The Overlooked Evolution Debate

A Buddhist-inspired Perspective

One of the most fatuous spectator sports in Western intellectual history has been the dogged pseudo-debate about evolution. A species of cock-fight journalism has arisen, whose editors never seems to tire of trotting out Creationist zealots, and pitting them against neo-Darwinist zealots. It is not unlike watching two rams engage in the same horn-butting return-match, over and over (to the point of mutual brain damage?). The Creationists would have us believe that evidence of any sort of intelligent design in the evolution of living forms also implies evidence of a Designer; in other words, a Creator, who stands outside of “created” nature. Oddly enough, the neo-Darwinists seem to tacitly agree with their adversaries on this point — at any rate, they scrupulously avoid any notice of the logical fallacy of that deduction, much less challenge it. Indeed, they need that fallacy as much as their adversaries do, though for opposite reasons. Psychologically speaking, it is as if the most extreme neo-Darwinists (Richard Dawkins being the most illustrious example), have a hidden agenda — one with deep historical roots, going all the way back to the Inquisition in Europe — an agenda which is subconsciously tinged with ancient hostility, and perhaps even a touch of paranoia. Here is one way of describing it: in order to shut, lock, and board over every door or window, through which any hint of “religion” might surreptitiously creep back into science, they have elected for a systematic rejection of any manifestation of intelligent adaptability (or even cooperation) in nature. To make doubly sure of the philosophical part of the job, they elected, centuries ago, to take an axe to Aristotle’s Four Causes, lopping off the last two of them. Only material cause and efficient cause are left unscathed. The other two — formal cause (which would allow for design); and final cause (which would allow for intelligence, along with teleology, purpose, etc) are gone. This hatchet job has the added advantage of pretty much ruling out Lamarckian-type evolutionary heresies as well, thereby saving everyone the bother of having to look too closely at the evidence. However, even some of the staunchest believers in the neo-Darwinist story began to balk at last, when this cavalier treatment of the work of one of the greatest scientific philosophers of all time was finally pointed out to a large number of people. After all, wasn’t Aristotle supposed to be the discoverer of the philosophical foundations of science? What could possibly justify chopping off half of the very core of his work in these foundations?

Lacking any valid philosophical reason for this elective esthetic surgery, as it were, it would seem that the most persuasive justification that neo-Darwinists have come up with is a rhetorical one: only if people can be convinced to exclude formal causes, and especially final causes, as being outside the domain of science, can they ever be brought to “understand” and accept the otherwise implausible doctrine, whereby random mutations of “selfish” genes; plus competition; plus survival of the fittest, are enough to explain the boundless, astonishing variety, and ingenuity of evolutionary adaptations, and cooperative ecological relationships. Any belief in intelligent design in nature must be discredited, by linking it to belief in a Creator. But this is not enough — it must be discredited at the deepest level possible, by denying formal, and especially final causes.

A revelation of the intellectual bankruptcy of this kind of scientism is to be found in the little-publicized reports of its outright censorship of scientists who stray too far from the party line. As one of many examples, a Japanese microbiologist was censored by a major scientific journal, for using the term “intelligent behavior” in the title of his article, to apply to the micro-organisms he was studying. (Against the author’s will, they forced upon him their own compromise phrase: “smart behavior”). But this is a very mild example — almost innocuous, by comparison with the decades-old, and ongoing attempts to silence one of the greatest scientists of our time, Rupert Sheldrake — on one occasion, an establishment critic got so carried away as to advocate burning Sheldrake’s book….(For more information on this, and many other relevant subjects, see this link to Sheldrake’s work.)

Philosophically, and semantically, scientism would have us reduce the meaning of words such as life and consciousness to external, essentially mechanistic phenomena, which somehow emerged from a world “out there”, composed only of dead and unconscious matter-energy.

The fact that a theory so vague, so insufficiently verifiable, and so far from the criteria otherwise applied in ‘hard’ science has become a dogma, can only be explained on sociological grounds.

— Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Austrian biologist, and founder of systems theory, in reference to orthodox neo-Darwinism.

As to the specific nature of those sociological grounds: I would argue that the deeply flawed views of nature, such as those propounded by an otherwise brilliant scientist such as Richard Dawkins, seem quite credible to minds that have been deeply conditioned by the assumptions of Western individualism, which itself is a product of the social conditioning of capitalism. The systematic blindness of his “selfish gene” theory, with regard to the far greater evolutionary importance of cooperation between species, can be seen as the predictable outcome of a psycho-social system which exalts values such as competition, self-centered greed, domination, and loveless work, all of it motivated by belief in scarcity, and fear of exclusion — and unconsciously projects many of the assumptions of this conditioning onto Nature.

This essay is written for readers like myself, who have long been bored by the false evolution debate, and who also have no further need to hear arguments exposing the absurdities of both its extremes. But more importantly, it is written for readers who wonder what relevance evolution might have for spiritual awakening, in the most universal sense; yet who remain committed to the fundamental ground of all authentic sciences, of whatever form: the willingness to question any belief, however cherished, when evidence or logic goes against it; and the willingness to abandon that belief, if the contradictions become unresolvable. Franklin Merrell-Wolff (a profound, and very under-recognized mystical philosopher and mathematician), describes this ground as “the highest and noblest form of asceticism.”

