Sunday, April 20, 2014

Evolution and Buddhism?

Someone on the Twitter asked me about whether I knew any references regarding Buddhism and Darwin/Evolution.  It was mentioned that natural selection was kind of like karma.

Well, I'm not sure about that.  Or to put it another way, taking one aspect of science, and "comparing" it to Buddhism seems somewhat odd to me.   Contemporaneously with the question I received (more or less) there were articles in Salon about "Charles Darwin's tragic error"  and "Science doesn't disprove God: Where Richard Dawkins and the New Atheists go wrong." Every now and then Salon goes right off the deep end with junk such as this.   

I tend to be wary of the metaphors where "science" "proves" some aspect about religion.  I am also skeptical of religions that make falsifiable claims about which we don't have answers, although I suspect as well that some ethical and behavioral claims that Buddhism makes can be observed, tested, etc.  Recent activities on Twitter, especially in regards to racists and witch hunts, seem to practically shout such observability.   In the latter article in Salon above, there is a dash of anthropocentrism mixed with a lack of understanding of the nature of consciousness. 

The former article is perhaps more relevant to the question at hand.   Again, I view questions like, "How does Darwinian evolution relate to Buddhism?" along the lines of "How do Maxwell's Equations relate to Buddhism?"  Which is to say,  the science might explain some observables  about who and what's around, but, um, so what? 

The former article about Charles Darwin's "error" I think is more telling here, and more illustrative of the problem of imputing ideology to scientific observations:

Modern racism had several different intellectual sources, and only with difficulty could one say which of these was most important. I will focus here on the “scientific” strand of racism, which drew its inspiration from Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection. Several factors dictate  this emphasis on Darwinian racism. First, Darwinist racism explicitly motivated Hitler and many other leading perpetrators of the Holocaust. Second, Darwin inspired the researchers, most notably in biology and anthropology, who gave racism its aura of scientific certainty.  Third, Darwinian thought may well have been more popular in Germany  than anywhere  else during these years, in part because Germany was the world’s leading center of biological research before World War I and the Germans were exceptionally literate. Finally, Darwinist racism was the brand of racism most easily understood by the widest number of people, in part because Darwin’s theory was astonishingly simple and easy to explain. 
As Darwin’s theory gained widespread acceptance, thinkers of every stripe began to find lessons in it for understanding the politics and  society of their time, using Darwinian thought to support their own agendas. This so-called  Social Darwinism ran in many different political directions. The right-wing branch of Social Darwinism—which was not necessarily the most popular strand of it—promoted racism, justified social and political inequality, and glorified war. It also inspired Adolf Hitler and his ardent supporters to launch a world war and exterminate the Jews of Europe. 
Right-wing Social Darwinism produced several ideas that were attractive and convenient to the ruling classes of Europe and North America, and especially to Germany’s warlike and antidemocratic elites. The most important idea may have been “struggle,” the notion that all relations between individuals and between nations were defined by a merciless battle for survival. Struggle followed inevitably from the laws of nature as discovered by Darwin, and therefore had no moral significance.  The Christian injunctions to “love your neighbor” and “love your enemies”  had no place in the animal  kingdom;  neither should they control the behavior  of human beings, who were not made  in the image of God,  but rather counted  as nothing more than an especially clever type of animal. 
From these assumptions about struggle followed the argument that extreme social inequality was natural and permanent. The poor were poor because they were less fit than the rich. Charity for the poor blocked humanity from evolving to a higher plane, because it kept unfit members of society alive, allowing them to reproduce and pollute the gene pool with their inferior intelligence and moral weaknesses.  The belief in permanent struggle  also supported  a bias  toward violence  between nations, a glorification  of warfare. “Superior” peoples had every right  to conquer, exploit, and even exterminate “inferior” ones. If such aggression let superior peoples expand and become more numerous, the entire human race would  improve in the long run;  the extinction of lesser races was a cause for celebration rather than pity. In international relations, might made right: by winning a war, the victor showed that he deserved his victory, because his people were more fit to survive than were the losers...

Several points here are worth noting:

1. The author has at best a superficial understanding of Darwinian evolution; "love your neighbor," for example,  as well as other forms of altruism are indeed aligned with the notion of the "selfish gene" as Dawkins has put it.

2.  People co-opted Darwin's models outside of Darwin's field of discourse becomes "Darwin inspired" and therefore "Darwin is responsible."  This is dishonest.  If you want to put the fig-leaf of "intellectual" in front of that,  fine, but it is dishonest.  Yet people did do that. 

3. Social Darwinism is not biological evolution.  And even though Darwin's work was polluted with such co-option, it doesn't invalidate what Darwin wrote! 

The laws of natural selection are facts; to impute them as "proof" of a way of thinking is as useful as saying "it is raining now" therefore Buddhism is true.   There are a myriad of conditions, including some of which we have contributed, for which  the current weather can be explained.   Darwinian evolution, as observed, is a reflection of events transpired in environments, but it, too, is not the way. 

I will say this though: I think the two articles in Salon are an example of a certain type of greed and attachment: we want to believe we are special; we want to believe that our chosen practice is in accord with the universe(s) and by Jove, we've really got it!

Maybe we don't.   I think any good practice of the Way ought incorporate such a disclaimer, including any practice of the way associated with the writing of this post.  I.e., I might be wrong.


Anonymous said...

Here is a blog post by a British scientist demonstrating that Nazi racial ideology was religious, creationist and opposed to Darwinism:

Mumon K said...


I'm sure the author's correct, but in any event what is observable, and repeatable and knowledge of humankind should stand on its own, even if its ideas were distorted by others.

Mariam said...
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