In my recent posts for PT - as well as in my latest book, Buddhist Biology – I have disconcerted more than a few fundamentalist Buddhists (yes, “fundamentalist Buddhists” is not an oxymoron - there indeed are such people!), by arguing that souls and “reincarnation” are nothing but make-believe abracadabra, fairy tales that must be outgrown if we are to appreciate the genuine convergences between Buddhism and biology. By the same token, in my book and in the present post I shall doubtless upset some biologists, by arguing that seen correctly, “karma” is actually fully consistent with evolution by natural selection.
“All actions create consequences,” wrote the Dalai Lama. “Buddhists call this the law of karma or the law of cause and effect.” This is a stripped-down, more basic description of karma than we generally use in the West, where karma is taken to mean a kind of personal, moral storage bin into which previous actions are tossed, and which then emerge to brighten or bedevil one’s future. If karma is the accumulated load of prior behavior, then my karma is necessarily different from yours (something of a problem, admittedly, for a perspective that emphasizes inter-connectedness and the absence of a uniquely distinct, independent self!). But if we take the Dalai Lama’s understanding, karma is more generally applicable, a fundamental law of the universe that is neither more nor less than a straight-forward – and scientifically valid - acknowledgment that actions have consequences; that is, the law of “cause and effect.”
No one swims outside the gene pool. What each of us identifies as "our self" is only a temporary collection of genes drawn from a much vaster, shared genome, destined to dissolve back into that gargantuan, universal melting pot, and whose physical substance is shared with all matter, nonliving as well as living. Think of an eddy in a stream, not really existing by itself, independently, but rather a temporary arrangement of "passing-through stuff," given a name for the time being, and therefore sometimes called “oak tree,” “snowy egret,” “elephant” or “person.” This is not news to the modern biologist, nor to the practicing Buddhist, two seemingly distinct perspectives that originate very differently, yet coalesce remarkably in outlook and insight.
Buddhists talk about “mind-streams” coursing through innumerable generations; evolutionary scientists talk about genes doing the same thing. For Buddhists, our physical existence at any given time is a consequence of the accumulated consequences (karma) of our past. For biologists, it’s a consequence of accumulated genetic information, a kind of evolutionary karma achieved via differential reproductive success of certain bodies and their interpolated genes.
Note that the Dalai Lama was talking about “the law of karma” rather than karma itself. The reality, however, is that whether law or “thing,” the formal Buddhist conception of karma is not one that scientists in general or biologists in particular are likely to accept. Nor should they.
As I noted in earlier blogs, and have elaborated in my recent book, Buddhist Biology, a kind of bottom-line, bare-bones “reincarnation” occurs in the literal recycling of atoms and molecules, fundamental to the biological (and Buddhist) acknowledgment that “individuals” do not have intrinsic existence, separated and distinct from the rest of the world. But this is a far cry from the more traditional understanding of reincarnation, East and West, whereby not just atoms and molecules but some – typically unspecified – aspect of an individual is absurdly and impossibly reborn into a different body, yet mystically still constituting an ineffable, nonmaterial component derived from his or her prior life (rather, lives): A soul.
Things are intriguingly different, in any event, at the level of genes, since those segments of DNA that are associated with any given “individual” are quite literally the consequences of their ancestors’ bio-karma: Those genes that did comparatively well are disproportionately represented in their current physical embodiment as a whole “organism.” Evolution – the fundamental biological process that generates and is defined by physical continuity over time – is thus nothing but a highly specified process of transmitting a kind of gene-based karma. It must be emphasized, however, that the key to biological “success” is simply the consequence of genes insofar as their action results in more or less representation in future generations: More representation means more success, which is to say, higher fitness or being “selected for.” Less representation means less success, with all that this implies: i.e., lower fitness and being “selected against.” In neither case, however, does it matter whether these same genes contributed to conduct that was more or less Buddhistically “meritorious,” unless one equates “merit” with “fitness enhancing.” And this viewpoint is quite a stretch.
In fact, insofar as they induced their bodies to sacrifice themselves on behalf of other, unrelated bodies, “merit” would in many cases have been selected against. Maybe that’s what makes certain actions particularly meritorious: If they go against the widespread evolutionary tendency for gene-based selfishness, and are therefore worthy of special praise. (Praise, perhaps, but success? That’s another matter.)
In any event, the biological consequences of natural selection are doubly powerful, not only as the process that is largely responsible for generating each organism in the first place – via the “karma” (i.e., the consequence of its impact on the lives of each body’s ancestors and ancestral genes) – but also as a force operating directly on the predispositions of each living thing in present time. A key point is that these predispositions can often favor actions that, although selfish at the level of genes, are actually “altruistic” when viewed as the behavior of bodies.
This is because a gene-based perspective perceives that in a sexually reproducing species such as ourselves, each “individual” is most closely associated with its own body, and yet is also literally represented in the genes present within other bodies, with the intensity of sameness decreasing as we proceed from close genetic relatives to those more distant. Moreover, one of the most potent and exciting insights of modern evolutionary biology, a revolutionary theory that effectively explains much of so-called altruistic behavior, is based on the recognition that when bodies behave benevolently toward certain other bodies, what is “really” happening is that genes are looking after identical copies of themselves, temporarily occupying the bodies in question.
When evolutionary biologists realized that the biology of altruism could be understood as the result of genes “selfishly” benefitting themselves in other bodies, they found that the circle of an organism’s concern for “others” mapped directly on their concern for an extended genetic “self.” At this point, Buddhists might take issue with the fact that (r)evolutionary biology conceives a distinction between closer and more distant relatives, whereas a narrowly Buddhist notion of inter-connectedness would balk at such differentiation. I would bet, however, that even the most advanced Buddhist sages distinguish their close relatives from strangers and treat the former somewhat more benevolently.
This does not mean, however, that genes alone determine pro-social versus anti-social behavior. If evolution by natural selection is the source of our mind’s a priori (“instinctive”) structures, then in a sense these structures also derive from experience – not just the immediate short-term experience of each developing organism, but also the long-term experience of an evolving population. A biological lineage, after all, is a pattern of flow and evolution itself is the manifestation of innumerable such patterns, experience accumulated through an almost unimaginable length of time. The a priori human mind - seemingly preprogrammed and at least somewhat independent of personal experience – along with everything else that constitutes each seemingly separate and isolated body, is actually nothing more than the embodiment of experience itself.
Our karma, our fitness, our “selves.”
David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time aspiring Buddhist and (almost as long-time) professor of psychology at the University of Washington, whose most recent book is “Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science,” just published by Oxford University Press.