The Dharma in DNA Book Summary - The Dharma in DNA Book explained in key points
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The Dharma in DNA summary

Dee Denver

Insights at the Intersection of Biology and Buddhism

4.2 (276 ratings)
18 mins
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    The Dharma in DNA
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    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?

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    What is The Dharma in DNA about?

    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.

    Who should read The Dharma in DNA?

    • Open-minded rationalists and skeptics
    • Thinkers who love big ideas
    • Spiritualists interested in science

    About the Author

    Dee Denver is a professor of evolutionary genetics at Oregon State University who specializes in the study of DNA mutation and the evolution of genomes. He’s currently working on a multidisciplinary project exploring what Buddhists and biologists can learn from each other.

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