Thursday, 4 March 2010

The Bahá'í Faith and Evolution

Anyone who has read "Some Answered Questions" by 'Abdu'l-Bahá will be aware that the Bahá'í position on evolution and the origin of man is a unique one. While the harmony of science and religion is emphasised in the Bahá'í Faith as a basic principle, it must also be recognised that human knowledge is limited and scientific theories often erroneous. Science does not refer to natural science alone, but includes all areas of knowledge about reality. Thus harmony must exist between this knowledge and religion is not a statement that religion must "conform" to science. In other words, if we find something in religion which contradicts scientific theories, we are not obliged to reject the religious principle. On the contrary, where divine revelation does reveal information about the physical universe, we are obliged to recognise the limitations of human knowledge and accept the divinely revealed principle. This superiority of divine knowledge to human knowledge is an important concept. 'Abdu'l-Bahá was possessed of superhuman knowledge that was not limited to religious concepts, but also included knowledge of the physical world.

As many Bahá'ís have correctly recognised, 'Abdu'l-Bahá teaches that current evolutionary theory is flawed. There is no "missing link" between man and the primates. [The recently discovered "missing link" is not really such. It is an ancestor or relative or modern apes or humans but cannot be related to both from a Bahá'í perspective. Recent scientific studies have shown that Ida is not the ancestor humankind and hence, not the missing link between men and the animal world]. Rather, human beings and animals exist on different spiritual levels of reality and cannot be physically related. 'Abdu'l-Bahá writes:

"The lost link of Darwinian theory is itself a proof that man is not an animal. How is it possible to have all the links present and that important link absent? Its absence is an indication that man has never been an animal. It will never be found." (Promulgation of Universal Peace, pp. 358-359)

This does not mean that 'Abdu'l-Bahá denies evolution. On the contrary, 'Abdu'l-Bahá appears to uphold the concept that humans have evolved, but not from other species. Throughout our entire evolution, from its very beginning, we have been separate from animals. From a spiritual perspective, it is easy to see why any relationship between animals and human beings would be impossible. Human beings, even in an embryonic stage, with no reason, intelligence or even a brain, yet have a human soul. The immortal soul, Bahá'ís believe, begins its relationship with the body at the moment of conception. Shoghi Effendi writes: "The soul or spirit of the individual comes into being with the conception of his physical body." (Compilations, Lights of Guidance, p. 504) This is a solid Bahá'í principle. It must follow that "ensoulment" has no relationship with rationality. This concept of conception as the moment when the soul and body begin their relationship is also the basis for the Bahá'í prohibition on abortion.

It cannot be said that human beings evolved, and at a certain point in time were wise enough or rational enough to receive a soul. How would that work anyway? Two pre-human animals who are almost intelligent mate and conceive a child that is destined to be "just rational enough" to get a soul? So at that moment, this first pre-human receives a soul? Who does this pre-human then mate with, another soulless cousin or is his wife also miraculously conceived with a soul? His poor parents were doomed for destruction, however, as they were only almost rational and not rational enough for ensoulment. The reality is that Bahá'ís teach that human beings, in whatever form in their ancient ancestry, were human and had souls. This is no different from acknowledging that humans can have souls at the moment of conception, even though they are not possessed of reason. Human beings evolved separately and distinctly from animals. This is referred to as the concept of PARALLEL EVOLUTION, that is mentioned by Bahman Nadimi.

The ultimate origin of humankind is not known, but then again the origin of life is not known by scientists. Life may have originated on earth, or it may have originated elsewhere, in deep space. Bahá'u'lláh stated that every star has planets and every planets life. He wrote: "Know thou that every fixed star hath its own planets, and every planet its own creatures, whose number no man can compute." (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha'u'llah, LXXXII. p. 162) If life is as widespread as Bahá'ís believe, then there is no problem acknowledging that life could have come from anywhere in the universe. Thus the antiquity of life is unknown. It may well have originated here on earth, or not. Science cannot give us any definitive answer. For all we know, animal and vegetable life could have its origins on earth and human life could originate from other parts of the universe. All that we know right now is that life, as it is observed, originates from other life. Abiogenesis is a possible model, but we cannot be certain of when or how abiogenesis first occurred. Perhaps life emerged once in the current physical universe that we know and has spread or been seeded since that time. It may be that human life emerged (possibly from abiogenesis) at one time, either on earth or elsewhere, and that animal life emerged at another time. None of this is impossible.

