We are excited to announce a new title in the Studies of the Weatherhead East Asian Institute book series: Darwin, Dharma, and the Divine: Evolutionary Theory and Religion in Modern Japan, published by the University of Hawaii Press. The book’s author is G. Clinton Godart, who teaches history at Hokkaido University.
Darwin, Dharma, and the Divine is the first book in English on the history of evolutionary theory in Japan. Bringing to life more than a century of ideas, G. Clinton Godart examines how and why Japanese intellectuals, religious thinkers of different faiths, philosophers, biologists, journalists, activists, and ideologues engaged with evolutionary theory and religion. How did Japanese religiously think about evolution? What were their main concerns? Did they reject evolution on religious grounds, or―as was more often the case―how did they combine evolutionary theory with their religious beliefs? The book will contribute significantly to two of the most debated topics in the history of evolutionary theory: religion and the political legacy of evolution. It will, therefore, appeal to the broad audience interested in Darwin studies as well as students and scholars of Japanese intellectual history, religion, and philosophy.
We thank Professor Godart for taking the time to discuss his book with us. Please read the following Q&A to learn more about the research and questions that drove his project.
How did you become interested in exploring the intersection of religious thought and scientific theory?
Religion and science – in their many forms – are in a way humanity’s two most fundamental and ambitious ways of engaging with and understanding the world. And evolutionary theory is probably the most controversial scientific theory, so I believe investigating how evolution co-exists with religion tells us a lot about the human condition. I started out investigating how Buddhists in late nineteenth-century Japan responded to the country’s rapid modernization, and it did not take long to see that science was a major point of interest for Japanese Buddhists. Some of the nineteenth century Buddhist texts are full of descriptions of scientific thought, evolutionary theory in particular. I also realized that in the world of history of science, the study of the relations between religion and science was completely taken up by Christianity and Europe. So I wanted to know: what about East-Asia, and what about Japan?
Why is Japan a particularly interesting site for discussing spirituality and evolutionary theory?
Japan has a vibrant history of religious thinking about evolutionary theory. A striking facet of Japan’s encounter with evolutionary theory is a strong tendency to interpret evolution in terms of cooperation and harmony, and religion played a large role in this; the country’s religious thinkers constantly tried to move away from extreme interpretations of a mindless “struggle for survival” and seek to recast nature as harboring the divine.
A wide variety of people, including Buddhists, Shintō priests, Christians, journalists, biologists, and anarchists were all engaged in a lively and creative encounter with evolutionary theory. Although the book brings up a number of conflicts, perhaps we can say that in Japan overall the impact of the theory of evolution was managed quite well. Important is also that Japan is not a Christian-majority country. This means there was a whole history of religious engagement with evolutionary theory that had little or nothing to do with the debate that most readers are familiar with: creationism versus evolution. Japan is religiously incredibly pluralistic. Religious life in Japanese history has been characterized by a highly complex interaction between very different traditions, Buddhism, Confucianism, Shintō, and later also Christianity. This made the Japanese encounter with evolution take on a different dynamic; Buddhists writing about evolutionary theory were speaking to educated readers who also might be going to a Christian church. Some socialists criticizing religion and Christianity with examples from Darwinism were actually targeting State Shinto. So I believe that it was to a large degree the complex interaction between different religions, science, and political factors that shaped Japan’s interaction with evolution. What I found particularly fascinating is not just that evolutionary theory was passively accepted or rejected, but that through the -very active- appropriation of evolutionary theory the understanding of nature, society, and the sacred was transformed. It is not about the impact of Darwin on religion; both religion and evolutionary theory changed through the encounter.
Who are some of the intellectuals and religious thinkers you discuss in this book? How did you structure the book to incorporate their stories?
The figures that received substantial attention are the Buddhist Inoue Enryō, philosophers such as Nishida Kitarō, ideology-makers such as Inoue Tetsujirō, prominent biologists with a religious dimension such as Oka Asajiro and Imanishi Kinji, utopianists such as Kita Ikki and the Christian socialist Kagawa Toyohiko. Some of these are well known, but their commitment to evolution was not, while other figures such as the Catholic priest Iwashita Sōichi and the state philosopher Kihira Tadayoshi, although well-known at the time, will be new to many readers of Japanese intellectual history. Of course I had to make some touch choices about who to include; for example, I decided to cut substantial sections on the socialists. The book combines a chronological and thematic structure, explaining how particular figures reacted to specific problems in historical moments, for example wartime ideology, or the postwar transformation to a new era of science and democracy.
