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Academic & Professional Books  History & Other Humanities  Philosophy, Ethics & Religion

The Enlightened Gene Biology, Buddhism, and the Convergence That Explains the World

By: Arri Eisen(Author), Yungdrung Konchok(Author), The Dalai Lama(Foreword By)
260 pages, 25 b/w illustrations
A remarkable book that convinces that Buddhism, perhaps uniquely amongst religions, can have a dialogue with biology.
The Enlightened Gene
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  • The Enlightened Gene ISBN: 9781512600001 Hardback Nov 2017 Not in stock: Usually dispatched within 1-2 weeks
Price: £27.99
About this book Contents Customer reviews Biography Related titles

About this book

Eight years ago, in an unprecedented intellectual endeavor, the Dalai Lama invited Emory University to integrate modern science into the education of the thousands of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns in exile in India. This project, the Emory Tibet Science Initiative, became the first major change in the monastic curriculum in six centuries. Eight years in, the results are transformative. The singular backdrop of teaching science to Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns offered provocative insights into how science and religion can work together to enrich each other, as well as to shed light on life and what it means to be a thinking, biological human. In The Enlightened Gene, Emory University Professor Dr. Arri Eisen, together with monk Geshe Yungdrung Konchok explore the striking ways in which the integration of Buddhism with cutting-edge discoveries in the biological sciences can change our understanding of life and how we live it. What The Enlightened Gene discovers along the way will fundamentally change the way you think.

Are humans inherently good? Where does compassion come from? Is death essential for life? Is experience inherited? These questions have occupied philosophers, religious thinkers and scientists since the dawn of civilization, but in today's political discourse, much of the dialogue surrounding them and larger issues – such as climate change, abortion, genetically modified organisms, and evolution – are often framed as a dichotomy of science versus spirituality. Strikingly, many of new biological discoveries – such as the millions of microbes that we now know live together as part of each of us, the connections between those microbes and our immune systems, the nature of our genomes and how they respond to the environment, and how this response might be passed to future generations – can actually be read as moving science closer to spiritual concepts, rather than further away. The Enlightened Gene opens up and lays a foundation for serious conversations, integrating science and spirit in tackling life's big questions. Each chapter integrates Buddhism and biology and uses striking examples of how doing so changes our understanding of life and how we lead it.


- Foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama
- Prologue
- Are Bacteria Sentient?
- Life, Death, and Sacrifice
- How Did Life Begin?
- Altitude and Attitude
- Ecology and Karma
- Are Humans Inherently Good?
- Meditation and the “New” Diseases
- Beyond Science and Religion
- Notes
- Index

Customer Reviews (1)

  • Eye-opening chronicle of a remarkable initiative
    By Leon (NHBS Catalogue Editor) 22 Jul 2018 Written for Hardback

    I sometimes wonder whether I am a closet Buddhist. Now, I will be the first to admit that I know next to nothing about Buddhism, but what little I have encountered often strikes a chord with me. The Enlightened Gene shows there might a be a good reason for this. This book chronicles a most unlikely project: the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative. On the invitation of the Dalai Lama no less (!), Emory University has developed a science curriculum to be taught to Tibetan monks and nuns in exile in India. Spearheaded by professor Arri Eisen and in close collaboration with monk Geshe Yungdrung Konchok, the aim is to integrate modern science (focusing on physics and life sciences, especially neuroscience) into their monastic curriculum.

    Written primarily from the perspective of Eisen, with reflections by Kongchok sprinkled throughout the text, The Enlightened Gene reflects on what science can learn from Buddhism and vice versa. We read how the monks and nuns are amazed when learning more about cells, pondering whether or not they should be considered sentient. The way slime moulds organise in larger multicellular structures in times of food shortage and sacrifice part of the colony to ensure survival of the rest resonates strongly with the Buddhist concept of Samsara. This is the continuous cycle of birth, sickness, death, and rebirth that places importance on the virtues of self-sacrifice and altruism. And from this point of view, it reiterates that many things in biology are as much about death as they are about life, whether it is programmed cell death during embryonic development, the continuous turnover of all sorts of cells in a body, or the realisation that every cell division is, in essence, a form of sacrifice from the point of view of the parent cell.

    Similarly, the dependency of life forms on each other is a cornerstone of both ecology and Buddhism. Where many ecologists bemoan how the industrialised world is destroying ecosystems worldwide, Buddhist adherence to values of compassion and empathy offer answers on how to live a meaningful life that science cannot necessarily provide. In turn, biology supplies findings to suggest that we are naturally inclined to these values. This includes findings from behavioural biology on empathy in a wide range of animals, notably by Frans de Waal and collaborators (see e.g. The Age of Empathy), and from neuroscience, especially the slightly hyped discovery of mirror neurons (see Mirrors in the Brain). These neurons fire both when an animal acts and when it observes the same action performed by another animal, and were quickly touted as the neurological basis of empathy in humans (but see The Myth of Mirror Neurons for a critique of this).

