In Denial: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind, author Ajit Varki explores Danny Brower’s theory that “the uniquely human ability to deny reality in the face of inarguable evidence — including the willful ignorance of our own inevitable deaths — is the key to our evolutionary success.”
Varki argues that the reason no other species on Earth has done what humans have done is because no other species can deceive themselves so effectively.
Personally, I think that argument doesn’t quite nail what makes humans unique.
As far as we know, no other species has developed symbolic language, and that means no other species has developed the power to tell stories, the power to create myths. Sure, those stories can be used to “deny reality,” but they can also be used to create new imaginary realities that bind us together, that allow us to share imagination and work together to create new shared and real realities. How could elephants or porpoises come together to build a city if they have no imagination of what a city might be?
Humans are unique because we are story tellers, I suggest, and those stories we tell to contextualize our world, those myths we make to shape our understanding are in the end, what makes us human, for good and for bad. That’s why, for example, we are the only animals with gender, because we have created a symbolic language around reproduction and child rearing, rich in expressing the nature of our own hearts.
Those stories have a power to link us to something higher than facts, link with something bigger than our own lifetime. We see ourselves as a part of something beyond the factual, something magical.
I know what the best stories are because as a theologian, I study stories and how they help us in the world. By looking at the story themes that humans come back to time and time again, over many cultures and much history, hard won universal truths emerge.
In the end, approaching the world with love rather than fear, seeking connection rather than separation, trusting abundance rather than scarcity, and following bliss rather than convention usually creates the best results, the happiest, most harmonious and most successful results. When we use conflict to burn away expectations and open our eyes to a shared reality, we lift each other.
This is why I know that my own worldview, based on my experience of scarcity and fear isn’t a worldview that will set me up for success. It’s why I know that I have to get a new story or have to get out.
I understand why Ms. Rachelle sometimes feels that her inability to pick a story and stick with it is a handicap rather than a gift. Shimmering vision doesn’t give the survival advantage of good, hyper-focused belief, no matter what other benefits it brings. We are just overthinkers who underachieve.
When the time comes to act from belief rather than to live in clear vision, to enter the story rather than just to watch it, challenge comes to me. The mind needs stories to get us past knowledge and into imagination, needs intelligent ignorance to get us creating rather than just reacting, needs the spark of hope to get us beyond inertia. You gotta have a dream, [because] if you don’t have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?
Anyone seen any good dreams for aging, too-smart transwomen lying around?