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Introduction
The Gene Pool Metaphor
Criminal Genes and The Law
 
 

 

 

The Gene Pool Metaphor

    According to "The Teachings Of Buddha," a fundamental choice presented to the individual is whether to embrace Buddha-nature or to retreat into the ego-personality of the self.  To reach out to Buddha-nature means to take the path to Enlightenment, ending the suffering which arises from the individual's struggle with existence.  The decision to cling to the ego-personality, Buddhists teach, is the source of pain and unhappiness.  The purpose of Buddha's teaching is to provide the guidance and direction to achieve a Buddha-nature.

    In teaching the truth of Buddha-nature, Buddha renounces the self and its ego-personality, calling it a false belief. [150]  The rejection of "self" is almost paradoxical since self-experience is central to achieving Enlightenment.  "When a man is in a house and opens his eyes he will first notice the interior of the room and only later will he see the view outside the windows.  In like manner we can not have the eyes notice external things before there is recognition by the eyes of the things in the house.  If there is a mind within the body, it ought to first to know the things inside of the body; but generally people are interested in external things and seem to know or care little for the things within the body." [131]  In making the choice between the self and Enlightenment, Buddha does not teach that the mind should ignore the self.  Rather, he recognizes that the only way to eradicate the self is to understand its needs and role as the source of wordly passions.  [124]  Buddha treats the self as the seducer, like the snake in the Garden of Eden who fans Eve's desire for the forbidden fruit.

    Buddha's rejection of selfness must be aligned with his teaching of the centrality of self-experience to achieving Enlightenment.  We start with defining the self.  The self, as viewed by Buddha, is the mind, the eye from within which perceives and experiences stimuli, both from the external and internal worlds.  As we know it today, the source of the mind is the brain.  To the neurobiologist, the basic structure and functions of the brain are literally cast by the genes.  It follows, then, that the mind, Buddha's self, is product of the genes.  The definition of self necessarily involves identifying the genes which comprise it.  The Neurobiologist's Guide to Buddha is a starting point for recognizing the genes which shape the self's Buddha.

    The brain is organized into layers of increasing complexity which are responsible for how we experience the world and respond to stimuli.  Although the morphological features of the brain are well known, and the basic principles of its physiology are well-characterized, the means by which it produces thought, personality, and complex behaviors are still largely unknown. The basic building block of the brain are specialized cells called "neurons."  It is the organization of the neurons into interconnected networks that produce thought, behavior, personality, and all the manifestations which we refer to as the self.

    The fundamental functions performed by the neurons are genetically-encoded.  These functions include membrane excitability, neurotransmitter synthesis, and the formation and maintenance of the connections between the neurons called "synapses."  As these neurons are assembled into networks, they become modulated both by the environment and by other related neural networks in the brain.  But at the very bottom of the mind's abyss is the gene.

    The self is an expression of the genes which build and operate the brain.  A self experiences an emotion in response to a stimuli which elicits a genetically-encoded neuronal function.  The parameters of this neuronal reaction, its depth and degree, is determined by the genes.  For instance, an individual who has a mutation in a neuronal MAO-A gene and a polymorphism in the serotonin transporter gene is likely to overreact to a negative stimuli by becoming aggressive and violent.

    Accordingly to Buddha, the mind is constantly changing. "The human mind, in its never-ending changes, is like the moving water of a river, or the burning flame of a candle." [94]  This is true because the brain is not static. Neuronal activity is continuous.  In response to stimuli, electrical activity in the form of action potentials, small electrical signals, are propagated from neuron to neuron, like flowing water.  The electrical signals are passed from neuron to neuron across chemical synapses, specific regions of the neuron in which chemicals are released by one neuron and sniffed by another.  Stimuli can cause synapses to change in the brain, sprouting new and strengthening existing connections.

    The self is existent in the sense that it is reflection of the genes.  Although the genes, themselves, are permanent, the self is continually changing in response to stimuli which cause the brain to adapt.

    The self is also a temporary and impermanent part of a genetic continuum.  An individual's gene are inherited from his parents, his parents' genes from their parents, and so on, in a continuous unbroken chain.  The mind is a set of genes accumulated from a long, uninterrupted line of ancestors.  In biology terms, this is the concept of the gene pool.  A gene pool is the total collection of genes present in a population of individuals from the same species who are freely breeding with one another.  An individual represents a unique combination of genes from the gene pool.

    What we call "self" is merely a transient collection of genes, a temporal instantiation of the gene pool.  A person's phenotype, his attributes and talents,  is a reflection of this genetic instantiation.  But a person is not responsible for those genes which he has inherited from the gene pool.  How does it happen?  A random event that occurred when one sperm and egg of many fused to form the zygote that became the self.  The chance of some specific self arising is even more uncertain when it is understood that each individual produces thousands of different gametes, representing different combinations of the genes.  Buddha's admonition to take no pride in one's virtues is a simple recognition of these facts.  The self is simply one snapshot of the gene pool, a totally random and impermanent event.

