The yaksha asked: “What is the greatest surprise?” Yudhisthira replied: “People die every day, making us aware that men are mortal. Yet we live, work, play, plan, etc., as if assuming we are immortal. What is more surprising than that?”
— The Mahabharata
Every few days or weeks, Rob Mielcarski posts to his Un-Denial blog some or another nuance to the Mind Over Reality Transition (MORT) theory of Varki and Brower (2013). If you are not aware of MORT, the idea in a nutshell is that somewhere in the evolution of human neurobiology there came a moment when we were so freaked out by recognition of our own mortality (after ritualistically consuming a paranoia-inducing mushroom like Amanita muscaria perhaps), that we hard-wired a capacity to deny our own mortality and take on blind faith that every-day-reality is too unreliable to put complete trust in.
In the original, unfinished paper, the late Danny Brower explained MORT this way:
“We are polluting the earth and changing the climate in ways that we can’t predict, and likely at some point, can’t easily reverse. If we’re so smart, why do we continue to sow the seeds for our eventual destruction? Because we are saddled with a brain that is designed by selection to cope with the ultimate disaster (death) by denying that it will occur, and so we treat other impending disasters by denying that they will ever happen ……Indeed, it is arguable that we are destined ultimately to destroy ourselves as a species.”
In a recent chapter for Shackelford and Zeigler-Hill (eds.), Evolutionary Perspectives on Death, Evolutionary Psychology (Springer 2019), Ajit Varki riffs on Brower’s idea:
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.
Most human behaviors exist in other species on a continuum of development, as one would expect from evolution. But religion appears to be a well-established near universal only in human cultures and there are many obvious fitness advantages that have been discussed by others. But most of these advantages should not require a belief in life after death. Nevertheless, almost all religions have at their core some form of such afterlife beliefs, which would serve as another mechanism to blunt the impact of mortality salience. Of course, atheists do not live in constant fear of their mortality, so the underlying reality denial appears to be the primary mechanism.
Could the well-known human craving for mind-altering substances also be partly due to the need to escape reality? Could the same be true of the positive value of meditation methods that focus on mindfulness of the present, or the shutting out of irksome reality? Conversely, could episodic panic attacks represent a sudden failure of the neural mechanisms of reality denial?
Mielcarski, following in the footsteps of Brower and Varki, says that it is impossible for high intelligence to exist without reality denial. At the same time, reality denial is a ticking time bomb embedded into the entire human experiment. Reality denial is what stands between our existential climate emergency and the simple, relatively cost-free, natural climate solutions I have been describing here for the past 532 posts or in the prior two decades of publishing the quarterly Natural Rights in hard copy. Reality denial is what crashed the recent COP25 climate conference in Madrid, pushing off a hard deadline imposed by physical reality. Reality denial is what allowed the UK to re-empower Boris Johnson, US to elect Trump, Brazil to elect Bolsonaro, India to elevate Modi, and so forth. All of those nasty tendencies to act counter to our own best interest are programmed into the central processing unit in our genetic mainframe. It is not like we can go in and do a bug-patch. This is not software. The MORT trait passes whole and entire in our mitochondria every time one of our cells divides.
If that is not depressing enough, Homo sapiens have a second evolutionary trait that could guarantee our extinction should MORT prove inadequate to the task.
That trait is tribalism.
In most of its manifestations it seems harmless enough. The family gathered around the dinner table. Football rivalries. A neighborhood barbecue. A celebration of ethnic heritage. Kneeling in prayer under stained-glass windows.
But tribalism is also the street protests over Modi’s Muslim quotas. Babies crying and children dying in cages in Texas. Blue Collar against White Collar. Communist and Capitalist. Catholic against Protestant. Right and Left. Red or Blue. Harvard vs. Yale. Tutsi against Hutu. Crips and Bloods. Crise anglophone in Cameroon. Small differences in skin pigmentation. Different dialects of the same language. Differences in social theory. Us. Them.
In evolutionary biology it is a common strategy: safety in numbers; pack hunting; clustered quarters for protection from night predators. Two-leggeds are no different in this respect from zebras crossing a river of crocodiles, a troop of monkeys filling a tree, a herd of buffalo enclosing their young, or a lion pride circling a lone gazelle.
When we sacrifice for our tribe we are rewarded. When we offend our tribe we are punished. The tribe is order. The tribe is security. The tribe is identity.
The tribe is also an extinction time-bomb. Its benefits are overshadowed by its destructive potential. “USA first” is President Cobblepot’s justification for pulling out of the Paris Agreement. When he appeared at the United Nations and told every nation they should be seeking only their own interests there, he rowed against the current of 70 years of a fragile but expanding multilateralism. Now there are many who feel empowered to pick up oars and row with him. Witness the coming Scottish vote to withdraw from the UK.
In his Christmas blog, Mielcarski draws upon a year-end essay in the Megacancer blog that propounds a notion that humans are just one of many living organisms driven by the need to gather energy, expand population, and gather more energy,
Humans should never think of themselves as smart or intelligent, they’re simply a thermodynamic event maintaining homeostasis through gradient reduction. Their entire mentality serves energy/wealth acquisition, consumption and reproduction. Being a social mammal (obtaining energy as a group) they are hierarchically organized and are constantly striving to improve their social standing by whatever means possible (if they haven’t yet seen the futility in such efforts). Those able to control the most money/energy are admired and envied by their sycophants while those with less success are regularly scorned and often deemed unworthy of reproduction or even living. Just as the human civilization will enslave, consume and/or deprive other species of their ability to live and reproduce, so too wealthy humans will enslave less avaricious humans and use them for self-enrichment.
I confess a jaundiced view towards this analysis because it seems boxed into a particular worldview derived from ancient desert religions engaged in ritual conquest and despoliation. We don’t need to adopt that model any more than we need to keep ready-standby militaries in times of peace. That is just inertia, Mr. Obama.
You can point to acquisitive, expansionist, competitive, wasteful patterns of the white Euroamerican tribe, or you can point to sharing, self-limiting, self-effacing patterns of some indigenous societies that enjoyed thousands of years without hunger or war. The distinction lies between a juvenile r-sere ecosystem and a mature k-sere ecosystem. By fixing on the juvenile stage, you assume there is no later stage of cultural evolution awaiting greater maturity.
If we have any hope to survive, or to save the myriad other species we are now in the process of destroying, we need to somehow overcome these two traits — reality-denial and tribal loyalty — with a stronger counter-program of k-sere culture, elegantly interconnected, complex, and diverse. Before we pack our sons off to Afghanistan or Syria we might first ask whom they are being sent to kill, and why? When we kneel in prayer, we should appeal to the Almighty for guidance in better loving our fellow creatures, of all colors, beliefs, and languages, as well as those with fins, and wings, and roots in the ground.
For our guiding credo, we could do worse than to adopt something approaching the eloquence of Sibelius’ national anthem of Finland:
This is my song, O God of all the nations
A song of peace, for lands afar and mine
This is my home, the country where my heart is
Here are my hopes, my dreams, my holy shrine
But other hearts in other lands are beating
With hopes and dreams as true and high as mine
My country’s skies are bluer than the ocean
And sunlight beams on clover leaf and pine
But other lands have sunlight too, and clover
And skies are everywhere as blue as mine
Oh hear my song, thou God of all the nations
A song of peace for their land and for mine
— Jean Sibelius, 1899
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