Origin of Complex Order in Biology:
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At the beginning of this chapter a methodological issue must be raised. Why did `Abdu'l-Bahá spent so many talks and a considerable amount of space in His writings for the subject of evolution? He was certainly not much interested in the details of biological evolution, whether chimpanzees are biologically more closely related to gorillas or to orang utan, or whether mice, rabbits and guinea pigs belong to the same taxonomic family! This desinterest of `Abdu'l-Bahá in particular biological questions can be seen from the fact that only very few of His statements can be reasonably interpreted to address biological issues. But within their specific context, most of those few apparently biological statements can be understood as analogies, where `Abdu'l-Bahá uses facts and concepts about nature commonly accepted at the beginning of the 20th century to explain spiritual truths. In His particular interest in the social and religious consequences of Darwinism `Abdu'l-Bahá agrees with most oriental authors addressing the subject of evolution (see Keven Brown's article). In the talks and writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá, the originality of species (asálat-i naw`) forms a cornerstone for a concept of the origin of complex biological order and the evolution of life. Most secondary literature covering the subject of evolution in the Bahá'í writings emphasize such a concept (Brown, 1994; Conow, 1990; Khursheed, 1987; Savi, 1989). In several chapters of SAQ and many talks in the United States as printed in PUP `Abdu'l-Bahá claims the originality of species . He contrasts the principle of the originality of species with the theories of the European philosophers that the human species is derived from the animal kingdom: "We have now come to the question ... 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." (SAQ 46:1-2) But, what particular aspect of the theory of the European philosophers is criticized by `Abdu'l-Bahá in SAQ and PUP?
As the spiritual leader of the Bahá'í community and as the authoritative interpreter of the Bahá'í scriptures, the social and spiritual consequences of Darwinism, which were propagated in the Western world, constituted a real challenge to the new Faith. The Darwinian concept that the complex biological order originates from a mindless, mechanical process, and does not follow ancient, God given laws of nature, would apply not only to the biosphere but as well to human social world. If the biological order is largely accidentally, the principles ruling the human society would be arbitrary. Such a position was certainly unacceptable to `Abdu'l-Bahá. An other reason to address the question of evolution is found in the particular Bahá'í teachings. In Paris `Abdu'l-Bahá presented the unity of science and religion as one of the central teachings of the Faith. This principle contrasts the explicit claim of several materialists, such as Büchner or Haeckel, that evolution and creation are two mutually excluding world view. To formulate a concept of evolution which accounts for the know biological and palaeontological facts, and which is compatible with the teachings of His father, would simply prove the modernity of the new faith in the West. These principles represent `Abdu'l-Bahá's answer to atheistic movements such as the German monists. Particularly the interpretation of Darwinism in terms of a materialistic philosophy must have been a point of serious concern for `Abdu'l-Bahá.
Certain European philosophers think that the species [naw`] grows and develops, and that even change and modification are possible. One of the proofs that they give for this theory is that through the attentive study and verification of the science of geology it has become clear that the existence of the vegetable preceded that of the animal, and that of the animal preceded that of man. They believe that both the vegetable and the animal genera [jins] have changed, for in some of the strata of the earth they have discovered plants which existed in the past and are now extinct; in other words, they think these plants progressed and grew in strength, and that their form and appearance changed; and, therefore, the species [naw`] has altered. In the same way, in the strata of the earth there are some species of animals which have changed and become modified. One of these animals is the serpent. There are indications that the serpent once had feet, but through the lapse of time those members have disappeared. In the same way, in the vertebral column of man there is a vestige which proves that man, like other animals, once had a tail. They believe that at one time that member was useful, but when man developed, it was no longer of use; and, therefore, it gradually disappeared. As the serpent took refuge under the ground and became a creeping animal, it was no longer in need of feet, so they disappeared; but their traces survive. Their principal argument is this: the existence of traces of members proves that they once existed, and as now they are no longer of service, they have gradually disappeared, and there is no longer any benefit in or reason for these vestiges. Therefore, while the perfect and necessary members have remained, those which are unnecessary have gradually disappeared by the modification of the species, but the traces of them continue. (SAQ, 49:3)At the time of `Abdu'l-Bahá, these were two major lines of argument presented in favor of evolution, emphasizing fossil records and atrophic organs. Lamark's studies of the existing and extinct moluscs showed clearly that their outer form changed throughout history. Some of them are now extinct others still living today have a clear relationship to earlier forms. The famous french biologist Cuvier "... clearly demonstrated for the Tertiary strata of the Paris basin that each horizon had its particular mammalian fauna. More importantly, he showed that the lower a stratum was, the more different the fauna was from that of the present. It was he who proved extinction conclusively, since the extinct proboscidians (elephants) described by him could not possibly have remained unnoticed in some remote region of the world, as was postulated for marine organisms" (Mayr, 1982, p. 363). These findings present a clear evidence that the biological populations living during earlier phases of our planet were different from those today. An other argument in favor of evolution is the existence of atrophic organs such as the blind eyes of the cave salamander or the relics of legs in the case of the serpent. Those organs very likely had a function in earlier times. Because they were no longer in use, they became stunted. `Abdu'l-Bahá does not deny the truth of those findings, but criticizes the philosophic interpretation of these data. `Abdu'l-Bahá's critique of the "theory held by some European philosophers" is now analyzed in detail.
