The Origin of Human Nature

The Origin of Human Nature

A Zen Buddhist Looks at Evolution

Albert Low

How we think about our origin is important: if we think we are machines living among other machines, we will act accordingly. By showing evolution as a creative and intelligent process with its own inherent logic, The Origin of Human Nature resolves the dilemma of how to have, at the same time, both truth and ethics.

The Origin of Human Nature gives a new and fertile way to integrate spiritual and scientific views of human evolution. It offers a new and refreshing alternative to the current theories: random mutation (mechanistic neo-Darwinism), Genesis (God did it all personally), and Intelligent Design (God personally does what we can’t otherwise account for). It is an invigorating perspective on how our best qualities—our capacity for love, our appreciation of beauty, our altruistic capability, our creativity and intelligence—have come to be.

Instead of starting in an imagined remote and uncertain past and moving to the present, The Origin of Human Nature starts at the certain and immediate present. That consciousness, creativity, intelligence exist is certain. How can these have evolved? Using a top-down approach, the author answers this question in an original and engaging way.

Zen master Albert Low, director of the Montreal Zen Center, has spent his life enquiring into human nature. His response integrates Zen Buddhism with Western philosophy, psychology, and evolutionary science to provide a full range of practical and stimulating answers.

About The Origin of Human Nature

The Origin of Human Nature introduces a new logic that incorporates but goes beyond classical logic and it shows how this logic throws new light on evolution, creativity, conflict, intelligence, consciousness, the mind-matter problem, the antinomies of theoretical physics and even laughter.

The same logic can help us to understand more about love, empathy, altruism, selfishness, and even mysticism and religion.

The book shows the following:

  • that evolution is intentional, creative and intelligent without invoking a Creator.
  • the difference between an organism and a machine and shows further the fallacy of claiming that machines will one day think;
  • that Darwin’s “struggle for existence” is two-fold: there is an active and metaphorical struggle. Neo-Darwinism conflates the two into the metaphorical struggle;
  • how subjectivity can play an authentic part in a scientific theory of evolution;
  • that even the most primitive organisms may have rudimentary awareness;
  • that primitive vertebrates may have rudimentary reflexive awareness; and
  • how a spiritual and scientific approach can be combined seamlessly.

Why do we need another theory of the evolution of human nature?

In a 2004 Gallup Poll, nearly ninety percent of Americans rejected the current theory of evolution. Why? Possibly because:

1. Neo Darwinism debases Human Beings

Neo-Darwinism strips our humanity from us in the name of science. Leading theorists say we are lumbering robots in the service of genes; our joys and sorrows, our memories and ambitions, our sense of personal identity and freewill are for them no more than a pack of neurons. They say we are hard-wired for violence, that ethics and morality are but quirks on the evolutionary trail or else mathematically impossible. We are pure accidents that might well never have been; complicated computers destined to be surpassed by other more complicated computers; when we die we die and that’s the end of us.

Understanding the evolution of human nature is not, and never can be, the province of scientists alone. A viable theory of evolution must draw from and be confirmed by many branches of learning. Religion, psychology, and philosophy must be active in the creation of this understanding.

2. It has no place for what is most typically human

No doubt many of us have at one time or other looked eagerly to science to tell us something about ourselves. One would hope that the life sciences might have developed in the many years since Darwin first proposed his theory, and that we would have some scientific basis for understanding ourselves and our psyche—some answers to where we fit in.

But alas! They tell us that we do not fit in. That is, if one understands ‘we’ to mean our ‘selves,’ our ‘minds,’ ‘spirits,’ and not simply our bodies. The discovery of the DNA code, cloning, stem cell research, organ transplants, cyborgs, genetic engineering—in fact all of modern technology—seems to have created a world in which ‘we’ as selves no longer have a place. Scientists now take it for granted that only a material solution holds promise of resolving the enigmas of the mind and of human existence. I am told that that I am a machine, that I have no special place in the world. I am an accident, something that need never have been.

