Hello, cousin! Even though you may not know me, we are indeed cousins, perhaps a few thousand times removed, but cousins nonetheless. The paleontologists have traced our common ancestry back to the same mother, whom they have given the name Lucy. Nobody remembers her, but we have been able to piece together some stories about her life and how her offspring spread out across the planet. Quite a woman, that Lucy, giving birth to all humanity.
But who gave birth to Lucy? Why stop tracing back the family tree at the branch where the human story begins? Let’s get down to the roots of the living matter. According to microbiologists, we can trace our common ancestry all the way back to the first single-celled organism, the original bacterium. So far, he/she has not been given a name, but I suggest Bobbie, a somewhat unisex name that also describes what he/she did all day—bobbed around on the Archean seas. What a life! And we think we have advanced.
You may believe that your existence began on the day you emerged from your mother’s womb, but that is a very restricted view of who you are. As a matter of fact—and a fact of matter—your life can be understood as having started many billions of years ago, when the materials and basic blueprints for building your body and brain were determined in the first fiery moments of the Big Bang. You are truly as old as the cosmos itself, and surely as old as the hills. And, I might add, you are looking pretty good, considering your age.
The scientific story of evolution, especially the biological chapters, can teach us many things about who we are, and serve as an aid to our happiness and liberation. First each of us must accept the notion that we are living beings, and earthlings, and are subject to the same laws and processes as all other forms of life on this planet. Then the dharma lessons begin in earnest.
The most obvious teaching to be found in evolution is that of dukkha (unsatisfactoriness), the Buddha’s first noble truth. Looking at other species, we see that life is somewhat of a struggle, regardless of the form it takes. Most creatures (except perhaps for some domestic house cats) seem to be on a continual search for nutrients, physical security or reproductive success, almost always on the alert for some possible danger or opportunity. Does that sound familiar?
We might consider, however, that the struggles of life are precisely what have forced the adaptations leading to our current degree of self-awareness. New kinds of consciousness do not come easily (as you may have realized on the meditation cushion), and many beings have died along the way. Nature demanded that we either get smart or die . . . and here we are. Besides, what else does life have to do but get smart?
According to the Buddha, another characteristic of our existence that we need to become familiar with is impermanence (anicca), which is included in the very definition of evolution. Change is the name of the game. Although we cannot see it happening, at this very moment nature is busy selecting the traits that will survive into the future, altering our bodies and behaviors to adapt to shifting environmental conditions. According to evolutionary scientists, all forms of life are in jittery motion, and if seen over millennia in time-lapse photography, the various species might look as though they are in a claymation cartoon. (I like to think of the Buddha as an early prototype announcing the design of the hominid mind to come. Perhaps all of our descendants will someday evolve into Homo sapiens sapiens sapiens, or thrice-knowing humans.)
The story of evolution also gives us a new way to view the Buddha’s teaching of anatta (no-self), revealing that our existence cannot be separated from a vast multitude of biological causes and conditions. The current revolution in molecular biology, for instance, is unraveling the compact molecules of deoxyribonucleic acid, DNA, to show that our body and mind were fashioned out of all the life that has ever lived on earth. We can be seen “dependently co-arising” with nature and life itself.
The new discoveries in molecular biology also teach us how much we share with other forms of life. Most of us are aware that we inherit certain characteristics from our parents through the code written into the structure of the DNA double helix. However, an estimated 98.4 percent of our DNA instructions are the same as those of the great apes, and up to 90 percent are identical to those of mice! Most of what we inherit from the past is also in the DNA of many other living beings—a blueprint for building a skeletal structure, a primary brain and nervous system, sexual organs, lungs and a heart. We share the essential qualities of life with even the squirrels just outside our houses: we are born in the same manner, live with similar drives and constraints, and for the most part, die in the same way—reluctantly. Our primary identity is biological, and more specifically, mammalian.
Even as humans, what we inherit from our parents and their line stretching back a few dozen generations is a minuscule influence on who we are, perhaps affecting eye color, proclivity toward certain diseases or temperamental traits. Whereas an estimated ninety-nine percent of your DNA is the same as mine, or that of Michael Jordan, Mussolini or the Buddha. Just a little variation contributes to the uniqueness of our human personalities and potentials, but like snowflakes, we are all made of the same elements and are much more alike than we are different.
According to comedienne Lily Tomlin, there is both DNA and RNA on other planets, “only they spell it differently.” There is truth in that joke, since we now know that some of the necessary elements of life—carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur, phosphorus—were produced by exploding supernovas in the early history of the cosmos. The basic stuff of life is therefore dispersed throughout space, and someday we may discover that we have even more relatives than just the living beings of Earth. We probably have more relatives than we ever could have imagined.
Which brings us to awe and wonder, the ticklings of the mind that happen when we confront the complexity or improbability of life as revealed in the story of evolution. We might imagine that as scientists unravel life’s mysteries they will destroy the basis for awe and wonder, but just the reverse seems to be true. In fact, the workings of DNA make the parting of the Red Sea look like an easy magician’s trick.
The scientists themselves are awestruck. Francis Crick, the microbiologist who won the Nobel Prize for codiscovery of the structure of DNA, says that after examining the complexity of life on the cellular level, he cannot believe that it developed simply through a random process of natural selection operating over the four billion years of life on Earth. He tries to explain away the improbability with a theory that life arrived on this planet already somewhat developed, from some other place in the cosmos. Crick calls his hypothesis “directed panspermia.” As with all scientific theories, we won’t even speculate about who is doing the directing, or in this case, who may be releasing the sperm.
The physical description of DNA alone can make one believe that life has divinity in it, or at the very least some direction to its unfolding. The average human being is composed of trillions of living cells, the nucleus of each being equivalent in size and volume to two-millionths of a pinhead. In that unimaginably small space is a microdrop of sea water, and floating inside that drop is a two-yard long thread of the DNA molecule, folded millions of times around itself. Inside that long, thin thread is contained the same amount of information as in hundreds of encyclopedia volumes.
The information in our DNA is written by four chemical compounds that appear in different sequences to serve as a code, carrying instructions for how to build the different cells, chemicals and proteins that constitute our body and brain. From that code we also inherit the karma of all life—the hunger for nutrients, the adaptability, and most of all, the stubborn determination to continue. As we begin to understand the basic conditions and operating instructions of all life, we can see more clearly who we are and why we do the things we do.
In the end, however, perhaps the most profound spiritual message that we can find in the story of evolution is that of forgiveness. When we see ourselves in evolutionary time we realize that we are members of a very young species of life. The dinosaurs lasted for a hundred million generations, which is plenty of time to get good at being a dinosaur, but we have had only a few hundred thousand generations of life in our species’ most recent form. The first group of our ancestors that scientists classify as Homo Sapiens appears only a half million years ago, a blink in evolutionary time, and although their body structure was already quite similar to ours, their brains were significantly smaller. They used only the crudest of stone tools, which paleontologists find were not even all that well sharpened—similar, no doubt, to their inventors’ minds.
Our modern species of Homo sapiens really didn’t come alive until fifty thousand years ago, a time that anthropologist Jerard Diamond calls “the great leap forward.” That’s when the people we call Cro-Magnon first appear, along with the first traces of jewelry, clothing, art and ritual. The fact that these people costumed themselves and held rituals of birth and death indicates a whole new level of self-consciousness. The Cro-Magnon people seem to have started asking the really big questions, such as Who am I? and What am I doing here?
One of their first insights probably came from watching other people grow old and die, which led to the fearsome realization that the same would happen to each of them. No doubt that is what inspired those first stories of afterlife and reincarnation. Creatures endowed with a strong survival instinct and a good imagination naturally would be expected to come up with the belief that they would live forever. And, as Woody Allen asks, “If there is an afterlife, will they have change for a twenty?”
Regarding ourselves in evolutionary time, we would see that only this morning did we figure out how to farm and cultivate food. If we consider that the development of cities and agriculture began only thirty thousand years ago, we realize that we modern humans are truly strangers in a strange land—members of a relatively new species that has entered a unique ecological niche in a very short span of time. Whatever common unease we now feel must have something to do with the fact that we were yanked out of our lives as hunter–gatherers and suddenly find ourselves navigating a complex human-constructed environment of massive information flow and intricate technologies, where we are called upon to perform many tasks and play numerous roles, some of which may change several times within a single lifetime.
With this perspective on evolutionary time, we can more easily forgive ourselves and each other. We see that as members of a particular species we are infants, or are perhaps just entering adolescence. We just now may be learning how to use this big new brain, just now figuring out how to live in this new environment we call civilization.
Seeing ourselves in “deep” evolutionary time, we can forgive our inability to control our minds or be perfectly kind or always do the right thing. We realize that we can’t just take over millions of years of karmic history and undo them on a single meditation retreat, or for most of us, even in a single lifetime. The Buddha understood what a superhuman task he was asking of his followers. As he admits, “It is easier to defeat a thousand enemies single-handedly in each of a thousand battles than to defeat one’s own habits of mind.”
By looking at ourselves in biological history, we also might gain some optimism. It is quite possible that we are at a watershed moment in the evolution of consciousness. Consider that the Buddha, Lao Tzu and Socrates appeared only two thousand five hundred years ago—less than half-a-blink of an eye, even within the scope of our young species’ history—and that Darwin, Einstein, and Freud are close enough to be claimed as contemporaries. Maybe what is happening is that we are just now learning how to focus our reasoning power and how to develop the quality of mindfulness. Therefore we are just now coming to this revolutionary new understanding about who we are and what life is all about.
Finally, seeing ourselves in the story of evolution brings us into a more intimate relationship with all living beings. We see that we share an autobiography as well as a specific moment in the unfolding pageant of life. We are together here in the Holocene (we are ’cene mates). From this perspective, looking back at the wondrous story that has preceded us, we might be inspired and challenged to use the gifts bestowed on us by evolution to see that the experiment continues, and to dedicate our lives to the benefit and harmony of all our relations.