Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science

Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science

by David P. Barash

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Many high-profile public intellectuals — including "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens — have argued that religion and science are deeply antagonistic, representing two world views that are utterly incompatible. David Barash, a renowned biologist with forty years of experience, largely agrees


Many high-profile public intellectuals — including "New Atheists" like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and the late Christopher Hitchens — have argued that religion and science are deeply antagonistic, representing two world views that are utterly incompatible. David Barash, a renowned biologist with forty years of experience, largely agrees with them, but with one very big exception: Buddhism.

In this fascinating book, David Barash highlights the intriguing common ground between scientific and religious thought, illuminating the many parallels between biology and Buddhism, allowing readers to see both in a new way. Indeed, he shows that there are numerous places where Buddhist and biological perspectives coincide and reinforce each other. For instance, the cornerstone ecological concept — the interconnectedness and interdependence of all natural things — is remarkably similar to the fundamental insight of Buddhism. Indeed, a major Buddhist text, the Avatamsaka Sutra, which consists of ten insights into the "interpenetration" between beings and their environment, could well have been written by a trained ecologist, just as current insights in evolutionary biology, genetics and development might have been authored by the Buddha himself. Barash underscores other notable similarities, including a shared distrust of simple cause-and-effect analysis, an appreciation of the "rightness" of nature, along with an acknowledgment of the suffering that results when natural processes are tampered with. Buddhist Biology shows how the concept of "non-self," so confusing to many Westerners, is fully consistent with modern biology, as is the Buddhist perspective of "impermanence." Barash both demystifies and celebrates the biology of Buddhism and vice versa, showing in a concluding tour-de-force how modern Buddhism —shorn of its hocus-pocus and abracadabra — not only justifies but actually mandates both socially and environmentally "engaged" thought and practice.

Buddhist Biology is a work of unique intellectual synthesis that sheds astonishing light on biology as well as on Buddhism, highlighting the remarkable ways these two perspectives come together, like powerful searchlights that offer complementary and stunning perspectives on the world and our place in it.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Conceived without its supernatural elements, modern Buddhism coalesces “in outlook and insight” with modern biology, says evolutionary biologist Barash (Homo Mysterious). Buddhism’s rejection of absolutes, its empiricism, and its emphasis on experience over dogma are only a few of the ways it mirrors biological disciplines. And its “Big Three” tenets “are built into the very structure of the world”: anatman (not self), anitya (impermanence), pratitya-samutpada (connectedness). Both Buddhism and biology see the individual as less important than the ever-changing natural world: in Buddhism, the individual is the result of eons of karma; in biology, the individual is the result of eons of evolution, or “gene-based karma” We matter less than our genes, which matter less than all genes. Buddhism, unlike Judeo-Christianity, preaches reverence for nature; for mammals that “use sonar to hunt moths on the wing... bacteria that can prosper in superheated underwater deep-sea vents, eagles that can make out the face of a dime while hovering a hundred feet in the air.” Biology and Buddhism part ways where the former reserves compassion for kin while the latter urges compassion for all. Barash proclaims Buddhism as biology’s sentient partner, not its servant, in this provocative and poetic riff on spirituality and science. (Dec.)
From the Publisher
"I'm skeptical of attempts to reconcile religion with science. At worst the two are incompatible. At best the reconciliation seems superfluous: why bother, why not just go straight for the science? But if you must essay this difficult reconciliation, Buddhism is surely religion's best shot, at least in the atheistic version espoused by David Barash. And the task is an uphill one, so you'd better pick a very good writer to attempt it. David Barash, by any standards, is certainly a very, very good writer." — Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion

"Most atheists turn from religion with emotions between disdain and relief. Not so David Barash. He is convinced that traditional Western religions fall because they are refuted by modern science, especially in the evolutionary realm of which he is a master. Nevertheless, in Buddhism he finds deep insights about human nature and our obligations to others and to our environment. Barash is sometimes wrong, and sometimes even irritating. But as this provocative and stimulating book shows, he is never boring." — Michael Ruse, Professor of Philosophy at Florida State University and Editor of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Darwin and Evolution

"All who are motivated to search for life's meaning will be stimulated and guided by David Barash's exploration of similarities and differences between Buddhism as a philosophy and modern evolutionary biology. He demonstrates that combining modern biology with that ancient philosophy can yield a deep and satisfying foundation for enjoying a world that does not care about us." — Gordon Orians, Former President of the Ecological Society of America

Mentioned in the Wall Street Journal.

"Barash's volume is a fascinating personal manifesto, full of humor and intellectual historical references that mark an exploration of Buddhism from the perspective of a trained scientist embedded in Western culture." —The Quarterly Review of Biology

Library Journal
Here, Barash (psychology & zoology, Univ. of Washington; Sociobiology and Behavior) argues that of all major world religions, Buddhism is the most compatible with scientific thinking and that many aspects of the Buddhist theory of human life and wider nature are helpful to scientists. After an introduction, he considers in five successive chapters the use of specific Buddhist terms and how they might relate to science (biology in particular): anatman (non-self), anitya (impermanence), pratitya-samutpada (connectedness), dukkha (suffering), and karma (cause and effect). He concludes with a chapter on meaning in science. The author argues cogently for Buddhism and also that the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam), as compared to Buddhism, conflict with science in their belief systems. In his view, they are false religions. VERDICT A problem with this work (and its conclusions) is that the author barely acknowledges that Western science evolved in societies where the Abrahamic religions dominated, so they could not have been as inhospitable to science as he intimates. Nonetheless, the book is worthwhile for its discussion of Buddhist thought—but what next, Christian chemistry, Jewish geology, Hindu paleontology?—James F. DeRoche, Alexandria, VA

Product Details

Oxford University Press
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6.20(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.00(d)

Meet the Author

David P. Barash, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington. A long-time evolutionary biologist as well as an aspiring Buddhist, he has been involved in the development of sociobiology as well as the field of Peace Studies, and is the author or co-author of 33 books.

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