Thursday, June 28, 2007

Evident and Confirmed Confusion

Two unconscious assumptions underlie most Bahá’í declarations of the harmony of science and religion. One is that other religions would have to change their beliefs to accept this principle, and the other is that the Bahá’í Faith does not, because it is by definition in harmony with science. Yet, without knowing it, the happy souls that habitually deliver to their interlocutors the sloganized wisdom that religion without science is superstition are skipping through life believing something completely incompatible with science's understanding of evolution.

They know everything ‘Abdu’l-Bahá said is true. They know science and true religion are compatible. And they, like most people who believe in evolution, do not know much of anything specific about it.

If someone comes along to challenge this cozy smugness with a few details of natural selection and common descent they may, as one friend has recently done to me, say “I don’t want to talk with you about the Bahá’í Faith any more.” Of course they might also rise to the occasion and say that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was infallible in guiding the Faith, not in speaking on science subjects. This is probably the best that can be done with the situation.

Still, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá did not seem to see himself this way, and he swatted away evolution like a flea in his panties or a fly in his turban:

We have now come to the question of the modification of species and organic development— that is to say to the point of inquiring whether man’s descent is from the animal. This theory has found credence in the minds of some European philosophers and it is now very difficult to make its falseness understood. But in the future it will become evident and clear and the European philosophers will themselves realize its untruth, for verily it is an evident error.
Some Answered Questions, page 177.

He goes on to say that the world and specifically man are perfect as they are; therefore if they were different from how they are now they would not be perfect. And since existence must have the quality of perfection, it must always have been like this. This kind of merry-go-round logic takes you for a ride but gets you nowhere. And as if he realizes this, he contradicts himself later when he says,
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.

Some Answered Questions, page 183.
That sounds a little promising, like there might be grounds for the Bahá’í claim to accept evolution. But ‘Abdu’l Bahá reiterates his rejection of the evolution of species in a letter:
Some of the philosophers of Europe think that one species evolves into another species. For example, that the animal evolved until it became a human being. But the prophets teach that this theory is erroneous, as we have explained already in the book Some Answered Questions.

Má’idiy-i Asmáni 2: 69; quoted in Keven Brown, “Are ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Views on Evolution Original?”, Bahá’í Studies Review 7 (1997), available at
Dance around with ‘Abdu’l Bahá’s other words and a grab bag of philosophical and scientific ideas all you want (as some writers have done), but to reject the evolution of novel species from other species is to reject evolution; that is what evolution is.

‘Abdu’l Bahá confuses the matter by employing human gestation as an analogy to describe the development of the human species, which he says changed without becoming a new species.
[M]an, in the beginning of his existence and in the womb of the earth, like the embryo in the womb of the mother, gradually grew and developed, and passed from one form to another, from one shape to another, until he appeared with this beauty and perfection . . . Thus it is evident and confirmed that the development and growth of man on this earth, until he reached his present perfection, resembled the growth and development of the embryo in the womb of the mother. . . . [M]an’s existence on this earth, from the beginning until it reaches this state, form, and condition, necessarily lasts a long time, and goes through many degrees until it reaches this condition. But from the beginning of man’s existence he is a distinct species.

Some Answered Questions, page 184.
In a blurry sort of way this analogy has been adopted as what most Bahá’ís seem to know as the Bahá’í position on human evolution. We evolved through many forms, but all those forms were in essence already human, like an embryo in a womb starts off as a single cell and ends up a baby, but is never a species other than human. But it is hard to say exactly what ‘Abdu’l Bahá was talking about. What was the original human form? How did it originate? What were the mechanisms of change?

‘Abdu’l Bahá made confused, ungrounded assertions. Evolutionary theory, by contrast, defines specific mechanisms of change that explain the concrete evidence of current life and the fossil record—and it leads to conclusions in conflict with ‘Abdu’l Bahá’s assertions. All species, including ours, descend from other species with modification primarily by natural selection acting on random variation.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá was a wonderful man, handsome as hell, funny, generous to the point of giving away the pants off his own body. He established a high-water mark for men’s hairdos as well as for flexibility, steadiness and compassion in guiding a neurotic and disorganized band of zealous converts. I’m sorry Shoghi Effendi has become the standard in the Bahá’í world for both men’s hair and administrative and compositional style.

But when it came to the subject of evolution, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá was trying to walk with his sneakers tied together. The man didn't know what he was talking about and was very certain that he did. It is not possible to uphold his complete infallibility while accepting the validity of evolutionary biology. But trying to may make you a practiced intellectual contortionist.


Anonymous said...


Nice to see you blogging. We need more perspectives, especially interesting ones, so this is a welcome start.

Regarding the present entry, I can say that I'm surprised at how emphatically Abdu'l Baha denounces evolution as most of us know it! The extent to which he disliked the conclusions of European scientists is rarely discussed...

But I think I'm most interested in what you said at the end. For me it's not what Abdu'l Baha said that's fascinating as much as the "intellectual contortions" you mention. It's not AB being wrong so much as people tying their brains in knots conceiving of how he was never wrong that I love.

Thanks for the read and good luck with further blogging.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...


I stumbled over your blog (thanks for your postings!) and cannot leave it again without tying my brain in knots for you.

Even modern evolutionary theory is still evolving and it is much fun watching evolutionary biologists fighting each other tooth and nails about "egoistic genes" and "dissipative systems far from equilibrum". We (h. sapiens) often tend to be rather far from equilibrum, that's true...