Human beings resemble primates. That is certain. But this must be considered in light of the Bahá'í concept of different levels of the spirit. The animal spirit contains all the powers of the vegetable spirit (life, growth, etc.) but also has other powers. Even within the vegetable and animal worlds, there are higher and lower levels. In the lowest levels of the vegetable kingdom, we find viruses and germs and single-celled organisms. At the highest level we find plants that are highly developed. In the animal kingdom we find worms and other simple creatures, and we find chimpanzees, gorillas and other primates. It is natural that the highest levels of the animal kingdom should be closest to the human kingdom as the human kingdom represents the highest level of the spirit underneath that of the Spirit of Faith and the Holy Spirit. But the gap is huge and unbreachable. Primates may be very similar to us physically, but they do not possess the qualities of the human spirit. This argument cannot be used to attack the idea of human beings once having animal like bodies. We were still in "development" as a species. But properly grown and developed, humans are entirely distinct from animals. Thus, even genetic similarities and similarities in embryology and bone structure, cannot prove that humans and primates are related. We are similar by view of hierarchy within kingdoms. Primates are the top of their kingdom. We are in our own kingdom. For those who wish to quote 'Abdu'l-Bahá's statement that the origin of life is one, they should bear in mind that, indeed, God is the origin of all life. But humans are not related to animals.

I really dislike books such as "Evolution and Baha'i Belief", edited by Kevin Brown. In this work, it is argued that 'Abdu'l-Bahá's remarks on evolution have been widely misunderstand. The Wikipedia page on the Bahá'í Faith and science resolutely confirms this position. In reality, however, this is an attempt by people in this era to explain away teachings that will, in the future, be vindicated by science. Bahá'ís have much more to gain by sticking with teachings that they know to be true, and WILL eventually be proven true by science, than by reintrepreting our teachings to conform to the erroneous theories of current scientists. 'Abdu'l-Bahá relates the fact that Muslim scholars used to be embarrassed by statements in the Qur'án that indicated that the earth revolved around the sun rather than vice versa. This contradicted science (in that era). So Muslims tried to explain it away. Later on, it was proved that the Qur'ánic position was correct. He writes:

“Thus, you know that before the observations of modern times – that is to say, during the first centuries and down to the fifteenth century of the Christian era – all the mathematicians of the world agreed that the earth was the center of the universe, and that the sun moved. The famous astronomer who was the protagonist of the new theory discovered the movement of the earth and the immobility of the sun. Until his time all the astronomers and philosophers of the world followed the Ptolemaic system, and whoever said anything against it was considered ignorant. Though Pythagoras, and Plato during the latter part of his life, adopted the theory that the annual movement of the sun around the zodiac does not proceed from the sun, but rather from the movement of the earth around the sun, this theory had been entirely forgotten, and the Ptolemaic system was accepted by all mathematicians. But there are some verses revealed in the Qur'án contrary to the theory of the Ptolemaic system. One of them is "The sun moves in a fixed place," which shows the fixity of the sun, and its movement around an axis.[Cf. Qur'án 36:37] Again, in another verse, "And each star moves in its own heaven."[ Cf. Qur'án 36:38] Thus is explained the movement of the sun, of the moon, of the earth, and of other bodies. When the Qur'án appeared, all the mathematicians ridiculed these statements and attributed the theory to ignorance. Even the doctors of Islam, when they saw that these verses were contrary to the accepted Ptolemaic system, were obliged to explain them away.

“It was not until after the fifteenth century of the Christian era, nearly nine hundred years after Muhammad, that a famous astronomer made new observations and important discoveries by the aid of the telescope, which he had invented. The rotation of the earth, the fixity of the sun, and also its movement around an axis, were discovered. It became evident that the verses of the Qur'án agreed with existing facts, and that the Ptolemaic system was imaginary.”

