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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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Soon after the letter’s publication, I heard from Sheldon Solomon, a member of a well-regarded group of psychologists influenced by the ideas of Ernest Becker and best known for their “terror management theory.” Their concept is supported by various types of experimental evidence and indicates that we humans have a variety of “worldview and self-esteem mechanisms” to deal with the terror of knowing we are going to die. In his letter to me, Solomon wrote: “We agree with your argument that the benefits of consciousness and self-awareness could only be reaped if they were accompanied by simultaneous mechanisms to deny death.”

Thinking I had done my duty by getting Danny’s ideas to the attention of others who could pursue them, I turned my focus to aspects of anthropogeny that were more directly related to my own expertise in glycosciences and ape-human differences in biology. But then I received a very unexpected e-mail from Danny’s widow, Sharon Brower, who had been alerted to the Nature letter by one of Danny’s friends. Sharon thanked me for bringing her late husband’s unpublished idea into print, and told me that Danny had been spending all his spare time writing a book on the topic. Apparently, he had just completed his second draft before his sudden death. Ironically, while Danny had sometimes discussed plans for the distant future with Sharon, he also knew there was a possibility that he would die young: His own father had passed away suddenly at the age of fifty-six, of a heart attack. Danny’s thinking about his theory may have even caused him to be more aware of his own mortality. According to Sharon, this scared Danny a bit; he had always held up fifty-six as the age to surpass. Sadly, he died just a month short of that milestone birthday.

When Sharon sent me her late husband’s draft manuscript, I found that Danny not only had the core of an idea to explain the evolution of the human mind but that he also went on to present some important practical messages for humanity arising from his logic. He wrote that the human penchant to deny our mortality is but one manifestation of our overall ability to deny many other things—a propensity that has many ramifications, positive and negative. The manuscript was thoughtful and erudite, but it was clearly an incomplete effort that needed much additional research, expansion, and polishing, which Danny had been unable to do. With encouragement from Sharon, I therefore decided to continue the project by combining Danny’s original writing with my own, adding thoughts, ideas, and embellishments along the way.

Ajit Varki is a physician-scientist who is currently Distinguished Professor of Medicine and Cellular and Molecular Medicine, Associate Dean for Physician-scientist Training, Co-director of the Glycobiology Research and Training Center at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), and co-director of the UCSD/Salk Center for Academic Research and Training in Anthropogeny.

Danny Brower, an insect geneticist, was Professor and Chair of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Arizona in Tucson. He died in 2007.

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