Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Exploring Theravāda's connections to other paths - what can we learn from other traditions, religions and philosophies?
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Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by Lazy_eye » Wed Apr 14, 2010 6:03 pm

Hi all:

I've been mulling over the Buddhist creation story as told in the Agganna Sutta (DN 27). It's a fascinating sutta and, as many have pointed out, appears in some ways to parallel the (scientific) story of human evolution, while in other ways it appears to contradict it.

In terms of the dialogue between religion and science, this text might be significant because of the oft-repeated claim that Buddhism (unlike Christianity) is in accord with modern science and compatible with Darwin. At the same time, the Agganna Sutta has a lot in common with creation stories in other religions -- essentially recounting man's fall from some purer state.

Here is the sutta's account of how we became the way we are:

Humans devolved from higher, "luminous" beings. We began to do coarse things, such as quarreling over land and having sex. Sex is a perverse "practice" taken up by these fallen beings, perhaps in imitation of animals. People started to develop feelings of lust and "excessive preoccupation with each other" and this led to sexual reproduction. Humans are separate from the animal realm and evolved (devolved) separately from it.

The story told by evolutionary theory is somewhat different:

Humans appeared relatively late in the history of life on earth. We evolved from an earlier primate species. Competition for mates and territory is common to most other forms of life and predated the evolution of humans. Lust and "excessive preoccupation with each other" result from the drive to reproduce. Humans are a part of the animal kingdom, not separate from it. Many if not most of our characteristics (for example, group collaboration in hunting; violence against our own kin) are also seen in related primate species, such as the chimpanzee. Our "unwholesome and evil" behaviors are largely inherited from our animal past.

Commonalities:

Human conflict and the emergence of social systems reflect the competition for food and sex. In the Agganna Sutta, craving is the engine of differentiation; in Darwinian theory it is "natural selection" (same thing, different terms?). The basic themes in both stories are remarkably similar, even though the sequencing and details differ. We could see the sutta as foreshadowing evolutionary theory, though an ancient lens. Or perhaps evolutionary theory is a partial account of a process which the Buddha saw more completely.

Ways to reconcile the two?

Perhaps as species appeared and evolved, beings from the lower and higher realms migrated to the human and animal realms. So there was a simultaneous process -- "evolution" on the material plane, "devolution" on the spiritual plane. This makes more sense if we factor in hell beings rising into animal and human forms at the same time that divine beings are falling from their celestial state.

We're still left with the question, though, of why humans appeared late in the process, when the sutta clearly suggests they were around for millions of years and that there were once towns and villages containing asexual pre-humans.

Ok -- all from me. What are your thoughts?

LE

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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by Sobeh » Wed Apr 14, 2010 9:26 pm

My approach is to note that it's an allegory, and not a scientific hypothesis.

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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by Kim OHara » Wed Apr 14, 2010 10:14 pm

Allegory, creation myth, parable, whatever ... IMO, it can no longer be taken seriously as a factual account, if it ever was.
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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by tiltbillings » Wed Apr 14, 2010 11:03 pm

Why should Christians have all the fun of believing stuff as being literally true?
>> Do you see a man wise [enlightened/ariya] in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.<< -- Proverbs 26:12

This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond. -- SN I, 38.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” HPatDH p.723

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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by DNS » Thu Apr 15, 2010 1:06 am

Lazy_eye wrote: Here is the sutta's account of how we became the way we are:
Humans are separate from the animal realm and evolved (devolved) separately from it.
?

That is a paraphrase? That is not in the sutta, from the way I read it. It is not exactly correct, but has similarities to evolution, certainly more toward evolution than creationism.
At that period, Vasettha, there was just one mass of water, and all was darkness, blinding darkness.... And sooner or later, after a very long period of time, savory earth spread itself over the waters where those beings were. It looked just like the skin that forms itself over hot milk as it cools. It was endowed with color, smell, and taste. It was the color of fine ghee or heated butter and it was very sweet, like pure wild honey.
Aggañña Sutta
To me that sounds very similar to the way nature evolved, with some ten to one hundred thousand years of rain fall, the formations of the oceans and later the continents appearing when the waters receded.

Other places in the Suttas also support evolution:
He recalls to mind his various temporary states in days gone by – one birth, or two or three or four or five births, 10 or 20, 30 or 50, a 100 or a 1,000 or a 100,000 births, through many cycles of cosmic contraction and cosmic expansion . . . Now there comes a time, when sooner or later, after the lapse of a long, long period of contraction, this world-system passes away. And when this happens beings have mostly been re-born in the World of Radiance, and there they dwell made of mind, feeding on joy, radiating light from themselves, traversing the air, dwelling in glory; and thus they remain for a long, long period of time. Now there comes also a time, friends, when sooner or later, this universe begins to re-evolve by expansion.” (The Buddha, Brahmajala Sutta, Digha Nikaya, Sutta Pitaka)

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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by Lazy_eye » Thu Apr 15, 2010 11:33 am

