Evolution, Karma, and The World of Sentience

Although many Christian Conservatives sound downright irrational when discussing Darwinian theory, the Dalai Lama seems to accept the basic theory but points out what he considers some of its limitations and explains why Buddhism disagrees with parts of it. It’s the kind of intelligent argument that makes us want to listen to what’s being said rather than automatically tuning it out.

In fact, I learned several things about the theory that I didn’t know previously, particularly how widely it has influenced scientific thought:

The Darwinian theory is an explanatory framework that accounts for the wealth of flora and fauna, the richness of what Buddhists call sentient beings and plants that effectively constitute the biological world available to us. So far the theory has avoided disproof and has offered the most coherent scientific understanding of the evolution of the diversity of life on earth. The theory applies as much to the molecular level-that is, to the adaptation and selection of individual genes-as to the macrocosmic level of large organisms. Despite its remarkable adaptability to all levels on which we might say life flourishes, Darwin’s theory does not explicitly address the conceptual question of what life is. This said, there are a number of key characteristics that biology understands to be essential for life, such as organisms being self-sustaining systems and naturally possessing some mechanisms for reproduction. In addition, the key definitions of life include the ability to develop away from chaos and toward order, which is called “negative entropy.”

It never occurred to me to think of Darwinian theory on a molecular level, but it makes sense that if if it operated on one level it should also operate on a lower level. too.

Of course if I’d wanted to learn more about Darwinian theory I would have chosen a very different book, but, as it turns out, reading the Dalai Lama’s views about scientific views is an excellent way to gain insight into a culture that I know very little about despite what most people would consider extensive readings in Chinese and Japanese literature. For instance, I’d never considered that the Buddhist definition of “life” might be different than our own:

The Buddhist Abhidharma tradition, by contrast, defines sok, the Tibetan equivalent for the English term life, as that which supports “heat” and “consciousness.” To some extent the differences are semantic, since what Buddhist thinkers mean by life and living relates entirely to sentient beings and not to plants, while modern biology has a much broader conception of life, taking it all the way down to the cellular level. The Abhidharma definition does not correspond to the biological account mostly because the underlying motive of Buddhist theory is to answer ethical questions that can be considered only in relation to higher forms of life.

The Dalai Lama points out another interesting contrast between Buddhism and modern science:

However, in Buddhism there is a greater appreciation of the challenge of accounting for the emergence of sentient beings from what is essentially a non-sentient basis.

This difference of concern suggests an interesting contrast between Buddhism and modern science, which may have partly to do with the complex historical, social, and cultural differences that underlie the development of these two investigative traditions. For modern science, at least from a philosophical point of view, the critical divide seems to be between inanimate matter and the origin of living organisms, while for Buddhism the critical divide is between non-sentient matter and the emergence of sentient beings.

and then explains why Buddhism makes this distinction:

Buddhism draws the critical division differently-i.e., between sentience and non-sentience-because it is primarily interested in the alleviation of suffering and the quest for happiness. In Buddhism, the evolution of the cosmos and the emergence of the sentient beings within it-indeed, effectively everything within the purview of the physical and life sciences-belong within the domain of the first of the Four Noble Truths, which the Buddha taught in his initial sermon. The Four Noble Truths state that within the realm of impermanent phenomena there is suffering, suffering has an origin, the cessation of suffering is possible, and there is a path to the cessation of suffering. As I see it, science falls within the scope of the first truth in that it examines the material bases of suffering, for it covers the entire spectrum of the physical environment-“the container”-as well as the sentient beings-“the contained.” It is in the mental realm-the realm of psychology, consciousness, the afflictions, and karma-that we find the second of the truths, the origin of suffering. The third and fourth truths, cessation and the path, are effectively outside the domain of scientific analysis in that they pertain primarily to what might be called philosophy and religion.

I’ve encountered the Four Noble Truths many times in my readings, but I’d never thought of them as having this radical effect on the way Buddhists see the world. In fact, I’d never thought about them other than as a philosophy or religion. It would never have occurred to me that they might affect the way people looked at scientific truths.

