Buddhism and Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

l by D. Amarasiri Weeraratne

(January 31, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) It was over a hundred years ago that Darwin presented his theory of Biological Evolution. This epoch-making and far reaching discovery undermined the foundation of religion in the West. Christian priests in England were alarmed and took the offensive against Darwin and his “Theory of Evolution”. Darwin 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 Archbishop Wilberforce. His contention was that if Evolution was true, then the story of the Creation given in the Bible was false. Rather than accept that the Bible, which contained the infallible ‘Word of God’ was false, the priests preferred to think that Darwin was mistaken.
These modern scientific findings support what the Buddha taught – his Dhamma (- his teachings) and results in satisfaction to the Buddhist. Darwin showed how life began as a uni-cellular organism in the oceans and evolved by gradual stages. He adduced scientific evidence in support of this thesis. This established that all animals had a common origin and had evolved from one species to another due to biological changes. (This change would be as a result of changing conditions – causes – which create their own effects (changes) on developing species.)*
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 its 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:
(1) living things change from generation to generation so producing descendants with new characteristics,
(2) the process has been going on for so long now that it has produced all the groups and kinds of things now living as well as many others that lived long ago and have since died out, and
(3) all these different things are related to each other. Evidence coming from various branches of science such as Geology, Paleontology, Ethnology, Embryology, Biology and so on, all confirm and establish the truth of Darwin’s theory.
His theory has explained the origins of all the life forms that we see around us, and this explanation is more satisfactory than any other, alternate theory known to man. Many later scientific findings have confirmed this theory as true and factually correct. Opposition to Darwin’s theory by religious fanatics has become useless in the face of our improved understanding of what this is all around us. 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. Quite the opposite, it is in accordance with the Buddha’s teachings, given so long ago, and so, has confirmed the wisdom of the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha did NOT teach that the world was created by God or that mankind is a special creation by an all- powerful God. The Buddha used the term “Satva” which applies to men, animals and all other living beings. Thus, Buddhism does not distinguish between mankind and animals, nor does it stress the supremacy of certain members of mankind just because they are baptised, in the way Christianity does.
In the Agganna Sutra we find the Buddha referring to a process of evolution by which means 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 fit in and do not contradict the fundamentals of his religion.
It is good to now present to the reader the three fundamental truths of existence which are to be found at the heart – the core of the Buddha’s teachings, namely: Anitya (Impermanence), Dukkha (Suffering or Unsatisfactoryness) and Anatta (Beings have NO soul) and these three truths are also confirmed as factual by modern scientific evidence.
These modern scientific findings support what the Buddha taught – his Dhamma (- his teachings) and results in satisfaction to the Buddhist. Darwin showed how life began as a uni-cellular organism in the oceans and evolved by gradual stages. He adduced scientific evidence in support of this thesis. This established that all animals had a common origin and had evolved from one species to another due to biological changes. (This change would be as a result of changing conditions – causes – which create their own effects (changes) on developing species.)*
This proved once and for all that animal species are not fixed or static as created by God, but they slowly evolve from the 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 its fullness. The animals and plant species that existed millions of years ago no longer exist. The trees and animals that will survive and exists in a million years in the future will be different from the ones existing now. This applies to mankind too.
Therefore, “Anitya” (Impermanence), is not only confined to inanimate life, but applies to animate life of all types and species. Therefore, what the sciences teach is consistent with the Buddha’s saying (or dictum) : “Sabbe sankhara Anicca” (all compounded things are impermanent). Scientists have arrived at this conclusion using modern all their powerful scientific techniques and analysis and they confirm and spotlight all that the Buddha has been teaching for so many thousands of years.
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The Bible, on the contrary, teaches that the world and it’s 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 the common occurrence in the process of life and evolution.
Existence on earth means eating and avoiding being eaten.
Therefore the entire earth has been drenched with the blood of countless 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 fossilized skeletons as evidence of their existence, 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 filled with insects and other creatures, leaving not even one inch of clear ground. Nearly all creatures live in fear of predators which kill and eat them.
No intelligent person can accept that an Almighty God, who created such a scheme of bloody carnage over a period of so many millennia, is a kind and compassionate God. The idea that all this life on earth is the work of a kind and all powerful God becomes impossible to accept.
In such a manner, the belief in a creator God and his attributes of compassion, are shattered – the idea that there is a merciful God is totally demolished. Therefore, Darwin’s theory is in accordance with the Buddha’s saying ( or Dictum): “Sabbe sankhara Dukkha” –all life is suffering (or unsatisfactory).
This is confirmed as true in the light of modern scientific understanding.
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The Bible teaches that man is a special creation, set apart from animals. Theology says that man has a soul which animals do not have. In this connection Lord Bertrand Russell, the famous British philosopher and a Peer of the British Realm, has asked: “During the long process of Evolution from the amoeba to homo-sapiens, 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 Abrahamic religions.
Biological investigation tells us that there are some 180 vestigial organs remaining in the human body, unused. These are of no use to us now and are the remains of our past evolution. In addition, one can see the remnant of a tail at the end of the human spine and hair on our bodies that show us of our kinship with the apes. Not only human beings, but also animals have vestigial organs remaining in the body unused.
This is 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 four year old human 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 is that mankind has developed a brain capable of higher intelligence. No human “soul” has been found.
The Buddha ‘s teaching of Anatta is confirmed by the findings of modern science. Therefore, this is in accordance with the ancient Buddhist truth of the saying (or dictum): “Sabbe Dhamma Anatta”. (All beings are without a soul which is immutable and immortal.)
Thus Darwin’s ideas discredited the belief in an immortal soul, amongst the world’s intelligentsia.
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Thus, we see that Buddhists have no difficulty in accepting Darwin’s “Theory of Evolution”. Buddhists find that Darwin’s revelations are in accordance to the fundamentals of their religious teachings, all dating back so many centuries. Buddhists are pleased that as science advances, the truths enunciated by the Buddha so many years ago, get more and more support and acceptance.
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Footnote: *The Law of Cause and effect – Causality is at the Centre of the Buddha’s teachings. Take a tiger from his forest and his conditions have changed. He will lose his forest characteristics over time. You will just look at a clawless, grey animal called “Tiger”.

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Author: Sri Lanka Guardian

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