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Buddhism and Biology: from “NOMA” to “POMA”

East is east and west is west - but in Buddhism and Biology, the twain have met.

Early in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest, a clown named Trinculo takes shelter from the storm in a most unappealing place: Under the monster, Caliban, explaining that “misery acquaints a man with strange bed-fellows.” This phrase subsequently morphed into “politics makes strange bedfellows.” But in fact, there have been many strange bedfellows, not all of them resulting from misery, or involving politics.

Prominent among these odd couples is the pairing of religion and science. Which is the clown and which the monster? Maybe both, or neither. Or maybe a bit of each, depending on circumstances. The “new atheists” (notably Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris) have claimed that religion and science are not just separate but downright antagonistic. The late Stephen Jay Gould, by contrast, made a case that science and religion (Trinculo and Caliban) are compatible since they constitute what he called “NOMA” – Non-Overlapping Magesteria. For Gould, science explains how things are while religion deals with why; that is, science is largely concerned with the facts of the world whereas religion deals with issues of ultimate meaning and ethics. Accordingly, the two are and should be of equal, but independent status.

This "accomodationist" position is appealing, especially since it opens the door to peaceful coexistence between these two key human enterprises. (“I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past,” concludes Trinculo.) But wishing doesn’t makes things so, and in my opinion, science and religion are often in conflict, not so much because science makes claims about meaning or ethics, but because religion keeps making assertions about the real world that not only overlap those of science, but are frequently contradicted by the latter. Consider, for example, the Jewish story about Moses parting the Red Sea and speaking with God in the form of a burning bush, the Christian doctrine that Jesus was born of a virgin, that he walked on water, raised the dead and was himself resurrected, etc., or the Muslim insistence that Mohammed took dictation from Allah via the angel Gabriel, and that upon his death, he journeyed to his heavenly abode on the back of a winged horse.

There is, however, an intriguing exception to what I, at least, see as the conflict between science and religion: Buddhism. Perhaps this is because Buddhism is as much a philosophy as a religion, or maybe because Buddhism is somehow more “valid” than, say, the big Abrahamic three (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam). In any event, when it comes to Buddhism and science – especially the science with which I am most familiar, namely biology - we can replace NOMA with “POMA” (Productively Overlapping Magisteria). Buddhism is a religion—or a spiritual and philosophical practice tradition—whereas biology is science. Buddhism is mostly Eastern, at least in its origin; biology is comparably Western. And yet, Kipling was wrong: The twain have met. And not only that, but to a large extent, they get along just fine! Strange bedfellows indeed, yet oddly compatible - at least on occasion, and within limits.

Religion may well be advised to steer clear of factual material, and science, similarly, to avoid deriving “ought” from “is,” but the painful truth is that the two have often intersected, with each making “truth claims” that impinge upon the other. And when this has happened, religion has had to retreat … reluctantly, to be sure, and in most cases only after having done much harm to our species-wide search for truth (not to mention bodily harm to many of those pursuing this search). But eventually, religion has given way. The two greatest such fall-backs have involved the geocentric universe, replaced in due course (although not without much gnashing of theological teeth and burning of heretics) by heliocentric reality as described by Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, and the question of special creation as presented in the Judeo-Christian bible versus evolution, as described by Charles Darwin and supported by decades of modern biological science.

Of these, the second is still a work in progress. The pattern is altogether clear, however: Religious fundamentalism, when it impinges on science, has in all cases been fundamentally wrong.

To a lesser extent, science has sometimes made claims that are better situated within the realm of religion, or at least, ethics. An especially egregious case has been “evolutionary ethics,” the misguided effort to derive moral rules from Darwinian principles (“survival of the fittest,” for example, has on occasion been proclaimed a guiding principle, not just of the natural world, but a useful arbiter of what should be). Such incursions have, however, been mercifully brief and ineffectual: No one, to my knowledge, argues that in deference to the law of gravity, we ought to crawl on our bellies instead of standing upright, or that the Second Law of Thermodynamics mandates that we refrain from making our bed or tidying up the living room.

According to Tenzin Gyatso, better known as the 14th Dalai Lama,

"Suppose that something is definitely proven through scientific investigation, that a certain hypothesis is verified or a certain fact emerges as a result of scientific investigation. And suppose, furthermore, that that fact is incompatible with Buddhist theory. There is no doubt that we must accept the result of the scientific research."

This has been the perspective of my most recent book, "Buddhist Biology"; namely, that whenever the two come into conflict, science trumps religion every time. Which raises this question: Why, bother, then, with any religion, in my case, Buddhism? Maybe pointing to occasional convergences and parallelisms is a foolish enterprise, as one might note a series of random coincidences, or mere alliterative opportunities (why not Christian Chemistry, or Jewish Geology?). On the other hand, maybe there is more to such circumstances than we currently know. What seems clear is that whenever there is uncertainty about anything, each agreement – especially if independently derived – is a separate vote of confidence. And so, the various similarities between biological science and Buddhism should give positive pause to anyone who doubts either one. As I hope to show in subsequent posts, these convergences also promote a world-view that offers not only deeper understanding but also some guides for personal conduct.

David P. Barash is an evolutionary biologist, aspiring Buddhist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington. His most recent book, just published, is "Buddhist Biology: ancient Eastern wisdom meets modern Western science."

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