Taoism’s “The Way”—Explained by Evolutionary Biology
“The Way” (i.e. Tao 道) can be thought of as an intuitive understanding of the implications of evolutionary biology to our individual lives and society as a whole, 2500 years before Darwin et al understood evolution with Western science. And post-Darwin this understanding remains relevant, perhaps more than ever.
Let’s clearly define our terms, in order to bridge this ancient intuitive understanding with our modern scientific understanding. The Tao Te Ching often refers to “the Way” or “the Great Way.” This comes from the concept of Tao, which can be literally translated as a “path”, “route,” or underlying “principle.” In the wider context of East Asian philosophy Taoism’s “the Way” can be thought of as an intuitive or instinctual understanding of the natural order of things. Bringing Taoism into the 21st century by linking it with today’s broad scientific terms, “the Way” is—the natural order of the universe, which we now call physics—and, the natural order of life, which we now call evolutionary biology.
But how can we, as homo sapiens, instinctively know these things? Because, being the product of evolutionary biology we can instinctively know our own species’ biological programming. In the Tao Te Ching, knowing this is referred to as knowing how to find “the key,” which unlocks “the Great Way.” Furthermore, we can know our own personal biological programming, which is our individual way. We don’t need to wait around for science to tell us these things, if science ever fully could.
From here, we see understanding “the Way” is a deep contemplation on the nature of our species and ourselves—and thereafter accepting our nature (i.e. biological programming)—and putting this acceptance into practice in our daily lives (e.g. not fighting against biology and physics; striving in vain against what can not be changed). Logically, the Tao Te Ching includes verses on both putting this instinctual understanding into practice in our own lives and putting it into practice in governing society. This deep understanding of who we are, as individuals and a species, is the key which unlocks all doors.
Suddenly, Taoism makes rational sense. Unlike the more shamanistic “woo-woo” thinkings of Buddhism, Taoism is quite “tightly” reasoned. Or, better to say that it is solidly reasoned, on a basis of natural reality, without the tightness of modern Western thinking (i.e. scientism: a preoccupation with narrow empiricism without any intuitive understanding or wisdom). It’s realistic, pragmatic, utilitarian, and long-sighted.
Let’s continue, so how is this broad intuitive understanding applied to daily and community life?
Examples—how we intuitively grasp the implications of evolutionary biology
Let’s look at some simple examples; things even a child knows…
- Beavers builds dams, this is their way.
- Frogs eats flies, this is their way.
As homo sapiens, with primate ancestry stretching back 40 million years, we also do things; these things are our way…
- Inventors invent, teachers teach, governors govern; this is their way.
- Men hunt, women gather, adults make the rules, children follow them; this is their way.
- Individual sapiens seek social status, the tribes war; this is their way.
Just common sense? It’s a common sense grasp of our own evolutionary biology. Animals do what they were “designed” to do. Nature, the designer, settled on what worked, as determined across long periods of time. Nature is utilitarian, not idealistic. And thus the Tao is too. But, what happens when an animal goes against its own way? Things cease to work. This is disfunction. The animal suffers. And chaos rules. In the Tao Te Ching this is to go astray, off the path; against the natural way.
Let’s take a specific example from the animal kingdom, because it may be easier to see things objectively when we study a species other than our own. Imagine a family of beavers decide they will stop building dams, that dams are “hateful things,” and so construction must stop immediately! Well, obviously their beaver society, their ecosystem, would collapse into chaos and individual beavers would suffer. Beaver dams are critical to their society. This activity is written deep in their biology and cross-tried to all their other evolutionary traits, as well as to the physical world they navigate. The conditions of the world formed their biologically-driven activities (maybe we can call these extended phenotypes), and these can’t simply be parsed out because we decide they “should” be. There is no optionality here, no “ought.” Beavers build dams.
It seems unlikely that pedantic Western epistemology (i.e. how we know things) can ever really work. Certainly it isn’t working these days. At some point, you have to intuitively know water is wet. This is the great eternal relevance of the Tao Te Ching—an emphasis on fundamental, basic, knowing.
The Way just “is,” there is no “ought”
This bring us to an important point — the Great Way just “is,” there is no “ought.”
The Tao Te Ching does not use “should,” or “ought.” It makes declarative statements on what is, not on alternate realities or idealistic future states. For example, the text does not say “when reason appears, we meet great deceit—but that should not be the case, as reason should bring harmony.” That statement has two parts: a declared reality, followed by a preference on an imagined future reality. But the Tao has no preferences (which are often referred to as the path of “delusion”), and so it never utters the later.
