Tricycle Review

Tricycle Magazine, Winter 2007 pp. 110-113

“Darwin’s Dharma, Meditating on Evolution”
By Felix Holmgren

Evolutionary theory is science when science is having a really good day. Born out of the patience and curiosity of generations of naturalists, it is far more down-to-earth than any other major scientific theory, yet it is endlessly surprising and provocative. Its core ideas are simple enough for anyone to grasp with a little effort, yet their implications reach deep into our lives. Something similar may be said of meditation. It, too, begins with an acknowledgment of the earthiest, fleshiest, facts of life: the absolutely plain and inescapable reality of one’s own body and breath. It, too, confronts something exceedingly complex (the tangled mess of our minds) by means of a few simple principles and the discipline of adhering to them. It, too, makes possible a much clearer and more realistic understanding of the predicament of being alive and having to die.

The meditation teacher, nature lover, and former sociology professor Charles Fisher is clearly onto something valuable, then, when, in Dismantling Discontent: Buddha’s Way Through Darwin’s World, he takes it upon himself to map the territory where evolutionary theory and meditation––Darwin and Buddha––overlap and meet. His effort is a welcome departure from the bulk of writing about science and Buddhism, which tends to sail off into the lofty realms of electron clouds and brain synapses, quickly losing sight of the boring and very sad business of old age, sickness, and death. Fisher, by contrast, treats all the accumulated knowledge of the biological sciences as a resounding affirmation of the Buddha’s declaration that disappointment, pain, and apprehension of pain accompany all human activity like a shadow. Fisher is convinced that every shred of scientific evidence he picks up and passes on to his readers can and should be absorbed in a very personal manner, as a piece of a puzzle that will eventually make life more intelligible and bearable. His interest in Buddhism follows a similar pattern: he’s not in it for the philosophy and mind-boggling cosmologies, but for the butt-to-the-cushion, attention-on-your-breath discipline of meditation, which can alleviate the gory mess evolution has created for us.

Fisher is admirably determined not to settle for any fixed conclusions about what nature or evolutionary theory has to teach us. He is equally aware of nature’s dark and cruel sides (“Cannibalism occurs among shark embryos who swim about in their mother’s uterus”) and the beauty and benevolence that seem also to be part of it. Fisher’s thinking appears to be founded on the desire to see things from several perspectives simultaneously, and the more the better.

In keeping with this inclination, much of Dismantling Discontent’s argument is rooted in a concept of ambivalence on the level of DNA, that of antagonistic pleiotropy. This term refers to the situation in which genes endow an organism both with advantages that make it more “fit” and undesirable traits that tend to make it vulnerable. According to Fisher, human beings’ intelligence and linguistic capabilities can be viewed as an instance of antagonistic pleiotropy. Our superior communicative and social skills and our capacity to analyze the present and plan for the future have endowed our species with unique tools for survival, but they have also created a new set of physical and mental problems. The most pervasive of these is the compulsive mental chatter that beset humans at all times and the discontent it generates. Likewise, on the material side, every step human civilization takes seems to bring with it a host of new problems equal or greater in number than those of previous generations. It is especially fascinating to read Fisher’s account of the new kinds of infection, malnutrition, and damage from monotonous work humans experienced as they went from being hunter-gatherers to practicing agriculture. Today, longer life expectancy often means more drawn-out and lonely deaths. Fisher is not overly gloomy or reductive about civilization. He does not want to return to the Stone Age but nevertheless observes that there “is no retreat. New ways of living lead to new ways of dying.”

This is how Fisher brings science and Buddhism together. Science agrees with the Buddha that the “coarse” sufferings of old age, sickness, and death are and always will be among the few certainties of human life. Likewise, Fisher makes a case that it is possible to give a scientific account of how the subtler suffering of continuously oscillating hope and fear is an inseparable aspect of the human mind’s thinking and planning. The Buddha’s great contribution, according to Fisher, was that he discovered a way to face and overcome both coarse and subtle suffering rather than trying to run away from them.

It is a pity that Fisher has not been able to combine his appreciation of multiple viewpoints and surprising conclusions with a greater measure of patience and attention to detail. In order to recognize the subtle and complex issues arising out of evolutionary theory, one must first have a sound understanding of the fundamentals, and this Fisher does not provide. His presentation of adaptation, fitness, and selection barely skims over essential topics. Expressions like “natural selection” and “survival of the fittest” get juggled around precariously, but at no point does the author give an adequate account of the relationship between genotype and phenotype or the statistical laws that govern the diffusion of inheritable traits. In general, Fisher too often substitutes for solid, basic explanations an endless stream of information snippets, apparently convinced that a whole bigger than the single parts will emerge out of this steady flow of factoids. But it doesn’t, and for long stretches the book reads like the trivia section of a popular science magazine. An example:

Some beetles that can’t eat live for a year. Other species have anatomical deficiencies. Male mosquitoes, blackflies, and midges eat only nectar sugars and cannot live on them very long. For mammals, aging is synonymous with senescence. The longest-lived animal is Homo sapiens.

There is a lot of this, and it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that Fisher has not put nearly as much effort into the writing process as he has put into his research. The text’s flaws range from grammatical to factual and stylistic ones; unfortunately, the editors have done little to rid it of even its most basic errors.

Despite all this, Dismantling Discontent is a book of great energy; however, it is an energy not rooted in the plethora of facts and quotes the author musters to make his point, but in the presence one senses of a person who has allowed himself to be deeply touched by nature, meditation, and science. The impact left by pages reporting the life expectancy of bats, cats, rats, and gnats is insignificant compared to the brief allusions Fisher makes to his own experiments in life’s lab. I would have loved to hear more, for example, about the ranting recluses who made him their captive audience in the Arctic and the Everglades, or how he spent his time “calculating how much money Lucille Ball made every second” to stave off boredom while working in a typewriter factory.

Or consider a sentence like this: “Attending to your jaws as they come down on meat or roots will give an idea of how our eating apparatus was made to tear raw meat and grind gathered plants.” Here we have it all: the beginning of science and the beginning of meditation, knowing oneself to be the coincidental yet inevitable product of an immeasurably long sequence of causes and effects. Fisher reports that, besides writing Dismantling Discontent, he has been working on a book dealing with the less scientific dimension of his journey, called Meditation in the Wilds. If that book concerns itself less with what various psychologists, biologists, and meditation teachers have said or written and more with what Fisher has discovered by paying attention to life, it just might be the better for it. 

Felix Holmgren is a journalist, filmmaker, and math teacher who lives in Sweden and Nepal.