239 Days in America

A Social Media Documentary following 'Abdu'l-Bahá in 1912

October 11, 1912
San Francisco, CA
Storify Feature

‘Abdu’l-Bahá, Darwin, and the Evolution of All Things

CHARLES DARWIN’S BOOK, On the Origin of Species, was printed in Britain on November 24, 1859, and reached American readers two months later. Theories of evolution had gained currency in the decades prior to the book’s publication, including those that suggested that species might change over time. The theories were controversial, conflicting as they did with the orthodox notion of a hierarchy of creatures operating within a fixed system of divine creation, and the scientific community largely opposed them.

Darwin’s book not only argued in favor of evolution, but put forth a compelling theory for how it operated. It explained that in the struggle for life within natural systems, populations more suited to the environment are more likely to survive, and therefore more likely to reproduce. These populations leave inheritable traits to future generations — a process Darwin called “natural selection” — and over time, the resulting variations accumulate to form new species.

The book generated widespread discussion in scientific, philosophical, and religious circles. Liberal theologians welcomed its challenge, noting that religious ideas cannot remain stagnant. Others declared its hypothesis metaphysically neutral. But gradually, its implications became undeniable. If science could explain the creation of increasingly complex forms of life in purely material terms, then perhaps there was no compelling reason to believe in a Creator.

On the evening of October 10, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá addressed the Open Forum in San Francisco — a group devoted to the discussion of economic and philosophical ideas — and he tackled the issue of evolution head on. He argued in favor of evolution, albeit with critical differences from the physical mechanics of Darwin’s theory, and he drew an entirely different set of metaphysical conclusions.

In Darwin’s second book on evolutionary theory, The Descent of Man, published in 1871, he drew biological analogies with baboons, dogs, and “savages” to provide evidence for the descent of humans from animals. In San Francisco on October 10, 1912, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá crafted a more precise definition based on what differentiates humans from animals. Among those critical elements, he said, are reason, abstract thought, and scientific advancement. The animal, he argued, is bound by its five senses and lives entirely within the dictates of natural instinct. “[A]ll phenomena,” he said, “are captives of nature.”

But man is the exception to this rule. “By defying the laws of nature,” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá argued, “he can soar in the air, or sail over the seas in a ship, or explore the deep in a submarine. He can imprison in an incandescent lamp such a tremendous and powerful force as electricity and convert it to his use.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá continued with examples of the most remarkable inventions of the age: the phonograph and telephone among them.

“In brief,” he said, “all the arts and sciences, inventions and discoveries now enjoyed by man were once mysteries of nature and should have remained hidden or latent. But through the ideal faculties of man the laws of nature have been defied, and the secrets of nature have been brought out of the invisible into the plane of the visible.”

Yet despite these distinctive characteristics, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá noted that materialist philosophers “endeavor to prove by the human anatomy that man originated from the animal.” ‘Abdu’l-Bahá agreed that humans had undergone biological changes through time. “Let us suppose,” he said, “that the human anatomy was primordially different from its present form . . . that at one time it was similar to a fish, later an invertebrate and finally human.” Yet throughout this progression, he argued, “the development of man was always human in type, and biological in progression [italics added].”

In 1904 in Palestine, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had described how complex entities develop in response to some questions by Laura Clifford Barney of Washington, DC. “[T]he growth and development of all beings is gradual,” he had told her, “this is the universal divine organization and the natural system.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talk at the Open Forum was one of the longest and most intricate he delivered during his time in America. But its underlying logic rested on two principles. First, while human beings have developed biologically through many stages of evolution, we were always destined to be human, realizing a latent potential over time. Second, the qualities that distinguish us — reason, abstract thought, scientific advancement, and so on — are not merely minor differentiators, but characteristics that separate us fundamentally from animals.

