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