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Science Matters in the Quest for the Whole Truth

Hard evolutionary science can now explain the evolution of altruism.

Robert Atkinson
Source: Robert Atkinson

With all the talk recently about the role of science in responding effectively to the pandemic, what gets lost sometimes is the degree to which reason and faith, or science and spirituality, actually depend upon each other, are interdependent, and comprise two halves of the same whole.

Science and religion, our two primary knowledge systems, cannot be in opposition to one another. There is but one whole, and both are complementary, mutually reinforcing parts of that whole. In the mystery of wholeness, the illusion of separation vanishes, and beyond all boundaries, a hidden unity awaits.

That consciousness does not reside in just the human brain but pervades the entire universe is a truth understood by both science and spirituality. Science arrived at this understanding through extensive research, experimentation, and evidence, or applied reason. Spirituality understands this through divinely inspired revelation as well as intuition, sensation, and even spontaneous, lived experience, essentially through applied faith. Both the scientific method and a spiritual experience can lead to the same conclusion.

Just as the unveiling of spiritual truth is continuous and progressive, so are the discoveries of science. True spirituality and sound science support one another, and when all is known, will be in harmony. There is no inherent conflict between science and religion. In fact, as the Baha’i writings affirm, “religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights.”1 Both are necessary to fully understand reality as a whole.

How these two halves of the same whole are interdependent, feed each other, and complete each other became vividly clear when leading evolutionary biologist Dr. David Sloan Wilson, evolutionary biologist and interspiritual pioneer Dr. Kurt Johnson, and His Holiness, the Dalai Lama met at his residence in Dharamsala, India in 2019. Drs. Wilson and Johnson describe poignantly in their chapter of the new book Our Moment of Choice: Evolutionary Visions and Hope for the Future their mutual respect for each other.

As His Holiness listened intently, David Sloan Wilson told him that when he entered the field of evolutionary biology in the 1970s, it was confined to the study of genetic evolution, leaving the study of cultural and personal evolution to other disciplines. All genes were labeled “selfish,” and the evolution of altruism was regarded as highly implausible. Evolution was said to have no purpose, with mutations taking place randomly and natural selection being limited to how organisms adapted to their immediate environments.

This earlier vision of evolution seemed to share little common ground with Buddhism, the root tradition of His Holiness, and its goal of abandoning self-interest to end suffering. But David continued, explaining that “hard evolutionary science has expanded to include epigenetic, personal, and cultural change in addition to genetic change. It can now explain the evolution of altruism … and it is no longer heretical to say that evolution can have a directed component, especially in the case of human cultural evolution. These developments in evolutionary thought are transforming our exploration for common ground with the twenty-five-hundred-year-old tradition of Buddhism, as well as all the religious and spiritual traditions of the world.”2

What he was getting at was clear, that hard evolutionary science is catching up with the spiritual visions of the ages, and that “it has something to give in return. Evolution can become a conscious process, and the whole Earth can become like a single organism, but … specific conditions must be met, and they must be socially constructed.” Once human beings realize that we are in every way connected to every other part of the whole we call Reality, “cultural evolution will have become a fully conscious process.”

This remarkable interaction between two leading-edge scientists and a global spiritual leader confirms that the two systems of knowledge both evolve in different ways, and in different time, but end up at the same truth—that the entire universe obeys the same fundamental laws of nature, which was recently proclaimed by another leading scientist in a 2016 issue of Science magazine, echoing a spiritual principle elucidated by the Buddha some two and a half millennia ago: “All things originate from one Essence, develop according to one law, and are destined to one aim.” A consciousness of the wholeness of Creation, which requires that all things are understood as interconnected and interdependent, may even be a necessity for our very survival as a species. Understanding the complementarity of these two systems of knowledge, science, and spirituality, will go a long way toward ensuring our survival, too.



2. Wilson, D.S., and Johnson, K., “Integrating an Evolutionary Vision of the Future with “Hard” Science,” in Atkinson, R., Johnson, K., & Moldow, D., eds. (2020). Our Moment of Choice: Evolutionary Visions and Hope for the Future. NY: Aria/Beyond Words, 17-24.

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