3. It takes away meaning and generates despair

Victor Frankl, a psychologist and concentration camp survivor, pointed out that those who were most likely to survive the depredations of Nazi bestiality had some reason to go on living, “Psychological observations of the prisoners have shown that only those who allowed their inner hold on their moral and spiritual selves to subside eventually fell victim to the camp’s degenerating influences.” But now we are told that we do not have a moral and inner self, that we are no-where for no reason!

4. It is based on a faulty assumption

Neo-Darwinism (the “evolution” taught in schools today) is based upon a faulty assumption that because a materialist basis enabled the physical sciences to work near miracles in technology, the same material basis can work marvels for the life and psychological sciences as well. One only has to read some of the simplistic theories of what passes for Evolutionary Psychology to see the limitations of this approach.

5. It has a parochial outlook

Neo-Darwinism has claimed “the theory of evolution” as its exclusive preserve and condemns all trespassers. Yet, we cannot let our awareness of who and what we are be walled into a biological ivory tower. We must bring it to the streets, to serve the needs of human beings in general—not only a few of us who act within the artificial and limited role of “scientist.” The neo-Darwinian theory as put forth today is not only very limited, it is dangerous and destructive. The Origin of Human Nature breaks through the neo-Darwinian barricades and brings invigorating light and balance into our thinking about our origin and possible future.

Intelligent Evolution is about you and me. It is about how we—with all our loves and fears, hopes and anxieties, creativity and violence—have come to be members of life’s evolving drama.

So far evolutionary theory, including genetics, has asked, “How has the human form evolved?” The Origin of Human Nature poses the question, “How has the evolution of human nature been possible?” It offers something quite new to the debate on our origin and evolution, and possibly a new foundation for the psychological sciences.

Instead of starting with guesses about a remote and uncertain past, and with matter alone, The Origin of Human Nature starts with the present and concrete fact of human creativity—and with creative and spiritual geniuses such as Christ, Buddha, Mohammed, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Albert Einstein, Beethoven, and Mozart. It asks how evolution has made these, and the rest of us, possible. It shows that creative intelligence has not been brought into being by evolution, but that evolution is the unfolding of creative and intelligent potentials inherent in life.

The neo-Darwinian theory of evolution ignores the very essence of life: its intelligence, creativity, capacities for love, altruism, empathy. It ignores the fact that life is meaningful and purposeful. The Origin of Human Nature restores all of these to their rightful place in a theory of evolution worthy of human beings.

It introduces a logic that expresses our intuition of life as a dynamic unity. This intuition is basic to Buddhism, Hinduism, Sufism, and Kantian philosophy and has been written about by scientists such as Heisenberg, Bohm, and Penrose as well as the philosophers Spinoza and Bergson.

Articulating this intuition for the intellect requires what Low calls a logic of ambiguity. Classical logic is the logic of the machine. The logic of ambiguity, being the logic of creativity, is also the logic of life; it incorporates classical logic as one aspect yet goes beyond it. It does for thinking about life and creativity what Niels Bohr’s logic of complementarity did for wave-particle ambiguity in physics.

The present trend of biological research seems to present us with a terrible dilemma: We can have truth or ethics but not both. Our psychological sciences are in a self-admitted state of disarray—with no firm foundation on which to build. The Origin of Human Nature offers a possible way to construct the needed foundation, one that has Darwin’s theory of evolution as its stimulus. Building upon this kind of foundation, we can have both truth and ethics.

The Origin of Human Nature is written in accessible non-technical language for a broad audience of readers interested in the ebb and flow of debate about what should be taught in our schools about human origins and our place in the world.


In 2009, organizations throughout the world will celebrate both the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s seminal book, The Origin of the Species. These two anniversaries will be major media events, and the subject of evolution will be widely discussed and debated.

Recently Michael Behe, a professor at Lehigh University, Published Darwin’s Black Box, about Intelligent Design. His ideas will be a major talking point at 2009 events. Behe’s criticisms of the current theories of evolution are trenchant and could open many people’s minds to the perspective of The Origin of Human Nature.

