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Buddhism And Darwin's Theory Of Evolution

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Posted by Glenn on March 29, 2004 09:30:02 UTC

by D. Amarasiri Weeraratne

It was over a hundred years ago that Darwin presented his theory of Biological Evolution. This epoch-making and far-reaching discovery undermined the foun-dations of religion in the West. Christian priests in England were alarmed and took the offensive against Darwin and his "Theory of Evolution." Drwin faced all such ill-informed and fanatical attacks with courage and calmness. Attempts to silence him with money also failed. The fanatical attacks were spearheaded by Arch-bishop Wilberforce. His contention was that if Evolution was true, the story of cre-ation given in the opening verses of the Bible must be false. Rather than believe that the Bible which contained the infallible 'Word of God' was false, the priests preferred to think that Darwin was mistaken.

Charles Darwin showed that all living organisms are related members of one connected system and that higher forms of life have gradually evolved from the lower forms. In other words, evolution has progressed from one-celled organisms to a highest state, namely, the human being, all due to biological changes taking place over millions of years. The "World Book Encyclopedia" explains evolution thus: "The theory of evolution involves three main ideas that (1) living things change from generation to generation producing descendants with new charac-teristics. (2) The process has been going on for so long that it has produced all the groups and kinds of things now living as well as others that lived long ago and have since died out, and (3) all these different living things are related to each other".

Evidence coming from various branches of science such as geology, paleon-tology, ethnology, embryology, biology, and so on, all confirm and establish the truth of Darwin's theory. His theory has explained the origins of this world more satisfactorily than any other alternate theory known to man.

Many subsequent scientific findings have confirmed its validity, and opposi-tion to it by religious fanatics became useless in the face of these developments. Today the scientific world accepts Darwin's theory and treats it with respect. It is now a subject for study for all students of the natural sciences.

Although Darwin's Theory of Evolution shattered the foundations of Western religion and reduced Christianity to a shipwreck, it has not harmed or affected Buddhism in any way. In fact it has confirmed its wisdom. The Buddha did not teach that the world was created by God, or that man is a special creation. The word "satva" applies to gods, men, animals and all other living beings. Thus, Buddhism does not distinguished between men and animals in the way Christianity does. In the Agganna Sutta we find the Buddha referring to a process of evolution by which life developed. The idea of evolution is consonant with the teachings of the Buddha and is quite acceptable to the Buddhist; the findings of science fits in and does not contradict the fundamentals of his religion.

We can highlight the three fundamental truths of existence which are to be found at the heart - the core of the Buddha's teachings, namely, Anicca (Imper-manence), Dukkha (Suffering or unsatisfactoriness) and Anatta (Beings having no-soul) and are also confirmed as fact by modern scientific evidence.

These modern scientific truths support the Dhamma and so are all matters to thesatisfaction to the Buddhist.

Darwin showed how life began as a unicellular organism in the oceans and evolved by gradual stages. He adduced scientific evidence in support of his the-sis. This established that all animals had a common origin and evolved from one species to another due to biological changes. This proved once and for all that ani-mal species are not fixed or static as created by God, but that they are slowly evolv-ing from lower forms, and even now are evolving into still different forms. Our human lives are too short to observe this process of evolutionary change in all its fullness. The animals and plant species that existed millions of years ago no longer exist now. The trees and animals that will exist in a million years in the future will be different from the ones existing now. This applies to mankind, too. Therefore, "Anicca" (Impermanence), is not only confined to inanimate objects but is applic-able also to animate life of all types and species.

Therefore, the Buddha's dictum "Sabbe sankhara anicca" - all compounded things are impermanent - is confirmed and spotlighted with evidence from sci-ence.

The Bible teaches that the world and its living beings have all been created by a merciful God who is all powerful. But in the study of evolution we see that all species are subject to suffering. We see the strong preying on the weak and this is a common occurrence in the process of life and evolution. Existence on earth means eating and avoid being eaten. Therefore the entire earth has been drenched with the blood of millions of creatures killed for food, on land, sea and air. Many ancient species of animals became extinct because they could not avoid falling prey to predators. The example can be cited of those dinosaurs killed as prey and so have perished long ago leaving only their fossilised skeletons as evidence, and which scientists now use to reconstruct their shape and size. Animals preying upon one another is the method by which nature controls natural populations. Otherwise the entire earth would be filed with in- sects and other creatures, leav-ing not even an inch of ground clear. Nearly all creatures live in fear of predators who kill and eat them. No intelligent person can accept that God who created such a scheme of bloody carnage, is a kind and compassionate being. In this manner, the belief in a creator God and his attributes of mercy are shattered.

