239 Days in America

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

November 3, 1912
Storify Feature

An Ultimately Disastrous Notion of Human Nature

NOW THAT ‘ABDU’L-BAHÁ’S final few weeks in America are upon us, we might reflect on how frequently he challenged what we today refer to as “Darwinism.” In 2012, our public conversation continues to invoke Darwin’s name as shorthand for a fully naturalistic explanation of human existence, where everything in life is interpreted as the result of the mechanistic workings of evolution, where a Creator has no reason to exist. Over the past decade, a number of evolutionary thinkers, such as Richard Dawkins, seem to have set Darwin up as the prophet-figure in a brand of atheism born of a conviction that science has driven the final nail into religion’s coffin.


“Darwinism” is often used with an adjective in front of it — social Darwinism; economic Darwinism — with the notion of “survival of the fittest” brought to the fore. This phrase, first coined by Herbert Spencer after reading Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, quickly spilled over into social and economic thought. It defines human nature as rooted in self-interest, competition, and conflict, and has subsequently been used to justify everything from colonialism to eugenics, unrestrained laissez-faire capitalism, the abandonment of the poor, and ultimately, war.

When you read ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s talks in America, you realize that he rarely engaged with the biological science of evolution, many aspects of which he agreed with. But he was intensely concerned with its wider implications — how the perception that human beings are nothing more than evolved animals generates an ultimately disastrous notion of human nature. Instead of highlighting the aspects of human life that we share with animals, he articulated a distinct conception of human nature rooted in the factors that make us different: consciousness, abstract thought, scientific advancement, moral reasoning, and qualities such as love, compassion, and justice.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá refused to glorify war in an age when humankind stood on the brink of its first global conflict. “It is neither seemly nor befitting,” he said to an audience at Stanford University, “that such a noble creature, endowed with intellect and lofty thoughts, capable of wonderful achievements and discoveries in sciences and arts, with potential for ever higher perceptions and the accomplishment of divine purposes in life, should seek the blood of his fellowmen upon the field of battle.”

‘Abdu’l-Bahá looked out upon the audience of 2000 people, filling the aisles and overflowing the balcony in the Stanford Assembly Hall, and asked them: “Shall we now destroy this great edifice and its very foundation, overthrow this temple of God, the body social or politic? When we are not captives of nature, when we possess the power to control ourselves, shall we become captives of nature and act according to its exigencies?”

Looking back on ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s discourse in 1912, you can see him engaged in a constant rhetorical battle against the destructive ideologies he found flourishing in America. He took on Social Darwinism, and the idea of the survival of the fittest, over and over again. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s address at Stanford stood at the climax. “There is no lower degree nor greater debasement for man,” he said, “than this natural condition of animalism.”


  • http://twitter.com/pascalmolineaux pascal molineaux

    The Teachings ‘Abdul-Bahá so powerfully explained emphasize the inherent nobility of the human condition, given to us by our spiritual essence and attributes which all human beings potentially possess. When the human being decides, wilfully, to turn his back on this essence and the possibility of developing these attributes, he behaves worse than any animal, he willingly submits to his lower nature, to his animal instincts. As I understand it, that is why crass materialism and blind comsumerism are so often criticized in the Bah’aí Teachings: it is through endless pursuit of material gain that mankind becomes self-centered – ignoring the plight of those less lucky than ourselves and ignoring the long-term consequences of our materialistic pursuits on a fragile global life-sustaining system. This kind of self-centeredness is typical of adolescent bahvior: “I pursue my goals with little concern for the long-term impacts of such a pursuit”. Today, as a humanity, we are called upon to fully assume the consequences of our decisions and become more responsible in the way we treat others and the world. Unity will come only through justice – justice unto others in all their diversity and unto the incredible natural wealth and majesty of “Mother Earth”.

  • http://twitter.com/MasterCopyWrite Karridine

    Full, unqualified and heartfelt agreement, Pascal…

  • Anne Perry

    Thanks for giving us the broader context of this discourse. Apparently the Stanford talk had quite an impact. Lua Getsinger writes to Agnes Parsons that after a prolonged applause the students gave the college yell! And some years later Harry Rathbun (who was a student in the audience and later a prof. at Stanford) said he got the idea for the organization “Beyond War” that day, listening to Abdu’l-Baha! Wish I had had the benefit of some of your commentary when I worked on our script. The journey is so vast–and you’re helping us with context and insights!

  • http://www.facebook.com/JMH59 Jim Harrison

    Excellent quick overview! Thanks!

  • http://twitter.com/TheStruggleWthn Malik Nash

    One of the striking things about the argument that men are merely animals is it’s self-contradictory nature. Over and over again, we’re told that the ills of our society are traceable to our failure to embrace our “natural” state, and our consequent inability to live in harmony with nature. Implicit in that assertion is a recognition that humans are capable of transcending their natural condition, and therefore have a moral responsibility to cultivate awareness of the impact of their actions on the environment and on others, and to moderate their behavior, something they necessarily have the intellect and self-awareness to do. Otherwise, everything we do would simply be nature taking its course, and if we were simply animals, how could we be held morally responsible for merely acting on our instincts?

  • buggaby

    “The endowments which distinguish the human race from all other forms of life are summed up in what is known as the human spirit; the mind is it’s essential quality. These endowments have enabled humanity to build civilizations and to prosper materially. But such accomplishments alone have never satisfied the human spirit, whose mysterious nature inclines it towards transcendence, a reaching towards and invisible realm, towards the ultimate reality, that unknowable essence of essences called God.”
    – Abdu’l-Baha

    • buggaby

      I love this definition of God and the human soul. To understand one, we need to understand the other. And I think this definition by the Master can be accepted be any reasonable person.