Darwin's Dharma?

Tuesday February 17, 2009

Darwin Cartoon

I’m sure that I’m lagging behind here, and that most thinkBuddha readers are already ahead of the game; but for those who have missed it, here’s a footnote to my note on Darwin Day. According to the Nature blog, psychologist Paul Ekman claimed at a recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science that Darwin’s views on compassion are strongly reminiscent of Tibetan Buddhism, to the extent that there could be a direct line of influence. One of the passages that Eckman suggests is suggestive of such a connection is drawn from Darwin’s The Expression of the Emotion in Man and Animals:

Love, tender feelings, &c. — Although the emotion of love, for instance that of a mother for her infant, is one of the strongest of which the mind is capable, it can hardly be said to have any proper or peculiar means of expression; and this is intelligible, as it has not habitually led to any special line of action. No doubt, as affection is a pleasurable sensation, it generally causes a gentle smile and some brightening of the eyes. A strong desire to touch the beloved person is commonly felt; and love is expressed by this means more plainly than by any other. Hence we long to clasp in our arms those whom we tenderly love. We probably owe this desire to inherited habit, in association with the nursing and tending of our children, and with the mutual caresses of lovers.

In his talk, Ekman apparently listed eight possible ways in which there could have been a direct influence of Tibetan Buddhism on Darwin, including the influence of his friend Joseph Hooker, who conducted botanical research on the Tibetan plateau. And certainly, towards the end of Darwin’s life, Buddhism was not something completely unknown in Europe. But at the same time conditioning factors (as good students of Buddhism must know) are deep and complex and multiple, and it might be easy here to over-egg the pudding, or to draw rather too far-reaching conclusions. So we shouldn’t be racing to crown the old bearded fellow with a lama’s hat just yet. After all, the quote above does not seem to stand in need of such explanations, however intriguing such reflections may be. Nor, indeed, does the following passage from The Descent of Man of 1871, despite its striking similarity to some ideas found in Buddhist texts:

This virtue [of humanity], one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings.

I admit to being intrigued by Ekman’s claims, and perhaps there is something else to be said here about the complex intellectual history of Darwin’s work. The world is much leakier than the historians sometimes credit; ideas move much more quickly than we sometimes are willing to admit. But what matters more than this, I think, is the sentiment – and, no doubt, the practice – of human sympathy, wherever it comes from. At the very least, it suggests that those who accuse Darwinism of being an affront to ethics have simply not read their Darwin with enough due attention.

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#1 · Loden Jinpa

17 February 2009

If Darwin’s theories are correct, and if he was exposed to Buddhist thought, then its clear his ideas incorporate Buddhist ethics. However, given the religious, social and political environment of his day it is no wonder he didn’t cite Buddhist texts for some of his “new” ideas.

>”…those who accuse Darwinism of being an >affront to ethics have simply not read >their Darwin with enough due attention.”

Will, with all due respect and with good intentions at heart, one could accuse you of the same error in regards to your views on certain Buddhist tenets. I would imagine that quantum-physics explained by a primary school teacher would sound unlikely too.

However, I think you are pointing out a methodological error that can arise when reading cross-cultural literature. That is, the presupposition of the correctness of our own world-view.

Regardless of the truth of all this speculation, both sides come off better for it being raised, and good on Prof Ekman for sticking his neck out!

#2 · bhiksuni Ratana

17 February 2009

In his writings about emotions and such Darwin, who had a degree in theology, was inspired both by the Bible that says; love your neigbour as yourself, as by other scholars and pseudo-scholars that he met when he studied at Edinburg University.

Adrian Desmond en James Moore, his biographers (“Darwin”, 1999) mention the influence of a professor by the name of Charles Bell who published “Anatomy and Physiology of Expression” in which book he said that The Creator had given mankind “unique (facial) muscles” to “express unique emotions”.
Ekman’s words also alluded to 19th cent investigations into skull size and so on. This ‘science’ was dubbed phrenology, and two of its outstanding proponents were William Browne en William Greg. The size and form of your skull too would say something about your character and temperament, they said.
These were Darwin’s first sources of inspiration. He built on these encounters. His biographers nowhere found the words Buddhist or Buddha, let alone Tibet.

