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When culture clashes with science: Teaching evolution to Tibetan monks

“We believe that we came into existence when an ogress mated with a monkey. Is that possible?”

The question comes from one of a hundred saffron-clad Tibetan monks sitting cross-legged on floor cushions; they are my students for a two-week crash course on evolutionary theory. It’s my first day, and I’m already in a quandary. Cultural narratives and science conflict all the time. How could I field such questions without disaffecting the class?

I was there with a team of other scientists who traveled from the U.S. to a rural Indian village at the invitation of the Dalai Lama. Several years ago, His Holiness initiated the integration of modern science into Buddhist teachings, traditions that had been static for thousands of years.

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“Yes, I had that dream. I was the monkey. I don’t like to talk about how it turned out.” Once the translator delivers the line and laughter engulfs the classroom, my tension dissolves. I can go on with the science.

Most importantly, I learned that it is critical to humanize myself before expecting anyone to invest trust in what I am saying.

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