Authors suggest denial, including about the climate, is embedded in human species

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      This weekend, I finally got around to reading some of the chapters in a much-talked about new book called Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind.

      Cowritten by physician-scientist Ajit Varki and deceased insect geneticist Danny Brower, it proposes that human beings have evolved to be able to deny reality.

      And they make a case that this denial mechanism doesn't exist in other species.

      So why just us? They claim that it came in response to homo sapiens developing fully aware minds. Along with full awareness is a recognition that human beings will inevitably die. And those who pay too much attention to this would not want to procreate, which would bring about the demise of the species.

      So they suggest that a trick of nature created the ability to deny certain realities, particularly those of an unpleasant nature. And this evolutionary response led to human beings reproducing to where we've taken over most of the planet.

      An evolutionary basis for climate-change denial?

      One chapter highlights how this denial mechanism contributes to widespread complacency about the consequences of climate change.

      The real issue, in their opinion, is not the rising average global temperate. Rather, it's the local effects of climate destabilization. We can no longer rely on stable long-term weather patterns upon which to plan our lives.

      We recently saw this in the flooding in Calgary and Toronto.

      And sometimes, these local climate disruptions have far-reaching economic impacts.

      "For example, the very high temperatures in Russia in 2010 were unpleasant, but the bigger consequences were forest fires and a loss of wheat production," Varki and Brower write. "The unprecedented 2011 floods in Thailand raised the cost of computer hard disks worldwide because some key local factories were damaged. And in 2012, the great drought in North America decimated the corn crop and ignited forest fires that destroyed many homes."

      The chart above shows how New York City's storm surge during Hurricane Sandy vastly eclipsed any event like this in the past. Two or three more events like this and the financial houses on Wall Street will have to find somewhere else to set up shop.

      "The hurricane was apparently unique in the annals of American weather history, and many climate scientists feel it is the latest manifestation of human-induced climate change," Varki and Brower declare.

      They also report that a study by reinsurance conglomerate Munich RE indicated that there was "a nearly fivefold increase in the number of weather-related loss events in North America for the period from 1980 to 2011". That was significantly higher than other continents, suggesting that North America is suffering the most financial hardship as a result of climate change.

      Summer heat waves cover 10 percent of the world land surface, compared to juist one percent a few decades ago, according to a study by noted climate scientist James Hansen.

      Humans poorly suited to respond

      Varki and Brower present a compelling case that if humans had not evolved to be able to deny unpleasant realities, perhaps they would be better equipped to accept the scientific consensus on climate change and take action.

      "Thus most people prefer to ignore or rationalize many of the realities they do not like to think about," they state.

      This new theory raises troubling questions.

      • Do politicians who peddle denial—either about fiscal or environmental crises—face better prospects in elections than those who present a more realistic view?

      • Are human beings doomed to continue procreating well beyond the planet's carrying capacity, bringing about population crashes in the future?

      Optimism is a wonderful quality, and we, as humans, respond well to those who exude confidence.

      But if this optimism is a result of a genetic mutation—and it's no longer serving our needs as a civilization—perhaps it's time we removed the rose-coloured glasses so we aren't quite as blind to the dangers that confront us.




      Aug 6, 2013 at 12:47pm

      Disclaimer: I haven't read the book. But I have read excerpts, some of which were published by the authors.

      I have some difficulty accepting the premise that procreation and an awareness of mortality was central to the development of a denial "reflex". But I do understand their premise that technological developments (more efficient agriculture, public health improvements, etc.) led to a widespread "belief" that there was no necessary limit to population growth. The need to even logically QUESTION procreation simply disappeared, for a long time (and remains absent in many religious communities).

      In direct response to the first question:

      - "Do politicians who peddle denial—either about fiscal or environmental crises—face better prospects in elections than those who present a more realistic view?"

      Yes, they certainly do. For example, I have been bitching for years about municipal elections where a majority of candidates promise a 0% city tax increase. The "Zero" people win. And then 100% of voters complain about infrastructure deterioration.

      You just can't have it both ways, kids. Denying the obvious necessity of tax increases is simply a denial of reality. We are going to see this again with the transit referendum.

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      Aug 7, 2013 at 7:16am

      I would suggest that, once the insurance industry wades into climate change debates, we will continue to deny climate change. When the insurance pay-outs become too frequent, too large and too destructive to underwriter's margins, government policy will be forced to change and address climate change realities.

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