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.

Dawkins: Don’t Let Your Values Distort What You Know About Science

I’m guilty, I have to admit, of projecting some of my values onto science. One of them is that temperamentally and politically, I value cooperation more than competition, so I’m not surprised to find that looking back over this blog, I’ve praised the first far more than the second. And for those of us who don’t work in the nitty-gritty empiricism of science, even more obvious traps are waiting. Many believe, for instance, that the global climate is stable and that dinosaurs and humans used to roam the earth together.

But Richard Dawkins has brought me up short about how powerfully value judgments can skew even the most earnest attempts (like mine) to let solid science be a guide. In his 1997 lecture on “The Values of Science and the Science of Values,” included in his 2017 collection Science in the Soul, Dawkins describes two examples.

First, admiration for Darwinian natural selection as any sort of model for how society does or should function suggests a failure to grasp what that mechanism is all about.

lion (texasgateway.org)


If you must use Darwinism as a morality play, it is an awful warning. Nature really is red in tooth and claw. The weakest really do go to the wall, and natural selection really does favor selfish jeans. The racing elegance of cheetahs and gazelles is bought at huge cost in blood and the suffering of countless antecedents on both sides.…The product of natural selection, life in all its forms, is beautiful and rich. But the process is vicious brutal and short sighted. (Kindle location 559)

And the fact that we ourselves are products of that process shouldn’t fool us.

We are Darwinian creatures, our forms and our brains sculpted by natural selection, that indifferent, cruelly blind watchmaker. But this doesn’t mean we have to like it. On the contrary…‘Darwinian’ is not a bad definition of precisely the sort of politics I would run a hundred miles not to be governed by.

Dawkins’ second example is eugenics—not the debate over its ethics but the impact of its immorality on conclusions about the science behind it.

The premise is that to breed humans selectively for abilities such as running speed, musical talent or mathematical dexterity would be politically and morally indefensible. Therefore it isn’t (must not be) possible – [it’s] ruled out by science. Well, anybody can see that that’s a non sequitur, and I’m sorry to have to tell you that positive eugenics is not ruled out by science. There is no reason to doubt that humans would respond to selective breeding just as readily as cows, dogs, cereal plants and chickens. I hope it isn’t necessary for me to say that this doesn’t mean I’m in favor of it. (588)

Dawkins adds that even in the case of human intelligence, composed of multiple factors that we don’t understand entirely, the fact remains that “there has been an evolutionary trend in our ancestry towards increased intelligence” (604). That trend means that

we could, if we wanted to, use artificial selective breeding to continue the same evolutionary trend.

I would need little persuading that such a eugenic policy would be politically and morally wrong, but we must be absolutely clear that such a value judgment is the right reason to refrain from it. Let us not allow our value judgments to push us over into the false scientific belief that human eugenics isn’t possible. Nature, fortunately or unfortunately, is indifferent to anything so parochial as human values. (612)

Reminder to self: Believing that something is true, or is probably true, or seems to be true, does not mean that it is true.

“Damn it, it’s MY Body That’s at Stake”: Autonomy, Sociality, and Imperfect Choices

My family were swapping medical grievances one evening—flawed diagnoses, unwanted side effects, useless procedures. “Damn it, it’s my body that’s at stake” was one protest. I thought how forcefully people can stake out the inviolability of not only their health but “my life,” “my rights,” “my money,” “my free will.” When relatives, employers, government, or banks overstep, we stand by our autonomy. Don’t tread on me.

But we work the other side of this relationship too. We uphold—because we benefit from— social codes and expectations. Rebels who don’t share our values make us nervous. “Take the statin.” “Don’t forget to invite that cousin you don’t like. Family first.” “You’re going to wear that?” “Showing up is eighty percent of the job.”

We carry both the autonomous nonconformist and the social enforcer inside us. The roles take different forms in different cultures but are rooted in our genes. Our autonomy is our expectation that we could get by on our own if we had to, that we can make some of our own decisions, solve problems ourselves. But that doesn’t mean we actually expect to go it alone. We are groupies. The biological term is sociality. Sociality doesn’t refer to being sociable or friendly. It refers to the inherited tendency to form groups, sometimes highly organized ones. Social ants work for the queen, bees signal each other how to get to honey, wolves hunt in packs. Stronger together.

But as inherited traits, autonomy and sociality aren’t so perfect together. Most species inherit more of one than the other. Cats go solo while ants hatch ready-made for their roles as workers, soldiers, or queens. The blessing and the curse for humans is that we have high levels of both. It feels right to us to decide what is best for ourselves while at the same time we’re reluctant to risk losing our social support. The result is ambivalence. “Should I take the statin/invite the cousin/change my shirt/get myself to work?”

Such ambivalence, says sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson, is the turmoil of the human spirit. When loyalty to our clan, friends, or religion clashes with our concern for our well-being, we may feel angry or sad or confused or frightened or betrayed. Near the close of the fifth chapter of Sociobiology (2000 edition), Wilson summarizes the dilemma, surprisingly, with a passage from the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu epic from 300 B.C. E. Here, the god Krishna steers the chariot of the reluctant prince Arjuna to an impending battle in which Arjuna’s relatives and close friends will be fighting not with Arjuna but for the other side. Arjuna wavers. Wilson writes about

ambivalence as a way of life in social creatures. Like Arjuna faltering on the Field of Righteousness, the individual is forced to make imperfect choices based on irreconcilable loyalties—between the “rights” and “duties” of self and those of family, tribe, and other units of selection, each of which evolves its own code of honor. No wonder the human spirit is in constant turmoil. Arjuna agonized, “Restless is the mind, O Krishna, turbulent, forceful, and stubborn.”

Krishna-Arjuna-battle (hinduhumanrights.info)

The god Krishna, Arjuna’s charioteer, turns as Arjuna hesitates on the Field of Righteousness (hinduhumanrights.info)

I first read this passage from Wilson years ago but it comes back to me when I hear protests and arguments. We are Arjuna, come to the field of life with two strengths that work to our advantage but that also get in each other’s way. I understand people better, myself included, when I listen for the rumbling, ageless tension of self versus group beneath our “imperfect choices” and “irreconcilable loyalties.”