UC San Diego professor says denial may be the key to human evolution, dominance

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UC San Diego Distinguished Professor of Cellular and Molecular Medicine, Dr. Ajit Varki, poses in the lab at UCSD. Courtesy

If you go

What:

Dr. Ajit Varki reads from his new book, ‘Denial’

When:

7:30 p.m. Sept. 11

Where:

Warwick’s bookstore, 7812 Girard Ave., La Jolla

Website:

warwicks.com

By Pat Sherman

“Optimism is denying reality” and “reality isn’t very comforting” said Dr. Ajit Varki, a distinguished professor of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine at UC San Diego, speaking recently with

La Jolla Light.

Sound bleak? Depressing?

Maybe not.

As Varki posits in his new book,  “Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind,” our unique ability to deny reality may also be the key to our success on the evolutionary ladder.

Varki will discuss his theory and sign copies of his book at Warkwick’s, 7:30 p.m., Wednesday, Sept. 11.

Though scientists have long sought to answer the question, “What makes us human?” Varki said he believes researchers should instead be asking what has stopped even the most intelligent creatures such as dolphins, elephants, crows and chimpanzees —which have demonstrated the ability to form social groups and make tools — from becoming human-like.

The primary human attribute these animals lack is referred to as “theory of mind,” the ability to attribute one’s own mental states — including beliefs, intentions, desire, knowledge and imaginings — to others (or more simply put, the ability to put oneself in another’s shoes).

It is also what allows two people not in each other’s presence to correspond via phone or e-mail.

“There have been some pretty smart creatures around for a long time, yet there’s only one species like humans that can put out newspapers, have phone conversations, act in comedy shows or give lectures,” Varki said. “If I’m a chimpanzee, I’m self-aware … but I’m not truly conscious of the consciousness of another chimpanzee.”

Yet, theory of mind is also what alerted our human ancestors to the ultimate, grizzly reality: our own mortality.

“The first time you get this knowledge it’s very discomforting,” said Varki, who believes human brains likely developed a capacity for denying  reality as a means of survival.

Since it is unlikely that the brain would develop something as specific as denial of death, Varki said humans developed a broader capacity to deny anything they dislike, wish to avoid or find objectionable.

“I know many cardiologists who … watch other people die of heart attacks and strokes from smoking and they’re still smoking cigarettes,” he said. “We know what we’re supposed to do in terms of exercise and eating right, and we just ignore all of that.”

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'Denial' is available online and at Warwick's bookstore in La Jolla.

In the book, Varki uses the phrase “mind over reality” to express this.

“Actually, what we have is diminished fear responses,” he said. “We humans do crazy things. We jump out of planes, we drive fast cars. … When there’s a tornado in the Midwest, all the animals disappear 10 to 15 minutes early; all the humans come out to watch.”

A positive byproduct: optimism

Once humans obtained the ability to deny reality, the world became a much more tolerable place.

“We do amazing things,” Varki said. “We can say, ‘I don’t care what they say, I’m going to swim across the English Channel’ or ‘I’m going to try out this crazy new idea everybody thinks is not going to work.’ So, denial also gives us optimism.”

Humans employ denial on my levels — political, social and religious, Varki said.

“In some case the denials are actually good, because they help us get through the day and get things done,” he said.

However, not all denial-based optimism is beneficial, said Varki, citing mankind’s collective denial of global warming, and Americans’ denial of the national debt (each U.S. taxpayer owes approximately $100,000 as their share of the national debt, now more than $16 trillion).

“We have this magical thinking,” Varki said. “People just completely ignore it; they just put it out of their mind.

“Maybe we will strike some new economic model and will pull ourselves out (of debt), but when it comes to climate change, we can’t pull ourselves out. … That’s one case where we cannot afford to keep denying. We have to face up to the reality.”

The root of ‘Denial’

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‘Denial’ co-author and late University of Arizona Professor, Dr. Danny Brower. Courtesy

Varki’s book was co-authored by the late Danny Brower, a professor in the department of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. It was Brower who first presented the evolutionary denial theory to Varki in 2005.

Varki was finishing a lecture on his current research (comparing differences in the surfaces of cell molecules in humans and chimpanzees) when Brower approached him.

The two discussed Brower’s theory at some length, after which Varki suggested Brower publish his theory. He never did.

Upon learning of Brower’s death in 2007, Varki published an article about Brower’s theory in the journal,

Nature.

Brower’s widow, Sharon, saw the article and contacted Varki to ask if he would finish her husband’s half-completed manuscript on the subject.

“The book itself is an example of what we’re talking about,” said Varki, who is splitting the book’s proceeds with Brower’s widow. “Here you have a book written by two people who only met for an hour and a half. I get a copy of that incomplete manuscript and I can imagine what he was thinking when he wrote what he wrote, and I’m able to finish his book with my own thoughts.”

   
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