Revolutionary Biology; The New, Gene-Centered View of Life

Buddhist Biology: A review of David Barash's Revolutionary Biology: The New, Gene-Centered View of Life,

by Judith Johnson


In Revolutionary Biology Barash (a psychology professor at the University of Washington, in Seattle) takes an objective, scientific look at how the human mind and human behavior evolved, but he is also looking to get a deep answer about human identity out of this exercise. Early in his book he makes a statement of the Buddhist concept of impermanence in biological terms. "The genes that carry the information needed for each cell and protein in your body were established in the eons that passed before you were born. Like playing cards, they have the potential to be shuffled and reused, in different combinations, over and over again in a poker game that that isn't merely "all night" but potentially for all time. You, by contrast, won't last nearly so long. Each individual is analogous to a "hand. . . [of cards] . . . such hands are evanescent." This analogy stretches beyond impermanence to non self. There is no clear boundary between a hand of cards and the rest of the pack, just as a person is essentially an ever changing process containing no discrete entity that can be called "self."

After firmly placing human beings in this larger perspective Barash explores how the theory of evolution contributes to understanding human nature. Since Darwin and Wallace we have known that we are the result of millennia of evolution resulting from natural selection, a process that is often summed up as "survival of the fittest." Now that we are gaining a detailed knowledge of our own genetics a "gene centered" view of this process is emerging. Genes that help reproduction get reproduced, those that don't die out. It is that simple and that harsh, but the detailed mechanisms of genes helping themselves to reproduction are often quite intricate. No card game approaches the complexity of the game of evolution.

Using many instructive and interesting examples involving human and non human animal behavior Barash shows clearly how many aspects of human nature have emerged as natural selection acted on the intelligent, gregarious animals that were our ancestors. We are obviously fundamentally selfish because genes for selfish behavior are much more likely to survive the winnowing action of natural selection than genes for indiscriminate altruism. However, we are not solitary predators like tigers, we depend on each other throughout life and must cooperate both for our own survival and to ensure that copies of our genes in our relatives survive. This has led to the evolution of kin-selected altruism (helping relatives) and reciprocal altruism (trading favors with non relatives), both of which improve the only thing that can be selected for: the successful copying of genes. As social animals we have an innate tension between helping others and helping ourselves, and we are least conflicted when we see how to do both at once.

Following Barash's arguments we see that the tension between cooperation (altruism) and competition (self gratification) has been built in at the genetic level by the process of evolution. When we practice Zen we explore this conflict for ourselves. Realizing on a visceral level that cooperation is gratifying, we reduce our energy wasting tension and start to make more whole heartedly cooperative choices. Self deception is not needed when we are not conflicted and not trying to deceive others, so we are able to see reality clearly. Insight and lack of conflict lead to more intelligent less hesitant actions.

Martial artists who practice Zen are formidable warriors because of their clear perception and lack of hesitation. When leaders understand themselves, they understand and guide their followers better. These benefits of practice were not explored by Barash. Although he is attempting to ". . . follow the road of intelligent, skeptical, scientific inquiry wherever it might lead – to whatever abyss", somehow Barash was side tracked in his search for what is uniquely human. He says "Perhaps unique among living things, human beings can ignore the cold calculus of self interest and kin-selection, and emerge as saintly or villainous, or just plain stubborn and incomprehensible." Then he suggests two extremes, spite and self control, as uniquely human.

Spite is neurotically self destructive behavior that sometimes results when we can't get what we need or want. This displaced rage does occur in other animals. Even dogs, which have evolved to cooperate with humans, sometimes loose their temper and bite the hand that feeds them. This occurs more in some breeds than others, showing that there is a genetic basis, so it is a mistake to think that spite is uniquely human or somehow goes against genetics.

Barash's discussion of self control is entertaining as he focuses on potty training. Most primates, including our ancestors, did not need "potty training" since they were arboreal. To put it bluntly, our ancestors could simply relieve themselves when they felt like it because urine and feces would just fall out of the tree. Barash points out that human potty training takes years, and is resisted, finally concluding that "any primate that can learn to control its bowels has amply demonstrated that it can overcome powerful genetic tendencies, if it decides to do so."

I don't buy this romantic idea, promoted by Dawkins as well as Barash, that when we exert self control we are making decisions that override our genetic tendencies. Neither Dwarkins nor Barash has suggested how such an idea could be defined and tested in a scientific way, and self control is neither uniquely human nor difficult to explain. There is no need for this romancing, it is quite possible to value spiritual practice and embrace our animal nature, in fact as twenty first century Zen Buddhists we may need to embrace our evolutionary origins fully as part of our practice. Anzan Hoshin Roshi does this when he refers to Zen students as "twenty five foot earth worms" coiled in our "bony carriages," (Flowers and Worms 2004.)

A dog can be trained to exert self control and not touch the garbage, although it has a strong genetic tendency to scavenge. The dog certainly experiences conflict, especially early in its training, and only the best trained dogs will stay out of the garbage when you are not home. Such self control is not free will against genes so much as it is one genetic tendency against another. The dog has to balance the desire of a highly social animal to please (or at least to stay out of trouble) against its desire for food. The same mechanism can account for human potty training, or other instances of human self control, like sitting on a zafu without moving even when part of us wants very badly to get up and leave the Zendo. There is nothing uniquely human about conflicting desires or self control.

Barash seems to flounder in the last chapter, but he does know what really separates us from the animals. He gives a selection of quotes illustrating many forms that the unique human drive to spiritual development can take. This drive is strong, and consumes many resources. It has been selected for, or the theory of evolution is flawed, there are no other possibilities. I was disappointed that Barash did not take the next logical step and explore the selective advantages of the drive to spiritual development: clear sighted leadership and hunters who do not hesitate are at the top of my list.

I hope that Barash's next book emphasizes the experiential nature of spiritual development. What we discover in zazen (zen sitting meditation): our selfishness, our loyalty to family, our sneaky unconscious mind, our constant status seeking, our capacity for altruism, our use of apparently altruistic actions to reinforce our own status, even the fact that we have to deliberately set our desire for understanding against our other innate desires to make the unconscious conscious, can easily be explained by the theory of evolution. But this is only an intellectual understanding. As our Zen teacher Eshin has said with regard to doing a lot of reading of Buddhist texts: "There is a subtle trap here. It is the satisfaction of understanding." When we understand intellectually we think we have answers to life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Objective science can tell us about life, but only the hard subjective work of sitting with things as they are will unravel the knots of self deception and bring us to what Anzan Hoshin Roshi has called the "fullness of wormhood."

At the moment there is a dangerous rift between science and spiritual practice, a rift that needs to be healed so that we can enjoy the benefits of rational scientific inquiry without abandoning the benefits of spiritual practice. Barash has an interest in Buddhism as well as biology and is planning to write a book called "Buddhist Biology." I am hoping that he will not hesitate explore the biological function of spiritual practice, and that "Buddhist Biology" has a wide and appreciative audience.