One of Buddhism’s central tenets is the illusory nature of self. How does that square with evolutionary theory?

Well, commenting on the metaphysical status of the self is above my pay grade, and I’m not sure that a Darwinian perspective sheds much direct light on it. But this perspective does help to explain another, and perhaps related, illusion about the self: the “specialness of the self.” People instinctively operate under the assumption that their own happiness is more important than other people’s happiness. And that’s because we were built by natural selection, which is all about self-preservation and self-interest. So Buddhism’s emphasis on surrendering self-interest in consideration of other beings is radically opposed to Darwinian logic.

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What if you consider selfless compassion as an adaptive strategy for the group?

Our capacity for compassion is indeed something that has evolved biologically, but we’re designed to deploy it in the name of Darwinian self-interest. We’re naturally compassionate toward two kinds of people. First, to our kin, who share our genes. And second, to friends who can return the favor someday. We’re not unique here. Vampire bats, for example, express reciprocal altruism, sharing blood with other bats that will later return the favor. But when a religion or philosophy counsels you to be compassionate toward people you don’t even know, it runs against the grain of Darwinian logic.

And yet, in the situation we find ourselves in today, doesn’t it come to us naturally that it’s in our self-interest to extend compassion to those beyond our local groups?

No, it doesn’t. Because to worry about what some disenchanted Muslim teenager in Pakistan is feeling right now does not come naturally in the sense of a visceral response. It does, however, make intellectual sense; the world is moving us to a point where, if only out of self-interest, we need to think about that person. One virtue of some of the religious traditions is that they have well-worked-out procedures for assisting this intellectual process. In other words, it’s one thing to realize logically that my fate is intertwined with the fate of Muslims around the world: if they’re unhappy, they’ll eventually make me unhappy. But it’s another to feel it, to look at someone and get a deep sense of fraternity with them. That’s where religious practice plays an important role. In Buddhism, there is metta meditation, in which we cultivate compassion for all sentient beings. This sort of practice is what I would consider a product of cultural evolution.

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