March 24, 2011

Buddhists and Evolution

Sam Mowe

Blogging for the Chicago Tribune, Stephen Asma recently wrote about Buddhists and evolution:

Turns out, many American biology teachers like Beau Schaefer are sneaking creationism into their classrooms. Buddhism, like every philosophy, has many problems, but thankfully it doesn’t have this one. In fact, Buddhists are all about the evolution.

Buddhism doesn’t have a creator God, like we find in the book of Genesis, nor does Buddhism have the Fundamentalist problem of a literal interpretation of scripture. As a result, it’s never had a war with science, unlike the science-religion skirmishes that plague Christianity and Islam.

To back this claim up Asma cites a 2009 Pew Forum poll that shows that 81% of Buddhists think evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth.

Of all the religious groups included on the chart, Buddhists are the most accepting of evolution. This supports the familiar claim that Buddhism and science overlap and inform each other, but does Buddhism really embrace evolution? What about the places where Buddhism and science don't see eye to eye? In 2003, Tricycle interviewed science writer Robert Wright on where natural selection and Buddhism meet—and don't. The first Q&A from "Darwin and the Buddha":

One of Buddhism’s central tenets is the illusory nature of self. How does that square with evolutionary theory? Well, commenting on the metaphysical status of the self is above my pay grade, and I’m not sure that a Darwinian perspective sheds much direct light on it. But this perspective does help to explain another, and perhaps related, illusion about the self: the “specialness of the self.” People instinctively operate under the assumption that their own happiness is more important than other people’s happiness. And that’s because we were built by natural selection, which is all about self-preservation and self-interest. So Buddhism’s emphasis on surrendering self-interest in consideration of other beings is radically opposed to Darwinian logic.

Read the rest here.

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Mumon's picture

Geez - the blind leading the blind here. The fact that living beings evolved as a result of "the selfish gene" as Dawkins put it in no way invalidates considerations as to how to transcend suffering!

This "logic" of the author is akin to saying "Because fishes live in the water they are diametrically opposed to the rules of football."

wtompepper's picture

Yeah, it is kind of a poor choice of words. He couldn't have possible really meant Darwinian "logic," since clearly instincts aren't a matter of logic.

Overall, though, I think he is really just saying something Buddha would have agreed with: We naturally tend to do things that, as a group, tend to make us unhappy. This doesn't invalidate the end the path to the cessation of suffering; it merely points out why it isn't easy.

larryang's picture

As for what evolutionary biologists has to say about altruism check out this Radiolab Podcast "The Good Show" at It talks about Oren Harman's book THE PRICE OF ALTRIUSM, and I found the story of George Price very moving.

As for acceptance of the theory of evolution, there's the Kalama Sutta. More relevant is the lack of emphasis on creator myths; they're irrelevant to every Buddhist practice I've come across.

Dolgyal's picture

Thanks, that is a valuable lead.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama wrote:
“Ancient Buddhist treatises describe the universe in conformity with the popular theory of the universe at that time. Consequently, the descriptions differ from those found in modern cosmology...after all, the basic approach of the Buddhist is to subject concepts to rigorous logical pocesses, and if anything contradicts direct observation and logic, it should not be accepted just because it is taught in the sutras or the texts. The earth of scientific experimentation and observation–its size and relative position in the solar system–is the earth we live in, and its appearance is common to the beings living in this world...scientific observations on this matter are beyond dispute...”

Wisdom Moon's picture

While I agree largely with what the Dalai Lama is saying, in that the earth we live in is common to the beings of this world and different to the Buddhist treatises, the Universe as described in the Abhidharma treatises is how it appears to a pure mind with different karma. Since the universe is subjective and dependent on the mind, not objective, there is no contradiction between the Abhidharma and scientific views of the world. The ancient Buddhist treatises are not based on theory - they, too, are the observations of living beings with different karma to our own and so they should not be portrayed as mythological or irrelevant.

Dolgyal's picture

The Abhidharma model of the universe is only a model. the Kalachakra Tantra gives a description of a processes of transformation differs again but is ultimately also simply a model. It has been pointed out that an earth centred-solar system has some validity from the point of view of the everyday observer looking up at the sky, although most now people accept the heliocentric model. Even the Hubble telescope has limits, we are still learning and should remain open to new ideas. The possibility that the world is older than 6000 years is revolutionary to many Americans, but worth considering!
Sadly, flat earth enthusiasts do not command the respect they feel they deserve. Some schools of thought have outlived their usefulness and just need to be discarded, even in Buddhism.

Wisdom Moon's picture

I'm not sure about Buddhists subscribing to evolution. The Agganna Sutta says we devolved from the god realms, so I'm not sure we wouldn't have a scriptural clash with science.

I'm all for evolving to becoming a pure, enlightened being for the benefit of others, but do Buddhists SERIOUSLY subscribe to the idea that humans evolved from apes? The best explanation for the origin of human life on earth is karma.

wtompepper's picture

Wisdom Moon,

Have your read Richard Gombrich's essay on "The Agganna Sutta," from the Indo-Iranian Journal? It's called "The Buddha's Book of Genesis," and he argues that we are not meant to take the sutra literally, that Buddha was using irony to make a point. I think he makes a pretty convincing case--and it's nice to know Buddha had a sense of humor!

Wisdom Moon's picture

Hi wtompepper, no, I haven't read it, I'll check it out - thanks.

larryang's picture

"The best explanation for the origin of human life on earth is karma."

I have no idea what this means.

Wisdom Moon's picture

It means that this human world, and the being within it, are produced by mind in accordance with the karma or actions we collectively created in past lives. It's a product of karma. That those appearances change in dependence upon causes and conditions (and we call that evolution) is also karma, so karma is Buddha's explanation of how the world came to be as it is, together with the great diversity of life forms on this planet.

Dolgyal's picture

On the other hand, in the more modern passages of Sheja Kunkhyap Dzo (Treasury of All-Encompassing Knowledge) concerning cosmology and the origin of life on earth, Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Thaye literally defines karma as 'evolutionary action'. There is thus no conflict with Darwinian theories. One can find a scriptural quote to support any number of views, including many wrong ones, it is up to each of us to find out what can be verified by valid reasoning.

sharmila2's picture

Actually, i think the Aggana sutra fits in with the theory of evolution quite nicely; since it described that the Gods were intially formless, then very fine particles adrift in the sea (sounds familiar, anyone?) that then became coarser and larger until we became the forms we now recognize. I think the fundamental point is that the key factors of change, adaptation, life forms getting progressively larger and more complex, and even the fact that all life started in the sea are all there in the original Buddhist texts. I frankly take considerable joy in that (especially the bit about the sea, since that is definitely counter-intuitive - that he got that right is amazing!) and enjoy living a dynamic life-practice that is at peace with modern scientific theory.

d_beardman's picture

I walk away from this Q&A with a new perspective. Very interesting and to the point. All encompassing too, which is good!