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 contingent 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 already exists.First `Abdu'l-Bahá describes a perfect universe. Then the argument concludes that if there would have been a time when the human species did not exist or would have belonged to the animal kingdom, the harmony, we see today, would not have existed, and the universe would have been imperfect. The perfection and harmony of our universe, according to `Abdu'l-Bahá, are based in the names and attributes of God, as described in the section about creation: "The effulgence of the divine perfections appears in the reality of man, so he is the representative of God, the messenger of God. If man did not exist, the universe would be without result, for the object of existence is the appearance of the perfections of God." (SAQ, 50:3) Here `Abdu'l-Bahá brings a slightly modified version of the argument of the harmonious universe. Because God cannot be imperfect and His names and attributes /1/ are necessarily always mirrored forth, the most perfect representative of God, i.e., humanity, needs to exist eternally. Perfect harmony, according to `Abdu'l-Bahá, is an essential attribute of the universe, consequently, humanity cannot have evolved from the animal kingdom and the human species must be original. Similar arguments are given in other places (`Abdu'l-Bahá, 1984, pp. 74 and 77).
If, however, the creation in the past had not been adorned with the utmost perfection, then existence would have been imperfect and meaningless, and in this case creation would have been incomplete... Now, if we imagine a time when man belonged to the animal world, or when he was merely an animal, we shall find that existence would have been imperfect--that is to say, there would have been no man, and this chief member, which in the body of the world is like the brain and mind in man, would have been missing. The world would then have been quite imperfect. This is a categorical proof, because if there had been a time when man was in the animal kingdom, the perfection of existence would have been destroyed; for man is the greatest member of this world, and if this world were without its chief member, surely it would be imperfect. (SAQ 46:2-3)
Today, most biologist will consider such statements not a convincing argument against the modern understanding of Darwinism which grounds in the idea of change. This argument, however, shows that a very common philosophic understanding of Darwinism leads to an interpretation of nature and the evolution of life which contradicts `Abdu'l-Bahá's concept of creation and is often used to support atheism. This particular aspect of the evolution discussion is certainly a point of major concern to `Abdu'l-Bahá. It must have been a goal for `Abdu'l-Bahá in talks before a Western audience to specifically demonstrate the compatibility of the evolution of life on this planet and the existence of caring Creator.
In brief, the perfection of each individual being--that is to say, the perfection which you now see in man and apart from him, with regard to their parts, organs, or faculties--is due to the composition of the elements, to their measure, to their balance, to the manner of their combination, and to the interaction and influence of other beings. In the case of man, when all these factors are gathered together, then man exists.`Abdu'l-Bahá states that a certain composition of chemical elements leads to the same human being today, "ten or hundred thousand years ago," or in a "thousand million years". Thus, the originality of the human species is derived in this argument of `Abdu'l-Bahá from the time invariance of the laws of nature, from the assumed existence of a timeless universal law. This universal law rules the interactions between the chemical elements. Because human beings would materialize whenever the required conditions are met, the human species is potentially present in the universe even if no particular biological population exists. This concept parallels Dawkins idea (Dawkins, 1986) of the space of DNA sequences defining all possible forms of life a priori.
As the perfection of man is entirely due to the composition of the elements, to their measure, to the manner of their combination, and to the interaction and influence of different beings--then, since man was produced ten or a hundred thousand years ago from these earthly elements with the same measure and balance, the same manner of combination and mingling, and the same influence of other beings, exactly the same man existed then as now. This is evident and not worth debating. A thousand million years hence, if these elements of man are gathered together and arranged in this special proportion, and if the elements are combined according to the same method, and if they are affected by the same influence of other beings, exactly the same man will exist. (SAQ, 46:4-5)
`Abdu'l-Bahá obviously considers the concept of time invariant laws to be self evident: "... exactly the same man existed then as now. This is evident and not worth debating." (SAQ 46:5) In a later part of the same quote `Abdu'l-Bahá uses the example of the lamp to illustrate the argument of the time invariance of the laws of nature: "For example, if after a hundred thousand years there is oil, fire, a wick, a lamp and the lighter of the lamp--briefly, if there are all the necessary things which now exist, exactly the same lamp will be obtained." (SAQ 46:5) According to this argument, the "essence" which "ensures" the burning of the oil lamp is not created nor did it originate at some time point of cosmology but exists from the very beginning.