    And The Enlightened Gene unsurprisingly spends many pages on recent discoveries in the fields of epigenetics and the microbiome. Epigenetics studies heritable changes in an organism's phenotype due to changes in gene expression or activity rather than gene sequence (see Epigenetics: How Environment Shapes Our Genes, The Epigenetics Revolution, and the forthcoming Lamarck’s Revenge for readable introductions). Epigenetics provides a mechanism for past stresses and hardships to influence the present, which resonates with the Buddhist concept of karma. The microbiome is the community of microorganisms living in and on us (see Welcome to the Microbiome and I Contain Multitudes for readable introductions) and have been implicated in the current epidemic of “Western” diseases such as diabetes, obesity, cancer, autoimmune diseases, Alzheimer’s etc. (see The Human Superorganism and 10% Human for more specifically on that link). There is currently an active field of research on the potentially beneficial effects of the Buddhist practices of mindfulness and meditation on the triad of immune system, nervous system, and microbiome.

    Eisen is not the first biologist to cosy up to Buddhism, but the Emory-Tibet Science Initiative described here is eye-opening and makes for a remarkable book. In chronicling his teaching experience, Eisen does not necessarily provide an exhaustive overview of the commonalities between biology and Buddhism (Barash’s Buddhist Biology might), and he acknowledges these are more philosophical than scientific or utilitarian. But it goes to show that, if both sides are willing and open-minded, there can be a dialogue between science and religion.

    Coming from me, that is a huge compliment. If you catch me on a good day, I might settle for Gould’s view of non-overlapping magisteria, with science and religion each representing different areas of inquiry, facts vs. values (see his essay in Rocks of Ages). But mostly I veer towards militant atheism and have Dawkins’s The God Delusion happily rubbing shoulders on my bookshelf with Gingras’s Science and Religion. I maintain that the dogmatic outlook of most religions is utterly incompatible with evidence-based science, and this book has not changed my mind. Often, rapprochements of religion towards science are just a cheap ploy to push a religious agenda, as exemplified through that monstrosity of Intelligent Design. That makes the genuine and heartfelt initiative described here all the more noteworthy. Even Eisen has to admit in his last chapter that, where religions are concerned, Buddhism seems to be an outlier (Barash notes this too in Buddhist Biology). In that sense, my impression of Buddhism is more that of a spiritual movement than that of a typical monotheistic religion.

    Of course, I know that in my militant atheism I get worked up about the extremes of religion and that there is plenty of room for more moderate outlooks – plenty of scientists were, and are, religious after all. The Enlightened Gene is a welcome foray into open-minded inquiry, and Eisen has managed to instil in me a renewed sense of respect for Buddhism. Don’t expect me to sign up with the nearest temple, but this book was never about converting people in the first place.
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Arri Eisen is a Professor of Pedagogy in Biology, the Institute of the Liberal Arts, and the Center for Ethics at Emory University. He founded and has directed for over a decade Emory's Program in Science & Society, which develops innovative programs for the public and students in and out of the classroom in science and religion, science and ethics, and science and art.

Geshe Yungdrung Konchok was born in 1982 in a mountainous village between Tibet and Nepal. Konchok runs the Tibetan Yungdrung Bon Library at his monastery. He was in the initial group of monastics of the Emory Tibet Science Initiative in 2008 in Dharamsala and was selected as a Tenzin Gyatso scholar with five other monks from that cohort to study science at Emory for three years. Konchok attained his geshe degree at Menri in 2014, and he has been serving as a translator in the Emory Tibet Science Initiative since then.

By: Arri Eisen(Author), Yungdrung Konchok(Author), The Dalai Lama(Foreword By)
260 pages, 25 b/w illustrations
A remarkable book that convinces that Buddhism, perhaps uniquely amongst religions, can have a dialogue with biology.
Media reviews

"Chronicles a fascinating dialogue [...] There are real benefits for humanity to be gained by this historic encounter. I highly recommend this book."
– Robert A. F. Thurman, Jey Tsong Khapa Professor of Buddhology, Columbia University

"The remarkable intellectual and spiritual voyage of an American biology professor and a Tibetan Buddhist monk exploring how the basic principles of cell biology, developmental biology, and neuroscience can be viewed as Buddhist themes on impermanence, the eternal cycle of life and death, and the communality of all creatures, small or large."
– Dr. Christof Koch, chief scientist and president, Allen Institute for Brain Science

"This book [...] represents something close to my heart. [It is a] real collaboration between a modern scientist and a Tibetan monk-scholar. Their work represents not only scholarly achievement but also the friendship and understanding that can come from open dialogue between great intellectual traditions [...] I have no doubt that all who read this book will benefit from the insights generated by the convergence of science's understanding of the material world and contemplative traditions' understanding of the workings of the mind."
– From the foreword by His Holiness the Dalai Lama

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