An additional element in ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s engagement with Darwinian evolution was not covered in his San Francisco talk, but was documented by Ms. Barney during her time in Palestine, and published in the 1908 book Some Answered Questions. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá disagreed with Darwin’s contention that evolution is “blind,” lacking purposeful direction or intent. Instead he argued that the evolutionary scheme was part of a divine plan. The appearance of humans, he said, was the culmination of the process. In fact, creation would be imperfect and incomplete without us.

Thirteen years after ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s address to the Open Forum, the debate over evolution in America came to a head during the infamous “Scopes Monkey Trial.” The State of Tennessee had passed a law that made it illegal to teach evolution in state-funded schools. The American Civil Liberties Union financed a test case in which John Scopes, a high school teacher, agreed to violate the law. The nation was transfixed as two legendary figures took up the cause: three-time presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan argued for the prosecution; eminent defense attorney Clarence Darrow defended Scopes.

By the time it was over, a line had been drawn in the sand: science dug in on one side and built a fortress around itself; on the other, religious fundamentalists held firm to a literal interpretation of the Biblical creation story. Those who argued for dialogue, or for a more sophisticated understanding of the issue, found their voices increasingly drowned out in the public sphere.

[Note: The quotations from ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talk at the Open Forum used in this article are taken from the Ella Cooper Papers in the National Bahá’í Archives, United States.]


  • Robert

    A I read this I see the real conflict is not in the origin of the species but rather the role of humanity. Human beings are more than their genes, more than just the latest rung of the evolutionary ladder, they are the reason the ladder even exists. They are not just animals subject to the whim of nature. We must avoid being too literal here, there is no evidence of a separate evolutionary path for humans, but I really think that has nothing to do with what Abdu’l Baha is saying here, but rather that human beings were always the intention of evolution on Earth, even before there was an Earth. He’s arguing against the conclusion drawn from evolution that we are just an “intelligent ape” not evolution itself.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003295938534 Rob Sockett

      Robert, we may be splitting linguistic, or perhaps even metaphysical hairs here, but ‘Abdu’l-Bahá does appear to be arguing that the fact that humans have distinct faculties (and are the the reason the evolutionary ladder even exists, as you note) means that we were on a different and unique evolutionary path from the start, even if that path shares some or nearly all of its “biological” characteristics with other primates. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá uses the word “specie” for this in his talk, but as I understand it, this is a translation of a Persian/Farsi word that means something like “form” or “kind,” almost in a Platonic sense, rather than in the way that Darwin or an evolutionary biologist would use it. And this word may have stronger metaphysical overtones, rather than simply physical or biological ones. This is obviously a very complex matter and will hopefully be discussed and written about in far greater detail in the future. In researching this article, I simply tried to digest the literature available to me the best I could.

      • buggaby

        I heard of a great idea from a friend of mine. Perhaps, in any biologically evolving system given enough time, intelligence and the appearance of the “rational soul” is necessarily the outcome. That would mean that, like the fruit on the tree, humans as rational beings (rather than mammals, which we are also) are destined from the beginning. It’s conceivable that this is something science can investigate.

        So maybe this means that saying “we were on a unique evolutionary path” is like saying “rationality is destined”.

