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Darwin Critic Wins the Templeton Prize; Congratulations to Dalai Lama

Dalai Lama.jpg

Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, is the winner of this year's Templeton Prize, worth $1.7 million. The Templeton Foundation recognizes him for his "long-standing engagement with multiple dimensions of science," having "vigorously focused on the connections between the investigative traditions of science and Buddhism," encouraging "serious scientific investigative reviews of the power of compassion and its broad potential to address the world's fundamental problems."

Nice! Speaking of science, here's an addendum.

At least when it comes to understanding Darwinian theory, its limitations and dangers, there are some priests, pastors and rabbis who might benefit from taking a lesson from Tibetan Buddhism's renowned spiritual leader. The Dalai Lama's 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom, includes an excellent chapter, "Evolution, Karma, and the World of Sentience." Check it out -- it reads a little like an update of Alfred Russel Wallace's World of Life.

The Dalai Lama has spent some serious time studying up on evolutionary theory and talking about it with scientists. He casts a respectful but markedly critical eye on Darwinian science and scientism.

"On the whole," he writes, "the Darwinian theory of evolution...gives us a fairly coherent account of the evolution of human life on earth." Something about that sentence prompts you to expect the coming "But" or "However," and the Dalai Lama doesn't disappoint. Philosophically and scientifically, he finds a variety of reasons for dissatisfaction.

After a discussion of how natural selection operates on genetic mutations, he writes that it may be a mistake to think of mutations as random: "that they are purely random strikes me as unsatisfying. It leaves open the question of whether this randomness is best understood as an objective feature of reality or better understood as indicating some kind of hidden causality."

His causes for doubting materialist explanations of life's development include the question of how life originated, how compassion, altruism and sentience evolved, and whether Darwinism is testable science:

Despite the success of the Darwinian narrative, I do not believe that all the elements of the story are in place....I am not persuaded that [Darwin's theory] answers the fundamental question of the origin of life. Darwin himself, I gather, did not see this as an issue. Furthermore, there appears to be a certain circularity in the notion of the "survival of the fittest." The theory of natural selection maintains that, of the random mutations that occur in the genes of a given species, those that promote the greatest chance of survival are most likely to succeed. However, the only way this hypothesis can be verified is to observe the characteristics of those mutations that survived. So in a sense, we are stating simply this: "Because these genetic mutations have survived, they are the ones that had the greatest chance of survival."
A truism, obviously.

He goes on to repeat his dissatisfaction with "the idea of these mutations being purely random events" and cites Karl Popper who

once commented that, to his mind, Darwin's theory of evolution does not and cannot explain the origin of life on earth. For him, the theory of evolution is not a testable scientific theory but rather a metaphysical theory that is highly beneficial for guiding further scientific research.
The Dalai Lama identifies the "hidden causality" guiding evolution's course with karma and observes pointedly: "From the scientific view, the theory of karma may be a metaphysical assumption -- but it is no more so than the assumption that all of life is material and originated out of pure chance." For further study he recommends a particular tradition in Buddhism:
As to what might be the mechanism through which karma plays a causal role in the evolution of sentience, I find helpful some of the explanations given in the Vajraysana traditions, often referred to by modern writers as esoteric Buddhism.
The Dalai Lama finds that an "empirical problem in Darwinism's focus on the competitive survival of individuals...has consistently been how to explain altruism, whether in the sense of collaborative behavior, such as food sharing or conflict resolution among animal like chimpanzees or acts of self-sacrifices." The problem is especially notable where altruism "can be observed across species."

He's even got a pretty clear take on the "Why it matters" question.

If twentieth-century history -- with its widespread belief in social Darwinism and the many terrible effects of trying to apply eugenics that resulted from it -- has anything to teach us, it is that we humans have a dangerous tendency to turn the visions we construct of ourselves into self-fulfilling prophecies.
An application might be that insofar as we think of ourselves as nothing more elevated or spiritual than beasts, then we'll act and treat each other that way, bestially.

The Dalai Lama concludes with a discussion of how the "Darwinian account" leaves out, as "unexamined," the deep enigma of sentience: "Until there is a credible understanding of the nature and origin of consciousness, the scientific story of the origin of life and the cosmos will not be complete."

Well, well. Next time someone tells you that only naïve Biblical literalism keeps anyone from fully accepting Darwin's idea, or that only Americans would be so foolish as to think an immaterial source of causality guides evolution or that material explanations fail to address the mystery of life's origin, you might want to point out the writings of the Dalai Lama.

Here is a man who has spoken out as forcefully on these subjects as any major Christian or Jewish leader has done. Arguably, he's done so with greater clarity and concreteness, leaving little room for those who would second-guess and reinterpret cloudy, ambiguous expressions.

It could well be that it's precisely the Biblical heritage in the West, or rather embarrassment at the cartoon version peddled by Darwin defenders, that keeps many otherwise thoughtful Christians and Jews from thinking critically about materialist science and its dogmas. Maybe that's why the Dalai Lama, from an entirely different tradition and unbothered by our hang-ups and anxieties, feels free to reflect and speak boldly for himself.