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.

New Thinking About the Origin of Life (1): Purposes and Selves

How does a living thing differ from a lifeless one? And how might those living characteristics have emerged from the lifeless matter that preceded them?

Jeremy Sherman’s new book, Neither Ghost Nor Machine: The Emergence and Nature of Selves, discusses recent thinking on these questions, especially the work of neuroanthropologist Terrence Deacon. In this post and the next, I’ll summarize highlights.

Sherman is emphatic about one particular difference between living and non-living things: all living things have purpose, non-living entities do not. Purpose here has little to do with a person’s “sense of purpose” and it has nothing to do with divine intention. It refers instead to biological processes aimed at maintaining the state of being alive. For example, the heart’s purpose—its function—is to pump blood. The purpose of a leaf is to produce food for the plant. We take for granted that bodies and all their parts serve functions and yet it may feel strange at first to identify purpose itself as a defining feature of all organisms.

campfire (shutterstock.com)


Non-living stuff, on the other hand, has no such purpose or aim or sustaining function. A fire in the fireplace burns and gives off heat and carbon and other gasses, after which the fire, without more fuel, goes out. Sherman writes, “Most chemical reactions yield a proliferation of molecular products” but such reactions soon peter out. The reactions in living things, on the other hand, don’t fizzle out so easily. Through their biochemistry, living things “are self-regenerative in two senses: they maintain their own existence, and they produce new selves” (9).

New selves? Sherman, following Deacon, refers to organisms as selves. Applying self to an organism calls attention to the ways that even a bacterium as well as a human works to find food, defend its self, repair its self, and make more selves. Inanimate things aren’t selves. Left alone long enough, anything inanimate will become disorganized and break down; an ice cube left on a counter will melt and then evaporate, its molecules finally dispersing into the air.

A related difference between selves and inanimate things is that with selves, we can say that something—fuel, information, a change in temperature—is good or bad or useful or significant for it. But for inanimate things, as Sherman puts it, “Nothing is ever functional, significant, or adaptive for sodium chloride, snowflakes, mountains, fried chicken, or even computers” (25).

But what about natural selection? Didn’t Darwin’s work explain how living things evolve? Yes, but natural selection fails to explain the first appearance of all those selves that do the evolving. “To claim that natural selection explains purpose is like claiming that erosion explains mountains. Erosion…explains how mountains are passively sculpted, but not what’s sculpted. Likewise, natural selection explains how populations of selves are passively sculpted…[as] some lineages produce more offspring than others, but not how selves arise in the first place.” (9).

So, the question: what kinds of inanimate chemical reactions might have come together as stepping-stones towards purposeful, self-regenerative selves? Until now, that question has been explored in terms of possible ingredients. Chemical stews, viruses, RNA molecules, an iron-and-sulfur world have been among the candidates for starting points. But Terrence Deacon has asked instead what kinds of reactions, regardless of their ingredients, could sustain themselves long enough to postpone the terminal fizzle?

His answer, in the abstract, is that you need not one but two reactions, each of which constrains the other before it burns out. I’ll explain in my next post.