David N. Snyder wrote: That is not in the sutta, from the way I read it. It is not exactly correct, but has similarities to evolution, certainly more toward evolution than creationism.
Well, there's a passage which has outraged proto-humans (Tea Party activists?) throwing cow dung at those who have taken up the practice of sex. So animals must have been present before humans completed their "devolution"; moreoever, the asexual proto-humans had apparently domesticated the cow and lived in towns and villages.
Agganna Sutta wrote:...the females developed female sex organs and the males developed male sex organs. And the women became excessively preoccupied with the men, and the
men with the women. Owing to this excessive preoccupation with each other, passion was aroused, and their bodies burnt with lust. And later because of this burning, they
indulged in sexual activity. But those who saw them indulging threw dust, ashes, or cow dung at them, crying: "Die, you filthy beast! How can one being do such things to
another!" Just as today, in some districts, when a daughter-in-law is led out, some people throw dirt at her, some ashes, and some cow dung, without realizing that they are
repeating an ancient observance. What was considered bad form in those days is now considered good form.

‘And those beings who in those days indulged in sex were not allowed into a village or town for one or two months. Accordingly those who indulged for an excessively long
period in such immoral practices began to build themselves dwellings so as to indulge under cover.
From the evolutionary standpoint how could any of this be true? We are primates and sexual differentiation occurred much further back in evolutionary history, before there were even primates let alone humans. (Note: I don't mean this as a rhetorical question. I'm asking how we can or should interpret the sutta in light of the evidence about human origins).

I agree that there are other parts of the sutta which seem more in accord with science's view.
Sobeh wrote:My approach is to note that it's an allegory, and not a scientific hypothesis.
But an allegory of what, though? Even an allegory or parable should bear some relationship to reality.

LE

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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by DNS » Thu Apr 15, 2010 2:01 pm

Lazy_eye wrote: From the evolutionary standpoint how could any of this be true? We are primates and sexual differentiation occurred much further back in evolutionary history, before there were even primates let alone humans. (Note: I don't mean this as a rhetorical question. I'm asking how we can or should interpret the sutta in light of the evidence about human origins).
Hi LE,

Not literally true, correct, but many similarities to how life did evolve in this Sutta and in others. The lack of sex organs is compatible to the first bacteria and forms of life as we know it from science. The first forms of life did not have sex differentiation, but eventually 'multiplied' and later formed sex differentiation and organs.

I agree, not literally correct as it is written in DN 27, but close enough for a broad interpretation to compare to a natural scientific process and much, much better than as found in creation stories and myths from other religions. For example, focusing on the role of craving and natural selection, rather than an all-powerful creator god who makes us what we are today.

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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by Khemadhammo Bhikkhu » Thu Apr 15, 2010 5:29 pm

I remember to have read that Anagarika Dharmapala, who helped lead the revival of Buddhism in Sri Lanka, once wrote an article about evolution from a Buddhist perspective. I haven't succeeded in finding any of his articles on the Internet, though.
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"I have stopped, Angulimāla, you stop too."
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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by BubbaBuddhist » Thu Apr 15, 2010 7:51 pm

I think if a very advanced being were trying to convey the history of evolution to a very primitive being using contemporary imagery of circa 2600 years ago, it would come out sounding very much like it did.

Even where we are now, evolution is still an extremely incomplete and imperfect model.

J
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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by kirana » Fri Apr 16, 2010 5:42 am

Lazy_eye wrote:Hi all:

I've been mulling over the Buddhist creation story as told in the Agganna Sutta (DN 27). It's a fascinating sutta and, as many have pointed out, appears in some ways to parallel the (scientific) story of human evolution, while in other ways it appears to contradict it.

In terms of the dialogue between religion and science, this text might be significant because of the oft-repeated claim that Buddhism (unlike Christianity) is in accord with modern science and compatible with Darwin. At the same time, the Agganna Sutta has a lot in common with creation stories in other religions -- essentially recounting man's fall from some purer state.

Here is the sutta's account of how we became the way we are:

Humans devolved from higher, "luminous" beings. We began to do coarse things, such as quarreling over land and having sex. Sex is a perverse "practice" taken up by these fallen beings, perhaps in imitation of animals. People started to develop feelings of lust and "excessive preoccupation with each other" and this led to sexual reproduction. Humans are separate from the animal realm and evolved (devolved) separately from it.

The story told by evolutionary theory is somewhat different:

Humans appeared relatively late in the history of life on earth. We evolved from an earlier primate species. Competition for mates and territory is common to most other forms of life and predated the evolution of humans. Lust and "excessive preoccupation with each other" result from the drive to reproduce. Humans are a part of the animal kingdom, not separate from it. Many if not most of our characteristics (for example, group collaboration in hunting; violence against our own kin) are also seen in related primate species, such as the chimpanzee. Our "unwholesome and evil" behaviors are largely inherited from our animal past.

Commonalities:

Human conflict and the emergence of social systems reflect the competition for food and sex. In the Agganna Sutta, craving is the engine of differentiation; in Darwinian theory it is "natural selection" (same thing, different terms?). The basic themes in both stories are remarkably similar, even though the sequencing and details differ. We could see the sutta as foreshadowing evolutionary theory, though an ancient lens. Or perhaps evolutionary theory is a partial account of a process which the Buddha saw more completely.

