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Denial, Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the

Origins of the Human Mind

By Ajit Varki & Danny Brower

Twelve

369 pages, $27

By Michael D. Langan

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Two scientists have hit upon a counterintuitive idea in a scholarly book that offers to explain our position at the top of the animal kingdom. We humans seem to do two things that they say don’t exist in other creatures. First, we appear to be the only species that can understand the minds of others. Recognizing the personhood of others means that “the first behaviorally modern humans would have also become aware of their own mortality, a realization that could have caused great anxiety, resulting in avoiding the risks of competing to procreate – an evolutionary dead-end.”

Second, psychologically, this quality of mind can mean that “… we deny reality in the face of inarguable evidence – including the willful ignorance of our own inevitable deaths.”

Can this be true? We know from our daily experience – because of what the authors call this evolutionary quirk – that we deny any number of aspects of reality that we don’t care to acknowledge. Some of us smoke cigarettes, eat greasy food. We may also avoid exercise and do a lot of other stupid things, knowing deep in our hearts that if we continue to deny the consequences of bad habits, we could die untimely deaths.

Make sense? This is what the authors maintain: Humans “needed to evolve a mechanism for overcoming this hurdle: the denial of reality”, and they did.

Today, this mechanism operates at all levels of our being. We risk harming ourselves, for example, by taking financial or personal risks. We help ourselves by being optimistic in the face of a terminal illness or courage in the face of danger.

This book is a warning about this remarkable ability of denying reality. It is a gift, the authors write, which will either lead to our downfall or be our greatest asset.

In the Garden of Even, basically, knowing the difference between good and evil and with Eve’s prompting, Adam chose to eat the apple instead of heeding God’s warning. Adam recognized the apple as an “apparent” good, thinking that its consumption would make him more God-like. My goodness was poor old Adam wrong. The result of that snack is that Adam’s descendants suffer the outcome of their first parents being put out of the Garden. Death is the inevitable result, and ignoring this inevitable fact has always run the engine of many people’s lives.

Basically, Genesis describes the same awareness of people’s mortality that our authors, Varki and Brower, speak about in “Denial.”To his credit, Ajit Varki, who finished this book after his colleague died, is aware of all this. In fact he writes that “…religious explanations for what happens after death may have partly evolved as an adaptation … and awareness of mortality.”

Can it be that anthropogeny, the study of human origins, and the Bible telling of prehistory are only two different translations of the same book of life?

Michael D. Langan is the former headmaster of the Nardin Academy.