Deepak Chopra, in the unlikely event you have never heard of him, is a world-famous doctor who advocates for alternative medicine. Labeled by The New York Times in 2013 as “the controversial New Age guru,” and beloved by Oprah Winfrey, he has written more than 80 books, and has connections to several universities, including Northwestern and Columbia. He founded the Chopra Center for Wellbeing more than a decade ago in southern California, where, Chopra’s website says, people can go “to heal their physical pain, find emotional freedom, empower themselves, and connect to their inner spiritual life.”
So why am I writing about him? Because of the strong reaction that a scientist has had to statements by Chopra about evolution, the animating principle of modern biology that people, apparently including Chopra, keep denying. He is Steven Newton, the programs and policy director of the National Center for Science Education, a non-profit organization that provides information and resources for schools, parents, and concerned citizens working to keep evolution and climate science in public school science education. Newton taught geology and oceanography at a number of California colleges and developed courses on the history of science and the geology of America’s national parks. With broad interests in paleoclimatology, paleontology, science education, and the phenomenon of science denial, he has written for New Scientist, Christian Science Monitor, Philadelphia Inquirer, Huffington Post, Earth, and The Earth Scientist.
This post about appeared on the website of the NCSE. I am republishing it with permission.
By Steven Newton
I’ve never done anything to Deepak Chopra. At least, not in this lifetime. Perhaps I’ve mocked his surrealistically bizarre anti-science pronouncements among my friends a few times, or a few thousand times. How could I not when he tweeted that his personal meditation caused an earthquake or claimed that the moon doesn’t exist unless someone sees it? Chopra is so on the fringe, it can actually be fun to read him. But when he goes after evolution, it starts to feel personal — and less amusing.
Chopra says he believes that there is some “consciousness” that flows through the universe—an energy field created by all living things, surrounding us and penetrating us, binding the galaxy together…no, wait, that’s the Force I’m thinking of. Chopra’s notion of consciousness has more in common with that book The Secret, which says if you just think really hard you can change reality. (A lot of children engage in this magical thinking, but as they mature they outgrow it—apparently with some exceptions.)
So perhaps this universal consciousness helped Chopra sense my negative energy. At a recent conference in New Delhi he reportedly said:
Charles Darwin was wrong. Consciousness is key to evolution and we will soon prove that.
Why does he have to hurt my brain like this—what have I ever done to him? Darwin “wrong”? Consciousness directing evolution? Evolution being affected by the thinking of beings that haven’t yet evolved, in some sort of tachyon-induced time warp? His words quantum-entangle my mind in a synergistic charlie foxtrot of howling madness. I am tempted to say, indeed, that his Higgs boson meditations on objective reality transmute existential silence into intrinsic photons—oh, wait, that’s just some nonsense from the Chopra random quote generator.
Chopra further explains on Twitter:
An emerging view, alternate to Darwin’s random mutations & natural selection is that consciousness may be the driver of complexity/evolution.
An emerging view, alternate to Darwin’s random mutations & natural selection is that consciousness may be the driver of complexity/evolution
— Deepak Chopra (@DeepakChopra) October 20, 2014
Again with the “consciousness.” Again with no specifics on how this drives evolution. Is a jelly in the ocean obeying universal consciousness as it pulses its stinging cells toward prey? Does a plant have consciousness? Does Kim Kardashian?
When I think about the natural world, consciousness is not the first thing that springs to mind. I think instead of organisms frantically killing and eating other organisms, munching with full cheeks (if they have cheeks) even as something munches on them. Big fish nom little fish, sea lions nom big fish, orcas nom sea lions. This Hobbesian/Mad Max tableau plays the same everywhere, from rain forests to deserts to coral reefs, in a desperate and ultimately futile race to keep from being eaten alive. Some vague universal consciousness doesn’t have anything to do with driving evolution. But advantages that help with the biting part—those are important and do drive evolution.
Chopra finished his remarkable diatribe by laying into education:
Kids are learning more from their video games than the PhDs at the MIT.
I was unable to verify that MIT is admitting students based on what video games they play, rather than their SAT scores. Maybe Chopra needs to have a chat with the admissions office there. I was also unable to verify Chopra’s claim that the PhDs at MIT offer less educational value in their courses than playing Grand Theft Auto, Minecraft, or Call of Duty. But you can judge for yourself: MIT has an active program of sharing its courses online, so everyone has the opportunity to learn a lot if they can just pause the video games.
Chopra promises proof for his outlandish claims that Darwin was wrong and that consciousness drives evolution, but I’m not going to hold my breath. Holding my breath would lead to low oxygen saturation in the blood and a slightly delusional state, which might make me susceptible to hearing incoherent babbling strewn with scientific terms—quantum! electro-chemical! wave-particle duality!—and mistaking it for meaningful statements. Chopra’s misappropriation of scientific terms in the service of his nonsense mirrors the way Scientology operates, and likely for the same reason: to make a buck from the gullible.
Use your consciousness to decide to ignore Chopra.