  • buggaby

    This is a sore point for many (including me, to be honest) in the question of science and religion. I really liked the quote referenced here that says that human development has always been “human in type and biological in progression”. That implies to me that the goal (possibly outside evolutionary theory) is spiritual, and the method (definitely within it) is material.
    I do, however, cringe a bit at comments like one made here: “we have evolved within our own human species”. Certainly ‘Abdu’l-Baha used the word “species”. But he also said that religion must be in conformity with scientific findings. If we assume this means that evolution is totally true except that humans have always been biologically unique from everything else on this planet, it’s not only unscientific and conflicts directly with observation (as I know it), it’s quite meaningless, and here’s why.
    We are told in Baha’i writings that humans have “existed” since the dawn of time, but in potential form. Before the formation of planets, no biological evolution could take place. So were humans still distinct from other forms of existence? Did we have special atoms that somehow refused to mix with “normal” ones? This becomes very silly very fast. So, why did humans suddenly have to become unique after biological life started but we were materially the same as everything else before? Examined with reason, this position appears to be inconsistent with reality.
    But, why did ‘Abdu’l-Baha say that we were always a different species?
    One possible explanation is that it wasn’t used in the modern scientific sense, essentially because the modern scientific sense didn’t exist at that time. Basically, he wasn’t making a material claim to humanities uniqueness, but a spiritual one. Humans have always been distinct spiritually, though we may have looked different in the past. This idea is developed by two Baha’ia (Mehanian and Friberg) and can be read in the wikipedia article (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bah%C3%A1'%C3%AD_Faith_and_science#Evolution).
    I don’t know if this is the best or only explanation, or even a correct one. That’s where I agree with the last paragraph. We need a more sophisticated understanding of the issue. And that means both sides need to learn the princples of Baha’i consultation and actually put them into practice.
    Anyway, just my 2 cents.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003295938534 Rob Sockett

      Thanks for that very good set of points, buggaby. See my note below regarding ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s use of the word “specie” in his talk. The word is obviously an English translation — the word in the original does, perhaps, have a stronger metaphysical sense. In writing the article I consulted with a number of people with far greater scientific knowledge that I can pretent to have, and they did confirm that the term “specie” that ‘Abdu’l-Bahá uses does not appear to have the same meaning as the modern scientific usage of the same term. And I completely agree with you that we need a more sophisticated understanding of the issue — it’s something I’ve taken a great interest in over the past few years, and everything I’ve (most of it outside of a discussion of Baha’i writings) just keeps adding more layers of complexity. Here’s a recent book that might interest people:

      • buggaby

        Wonderful. That book looks great. I’m currently reading one that also challenges reductionistic approaches (http://www.amazon.com/Science-Poetry-Routledge-Classics-Midgley/dp/0415378486). Thanks.
        And just to be clear, when I said that I “cringe”, it’s only because of the frailties in my own understanding. I have thoroughly enjoyed all these daily insights into ‘Abdu’l-Baha’s time in North America, this one being no exception. Thank you for taking the time to research and post this.

        • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100003295938534 Rob Sockett

          No problem. I don’t mind people “cringing” at what I write, as long as it’s not too often :) I’ll take a look at the book you mentioned.

      • http://www.facebook.com/Malugssuak Dalton Garis

        Well, science explains the “how” and the “by what means,” and is largely built upon empirical results; while religion is revelatory, building upon past revelations to create an ever more sophisticated explanation of the “why” of things. Note that religious revelation explanations are also falsifiable and empirically testable. Where no possible way exists to gather appropriate data for a proper test, this in no way detracts from the given explanation, but represents a data problem only. Usually, there is a work-around using logic and reasonable constructions to prove a point in question.

  • Firooz R Oskooi, M.D.

    God’s creativity did not end or start with our solar system. His creativity is never ending as any other attribute of God which is infinite. Why wouldn’t or couldn’t God creat another soul or species in the body of an ape? Baha’U'llah’s physical appearance is the same as you and I, yet is he equal to us? If one says “yes” then I would argue that he/she is not familiar with statistics – a branch of Mathematics.

    • Robert

      I was but a man like others, asleep upon My couch, when lo, the breezes of the All-Glorious were wafted over Me, and taught Me the knowledge of all that hath been. This thing is not from Me, but from One Who is Almighty and All-Knowing. And He bade Me lift up My voice between earth and heaven, and for this there befell Me what hath caused the tears of every man of understanding to flow. The learning current amongst men I studied not; their schools I entered not. Ask of the city wherein I dwelt, that thou mayest be well assured that I am not of them who speak falsely.

      Epistle to the Son of the Wolf, p. 11

  • John

    There is a good summary of the Bahai views on this subject here: http://bahai-library.com/brown_abdulbahas_views_evolution