Ajit Varki's day job is as the distinguished professor of medicine and cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego where he leads a fine research team that studies a scarcely recognized domain, the glycans, the little molecules that cover every cell in our body.
But it is his daily musings about the uniqueness of us humans that result in this book. He uses the word "anthropogeny," the study of human origins, as a focus to frame the wide range of domains that he and his co-author, Danny Brower, explore in the effort to understand what forces unite to make humankind so unique. We are made of the same biochemical stuff and play by the same biochemical rules as many other creatures, and even share 99 percent of our gene repertoire with the chimps. Mother Nature has many children with capacities that far exceed our own, but there can be no serious challenge to the proposition that homo sapiens stands apart, and maybe above other creatures.
The authors range widely from anthropologic clues, gene markers, exploration of aboriginal creation myths, the roles of religion, even the origin of the notion of "zero." The book explores the culture medium from which the human mind emerged.
Their hypothesis is that the "Prime Mover" for this singular event was not primarily biologic in essence, but psychologic.
After a long pregnancy "behaviorally modern humans" emerged one hundred thousand years ago in East Africa. The authors use two main lines of evidence to certify this claim. First is the discovery of cultural artifacts such as carved necklaces. This fact drives to the presumption that these early ancestors were aware, for the first time, that other individuals were conscious that others were also conscious. Much description of "mirror self awareness" is presented. Chimps, orangutans, dolphins, orcas, elephants. and magpies show primitive mirror self awareness. Human babies lack it until they are two years of age. None were sufficiently advanced until this short while ago.
This awareness of other-personhood is held to be differentiating.
The second novel psychologic advance is an awareness of mortality. Other species lack any semblance of the reality of death. Varki and Brower propose that this awareness is so threatening that subsequent generations have resorted to DENY the threat of oblivion. Certainly all religions have used the potential of an afterlife as a pillar of their creed. The human capacity to deny the inescapable reality of death leads to innumerable other avoidances. Self destructive behavior, wars, smoking, driving recklessly, compulsive gambling, political adventurism are prime examples of denial.
The book uses global warming as its most urgent call to action. Other threats diminish as we deny the possibility of the extinction of our species because of our inability and unwillingness to address our collective spotted anthropogeny.
The book stresses that our deeply embedded capacity for self deception leads to all manner of misadventures both optimistic and pessimistic. Our lens is so distorted that simple rational decision-making is compromised by rose tinted or dark glasses which cloud our vision.
The point is made about the phenomenon known as "Giving while Living" first articulated by Chuck Feeney. This happening now is joined by the likes of Buffett and Gates who have declared their intention to divest themselves of excess billions while still alive. This awareness is simply a recapture of the biblical maxim "it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than it is for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of heaven." Translated to modern times it says "you can't take it with you" which acknowledges the reality of death and is a stern rejoinder about the accumulation of excess castles.
Rights derive from responsibilities and the sooner we stop denying this reality the closer we will reach the ideal society which we all esteem.
This book is reveille.
1) Varki A, Brower D . Denial, Self Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind. 2013. Twelve Publisher, NY, Boston.