Thoreau’s Buddhism

Monday, June 24th, 2013

A presentation to the White Heron Sangha June 23 2013

Henry David Thoreau was born July 12, 1817 and died at 45 years of age on May 6, 1862. His name is a household word, especially among those of us who grew up during the 1960’s, when his two most famous works, Walden and “Civil Disobedience” offered compelling guides to non-conformity, self-reliance, appreciation of nature, reduction of one’s environmental footprint, opposition to war and injustice and spiritual quest.

Although not widely appreciated during his life, since the late 19th century Thoreau’s works have become classics, admired by later writers, assigned in schools, and the subject of a burgeoning scholarly industry. He produced more than 20 volumes in a dense and quirky literary style, at times pompous and bombastic, at others intimate and funny. (more…)

Genes in Genesis: Evolutionary Psychology and the Bible as Literature

Monday, April 8th, 2013

Introductory Note:  This essay was completed in March 2011.  The interpretation of Genesis it proposes first occurred to me in 1996 in the course of writing a book commissioned by Oxford University Press,  Shakespeare and the Bible.  I first learned about Evolutionary Psychology and the field of Darwinian Literary Criticism in 2006.


“The Old and New Testaments are the Great Code of Art,” proclaimed William Blake in one of the captions of his etching, “Laocoon” (755). In The Great Code: The Bible and Literature, Northrop Frye replicated part of that proclamation and elaborated some of its implied claims. If indeed the Bible can be said to encode a substantial portion of Western culture’s imaginative, historical and legal heritage, then its first book, Genesis, can be regarded as the Code for the Great Code, since so much of what appears in the subsequent 65 books seems to grow out of it. Genesis’ title is amplified in the names of some of its recurrent themes and images: generation, generations, genealogy, gender, genitalia. The common root of all these words suggests yet another code: that which is carried by genes.[1]

Frye observed that Genesis’ “primary concern is expressed in the Biblical phrase “life more abundant,” and J.P. Fokkelman showed coherence in the book’s motley mosaic of stories with the discovery that its “overriding concern [is] life-survival-offspring-fertility-continuity,” (41) but neither critic associated these concerns with the evolutionary perspective they suggest. Until recently it’s been left to contemporary novelists versed in biology and literature to explore some of the rich meanings that flow from the convergence of Genesis and evolutionary principles, for instance Ruth Ozeki in All Over Creation and Barbara Kingsolver in Prodigal Summer.[2]

Genesis rewards literary analysis because of its complex structure and plot, its concentrated characterization, its vibrant language and its rich but submerged themes, accompanied by what Robert Alter calls “the high fun of the act of literary communication¦ the lively inventiveness …[which] repeatedly exceeds the needs of the message, though it often also deepens and complicates the message”(40-45).  Such analysis can be enriched by combining the relatively rigorous scientific methods of evolutionary psychology with some of the inventive and fanciful tactics of traditional Midrashic interpretation to make sense of the book.[3] That combination seems appropriate to a work which is itself a product of literary evolution–the outcome of a thousand-year history of competition among oral traditions, written documents, individual and group authors and editors assembled in the palimpsest of the received text (Friedman).

Genesis prompts Darwinian analysis because it traces human history back to its beginnings, where it locates the origin of what came later. It chronicles a period of prehistory that figuratively parallels the one and a half million year Pleistocene period that Darwinists refer to as the Environment of Evolutionary Adaptation (EEA), the span of time long enough to allow most human traits to evolve (Cosmides 1997).

Darwinian interpretation explores the operation of the principle of evolution in literary works, depicting what Jonathan Gottschall calls

the fascinating multiplicity of ways characters react to and manipulate their environment (the setting and the other characters) to accomplish the prime directive of all life: to live long enough to reproduce and, in species where parental care is necessary (like ours), rear young to reproduce again.¦” (260)

Genesis personifies that principle in its characterization of the Creator. Its God designs both animal and human life during their common emergence on days five and six by pronouncing the two parts of evolution’s “prime directive”: “I have given you every seed bearing plant ¦for food¦and to all which has the breath of life within it.” (1.29) “¦be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth¦”(1.28)[4]

Genesis’ God repeatedly affirms evolution’s positive outcome of reproductive success as the reward of those whom He has chosen and trained–from Adam at the beginning of the book to the sons of Israel at the end: “I will greatly bless you and will greatly multiply your seed, as the stars in the heavens and as the sand on the shore of the sea, and your seed shall take hold of its enemies’gate.”(22:17)

Genesis’ word for “seed” –zera in the original Hebrew”has several meanings that converge with those of “gene” (Alter 1996 xiii-xiv). It signifies the originating kernels as well as the foodstuff of fruit and grain–the source of sustenance for animals and humans. It signifies semen, half of the material agency of reproduction. It signifies individual progenitors and progeny connected by inheritance–the generations of genetic relatives who extend personal existence beyond the bounds of individual mortality. It signifies lineage, the mark of kinship drawing individuals together into a survival unit, a community, and eventually, a nation.[5]