#3 · Will

17 February 2009

Hi, Loden.

Thanks for the comment. A few thoughts in response.

Even if Darwin was exposed to some aspects of Buddhist thought (and this, of course, is far from impossible in the 1860s and 1870s when Darwin was writing this stuff), it would be hasty to assume too readily that he ‘incorporates’ Buddhist ethics in any systematic fashion. As I wrote in the piece, I’m not sure that the passages quoted above stand in need of such explanation, even if they make this suggestion attractive in some ways. If Ekman has further evidence up his sleeve, then it would certainly be interesting to see it. For the time being, however, whilst I’m willing to admit the possibility, I’m not yet convinced by Ekman’s claims.

Your first premise puzzles me. “If Darwin’s theories are correct, and if he was exposed to Buddhist thought, then…” I’m not sure what the first premise is doing here. Can one incorporate aspects of Buddhist thought and still be incorrect? I think so. So I’d be interested to know what is going on here with this first premise.

And speaking of incorporating aspects of Buddhist thought and being incorrect, your suggestion that I have not read my Buddhism with enough attention is no doubt true. I’m not sure I read or do anything with enough attention. Who does? What is ‘enough’ in this context? However, I’m always happy to be picked up on this or that point by more learned friends and readers. I’m no Buddhist scholar, either in my background or in my aspirations. But also I like to bear in mind that, the traditions of Buddhism are fluid, complex, multiple, often contested and frequently mutually (and sometimes even internally) inconsistent, something that is attested to by the long history of debate within Buddhism.

There is a difference here between ways of approaching Buddhism. Some see it as some kind of Deep Truth (like quantum physics) about the universe. I don’t. And even if Buddhism was like this, we would have to ask what kind of Buddhism. Have the Zen people got this deep truth right. The Theravadins? The Gelugs? The Pure Land folks? If there is one deep truth out there that Buddhism is aiming at, they can’t all be right… or can they?

I see Buddhism instead as a loose collection of practices and thoughts and system of thoughts, a kind of monumental piece of historical bricolage that has returned again and again to the same preoccupations. These preoccupations may in fact not be Deep Truths, but rather may be relatively simple, so simple (as the emperor said to Bodhidharma) that a child of three can understand them: cease to do evil, cultivate the good, purify the heart. Simple, perhaps, but so hard to put into practice that (as Bodhidharma is said to have acidly responded) even after eighty years, few succeed in really practising them.

This scepticism about the Deep Truths of Buddhism, my friend, may in the long run be why run you are a monk, whilst I’m just a confused philosopher and writer, trying to make as at least a little sense of things…

Best wishes,

Will

#4 · Will

17 February 2009

Thanks, Ratana. Of course, there may be other evidence that the biographers overlooked (I must read that biography some time, by the way), but certainly Darwin’s early reading in theology must have had some influence on him.

And, as you say, no clear mention of Tibet or Buddhism – I did a search yesterday of the Darwin archive online, and didn’t turn up anything much on Tibet (a few scattered references), and a sole reference to Buddhism, in passing in a letter from Huxley to Darwin.

So the jury still seems to be out on this one.

#5 · Loden Jinpa

18 February 2009

Hi Will,

Your reply once again was beautifully put. A clear example of why you are a “top 100” blogger ;)

I must apologize in advance for my lack of grace.

Your description of Buddhism puzzles me. You were a Buddhist and presumably you have read Buddhist literature. If so, you will be aware that Buddhism is about solving the problem of suffering.

