Read: Commentary on Are Abdu'l-Baha's views on evolution original?

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Keven Brown
Are 'Abdu'l-Bahá's views on evolution original?
Eberhard von Kitzing
Is the Bahá'í view of evolution compatible with modern science?

published in the Bahá'í Studies Review 8 (1998)

Controversies concerning evolution are a major contribution to the modern era's perception that there is a conflict between science and religion. It has often been argued that evolutionary science has shown human origins to be in the animal kingdom, contradicting the teachings of religion. A frequently voiced corollary is that human nature is best understood on this basis. Inveighing against this perspective, religionists have often characterised evolutionary findings about human origins as the secular embrace of a purely materialistic understanding seeking to undermine faith in revealed religion. The antagonisms between these two positions and their variants have persisted for more than 100 years, having solidified to form a seemingly permanent divide in Western society.

According to the Bahá'í writings, conflict between science and religion is undesirable. Rejecting the view that science and religion necessarily clash, they insist that science and true religion go hand-in-hand. They complement each other and must interact. The current task of humanity, they make clear, "is to create a global civilisation which embodies both the spiritual and material dimensions of existence."(14) This requires "a progressive interaction between the truths and principles of religion and the discoveries and insights of scientific inquiry."(15) In light of this view, 'Abdu'l-Bahá's commentaries on evolutionary theories and the origin of man, addressed primarily to educated western audiences in the first two decades of the 20th century, are of great interest. They appear to be the fullest and most sustained discussion of issues involving science and religion available in the Bahá'í writings, often contrasting conclusions characteristic of 19th century European philosophy with those of prophetic religion as seen through the Bahá'í teachings.

Here, I briefly outline some of the salient points in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's discussion of the origins of man, emphasising how they might be understood in relationship to modern concepts in science. I then compare these understandings with the brief comments on 'Abdu'l-Bahá's discussions of the origins of man by Keven Brown and Eberhard von Kitzing recently published in The Bahá'í Studies Review.(16, 17)

'Abdu'l-Bahá uses first logical proofs, then spiritual proofs, to address issues related to evolution and the origins of man, making a clear distinction between the two.(18) In his logical proofs, he strongly emphasises that humans are different from animals, although their physical body "grows and develops through the animal spirit."(19) This difference is due to the rational soul, the seat of man's intelligence and spiritual receptivity:

The human spirit which distinguishes man from the animal is the rational soul, and these two names - the human spirit and the rational soul - designate one thing. This spirit, which in the terminology of the philosophers is the rational soul, embraces all beings, and as far as human ability permits discovers the realities of things...(20)

Referring to 19th century arguments about the origins of man, he argues that the physical resemblance of humans to apes is not proof that human origins lie in the animal kingdom. Although humans may have once had a different appearance, appearance is not the central human reality. As an example of how appearance may alter over time, he draws an analogy to the changes that take place as an embryo develops to an adult or a seed to a tree:

The forms assumed by the human embryo in its successive changes do not prove that it is animal in its essential character... Realizing this we may acknowledge the fact that at one time man was an inmate of the sea, at another period an invertebrate, then a vertebrate and finally a human being standing erect. Though we admit these changes, we cannot say man is an animal... Proof of this lies in the fact that in the embryo man still resembles a worm. This embryo still progresses from one state to another, assuming different forms until that which was potential in it - namely, the human image - appears.(21)

In other passages, he emphasises that the human reality appears as a result of a certain composition of elements. When that combination appears, then man exists:

As the perfection of man is entirely due to the composition of the atoms of the elements, to their measure, to the method of their combination, and to the mutual influence and action of the different beings - then, since man was produced ten or a hundred thousand years ago from these earthly elements with the same measure and balance, the same method of combination and mingling, and the same influence of the other beings, exactly the same man existed then as now.(22)

This combination, according to 'Abdu'l-Bahá, "is the creation of God, and is not a fortuitous composition and arrangement."(23) For that combination to be brought into being, however, took time. From embryonic beginnings, man evolved:

Then it is clear that original matter, which is in the embryonic state, and the mingled and composed elements which were its earliest forms, gradually grew and developed during many ages and cycles, passing from one shape and form to another, until they appeared in this perfection, this system, this organization and this establishment, through the supreme wisdom of God.(24)

From this brief outline, it is clear that 'Abdu'l-Bahá views an evolutionary process taking place over a very long time before "the perfection" that is man appeared. Similarly clear is his view that the appearance of this perfection was not merely fortuitous, but through the creative power of God. It is wrong, therefore, to view man as originating from the animals. However, it would not be wrong to say that man appeared from the animals, as long as the place of appearance is not confused with the reality of that which has appeared. Indeed, these and other statements imply that animals had to exist before humans.

