Monday, September 19, 2005

Evolution and Buddhism

Today's New York Times has this interesting review of the Dalai Lama's new book, The Universe in a Sinlge Atom:
The Convergence of Science and Spirituality
.

Actually, the most interesting part of the review is its opening sentence:


It's been a brutal season in the culture wars with both the White House and a prominent Catholic cardinal speaking out in favor of creationist superstition, while public schools and even natural history museums shy away from teaching evolutionary science.


That's wonderfully blunt, and makes a nice contrast with the overly respectful coverage of ID the Times has sometime provided in other articles.

As for the Dalai Lama, he's certainly a lot more sensible than many of the religious leaders in this country:


But this book offers something wiser: a compassionate and clearheaded account by a religious leader who not only respects science but, for the most part, embraces it. “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims,” he writes. No one who wants to understand the world “can ignore the basic insights of theories as key as evolution, relativity and quantum mechanics.”


Sounds good. Might have to check this one out. But the reviewer, George Johnson, does sound a cautionary note later on:


But when it comes to questions about life and its origins, this would-be man of science begins to waver. Though he professes to accept evolutionary theory, he recoils at one of its most basic tenets: that the mutations that provide the raw material for natural selection occur at random. Look deeply enough, he suggests, and the randomness will turn out to be complexity in disguise - “hidden causality,” the Buddha's smile. There you have it, Eastern religion's version of intelligent design.


It's hard to comment without having read the book, but Johnson's brief description sounds considerably better than what the ID folks say. It seems like the Dalai Lama is suggesting simply that we have more to learn about evolution; that our perception of randomness in the course of evolution might simply reflect our imperfect understanding of genetics.

If I'm interpreting him correctly, that's far more sensible than what the ID fokls say. The Dalai Lama is telling us we have more to learn. The ID folks are telling us that they have proved mathematically that at some point God waggled his finger and caused something to happen, and any failure on your part to acknowledge that obvious fact simply reflects your irrational predilection for atheism (and probably homosexuality and Communism to boot). That's a big difference.

Alas, the rest of the paragraph is more troubling:


He also opposes physical explanations for consciousness, invoking instead the existence of some kind of irreducible mind stuff, an idea rejected long ago by mainstream science. Some members of the Society for Neuroscience are understandably uneasy that he has been invited to give a lecture at their annual meeting this November. In a petition, they protested that his topic, the science of meditation, is known for “hyperbolic claims, limited research and compromised scientific rigor.”


Oh well. That one's annoying. And it's definitely annoying that he's been invited to address the Society of Neuroscience. Does he, er, know anything about neuroscience?

13 Comments:

At 3:55 PM, Blogger Hari Narayan Singh said...

I think that when the Dalai Lama speaks of "hidden causation," he just means that in a deterministic universe, nothing is truly random. We can't yet isolate all the factors that affect some events, so we treat them as random. The causative factors might be meaningless in a scientific sense, but someone can still infer meaning. They just can't claim it's science.

When did we discover the physical cause of consciousness? My neuroscience textbook was published a year or two ago and it makes no mention of that. Of course, we can correlate certain brain structures with consciousness or at least arousal. That seems different than saying science has proven certain kinds of structures have self-awareness.

 
At 9:27 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a Buddhist agnostic, I just want to comment that the Dalai Lama represents one perspective on Buddhism only.
VKW

 
At 10:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree with VKW. Just as in Christianity, there are many different views in Buddhism, and one cannot possibly see the big picture from the words of one person.
BMW

 
At 9:09 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the first commenter has it right -- that a core tenet of Buddhism is a worldview of interdependent phenomenon such that mutations would not be "random"; they would arise out of interrelationships and causal forces affecting the genome.

I don't even think the argument is non-scientific. Some of the most significant mutations involve gene duplication or genes moving to another part of the genome. It seems reasonable that we would be able to identify the physical forces that cause certain genes to duplicate, move, or otherwise mutate more often than others.

Overall, I would hope that science (through complexity theory, perhaps) would provide an account for the mechanisms of mutation. That would certainly make "Buddha smile" (in the metaphorical sense, which is how I believe the Dalai Lama meant it).

 
At 11:58 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"When did we discover the physical cause of consciousness? My neuroscience textbook was published a year or two ago and it makes no mention of that. Of course, we can correlate certain brain structures with consciousness or at least arousal. That seems different than saying science has proven certain kinds of structures have self-awareness."

Perhaps, but I think almost all neuroscientists would say that a given brain state maps onto a given state of consciousness, without any reference to mindstuff. Of course, without reading the book, I've no idea how the Dalai Lama thinks consciousness is instantiated.

 
At 8:10 AM, Blogger RPM said...

It seems like the Dalai Lama is suggesting simply that we have more to learn about evolution; that our perception of randomness in the course of evolution might simply reflect our imperfect understanding of genetics.

As with all models, we must define our variables clearly. The term random can be interpretted to mean many things. In the common parlance it is usually taken to mean all events have an equal probability -- something resembling a uniform distribution. This is not the case with genetic mutations as certain events (point mutations, and specifically transition) have a much higher probability of occurring than other events (say, whole genome duplication or robertsonian fusions).

Some of the most significant mutations involve gene duplication or genes moving to another part of the genome. It seems reasonable that we would be able to identify the physical forces that cause certain genes to duplicate, move, or otherwise mutate more often than others.

We have found "physical forces" (we tend to call them molecular mechanisms) that induce gene duplication:
1. Retrotransposition
2. Physical instability of flanking sequences
3. Unequal crossing over

 
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At 3:43 AM, Blogger laurens van den muyzenberg said...

Evolution of human beings and society are linked. Samkhya, the oldest Indian philosophy believed that evolution was driven by three opposing forces: to wards equilibrium, towards change, resistance to change. It is easy to observe theses three forces in society. These changes are not random as they are influenced by the exrercise of the will, actions, of people. When the Dalai Lama said that he was not sure that evolution was random he may have had ideas of this kind in mind

 
At 11:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Though I haven't read this book, I have read many books about Buddhism, including several by the Dalai Lama. I find it hard to believe that the Dalai Lama (or any Buddhist scholar) would refer to "irreducable mind stuff." "Irreducible mind" - yes, but "irreducible mind stuff" - no.

The Buddha clearly taught that there is no inherently existing, independent mind or self. I don't know how well versed the article's author is in Buddhist thought, but the Buddhist understanding of psychology/philosophy of mind is rather subtle, and is prone to be misunderstood by anyone with only a cursory familiarity with Buddhism.

As to the issue of randomness, I think "rpm" makes a good point.

 
At 2:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The observed evolution of the TB bacterium did not follow the path hypothesized by neo-dawinism. You can read about that fact and the evolution of strain w.
Would the actual evidence make you question the notion that random mutation drives evolution?

 
At 3:59 PM, Anonymous non-anonymous said...

isn't mindstuff the same thing as consciousness?

the amount of randomness is decreasing more and more these days with the study of self-organizing systems.

why do we assume that consciousness arrives after the body? is this because of our materialist bias? or is it simply because it appears to be so? as we all know, things can appear to be one way and actually be the opposite. of course what the heck do i know? =-)

 
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