Therefore, the Buddha's dictum "Sabbe sankhara dukkha" - all life is suffering or un-satisfactory), is confirmed as true in the light of scientific understanding.

You can ask why did a compassionate and all-powerful God create beings that evolved through such a slow and painful process fraught with so much suffering, and through a period of so many millennia? The process of evolution is a blind groping in the dark and one wrought with suffering. The idea that this is the work of a kind and all powerful God must be rejected. Actually, if there is such a God, he should be able to create life quickly, without all this suffering and blind grop-ing. And the lives of such creatures created should be happy and free from suffer-ing. But by understanding the glaring imperfection of the process of evolution and its attendant suffering, the idea that there is a merciful God gets demolished.

The Bible teaches that man is a special creation from animals. Theology says that man has a soul which animals do not have. In this connection Bertrand Rus-sel has said "During the long process of Evolution from the amoeba to homo-sapi-ens, at what stage did the 'soul' come in?" It is very clear that the idea of a soul which is immutable and eternal is an imaginary one. Man has a more developed brain with superior intellectual powers, therefore the mind of man is mistaken for a "soul" in the various religions.

Biological investigation tells us that there are some 180 vestigial organs remaining in the human body, unused. These are of no use now and are remains of our past evolution. In addition, one can see the remnant of a tail at the end of the spine and hair on the body that shows us our kinship with the apes.

Not only human beings but also the lower creatures have vestigial organs that are unused now. This is all evidence that they too, have evolved from lower forms. Embryology shows that man as well as animals embryos recapitulate the various stages of evolution during the period of gestation. Therefore we learn that man is a being evolved from the primates and not a special creation with an immortal soul. Modern research has revealed that primates such as chimpanzees have the intellect of a three year old child. They can be trained to communicate and can use as many as two hundred and fifty words. They have about 95% of our genes. The difference between mankind and the higher apes in that mankind has developed a brain capable of higher intelligence. No human "soul" has been found. The Bud-dha's teaching of Anatta is confirmed by the findings of modern science.

Therefore, this establishes the Buddhist truth of the dictum: "Sabbe dhamma anatta." All beings are without a soul which is immutable and immortal. Thus Dar-win's ideas discredited the belief in an immortal soul among the world's intelli-gentsia.

It cannot be said that the process of Evolution mentioned in the Agganna Sutta coincides with Drawin's theory in all details. The Agganna Sutta does not depict how creatures adapted themselves to their environment in order to survive or how species struggled and competed for existence and how those who developed spe-cial skills to exist survived while others perished as given in Darwin's findings.

But striking similarities are there. The earliest forms of life mentioned in the Sutta, were sexless. They lived on moss which was found on scum of the earth. After a long period they developed different body shapes and colours. After the savoury scum disappeared a kind of fungus developed. Creatures lived on this. After a fur-ther long period of time creatures developed sex difference. This allowed a selec-tion process which strengthened the species. This modern knowledge is in keep-ing with Darwin's ideas of beings evolving and developing over long periods of time, with new species constantly arising and evolving; and similarly for plant life and botanical evolution on earth.

Therefore we can conclude that the Agganna Sutta contains statements which are now verified scientifically, but others which are legendary details and so, irrel-evant. We must allow for the fact that the Sutta was finally written down on paper about five hundred years after the death of the Buddha. It is likely that thinking on these matters current at that time crept into the writings. But the important thing here is that the idea of evolution was taught by the Buddha in this Sutta and was accepted as a fact by Buddhists so many years ago. Thus, we see that Buddhists have no difficulties in accepting Darwin's "Theory of Evolution". Buddhists find that the fundamentals of their religious teachings dating back to so many cen-turies, are confirmed. Buddhists are pleased that as science advances, the truths enunciated by the Buddha get more and more support and acceptance.

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