Modern science teaches ahimsa

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Yesterday, I gave a presentation to my Buddhist group on the notion of ahimsa — nonviolence, non-harming. I said kindness to other humans and other life forms is not a luxury, but a necessity. This is particularly true at this time in history, as our society is haunted by climate change, new pandemics, and race riots.

In my presentation, I quoted both Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. Some Buddhist friends were surprised about that quote from Darwin. Their understanding is that Darwin promoted the idea of survival of the fittest in which sentient life is portrayed as a ruthless battle for existence. They saw only Social Darwinism when evolution theory is applied to the social realm. It is clear, therefore, that the criticism of Darwinism is not limited to Christians only. Many non-Christians are critical of Darwin based on religious and moral grounds. Here, we should note that the phrase “survival of the fittest” was coined by Herbert Spencer, a British philosopher, not by Darwin, although Darwin later adopted this phrase into his later work. In addition, how we understand “fittest” is critical. Is the fittest the one with the most physical strength? The most military power? The meanest? A management professor, Leon C. Megginson had this interpretation:

According to Darwin’s Origin of Species, it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself.

Needless to say, there is no consensus on the term “fittest.” But what is certain is that it is a fallacy that Darwin saw only the value of competition and brute force. More specifically, Darwin did not believe that evolution operates solely through the law of the jungle and the principle of selfishness. He saw room for kindness and benevolence. The specific quote I used is from Darwin’s book, The Descent of Man:

As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races. If, indeed, such men are separated from him by great differences in appearance or habits, experience unfortunately shews us how long it is before we look at them as our fellow-creatures. Sympathy beyond the confines of man, that is humanity to the lower animals, seems to be one of the latest moral acquisitions. … This virtue, one of the noblest with which man is endowed, seems to arise incidentally from our sympathies becoming more tender and more widely diffused, until they are extended to all sentient beings. As soon as this virtue is honored and practiced by some few men, it spreads through instruction and example to the young, and eventually through public opinion.

We should note that Darwin saw sympathy for all life forms not as a weakness, but as a virtue. Why value sympathy if our survival depends only on the law of the jungle. Elsewhere in his book, we also find this:

“As man gradually advanced in intellectual power, and was enabled to trace the more remote consequences of his actions; as he acquired sufficient knowledge to reject baneful customs and superstitions; as he regarded more and more, not only the welfare, but the happiness of his fellow-men; as from habit, following on beneficial experience, instruction and example, his sympathies became more tender and widely diffused, extending to men of all races, to the imbecile, maimed, and other useless members of society, and finally to the lower animals, — so would the standard of his morality rise higher and higher.”

This seems to indicate that he believed that sympathy serves an evolutionary purpose. He saw a gradual expansion of the circle of sympathy, first to fellow countrymen, then to the entire human race, crossing racial lines. Beyond that, the circle of sympathy expands to include the lower animals, until it includes all sentient beings. He called the sympathy towards the lower animals one of the noblest of human virtues. He saw the gradual expansion of the circle of sympathy as a rational and natural progression.

What caught my eyes is Darwin’s phrase, “was enabled to trace the more remote consequences of his actions.” This is Darwin’s subtle recognition of karma. Karma is, among other things, cause-and-effect. It certainly operates in the natural world. Due to the advancement of scientific knowledge, we are now able to observe and recognize the long-term consequences of our actions. It is such a recognition that put a damper on our brutish actions and make us realize the importance of being concerned with other life forms. Isn’t that what the study of ecology is about? Isn’t that what drives our environmental consciousness? Before the advent of modern science, humans and nature seemed to be in an adversarial relationship. Now, we understand that we live in an intricate ecological system. Thus, the demise of one member of our ecological family may lead to the demise of us. The following statement is sometimes attributed to Albert Einstein, although no one seems to be able to identify the exact reference:

If the bee disappeared off the surface of the globe then man would only have four years of life left. No more bees, no more pollination, no more plants, no more animals, no more man.

Certainly, not having an exact attribution is a problem. It is also disputable whether humans only have four more years to live once the bees disappear. But what is not disputable is that we, as intelligent beings, should be concerned about the long-term effects of our actions, not just the short-term effects. Deforestation and decimation of other life forms may yield immediate profits. But the disappearance of any member of our ecosystem should be a matter of concern. There may be unforeseen or unintended consequences. During the scare of the West Nile virus, borne by mosquitoes, there were talks about possibly exterminating all mosquitoes. But even the destruction of this definite pest may be a problem. For mosquitoes are the food of other life forms — birds, bats, frogs, fish, dragonflies, etc. The elimination of mosquitoes will certainly have ramifications throughout the food chain.

Traditionally, ahimsa is taught as a kind of ancient spiritual wisdom in the Eastern religions — Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism. Native American spiritual tradition also considers the other animals and natural objects as integral members of the web of life, hence also brothers and sisters to humans. The advancement of modern science allows us to develop a new appreciation of the wisdom of ahimsa. Kindness to others is not a luxury. It is a necessity for our own survival.

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Published author, Zen teacher, professor, scientist, philosopher, social commentator, socially-engaged human

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