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69 chapter three How Did Life Begin? The other monks asked me, “What did the first cell come from? What causes a cause?” And I had no answer at that time. konchok Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution. theodosius dobzhansky magine three dozen monks and nuns, heads shaven, clad in maroon and gold, scampering up and down mountainsides in the late-afternoon summer light, collecting soil, water, plant, and animal samples and chatting happily among themselves. Giddiness is not the first emotion you probably associate with monks and nuns. But here we are in our first few days together nearly a decade ago, American scientists and Tibetan monastics, and giddiness is certainly in the air. Konchok and I have only just met. He stands out with his ready laugh and the distinctive gash of blue, representing his Bön sect, amid his maroon robes. He and the other monastics run up and down the hills, pulling up roots they recall using for medicinal teas in their childhood, hugging each other affectionately, grinning from ear to ear, and periodically grabbing a translator to explain to us what they have found or to ask us a question. We are at the tree line just above Dharamsala, carrying out an experiment the monks and nuns designed based on our initial discussion about evolution. As the days go on, it becomes clearer that their happiness in the hills is about much more than being active scientists. Not only is it a rare opportunity for the monks and nuns to be outside and active beyond the boundaries of their monasteries and convents, I 70 the enlightened gene but it turns out many of them have not been in these Himalayas since they were young and living in Tibet. As children, they escaped over these mountains, eventually heading for monastic institutions far away in the south of India. Who would have thought their first return to these peaks would be to perform an experiment they themselves had designed to test a foundational hypothesis of that most famous of Western scientists, Charles Darwin, a man many of these monks and nuns had never heard of until a few days previous? That first summer we indeed began with evolution, Charles Darwin ’s brilliant and synthetic theory that underlies all of biology. What better way to introduce life’s definition, origin, and basic molecules; the central concepts of time and relatedness; and the eternal conversation between living organisms and their environments than through a discussion of the idea that ties them all together? The irony doesn’t escape us. Here we are teaching evolution​ —a favorite bogeyman of many religious people back in America​ —to men and women whose whole life is religion. The monks and nuns are at the tree line as part of an experiment they designed to test some predictions of evolutionary theory. Darwin’s famous idea of natural selection posits that the environment has an impact on organisms, that the environment “selects” organisms with the traits which allow them to be successful. In the evolutionary sense, “success” means living long enough to have offspring​ —the more offspring , the more successful the organism. Despite the terms “selection” and “success,” in the Darwinian view, natural selection is not purposeful (nor is it random); nature selects for whichever traits organisms have that happen to give them an advantage. This is in contrast to the (in)famous ideas of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who proposed that individual organisms change their traits in response to the environment and then pass those changes on to their offspring; a giraffe stretches and stretches her neck, making it longer and then this length is passed on to her offspring, while organs she doesn’t use shrink and their new shrunken size is also passed on. That night Dawa, one of my classmates, and I had hot discussions on Darwin and Lamarck. I really preferred Darwin’s ideas. Dawa was against how did life begin? 71­ Darwin and believed Lamarck, that characteristics acquired by an organism during its own lifetime would be inherited by the next generation. He said that this is similar to what Buddhists believe: during our present lifetime , if we do something negative or positive, the result will be passed on or appear in our next life. But I said Larmarck was not right. For instance, if in your present life you paint your hair red, you will not pass this red on to your offspring or...


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