Joseph, the culminating hero of Genesis, epitomizes all of these meanings of “seed.”  He distributes seed during famine; he preserves enough grain to feed the world; he procreates two sons, one of whom is named Ephraim, meaning “he has made me fruitful”; at his death, he joins his father and mother in their tomb; and he paves the way for his wise descendant Solomon “whose people, Judah and Israel, were as many as the sands of the sea.”[6]

Genesis establishes literary coherence among narrative units with genealogies that catalogue the succession of seed through numerous generations, binding its many discrete stories into the history of a single genetic strain. Later uses of the text call attention to the importance of this genetic continuity. The first edition of the King James Bible begins with thirty-four folio pages of genealogical charts tracing lineage from Adam to Christ, while the succession of deaths and births of relatives is still recorded on pages inserted in family Bibles.

The operation of the principle of evolution is determined by the “algorithm” of Natural Selection formulated by Darwin in Origin of Species:

Through the preservation of favoured individuals and races, during the constantly-recurrent Struggle for Existence, we see the most powerful and ever-acting means of selection. The struggle for existence inevitably follows from the high geometrical ratio of increase which is common to all organic beings. ¦

These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with Reproduction; inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the external conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less-improved forms (406).

Genesis begins at “Growth with Reproduction; inheritance” and proceeds to the more complex and turbulent aspects of natural selection: “the struggle for Life,” “Variability,”  “Extinction of less improved forms,” and consequent adaptation.

Natural selection arises from three conditions: 1) individuals compete for the resources to stay alive and procreate, 2) they compete for reproductive success through sexual selection–finding mates and raising offspring that preserve and proliferate their genes, and 3) over long periods of time, species adapt, that is, they change in ways that increase their likelihood of survival and reproduction. Such adaptive changes are carried out through improved design of the physical organism and through the adoption of adaptive behaviors.

Adaptive behaviors are patterns of response to recurrent environmental challenges. The brain circuits, or programs that enable adaptive behaviors, become “incorporated into a species’ neural design.”[7] Assemblages of such software circuits evolved as “cognitive domains,” just as the eye and ear, for example, evolved as hardware. Their blueprints were replicated and transmitted by genes in “the seed,” just as were the blueprints for organs.[8]

Adaptive behaviors produced by natural selection include tool use, kinship selection, status competition, territoriality, coalition building, reciprocity, indirect reciprocity and in-group/outgroup discrimination. These adaptations are observed in primates as well as in remnants of hunter-gatherer societies. This essay argues that evolutionary psychology’s account of the development of cognitive and behavioral adaptations offers a key to decode many of Genesis’ particular incidents as well as its overall design.


Crossing Paths

Saturday, August 4th, 2012

Solo departure for Lund at 7:00 A.M. after tying up loose ends yesterday, including the resubmission of a reformatted version of “Genes and Genesis,” the article now rejected by five journals.  Jan cancelled her trip to stay in SLO because of late-breaking family developments.

Between Paso and Salinas, at the outset of the long drive I  listen to the podcast of one of Dan’s Dharma talks, calmed by his voice though skeptical about the comprehensive reassurance he offers on all fronts, spiritual, emotional and political. Then the Beethoven Rasoumovksy quartets bubble in my earbuds as the wheels spin up the freeway at 80 mph. Then This American Life, Science Friday and Fresh Air.  Despite disdain for Corporate Takeover, I’m grateful for what I get from the automobile, petroleum, and digital entertainment industries.

An hour before Davis, where I’ve arranged to have lunch with Caesar and Penny, my new iPhone dingalings to interrupt the podcast with a call from Chad, a former Cal Poly student organizer and political collaborator since 2007.  He and Megan have taken a day off from their five month hike on the Pacific Crest Trail in Mt. Shasta City and he just wanted to say hello and thank-you for Jan’s email to him. I’ve read their endearing blog, Trail 4 Two, and have thought of them wistfully since they started back in April.

I’ll be in Shasta City that evening.  Could we meet? I’ll get them a hotel room. He’s incredulous and hesitant.  They just had a night in a hotel and are getting back on the trail to keep to schedule.  Maybe we could meet, with further prearrangement, on my way back around the 22nd.  I say I don’t want to pressure them of course, but what a coincidence this is.  He needs to talk to Megan; they’ve just got a hitchhike ride to Castle Crags where they’ll rejoin the trail.  I know Castle Crags I say; see it from the freeway every year for the last 42 years.  He asks if I have camping gear and whether I could I meet them on the trail. Absolutely.  He says he’ll phone back. A half hour later he does; says there’s a little road at the Centralia exit that leads to a spur where they can wait for me and we can hike and camp together tonight.

Caesar bubbles with news of his second grandchild born ten days ago and cooks up a  fritata filled with his own garden’s vegetables.  By 1:30 I’m eager to get back on the road for the rendezvous at Castle Crags. In our phone conversation I came up with between 4:30 and 5:00 out of the air, having little idea how long it would take from Davis, but as the hot Central Valley rolls by, the hour looks plausible.  Chad emails  the number of the ranger which I can miraculously click on the iphone, and he gives me the specifics of the location.  Then there’s a sign about traffic delays due to a fire ahead, and just above Lake Shasta the smoke and the slowed traffic that might abort the meeting.

