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Mark H. Burnham

Thanks for the Sunday postings.

Whenever I read something that contains the words "sustainability" or "resilience" now my brain skips ahead to the next paragraph and alarms ring in my head. Bullshit buzz words only good at this point for drawing flies.

My other verbal turn off are sentences like this one you quote: ,"Our challenge is to deliberately construct a new, more adaptive cultural narrative” (one that takes into account science and human behavior). Anytime two or three or more words like "adaptive cultural narrative" are strung together, words that are so vague they need their own definitional paragraph, I sense the presence of bullshit.

Looking forward to your continued weekday posts.


Dave, I would like to bring your attention to a new book that some are saying may present the most important new theory since Darwin. I just finished the book and found it amazing in that it explains all the insanity we see in the world, including some of my own bad behavior. I suspect you of all people will appreciate the ideas presented in the book.


Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind
by Ajit Varki and Danny Brower

From the Publisher
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.

Dave Cohen

A quote from the publisher's blurb

On the other hand [denial of reality] affords us many valuable attributes, such as optimism, confidence, and courage in the face of long odds

Laugh out loud! These "valuable attributes" are the problem -- over-confidence, overly optimistic.

The "odds are long" because we created our increasingly hopeless situation on the Earth. All the courage in the world is not going to change that. The odds are even longer because humans are incapable of changing their behavior.

I don't put much stock in "fear of death" theories. On the surface, this looks like more bullshit, I'm sorry to say.


What is required is a real psychological theory, and this ain't it, although the evolutionary origins of denial is an interesting question. Consistent denial seems to follow from limited awareness of what drives human behavior, both our own behavior and that of others. In short, what humans do and what they claim they're doing are two separate things. Hence the denial.

And it is easy to see how this tragic flaw might have arisen during the evolution of various human ancestor species and Homo sapiens.

-- Dave


Well, that's certainly a fantastic Sunday post to close Sunday posts.

The thing about groups, especially when they're activist groups (of any stripe - environmental, religious, free market, technological, whatever), is that when they're together they'll constantly tell each other little white lies. From a social standpoint, it enhances group cohesion and order, but even more powerful than that - its what they all want to hear.

For instance, an environmental group will list the problems we face environmentally, but they all still want to hear how and why they'll be solved (otherwise, why be involved?). And when they group together, they see hundreds to thousands of people just like them and saying the same things. Surely, they think, they must be right - all the while ignoring the fuller realities or even that they are the tiniest subset of subsets of the human endeavor.

Dave Cohen


Yeah, the "group thing" is very important. Self-delusion is always bolstered when a group of like-minded people get together to sing Kumbaya.

Beware of humans in groups, especially activist groups, as you say. I've been at gatherings like that and you can actually "feel the energy" in the room. God save us.

-- Dave

Ken Barrows

Of course, you're right. Human nature won't change. But my rare optimistic moments hold out that it is possible, however slightly. Racial attitudes have improved very slowly. Same with superficial attitudes toward pollution.

It is true that these changes didn't result in a change in the human propensity to expand. Attitudes may also revert in an era of contraction. I cannot let go, however, that there is a very small chance that collective human behavior can change. It may make no sense, but it's probably why I don't take an overdose of sleeping pills. The "sustainability" crowd, though, needs to say explicitly that human nature MUST change, quickly.


Dave writes:

Your job, which is a lot like Mission Impossible, is to become aware of confirmation bias and disgard it. This is not easily done, but it is possible. You need to filter all the noise, not just some of it. It took me most of my 60 years on this planet to achieve this.

assuming people actually do what you suggest in the short-term future (long shot but not impossible) my question is:

what's next?


When you've had it up to 'here' with bullshit, I guess it's a good idea to have a Day of Rest once a week, if only to clear the nostrils.

Now that I know that everything I write or say using digital communication is immediately vacuumed up and stored in Utah, I would like to go on official record (yes, listen up you spooks) that the United States of Bullshit has shot itself in the foot and is irretrievably holed, making it impossible to continue walking on water and simultaneously pulling down its attached poodle the United Kingdom of Great Servility and Northern Spinelessness.

Okay, that's off my chest. Now Ken - please. There's a very small chance that collective human behavior can change?! I wouldn't wager a dime, a cent or a ruble. I never forget what my dad said to me as he slipped below the waves: Son, clutching at straws ain't no help in a tsunami.

Dave Cohen

What's next?

Well, if everybody could filter all the bullshit humans spread around, that would be The End Of Bullshit, and humanity would be saved.

However, if you are interested in how the human future will turn out, I suggest you start filtering bullshit.

Otherwise, there's no particular reward in it outside of being ostracized by all your friends and loved ones


-- Dave


You really are an asshole. I'd forgotten how closed minded you are to new ideas. You dismiss a book recommended by a long time caring reader who is at least as smart as you without reading it. This is my last post and visit ever. I hope you have fun playing with yourself.


@Ken: Contraction is inevitable. How it plays out exactly is still speculative, though.

