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Book Summary: The Dharma in DNA – Insights at the Intersection of Biology and Buddhism

The Dharma in DNA (2022) explores the intersections between Buddhist philosophy and biology. At first glance, these two traditions couldn’t be more different. One is spiritual; the other empirical. But there are overlaps. Both traditions are attempts to discover meaning, for one. But there’s more to it than that: both the teachings of the Buddha and the findings of biologists appear to converge on a similar understanding of what it means to be human.

Book Summary: The Dharma in DNA - Insights at the Intersection of Biology and Buddhism

Content Summary

Genres
An introduction to Buddhist biology.
The clash between science and religion isn’t universal.
Buddhists see the self as a dynamic process, not a stable identity.
The self can’t be found under a microscope, either.
Summary
About the author
Table of Contents
Overview
Video and Podcast

Genres

Science, Philosophy, Religion, Spirituality, Humanities, Buddhism, Biology, Life Sciences

An introduction to Buddhist biology.

In 2004, Dee Denver went to hear the Dalai Lama speak in Bloomington, Indiana. Truth be told, he didn’t expect much from the talk.

A molecular biologist with a stack of Richard Dawkins books on his bedside table, he was a self-described rationalist. The kind of hard-nosed empiricist who has little patience for spiritualism or religious mumbo jumbo.

But, the Tibetan monk’s speech caught him off guard.

What he said didn’t sound like nonsense at all. It was logical and compelling. Especially what he had to say about the nature of the self and impermanence. The Dalai Lama had his own way of speaking about such ideas, of course, but they still resonated with the scientist. These ideas, he realized, helped him think more clearly about his own work.

That chance encounter launched him on a path of discovery. The deeper he dug, the clearer it became that Buddhism and biology weren’t just circling the same insights – they were converging paths toward the same conclusions.

That, in a nutshell, is what we’ll be exploring in this summary. Along the way, we’ll touch on some of the main ideas that Denver addresses, as well as highlight some of the most notable ways that Buddhist philosophy and biology productively overlap in their understanding of what exactly it means to be human.

The clash between science and religion isn’t universal.

Let’s jump in with a well-known story. There are lots of ways of telling it, but it’s always about progress. Really, it’s the story of how we became a modern society. It goes something like this.

Western civilization began with the ancient Greeks. There were lots of philosophical Greeks with their heads in the clouds. But there were other kinds, too – pragmatic types who observed the behavior of bees and fish and recorded the movement of stars and the flow of rivers. The word didn’t exist yet, but they were empiricists. Scientists, in short. They didn’t just ponder abstract theories – they studied reality with their own eyes.

Greek culture was taken over by the Romans, who turned that learning into the practical purpose of building the world’s most technologically advanced empire. This golden age didn’t last long, though. While reason illuminated the world in Greek and Roman times, after the fall of the Roman empire the clouds of religious dogma obscured it. These were dark ages in which the free-spirited, open-ended inquiry of the ancients was replaced by rigid religious orthodoxy.

But, the iron grip of religion loosened over time. By 1859, the year Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published, the tide had again turned. For many of Darwin’s contemporaries, this path-breaking study of evolution decisively settled the 1,500-year-old battle between religion and science in favor of the latter.

That’s not exactly a nuanced telling of this story – we’ve condensed a lot of history into a little less than 200 words, after all. But our snapshot does capture an idea that’s common-sensical for many scientists: that religion and science just don’t mesh.

It’s easy to see why this is widely accepted – religion and science do often advance mutually incompatible claims. To take just one example, if natural selection drives the evolution of life, where does that leave God, the creator of all species? Biblical scripture meanwhile tells us that humans are created in God’s image and, unlike animals, have souls. But say you accept the theory that humans are descended from nonhuman lifeforms. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell once asked, where exactly, during the long process of evolution from amoeba to human, did the soul come in?

Different scientists have proposed various ways of resolving this clash. Some, like the evolutionary biologist and outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins, take a hard line. Religious claims, he argues, are unfalsifiable gobbledygook with no explanatory power whatsoever. As such, religion should be banished from public life. The American paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, by contrast, argued that religion and science have nonoverlapping domains of authority. Simply put, religion is about values, while science is about facts. A question like, Do greenhouse gas emissions cause global warming? is a factual question. There’s a single, empirically discoverable, and correct answer. But a question like, Under what circumstances, if any, is it acceptable to drive a species to extinction? can’t be answered in the same way – it’s a moral question. In that domain, Gould thought, religion can help us think more clearly.

But other scientists have begun to question this common-sense position. To stick with the example we used earlier, the soul – an eternal, unchanging human essence – doesn’t figure into Darwin’s theory of evolution. Religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam, which teach that humans possess souls, will inevitably find it hard to accept the Darwinian worldview. But what about a religion that doesn’t posit the existence of the soul? A religion that denies the existence of the soul’s secular counterpart – the modern concept of the self? How does the story we’ve been telling change when we shift our perspective and look at the relationship between religion and science through Buddhist lenses?

Buddhists see the self as a dynamic process, not a stable identity.

