Tuesday February 17, 2009
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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