Of course, I was even more surprised by this:

In Buddhism, there is no recognition of the presence of something like the “soul” that is unique to humans. From the perspective of consciousness, the difference between humans and animals is a matter of degree and not of kind.

Though I should probably have known this, just as I know that the Chinese have no concept of heaven and hell, I’m so accustomed to the concept of “soul,” I didn’t know it. Heck, I’m so accustomed to the concept that I would even argue that “Skye” has a soul, and is probably more apt to end in heaven than I am.

The Dalai Lama’s greatest criticism of Darwinism, though, is that it seems unwilling or unable to account for many positive human traits:

At one of the Mind and Life conferences in Dharamsala, the Harvard historian of science Anne Harrington made a memorable presentation on how, and to some extent why, scientific investigation of human behavior has so far failed to develop any systematic understanding of the powerful emotion of compassion. At least in modern psychology, compared with the tremendous amount of attention paid to negative emotions, such as aggression, anger, and fear, relatively little examination has been made of more positive emotions, such as compassion and altruism. This emphasis may have arisen because the principal motive in modern psychology has been to understand human pathologies for therapeutic purposes. However, I do feel that it is unacceptable to reject altruism on the ground that selfless acts do not fit within the current biological understanding of life or are simply redefinable as expressions of the self-interest of the species. This stance is contrary to the very spirit of scientific inquiry. As I understand it, the scientific approach is not to modify the empirical facts to fit one’s theory; rather the theory must be adapted to fit the results of empirical inquiry. Otherwise it would be like trying to reshape one’s feet to fit the shoes.

This sounds an awful lot like Maslow’s argument against a “science” which is unable to find room for “religious” or “peak” experiences:

I feel that this inability or unwillingness fully to engage the question of altruism is perhaps the most important drawback of Darwinian evolutionary theory, at least in its popular version. In the natural world, which is purported to be the source of the theory of evolution, just as we observe competition between and within species for survival, we observe profound levels of cooperation (not necessarily in the conscious sense of the term). Likewise, just as we observe acts of aggression in animals and humans, we observe acts of altruism and compassion. Why does modern biology accept only competition to be the fundamental operating principle and only aggression to be the fundamental trait of living beings? Why does it reject cooperation as an operating principle, and why does it not see altruism and compassion as possible traits for the development of living beings as well?

I’ll have to admit that I never really considered concepts like Social Darwinism scientific, figuring that they were merely the rationalization of selfish people to justify their actions. I’m pretty sure the willingness to sacrifice for others, whether family or the group, is one of the traits that has allowed us to outcompete other species. If we hope to have any kind of future worth living, let’s hope we don’t manage to eliminate that trait.

5 thoughts on “Evolution, Karma, and The World of Sentience

  1. You might want to take a look at this link for a gloss of altruism in evolutionary theory (and the story of a very peculiar guy): http://www.thenation.com/article/154974/group-george-price

    I’m sure there’s much more to it, but I have no notion of what might be going on out there. And, of course, I have no assurance that the person writing the story is accurately representing the state of thinking about the subject. Good luck!


  2. I live in the heart of creationist country, so when people bring up Darwin I quickly start looking for ways to change the topic. I’m not interested in changing them, but they’re obsessed with changing me.

    I want one of these tee-shirts: LINK

  3. Cute, Thomas. I understand why you might change the subject as soon as possible.

    Interesting article, Jeff, though I saved it so I can re-read it a couple of times. I had no idea that there was such a debate going on.

  4. Brilliant, insightful and thought-provoking post, Loren. I wish this level of calm lucidity, informed
    and open-minded enquiry was more often present in the science VS religion debates that the media feeds on and propagates (such as Richard Dawkins & co. VS traditional religionists). They thrive on competitiveness, dismissing the opponent, asserting superiority. In this one post, you shed more light on the whole subject than they have managed in countless hours of talk and innumerable words in print. Bravo!

  5. Thanks, Natalie. I’m sure the “brilliant, insightful, and thought-provoking” part comes from the Dalai Lama. But it’s nice to know that others find it as thought-provoking as I did.

    The article Jeff refers to is also worth looking into.

What do you think?