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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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From the book  DENIAL: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower. Copyright  © 2013 by Ajit Varki.  Reprinted by permission of Twelve/Hachette Book Group, New York, NY. All  rights reserved.

The story behind this book is strange and improbable. Two individuals from very different backgrounds converged on a single question, happened to meet just once, discussed it briefly, parted company—and would never see each other again. One of them, Danny Brower, died suddenly at the age of fifty-five in 2007. The other person—I, a physician turned scientist—was left to complete our story. From our single chance conversation grew this book, which should interest anyone who cares about the universally human questions Who are we? How did we get here? Why are we the way we are? And where are we going?

The improbability of it all becomes starker when you consider what different circumstances the two of us came from. Danny was born in November of 1951, was raised in the United States, and worked his way up from modest means to the prestigious position of professor and chair of molecular and cellular biology at the University of Arizona at Tucson. By the time I met him, he was already well known for his pioneering work on protein molecules called integrins, which play key roles in how cells recognize and respond to their environment. Danny was using a popular fruit-fly model to study these processes, and from this same work, he was even able to contribute to our understanding of human cancer. As it turned out, Danny had another interest related to his research—he was fascinated by evolutionary biology, the study of the processes by which all life on this planet emerged over the last three billion years or so. A natural progression of such thinking made him wonder about the origin of our own species, Homo sapiens.

As for me, I was born just two months after Danny, but was raised on the other side of the planet, in India. I grew up in a traditional Orthodox Christian family from the southern state of Kerala, but attended English-language schools and went on to medical college with the idealistic goal of saving lives. But as it happens, the curriculum in medicine includes a strong dose of fascinating biology. Inspired by this aspect of my education, I finally decided that I could contribute more to society by becoming a biomedical researcher. However, opportunities to pursue this track in India were sparse in the 1970s. Reading the scientific literature, I realized that the United States was the one country in the world where physicians were being encouraged and supported in their efforts to do research side by side with other kinds of scientists. Thus it was that I emigrated to the United States in 1975 with six dollars and a suitcase, eventually becoming board certified in internal medicine, hematology, and oncology and working my way up to my present position as a professor at the University of California, San Diego (UC San Diego). Just as I had originally hoped, this career path allowed me to pursue my passion for science and research, and eventually took me away from patient care and into the emerging field of glycobiology, which studies the dense, complex, and varied forest of sugar chains that are now known to cover every one of the cells in our bodies. Technical difficulties in analyzing these “glycans” resulted in their getting limited attention in the early stages of the molecular biology revolution, which had focused mostly on DNA, RNA, and proteins. But we now know that these glycan chains are essential for life, and that they are involved in every normal and abnormal state of the body, from infections to cancer to brain development.

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