Monday, July 17, 2006

The Dali Lama and evolutionary science. He’s an awesome guy, but……

The Dali Lama deserves great credit for his efforts to integrate the insights of modern science and spiritual traditions, and he deals with this in his recent book, “The Universe in a Single Atom.” However, I really don’t think some of his critiques of the evolutionary theory and the limitations of science and materialism get it quite right....

Take for example, chapter 5, ''Evolution, Karma, and the world of sentience' While it is quite extraordinary that someone in his position has learned so much, it is also not surprising that he seems to be unaware of work that counters many of his perceived shortcomings of "Darwinian evolutionary theory."

pg 104 "that mutations..take place naturally is unproblematic..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."

This doesn't compute for me. Ionizing cosmic radiation hitting a nucleotide and altering its replication is random, as are a number of low frequency errors made by enzymic processes involved in replication. We at least have a handle on what we mean by random. There are countless examples of how statistically small random changes can lead to complex results (like eyes, or different kinds of hormone and neurotransmitter receptors). "Hidden causality' , on the other hand, is a complete deus ex machina, or wild card, with no presently known means of evaluation within a materialistic scientific world view. If something pops up, great, but until then......

pg 104, "For modern science, at least from a philosophical point of view, the critical divide seems to be between inanimate matter and the origin of living organisms, while for Buddhism the critical divide is between non-sentient matter and the emergence of sentient beings." Aren't we talking about apples and oranges? I'm not understanding the usefulness of trying so hard to unify things, as (on pg. 111) "On the whole, I think the Darwinian a fairly coherent account of the evolution of human life on earth. At the same time, I believe that karma can have a central role in understanding the origination of Buddhism calls "sentience", through the media of energy and consciousness."

pg. 115 "I find it [Darwinian account] leaves one crucial area unexamined, the origin of sentience." Virtually all descriptions of the evolution of the nervous system (Dennett's in "Consciousness Explained", for example) view the increasingly complexity of the nervous system - and the gradient of increasing sentience, consciousness, or whatever - as Darwinian adaptations that increase survival fitness of the organism.

pg. 114 "I feel that this inability or unwillingness fully to engage the question of altruism is perhaps the most important drawback of Darwinian...." There are now abundant models of how 'selfish' genes and organisms can generate altruistic behaviors. There is even a recent computer model of simple automata (agents with a limited set of receptors and elementary actions) that evolve various cooperative strategies. (Nature, 20:1041, 2006). See also my 5/26/06 post on "Cooperation, Punishment, and the Evolution of Human Institutions"

Anyway, enough. I won't ramble on. He really is an extraordinary guy. I totally support the idea that buddhist psychological insight offers some correlates with modern cognitive neuroscience, as between Buddha's foundations of mindfulness and steps in the evolution of the brain (mentioned in my "Beast Within" essay at


  1. I agree with you that the section about randomness is a little bit unclear. But to the Dali Lama's defense, randomness itself is a pretty slippery phenomenon. For example, Gregory Chaitin has written about how randomness eludes definition: as soon as we define a method for verifying what is or isn't random, it ceases to be random. Then, less abstractly, there's benford's law, which states that the "more random" a set of numbers, the more they tend to follow a specific pattern (check it out here). And then there's also things like 1/f noise, another pattern frequently seen in so-called "random" data. So I find it altogether appropriate that a religious leader would question the idea of randomness, given that even we scientists have found strange patterns recurring in things that should technically be random.

  2. Anonymous7:45 PM

    Well, things are not so clear on the scientific side as we'd wish. First of all, randomness is a metaphysical, non-scientific idea. Regarding this, check out an old brief, funny and witty volume by George Spencer-Brown (of Laws of Form fame) called "Probability and Scientific Inference".

    And regarding the living vs. sentient distinction, I hate to say it, but he's spot on. I think the real problem about consciousness is: do qualia exist? if they don't, you can explain consciousness (I consider H. Maturana's effort the best in this respect). If not, not.

    I think I'll have to do some meditating to find out...

  3. I suppose its practically a matter of faith, but I don't think that either the 'hard problem' of consciousness or qualia exist, in the form that philosophers like to argue about. I think that both disappear as we get closer and closer to the physical instantiation of what is happening.