Given the expansion of Buddhism took centuries, how could it be any other than “…a loose collection of practices and thoughts and system of thoughts, a kind of monumental piece of historical bricolage that has returned again and again to the same preoccupations.”? If we compare a 12th century parent to a 21st century parent, we see they are both are motivated by the same issues. The wish for their children to be happy and healthy. While the methods used in achieving their aim are vastly different, the underlying truth about what it is to be human are no different even over the passage of time.

What is more puzzling though is your refusal to be open to what Buddhism might have to say about some kind “truth” regardless of its depth or relations to the universe, particularly since you were a professional philosopher.

I believe Buddhism is not simply a religious doctrine founded by a long dead ancient culture with little connection to contemporary life. I would claim it is the investigation and articulation of natural laws. I would also suggest that at its core, is not mysticism, but rather empirical data garnered through investigation into such things as the nature of mind and phenomenological experience. These claims are then evaluated via meditation and just like science these experiments must be repeatable by any individual that performs the same meditations. The Dalai Lama has often said: “If science finds empirical evidence that contradicts Buddhist doctrine we must abandon that tenet”. I would therefore claim that Buddhism should be understood to fall somewhere between science and philosophy.

Moreover, to quote Profs Mark Siderits from a book you review for Contemporary Buddhism: “Buddhist philosophers just like Analytic philosophers share a fundamental commitment to find complete clarity about the matters they investigate.”

It is for these very reasons there are difference ways of approaching Buddhism, and it is this very same reason why Buddhist philosopher/meditators can work so well with science.

While I agree with this statement “…a loose collection of practices and thoughts and system of thoughts, a kind of monumental piece of historical bricolage that has returned again and again to the same preoccupations. These preoccupations may in fact not be Deep Truths, but rather may be relatively simple, so simple (as the emperor said to Bodhidharma) that a child of three can understand them: cease to do evil, cultivate the good, purify the heart. Simple, perhaps, but so hard to put into practice that (as Bodhidharma is said to have acidly responded) even after eighty years, few succeed in really practising them.”

Reading this as: Buddhism as nothing more than a “mind training” practice that is “…so simple that a child of three can understand them: cease to do evil, cultivate the good, purify the heart” is far too simplistic to say the least.

#6 · Will

18 February 2009

Hi again, Loden,

This is the kind of conversation that requires a cup of tea, but unfortunately you are in Australia and I’m over here, so we’ll have to do without, or defer the tea until conditions permit.

Certainly there is empiricism in Buddhism, and certainly one of the central preoccupations is that of human suffering, and that of how to best respond to this. But Buddhism is a big ol’ thing, with all kinds of other preoccupations as well, with all kinds of other ways of going about things, different in different times and different places, and continually in motion.

Because of this, I’d not want to be guilty (although I might be) of making “Buddhism as nothing more than…” claims. When you’ve got 2,500 years and a goodly proportion planet’s geography to deal with, “nothing more than…” simply does not make sense.

So I am certainly open to the possibility that from out of this vast history, there is a whole load of insight into what it is to be human. No, I’d put it much more strongly than that: I’m certain that there is a great deal of insight. And because the basic preoccupations are preoccupations that I share, I find it an endlessly rich seam to mine. That’s why I love it, that’s why I find it compelling, and that’s why I continue to read and write and practice meditation, and reflect on my ethical practice and so on and so forth.

Perhaps there are two questions that I would want to put to you if we had the advantages of that hypothetical cup of tea (and biscuits, now I think about it. Biscuits would be good…) The first is the question of the extent to which philosophical presentations of Buddhism can be themselves guilty of their own “Buddhism as nothing more than…” claims; and the second, related, one is the question of empiricism and Buddhism, and whether we are seeing in Buddhism the kind of convergence or (to use Edward Wilson’s term) consilience that characterises the sciences… We have so many flavours of Buddhism, but I’m not sure that we have flavours of science in exactly the same way.

#7 · Ben

18 February 2009

pewforum.org/docs/?D…

…(and the wider study)… makes for interesting reading. 81% of US Buddhists agree that evoulution is the best explanation of human life, compared to just 8% of Jehovah’s Witnesses.

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