Rebirth, a fundamental notion in Buddhism, implies the flow of a continuous stream of consciousness that connects deaths (or dissolutions) with births (or reappearances). Matthieu Ricard, French retired molecular biologist and active Buddhist monk, says, “This chain is like the fire of a log that passes to another log, which in turn it ignites a third one, and so on; the flame of the last log is not the same as at the start, but it is neither different.”
I like this metaphor but still I do not grasp the concept of rebirth. (Neither have I understood Hindu reincarnation or Christian resurrection.) With the brilliant theories of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, however, I was able elaborate another less poetic metaphor that up to a certain extent reconciles science with Buddhism and genetics with rebirth. Let us see.
Three and half billion years ago, after a fortuitous combination of collisions, emulsions and chemical reactions, a strange molecule emerges on Earth. This new singularity is able to capture the materials around it, somehow manipulate them and generate copies of it. ‘Replicators’ is the name doctor Dawkins assigned to these molecules.
The self-copying process is not perfect; during some repetitions there occur errors that produce molecular chains different from the original, which are also capable of reproducing. As many new varieties of replicators appear, they begin to compete for inert raw material required for the manufacturing of their peers or to use one another, the stronger at the expense of the weaker, as feedstock.
The proportion of the most effective replicators increases while the least efficient replicators disappear. In the increasing complexity of duplications, there arise new compounds with protein protective walls around that favor stability and eventually lead to the first cells.
Doctor Dawkins says: “Replicators began not merely to exist, but to construct for themselves containers, vehicles for their continued existence. The replicators that survived were the ones that built survival machines for themselves to live in.” All living things–viruses, bacteria, plants, animals and humans–are survival machines that somehow function as the very remote original replicators.
The transformation of the replicators to get to the current complexity of the DNA takes ages. In the process there come up many different forms of copying and reproducing and, after millions of years, evolution arrives at Homo sapiens, the most complex survival machine.
The functional and structural unit of all living things is the cell, the building block of life, and the nucleus of the cell is the custodian of the secrets of genetics. There, in the genes of DNA (around twenty two thousand in the human race) are the detailed instructions for the development and the vital functionality of the body to which the cell belongs.
The design encoded in each gene is eternal. Quoting the English biologist again, “Genes leap from body to body down the generations, manipulating body after body in its own way and for its own ends, abandoning a succession of mortal bodies before they sink in senility and death.” Genes are ‘immortal’ or, more precisely, their genetic information is eternal. Some of the instructions in our DNA may well have the same age of life.
Are not the genes in all life’s expressions very close to ‘the stream of consciousness’, the flame that is reborn in another log, with which the French monk compares the propagation of life? And at the moment of the conception of our being, are not genes using the newly constructed survival machine for ‘rebirth’ in it and look for eternity through the new temporary body?
Atlanta, October 3, 2014
After reading this article, my friend Daniel Gomez wrote the following thoughts:
The puzzling contradiction of rebirth
The path set out by the Buddha, what he called the path of liberation, defers from religion in several ways: it is psychological instead of metaphysical, it promotes individual quest rather than an authoritarian hierarchy, etc., and very fundamentally, proposes a scientific method of inner enquiry opposed to a belief system in which concepts and ideas are accepted without tangible, sufficient and compelling evidence.
That is why the idea of rebirth in the context of the Buddha’s teachings is so puzzling, since evidence and an experiential dimension of what physical death does to consciousness, the amazing state of being conscious, of being aware, of “knowing”, are very much lacking.
The notion of, or belief in, rebirth is very much in the same boat as Santa Claus and Christian heavens: they exist in the imagination of those who are willing to accept it as a reality.
Imagination has many redeeming qualities: is a powerhouse of human creativity which has a tremendous positive impact in the human experience, non the least of being probably the main factor behind our survival as a species, so far, but I wonder if we should continue to embrace those products of imagination, the magical and the fables that proved so instrumental at the dawn of mankind, or we should move on.
In both camps, of believers and unbelievers of rebirth, we have impressive intellectual figures. And there are also those who are trying to breach the gap between the two increasingly polarized positions.
It can be argued that the scientific approach is, if not the correct one, the more appealing to the modern mind. My hope is that in time, when the Buddha’s teachings become ‘common knowledge’, if ever, it would take us to a more enlightened society. But I don’t hold my breath: it could take still several generations, and on the other hand it may very well fail to prevail once more.
As we can see from past and present war zones, clarity and rationality are not guaranteed to succeed. The Greek had it in great measure, but two thousand years later, despite the impressive genius of modern scientific thought and attainments of lately, we are still experiencing the resilient push back from the Santa Claus ranks.
Maybe the effort should be not so much to win the debate intellectually, but to convince from personal experience and example that a rational scientific world, that includes embracing a scientific view of human emotions, can lead to a more loving and safer existence as a species.
Con mucho aprecio,