copyright Robert M. Ellis 2011


The Middle Way and evolution


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Evolution in the Darwinian sense tells us that the various species of living organisms have developed differently, to fit different evolutionary niches, through genetic mutation and natural selection. The creature that is best adapted to a vacant role in an ecosystem is the one that will flourish and reproduce in it. The scientific evidence that this is how species have developed is overwhelming.


However, Darwinian evolution is a deterministic theory that allows no room for the degree of control we might exercise over our lives. Thus, it seems overwhelmingly correct for plants and lower animals, but decreasingly so as we consider animals with more complex brains, up to and including humans. With animals, some degree of Lamarckian evolution is needed to complete the picture, showing how animal actions have also affected their evolution. Animals have chosen to change from one environment to another, or even to modify their environments. There must have been a first fish that started to crawl out of the water, however small a distance it went. There must have been a first bird that picked up a stick to build a nest.  


So when Darwinian evolution is applied to animals with greater levels of sentience, and finally to human beings, its limitations become more apparent. The most recent changes which we have undergone as a species are not primarily genetic, but cultural, social, and technological. We are no longer dumped into an intractable environment, with a randomly reshuffled pack of genes that may or may not be the right ones for that environment, aspiring only to survive and reproduce. Instead, we are in the position, firstly, of shaping that environment, and secondly of deciding for ourselves the goals of our lives.


To be adequate to conditions for a lower animal just means being able to survive and reproduce. For a human being, however, such adequacy is far more complex. Such adequacy cannot be reduced to deterministic explanations, because we carry a measure of responsibility both for the nature of the evolutionary niche we continue to create for ourselves, and for the way we regard our lives. If we set the standards by which we are to be judged, our performance in being adequate to conditions cannot be measured in exactly the same way as that of an ichneumon fly or a turnip.


Since the Middle Way is a strategy for being adequate to conditions, it obviously bears some similarities with evolution. However, since the Middle Way is a method for judging the conditions around and within us with maximum adequacy, genes that provide intelligence only provide one component of the requirements for the practice of the Middle Way. In addition, maximal awareness and balanced judgement are needed. These enable us to investigate those conditions and create a coherent mental construction of them, but also to be aware of the limitations of the picture we have created, and the ways that it may not reflect reality.


To have the right amount of confidence in one’s picture of “reality”, to take into account its limitations, and to act accordingly, are crucial not only for survival and propagation but for whatever other goals we set ourselves, whether these are to create great works of art, to live in a better society, or to look after others. They are crucial for having an integrated sense of the meaning of what we encounter, for responding consistently to it, and for having a justifiable set of beliefs about it. Following the Middle Way, then, helps us to adapt to our environment and to “evolve” in relation to it, either individually or collectively. However, this certainly does not mean that the Middle Way is reducible to a Darwinian account of evolution.


We do not have to commit ourselves to metaphysical ideas about the human condition, such as the belief that we are specially designed by God, or that we have souls, to recognise the limitations with the Darwinian explanation as an account of human life. Instead, it is important to recognise that when used reductively, the Darwinian explanation is itself metaphysical. A well-supported scientific theory of this kind, used open-mindedly, makes a huge contribution to helping us recognise and understand conditions. However, when used with a metaphysical assumption of determinism (a doctrine that goes far beyond any possible evidence) it dogmatically undermines the responsibility that humans experience for the shaping of their lives.


Links to related material


The Middle Way and Science


Details of 'The Evolving Mind' by Robin Cooper (Ratnaprabha): a useful book on evolution and Buddhism


Review of 'The Science Delusion' by Rupert Sheldrake



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