239 Days in America

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

November 16, 1912
Storify Feature

The Struggle to Be Fully Human

EVOLUTIONARY BIOLOGISTS have been waging a war on many fronts against the notion of altruism for the better part of a century and a half. The idea that animals — which for them include human beings — engage in selfless acts toward each other has been a thorn in their side ever since Charles Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. That one could witness, in a natural system governed by the “survival of the fittest,” frequent acts of selfless behavior was a problem that even Darwin feared might be his theory’s undoing.


The solution to this vexing problem had to wait until 1964, when another British biologist, William Hamilton, published a mathematical formula that explained how altruistic behavior emerged over time as organisms tried to increase the propagation of their own genes by aiding close biological relatives. Altruism, it turned out, is just another form of self-interest. In recent years, the war against altruism has taken aim at everything from love and generosity, to philanthropy and the raising of children. Thanks to elaborate theoretical contortions, theorists are confident they have revealed each of them to be nothing more than forms of selfishness.

‘Abdu’l-Bahá appears to have seen it all coming. During his travels in Europe and America, he relentlessly promoted the idea of a human race that is distinct from the animal kingdom, defining both intellectual and spiritual capacities as fundamentally different than natural instincts. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá didn’t deny humankind’s nearly unlimited capacity for self-interest, but he rejected the reductionist view of human beings that considers our nature as consisting of little else.

“Man is in the highest degree of materiality, and at the beginning of spirituality,” he would often argue. “[T]hat is to say, he is the end of imperfection and the beginning of perfection. He is at the last degree of darkness, and at the beginning of light . . . he is the sum of all the degrees of imperfection, and . . . he possesses the degrees of perfection.” Human beings, he said, are capable of both the most degraded behavior, and the most saintly. “Not in any other of the species in the world of existence,” he added, “is there such a difference, contrast, contradiction and opposition as in the species of man.”

At Stanford University on October 8, 1912, and again two days later at the Open Forum in San Francisco, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá had defined humanity based on the qualities that differentiate us from animals — abstract thought, scientific advancement, the impulse for discovery, the capacity to struggle in the face of adversity, and moral reasoning among them. Yet these intellectual endowments, he frequently told audiences, must ultimately serve higher spiritual faculties such as justice, love, compassion, and generosity.

Our nature, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá argued, is incapable of being stationary. We are always either moving forward or regressing. “Man is even as steel,” his father, Bahá’u’lláh, wrote, “the essence of which is hidden: through admonition and explanation, good counsel and education, that essence will be brought to light. If, however, he be allowed to remain in his original condition, the corrosion of lusts and appetites will effectively destroy him.”

In its highest form, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá defined being human as operating in a constant state of selfless service towards our fellow human beings. Unlike the rest of nature, which is driven entirely by instinct and reaction, we humans have the capacity to choose to sacrifice ourselves for one another. This ability invests us with a unique responsibility to help our fellow human beings achieve their potential. It is a vision of human nature with far reaching implications for politics, economics, our approach to education, and even the smallest of our daily interactions.


  • Philip Cantor

    This article is really an essay on human nature with extraordinary insights. The contrast of Darwinian reductions and limitations to Abdu’l-Baha’s perspective on the reality of human nature is breathtaking. It is too soon to comment on the implications of these insights in our ongoing efforts to teach the Faith in America today in the same spirit as Abdu’l-Baha did 100 years ago–but they are immense. Congratulations to Jonathan and his team for weaving together so much, so well, so beautifully.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ned.walker.77 Ned Walker

    Just to extend this discussion a bit, William Hamilton’s notion of kin selection was not readily received by the academic community (he had a very difficult time publishing it until certain advocates such as E.O. Wilson facilitated his efforts). The idea offered a way that altruism could still be explained in terms of selfishness, and eventually was well received by evolutionary biologists generally. However, in a reversal of thinking, Wilson along with two others at Harvard, in a controversial publication in the journal Nature, quite recently rejected kin selection in favor of a concept of group selection, which drew a swift and strongly negative reaction from such staunch material evolutionists as Richard Dawkins and Jerry Coyne. Wilson’s collaborator, Martin Nowak, shows in his new book “Supercooperators” that one can find a mathematical explanation for the emergence of cooperation and altruism independently of the process of natural selection directly for genes that would underlie such behaviors. A very good summarization of this controversy can be found at: http://www.evolutionnews.org/2011/05/eo_wilson_disavows_his_own_kin046341.html (this is from a self-named “intelligent design” website). The concept that Wilson, Nowak, and Corina Tarnita have forwarded is “inclusive fitness,” where unrelated individuals of the same species mutually benefit from altruistic behavior amongst themselves. One can more readily identify altruism as an emergent property of life, from this standpoint. It would appear that Abdu’l-Baha well anticipated such a notion, as this “Day 220” article suggests.

  • loiemead

    I believe this information will have a great and unifying effect within America and the world. Beautifully expressed! I look forward to sharing it — especially with my daughter who teaches science and economics at a high school sponsored by Christian believers.

  • jocelyn

    it makes sense that as well as individual choice, the force of numbers of spiritually/morally evolved human beings (critical mass) will tip the balance and with a sudden evolutionary jump all the old outworn ideas of race of greed etc that the few are still holding onto for dear life will fall in the dust.

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

    Again and again, we can see how ‘Abdu’l-Bahá identifies the very unique and essential characteristics of the human being, not posessed by any oter living being. When He says that the human being is at the end of materialism and the beginning of spirituality, an extraordinary being with both a material, instinct-dominated essence and a spiritual, God-seeking essence. The fact that we can, freely, choose to live according to the calling of our lower, instinct-dominated nature or to live according to the high calling of our spiritual nature gives us, one andall, and every day of our lives, a volition that no other beng has.

    Thus when we allow ourselves to live by our lower, material nature, we are the source of much suffering, untold violence, self-centered and destructive behavior. In its essence that is why our consumer-obsessed society is so, ever so, dangerous: we allow ourselves to become self-centered, short-sighted, obsessed with wealth whichever way we can get it. The ecological destruction our earth is suffering – including the fast-moving and devastating climate change – is the result of our allowing ourselves to be dominated by our lower nature. Our high spiritual calling is to love this earth, love its bountiful life, see in every cretaed thing one of the signs or attributes of the Divine. Our spiritual nature helps us come to terms with our sacred responsibilities as the only sentient beings on this earth. We become the caretakers and loving gardeners of Creation. To me that is one of the biggest challenges of our time.

  • Karridine

    Many people seem to misunderstand ‘survival of the fittest’, thinking something like ‘only the clawing, killing, most-vicious survive’, but with a few moments’ reflection we can see that a flower which is the best fit for its niche, survives… a seed-eating bird which best fits its eating-mating-propagating requirements LIVES in slightly greater number and robustness (‘…the FITTEST…’) than less-fit cohorts…

    More to the point here, humans are ‘the fittest’, the best-suited to our niche… in fact, the word hu-m’n is one of the few Sanskrit-rooted words in the English language, and means god-creature… WE are ‘god-creatures’, capable of reflecting G-d when we rise to our higher calling, and worse than animals when we unleash our lower nature…

  • Ann

    As I am taking this opportunity to reread the original speech of Oct. 8 & 10, 1912 by Abdul-Baha it gives one pause for reflection and thankfulness in this approaching season of thanksgiving to the extraordinary vision we’ve been blessed to have been given. Working with a population of young adolescent people who struggle to find purpose and hope in their world, I hope to share this expansive vision of their true nature.