Buddhists aren’t especially glum or morose; quite the opposite. And yet, they are acutely aware of the world’s widespread suffering. Most people – including most Buddhists – aren’t aware, however, of the biology that is intimately involved. Here and there, Darwin tried to soften the hard edges of natural selection: “When we reflect upon this struggle,” he opined in The Origin of Species, “we may console ourselves with the full belief that the war of nature is not incessant, that no fear is felt, that death is generally prompt…” In this regard, we now know that Darwin was mostly wrong. The natural death of animals is often slow and agonizing, filled with dukkha (a Sanskrit term, typically translated as “suffering,” and something of key importance in Buddhist thought).
Mr. Darwin took a different and more realistic tack (although a more Buddhistic one, although evidently he didn’t know it!) when writing to Asa Gray, a noted American botanist and supporter of evolution, although also a devout Christian: "I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designed and created the Ichneumonidae with the express intent of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice."
Our current understanding of natural selection has not softened this conclusion. Living things are selected to maximize their fitness, which is their success in projecting copies of themselves – via their genes – into the future, relative to the success of their competitors. As the noted evolutionary biologist George C. Williams points out, our current understanding of natural selection is that it operates as a ratio, with the numerator reflecting a measure of genetic success and the denominator, the success of alternative genes. Since a gene (or an individual, a population, even, in theory, a species) maximizes its success by producing the largest such ratio, it can do so either by reducing the denominator or increasing the numerator. Most creatures, most of the time, find it easier to do the latter than the former, which is why living things generally are more concerned with feathering their nests than de-feathering those of others.
Taken by itself, such self-regard isn't the stuff to cheer an ethicist or to reassure a Buddhist looking for relief from the dukkha that is biology’s bequeathal to us all. And to make matters worse, animal studies in recent years have revealed a vast panoply of behavior whereby living things have no hesitation in minimizing the denominator, trampling over others in pursuit of their own biological benefit. We have long known that the natural world is replete with grisly cases of predation, parasitism, a universe of ghastly horrors all generated by natural selection and unleavened by the slightest ethical qualms on the part of perpetrators.
In her stunning memoir, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard described her dismay at watching a frog whose innards were liquefied and then sucked dry by a giant water bug. As Dillard describes it, "Just as I looked at him, he slowly crumpled and began to sag. The spirit vanished from his eyes as if snuffed. His skin emptied and drooped; his very skull seemed to collapse and settle like a kicked tent. He was shrinking before my eyes like a deflating football. I watched the taut, glistening skin on his shoulders ruck, and rumple, and fall. Soon, part of his skin, formless as a pricked balloon, lay in floating folds like bright scum on top of the water: it was a monstrous and terrifying thing. I gaped bewildered, appalled. An oval shadow hung in the water behind the drained frog; then the shadow glided away."
This “shadow,” which had just killed the frog – so smoothly, mercilessly and naturally, before gliding away – was an enormous, heavy-bodied brown creature that (to quote Dillard, once again): "eats insects, tadpoles, fish, and frogs. Its grasping forelegs are mighty and hooked inward. It seizes a victim with these legs, hugs it tight and paralyzes it with enzymes injected during a vicious bite. … Through the puncture shoot the poisons that dissolve the victim’s body, reduced to a juice. This event is quite common in warm fresh water… I stood up and brushed the knees of my pants. I couldn’t catch my breath."
Dillard quickly goes on, achieving a more objective and scientific detachment: "Of course, many carnivorous animals devour their prey alive. The usual method seems to be to subdue the victim by downing or grasping it so it can’t flee, then eating it whole or in a series of bloody bites. Frogs eat everything whole, stuffing prey into their mouths with their thumbs. People have seen frogs with their wide jaws so full of live dragonflies they couldn’t close them. Ants don’t even have to catch their prey: in the spring they swarm over newly hatched, featherless birds in the nest and eat them tiny bite by bite."
She notes, with understatement, that “its rough out there, and chancy,” that “every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac,” and that “cruelty is a mystery,” along with “the waste of pain.” And finally, Ms. Dillard concludes that we “must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.”
Dillard also observes that “parasitism… is a sort of rent, paid by all creatures who live in the real world,” and she concludes, ruefully, that in acknowledgment of such reality, “Teddy bears should come with tiny stuffed bear-lice.” If, in Christian tradition, the wages of sin are death, in the world of biological beings, the wages of life are parasitism, predation, and plain old-fashioned murder.
In Stephen Sondheim’s dark musical, "Sweeney Todd," we learn that “the story of the world, my sweet, is who gets eaten and who gets to eat.” In the nonfiction world we all inhabit, there is pleasure and pain, suffering and delight, eaten and eater, life and death, growth and decay.. Nonetheless, it is surprisingly easy, especially in modern urban areas, for people to go for extended periods without ever encountering death. Even in natural environments, diseased or dead animals are comparatively rare, mostly because the diseased don’t survive long and the deceased are quickly consumed and/or decomposed. But this is not to say that disease, old age and death have in any sense been vanquished. Awareness of these and other “downsides” of being alive is key to living mindfully, whether as biologist, Buddhist, or simply as a sentient human being.
David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, long-time Buddhist and 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.