Potentially at least, this implies a vast community of common interest — a tent large enough to accomodate people of many different spiritual and cultural orientations. But in order for us to take the first step towards a debate about evolution that is more universal, and which really matters to us, we would do well to begin with a long-neglected consideration of certain relevant Buddhist teachings. And why should Buddhism be of interest in this context? Simply because of the fact that almost every time Western media — from the popular to the most sophisticated and erudite — have taken any interest in how the ancient, spiritual teachings of the Perennial Philosophy might agree or disagree with the claims of scientific evolutionism, they turn almost exclusively to the Abrahamic traditions. This is unfortunate, and also significant, in the way it has long been hamstringing the debate from the start, by the false assumption referred to above: that any attribution of intelligence, or of design in nature must also entail an outside-standing, transcendent design-er, or God, who is responsible for this teleological aspect.

For this reason, I propose to begin with a consideration of what Buddhist teachings might imply about evolution. They, too, are essential to the Philosophia Perennis. But they seem to have been strangely neglected in the evolutionary conversation.

I’m also assuming, or at least hoping, that readers have some familiarity with the fundamental Buddhist teachings of anatman (often translated as no-self), and the related notions of emptiness (shunyata), and above all, of inter-dependent co-origination. But we must be very careful from the start, as to the meanings we attribute to these terms. Not just recently, but over the course of centuries of discussions of Buddhist philosophy, some seriously distorted interpretations of anatman, and especially of shunyata, have arisen — some of which even stray into a kind of nihilism. Most of the nihilistic errors come from age-old misunderstandings from outside Buddhism, especially by Christians; however, some of these nihilistic errors can unfortunately be found even in Buddhist writings. Although this is a serious, and potentially harmful error, it turns out that it is not at all difficult to clear up, and thus avoid. In order to do so, I shall simply take care never to fall into the sloppy, but not uncommon practice, of using the terms no-self; emptiness; or shunyata, in a way which suggests the abstract concept of “nothingness” (arguably a nonsensical language-game itself, popularized by Sartre’s distortion of Heidegger’s existentialism). The best guidance I’ve found, is to use these terms in the same way Thich Nhat Hanh does, and to adhere to the wonderfully simple and lucid term he has coined: inter-being. Indeed, one of the reasons he gave for his recent publication of The Other Shore (his original translation and commentary on the Heart Sutra), was to correct this egregious misunderstanding. Another formulation of this teaching, very useful for any discussion of intelligence in nature, is a phrase which is repeated over and over, as a kind of philosophical slogan in the book Time, Space, and Knowledge (an extraordinary philosophical collaboration between the American writer Steven Tainer and the Tibetan teacher Tarthang Tulku):

No outside-standers!
No bystanders

Surely, the kind of evolution we are most interested in would begin by restoring Aristotle’s formal causes and final causes, and thereby stop automatically ruling out “Lamarckian” evidence for phenotypes influencing genotypes. That would at least provide a more plausible explanation of the paleontological record: the story of a planet that began with nothing but microbial life forms in the pre-Cambrian period; then somehow got through the evolutionary crisis of the Oxygen Holocaust; after which it evolved into the incredible manifestation of ever-more complex and intelligent individual organisms, culminating in the present evolutionary crisis of the Anthropocene epoch.

But is biological evolution, in the strict sense, involving DNA and genetic changes, really what we are most interested in? Is the key to an understanding of our current evolutionary crisis (which is at least as threatening as that of the Oxygen Holocaust) to be found wholly in an understanding of biological evolution? I don’t believe it is. I am convinced that what interests us, and concerns us most deeply and urgently, is the possibility of a more universal evolutionary principle — one which philosophers such as Hegel were groping towards, long before Darwin. I propose that we take our reasoning all the way to its logical conclusion, implied by the restoration of Aristotle’s final causes, and then bite the bullet, and admit to this truth: what really interests us is the possibility of evolutionary progress. But I cannot emphasize too strongly, that I do not mean “progress” in the sense in which that word is almost always used. Perhaps it would be better to avoid it entirely, and instead talk about value-oriented evolution, or evolution with a value-vector. In any case, we must proceed cautiously, so as not to fall into the same traps that popular beliefs in “progress” have laid for us.

Let us begin with a few moral values — but rigorously limiting ourselves to those which are clear, undeniable, and unproblematic (at least for those readers who have come this far without serious balking). Significantly, Darwin once confessed that the very existence of morality was an astonishing mystery, which he was unable to account for; and even a logical positivist such as Bertrand Russell believed in at least some evidence for moral evolution in humanity. If it is true that humanity has evolved morally in even one respect, then the possibility of a spiritual evolutionary telos is at least open. Russell himself proposed that the virtual disappearance of cannibalism be considered an example of moral progress. I would go still further, and claim that it is also legitimate to call the latter an example of value-oriented evolution. Surely the essence that distinguishes evolution from mere change, is a ratchet-effect, which works against any regression back to the previous form. Therefore, inasmuch as there is such a ratchet-effect, not unlike the ratchet-effect of genetic change, which prevents, or at least works against any reversion to the previous behavior, independently of different cultures, the end of cannibalism can be said to be an authentic evolutionary change, with a value-vector. If some hard-nosed, Chomskyan nitpicker were to point out that no one has ever found a gene for non-cannibalism, we would reply that genes are entirely secondary to our meaning of evolution. What is primary, is the observed irreversibility of a change; not the particular mechanism that supports that irreversibility on a sub-cellular, mirco-scale. It takes only a moment of reflection about the history of Lamarck, Darwin, Wallace, etc, to remind us that there was plenty of evidence for evolution of all sorts, long before the discovery of genes, or a fortiori, of DNA.

But can we find more interesting examples of moral, value-oriented evolution than the end of cannibalism? I would unhesitatingly say yes… but this gets us into complications, because the ratchet-effect, though quite real, is not as equal across all cultures as that of cannibalism.