Book Excerpt from Buddhist Biology

In Chapter 1, “A Science Sutra,” author David Barash describes how the ancient philosophy might form the perfect link between science and religion.

Feb 1, 2014
David P. Barash

OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, NOVEMBER 2013Early in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, a clown named Trinculo takes shelter from the storm in a most unappealing place: Under the monster, Caliban, explaining that “misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows.” This phrase subsequently morphed into “politics makes strange bedfellows.” But in fact, there have been many strange bedfellows, not all of them resulting from misery, or involving politics.

Prominent among these odd couples is the pairing of religion and science. Which is the clown and which the monster? Maybe both, or neither. Or maybe a bit of each, depending on circumstances. The “new atheists” (notably Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) have claimed that religion and science are not just separate but downright antagonistic. The late Stephen Jay Gould, by contrast, made a case that science and religion (Trinculo and Caliban) are compatible since they constitute what he called “NOMA”—Non-Overlapping Magesteria. For Gould, science explains how things are while religion deals with why; that is, science is largely concerned with the facts of the world whereas religion deals with issues of ultimate meaning and ethics. Accordingly, the two are and should be of equal, but independent status.

This accomodationist position is appealing, especially since it opens the door to peaceful coexistence between these two key human enterprises. But wishing doesn’t makes things so, and in my opinion, science and religion are often in conflict, not so much because science makes claims about meaning or ethics, but because religion keeps making assertions about the real world that not only overlap those of science, but are frequently contradicted by the latter. Consider, for example, the Jewish story about Moses parting the Red Sea and speaking with God in the form of a burning bush, the Christian doctrine that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he walked on water, raised the dead and was himself resurrected, etc., or the Muslim insistence that Mohammed took dictation from Allah via the angel Gabriel, and that ten years after becoming a prophet, he traveled to the seventh heaven on the back of the “buraq,” a white winged steed with a human face along with an extra set of wings, and whose every stride extended to the farthest point that it could see.

There is, however, an intriguing exception to what I, at least, see as the conflict between science and religion: Buddhism. Perhaps this is because Buddhism is as much a philosophy as a religion, or maybe because Buddhism is somehow more “valid” than, say, the big Abrahamic three (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). In any event, when it comes to Buddhism and science—especially the science with which I am most familiar, namely biology—we can replace NOMA with “POMA” (Productively Overlapping Magisteria). Buddhism is a religion—or a spiritual and philosophical practice tradition—whereas biology is science. Buddhism is mostly Eastern, at least in its origin; biology is comparably Western. And yet, Kipling was wrong: The twain have met. And not only that, but to a large extent, they get along just fine! Strange bedfellows indeed, yet oddly compatible—at least on occasion, and within limits.…

According to Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama, “Suppose that something is definitely proven through scientific investigation, that a certain hypothesis is verified or a certain fact emerges as a result of scientific investigation. And suppose, furthermore, that that fact is incompatible with Buddhist theory. There is no doubt that we must accept the result of the scientific research.” This will be my approach in the preset book; namely, that whenever the two come into conflict, science trumps religion every time. Which raises this question: Why, bother, then, with any religion, in our case, Buddhism? Maybe pointing to occasional convergences and parallelisms is a foolish enterprise, as one might note a series of random coincidences. On the other hand, maybe there is more to such circumstances than we currently know.…

There is a strain of Western thought that has looked to Buddhism as a potential cultural savior, capable of rescuing us all from the excesses of science, from materialism grown too bold, too encompassing and yet at the same time, too dry, inhuman and downright dangerous. Robert Thurman, for example, has been explicit about hoping that the current Western revival of Buddhism would help to humanize the sciences. It might well do just this, especially when it comes to biology and emphasizing what I call the Buddhist Big Three: anatman (“not-self”) anitya (“impermanence”) and pratitya-samutpada (“interconnectedness”).

Toward this end, I offer the following abbreviated science sutra, which this book attempts to flesh out: Not-self, impermanence and interconnectedness are built into the very structure of the world, and all living things—including human beings—are no exception. As a hard-headed scientist myself, I maintain that no scientific rigor need be lost; to the contrary, greater empirical insights will be gained.

Moreover, Buddhism, acting in conjunction with biology, just might help to re-enchant our world. No less a materialist than the mathematician, logician and outspoken atheist Bertrand Russell expressed regret that science had departed from the Greek model of being a “love story between man and nature.” As Russell warned, and as many scientists have agreed, there is an ever-present danger that science as an array of strictly materialist explanations might generate a perspective that lacks poetry and substitutes empirical facts and mathematical theorems for underlying meaning. “As physics has developed,” wrote Russell, “it has deprived us step by step of what we thought we knew concerning the intimate nature of the physical world. … and the beloved has become a skeleton of rattling bones, cold and dreadful ...”

Part of the hope lavished upon Buddhism is that it can help animate—more precisely, humanize—this otherwise cold and dreadful skeleton of rattling bones. As we shall see, it is a hope that may well be fulfilled.

Excerpted from Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science by David P. Barash. Copyright © 2013 by David P. Barash. Published by Oxford University Press.