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But the delay is brief and at the Dog Trail  parking area, Chad and Megan are sitting under a tree. We embrace and marvel at the coincidence of our trajectory.  I load my backpack with sleeping bag and the bread and sardines Jan had sent along and we head up toward Castle Crags and the maintrail.

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They are concerned about whether the climb is too steep, but I keep up the pace talking the whole way along the mercifully shaded path. It was 110 in Redding that afternoon, while they carried their 35 pound packs for hours through large changes in elevation.  They brim with adventures on the trail and are curious about  SLO politics and our family drama.

Around 7 we encounter some of their fellow PCT hikers setting up camps along a stream in deep shade.

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We find our own flat spot and are soon joined by “Fall Risk” a  veteran of the Appalachian Trail. He hikes in special shoes that partially compensate for an orthopedic defect. Among many other roles he’s a musician and composer and has been producing fully mixed songs with a phone app and sending them to his girlfriend.

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Chad and Megan prepare a sumptuous dinner using vegetables they dehydrated before their trip, one example of the vast project of planning and preparation it required.

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Another is the coordination with “Trail Angels” who’ve met them along the way with luxury provisions and fresh company.  But despite the totally upbeat atmosphere of our brief encounter I imagine that this project has involved a great deal of endurance of both physical and emotional rigors.

Though I sleep fitfully, the night is most pleasant lying next to Megan, breathing the balmy evergreen scented air, gazing at patches of light from the full moon sprinkled throughout the forest, reveling in the sense of escape from a burdensome routine of obligation and anxiety  and the prospect ahead of staying at Knoll House and spending time alone with Joe and more time with him and his family.

We all awaken at dawn for an early departure to keep up our several travel schedules and catch up on the time time lost with this happy delay.  The goodbyes are lengthy and poignant

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”better too brief than too long a visit. Along the trail I feel continued companionship with the moon and the crags

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as  I head back to the car  concerned that it may have been vandalized by the locals who littered the parking area with shotgun shells and targets.  But Jade waits intact, and I get back on the road, talk to Jan, listen to music and decide, a little recklessly, to take an alternate route to Portland, where I’ve arranged to meet Andy P. at his studio in the afternoon for coffee on the way to rendezvous with Joe that night somewhere close to the Canadian border.

The drive to Klamath Falls on route 97 through volcano country and farmland is fast and beautiful, but the road gets ugly, busy and slow on the way to Bend and beyond.  I listen to a  lecture by a Harvard Medical School Professor on recurrent Glioblastoma, Steve’s condition.  I phone Andy to postpone and then cancel our meeting, perhaps until the return trip, and hear from Joe that he was late in leaving Ketchum and wont get to Bellingham until 1:30 A.M.  So I decide to kill some time, process and upload photos and eat dinner at the Timberline Lodge near the top of Mount Hood. It’s a beautiful stone and timbered structure built by the WPA, graced with with vast views, mountain flowers in full bloom and the summer snowfields of the summit.  A walk on the heavily travelled trail in back leads to a sign indicating a junction with the PCT.

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Here, Chad and Megan will again cross my path, but only after several more weeks of toil and deprivation.

I drive down the shoulder of the mountain and rejoin Interstate 5 north of Portland and carrying on my musical and literary migration as night falls.  I hear Librivox recordings chapters from John Muir’s 1915 Travels in Alaska describing the beauties of the Northwest, the charm and geology of Victoria, the splendors of the inside passage and Alaskan glaciers.  At midnight I reach a rest area five miles south of the border from which we can make an early enough departure to avoid what will be lengthy delays at immigration and at the ferry at the beginning of this midsummer holiday weekend.  I fall asleep behind a picnic table, and waking for a pee at 1:30 I see Joe’s truck parked next to Jade.  I get up with the first light at 5:00 A.M. wake and embrace him, and we get through the border and onto the ferry with no wait.  His truck is loaded full with construction tools.

We buy groceries in Powell River, arrive at Knoll House in the sunshine, sleep-deprived but satisfied, and gasp at the immaculate condition of the place left to us by Tai and Theo, hardly a trace of their possessions visible, and all the Marx family stuff placed exactly where we left it.  Neatly stacked next to the half completed deck for the cabin is a pile of timbers cut from a tree near the driveway by Sam Richards.  Peter and Margaret stop by with a big zucchini and an invitation to a 70th birthday party at Pam’s, but we politely decline.


Thursday, April 5th, 2012

Amor vincit omnia
says the Prioress’ golden brooch
in a Middle English prologue
I recited yesterday to my class.
Love conquers all:
all order, constraint, justice
hope and resignation
in the assault
of horned buck, spurred cock
and rival knights,
in the swoon of a smitten queen,
in a country parson’s charity.
When offspring wander wayward
with their brood
it herds them home