On racist attitudes, humanity has gained and lost racial tolerance many times in the past. Tolerance is often a feature of civilizations at their height. A feature of the shift towards more tolerant attitudes is that we basically wanted to do so. It's frankly more energy-intensive to hate then it is to passively accept in a society where daily material needs are met. Unfortunately, as that equation changes in contraction, I'd expect a lot of racial tension to re-emerge.

The key difference between civil rights in the 60s and current resource consumption/pollution patterns is that to change it, we have to accept less, and virtually no one wants that (although a handful might pre-adapt). Where are the great marches to voluntarily shrink the world's economies, or where do you hear groups of people saying we should be using much less energy than futilely trying to convert all of our energy infrastructure to renewables? It's fighting against human nature to accept less. It can be done individually with great willpower, but collectively, only governmental coercion has any effect, and that's both rare and doesn't last long, as the people eventually resist. And unfortunately, we live in a competitive world of nations - if one nation voluntarily reduces their consumption/pollution, they risk a serious competitive disadvantage.

Human nature is socially about one's worth in society (status) and biologically about passing on one's genes. Both these things are immensely aided with more materially, and immensely hurt with less materially. The fact that we currently have too much materially doesn't matter. One will find a mate more easily and will have a higher status socially when they are compared with those around them. It's always a race to the top.

I personally don't find all this distressing. It is what it is. All are born into various eras of history - we just happen to be in this one. Because our previous lives have been ones of relative plenty (often hilariously so when compared to other historical eras), somehow we think we're exempt from any down cycle. The sustainability crowd has always said human behavior (not nature) must change. I don't think they can really say it any more clearly. And look at how popular they are. They really only receive societal acceptance when they talk about wind farms in Idaho or plugging in new light bulbs.

I think this is what Dave's talking about when he talks about Progress. We have a warped view of history and mankind because those in the West at least have only experienced the up cycle, and for quite a while now. It's fatal flaw - one that in and of itself virtually guarantees contraction, even if human nature didn't preclude it already. The cultural narrative of Progress is too strong now - any alternative narrative that doesn't go hand-in-hand with it has been and would be instantly dismissed.

Dave Cohen

@Rob M

Well, aside from my being an asshole who can have fun playing with himself, I will quote from the book you praise. The quote comes from Ajit Varki's letter to Nature (link below).

Among the key features of human uniqueness are full self-awareness and "theory of mind", which enables inter-subjectivity -- an understanding of the intentionality of others. These attributes have been positively selected because of their benefits to interpersonal communication, cooperative breeding, language and other critical human activities.

Right off the bat, as I have argued many times before on this blog, Varki gets it wrong as far as I am concerned because he assumes that humans have full self-awareness. Humans deceive each other all the time. So much for "understanding the intentionality of others."

The point being, humans don't fully understand why they do anything!

What we see observationally is just the opposite of what Varki says -- humans seem to have no idea what they're doing and why they are doing it, as I have pointed out over and over again on this blog, including today.

Why, for example, can't they just leave the moose alone?


Therefore, my working assumption is that humans do not have full awareness, which is tantamount to saying that the old depth psychologists (e.g. Freud, Jung, Adler, etc.) got at least one thing right -- there is a big unconscious underlying our limited awareness and it is running the show.

Hence my dismissive remarks above. That is why I said we need a real psychological theory of the mind. The Grand Illusion humans labor under is that their limited awareness (the Ego) is the "little man" in charge.

For example, why do humans always act to further growth even as climate change threatens their very existence? Humans are not even aware that they do this! Instead, they either 1) deny the reality of climate change; or 2) cling to fantasies about furthering growth with renewable energy (the usual technological optimism).

So I might conclude that you have understood little of what I have actually said on DOTE if you are so eager to endorse a simple theory which assumes that humans have full self-awareness, and it is the fear of death which motivates all the crazy behavior we can observe every god-damned day.

Wow! Now I'm even more an asshole than I was before!

-- Dave




Jesus is said to have said, "The truth shall set you free."

I wonder...

It seems that the more I know, the more I am able to see the prison bars that surround me, and the more I realize how strongly others do not wish to know of their imprisonment. So it is a lonely task you undertake, describing the dimensions of a cell that almost no one wants to admit they are standing in.

Dave, thank you for Sundays past. I wish you rest and health for Sundays future.


Well, actually, there is a ray of optimism today. The whitehouse has announced that on Tuesday President Obama will give a landmark speech on climate change. The glaciers have already stopped in there tracks.


Dave - If all the assholes in the world were lined up single file, how far around the world would they stretch?

Fuck knows, but you wouldn't be in that line. :)

I'm reminded of the Crucifixion scene in Life of Brian:



Dennis--"The glaciers have already stopped in there tracks." : D And next they are going to melt with embarrassment!

(I wish Obama would. I wish he COULD.)

Dave-- Thanks for your Sunday posts. Enjoy your time off. I will still look forward to weekdays.



Unless any 'new narrative' has the power to alter human DNA, then I can see no good use for it.

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