The shimmering Milky Way over the mountain of Nanga Parba, Pakistan. From commons.wikimedia.org
We do not like to think that humans are inherently cruel or violent. Even the suggestion that homo sapiens might, as a species, be inclined to violence sits uneasily with all but the most cynical misanthrope. Yet this is what a Spanish team of researchers from the Estación Experimental de Zonas Áridas (EEZA) has suggested. According to the study published in the scientific journal Nature, the team discovered that 2 per cent of our primeval ancestors’ deaths were down to violent means, indicating that at some point in the distant past, humans became accomplished at killing each other for a multitude of reasons. Lethal violence, the researchers say, might be a fundamental part of humanity’s evolutionary history.
“Humans emerged from a very long lineage of species—great apes and before them the primates—that all expressed relatively high levels of lethal violence,” said evolutionary biology professor Mark Pagel about the report (he was not involved in the research). “When you immerse an animal in a particular environment, it evolves genetic-based strategies for dealing with that environment. There is good reason to believe this reflects a real genetic or innate tendency to solve problems with violence.” (The Guardian) The findings make for grim reading. Buddhists will likely also feel uncomfortable since Buddhism argues that the innate nature of human beings is pure and luminous at the ultimate level. It is only in our world of suffering that humans generally seem predisposed to manifest the Three Poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion.
Of course, EEZA’s research does not fundamentally undermine the Buddhist idea that human beings are inherently good, or that our underlying essence is that of a Buddha. Buddha-nature is an understanding of our chief spiritual quality, rather than a biological assertion about our genetic patterns or primal instincts (we have, sadly, plenty of unpalatable, destructive drives). Our propensity for violence, by the researchers’ admission, emanates from a still-undetermined mix of biological, sociological, and environmental factors.
However, the findings do remind us that science’s objectives of observation, trial and error, and empirical evidence do not always align with traditional Buddhist beliefs—even though Buddhism is, via meditation and mindfulness, often viewed by contemporary Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike as more experiential than other spiritual traditions. It is also true that some scientific research has converged with Buddhist thought. Research in neuroscience (which flourished toward the end of the 20th century and has continued to advance since then) has affirmed the power of mindfulness and the plasticity of cognitive functions, and therefore the potential efficacy of meditation. Quantum mechanics and cutting-edge physics also appear interesting rather than threatening to Buddhist scholars: concepts such as reality as a process, causality, and the lack of stable identities are at least partially compatible with the Buddhist worldview.
On the other hand, certain findings could (potentially) detract from the Buddhist worldview, such as the research published by EEZA. We also encounter the Buddhist’s dilemma with science in His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s book The Universe in a Single Atom: The Convergence of Science and Spirituality (2006). In it, the Dalai Lama agrees that science is very helpful in affirming the Buddhist view of a universe that began without a creator god. He also admits that he does not believe that Mount Sumeru is the physical center of the cosmos, a literalist Buddhist idea that modern astronomy has found no credible evidence for. However, he does not concede any ground to science when it comes to karma and rebirth, declaring them fundamental cornerstones of Buddhist doctrine. Even a learned Buddhist as pro-science as His Holiness understands that science cannot be completely Buddhist, just as Buddhism cannot be completely scientific.
The issue is not whether science or Buddhism is “correct.” The concern is how philosophically close (or distant) the truths of Buddhism should be in relation to those held by science. What kind of hermeneutics (methods of interpretation) should be deployed in the Buddhist traditions when reading living texts in a 21st century world dominated by scientific paradigms?
It is often stated that Buddhism is a “scientific” religion. While this is true, it would be intellectually dishonest not to admit that this is a modern conception. The alliance between Buddhism and science has longstanding roots born out of a pan-Asian need to form new ideological counterarguments against Christian missionaries riding the wave of European imperialism during the 19th century. Scientifically critiquing the Bible and Christian tenets of faith formed a part of Buddhist reformers’ rhetoric as much as those of the nation-state, nationalism, and anti-colonialism. This was a very well-intentioned and effective construct, but a construct nevertheless. It is therefore important to be careful about what we mean by the term “scientific Buddhism,” and in what contexts we deploy it during our conversations with science.
Buddhists should be at ease with the modern world, able to observe it with compassion and wisdom. This, therefore, means being more or less at ease with science. Indeed, Buddhism is in a unique position to build dialogues and connections with it. But not only does science contain its own paradigms and presuppositions that require further scrutiny, the hunger for knowledge for its own sake is one that Buddhism answers with the allegory of the man struck by a poisoned arrow.
Buddhists should not accord science an arbitrating role over matters of faith and the unseen. Indeed, to the spiritual person, the unseen is more real than the visible. In today’s “post-postmodern” era, we urgently need dialogue between different schools of thought without seeking to force ideological sameness on them. The Buddhist religion should embrace the challenge of learning from other disciplines while never forgetting that its dispensation has something to share with others too.