Friday, January 12, 2007

Being Nobody Special and Taking Joy In Dull Tasks

When it comes to truth, not all lessons are appropriate for all people at all times. For example, if someone has been raised to think that liberalism is the direct embodiment of Satan's hold on this world and that evolution is a substitute for Creation to allow the denial of (the "one true") God, it probably doesn't make much sense to give them a subtle, nuanced explanation of how regulatory genes and complexity theory affect our understanding of biological diversity. And ironically, someone who has never progressed beyond populist neo-Darwinism would also need to have some intervening lessons, and time to digest them, before some of those same lessons.

For example, consider the basic idea of evolution resulting from natural selection acting on random mutations of small effect. This could (and in many cases does) result in a view of evolution in which all changes must be the sum of little changes, and these little changes are all random - in the sense of being unpredictable and unrelated as well as being unintended. Hence selection must be incredibly important in molding lots and lots of these little changes and guiding them into forming various structures of greater sophistication. Now let us introduce the idea that development is coordinated, so changes are often interrelated. If that is true, changing those genes affecting the regulation of development are not always (or even usually) produce single changes of small effect. Such mutations can and do produce multiple simultaneous changes of varying degrees of effect. So, then, not all mutations are random in the sense of being unrelated. Now introduce the idea that based on properties of chromosomes as well as epigenetic mechanisms, not all gene sequences are as likely to mutate as others. That impeded to some degree on the idea that mutations are random in the sense of being unpredictable. The effect of these two ideas on how one might see the process(es) of evolution is fairly profound. If we wished, we could go on, for example adding that not all changes in heritable variation come from genetics (DNA/RNA), but the illustration is clear. One can now see evolution as more than what one might typically think of when one talking about "random" mutations.

But ironically to talk about this to some holding the populist neo-Darwinian view, you would think you were proposing something like Creationism. While this is fortunately not true of most scholars who study evolution, even those who are unabashed "ultra-selectionists" (no offense or derision intended), those less educated or experienced who have spend less time studying such matters are the ones more likely to be put off by the restrictions to the idea of random mutations. Because such folks (and long, long ago I used to be one) think they already understand, they have ceased trying to understand. Knowledge is like some final product that has been manufactured by science and which simply needs to be memorized. And this kind of thinking is not limited to science.

As per previous remarks, in Buddhism (and sacred traditions in general) I have observed a tendency to take some realization or break-through and enshrine it, in a way, as a final answer to a particular question. Maybe some do it because they really think they have the answer(s) and want to share their wisdom with others. Maybe some just want to sound like they are part of the in crowd of insight. I don't presume to know. Yet there it is, so that someone who is interested in learning more about the path(s) of the Buddha are constantly being hit with "Buddhism is really just this" and "Buddhism is really not that". Depending on where you are (in your life/practice/whatever) any one of those views may be provisionally true, but they can often be misleading. Have you checked out the Buddhist section in the bookstores lately? I must say, if I were curious about Buddhism and picked up a book called Being Nobody Special and Taking Joy In Dull Tasks: A Guide To Finding Out There Is Nothing To Find, I would drop it and my interest in the subject fairly fast. Might there be genuine truths in that title and that book? Sure, but what is the point if no one sticks around to really come to appreciate them?

I am not trying to question anyone's insight. But what do we do with it? What's the practical result? How does it really get to the heart of suffering? What can it offer to those who don't have the time or inclination to spend months or years studying, meditating, and practicing other methods? This, I think, is the real test our insights. The test of our practice. The test of our faith. Can you offer the essence and benefit of your insights to anyone of any education or occupation or ethnicity or sex? Does it make just as much sense without the rituals or the paraphernalia? Can you still appreciate it without referring to the Buddha?

The great teachings of sacred traditions, Buddhism included, point the way to the lesson, like guide posts, but they are not the lessons themselves (at least not in full). It is by living with them and applying them that they begin to reflect their genuine wisdom. At the risk of repeating myself too much,
we all hear words of wisdom, often good words. We think about them, and how much sense they make, and how great it is we heard about them, and how much we would like to share them. But the genuine nature of such teachings can only truly be touched by confirming and building on them through practice. That is to say, through living them. Because that is where they came from. That is where they are intended to take us. We should see these teachings not as a dusty collection of old sayings and intellectual cleverness, but footnotes to the same living wisdom and compassion to which we all have access.

Evolution is in part an attempt to model the dynamic process of life itself unfolding through million of years of the Earth's history, but as with all models, it must necessarily be flawed and incomplete, emphasizing artificially created categories and selected information in order to produce systematic explanations. This is not an "attack" on science in general or evolution in particular - these limitations exist for all such systems of explanation. Yet as amazing and useful as the picture presented by evolution is, it (and again no other system of explanation) can ever fully capture the true wonder of the diversity of life on Earth. This kind of critique applies to Buddhist teachings as well - they can never fully embody the potential of reality-as-it-is. Fortunately for us, we are that wonder. We are that potential.

Nosce te ipsum.


  1. I share your frustrations with orthodox evolution theory. But I feel a similar frustration with Buddhism. Evolution and Buddhism, so far as I can tell, share an anti-teleological bias toward history. Neither conceives of the flow of history as going anywhere in particular. Both ascribe Absurdity to the whole play of time. I studied Buddhism for a while, but it seemed so unable to make sense of the events of history (being more concerned with the immediacy of the moment,on the one hand, and the transcendence of time altogether on the other)that I came to think of it as little more than a mental health strategy.

    For a teleological model of evolution that is compatible with both science and Buddhism, I recommend

  2. Thank you for your comments :)

    I don't see Buddhism as a mental health strategy, but as for your concern, why find fault with a hammer for not being a screwdriver?

    As for evolution, I am not a fan of teleology, and in fact it is the teleological tendencies of some populist versions of neo-Darwinism that I often find so frustrating.

    Be well.


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