The theory of the biological evolution of species has been formulated by several scholars, but undoubtedly the most renowned of these is of course Charles Darwin (1968). In 1859 Darwin published his "The origin of species by natural selection.
In this book, he presents his biological theory of speciation which is in fact a mechanistic, materialist theory. Any kind of divine or supernatural intervention, but also all possible types of teleological factors are firmly excluded from Darwin's theory.
Species, including man, are seen as the result of mutated variations within former species. Despite the fact that most if not all of us find the purely physicalistic account of speciation repulsive or existentially unsatisfactory, it is almost generally acknowledged that some form of Darwinian evolution would explain best the richness and variety of biological species on earth.
Naturally, there have been some important developments within the theory of evolution since its formulation by Darwin, one of which centers around the idea of the "selfish gene" (Dawkins, 1976). Also, there always has been some opposition against the mechanistic view of evolution. On the one hand, irrational opposition is coming from fundamentalist religious movements which simply reject the theory of evolution out of hand, because it does not correspond with their holy scriptures. On the other hand, however, there are the so called (neo)vitalists, who defend that while biological life is submitted to evolution, it cannot be reduced to purely mechanical, material processes. A contemporary champion of this rival of materialist biology, is Rupert Sheldrake (1987).
Also, there is a non-fundamentalist movement called Intelligent Design, which claims to have found scholarly evidence for a 'designer' in biological data.
If we leave aside fundamentalist claims to the contrary, it seems very clear indeed that species develop from other species and that there really is such a thing as biological evolution. Both fossiles and rudimentary organs and genetical data all point to this almost inevitable outcome.
In this short paper I will consider what the universality of reincarnation means within the framework of biological evolution. For the question whether reincarnation is universal, I refer to my paper "Amnesia: The universality of reincarnation and the preservation of psychological structure" (written in 1995).
The variability of species and the variability of souls
Both species and people are continuously changing. It is therefore very improbable that a person's evolution through a series of incarnations would have started within the limits of one specific species. In other words, a human person is not for ever limited to being human, and a dog is not for ever limited to being a dog. Just as species boundaries change and lead to new species, a soul transmigrates from a series of incarnations in organisms of one species to a series of incarnations in bodies of another. There is no reason whatsoever to think otherwise, apart from anthropocentric, human chauvinism. The vanity of the human species which has had very destructive consequences for the other animals (Singer, 1990; Rivas & Rivas, 1991) and also the vegetative and inorganic environment, is completely at odds with biological insights about evolution. It should not refrain us from realizing that (1) reincarnation most probably is not limited to human souls and (2) reincarnation is not linked to the boundaries of one particular species. This is one of the extremely important lessons we can learn from rationalist reincarnation theory: We are not our bodies, but we possess them, and thus we are not the particular size, complexion, sex, race or even species that characterize our bodies. Though bodily characteristics remain as such useful, beautiful and enjoyable, they should never again be taken for intrinsic qualities of the personal soul that inhabits the body.
Also, the fact that metempsychosis is an important part of reincarnation implies that there are no species-specific souls, but rather one type of soul with one type of psychical nature which can adapt to any species. Just as sex change cases of the reincarnation type prove that men and women as such do not possess ultimate reality as categories within reality, but rather share the same psychological nature, species as such can only be seen as instrumental phases of the personal evolution of souls which in their nature are all the same.
By metempsychosis, which is Greek for reincarnation, I here mean the reincarnation into another biological species. Following the conclusion I have drawn above, metempsychosis must be a rather common process. Very often, souls must make the step from dying in a body of one species to be reincarnated into an organism of another.
Now, certain religious movements claim that simply the human act of behaving like a certain type of animal would lead to a reincarnation in precisely such an animal. For example, a person who would behave like a pig, would reincarnate as a pig (Prabhupada, 1988). Typically, such theories are very crude and unproven. They do not show ethological insight in the real behaviour of animals such as pigs and are in a way an insult to other species. On the other hand, some cases of the reincarnation type show that certain persons who have led what many would consider as immoral lives, still return to physical existence in a human form, so that they directly refute the types of theories mentioned above (See e.g.: Stevenson, 1970). Therefore, metempsychosis most probably will follow a kind of "logic": a soul which has already developed a human mind, which is more complex than that of monkey, will in general not return to a life as a monkey, let alone to a life of an even less complex animal. Psychologically there is indeed a kind of scale of mental development, both cognitively, emotionally and motivationally, as emotion and motivation are greatly dependent on cognition. Metempsychosis will follow a path of personal evolution which in that sense is not as arbitrary as biological evolution. Whereas biological evolution as such represents mere change, it is to be expected that personal evolution represents a kind of psychological progress, at least in the functional sense.
It would by the way be very interesting to find people who could recall lives as non-human animals (Gray, 1994), or even animals who remember previous lives. In this last category, one should think of experiments with sign language with the Great Apes which one day might reveal memories of previous lives in such man-like animals.
Is man the limit?
Many religious traditions are extremely anthropocentric. Man would be in all senses the final and incorrigible ruler of creation. Similarly, according to popular interpretations of biological evolution theory, man could hardly be surpassed as a species.
But if we look closely at this assertion, we see its narrow-mindedness. There is no particular reason to believe that man could not biologically evolve into biologically more complex beings, especially with more complex nervous systems.
Not only that, there might already be physical organisms somewhere in the universe, that biologically have evolved beyond a point comparable to that of our species.
But we might also imagine, that at some point the biological potential within the physical realm will have been exhausted, so that personal evolution would have to continue in some other realm, after a soul would have reached that particular point.
Exobiology and reincarnation
Exobiology is the study of biological life outside our planet Earth. Until now, we have not found any generally accepted physical evidence for such life. We have found however that our part of the physical universe is not as unique as people used to believe. All over the universe, there are galaxies with countless stars. And there is evidence that at least some of these stars have satellites comparable to our sun's planets. Even the most modest estimations of chances of physical life generating outside the earth's atmosphere, are still very high.
Of course, animal life cannot exist without souls that incarnate into physical bodies. Thus, on any planet in the universe inhabited by animal beings, including humanoids (and beyond), reincarnation must occur.
It is conceivable, although we can say very little about its chances, that reincarnation also occurs between inhabited planets all over the universe.
Vitalism and reincarnation
The theory of personal evolution also has consequences for the vitalistic interpretation of biological evolution. We have to recognize that biological evolution clearly supports personal evolution and is in a sense "meant" for it, even without acknowledging any type of creation. It must therefore be subordinate to personal evolution and generally follow its necessities. A purely mechanical theory of biology does not make sense within the framework of reincarnation research. Biology teleologically serves the evolution of the personal mind, similarly to the phenomenon of the speech organs obeying and following the mental thought patterns to be expressed through them.
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This paper was first published online in 1998 on the website Reincarnation Research.
Contact: Titus Rivas