and if a broader spectrum of scientists embrace and explore the “potent combination of our powerful intelligence with our massive reality denial” (221), it will be a boon not only to those seeking to comprehend human nature, but also to those interested in the evolutionary history of all life.
1 “Trends in Cognitive Science,” vol 17, issue 12.
2 Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., Schimel, J., Arndt, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2004). Human awareness of death and the evolution of culture. In M. Schaller and C. Crandal (eds.), The psychological foundations of culture, p. 15-40. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.
3 Atran, S. (2002). In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion. p. 66.