Rather, the Tao Te Ching simply does two things: it 1) observes what is, and 2) states what tends to happen when the animal goes against its own way (i.e. biological programming). There are no is/ought or naturalistic fallacies described in Taoism. This all makes sense if we understand the Tao Te Ching as a pre-Darwin understanding of biology, because Darwinism too only observes what “is.” It discusses no “ought.” Taoism and Darwinism studied the same actualities, just different times with different available methods.
Thus, ideologically speaking, there is no progressivism (i.e. a drive to move forward, beyond what we are) in the Tao Te Ching. “Changing the natural is against the way of the Tao, those who do it will come to an early end” (ch55, McDonald). Rather, “By knowing the constant we can accept things as they are” (ch16, McDonald). The sage is “cautious, like crossing a frozen stream in the winter” (ch15, Chan). Small guarded steps forward, if any, or better yet backward movement—back to our source (“Based,” social media 2021).
“The Way” is universal conservative wisdom, competent risk management, which is merely the rational grasp of probabilities. New evolutionary/meme paths almost always fail, then suffering and chaos result for that branch. Thus these ancient heuristics guide the population in a way as to avoid such tangents. To even consider an “ought” is to already be afflicted; to have drifted from the Way. That said, the Way is not inflexible, sometimes progressivism is the Way too. It is one of the “ten thousand things,” and as such plays a role in the natural order as well.
The Way—ancient heuristics — declarative, but flexible
As covered in the prior section, the Tao Te Ching makes simple declarative statements on “the Way.” But it is also written in a deliberately vague manner; broad stokes. It encourages different interpretations, but within soft limits.
The reason is because the Tao Te Ching is a set of ancient heuristics for people to use as a guide in navigating across thousands of years; for avoiding wrong steps which have all been made before. It’s a guidebook for finding, and staying on, the path. A heuristic “enables a person to discover or learn something for themselves, proceeding to a solution by trial and error or by rules that are only loosely defined” (NOAD).
This is why “the Way that becomes a way, is not the Immortal Way” (ch1, Porter). If the heuristics become too narrow and set they lack adaptability, and fail to work over longer periods of time. Instead the Tao Te Ching gives us core principles, but we must do the work evaluating our current environment and making decision using those general principles.
Given the nature of an animal finding itself at its present state of evolution, the Tao Te Ching generally recommends non-action or backward-looking; these are the lowest risk choices (again, this is just competent risk management, if you model it out). But if a way ‘forward’ must be attempted the sage is “careful, as someone crossing a frozen stream in winter” (ch15, McDonald).
We need both intuitive understanding & scientific empiricism
Once we understand this, it becomes clear why our species evolved two modes: let’s call them “science” and “religiosity.” We can use reason to understand nature empirically and record these understandings in the books of science, for future generations. And we can also use intuition to understand our nature, and author heuristics which take on a deep personal meaning and usefulness to people and thus are able to propel themselves across thousands of years, to assist future generations. Ultimately survival is what matters, not how we get there.
Clearly we must need both to navigate life, or we wouldn’t have evolved both. But why both? Because, if we waited for science to figure things out we’d have already made thousands of years of wrong steps and likely be extinct. Homo genus made it three million years without science. Intuition, instinct and more recently religiosity evolved as tools, because we needed mechanisms for arriving at functional decisions now, not when empiricism finally groks it.
In fact even now, 150 years after Darwin, Western science and philosophy still do not fully accept that the way an animal has evolved, is its natural way—that humans are animals, a product of nature, and thus the principles of nature apply to us. People, lost in narrow scientism and progressive subjectivism, bicker endlessly about obvious things that the commoners have always known intuitively—and that Laozi recorded in text 2,500 years ago.
Summarized—why the Way?
The way is the path of least resistance, of fewest problems, of greatest harmony, and thus longest life. It is following your own natural way, and the way of our species (as guided by deep instinct and intuition, as well as modern science). There is no escaping evolutionary biology and physics (i.e. reality), which is to say there is no escaping the Tao—we are what we are, and the universe is what it is.
If science is the quantitative study of nature, and the Tao Te Ching is a qualitative text describing the principles of nature, and if both are true, then they should fit together in perfect harmony. I think they do, and am updating Taoism for 21st century scientific knowledge as well as updating science for 5th century BC knowledge.