we don't need to change how we do conservation, we need to change why we do it

Old Buddha, Part-2: Natural Selection is “Selfless” Selection

A short selection from Essay Eleven in Darwin, Dogen, and the Extremophile. [YOU MIGHT WANT TO SKIP THIS ON A FIRST READING OF THE TWO BUDDHAS SEQUENCE]

If, wherever you are, you take the role of the host, then whatever spot you stand in will be a true one. Then whatever circumstances surround you, they can never pull you awry … these will of themselves become the great sea of emancipation. —Ch’an Teachings of Master Lin-chi [1]

In comparison to the busyness of human minds, the specifications of Darwin’s evolving “entangled bank” are slow to begin with, and so we might expect that evo-ecology can be easier to understand than our own mental processes. But evolution moves unnaturally slow compared to the pace we live our lives, and the out-of-scale workings of natural selection only came to light a century and a half ago, more than two millennia after Gautama opened his window on the human mind. So it’s no wonder then that even today we have a difficult time accepting that the hard won evidence for evolution points in the same direction as the Buddha’s fourth noble truth: the “right” path [2] for natural selection is also selfless and undirected. To the extent that we identify with our animal bodies we will feel pain, and ‘we’ will die, like any other animal body. But just as our global and undying Phylogenic Host accommodates all this animal sensation and discontinuity, so human selflessness can pass beyond identification with the thoughts and sensations of our unique life trajectories (our ontogenies) and learn to simply accommodate them: to play the Culture-genic Host.

Darwin’s insight, the evolutionary pathway of selected accidents, ultimately differs from narrowly teleological theories like Lamarck’s (where traits acquired by the efforts of one generation are inherited by the next), not only in its ‘abstraction’ of heredity, [3] but in its radical, paradigm shifting, acceptance of unpredictability and irreversibility in the creative process. Natural selection, being the evolution of ‘intention’ itself, can’t be grasped as a means to an end. Evolution is not a mechanism; it’s a sacrificial process, a selfless act. ‘Selfless selection’ entails an anonymous gifting, that can’t be compelled—or for that matter even be acknowledged except by the direct courtesy of mindfulness, or perhaps indirectly through poetry, as in these lines by the Sufi mystic, Rumi:

Friend, our closeness is this: anywhere you put your foot, feel me in the firmness under you. [Reply:] How is it with this love, I see your world and not you? [4]

Let me say that again: this pathway, with entropic variation as its means, cannot be minutely predicted, or retraced; but also, by continually remaking its ends, neither can it be ultimately predicted, nor can its absolute freedom, and its covenant with unwavering goodwill, ever be taken as ‘proven’. Does this state of affairs sound familiar? Perhaps this selfless selection we see in the Natural world can be rephrased in a simple injunction cobbled together from the world religions of Moses, Lao Tzu, Gautama, Krishna, and Jesus: Do all things with mindful attention (this love) without lingering attachment to (‘consuming’ as ‘self’) previously selected outcomes (making them calculated ‘fruits’ of the living act). [5]


1. Lin-chi. 1993. Burton Watson, trans. The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi: A Translation of the Lin-chi Lu by Burton Watson.  Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc. p.31. [Ch. 13 (Part Two)].

2. Gautama loved to make lists; by “right view, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration”, he just meant we should do all these things while remaining fully present and non-judgemental.

3. In subsequent editions of “The Origin”, Darwin in fact tried to appease his detractors by entertaining a more Lamarckian theory of heredity. The original edition is now more fully substantiated.

4. Rumi. 1996 in Coleman Barks, trans. With John Moyne, The Essential Rumi. New York: HarperCollins. p. 99 (from “The Tent”).

5. I am thinking of course about the Book of Genesis and the Bhagavad Gita in particular when I allude to consuming, attachment, and fruits; but the connection between mindfulness, attentiveness, and love is a familiar theme in Christianity, and is fundamental to all Buddhist teachings; and the italicization of this represents a Zen Buddhist convention often used to draw a reader’s attention to immediate experience. Zen has ties to Taoism, and the preceding poem by Rumi is representative of the Sufi tradition within Islam.

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