Evolution and Perfection

The atheist Richard Dawkins uses the theory of evolution as a weapon with which to attack religion. He argues that when Charles Darwin proved evolution he disproved religion. There are many moderate scientists who believe that evolution can co-exist with religious faith, but not Dawkins. He believes that once we grasp evolution we must necessarily dispense with religious beliefs such as God, soul, mind (that is not produced from the body), and reincarnation.

When used as a weapon against religion (and I would suggest this is not its best use) the theory of evolution can be quite effective in challenging a number of theological notions. In his recent TV program Richard Dawkins asked the Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams whether God had set up the mechanism of evolution. The Archbishop was happy to say yes, and agreed with Dawkins that once evolution was up-and-running there is no need for divine intervention. Dawkins turned this against the Archbishop, arguing that if there is no need for divine intervention in evolution or history, surely there is no basis for miracles?

This argument is quite effective because it attacks a particular theological notion of perfection. If God is perfect, and uses mechanisms such as evolution as instruments of creation, why should he ever need to intervene in history? Of course, many creationists argue that evolution doesn’t exist because God created everything perfectly right from the start, but some of them take extremely naive, science-denying positions in order to maintain their belief. What Dawkins wants us to admit is that creatures including humans are flawed, therefore God could not have created them, because God, and by implication his creations, must necessarily be perfect.

Mainstream Buddhism is less vulnerable to Dawkins’ attack than the monotheistic religions because it does not posit a creator God, instead arguing that the natural world and the forms we take are created by our minds, and that whilst our minds are contaminated by ignorance, craving and negative karma, we should expect to be reborn in imperfect forms and environments with the nature of suffering. Dawkins would nevertheless still be hostile to all the metaphysical and devotional (‘unscientific’) elements of Buddhism.

The Buddha took suffering as the starting point for his philosophy, and clearly there is a lot of suffering in the world. Suffering challenges naive conceptions of God’s perfection. Why would God create tiny wasps that bore into grubs, lay their eggs in them, and paralyze them so that they can’t move but can still suffer as the eggs hatch and they are eaten from the inside?

In addressing this question it is worth noting that any concept of perfection must have a functional (teleological) element. Things are perfect for particular functions, not in abstract. The plumage of the bird of paradise is perfect for attracting mates, a duck’s beak is perfect for scooping food from a pond, and a chameleon’s eyes are perfect for all-round vision. The world is full of things that do not seem to be perfect because they do not seem to have any particular function (e.g. the human appendix) or because they do not perform their function very well (e.g. the British Parliament). It could be that we simply do not yet understand their true function. Are male nipples really antennae to pick up cosmic rays? Is Starbucks really the first wave of an alien invasion?

The Mahayana Buddhist sage Shantideva wrote that

“Even suffering has good qualities. Because of suffering pride is dispelled. Compassion arises for beings trapped in samsara. Evil is shunned, and joy is found in virtue.” (from ‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’).

If we were to consider the world as God’s training and testing ground for humans then we could argue that suffering is a necessary part of the design, and in some sense ‘perfect’. However, we might lament the enormity of the suffering with which God sees fit to test us, and pray that his mercy might take precedence over his wrath.

We can also move towards more subtle notions of perfection. In the Fukanzazengi the Zen Buddhist master Dogen writes:

“Fundamentally speaking, the basis of the Way is perfectly pervasive, how could it be contingent on practice and verification? The vehicle of the ancestors is necessarily unrestricted; why should we expend sustained effort? Surely the whole being is far beyond defilement; who could believe in a method to polish it? Never is it apart from this very place; what is the use of a pilgrimage to practice it? And yet, if a hair’s breadth of distinction exists, the gap is like that between heaven and earth; once the slightest like or dislike arises, all is confused and the mind is lost.” (from ‘On Zen Practice’ by Taizan Maezumi and Bernie Glassman, Wisdom Publications 2002, p13)

Here master Dogen is arguing for the natural perfection underlying reality and the mind. Natural perfection does not need to be refined, but must be recognized. While we fail to recognize perfection it appears as imperfection. The irony of Zen practice is that while natural perfection surrounds and permeates everything, so that recognizing it should be the easiest thing of all, letting go of our false conceptions requires effort and training. It is the path that is ‘neither easy nor difficult’.

