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A Fascinating New Theory About the Human Mind, Evolution and Mortality

Why have other species failed to evolve human-like intelligence? The answer may lie in our conception of mortality.

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The history of science is filled with ideas that initially went against conventional wisdom but were eventually proven to be true (such as Wegener’s theory of continental drift and Copernicus’s claim that the sun was the center of the solar system). So I was immediately attracted to Danny’s contrarian idea of looking not for what additional special features of our brains made us human—but rather asking what might have prevented other animals and birds from becoming humanlike in their mental functions. In other words, had we crossed a very difficult evolutionary barrier on the way to be- coming human? An analogy I later thought of was the process by which some ancient fishlike creatures moved from living in water to surviving on land. There were likely many attempts to make this transition, but evidence tells us that only a few such efforts actually succeeded. Apparently, several things had to happen at once, and in just the right order, to overcome this particular physiological evolutionary barrier. So why not also consider a psychological evolutionary barrier that blocks the path to humanlike awareness of reality? During our intense discussion I also asked Danny if religion could be the explanation for our success at overcoming that barrier, since all societies have religious belief systems and most religions provide explanations for what happens after death. He responded that while religion could have been a major factor that aided his proposed transition, it could not be the whole answer. After all, he said, do not most atheists live in constant terror of their own mortality? But he agreed that his theory could at least help explain the universality of religious belief systems in human societies. Most humans ask what lies beyond their death, and most religions provide an answer of some kind. There are also entire systems of philosophy that ask such existential questions, whether based on religious beliefs or not.

While there were obviously many details needed to support Danny’s unusual line of thinking, I was impressed by the basic concept, and suggested that he should publish it. But I also realized that, like me, Danny had no prior formal education regarding human evolution, and in the academic world he would not be considered qualified to officially opine on the subject. His interest had simply grown out of his knowledge of evolutionary biology combined with the innate desire most humans have to understand our own origins.

On the face of it, this was not a momentous encounter—a conversation of less than two hours between two scientists from very different backgrounds, each with a nonexpert interest in explaining human origins. But over the months that followed I simply could not shake the basic idea Danny had proffered. The more I continued with my own quest to learn about human origins within the multidisciplinary CARTA group I had formed, the more this idea seemed to make sense and to gain in potential significance. After two years of obsessing about my discussion with Danny, I finally looked up his e-mail address and sent a lengthy message in which I outlined my understanding of his basic theory, updating and adding various embellishments of my own and suggesting again that he should publish his concept. I was deeply disappointed not to hear back from Danny, but thought that I might not have the right e-mail address. A few months later I decided to look up his phone number on the Internet, and was shocked to instead find his obituary. Danny Brower died suddenly and unexpectedly in October of 2007 from a rare kind of blood vessel disease called aortic dissection (possibly resulting from a defect in connective tissue molecules—the very things he had studied in flies). On a day he was due to present a departmental seminar, he woke up with severe symptoms for the very first time and went into surgery that evening. Tragically, he never regained consciousness, and was declared brain dead four days later.

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