Natural Selection as a Variation on a Theme by the Buddha

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

The Buddha’s concept of paticca-samuppada, or “dependent origination”, expresses an idea that everything in the world around us comes into being with a concurrence of causes and conditions. Involving, as it does, a concurrence of causes and conditions, anything that exists does so only as a composite entity in the context of a specific configuration of causes and conditions. Or to put it another way, nothing in the world around us exists by itself, which is the Buddha’s conception of sunyata, or “emptiness”. As such, “dependent origination” can be construed as summarily expressing the Buddha’s view of the evolutionary process of change and transformation for all composite entities, which he calls sankharas: “It is by a process of evolution that sankharas come to be.”1 Moreover, as the products of a dynamic, evolutionary process, sankharas are subject to anicca, or “impermanence”: “All compound things are transitory: they grow and they decay.”2

As the life of all composite entities is subject to the cycle of birth and death in the Buddha’s view of the world, it comes as no surprise that the existence of all life involves “struggle” of one kind or another. Thus, the Buddha states, “Struggle must be, for all life is a struggle of some kind.”3 In this statement, though it was expressed in the context of his warning against those of us who struggle in clinging to our non-existent self, we can see how close the Buddha comes to expressing an idea that evolution is a process that involves the struggle for existence for all living beings—an idea that would be translated into the theory of “natural selection” by Charles Darwin (1809-1882).

The theory of natural selection developed by Darwin—and Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913)—is a theory about the mechanism by which a new species emerges in the natural world. Darwin realized that a phenomenon such as the emergence of a species could not be explained by following the Cartesian mode of acquiring knowledge of the world around us, which involves partitioning and segmentation of the world into non-interacting parts. Thus, Darwin states, in Introduction to his Origin of Species, an event such as the origin of species can be made comprehensible to us only “by patiently accumulating and reflecting on all sorts of facts which could have any bearing on it.”4

“All sorts of facts which could have any bearing on it” literally include all sorts of factors that are behind evolution—biological, chemical, geological, cosmological. In other words, “all sorts of facts” that Darwin talks about are nothing but the whole collections of “causes and conditions” that are behind the appearance and disappearance of composite entities in the world around us, a biological species being one example of such composite entities. In this sense, Darwin’s theory of natural selection can be regarded as an application of the Buddha’s idea of “dependent origination” to a specific class of phenomena, namely, the phenomenon of the emergence of a new species in the natural environment, or the world of “name and form”, as the Buddha put it.

While Darwin himself acknowledges the influence of the idea of the disparity between population growth and food production developed by Robert Malthus (1766-1834), neither he nor his biographers tell us about the possible influence of the Buddha’s idea on the formation of his theory of natural selection. Considering, however, how nicely this theory fits into the idea of “dependent origination”, we may perhaps be justified to designate Darwin’s theory of natural selection as a variation on a theme composed by the Buddha, namely, the theme of paticca-samuppada.

Designating Darwin’s theory of natural selection as a variation on a theme by the Buddha does not, in any way, diminish the importance of Darwin’s original contribution to the body of our knowledge of the world around us. It is a remarkable theory in that it explains the emergence of man as a species following the same mechanism of natural selection as all the other species without any need for an intelligent designer. It is a culminating achievement of the power of science, as Richard Dawkins (1941- ) explains: “Natural selection not only explains the whole of life; it also raises consciousness to the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without any deliberate action.”5 In a way, it is ironic that Darwin was the one who appealed to that power of science in explaining the emergence of species, for he was headed for the clergyman’s career when he decided to enter the Divinity School at Cambridge at the suggestion of his father. What prompted Darwin to pursue the career of a naturalist were his encounters with such people as John Henslow (1796-1861) and Adam Sedgwick (1785-1873) at Cambridge who roused his interest in botany and geology, two scientific disciplines that played crucial roles in formulating his theory of natural selection.

It must be said to have been a courageous act on the part of Darwin to suggest the idea of natural selection in the cultural environment of Christianity, for it presented a direct challenge to the Biblical account of the origin of species, which grants man a special status in the natural world. Darwin’s theory, in contrast, says that there is nothing special about man, being just one species in the natural world teemed with all sorts of living organisms. Is this not the same as saying that man is just a sankhara, destined to follow the same cycle of birth and death as all the other sankharas, though we are prone to delude ourselves into thinking that we are somehow special, clinging to our illusionary self?

To add a final note—no pun intended—just as we can detect what is definitely Brahms’ sound in his “Variations on a Theme by Haydn” or “Variation and Fugue on a Theme of Handel”, we can detect what is definitely Darwin’s science in his theory of natural selection. For, what Darwin does in his Origin of Species is to carefully and cautiously develop his theory against the background of patiently accumulated empirical evidence, while expanding on a theme by the Buddha.

  1. Carus, Paul, Gospel of the Buddha, Oxford: Oneworld, 1994, p.158.
  2. Ibid, p.158.
  3. Ibid, p.148.
  4. Darwin, Charles, The Origin of Species, New York: Hill and Wang, 1979, p.46.
  5. Dawkins, Richard, The God Delusion, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2008, Chapter 4.