Ways to reconcile the two?

Perhaps as species appeared and evolved, beings from the lower and higher realms migrated to the human and animal realms. So there was a simultaneous process -- "evolution" on the material plane, "devolution" on the spiritual plane. This makes more sense if we factor in hell beings rising into animal and human forms at the same time that divine beings are falling from their celestial state.

We're still left with the question, though, of why humans appeared late in the process, when the sutta clearly suggests they were around for millions of years and that there were once towns and villages containing asexual pre-humans.

Ok -- all from me. What are your thoughts?

LE
Hi LE,
Finally, I can find here who thinks this, then what about the Buddhist era Tanhakara, Medankara, Saranakara, Dipankara, etc.. Is not this age older than chimpanze? But according to a research had been found fozils of human has been around since before the time of dinosaurs, of course in the Buddhas’s past era there is no legacy because of the non-infinite kappa. Then what the relationship of the human at dinosaur era with the chimpanze?

All human based on Aggannasutta mentioned first come from Abhassarabrahmaloka, never meant it was likely we are down to earth after it became chimpanze is it?

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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by tiltbillings » Fri Apr 16, 2010 5:46 am

*kirana wrote:But according to a research had been found fozils of human has been around since before the time of dinosaurs,
What research might that be?
>> Do you see a man wise [enlightened/ariya] in his own eyes? There is more hope for a fool than for him.<< -- Proverbs 26:12

This being is bound to samsara, kamma is his means for going beyond. -- SN I, 38.

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” HPatDH p.723

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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by kirana » Fri Apr 16, 2010 7:34 am

tiltbillings wrote:
*kirana wrote:But according to a research had been found fozils of human has been around since before the time of dinosaurs,
What research might that be?
thanks tiltbillings, it was when im at school time, unfortunately i cannot mention the name of the book because it was mentioned by oral. that my teacher explained it. if u wld like to be kind with me, can u help me to explain the correct info? i think may be this info wrong.

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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by nathan » Fri Apr 16, 2010 7:37 am

From even recent events it is readily apparent how dynamic the surface of the earth is and it's easy to observe how rapidly the relics of past life disappear. We have at best a very small amount of evidence of what the earth may have been like in the past. We can also see how quickly people forget even the recent past and how quick they are to conclude that things at present are the same as things were in the past.

Again and again, ignorance predominates as opposed to any absolutely conclusive understanding, be it of the past or even of the present. For the moment evolution is very popular, tomorrow it may be something else. It is possible to observe that it is actually a prevailing ignorance that continues to triumph. If people would prefer to argue about the different guises that this ignorance takes, suggesting that one form of ignorance is superior to another, they are free to do so. All of that kind of discussion continues to appear more reflective of the same basic ignorance and unwillingness to see this ignorance than it appears to be any sort of real knowledge of things, either as they were in the remote past or as they are now.

The record of what the Buddha had to say about the remote past is such as it is. The records of what evolutionary biologists have to say about the remote past is also such as it is. The views of creationists are what they are. None of it has any significant bearing on those who are about the business of relinquishing views and that is the kind of approach that I find best suited to the prevailing ignorance. I don't feel any need to reconcile contradictory views or to select one and hold on to it. That works for me and I will continue to work with that.
But whoever walking, standing, sitting, or lying down overcomes thought, delighting in the stilling of thought: he's capable, a monk like this, of touching superlative self-awakening. § 110. {Iti 4.11; Iti 115}

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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by Nori » Fri Jul 29, 2011 9:57 pm

Greetings,

I am new to this forum..

My conclusion is this:

Either a) The later texts of the Tipitaka (post Sutta Nipata) have been tainted (by certain Bhikkus responsible for writing/uttering them) with legends and myths which are neither true, nor ever uttered/taught by the Buddha. I believe the Buddha has spoken of beings - Yakhas and such, but has not himself taught such myths. b) the stories are corrupted versions of earlier stories. c) Reality is much different than how we view it; how can we be so sure this history (of evolution) has occurred. d) The Buddha, although having realized many true aspects of reality, is a charlatan or is *not omniscient* (this would be my last choice, due to the verifiable insight he has demonstrated; however it is not out of my scope of consideration).

Regards,
Nori

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Re: Evolution or devolution, or both? (Agganna Sutta)

Post by daverupa » Fri Jul 29, 2011 10:18 pm

tiltbillings wrote:
*kirana wrote:But according to a research had been found fozils of human has been around since before the time of dinosaurs,
What research might that be?
Probably something like this. Certainly an interesting read, though I haven't got the credentials to examine the evidence (link goes to the condensed edition). Immanuel Velikovsky is another name that comes up in this connection. Fascinating fringe stuffs.
  • "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting oneself one protects others? By the pursuit, development, and cultivation of the four establishments of mindfulness. It is in such a way that by protecting oneself one protects others.

    "And how is it, bhikkhus, that by protecting others one protects oneself? By patience, harmlessness, goodwill, and sympathy. It is in such a way that by protecting others one protects oneself.

- Sedaka Sutta [SN 47.19]

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