Are 'Abdu'l-Bahá's views of evolution compatible with modern science? Because of the central emphasis on the equality of science and religion in the Bahá'í teachings, and because the Bahá'í Faith endorses and validates the process by which science arrives at its answers, I would expect the answer to be "yes." Nonetheless, a detailed understanding of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's comments about interpretations of evolutionary principles is quite important, if only because it strongly illuminates the Bahá'í viewpoint of the unity of science and religion. Clearly, his comments that humans do not originate from the animals appear in conflict with evolutionary science, or at least certain interpretations of it. But most of the other apparent conflicts, I think, are due to philological issues and translation problems.

'Abdu'l-Bahá's denial of the animal origins of humankind involves an appeal to the existence of our intelligence and its powers. This intelligence, he explains, is associated with certain configurations of matter and molecules. Evolutionary processes are responsible for these particular configurations, much as adult forms emerge from embryonic origins. Given suitable material configurations, intelligence becomes manifest. An analogy might be sand on the beach. By themselves, the silicon atoms composing sand exhibit no special transistor-like or computer-like properties. However, if they are layered into crystalline structures with selected impurities, then an entirely different set of properties emerges. An entirely different set of natural laws - solid state physics and the notions of band structure - come into play. The technological result is transistors, and with them, computers, the Internet, and the information age we live in. Much as the properties of transistors are not those of silicon atoms - although silicon atoms figure prominently in their composition - the capabilities of humans are not limited to those of the animal world - although humans and animals have similar biological "substrates."

The idea that our intelligence shows us to be distinct and different from the animal world is sometimes not considered to be in accord with a considerable body of interpretation and philosophical speculation developed over the last 150 years. Science, however, is distinct and different from interpretations and philosophical speculations, or even the sincere beliefs of supporters of those interpretations or speculations. If it were not, evolutionary theories would be universally condemned because of their role in the rise of modern racialist and nationalist ideologies. However, this idea is very much in accord with the modern interest in the nature of language, the mind, and consciousness, an interest that cuts across boundaries between biology, computing science, physics, the cognitive sciences, medicine, and philosophy.(25) Gaining a fuller understanding of language, the mind and consciousness is often considered the major scientific challenge facing 21st century science. 'Abdu'l-Bahá's concern with what is specifically human about intelligence and rationality closely aligns him with current scientific, technical, philosophical, and humanitarian concerns.

'Abdu'l-Bahá's comment that rationality emerges from and is due to material configurations is strongly compatible with some of the central ideas of modern science, including those of quantum mechanics and complexity theory. It is also consistent with the modern philosophical rejection of the naive reductionism of earlier positivist philosophies. A compelling illustration of the importance of material configurations is the modern quantum mechanical explanation for the universe-wide stability, reproducibility, and repeatability of atomic behaviour. Before 'Abdu'l-Bahá's era, this stability was inexplicable. Classical models of electron motion about a nucleus predicted unavoidable instabilities and widespread variations in the atomic properties of even a single species of an atom. Quantum wave theory, introduced during 'Abdu'l-Bahá's lifetime, showed that the same atomic configuration always led to the same behaviour. Modern complexity theory describes how complex systems, though composed of elementary components obeying the simplest of laws, exhibit "emergent" properties that depend on - but that transcend - the properties of the elementary components alone. Because of examples like these, modern scientists tend to think that "higher-order" phenomena are built into the laws of nature. That is to say, intelligence, language, and creativity are as much a component of natural law as collisions between billiard balls. This is not a byproduct or an accident of "lower-order" effects, but an inescapable property of the laws of nature. So, while animal attributes may have necessarily preceded the emergence of human attributes - language, mind, rationality, and the like - such human attributes are not the properties of animals. Applied to the issue of evolution, this type of thinking suggests, in accord with 'Abdu'l-Bahá's emphasis on material composition, that human intelligence is an "emergent" phenomenon.

Eberhard von Kitzing has discussed several of these perspectives in his essay on the compatibility of the Bahá'í view of evolution with modern science.(*) 'Abdu'l-Bahá, he has argued, does not endorse a static view of the world. Rather he speaks of dynamic processes by which "potential" becomes reality. 'Abdu'l-Bahá rejects the doctrine of "self-creational" evolution of humankind as it violates the spiritual truth "that humanity mirrors the timeless names and attributes of God." He also rejects the notion that human characteristics evolved "on the path of evolution," arguing in two ways. One is an argument from composition: similar compositions, although coming into being at separate times, will always yield the same result. Once the appropriate composition appears, potentiality becomes reality. Human potential is inherent to the laws of the universe, not something created through an evolutionary process. Also, he speaks of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's endorsing the idea of "timeless species" essence. Although humans might have once appeared in a different form, this does not mean that their essence (or potentiality) was then different. This, von Kitzing says, suggests that "timeless species essence" is compatible with evolution.