Let’s turn to Buddhism. We’ll start with another story – the record of a meeting between a Buddhist monk and a Greek king called Menander. It took place in northeastern India around 150 BCE.

One day, Menander decided to visit a local monk who was said to be very wise. The dialogue didn’t play out as the king had imagined, however.

When Menander asked him what he was called, the monk said he was known as Nagasena. His name wasn’t really important, though – it was merely a conventional label. Menander was puzzled. What did the monk mean? Nagasena explained that his parents had referred to a certain bundle of mind and matter by that name. He’d kept the label for the sake of convenience, but there was no unique being, person, or soul to be discovered under that label.

If the venerable monk Nagasena’s identity couldn’t be found in his name, the king asked, could he be found in some other feature – the hairs on his head, for example? The monk shook his head. The hairs on his body, then? No. Menander listed other features in which Nagasena might be found: his skin, bones, blood, sweat, and so on. Not there, either. Did he consist of a feeling of pleasure or pain, then, or a perception, mental impulse, or state of consciousness? Nope. Or did he exist apart from his body or mind? No again.

So where, Menander finally asked, was the monk called Nagasena he’d come to see?

Nagasena’s answer is famous. Many Buddhists regard it as one of the best explanations of one of their tradition’s most important ideas: anatman, or nonself. It goes like this.

How, Nagasena asked, had Menander gotten to his hermitage? By chariot, the king replied. What, Nagasena asked, is a chariot – is it the axle, or the wheels, or the frame? No, replied the king. The spokes on the wheels, then, or the yoke? No. Is it something outside the chariot, or the idea of a chariot? Menander said it wasn’t that, either. We can’t find the chariot in any of its parts, Nagasena concluded, nor is it outside those parts. But we’re happy to say the chariot exists. So we’re using the word chariot as a convenient label for a bundle of matter consisting of wheels, a frame, an axle, a yoke, and so on. The name Nagasena, the monk added, is the same: it also refers to a group of things rather than one single thing.

In other words, the concept called self is like the concept called chariot. We know it exists: if we were to meet a monk named Nagasena, we’d see that he was made of flesh and blood and occupied space and hear him ask his questions. But would we be able to pin that self down and attribute it to any single feature? For Buddhists, the answer is no. There’s no fixed, independent being behind the “I” we conventionally use to refer to ourselves. The self, in short, is a relationship. A dynamic interplay of parts. Let’s break that down a bit more.

When the Buddha spoke of humans, he didn’t refer to static entities. Personhood, for him, was a bundle of five attributes: matter, sensations, perceptions, mental formations, and consciousness.

Matter includes the physical body – the skin, bones, blood, and sweat in which Menander tried to find Nagasena.

Through the body, we experience sensations. These can be negative, like the unpleasant sting of a nettle, or pleasant, like the warmth of sweet tea. But often, they’re just neutral, like the breeze on a day that’s neither hot nor cold.

We catalog these perceptions: having been stung by a nettle, we perceive nettles as nettles and connect them with the feeling of stinging skin.

Then there are mental formations – all our desires and aversions and happy and unhappy ruminations.

Finally, there’s consciousness, which is our awareness of all these physical and mental attributes.

The relationship between these processes gives us an identifiable and consistent sense of personhood. But isn’t that just a redescription of the self? Put differently, having defined the self in this five-fold way, why do Buddhists go on to say that there is nonself, or anatman?

Well, remember, it’s a dynamic relationship: it’s defined by constant change. For Buddhists, the world is marked by impermanence, and our consciousness is an endless reflection of this state of change. Our bodies age. Sensations like the sting of a nettle or the warmth of tea are fleeting. Desires grow and fade. Things that once brought us happiness lose their allure; what seemed compelling yesterday may leave us cold today.

If every attribute of personhood is marked by impermanence, Buddhists conclude, the self is nothing less than a process of constant change. It can’t be pinned down. In fact, they go further. We suffer when we refuse to accept this impermanence. When we try to hang our personhood on a single attribute. If we fix our identity on physical beauty or worldly success, for instance, we have to wage a futile battle against the passage of time and the uncontrollable flow of events. There is, Buddhists say, no surer path to suffering.

The self can’t be found under a microscope, either.

Let’s recap. For Buddhists, there’s no unchanging, fixed self, identity, ego, or soul. There’s only interplay and interaction and change.

This idea isn’t exactly intuitive for nonBuddhists. In the West, it runs up against thousands of years of religious, philosophical, and scientific thought which reaches the opposite conclusion.

The thing is, though, there are lots of commonly accepted, apparently obvious, and convenient ideas which are wrong. For many scientists, the concept of a stable, identifiable self securely housed within a body is one of those ideas. Here, then, is one of those overlaps between religion and science we mentioned at the beginning of this summary.

So let’s turn to science. More precisely, let’s talk about DNA. We can start with Francis Crick, the codiscover of DNA. For Crick, the discovery of DNA gave rise to an “astonishing hypothesis.” It states that the bundle of joys and sorrows, memories, ambitions, desires, and sense of personal identity we call an “I” is nothing more than a vast assembly of nerve cells and molecules. As the American biologist David Barash later noted, scientists have had to rethink the relationship between bodies and genes in light of that hypothesis. Simply put, bodies have been “demoted” while genes have been “promoted.”

