Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

If you really want to live, then forget about death

  • Print

This thought-provoking work of popular science contends that the human brain must have found a way to push thoughts of death aside before the species could develop into fully aware, intellectually robust beings.

That's debatable, but the authors certainly present an intriguing theory, and in mostly jargon-free prose that non-scientists can follow.

Denial's provenance, as explained in the book's introduction, is interesting on its own.

Ajit Varki, a physician and professor at the University of California, San Diego, met University of Arizona geneticist Danny Brower at a biology conference in 2005.

They had a private conversation in which Brower explained his theory about a critical point in the evolution of our species.

Varki found his own thoughts returning to the idea over the ensuing two years, and eventually decided to call Brower for further discussion.

Brower had, however, died of a rare blood vessel disease, his theory not developed into a full-length book.

Now India native Varki has finished the job, having polished and added to a manuscript Brower left behind.

The pair contend that, at some juncture early in our evolutionary saga, our ancestors had to have developed the neurological wiring for reality denial. They say it was absolutely essential.

Here's why.

An animal with full awareness of itself and the world around it would understand that its own death is inevitable.

The fully aware animal, say the authors, would be unable to cope and survive with the acknowledgement of mortality.

The mortality-conscious individual's behaviour would be too weird for others in its species, and it would therefore not mate -- an "evolutionary dead end," since it would produce no offspring.

To avoid this dead end, Varki and Brower contend, Homo sapiens needed to have evolved the ability to deny or repress unpleasant bits of reality. In particular, to deny the reality of mortality.

The pair defines denial as a "defence mechanism used to reduce anxiety by denying thoughts, feelings or facts that are consciously intolerable."

They say the capacity for reality denial allowed us to "become really, really smart" compared to other animals, while any individual of another species who developed full awareness would been doomed to hit the brick wall at the end of the evolutionary dead end.

Varki and Brower present (to quote Charles Darwin) "one long argument" for their speculative theory, but admit they can't "prove" it.

Even assuming that it's such a bad thing to realize one is going to die, couldn't there be other ways to avoid the dead end?

Isn't it possible, for example, that the drive to pursue pleasure and avoid pain is just so much stronger than worries about death? Or that social or community priorities, such as the support and defence of one's family or group, override mortality concerns?

But you don't have to buy into the central thesis to appreciate Denial. There's plenty more to keep the reader engaged.

 

Mike Stimpson is a Winnipeg freelance writer and editor.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 1, 2013 G8

Fact Check

Fact Check

Have you found an error, or know of something we’ve missed in one of our stories?
Please use the form below and let us know.

* Required
  • Please post the headline of the story or the title of the video with the error.

  • Please post exactly what was wrong with the story.

  • Please indicate your source for the correct information.

  • Yes

    No

  • This will only be used to contact you if we have a question about your submission, it will not be used to identify you or be published.

  • Cancel

Having problems with the form?

Contact Us Directly
  • Print

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

You can comment on most stories on winnipegfreepress.com. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

New to commenting? Check out our Frequently Asked Questions.

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press print or e-edition subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

The Winnipeg Free Press does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comment, you agree to our Terms and Conditions. These terms were revised effective April 16, 2010.

letters

Make text: Larger | Smaller

LATEST VIDEO

Key of Bart: Choose Yourself

View more like this

Photo Store Gallery

  • Hay bales sit under a rainbow just west of Winnipeg Saturday, September 3, 2011.(John Woods/Winnipeg Free Press)
  • Challenges of Life- Goose Goslings jump over railway tracks to catch up to their parents at the Canadian Pacific Railway terminalon Keewatin St in Winnipeg Thursday morning. The young goslings seem to normally hatch in the truck yard a few weeks before others in town- Standup photo- ( Day 4 of Bryksa’s 30 day goose project) - Apr 30, 2012   (JOE BRYKSA / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS)

View More Gallery Photos

Poll

Should Premier Greg Selinger resign?

View Results

View Related Story

Ads by Google