What kinds of archives and sources did you consult throughout your research?
This is a history of ideas, and I was most concerned with influential perceptions of evolution at the time. So although I went to several archives, such as the Minakata Kumagusu archive in Wakayama, and the Nishida Kitaro library in Kyoto University, the research involved less digging into archives, and more in-depth reading of published materials, a number of them well-known, such as Inoue Enryō’s bestselling books on Buddhism. A good number of texts are discussed in depth for the English reader for the first time, such as the writings of the biologist Oka Asajiro, or anti-evolutionist ideologues in the 1930’s such as Kihira Tadayoshi.
What were some of the challenges you encountered during your research?
To start with, getting on top of evolutionary theory and biology was a challenge, though one I have throughly enjoyed, fundamentally changing my thinking. Here I was, in Chicago in the field of Japanese history, but finding myself in the science library, reading about organisms, embryology, and adaptation! When embarking on the research, one challenge was the sheer volume of texts I had to go through. As I mentioned above, I quickly realized that it did not make sense to study only one tradition -for example Buddhism- and its interactions with evolution, as it was the interaction between Buddhism, Christianity, Shinto, and the state, which drove this history. One of the more difficult problems was how to understand the relative positions of religious and scientific thought in Japanese thought and ideology in the 1930’s and 1940’s. I believe that this period is -strangely enough, considering its importance- not yet understood thoroughly. Historians have tended to resort to blanket labels, such as “ulta-nationalism,” “fascism,” “fanaticism,” and so on, but these don’t explain a lot. In the case of science and religion, the state promoted both an image of Japan as a “scientific” modern nation as well as a divine country, and there was a tension there, manifesting itself in reactions against evolution. In the end many tensions remained unresolved. It is a very complex period.
What research findings surprised you during the course of writing this book?
I was surprised how religious ideas sometimes subtly influenced biological research, most notably in the cases of Minakata Kumagusu and Imanishi Kinji. The latter’s ideas eventually influenced primatology worldwide.
Considering the overall course of evolutionary theory in Japan, at first I had assumed evolutionary theory in Japan was somewhat of a conservative ideology of the Meiji period, and historians of Japan have almost invariably talked about evolution in these terms. Several years into the project, and I saw the point of gravity shifting more and more into the twentieth century, even into the postwar period. This radically changed the story of evolutionary theory in Japan: in the twentieth century, evolutionary theory became much more politically charged. And instead of a politically conservative “social Darwinism,” I found that the socialists and anarchists heavily embraced, promoted, and used evolutionary theory to criticize the state and capitalism. Utopian thinkers, Buddhist and Christian, used evolutionary theory to imagine a future that was altogether different from capitalism and the struggle between nation-states. It was also in the 1930’s that we see a religious anti-evolutionary backlash, which my book explains for the first time. So, much more than I expected at first, in the end the story in the book became very political.
How would you like this book to complicate readers’ understandings of the reception of evolutionary theory around the globe?
I believe that looking at how evolutionary theory was read, understood, and used outside of Europe and the United States changes the history of evolutionary theory. To start, creationism was not such a big concern. But the idea of nature as a hard place, “red in tooth and claw,” and dominated by competition between individuals, was deeply unsettling. Many Japanese thinkers suspected that such a view had less to do with nature than with prejudices that emerged from Western societies and free-market capitalism. In retrospect, some of their concerns seem justified, and there is now a lot of research into how cooperation and traits such as empathy are also products of evolution. But despite these differences, I believe Japanese responses to evolution were also different manifestations of a very similar human condition in the modern world. It is perhaps too early to make large conclusions, but I hope my book will make a more global history of evolutionary theory possible. I believe recognizing that creationism is just one story among many of humanity’s religious engagements with evolution is a start.
Second, other historians have made this point too, but the relation between evolution and religion is not all only about “conflict”; Japanese religious thinkers found themselves also stimulated and inspired by evolutionary theory, and religion facilitated and shaped the transmission of evolutionary thought to Japan. Finally, and this goes beyond the book itself, but we have not yet digested all the implications of Darwinism. Some early Japanese twentieth century thinkers were more willing than many of us to think through the radical implications of evolution, and found evolution confirmed or enhanced their religious beliefs. As a historian I discuss this history in Japan objectively, but I personally do have some sympathy for the idea that knowledge of the spectacle of evolution can stimulate a sense of what can perhaps be called a religious awe and a deep connection to nature.