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Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind [Hardcover]

Ajit Varki , Danny Brower
2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)

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Book Description

4 Jun 2013

The history of science abounds with momentous theories that disrupted conventional wisdom and yet were eventually proven true. Ajit Varki and Danny Brower's "Mind over Reality" theory is poised to be one such idea - a concept that runs counter to commonly-held notions about human evolution but that may hold the key to understanding why humans evolved as we did, leaving all other related species far behind.

At a chance meeting in 2005, Brower, a geneticist, posed an unusual idea to Varki that he believed could explain the origins of human uniqueness among the world's species: Why is there no humanlike elephant or humanlike dolphin, despite millions of years of evolutionary opportunity? Why is it that humans alone can understand the minds of others?

Haunted by their encounter, Varki tried years later to contact Brower only to discover that he had died unexpectedly. Inspired by an incomplete manuscript Brower left behind, DENIAL presents a radical new theory on the origins of our species. It was not, the authors argue, a biological leap that set humanity apart from other species, but a psychological one: namely, the uniquely human ability to deny reality in the face of inarguable evidence-including the willful ignorance of our own inevitable deaths.

The awareness of our own mortality could have caused anxieties that resulted in our avoiding the risks of competing to procreate-an evolutionary dead-end. Humans therefore needed to evolve a mechanism for overcoming this hurdle: the denial of reality.

As a consequence of this evolutionary quirk we now deny any aspects of reality that are not to our liking we smoke cigarettes, eat unhealthy foods, and avoid exercise, knowing these habits are a prescription for an early death. And so what has worked to establish our species could be our undoing if we continue to deny the consequences of unrealistic approaches to everything from personal health to financial risk-taking to climate change. On the other hand reality-denial affords us many valuable attributes, such as optimism, confidence, and courage in the face of long odds.

Presented in homage to Brower's original thinking, DENIAL offers a powerful warning about the dangers inherent in our remarkable ability to ignore reality-a gift that will either lead to our downfall, or continue to be our greatest asset.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 375 pages
  • Publisher: Twelve (4 Jun 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1455511919
  • ISBN-13: 978-1455511914
  • Product Dimensions: 23.5 x 15.9 x 3.3 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 2.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,197,886 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


This is perhaps the most exciting idea in evolution that I have read since Darwin. Danny Brower's manuscript survived his untimely death and how it came to Ajit Varki's hands is an evolutionary story in itself. Varki is a renowned physician-scientist, and what Ajit is doing is to take this manuscript and reworking it, producing a work of beauty and simplicity. It is the tale of the very thing that makes us human. A marvel. (Abraham Verghese, author of Cutting for Stone)

Groundbreaking new ideas often come from the most unexpected sources. Here is such an instance, wherein two scholars from disparate disciplines unrelated to human origins have come up with a completely novel theory--to explain one of the most fundamental of human questions: where did we humans come from, and how did we get here? A must read for anyone interested in this age-old quest. (Peter Agre, Nobel Prize in Chemistry, John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health)

A highly readable manifesto for anthropogeny (the study of human origins), DENIAL is written in a lively and engaging style that communicates the excitement of asking the big questions: how are humans different from all other species, and why did other species not evolve a full theory of mind, given the wide-ranging benefits that this brings to humans? Issuing a provocative challenge to future scientists, Ajit Varki's scholarly journey leads him to speculate about the role of our awareness of our mortality, and our simultaneous tendency to live in denial of it. (Simon Baron-Cohen, director, Autism Research Centre, Cambridge University)

A tremendously engaging story-full of human interest, wit, scientific detective work, and imaginative speculation. It's great to see Varki and Brower pushing the limits. It makes us fellow-travellers into the field of the known unknowns. (Nicholas Humphrey, author of Soul Dust and The Mind Made Flesh) --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Book Description