Keven Brown, in his essay on whether or not the Bahá'í views on evolution are original, argues that 'Abdu'l-Bahá considers that the "cause of formation is not via God directly, but via species essence."(*) This view he considers as "based on the Judeo-Christian-Islamic doctrine that the formation of all things is by God's creative power." Brown argues that this viewpoint is "firmly based in Platonic essentialistic metaphysics" as "understood by Muslim philosophers." He also describes 'Abdu'l-Bahá as holding that the appearance of certain phenomena - say, mind and intelligence - is dependent on certain compositions of matter being present.

Von Kitzing's evaluation of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's point of view is much in accord with what I have outlined above, but uses different language and terminology. It does not directly relate 'Abdu'l-Bahá's thought to 20th century intellectual trends, as I have done here, but focuses more on 19th century European thinking. Brown also addresses 19th century thought, but from the perspective of philosophical developments in the Middle East. Both, it seems to me, strongly emphasise the philosophical in 'Abdu'l-Bahá's comments, appropriate enough for the 19th century when science was not so clearly delineated from philosophy. However, much of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's argument on the origins of man was addressed to educated 20th century European and North American audiences, for whom the difference between philosophy and science was becoming important. In doing so, he drew a clear distinction between rational and spiritual arguments, even labelling certain arguments as being from Middle Eastern philosophy. He also constantly emphasised the progressive aspects of modern science and technology. His approach, I think, is distinctly and clearly modern, not philosophical. Certainly, there is little reason to believe that the Bahá'í concept of the unity of science and religion is not found in nascent form in Judaic, Christian, and Islamic doctrine. But, just as certainly, it is the modern and mature forms of the concept of the unity of science and religion that are now important, and these seem to be reflected in his comments. This could well imply that his intent is better understood by correlating his rational arguments with modern scientific understandings, not 19th century philosophical ones.

'Abdu'l-Bahá's comments on evolution, I conclude, are best approached as rational arguments and spiritual truths. Then, it becomes apparent that he lays no challenge to scientific facts or to a scientific approach toward understanding evolution, but challenges as incorrect certain speculative inferences from those facts. In particular, he denies the validity of inferences which insist that human nature originates from animal nature. He rebuts this inference scientifically and spiritually. Scientifically, he argues from premises of the uniqueness of human intelligence and the universality of natural laws. Human rationality is necessarily associated with unique configurations of matter and therefore emerges from the laws of nature. Thus, to argue that humans are an accident of animal evolution is to misconstrue natural laws. While at odds with certain trends of speculation accompanying the rise of the evolutionary sciences, this approach is strongly compatible with many aspects of modern thought and science, including its distrust of metaphysical speculation. Spiritually, he argues that the prophets have always taught that human nature differs from animal nature and that recognition of this is essential to the spiritual growth of both individuals and societies.

End Notes

  1. Some Answered Questions 50:1.
  2. SAQ 50:1,3.
  3. SAQ 46:3.
  4. Ernst Mayr, The Growth of Biological Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1982).
  5. SAQ 63:1.
  6. See Mayr, Growth and Jacques Monod, Le Hasard et la Nicessiti (Paris, 1970).
  7. SAQ 46:5.
  8. SAQ 47:8.
  9. See Mayr, Growth.
  10. SAQ 47:3.
  11. See Daniel C. Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1995); Mayr, Growth and Monod, Hasard.
  12. See Peter W. Atkins, The Creation (Oxford: Freeman & Company, 1981); John Archibald Wheeler, Information, Physics, Quantum: the Search for Links (Tokyo: Proc. 3rd Int. Symp. Foundation of Quantum Mechanics, 1989).
  13. Bahá'u'lláh, The Hidden Words, Arabic no. 66.
  14. From a letter on behalf of the Universal House of Justice to an individual believer dated 14 March 1996.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Keven Brown, "Are 'Abdu'l-Bahá's views on evolution original?" The Bahá'í Studies Review 7 (1997): 61-63.
  17. Eberhard von Kitzing, "Is the Bahá'í view of evolution compatible with modern science?", The Bahá'í Studies Review 7 (1997): 64-67.
  18. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1964) 195-197.
  19. Ibid., 144.
  20. Ibid., 209.
  21. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace (Wilmette: Bahá'í Publishing Trust, 1982) 358-9.
  22. 'Abdu'l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions 179.
  23. Ibid., 181.
  24. Ibid., 183.
  25. Noam Chomsky, Language and Problems of Knowledge (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1988).
  26. * this footnote is missing from the online version of this article v2.7 (213613) © 2005 - 2015 Emanuel V. Towfigh & Peter Hoerster | Imprint | Change Interface Language: DE EN