Darwin and the Buddha

To us, Charles Darwin and Gautama Buddha belong to different worlds. Yet their visions of life were and are similar and even interlocking in interesting ways.

Their writings and teachings differ of course 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-button 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 that we see around us.

The Buddha, on the other hand, focused exclusively 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 persuaded 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. And yet similarities link them, for both accounts follow a logic built from the same basic pieces.



First, for both thinkers, the struggles of  ordinary and everyday life make up the starting point, the driver, for the consequences and possibilities that followed. As different as the two books are, they jointly 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 the everyday pairing of struggle and need that sets the stage for the changes that the thinkers were exploring.

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

The two visions are not only parallel but complementary. The worldly struggles of people described by the Buddha resemble the struggles also of Darwin’s plants and animals. And the scores of generations over which Darwin’s new species emerge are a version of multiple Buddhist rebirths.

These combined 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 unveiled a reality in which ordinary life drives needs and the course of time transforms them.


My thanks to Elaine Smith for her assistance.

Humboldt’s Vision of Nature

Humboldt portrait 1806 Friedrich Georg Weitsch (Wikipedia)

An imagining of the young Humboldt at work, in 1806, by Friedrich Georg Weitsch (Wikipedia)

Our imagination may seem to create visions out of nowhere, but it always has its sources. Some are in the psyche, some are in the world around us, many are in history, seemingly out of sight but alive in our culture. Our ecological imagination, our view of nature as a global, animated, interactive and sacred whole, comes to us in large part from Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), a manic, prolific explorer and naturalist of the German romantic era. Humboldt’s life and work are the subject of an outstanding biography by Andrea Wulf, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (2015).

Humboldt’s trademark was the web of connections he drew around whatever he was observing. Nature, he insisted, could not be grasped in the slices and pieces into which other scientists chopped it but only as a whole. He looked at each specimen, whether a plant or a human institution, in its relation to global patterns of earth, weather, and human behavior. Such a perspective called for not only information but imagination and emotion as well. His works are as full of poetic description as they are of data.

His seminal journey was a five-year exploration of Latin America during his thirties. Wherever he went, he compared. In the Andes, a moss reminded him of one in northern Germany. In Mexico he found trees like those in Canada. Measuring temperature and altitude as he climbed stormy volcanoes and crawled across frozen ridges in the Andes, he envisioned the plants of the world in vegetation zones consistent around the planet. He published a large diagram of a mountain with labels for plants at their respective altitudes around the world, from the mushrooms at the depths to the lichens just below the snow line. No one had ever seen a graphic that illustrated ecosystems from a global perspective like this.

Humboldt (mappingthenation.com)


Humboldt was the first to note that cutting down a forest set off a cascade of environmental problems, triggering the loss of topsoil, the rapid runoff of rainwater, the flooding of rivers, the drying up of springs, the decline of agriculture. He observed how the farming of single crops for trade, such as indigo in Peru, ruined the soil ‘like a mine,’ and impoverished the people. “He debated nature, ecological issues, imperial power and politics in relation to each other. He criticized unjust land distribution, monocultures, violence against tribal groups and indigenous work conditions” (105).

On his return from South America, Humboldt stopped by the U. S. White House to visit another scholar of agricultural economy, Thomas Jefferson. The two saw eye-to-eye on all subjects but one. Humboldt had seen enough slavery in South America to convince him that it was butchery without justification, economic or otherwise.  For Humboldt, “What is against nature is unjust, bad, and without validity,” and humans, like plants, all come from one root. “’Nature is the domain of liberty,’ Humboldt said, because nature’s balance was created by diversity” (108). Jefferson, while sympathetic, never freed all his slaves (106).

Humboldt noted similarities between the mountains of South America and Africa and argued that those continents had been joined in the past, anticipating the modern theory of plate tectonics.

In his later years in Berlin, he gave a series of free public lectures that packed halls with people from all walks of life. Traffic clogged the city on the lecture days. “He talked about poetry and astronomy but also about geology and landscape painting….He roamed from fossils to the northern lights, and from magnetism to flora, fauna, and the migration of the human race” (194). He spoke from notes layered with clippings, pieces of book pages, scribbled post-its, and illustrations.

From Cosmos, an ethnographic map of South America (eternalexploration.wordpress.com)

From Kosmos, a map of cultures and peoples in South America

He convened gatherings of scientists from across Europe to exchange information and ideas, thus establishing the modern scientific conference. Fascinated by the earth’s magnetic field, he successfully urged governments to build a network of magnetic stations across the globe, setting a new level of international scientific cooperation.