(Some Answered Questions, pp. 23-24)

The same will be the case with Bahá'í teachings that contradict current scientific knowledge, e.g. that humans are not related to animals and evolved along parallel paths to animals, that copper can transmute into gold, that all planets have life-forms (currently unconfirmed with regards to Mars), that homosexuality is curable, etc. Other Bahá'í teachings have already been confirmed, Bahá'u'lláh's mysterious reference to a weapon like lightning (e.g. atomic weapons) and the existence of things in the earth which can pollute the atmosphere, Shoghi Effendi's reference to the internet in the 1930's, etc. etc. One could also add Bahá'u'lláh's prophecies and the way in which history is gradually moving in the direction of the Bahá'í teachings (see Century of Light).

Here are some authentic quotes from 'Abdu'l-Bahá on evolution:

“We have now come to the question of the modification of species and of 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. When man looks at the beings with a penetrating regard, and attentively examines the condition of existences, and when he sees the state, the organization and the perfection of the world, he will be convinced that in the possible world there is nothing more wonderful than that which already exists. For all existing beings, terrestrial and celestial, as well as this limitless space and all that is in it, have been created and organized, composed, arranged and perfected as they ought to be; the universe has no imperfection, so that if all beings became pure intelligence and reflected for ever and ever, it is impossible that they could imagine anything better than that which exists.”

(Some Answered Questions, Page 177)

“Let us return to our subject that man, 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, this force and this power. It is certain that in the beginning he had not this loveliness and grace and elegance, and that he only by degrees attained this shape, this form, this beauty and this grace. There is no doubt that the human embryo did not at once appear in this form; neither did it then become the manifestation of the words “Blessed, therefore, be God, the most excellent of Makers.” Gradually it passed through various conditions and different shapes, until it attained this form and beauty, this perfection, grace and loveliness. 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: by degrees it passed from condition to condition, from form to form, from one shape to another, for this is according to the requirement of the universal system and Divine Law.

“That is to say, the embryo passes through different states and traverses numerous degrees, until it reaches the form in which it manifests the words “Praise be to God, the best of Creators,” and until the signs of reason and maturity appear. And in the same way, man’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. In the same way, the embryo of man in the womb of the mother was at first in a strange form; then this body passes from shape to shape, from state to state, from form to form, until it appears in utmost beauty and perfection. But even when in the womb of the mother and in this strange form, entirely different from his present form and figure, he is the embryo of the superior species, and not of the animal; his species and essence undergo no change. Now, admitting that the traces of organs which have disappeared actually exist, this is not a proof of the impermanence and the nonoriginality of the species. At the most it proves that the form, and fashion, and the organs of man have progressed. Man was always a distinct species, a man, not an animal. So, if the embryo of man in the womb of the mother passes from one form to another so that the second form in no way resembles the first, is this a proof that the species has changed? that it was at first an animal, and that its organs progressed and developed until it became a man? No, indeed! How puerile and unfounded is this idea and this thought! For the proof of the originality of the human species, and of the permanency of the nature of man, is clear and evident.”

(Some Answered Questions, pp. 183-184)

“To recapitulate: as man in the womb of the mother passes from form to form, from shape to shape, changes and develops, and is still the human species from the beginning of the embryonic period—in the same way man, from the beginning of his existence in the matrix of the world, is also a distinct species—that is, man—and has gradually evolved from one form to another. Therefore, this change of appearance, this evolution of members, this development and growth, even though we admit the reality of growth and progress, does not prevent the species from being original. Man from the beginning was in this perfect form and composition, and possessed capacity and aptitude for acquiring material and spiritual perfections, and was the manifestation of these words, “We will make man in Our image and likeness.” He has only become more pleasing, more beautiful and more graceful. Civilization has brought him out of his wild state, just as the wild fruits which are cultivated by a gardener become finer, sweeter and acquire more freshness and delicacy.”

(Some Answered Questions, pp. 193-194


  1. Very interesting as I have not looked at the evolution in new Faiths.
    Just a few points I would like to raise:
    1) You state that this missing link in evolution is not really a missing link. So what is it? and what evidence do you have to prove otherwise?
    2) You state that the description about lightning is comparable to an atomic bomb? What is the comparison made here? As I know of weapons that are much more like lightening then an atomic weapon.

