SciTechBlog
February 16, 2009

Was Darwin a Buddhist?

Posted: 05:35 PM ET
Darwin's views of compassion are curiously similar to those of Buddhism, one researcher says.

Darwin's views of compassion are curiously similar to those of Buddhism, one researcher says.

Just days after the 200th birthday of Charles Darwin, the father of evolutionary theory, journalists and scientists from all over the world converged to confront a fascinating connection: Some of Darwin's views have a lot in common with Buddhist teachings.

Speaking at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, psychologist Paul Ekman, known for his research showing the universality of facial expressions across cultures, told us that Darwin's descriptions of compassion, as well as his view of morality as it relates to compassion, closely mirror Buddhist ideas.

"There’s always the possibility that two wise people looking at the same species will come up with the same conclusions," said Ekman, who co-wrote a book with the Dalai Lama on compassion called "Emotional Awareness: Overcoming the Obstacles to Psychological Balance and Compassion."

It turns out that Darwin's friend Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, a botanist and explorer, visited Tibet in 1847. He became familiar with Buddhist views there. He also wrote letters to Darwin. This is just one of many ways that Darwin could have been influenced by Buddhist teachings, Ekman said.

For Darwin and Buddhists, the seed for compassion is in the mother-infant relationship - this is "simple compassion," Ekman said. Then there's global compassion - for example, sending money and clothes to victims of a natural disaster. Finally, heroic compassion means risking your own life to save another - and you probably don't know if you have heroic compassion unless you've been in a situation like that, Ekman said.

The fundamental idea in both Darwin's writings and Buddhist views of compassion is that "when I see you suffer, it makes me suffer, and that motivates me to reduce your suffering so I can reduce my suffering," Ekman said.

The curious coincidence of views serves as a backdrop for understanding the nature of compassion, he said.

"I’m not by any means accusing Darwin of plagiarism," he explained.

What do you think? Does this link between Darwin and Buddhism have greater implications? Read more about Darwin on CNN.com

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Filed under: Evolution • science


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