In consultation with specialists, Humboldt spent his last years writing Kosmos, a multi-volume survey of what was then known about outer space, the climate and geology of earth, the relation among plants, animals, and humans, the history of science, and the perceptions of nature by artists and poets through the ages. The huge work preceded Carl Sagan’s slimmer Cosmos by a century and a half.

In 1831, the 22-year-old Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle for his own formative voyage, bringing with him Humboldt’s seven-volume narrative of the Latin American expedition. Darwin followed Humboldt in seeing nature as a grand ecological system in constant flux and precarious balance. But while Humboldt looked for the integration of nature, Darwin looked for beginnings. On the Origin of Species appeared a few months after Humboldt’s death in 1859.

In her epilogue, Andre Wulf writes that Humboldt’s name remains unfamiliar to many because, as the last scientist to study his field so broadly, he has been eclipsed by modern specialists famous for singular discoveries and theories. (Darwin is one example.) Yet when I read today’s effusive, popular articles and internet commentary on nature and naturalistic spirituality, I hear Humboldt. The passion and breadth he brought to science set the outlines of the ecological panorama that is many people’s view of the natural world today.

Darwin’s Dark Vision: “Ten Thousand Sharp Wedges”

Darwin has gotten to me. The third chapter of On the Origin of Species has changed how I look at nature. The name of the chapter sounds quaint at first: The Struggle for Existence. But it is an apt name for a dark, violent vision.

For Darwin, the central reason that life is a struggle is the numbers. Seeds, larvae, eggs, babies—most living things reproduce in big numbers, every year. We modern humans with our small families and our one or two pets don’t think of reproduction on that scale.

But, as Darwin writes, we should not forget that in truth “every single organic being around us may be said to be striving to the utmost to increase in numbers; that each lives by a struggle at some period of its life; that heavy destruction inevitably falls either on the young or the old…Lighten any check, mitigate the destruction ever so little, and the number of the species will almost instantaneously increase to any amount.”

And then this astonishing simile: “The face of Nature may be compared to a yielding surface, with ten thousand sharp wedges packed close together and driven inwards by incessant blows, sometimes one wedge being struck, and then another with greater force.”

purple loosestrife

The invasive purple loosestrife. Each plant produces one million seeds each year, every year. (fenton.patch.com)

We don’t notice the intensity of this competition in part because plant life takes place in slow motion. Darwin studied what lived and what died; he counted the seedlings in a patch of his yard and saw that most did not survive the struggle against competing weeds and insects. “We behold the face of nature bright with gladness, we often see superabundance of food; we do not see, or we forget, that the birds which are idly singing round us mostly live on insects or seeds, and are thus constantly destroying life; or we forget how largely these songsters, or their eggs, or their nestlings, are destroyed by birds and beasts of prey; we do not always bear in mind, that though food may be now superabundant, it is not so at all seasons of each recurring year.”


Whether an animal is sustaining itself or is destroying other life is a matter of point of view.  (telegraph.co.uk)

Although he uses the word “competition” to point to one obstruction or another, Darwin doesn’t find that word sweeping enough. And indeed today, for us, the term usually refers to what goes on between two individuals or teams or companies and the like. Struggle, however, points to competition in all directions at once—to the competition between a living thing and others of its own species, competition with other species, struggle against disease, against climate. It is the intensity of this struggle between the numbers of one’s offspring pitched against the strength of the adversaries that makes natural selection so effective. Any advantage, no matter how small, is big.

At the chapter’s end, the vision of the struggle slides over to “war”—along with a dubious consolation. “When we reflect on this struggle, we may console ourselves with the full belief, that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt, and that the vigorous, the healthy, and the happy survive and multiply.”

roadside plants

Along a roadside, the slow-motion war goes on. (nps.gov)

Where I live, the plants and insects look vigorous and healthy as always, but I see them differently now. In the small overgrown zones between suburban backyards and along roads, I used to see beauty, vitality, and tranquility. That is what we are expected to see in nature, after all. But now I look first at what plants are the greatest in number; they are, at the moment, the winners. They are the best adapted, putting other plants out of business in slow motion, and producing the most variations that might make their offspring even fitter.

Humans are similarly primed for struggle and competition of all kinds. Even here in suburbia, we are all alert to shortages or price increases in food and fuel, to drought and flood, to violence and car crashes, to drugs and diseases, to potential enemies in the neighborhood and in the world–“incessant blows” on the “sharp wedges” that are driven in on the “yielding surface” of our lives.