How can the imperfect be perfect? In Buddhism anger is considered to be imperfect and faulty. Shantideva writes:

“There is no evil greater than anger,
And no virtue greater than patience.
Therefore, I should strive in various ways
To become familiar with the practice of patience.

If I harbour painful thoughts of anger,
I shall not experience mental peace,
I shall find no joy or happiness,
And I shall be unsettled and unable to sleep.

Overcome by a fit of anger,
I might even kill a benefactor
Upon whose kindness I depend
For my wealth or reputation.

Anger causes friends and relatives to grow weary of me
And, even if I try to attract them with generosity, they will not trust me.
In short, there is no one
Who can live happily with anger.

Although the enemy of anger
Creates sufferings such as these,
Whoever works hard to overcome it
Will find only happiness in this and future lives.”
(‘Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life’, Tharpa Publications, Ch.6 vs 2 -7)

Although anger should be abandoned, it is a manifestation of the underlying purity of the mind and of emptiness (shunyata). Relating to anger in this way is a skillful method to come to terms with and eventually abandon it. John Welwood writes:

“A further step on the path of awakening involves learning to be with our experience in an even more direct and penetrating way, which I call unconditional presence. Here the focus is not so much on what we are experiencing as on how we are with it. Being fully present with our experience facilitates a vertical shift from personality to being. Being with anger, for instance, involves opening to its energy directly, which often effects a spontaneous transmutation. The anger reveals deeper qualities of being hidden within it, such as strength, confidence or radiant clarity, and this brings us into deeper connection with being itself. From this greater sense of inner connectedness, the original situation that gave rise to anger often looks quite different. Beyond transmutation there lies the still subtler potential to self-liberate experience through naked awareness. Instead of going into this anger, this would simply mean resting in presence as the anger arises and moves, while recognizing it as a transparent, energetic display of being-awareness-emptiness”
(from ‘Toward a Pschology of Awakening’, Shambala Publications 2000, pp126-7)

Drawing out the full implications of these passages is beyond me, suffice it to say that there is a close relationship between perfection and imperfection. Those who fail to see the relationship between evolution and perfection, and cling to one side or the other, drive us further from reality.

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Posted on September 7, 2008, in Buddhism, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Very well expressed Matthew, and a particularly helpful article for all confused Buddhists who have got lost in arguments about reality. It is so important to recognise our subtle minds, which are not interested in gross “is it this or is it that” analysis but in establishing our relationship with the world.

  2. I think it’s likely that many people, religious and non-religious would agree that there is potentially some discrepancy between the appearance of something and its function. The Creationist could say that the material world is ‘perfect’, despite its apparent flaws, as it is a perfect training ground for God’s beings’ to learn and develop spiritually. It functions ‘perfectly’ in this way to help us ‘discover’ God. This is the argument used, sometimes, for the existence of ‘freewill’;. God is exempt from blame for all the evil actions that humans’ perform, because these are a consequence of misdirected ‘freewill’. Why then did God burden us with freewill? Because, so I hear, God can only be known through a process of spiritual-self-discovery, and this can only take place if a person has the freedom to get their fingers burnt, so to speak.
    Dawkins could respond to this, though, by asking why it seems that humans are not given a level playing field from birth. In the eyes of the Lord we are supposedly equal but different, yet, when the opportunity for spiritual growth is examined, it is difficult to overlook some very apparent inequalities…and if these do exist, how can a Creationist maintain that we are a product of a perfect Creator? For instance, it is not hard to appreciate how a mother, who looses her 5 month old baby in a natural disaster, can use this horrendous experience as part of her spiritual path, but what about the child himself? Does he take a quick path to heaven? If so, why is it necessary to put the rest of us through this turbulent and hellish ride?
    A linear approach to creation, where the the sole/original cause is an all-pure one, does not seem to allow for any imperfection to exist at all. Having said that, I’m not doubting that there many pragmatic reasons for adopting a monotheistic belief system on a personal level. Dawkins might argue otherwise, but then he does follow the religion of Empiricism which is as prone to painting over cracks as the rest of us are.
    Lets just say, I do not find the poster-boy of Atheism very enticing!

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