Darwin and the Buddha

To many people, Charles Darwin and Gautama Buddha belong to different worlds. Yet their visions of life were similar and even interlocking in important ways.

Their writings and teachings differ in many respects. (I’ll focus on On the Origin of Species and the Dhammapada, a widely read collection of the Buddha’s sayings.) In Origins, Darwin did not discuss human evolution at all, leaving that hot issue for another book. Instead, with an eye to the past, he analyzed plants and animals to establish natural selection and fertility as the keys to the variation of species all around us.

The Buddha, on the other hand, focused on humans, on the pain of our sharply felt disappointments and mental anguish, potentially eased by disciplined renunciations. And in contrast to Darwin’s study of biological history, the Buddha’s eye was on the future, on the path forward that could bring his followers out of suffering. Finally, while Darwinian evolution moved on inexorably, the Buddha convinced his followers that their future was in their own hands, that they must turn inward, grasp the nature of change and expectation, and calm their cravings.

So here are two different visions of different living things struggling through life in different ways with different routes towards relief. Yet similarities link them, for both accounts follow a logic built from the same pieces.



First, for both thinkers, the struggles of  ordinary and everyday life make up the starting point for the consequences and possibilities that followed. As different as the two books are, taken together they rest on the premise that for humans, animals, and plants alike, daily life is difficult and unstable. Whether in a plant stunted by inadequate sunlight or a woman torn by conflict between family and career, it is everyday needs and struggles that drive the changes that the thinkers were exploring.

For both Darwin and the Buddha, such changes consisted of a series of steps. For Darwin, the steps were those inherited variations that benefited organisms over succeeding generations. Though each step was small, the end result could be a new species. For the Buddha, the steps included a discipline of correct understanding, the extinguishing of selfish desires, and future rebirths. Such steps took time, but the result could be a person’s liberation from worldly turmoil.

Combined, these variations on the themes of daily struggle, incremental change, and final resolution offer a rich vision: living things experience conditions that are not easily or perfectly satisfied, but the future offers paths and steps from pain towards peace. In place of a deity to oversee the process of the cosmos, both men saw a reality in which ordinary life drives needs and the course of time and regeneration responds to them.


My thanks to Elaine Smith for her assistance.


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