Darwin and the Buddha

Does compassion make evolutionary sense? Does happiness, for that matter? Tricycle interviews science writer Robert Wright on where natural selection and Buddhism meet—and don't.

James Shaheen

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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.

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