Theory of evolution

Charles Darwin's theory of evolutionEvolution of human beings over millions of years from ape-like ancestors

In 1859, a British man called Charles Darwin published a book called 'On the Origin of Species'. This book was based on his studies of creatures he had encountered on his travels to many overseas locations, including the Galapagos Islands. He put forward the theory that all living creatures that exist today, including human beings, have evolved over a period of perhaps millions of years, from more primitive life forms to how they are today by a process of natural selection.

Darwin was a natural science graduate of Cambridge University and a geologist. He was also a Christian. Darwin did not intend to challenge religious beliefs with his book but many religious believers responded to it with fury. These reasons included:

  • The theory of evolution seemed to go against religious teachings that God made the Earth and created all living things, as they knew them.
  • Christians believed that God had created humans 'in his own image', that humans were superior to all other creatures and had a soul that is immortal.
  • The theory of evolution challenged the idea that God is the designer of the universe and that the beauty, order and complexity of the universe is evidence of this (the design argument).
  • The idea that living things adapt to their environment was opposed to their belief that God had created the perfect environment for them.
  • The Bible says humans were created on the sixth day of creation, not over a period of millions of years.

These scientific theories were first put forward in the 19th century, when Christianity was an important influence on people's lives and the way they thought. Many people saw them as a direct attack on their faith. Charles Darwin faced criticism from people who could not accept what they saw as his 'anti-religious' ideas.

Is the theory of evolution compatible with Buddhism?

The Buddha taught his followers not to concern themselves with questions they could not answer but instead to focus their minds on seeking enlightenment and escaping suffering. This is to do with the here and now and not the distant past.

Many Buddhists have no problem accepting many scientific theories because there is no specific conflict with Buddhist belief, which seeks answers to different types of questions, such as how to achieve enlightenment and, therefore, how to escape from the cycle of samsara. The Dalai Lama summed this up:

The actions of each of us, human or non-human, have contributed to the world in which we live. We all have a common responsibility for our world and are connected with everything in it.Dalai Lama

This implies that we are all responsible for the world in the way that it now exists, but the only part of this process that Buddhists focus on is the cause and effects of good and bad actions. This is the only part of the process what has religious significance for Buddhists.

In Buddhist countries people are likely to believe the dominant idea of how the world came about, which nowadays is mainly the scientific description.

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