  2. @Harvy - 1) Scientists seem to have already confirmed that Ida isn't our direct ancestor:

    I've just edited this blog post to include the link to this article. A true "missing link" would be the common ancestor of humans and animals, which has not yet been discovered and, according to 'Abdu'l-Baha, will never be discovered.

    2) The lightning weapon is immediately preceded by a description of things within the earth that can poison the atmosphere. That's why it seems to be talking about radiation and atomic weapons. It could be something else, however, but this makes the most sense to me at the moment. What other weapons were you thinking of?

    Baha'u'llah writes:

    "Strange and astonishing things exist in the earth but they are hidden from the minds and the understanding of men. These things are capable of changing the whole atmosphere of the earth and their contamination would prove lethal. Great God! We have observed an amazing thing. Lightning or a force similar to it is controlled by an operator and moveth at his command. Immeasurably exalted is the Lord of Power Who hath laid bare that which He purposed through the potency of His weighty and invincible command."

  3. 1) Clearly this link shows that a scientist tried to circumvent the peer review section of the scientific method. So I agree that this piece of evidence can not be counted as evidence for evolution. Now this does not mean that hundreds of other fossils are invalid, so unless you can find that a majority or all are found to be 'incorrect' or 'false' then what you have posted means nothing really and gives no weight to your argument. But it is nice to see you discrediting the scientist that need to be discredited :-)
    2) Well atomic or poisonous weapons don't really have a lightning property as such but the only example I can think of is tesla coils which were a way of transmitting electricity wirelessly (a very old technology but abandoned due to high running costs) another is the HAARP Project by DARPA but again this is just conspiracy theory.
    So I see you want to take the whole of the quotation as one piece. So can I assume things that are hidden from the minds of men are the radioactive isotopes that make up nuclear bombs or something similar? If so how are they hidden from the minds and understanding of men? It seems we understand it pretty well if we can harness them for both good and bad.

  4. 1) I'm not denying other fossils which show our human ancestors. What 'Abdu'l-Baha teaches is that these ancestral forms are not animals, but humans. Just as the embryo in the womb is human from its beginning, each of these ancestors is also human. He denies that there is a missing link that connects these ancestors with the animal kingdom. In other words, while we do have fossils of earlier hominids like Lucy who are probably our ancestors, we won't find any fossil of a creature that is ancestral both to animals and humans (i.e. there is no missing link between apes and humans). There is no common ancestor that we're going to find.

    2) The potentiality of radiation to pollute the atmosphere was not known during Baha'u'llah's lifetime. It was hidden then, but not now.

    An atomic bomb exploding looks like a flash of lightning. It isn't lightning of course. But that is just my interpretation. It is possible that He could be referring to something else.

  5. You write, "Thus harmony must exist between this knowledge and religion is not a statement that religion must "conform" to science. In other words, if we find something in religion which contradicts scientific theories, we are not obliged to reject the religious principle. On the contrary, where divine revelation does reveal information about the physical universe, we are obliged to recognise the limitations of human knowledge and accept the divinely revealed principle. This superiority of divine knowledge to human knowledge is an important concept."

    Your view is contradicted by Baha'i scripture:

    "The sciences of today are bridges to reality; if then they lead not to reality, naught remains but fruitless illusion."

    (Abdu'l-Baha, Selections from the Writings of Abdu'l-Baha, p. 109)

    "Any religion that contradicts science or that is opposed to it, is only ignorance -- for ignorance is the opposite of knowledge.

    (Abdu'l-Baha, Paris Talks, p. 130-1)

    "If religious leadership is to rise to the challenge that this latter perception represents, such response must begin by acknowledging that religion and science are the two indispensable knowledge systems through which the potentialities of consciousness develop. Far from being in conflict with one another, these fundamental modes of the mind's exploration of reality are mutually dependent and have been most productive in those rare but happy periods of history when their complementary nature has been recognized and they have been able to work together. The insights and skills generated by scientific advance will have always to look to the guidance of spiritual and moral commitment to ensure their appropriate application; religious convictions, no matter how cherished they may be, must submit, willingly and gratefully, to impartial testing by scientific methods."

