This year, 2009, is a double anniversary of particular relevance for this column.
It is both the 200th anniversary of the birth of the English naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-82), and also the 150th anniversary of the publication of his seminal work, “On the Origin of Species.”
In Japan 150 years ago, the Tokugawa Shogunate, which had ruled since 1603, was coming to an end. With that, Japan — which the feudal regime had kept isolated from the world for more than two centuries — was opening up to the world.
The resistance to Darwin’s ideas on evolution by natural selection expressed by some in the West — both 150 years ago and even now — is well known, and I’ve often written about it. But how did Darwin go down in Japan, as it started trading and interacting with Western powers?
Lacking Christianity, there wasn’t the religious opposition and controversy in Japan that scandalized people in Victorian England (and still hinders understanding of evolution).
Instead, a society based on Shinto and Buddhism apparently easily accepted Darwin. Some historians have also said that because Japanese people share their country with a nonhuman primate — the Japanese macaque — it made it easier for them to understand and accept evolution.
Most people in Japan today believe that humans evolved from earlier species of animals. But even though Darwinism was apparently accepted in the 19th century in Japan, it was actually a warped form: ideas of social Darwinism and eugenics (the movement aiming to improve the human species through the control of hereditary factors in mating).
Probably the first person to introduce Darwinism to Japan was the American naturalist Edward Sylvester Morse, who gave lectures at the University of Tokyo from 1877 on evolutionary biology. Despite his efforts, and those of fellow American naturalist John Thomas Gulick in Kyoto, “real,” that is, biological Darwinism, rather than the warped social kind, did not penetrate Japan until after World War II.
In the second half of the 20th century, when Darwinism was continuing to revolutionize biology in the West, it was held up in Japan by an ecologist called Kinji Imanishi.
Imanishi’s ideas were steeped in what appears to be a confusing soup of Buddhist mumbo jumbo. Far from the competition between animals being one of the driving forces of natural selection, as Darwin recognized, Imanishi insisted — somewhat as the Russian anarchist Peter Kropotkin had in his 1902 book “Mutual Aid” — that nature is harmonious and cooperative. “Living things naturally change when the time for change comes,” he said.
Osamu Sakura, a historian of science at Yokohama National University, calls this “Zen evolution.”
Imanishi said that animals should behave in ways that contribute to the unified harmony of species and the whole ecosystem.
This sort of holistic fluff was welcomed in a Japan only too willing to embrace anything with an anti-Western flavor as its economy boomed in the 1960s and ’70s.
Eventually, Imanishi’s ideas were rightly overrun, and Darwinism now enjoys a healthy life in Japan, while hardly anyone beyond its shores has heard of Imanishi.
These days, indeed, Darwinism in Japan is more widely embraced than in the country of its birth. Surveys show that some 78 percent of citizens in Japan believe in evolution, compared with a depressing 48 percent of British. In the United States, of course, more people believe in the Devil than believe in Darwin.
In some ways, it’s a shame that “Zen evolution” is only a joke. There is an aesthetic, a harmony, a spiritual calmness and even an engagement in the natural environment in Buddhism and Eastern religions that is lacking in other belief systems.
Eastern religion, however, hasn’t engaged with Darwinism as it might. It has tried to take on quantum physics — or rather, some people who have got into Eastern religion (most notably Fritjof Capra in “The Tao of Physics”) have tried to show how it apparently prefigures some of the ideas in quantum physics.
Not being tied to the idea of an all-powerful Creator as are the Abrahamic religions of Christianity, Judaism and Islam, Eastern religion might have evolved nicely to take on Darwin’s ideas. Perhaps it will in the future.
In fact that reminds me of something the British novelist Ian McEwan has said. Like many others, he has lamented that science has not replaced supernatural thought systems. Replaced? It’s not come close.
What it needs, says McEwan, is “an overarching narrative of sufficient power, simplicity and wide appeal to compete with the old stories that give meaning to people’s lives.”
Where can we find this? Not, I fear, in modern Buddhism. I’ve not read much, and I’ve liked what I’ve read, but it doesn’t have the explanatory power of science and natural selection.
McEwen’s demand is for a John Milton (1608-74) of evolutionary biology. He wants someone with the genius of that English author of the epic poem “Paradise Lost,” who can create an epic story to give meaning to people’s lives. “Natural selection,” says McEwan, “perhaps contains the seeds of a rival creation myth that would have the added power of being true.”
I can’t even imagine what sort of a creation myth this would be, but that’s because clearly I’m not the genius who is going to come up with it. Do we really need such a narrative, when we already have the science itself? The continued persistence of supernatural thought systems suggests we do.
OK then, what genius could create such a “true myth”?
The only one I can think of was, though an elegant writer, too much of a scientist to pen a narrative of the sort that McEwan envisages. And anyway, he already wrote his masterpiece 150 years ago. Happy anniversary, Darwin.
The second volume of Natural Selections columns translated into Japanese is published by Shinchosha at ¥1,500. The title is “Hito wa Ima mo Shinka Shiteru (The Evolving Human: How New Biology Explains Your Journey Through Life).”
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