From two acclaimed scientists comes a book that turns our understanding of human evolution on its head. --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Scientism Run Amok 5 July 2013
I could not finish this book after drudging through 2/3 of it even though I entirely agree with its primary thesis -- that mortal knowledge (foreknowledge of the inevitability of our personal death) brought about changes that made humanity distinct from all other animals (for this reason I award the two stars). Varki takes this important idea and completely runs out of bounds with it. He gives the late geneticist, Danny Brower, credit for the incredible suggestion that the only reason other animals have not attained our advanced level of civilization and ToM "theory of mind" (he spurns the word "consciousness") is because the fact of mortal knowledge would have lessened their fitness for survival, so the growth of their intelligence was stopped in its tracks. Varki takes this minimal idea and attempts his hand at popular science writing (and it really is so "popular" as to often be patronizing) to convince those many of us today who hold up science as a final arbiter of truth (aka scientism, and this includes all those who wrote purple prose plaudits in their blurbs) that this explains how the evolution of the brain somehow adapted us to deceive ourselves, so we can ignore what we know to be a fact, i.e., that each of us is going to die. In so doing, Varki completely ignores anything smacking of psychology, philosophy, anthropology or cultural theory and puts all the weight of his speculations on biology plus the painful concept of ToM (the theory of mind), which assures us that we only know other minds exist because we are *automatically* aware of our own mind's existence first, and so make a conceptual leap that others have similar minds since they act like us. Read more ›
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.6 out of 5 stars  26 reviews
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Probably not what you're hoping for... 8 July 2013
By chip - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
If you are hoping to read a well-written, logically-consistent and scientifically-sound exploration of the phenomenon of the human mind; if, for example, you hold in high regards books by Daniel Dennett and Steven Pinker, then you will likely find this book a disappointment.

The author's thesis, that human-type intelligence is only possible after the denial of mortality, is not made convincingly; and the notion seems to have been stretched with difficulty into book-length, leaving much room for the author to pontificate on side issues.

To call the book a "magnificent scholarly work," as does one reviewer cited by Amazon, is a huge misrepresentation. It is much closer to being popular pseudo-science. Note that the publisher, Twelve (imprint of the Hachette Book Group), is not an academic publisher but (according to their website) a printer of books "that illuminate, inspire, provoke, and entertain."
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A breakthrough in evolutionary thinking? Um ... that would be a "no" 22 Oct 2013
By Cosmic Renardo - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
I think you have to take quite a few of Varki's basic ideas for granted (i.e., they're unsubstantiated) to buy his argument. I'm not sure why the fear of dying would lessen reproductive success. He uses the example of a male lion who risks being killed by a rival if it dares to muscle in on his harem. If it understood the risks involved, he says, it wouldn't even try. Maybe, but while mating in humans may be a risky business, I don't think being ripped to pieces by a rival male is typically one of them. And the fact that I know that I am going to die some day ... and even obsess about it from time to time ... hasn't prevented me from having a family. So what exactly am I denying? Is he suggesting that "denial" includes a conception of death that is not realistic enough to scare me from having children? Finally, I find his Theory of Mind to be pretty unhelpful ... at least, it's not very well explained and the whole question about whether dogs or elephants or crows understand what is happening when their fellow dogs, elephants, and crows are dying is kind of interesting but ... what does it mean? The question why the evolution of consciousness/awareness/Theory of Mind is so rare in the world (maybe even in the universe) is indeed fascinating, and Varki does a pretty good job asking some of these questions, but the answers feel unnecessarily complicated and based on some ideas that you just have to accept.
12 of 16 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Strong thesis 12 Jun 2013
By J. Keith - Published on
I enjoyed this book and thought the thesis was clear and well supported. The thesis is essentially identical to John Schumaker's in his books, "Wings of Illusions" and "The Corruption of Reality." I was surprised that neither was cited in "Denial." I think Varki would be astonished at the similarities between his book and Schumaker's books.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars GREAT BOOK! 25 July 2013
By M. Reid Stuart - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I love the fact that this author really knows his stuff AND writes it with a new spin on things...really made me think --- just this week, mainstream media came out with the news that dinosaurs may have been warmblooded...however he has it already written in his book. I like that he's up on the information. I actually bought two copies bc my spouse and I are reading this for our own family book club. We *really* enjoy reading about theory of mind...just a really great read. I highly recommend!
7 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant Scientific Writing 8 July 2013
By Don Roberts - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition
The co-authors met casualy at an academic event. Dr. Varki found Dr. Brower's research fascinating, but had other interests to pursue. By the time Dr. Varki returned to the idea, Dr. Brower had died, but his widow entrusted his notes to Dr. Varki. So Danny Brower gets co-author credit, revealing Dr. Varki as not only a brilliant researcher but a nice guy.

The book sets out to answer the question why we alone, among so many other intelligent species, managed to fully develop our intelligence. The answer turns out to be the apparent paradox that we learned to deny reality! Details are far too complex for a short review.

Dr. Varki's intellectual integrity is impressive. He does not oversell his idea. Where there is solid research evidence, he presents it. Where he is more speculative, he warns us. In a summary chapter, he lists all the problems he can see and openly calls for more research.

Last but by no means least, Dr. Varki is a good writer. Academic jargon is minimized, but when nothing else will do, he gives an "English Translation" at point of first use.

Overall, this book is an accessible account of an interesting new research topic.
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