That, in turn, has undermined the common-sense notion that every person is a self neatly tucked into a body. That they occupy the space inside the boundaries marked by their skin. So, with that, give this question some thought.

What, evolutionarily speaking, is this thing we call a self? Well, the individual “I” is the product of natural selection – a mechanism which, over millions of years, molded and shaped our ancestors. This mechanism is indirect, however. The bodies which house the selves we call “I” and “you” are the products of evolution working at the level of genes. Evolution’s legacy to us is the DNA which, in part, accounts for the faces which look back at us from our mirrors.

Only in part, though. Genetics isn’t fate. The face in a mirror, like the body to which it is attached, is – as Crick said – a vast assembly of cells and molecules. And those cells and molecules don’t exist in isolation. Genes don’t “express” themselves in a simple, linear fashion; they interact with the environment in which they find themselves. Their “content” is determined by the food we eat and the air we breathe. By the books we read and the exercise we take part in – or avoid. Their expression, in short, interacts with the sum total of our experiences.

Genes may be the blueprints, but the beings we encounter aren’t perfect realizations of those blueprints. As Richard Dawkins puts it, we can only really talk coherently about the “effect” of genes if we also specify how the environment influences them. A gene “for” X in one environment can be a gene “for” Y in another. Or it can fail to leave its mark entirely. Neuroscientists point out, for example, that identical twins with a genetic predisposition to depression can experience their genetic makeup in entirely different ways. If one twin enjoys a comfortable life with few stressors, their brain may not produce the neurotransmitters that “activate” depression. If the second twin has a harder life – maybe they’re poorer or more isolated socially, say – their brain is highly likely to produce those same neurotransmitters. These kinds of complex interactions, scientists like Dawkins conclude, make it all but meaningless to talk about the absolute, context-free effects of given genes.

So what are we left with? It appears that the further we dig, the more dynamic, open-ended interplay we find. The body is a vast assemblage of interacting cells and molecules which are largely shaped by a mechanism outside the body – the work of natural selection on genes over millions of years. But DNA doesn’t give us a stable concept of the self, either. We can’t say that we are the DNA that makes us up because that, too, is caught up in a process of constant change. We’ve come full circle. No self. Nonself. Anatman.

By different paths, we’ve reached the same conclusion. We tried a philosophically-minded approach and a scientific one. Neither brought us closer to the independent, fixed self. Instead, we found a series of relationships and patterns and interactions. Buddhism and biology converge. Both suggest that our reality is fundamentally structured by change. Nothing is static; there are only patterns that momentarily assemble themselves before fading away again. As the American mathematician Norbert Wiener once put it, we are “whirlpools in a river of ever-flowing water.”

Summary

Science and religion have often been seen as incompatible ways of understanding the world. That’s hardly surprising: their shared history is full of clashes and conflicts. But past hostilities shouldn’t blind us to the possibility of fruitful collaborations in the present. That’s especially true of Buddhists and biologists. Their views on the nature of the self and impermanence aren’t just compatible – they’re closely aligned.

About the author

Dee Denver is a professor of evolutionary genetics at Oregon State University who has contributed numerous insights into the process of DNA mutation and evolution of genomes. Professor Denver recently initiated scholarly work at the intersection of biology and Buddhist philosophy.

Dee Denver | Website

Dee Denver

Table of Contents

Dedication
Acknowledgments

Chapter 1: Water
Chapter 2: Trees
Chapter 3: Truths
Chapter 4: Intersections I
Chapter 5: Intersections II
Chapter 6: Sciences
Chapter 7: Molecules
Chapter 8: Identities
Chapter 9: Bodhi
Chapter 10: Intimacy

Glossary
Notes
Index

Overview

There are more connections between spirituality and science than you might think…

In 2004, biologist Dee Denver heard the Dalai Lama speak in Bloomington, Indiana. The famous Tibetan monk’s speech that day exposed him to the centrality of impermanence in Buddhist thinking, a topic that directly connected to his mutation research in evolutionary biology. He left the event shocked and startled by the unexpected parallels between Buddhism and biology. This experience is not wholly unique to Denver. Spirituality and science are two inherently humane ways to approach our world. Why shouldn’t more people look at them in tandem?

In this book, Denver shares Buddhist ideas and the tradition’s colonial and more recent interactions with biology. He then applies the scientific method to Buddhist principles and draws connections between Buddhist ideas and current research in biology. In doing this, he proposes a new approach to science, Bodhi science, that integrates Buddhist teachings and ethical frameworks. Denver’s research supports a connected synergy between biological and Buddhist thinking.

This scientific approach to Buddhism offers strong evidence supporting the validity of fundamentally Buddhist principles and logic. The book builds on historical evidence from Sri Lanka, Japan, and Tibetan Buddhism to illustrate these connections.

Video and Podcast