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February 16, 2009

Was Darwin a Buddhist?

Posted: 05:35 PM ET

[cnn-photo-caption image=

caption="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

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Filed under: Evolution • science

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Jake   February 17th, 2009 12:20 pm ET

McTim -

I don't think you are being quite fair to Dawkins or athiests.

Dawkins is an athiest. He even has a chapter in his book about why there "almost certainly is no God." But, if you read that chapter, you will see that much of what he says doesn't relate to evolution at all. He speack more generally about the "scientific facts on the ground" – which include, but are not limited to, evolution.

(As an aside – please stop using the term "Darwinism." That is a term made up by ID proponents and creationsitsts – those are synonyms, actually, but that is another discussion – in an attempt to make people think that we are just talking about some loosey-goosey philosophicl viewpoint, not the most higly tested and verified theory in the biological sciences).

Second, I think folks like Dawkins, Hitchens, and their ilk are more rigorous and defensible on ethics than you give them credit for. People do, in fact, display all sorts of ethical impulses and behaviors – routinely. Generally, we don't injure, kill, steal from each other, etc. And, we generally teach our children and others to do the same. These are just empirical facts. And, despite what religious leaders will generally tell you, these facts generally hold true across a wide range of belief and non-belief. On the other hand, the most powerful tool for suppressing natural human moral behaviors and implusles is religion. As Steven Weinberg famously said, "With or without [religion], you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.”

DJ   February 21st, 2009 2:13 pm ET

Oops, instead of "favored by selective factors" I should have said "acted upon by selection pressures".

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