Repeated attempts are being made to have an approach to evolution other than the neo-Darwinian one currently taught in schools and universities. (A Gallup Poll Published in 2004 reported that nearly 90 percent of the Americans interviewed expressed dissatisfaction with this theory.) The only viable alternative at the moment is Creationism or its modern version, Intelligent Design. The scientific community resists these attempts because both Creationism and Intelligent Design invoke a God as a Creator. The Origin of Human Nature satisfies both those who want a less materialistic/mechanistic approach to understanding human nature, and those who object to introducing “God” into a scientific discussion.

Westerners, in steadily increasing numbers, are adopting Buddhist and other spiritual approaches to life. The Origin of Human Nature is the first book to offer them a way to integrate their spiritual understanding with a scientific understanding of human origin.

Animal rights activism is steadily increasing. The Origin of Human Nature lends much support to the assertion that animals are conscious beings with feelings not too dissimilar to human beings, and should have a broad appeal to these readers.

Endorsements of The Origin of Human Nature

"In this intelligently written little book Albert Low gives us a modern Guide for the Perplexed; a richly thoughtful reflection on the roots of human nature that glows with a deep respect for both science and the spirit."

Allan Combs,

Author of The Radiance of Being

"Albert Low offers us a strikingly original vision of evolution and human nature. He presents us with a choice that is stark, with implications that are far-reaching. On the one hand, we can take the metaphor of “man as machine” literally and, as a consequence, abandon those very qualities that make us human and make life worth living. On the other hand we can come to see that the evolutionary process, and therefore ourselves, as fundamentally intelligent and creative. The choice, Low tells us, is fateful and ours to make."

William Byers PhD,

Author of How Mathematicians Think

"The battles over evolution are fought by two sides that are far too rigid in their thinking, the Biblical literalists on the one hand and the mechanistically committed materialists on the other. But our human and spiritual nature is much bigger than fanatic literalism or scientistic dogmatism, and Low's refreshing book offers a more open direction to explore the potentials of evolution for real human beings."

Charles T. Tart, PhD,

Author of Mind Science: Meditation Training for Practical People

"In The Origin of Human Nature_ Albert Low Roshi offers us a larger context for thinking about evolution, a context that goes beyond the blindness of passivity and chance. Here, in the more gracious place Low provides, we can envision evolution's possibilities, possibilities that go far beyond selfish memes and reductive materialism. In providing us with a model of evolution that transcends that of Dawkins and Dennett, so Low also provides us with a a model of conversation and understanding that transcends Evolution vs Intellgent Design. We are all the richer for it."

Franz Metcalfe, PhD

Author of What Would Buddha Do?

"I enthusiastically recommend this book. As a hard-core scientist, I was overjoyed to read Dr. Low’s “knowing” centered approach to human origin’s and nature, as well as his eloquent rebuttal of the “selfish gene” neo-Darwinism that now dominates mainstream views. Dr. Low’s vision dovetails perfectly with the broader scientific vision of evolution that I work with but perhaps it takes a Zen master to communicate the profundity of its human implications to a world so desperate for a deeply felt understanding of purpose and meaning."

Dr. S. J. Goerner,

Author of After the Clockwork Universe: The Emerging Science and Culture of Integral Society

"Transcending the clichés on both sides of the modern God/evolution debate, Dr. Low’s book offers a most welcome invitation to the joyful work of thinking like a human being about what an evolving human being is and can—and, for the sake of our world, must-- become."

Jacob Needleman

Author of Why Can’t We Be Good?

"In THE ORIGIN OF HUMAN NATURE, Dr. Albert Low breathes new life into old terms -- the transcendent, consciousness, awareness, evolution, creativity, intention -- not by going around science, but by going through it. In the current frenzy to purge science of purpose, meaning, direction, and values, Low's insights are a welcome resource. One might say that our survival depends on the wisdom in this book."

Larry Dossey, MD.

Author of The Extraordinary Healing Power of Ordinary Things

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