In the western world there are two opposing views of the origins of the species - theological (creationism) and scientific (evolution).
Creationists believe that species are unchanging and derive their forms by reference to a divine blueprint. Theology has long been dominated by the ideas of the Greek philosopher Plato, who taught that the species were invariant, deriving their characteristics from reference to 'essences' or 'ideal forms' which were fixed, eternal and inherently existent. To a Creationist a rose is a rose is a rose, and would smell as sweet by any other name. There is no way a rose bush could fade into a strawberry plant, or a cherry tree, or a tangle of brambles, or a mountain ash, or a raspberry cane, or a hawthorn bush, or an apple tree. These are all totally distinct and immediately recognisable species - separate types of plant with nothing in between. Theologians base their time reckoning on the chronology of the Bible which states that the world all its species were created in six days of a single week around 4004 BC .
Evolutionists believe that species arose by gradual change from simpler forms. Strawberry plants, cherry trees, blackberries, raspberries, hawthorns and apples all have a family likeness because they all arose from a common ancestor, which resembled a primitive rose. Hence botanists call this plant family the ROSACEAE.
Similarly all primates (including humans and apes) have a common ancestor. Going back further, all species of mammals diverged from a common ancestor, and so on into the dim and distant past until we reach one common ancestor of all lifeforms, which originated the DNA coding which is universal for all plants, animals, fungi and bacteria on earth. Consequently, to evolutionists the biological species concept does not reflect any underlying reality. A species is purely a snapshot of an interbreeding population of organisms at a particular epoch in time, and as time progresses the characteristics of that population will gradually change in response to selective pressures.
Buddhist philosophy is evolutionary and thus agrees with the scientists rather than the theologians. Buddha taught that all things are impermanent, constantly arising, becoming, changing and fading . Buddhist philosophers consequently rejected the Platonic idea of production from 'ideal forms' as being the fallacy of 'production from inherently existent other'. According to most schools of Buddhism there is nothing whatsoever that is inherently or independently existent..
The two main creationist objections to evolution are:
1 Disagreement with Genesis
2 Blurring of the theological distinction between human and animal
Neither of these pose any threat to Buddhist philosophy. The first objection is based on the need to maintain the truth of a particular creation story in order to preserve the underlying basis for all Biblical truth. This is not a worry to Buddhists because there is no corresponding Buddhist creation myth, and Buddhist philosophers have always accepted that the universe is many hundreds of millions of years old.
The second theological objection is that evolution states that there is a continuum between ape and man, ie human and animal.(A favourite anti-evolutionary slogan is 'Don't let them make a Monkey of You!). This is not a problem for Buddhists, who believe that both humans and animals possess sentient minds which survive death. However it is a major problem for theologians. The church has always taught that only humans have immortal souls, whereas animals are automata whose minds cease at death. Humans and animals were created separatedly and hence are totally different types of being. But if there was a gradual transition between animal and man, as the evolutionists claim, then such theological beliefs fall apart.
The theologians are left with three alternative unpalatable viewpoints:
- Both humans and animals are and always have been automata (the materialist's
- Both humans and animals are sentient beings whose minds survive death (the Buddhist position)
- At some arbitrary date in the past the apemen were suddenly equipped with souls.
The undermining of the doctrine of the distinction of human from animals is probably an even greater threat to the theological viewpoint than doubt about the literal truth of Genesis, and does much to explain why theologians of any persuasion have never been able to come to terms with what Daniel C. Dennett [REF 1] has described as Darwins's Dangerous Idea.
Evolution and dukkha.
No matter what philosophical knots the theologians may be forced to unravel, from the Buddhist viewpoint the theory of evolution has considerable explanatory power, in particular demonstrating why dukkha (the sensation of unsatisfactoriness) is a pervasive experience of all sentient beings throughout the evolved biosphere.
- Sean Robsville