"Consider your ‘self'; think of its transiency; how can you fall into delusion about it and cherish pride and selfishness, knowing that they must all end in inevitable suffering?  Consider all substances; can you find among any enduring ‘self'?  Are they not all aggregates that sooner or later will break apart and be scattered?" [20]

    When Buddha refers to the aggregate breaking apart and scattering, he is alluding to the renewable process in which genes are claimed from the gene pool, reunited in a single individual, and then scattered again when that individual reproduces.

    The self/non-self concept is a reflection of the different levels of abstraction from which we can view the world.  On one plain, everything in the universe is a composite of the same units of matter and energy, differing only in the proportion and the manner in which they are mixed.  At this level, we are indistinguishable.  This indistinctness persists at even higher levels, as the similarities in molecular structures appear among organisms of the same, and even different, species.  Genetically, all humans have the same basic organization - genes strung together like pearls.  If we view the human race through a genetic sieve, all we see are transient agglomerations of genes coming together to form transient cups of consciousness, then falling apart, like the waves of a loud ocean, appearing and disappearing, as they break apart at the shore.  The ocean, its waves and currents, for all their differences, are simply water molecules flickering.  Of course, there is a self in the sense that there is specific instantiation of genes which holds a subjective consciousness.  But such a constellation of genes is no more significant than a wave breaking apart in a sea of water.  If the self takes pride in itself, anguish and suffering is inevitable since eventually it is destined to shatter.  By embracing the deeper nature of the genes, and their persistence in the gene pool, the self gradually is replaced by the nonself.

    The gene pool is integral to understanding the relationship between the centrality and transience of self to Buddhist experience.  The gene pool is the conservator of the species because it perpetuates diversity in the population for future benefit.  To understand this concept more clearly, consider the case of a dominant and recessive alleles for a particular trait which provide no advantage to the individual in either the homozygous (two same alleles) or heterozygous (two different alleles) states.   Under certain idealized conditions, the frequency of the two alleles in the population remains constant.  Thus, both alleles remain stabilized in the gene pool.  This principle is called Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium after the two scientists who discovered it.

    The significance of Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium is that it indicates how gene variation can be fixed in the gene pool, even when such variation is not advantageous to the species.  Diversity, or variation, within a species is important to the species long-term survival because it provides the ability to adapt to changing conditions.  An example of how variation in the gene pool facilitated a species' perpetuation in a changing environment is illustrated by the case of the British peppered moth, Biston betularia, inhabiting England's forests.  Throughout the eighteenth century, the common form of Biston betularia was a light, pepper-colored moth which blended easily into the lichen-covered barks of the trees, camouflaging it from predators.  A very rare, black form of the moth was occasionally observed.  It was considered a collector's item by entomologist's at the time.  The black form was controlled by a single dominant allele.  Around the beginning of the industrial revolution, however, the frequency of the black moth began to increase.  By the mid-nineteenth century, the black moth had become more common near industrial areas near the cities than the peppered moth.  The explanation for the increase in numbers of the black Biston betularia was its enhanced ability to survive in industrial England as compared to the light, peppered form.  As factories in England began to burn coal as an energy source, a black soot was discharged into the air which covered trees in the neighboring forests, killing the lichens and darkening the tree bark.  The light, peppered moth on the dark bark background was easy prey for the predator.  The sooty bark, however, disguised the black form, facilitating its survival.  Soon, it became the common form of Biston betularia in industrial England.  While the presence of the black gene in the gene pool prior to the industrial revolution was irrelevant, if not deleterious, to the Biston species, its continued endurance in the gene pool ultimately enabled the species to survive and avoid extinction in the face of the changing industrial environment.

    The relationship between the self and Buddha becomes clearer when it is viewed in the reflection of the gene pool metaphor.

"Buddha's body is Enlightenment itself!"  "He is eternally changeless." [50]

    Buddha is changeless is the theoretical meaning of the Hardy-Weinberg equilibrium that the genes remain fixed and constant in a population in equilibrium.

"Buddha has a three-fold body.  There is an aspect of Essence, or Dharma-kaya; there is an aspect of Potentiality or Sambhoga-kaya; and there is an aspect of Manifestation or Nirmana-kaya." [50]

    Buddha represents the gene pool, the potentiality of the species.  The genes are its essence.  Buddha is manifested by temporary instantiations of the gene pool when a collection of genes arises transiently in an individual manifestation of the gene pool called "self."