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Buddhism and Biology: an unlikely marriage

The following is a research story from one of our 2019 grads who went above and beyond with her Honors Thesis and presented it at a conference in North Carolina. Interested in sharing your research with the Honors community? Send an email to uhp@gwu.edu or submit a blog post here.

Greenville, North Carolina isn’t a typical Spring Break destination. Without knowing more about it, I would assume it was like any other small town: surrounded by farmland, stretches of unlit country road, and “watch for deer” signs around every corner. Indeed, this was my first impression of the place. But Greenville now holds a special place in my heart, because it is where I had the privilege of presenting my Honors senior thesis research at the 2019 Southeastern Commission for the Study of Religion (SECSOR) on the campus of East Carolina University.

My research is titled A Buddhist Perspective on Organisms. It is a marriage of two seemingly unrelated fields: Buddhist philosophy and biology. Biology has a largely unanswered question: what is an organism? It may be odd to consider that this question is unanswered, as the answer seems like common sense. To quote Nicholson and Dupré (2010), “to the average mushroom collector a single mushroom is an organism.” However, it is known that a mushroom is just the fruiting body of a much larger organism. While scientists don’t debate this fact, they fall into the same trap of essentialist thinking as the mushroom collector. Most organism definitions rely on ideas of an essential, independent self. While neuroscience is starting to reject ideas of intrinsic selfhood, organism definitions haven’t quite caught up. And this is where Buddhist philosophy comes in. Buddhists have preached the doctrines of no-self (anātman) and interdependence (dependent origination or pratītyasamutpāda) for millennia. These ideas can help us create a non-essentialist organism definition that better matches the realities being uncovered by neuroscience, but might not seem common-sense to us. Overall, Buddhism and neuroscience reach the same conclusion about organisms: any organism is simply a concentration of processes connected by some causal power, that cannot be separated from its environment.

Buddhism can also help us find where our scientific methods are flawed. Outside of attaining enlightenment or pathological experiences, it is almost impossible to think outside of a first-person view. Humans like to think of themselves as autonomous. And because we view ourselves as autonomous, we tend to impart that autonomy onto other beings, namely organisms. However, this sense of self is just that: a sense. Buddhism shows that if a person looks inward using meditation, no self is found. So, altogether, Buddhist philosophy can show us how erroneous methods can lead to false conclusions, and can help us draw better conclusions from our methods.

At the conference, my paper struck a chord. I learned that the intersection of Buddhism and biology is a growing field, and many people were genuinely interested to hear what I had to say. I am so grateful for this experience. As a biology major, I wasn’t expecting my senior thesis to be through the religions department. Much less did I expect to be discussing the technicalities of Buddhist philosophy with peers and professors over a beer at a small dive in downtown Greenville. Such is the beauty of the Honors Program.

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