    (The Universal House of Justice, 2002 April, To the World's Religious Leaders, p. 5)

  6. Thanks for the quotes antigen, but they don't contradict what I've written. Science and religion must be in harmony, most certainly. In some areas science has yet to catch up with the Baha'i teachings. That much is clear. I have already shown in this blog post that 'Abdu'l-Baha accepts that science is NOT always right and religion is sometimes ahead of science. And it is 'Abdu'l-Baha Himself who says the scientists are wrong when it comes to humans being descended from animals.

    What DOES contradict Baha'i scripture is the notion of that humans are descended from animals. But your claim that what I have written contradicts Baha'i scripture is itself contradictory, since it ignores other statements of 'Abdu'l-Baha.

  7. Whether or not "humans are descended from animals" as discussed herein seems to be more of a straw man issue with no specific or known relation to the meaning of 'Abdu'l-Baha's talks many years ago. As such, with all due respect, the objective seems to be to create confusion.

    If there is not a single Baha'i with advanced training in biological sciences who can be quoted on these questions, or who can provide at least minimal, sound definition of terms, just say, "I don't know" and write about something one does know about. As a linguist, for example, why not write about how terms are defined? Human, animal, species, descend, etc.

    It seems you only have several choices in the end: all living things here descended from some one or more original life forms or some came from outer space. Hint: nobody believes humans descended from animals (humans are an animal species) or that animals descended from humans. Straw man issue.

  8. Thanks for the comment James. I would like to point out, for everyone's benefit, that I have never regarded this as a core issue. If a time machine were invented and we went back in time and proved definitively that humans are descended from animals, it would not make the Baha'i Faith untrue, though I would find that very strange indeed.

    However, this is an issue that I have strong feelings on, and I do genuinely believe that 'Abdu'l-Baha, in numerous quotes, upholds the idea that humans do not descend from animals. He uses quite emphatic language about it, so I, for one, will stand up and defend the idea that we are not related to apes and other animal species. I feel that we must uphold this when explaining the teachings to others as well. Even if we just quote 'Abdu'l-Baha's writings, that will be sufficient. What I find disturbing, is the idea that Baha'is will tell others that we accept that humans are descended from animals. There is nothing in the Writings to support this idea. If anything, the Writings directly oppose that idea.

    Whatever scientific theories have currently been developed, it is quite possible that human beings have a separate origin and evolved separately. That we may have adopted some cellular elements from other single-celled organisms is possible, but I believe we have a separate origin completely nonetheless and have our own evolutionary tree separate from all other living things on this planet. That is a strong position, but I feel it is a valid position.

    I also reject this notion of a requirement of speciality to speak on any particular issue. I do not agree with the idea that you have to be a biologist to talk about evolution. Neither do you have to be a theologian or Middle Eastern studies scholar to talk about Baha'i writings. The issue here is not scientific theories, but Baha'i teachings, which, I believe, have a higher authority than science.

    Furthermore, I do not believe that the idea of human beings descending from animals fits very well with the concept of the soul, as I have explained in my post. Far from being a straw man argument (I really dislike these terms from logic and rhetoric btw, as I don't think they are useful in religious dialogue), I have given some good reasons (I believe) why Baha'is should not accept the current scientific understanding of evolution.

    My goal is not to attack the whole theory of evolution or prove that humans are not descended from animals (at least not in this blog post ;)). My concern is the Baha'i position. For Baha'is, statements from Baha'u'llah or 'Abdu'l-Baha are a sufficient basis for belief. I believe that 'Abdu'l-Baha's knowledge is infallible when it comes to issues such as this. I feel it would be wrong for someone to say "Baha'is accept the scientific theory and acknowledge that humans are an animal species or descend from animals". That is not upheld in Baha'i teachings. It would be right to say we have always been separate from animals and there is no missing link. That would be an accurate statement of Baha'i belief.

    My purpose is not to create confusion, but to emphasise 'Abdu'l-Baha's writings.

  9. If anyone is still following this, I'm publishing a book next year addressing the topic of evolution and documenting a lot of modern science that is relevant. More here: