Join our Mailing List

"I believe that to meet the challenges of our times, human beings will have to develop a greater sense of universal responsibility. It is the foundation for world peace."

Charles Darwin 'may have been inspired by Tibetan Buddhism'

February 16, 2009

Mark Henderson, Science Editor
February 15, 2009

Charles Darwin’s moral philosophy may have been inspired by the writings
of Buddhist monks, according to one of the world’s leading experts on
the evolution of emotions.

Research by Paul Ekman, a psychologist whose work has shown how the
facial expressions that signal emotion are universal across all
cultures, has identified striking similarities between Darwin’s attitude
to compassion and morality and that of Tibetan Buddhism.

Darwin, who was born 200 years ago last week, believed that compassion
for other sentient beings was the highest moral virtue. This informed
other aspects of his world view, such as his passionate opposition to
slavery.

Dr Ekman, who recently edited a new version of Darwin’s The Expression
of the Emotion in Man and Animals, said that these views were in accord
with those of Tibetan Buddhists. He had also found evidence that Darwin
was aware of their philosophy.

“What I’ve become interested in in the last few years is Darwin’s work
on compassion and morality, which is even less known than his work on
expression,” Dr Ekman told the American Association for the Advancement
of Science conference in Chicago. “And the amazing coincidence, if it is
a coincidence, is that his views on compassion and morality are
identical to the Tibetan Buddhist view.

“When I read to the Dalai Lama some of Darwin’s passages, he said: ‘I am
now calling myself a Darwinian'.

“The Buddhist view, like Darwin, said that the seed of compassion is in
mothering, global compassion: focus on others as mother. When I see you
suffer it makes me suffer, and that motivates me to reduce your
suffering so I can reduce my suffering. The Dalai Lama says
compassionate acts help me more than the person I help. That’s identical
in Buddhism and in Darwin’s explicit writings.”

Darwin knew of Tibetan Buddhism through several routes, Dr Ekman said.
His close friend Joseph Hooker travelled to Tibet in 1847, and
corresponded regularly with Darwin; Darwin’s wife, Emma, was also
fascinated with Buddhism. She once described a grandson as the “grand
lama” because he was so calm and solemn.

Dr Ekman said that he did not know whether Darwin derived his views from
Buddhist influence, or whether the similarity was a coincidence. “I am
certainly not saying Darwin was a Buddhist,” he said. “But his view on
the nature of compassion is identical in almost the exact words to the
view of Tibetan Buddhism.”
CTC National Office 1425 René-Lévesque Blvd West, 3rd Floor, Montréal, Québec, Canada, H3G 1T7
T: (514) 487-0665   ctcoffice@tibet.ca
Developed by plank