I am still a mad scientist (an evolutionary biologist to the bone)and I was an unshakeable atheist until I started to read the books of Bahá'u'lláh. It took me more than 6 years, however, to declare myself as a Bahá'í last year. But here we are.

Concerning evolution and religion, I am fully at peace with myself and the writings today. Even if we take the common understanding of Darwin's great theory and all the modern research results eternally for granted, they still get along with the spiritual teachings of Abdul'l Baha quite easily. The main difficulty for me seems to be - as so often in life - to distinguish between matter and spirit :-)

Biological evolution means bodies of beings suffering for food and shelter as well as struggling to raise potential next generations. If you start earthly evolution again, let's say with a protoplasma, and you can maintain the very same conditions over the whole time, you would most probably end up with humans again. Its not magic, just maths. Having humans as a species is somehow part of the whole story from the very beginning, even with ol' Charles D. at the rudder (Having Hitler again is in contrast a question of how we use our free will). So in a way humans have been there in the book from the very first page on (the big bang?), although they do not play a major rule in the story until you read the current chapter.

In some way we are still ON the way to BECOME humans, our evolution unfortunately does not stop at cultures and politics. However, I understand the concept of "man" in a spiritual meaning. We might have a chance to realise unity in diversity, to live in love&peace&harmony and to come closer to God. But we have to become "humans" instead of genetically selfish fighting lying backbiting "homo sapiens" for that, or perish like other species did before.

And if we fail in our task?
Then it might be up to the bonobo chimps or the elephants to have their run for the "human" crown: further evolve to become more conscious, religious and day by day to move closer to the "source & perfection of everything"
God knows...

"Nature is without volition and acts perforce whereas man possesses a mighty will. Nature is incapable of discovering mysteries or realities whereas man is especially fitted to do so. Nature is not in touch with the realm of God, man is attuned to its evidences. Nature is uninformed of God, man is conscious of Him. Man acquires divine virtues, nature is denied them."
(Abdu'l-Baha, Baha'i World Faith - Abdu'l-Baha Section, p. 235)

Concerning your other interesting postings, I can only add that infallibility imho has never been a human attribute. Declaring myself as Bahá'í does not automatically imply that I have found truth at the end of the day (it is indeed a pity).

It meant more a beginning.

With love from the cold&stormy German North,


Anonymous said...

Hello Stefan:
Reading the opening post I had heart tremors trying to formulate my feelings. I read your post and fretted no more for I agree with you a hundred percent.
We were perfect humans as lemurs. We are perfect humans for today. God only knows the form we will take in the future on our spiritual journey through time and space.

Anonymous said...

My impression is that Abdu'l-Baha based His observations on nature, on His observations of the spiritual realm as an archetype of this natural world. His "Tablet of the Universe" demonstrates this, and is fascinating reading. Just google it -- it's easy to find. I've been told it's an authentic Tablet, and that this translation is by a person who has assisted the Universal House of Justice with other translations. -- Brent Poirier, attorney at cybermesa dot com

Mrs.Love said...

I agree with Stephan in his "Anon" posting. While reading your post I could only think what I've always understood and what Stephan illustrated so nicely for me... no matter what we looked like, apes, microbes, what have you... we were destined to be the humans we are and the humans we are still becoming. I wouldn't doubt we'll look like what we think aliens look like *hahaa* in another million years or so. Tall, big eyes, small noses, no hair. LOL. I don't see the contradiction in Abdu'l Baha's statements or that he denied evolution - only how we understood evolution. But that's me... And Abdu'l Baha did have some lovely hair, didn't he?

anonymousbahai said...

I like you alot (for an internet person) but this post made me sad. That's one of my absolute favorite passages in SAQ :(

Admittedly, I'm not a biologist, but I thought this was a brilliantly accurate, wonderfully poetic description of the evolutionary process.

One small complaint, and I'm honestly not going to bother anybody about it, but I think he's using the word 'species' in a less-than-technical sense here. My guess is that he meant something (approximately) like this:

Spiders do not evolve into monkeys, but they DO evolve into better spiders over time -- they can even evolve into MUCH better spiders, but they will never evolve into monkeys... it's just not possible.

They could conceivably evolve into extremely hairy spiders, giant mutant spiders, flying ninja spiders, or even hyper-sentient space-faring spiders, but they're still just "better" spiders.

-ab (better late than never)

Matthew said...

Abdu'l-Baha is simply stating that the universe has always carried the seed for the human species within it, which unfolded into humanity a few hundred thousand years ago.

The alternative, that we are here by some kind of accidental process, is really just a metaphysical assumption of atheism.

My friend Bruce Charlton has written extensively about the nature of evolution and whether random and undirected mechanisms can account for life in its millions of forms and adaptations.

Unknown said...

Actually, the teachings of Abdul Baha are entirely consistent in this area. If you accept that mankind has a spiritual component, that lives on even after a person's physical death, then you would have to admit that this component must have always existed regardless of mankind's physical form. It is this spiritual component, in the Baha'i view that separates us from the animals. Otherwise, you are forced to admit that at some point in mankind's evolution, we developed a spiritual component. But this would mean that the spiritual component was derived in some way from the physical and therefore contingent upon it, which would be a contradiction.

The only other alternative is that man does not have a spiritual component at all. That he is just an animal with intellectual tools. Accepting this premise, however, would seem to negate all religious faith, and relegate it to the mythical area of mankind because all the world's religions are predicated to some degree on this spritual concept, even the non-theistic ones.