I sometimes wonder whether I am a closet Buddhist. Now, I will be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about Buddhism, but what little I have encountered often strikes a chord with me. The Enlightened Gene shows there might be a good reason for this. This book chronicles a most unlikely project: the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. On the invitation of the Dalai Lama no less (!), Emory University has developed a science curriculum to be taught to Tibetan monks and nuns in exile in India. Spearheaded by professor Arri Eisen and in close collaboration with monk Geshe Yungdrung Konchok, the aim is to integrate modern science (focusing on physics and life sciences, especially neuroscience) into their monastic curriculum.
Written primarily from the perspective of Eisen, with reflections by Kongchok sprinkled throughout the text, The Enlightened Gene reflects on what science can learn from Buddhism and vice versa. We read how the monks and nuns are amazed when learning more about cells, pondering whether or not they should be considered sentient. The way slime moulds organise in larger multicellular structures in times of food shortage and sacrifice part of the colony to ensure survival of the rest resonates strongly with the Buddhist concept of Samsara. This is the continuous cycle of birth, sickness, death, and rebirth that places importance on the virtues of self-sacrifice and altruism. And from this point of view, it reiterates that many things in biology are as much about death as they are about life, whether it is programmed cell death during embryonic development, the continuous turnover of all sorts of cells in a body, or the realisation that every cell division is, in essence, a form of sacrifice from the point of view of the parent cell.
Similarly, the dependency of life forms on each other is a cornerstone of both ecology and Buddhism. Where many ecologists bemoan how the industrialised world is destroying ecosystems worldwide, Buddhist adherence to values of compassion and empathy offer answers on how to live a meaningful life that science cannot necessarily provide. In turn, biology supplies findings to suggest that we are naturally inclined to these values. This includes findings from behavioural biology on empathy in a wide range of animals, notably by Frans de Waal and collaborators (see e.g. The Age of Empathy: Nature’s Lessons for a Kinder Society), and from neuroscience, especially the slightly hyped discovery of mirror neurons (see Mirrors in the Brain: How Our Minds Share Actions and Emotions). These neurons fire both when an animal acts and when it observes the same action performed by another animal, and were quickly touted as the neurological basis of empathy in humans (but see The Myth of Mirror Neurons: The Real Neuroscience of Communication and Cognition for a critique of this).
“many things in biology are as much about death as they are about life”
And The Enlightened Gene unsurprisingly spends many pages on recent discoveries in the fields of epigenetics and the microbiome. Epigenetics studies heritable changes in an organism’s phenotype due to changes in gene expression or activity rather than gene sequence (see Epigenetics: How Environment Shapes Our Genes, The Epigenetics Revolution: How Modern Biology is Rewriting Our Understanding of Genetics, Disease and Inheritance, and Lamarck’s Revenge: How Epigenetics Is Revolutionizing Our Understanding of Evolution’s Past and Present for more). Epigenetics provides a mechanism for past stresses and hardships to influence the present, which resonates with the Buddhist concept of karma. The microbiome is the community of microorganisms living in and on us (see Welcome to the Microbiome: Getting to Know the Trillions of Bacteria and Other Microbes In, On, and Around You and I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life for readable introductions) and have been implicated in the current epidemic of “Western” diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cancer, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s etc. (see The Human Superorganism: How the Microbiome Is Revolutionizing the Pursuit of a Healthy Life and 10% Human: How Your Body’s Microbes Hold the Key to Health and Happiness for more specifically on that link). There is currently an active field of research on the potentially beneficial effects of the Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditation on the triad of immune system, nervous system, and microbiome.
Eisen is not the first biologist to cosy up to Buddhism, but the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative described here is eye-opening and makes for a remarkable book. In chronicling his teaching experience, Eisen does not necessarily provide an exhaustive overview of the commonalities between biology and Buddhism (Barash’s Buddhist Biology: Ancient Eastern Wisdom Meets Modern Western Science might), and he acknowledges these are more philosophical than scientific or utilitarian. But it goes to show that, if both sides are willing and open-minded, there can be a dialogue between science and religion.
“Eisen is not the first biologist to cozy up to Buddhism”
Coming from me, that is a huge compliment. If you catch me on a good day, I might settle for Gould’s view of non-overlapping magisteria, with science and religion each representing different areas of inquiry, facts vs. values (see his essay in Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life). But mostly I veer towards militant atheism and have Dawkins’s The God Delusion happily rubbing shoulders on my bookshelf with Gingras’s Science and Religion: An Impossible Dialogue. I maintain that the dogmatic outlook of most religions is utterly incompatible with evidence-based science, and this book has not changed my mind. Often, rapprochements of religion towards science are just a cheap ploy to push a religious agenda, as exemplified through that monstrosity of Intelligent Design. That makes the genuine and heartfelt initiative described here all the more noteworthy. Even Eisen has to admit in his last chapter that, where religions are concerned, Buddhism seems to be an outlier (Barash notes this too in Buddhist Biology). In that sense, my impression of Buddhism is more that of a spiritual movement than that of a typical monotheistic religion.
Of course, I know that in my militant atheism I get worked up about the extremes of religion and that there is plenty of room for more moderate outlooks – plenty of scientists were, and are, religious after all. I like to think of myself as open-minded, but not so open-minded that my brain falls out (I will at every turn oppose the pseudoscientific hogwash that unfortunately accompanies most religious and spiritual movements). The Enlightened Gene is a welcome foray into such open-minded inquiry, and Eisen has managed to instil in me a renewed sense of respect for Buddhism. Don’t expect me to sign up with the nearest temple, but this book was never about converting people in the first place.
Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.
Other recommended books mentioned in this review: