Buddhism & Biology: Are Humans Genetically Destined For War?
There is no single, simple Buddhist “take” on human nature. Of course, people are seen as susceptible to dukkah (“suffering,” or — better — “disappointment”) as well as vulnerable to an array of misperceptions. And a strict interpretation of karma can be seen as denying free will if we are forced to experience and act out the consequences of our presumed “prior lives.” But this is a blinkered perspective, and certainly not one necessitated by or even necessarily consistent with Buddhist thought.
Thus, the second two of the Four Noble Truths are fundamentally based on the assumption that people have substantial free will. The Third Noble Truth — the truth of the cessation of dukkha — is that dukkha can be overcome, or at least minimized, while the Fourth Noble Truth sets out a behavioral roadmap — the Noble Eightfold Way — of doing so. Why should anyone, Buddha or otherwise, seek to convey teachings, generate suttas, give dharma talks or reach out in any way to one’s fellow human beings if the recipients are ostensibly unable to act mindfully upon such teachings?
These considerations are especially relevant to “Getting Real About Nonviolence,” since many people have become hopelessly convinced that human beings are incapable of nonviolence. We Homo sapiens as a species, the thinking goes, are inherently predisposed to violence. Moreover, war (as contrasted with individual violence) is “in our genes.” Worse yet, this perspective has been encouraged by many evolutionary biologists, who have, I fear, expanded a limited range of research findings into inaccurate generalizations about all human beings. Please note that I write this as an evolutionary biologist myself, and someone who has been accused in the past of hypothesizing genes for all sorts of behavior. To some extent, I plead guilty, although I would like to think that my writing has always made clear that all “phenotypes” – that is, all observable aspects of all living things, including their behavior – arises via the interaction of both nature (genotype) and nurture (experience). As ever, rigid dichotomies don’t work.
Hoping to clarify whether human beings are “hard-wired for war,” I wrote a brief op-ed, which appeared on September 29 in The New York Times, as well as a somewhat longer piece — involving different examples and complementary details — in the on-line magazine, aeon. I am happy to share these links with readers of Turning Wheel Media, and hope that the ideas contained therein will provide a degree of optimism about the human future that is not only much needed in these dark days, but — better yet — is fully supported by the best insights of both the natural and the social sciences.
David P. Barash, an evolutionary biologist and professor of psychology at the University of Washington, is the author of the forthcoming book “Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science.”