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Did We Evolve for Enlightenment?

July 25, 2013
Scopes Monkey Trial from The Onion,,10613/

Scopes Monkey Trial from The Onion,,10613/

It’s very clear that the author of The Moral Animal, Robert Wright, believes that every facet of human psychology can (and should) be invariably linked to our evolution. I picked the book up last year in New Haven shortly after finishing a conference there and made major inroads with it on the long journey home. Unfortunately, my progress slowed when I reached home and then came to an abrupt halt as fall courses commenced. However, this summer I’ve been able to return to Wright’s tale of evolution, Darwin, psychology, and, especially, what we ofttimes call “morality.” We are “moral,” Wright argues, precisely because it is in our evolutionary best interest.

I leave the word “moral” in quotations because Wright is less interested in black and white proselytizing on the definition of the word than on the mechanisms embedded in our biology (and, from there, our society) that operate to create what culture has labelled “moral” behavior – such as altruism, humility, integrity, reputation, love, and even the frequently harsh “justice” that accompanies condemnation of “immoral” behavior.

Personal “honesty” compels me to admit I have yet to finish the book. I’m stuck somewhere in the third to last chapter on “evolutionary ethics.” However, it brings up one persistent question: did we evolve for enlightenment? As I read on, I find myself pondering this question. Although it may not even have occurred to the author, I look more and more for clues in his writing. So far, I have only the question.

By “for enlightenment,” I do not mean to suggest that human evolution was directed or has some metaphysical sentient agency of it’s own. I tend to think that anyone who believes human existence is anything other than a glorious cosmic accident is suffering from a terminal case of hubris.

Rather, I mean to wonder if our evolution has made enlightenment possible and, if so, by what mechanism? From an evolutionary perspective, what possible purpose could enlightenment serve? Is it another glorious accident, wrought by some poor bit of misdirected genetic mutation?

Or does the evolutionary argument stand in contrast to the Dharma? If enlightenment serves no evolutionary purpose, then might not it be precluded by our very biology? Certainly our biology makes enlightenment difficult (hello, samsara!), but could an argument be made that it prevents enlightenment outright?

Or might there be another mechanism at work? Do human beings (and even other animals) have some small ability to direct their evolution? Is it a case of mind over matter? Have we led ourselves to this over countless millennia of relentless climb up the evolutionary ladder (and down from the trees)? By what mechanism? Karma? Psychosomatic genetic selection? Or something yet beyond our knowledge?

Questions, questions everywhere and not a answer in sight.

Buddhism has generally taken kinder to evolution than other religions. Having no cosmic origin story of our own was doubtless helpful. Yet, as evolutionary psychology and other fields continue to make advances, I can’t help but feel that Buddhism hasn’t taken evolution very seriously either. In the Acintita Sutta and other places, the Buddha listed the origin of the world as one of the “unconjecturables” or, as I heard one Tibetan teacher put it, “questions not efficacious to enlightenment.” Meaning that one could go mad pondering such things and be no closer to an answer.

Yet, I can’t help but feel that scientists in the fields of physics, astronomy, biology, and, yes, evolution, are bringing us closer to such answers. These advances might not have been made if those scientists had simply shrugged their shoulders and said “Well, we’ll never know. The Buddha said so.” These advances in science have had both good and bad consequences. The atom bomb. Pollution. War. But they have also brought the Dharma to a silly girl from the suburbs of Nebraska who might otherwise have given her life wholeheartedly to modern consumer culture, never realizing a way to improve upon it’s relentless dissatisfaction. Revolutions in transportation and communication, built on the back of science, have made the Dharma global (someday interstellar?).

All the while the Dharma was spreading as a result of scientific and technological advance, and that advance was continuing apace, the Dharma was also ignoring many of the implications of what science has been revealing for the past century. Can you blame it? We can hardly understand the implications it has on itself, let alone other disciplines. The bewildering array of new and scarcely comprehended discovers are more than any one person could keep up with – and still know enough about religion to speak coherently on the subject for half a minute.

Nevertheless, the question remains. Did we evolve for enlightenment? And I for one would like to see a serious debate on the matter. Let’s put the monkey mind on trial. If nothing else, it should be entertaining, even if it fails to be enlightening.

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