Darwin and the Buddha

The teachings of Charles Darwin and Gautama Buddha are worlds apart. Yet their descriptions of life bear similarities to each other and even interlock in ways that expand my view of each.  I’ll focus this comparison on  On the Origin of Species and the Dhammapada, a widely read collection of the Buddha’s sayings.

The differences are straightforward enough. Darwin’s eye was mainly on the past. In Origins, he observed the characteristics of successive generations of plants and animals—except for humans, whose evolution he discussed in other books—to show how natural selection and fertility served as the sources of the variation of species.

The Buddha, on the other hand, focused on humans, on the pain of our disappointments and the ease that disciplined renunciations could bring. And in contrast to Darwin’s focus on ancestry, the Buddha’s eye was on the future, on each person’s potential path forward out of suffering. Finally, while Darwinian evolution moved on inexorably, the Buddha convinced his followers that their future was in their own hands, that if they turned inward to grasp the nature of change and expectation, they could calm their cravings.

Yet beneath these distinct differences, both thinker followed a logic built from the same pieces.



First, for both Darwin and the Buddha, the struggles of ordinary life make up the starting point for the consequences and possibilities that followed. As different as their two works are, taken together they rest on the premise that for humans, animals, and plants alike, life is stressful, sometimes dangerous, and often unpredictable. Whether in a plant stunted by inadequate sunlight or a woman in conflict between family and her career, it is everyday obstacles and threats that drive the changes that the thinkers explored.

Such changes consisted of a series of steps, the other great commonality between their views. For Darwin, the steps were those small, random variations which, if they benefited an organism consistently, took their place among its inherited traits. Though each step was small, the end result could be a new, better-adapted species. For the Buddha, the steps consisted of a discipline in correct understanding, the extinguishing of selfish desires, and future rebirths. As they were in Darwinian evolution, the steps to enlightenment took time but led to relief from pain.

Combined, these variations on the themes of struggle, gradual change, and final resolution offer a rich vision: living things experience conditions that are not easily or perfectly satisfied, but the future offers steps from pain towards peace, though not necessarily within an individual’s lifetime. In place of a deity to oversee the the fate of living things, both men saw a reality in which ordinary life and an organism’s response to it were sufficient to drive changes sooner or later.

I and most people and animals tend to fix our gaze on those satisfactions and dangers that we see a relatively short distance ahead—the state of our income, our health, our children, our security, predictable weather, unpredictable disasters. I wonder what it was like to have the mindset of Darwin and Buddha, tuned to long spans of steady transition in which a being’s every moment is a step towards elsewhere.


My thanks to Elaine Smith for her assistance.

About the blog

This blog is more than five years old now. The About the blog introduction has been overdue for revision.

Life has been present on earth for about three billion eight hundred million (3,800,000,000) years. These brief posts discuss bits of that history, ones that I find fascinating and satisfying to learn about. They include the single-celled organisms that evolved slowly over two billion years before life grew larger; trees and other plants that stay alive in ways more alien and more familiar than we expect; approaching or avoiding, the primary decisions all organisms make, and how they play out in species including our own; how our bodies, including our brains, work.

Such subjects bring the ingenuity of living things up closer than I have known them and they speak to me about life’s biggest issues. The eons over which living things have persisted, linked through chains of DNA, ease my fear of death. The trees and plants thriving around me gladden me with their calm, slow-motion purposefulness. Cooperation and competition, team-work and battle—the engines of our social and moral lives—perplex me less knowing how embedded they are in other organisms. And glimpsing the workings of the mind helps me untangle my consciousness from my self-consciousness from my self.

Since I’m not a scientist, I come to this biology like someone who is seeing the ocean for the first time. The vista is more intricate and greater than I imagined, and I am smaller and fuller in its presence.

Genes Are Like Sentences

I admit that I lose track sometimes of how the common genetic terms relate to each other. What’s the difference between a chromosome and a strand of DNA, for example? a gene and a genome? Are each of those three-letter sets in DNA a gene? I’m not a scientist, but I was an English teacher, so comparisons between genetic terms and units of written language—words, sentences, and so on—are helpful. Maybe they will be for you also.

Let’s start small. Diagrams of DNA include four letters: A, C, G, and T. These letters and the letter we write with are similar in some ways not in others. In both cases, they are the smallest units of their respective languages. But the four DNA letters stand for the four nucleotides—Adenine, Cytosine, Guanine, and Thymine—that are present in DNA, while the letters of our language stand mainly for the sounds we would pronounce if we were reading aloud.

In DNA, those four nucleotides, abbreviated as letters, make up the three-letter codons that are the DNA version of words. A difference is that the letters and words I am writing with don’t do the whole job. I also use punctuation marks, spaces, and capital letters to show where words and sentence begin and end.

In DNA, however, the three-letter codon-words are more efficient. They represent all the content—amino acids—and all the necessary divisions and instructions. No actual spaces separate the codons in a gene. Since all codons are three letters long, where they begin and end is automatic. (And in fact early writing in the ancient world lacked space between words also. As long as one could read slowly and figurethewordsoutspacesweren’tessential.)

chromosome (mayoclinic.org)


Groups of these codons make up a gene, which can be compared to a written sentence. These gene-sentences say something like, “The hair will be red.” The sentence can also be read as a recipe: “Put this together with this and this to get red hair.” The codons for this and all genes include one that indicates where to switch on the gene and when, and another that says “Stop here; gene complete.”

Sometimes a spelling error occurs in one of the letters-nucleotides in a codon. Such a mutation may change the meaning of the gene to, “The hair will be white.”

To recap: the four nucleotides are the basic components much as the letters of our alphabets are; codons are DNA words; and a group of codons form a gene that is a sentence/recipe.

Now we come to chromosomes, genomes, and DNA itself.

The 23 pairs of chromosomes in each of our cells are like chapters in a strange book in which each chapter appears twice.  The number of genes in a chromosome runs from a couple of hundred to over a thousand, many of them about similar matters, like sentences in a chapter. In the 23rd chromosome pair, which determines sex, the two chromosomes are very different from each other about half the time: females have two X chromosomes, but males have an X and a much shorter Y chromosome.

Finally, your genome is like the book itself, the totality of all your genes on all your chromosomes. Your genome book is almost exactly like mine, since we are both humans, but about one tenth of one percent of our 20,000 or so genes are different. That’s similar to two copies of the same long book that differ only in a few sentences.

Finally, DNA itself. I think of DNA as similar to our writing system as a whole with all its symbols, spaces, and graphic conventions. DNA is not a unit as these other genetic terms are; it is the stuff that all these units are composed of. The same goes for our writing system.

And it’s interesting that writing itself, developed a few thousand years ago, is structured roughly like the genetic code that appeared with the first cells over three billion years ago. In communicating information over distance and time, whether it’s an email about a meeting next month or the genetic instructions for building a baby organism, it seems the key is a method to preserve the necessary groupings and sequencing of components.