That `Abdu'l-Bahá applies this argument to humanity as well as to oil lamps indicates that `Abdu'l-Bahá considers this argument as a rather general one. It applies to salt crystals, oil lamps, computers, myoglobin molecules, viruses, bacteria, mice and human beings, etc. According to this argument, whenever chemical elements are combined in the necessary order, the respective result is obtained. This result is independent of the time point, if the respective boundary conditions are met (e.g., the necessary environment for viruses, bacteria, ...). `Abdu'l-Bahá concludes from this argument that the order to form salt crystals, etc., contrary to Aristotle's proposal, exists a priori. It is not created as proposed by Monod, but it is unfolded.
`Abdu'l-Bahá distinguishes between natural (God given) and accidental order:
This composition and arrangement, through the wisdom of God and His preexistent might, were produced from one natural organization, which was composed and combined with the greatest strength, conformable to wisdom, and according to a universal law. From this it is evident that it is the creation of God, and is not a fortuitous composition and arrangement. This is why from every natural composition a being can come into existence, but from an accidental composition no being can come into existence. (SAQ 47:3)Only when the composition and ordering of atoms follows the eternal organization, the plans defined by the Creator, i.e., forms according to the respective time invariant essences, a living organism can result. Only very particular combinations of pinions and gears lead to functioning clockworks, but not arbitrary ones. In the language of evolution biology, this statement would be formulated differently: Only those compositions of chemical elements, only those organisms which possess high fitness values can survive. Accidental assemblies of atoms, however, will produce no stable complex structures as found in the biosphere.
By this argument `Abdu'l-Bahá rebuts the Aristotelian concept of order where the present actual order is sufficient to maintain itself. In a universe, where evolution is substantial, not all possible forms of order are always realized. There has been a time in our universe without salt crystals or human beings. `Abdu'l-Bahá assumes that salt crystals and human beings are formed "automatically" under the respective combinations of the necessary chemical elements. If this idea is correct the order found in salt crystals and human beings exists independently from actually existing salt crystals and human beings. This idea is contrary to Aristotle's concept of order and more closely related to Plato's essences. According to `Abdu'l-Bahá, the human species essence accounts for the ability of chemical elements to from human beings.
This second argument `Abdu'l-Bahá is not only a strong rebuttal of Aristotelian concepts of order, it also uses concepts of classical and modern physics. /2/ Physicist generally believe in essences, i.e., they assume that there exists a unique set of time invariant laws of nature, a timeless universal law of nature. To find such a universal law (German: Weltformel) is/was one of the most cherished goals of generations of scientists. According to such a view the possible existence of human beings has its roots in the laws of nature from the very beginning, even though in the early phases of the universe there would exist not the required environment where human beings could live. This view appears to be the central idea of the second argument of `Abdu'l-Bahá in favor of the originality of the human species.
With the arguments of the harmonious universe and the complete universal law `Abdu'l-Bahá rejects theories which assume a completion of the laws of nature within time, a self-creation of principally new characteristics during cosmology and evolution of life on earth. These arguments reject the anew generation of species as considered by some naturalists such as Maupertius in classical biology /3/ as well as the ad hoc self-creation of new biological characteristics in modern biology. According to `Abdu'l-Bahá's argument, all particular possible forms of life exist potentially from the "begin" of our universe. Only particular assemblies of chemical elements produce living organisms, arbitrary compositions quickly desintegrate.
Thus, according to `Abdu'l-Bahá, life is possible only within particular predetermined boundaries. /4/ The argument of the harmonious universe and that of a time invariant universal law of nature favoring the existences of species essences /5/ are not really different. The same concept is formulated in different "cultural" frameworks. The first argument is based on the Platonic concept of a perfectly harmonious universe, the second refers to the more modern concept of a time invariant universal law of nature and its essential completeness. The central message of both ideas is that humanity exists potentially from the beginning of the universe. Thus, as shown above, `Abdu'l-Bahá assumes a kind of universe which is potentially complex from the very beginning.
The analysis of `Abdu'l-Bahá's arguments against the modification of the human species in favor of the originality of the species leads to the conclusion that `Abdu'l-Bahá uses the terms human species or man certainly not in its modern meaning, where they would refer to a population of human beings. Instead `Abdu'l-Bahá uses the classical concepts of the human species essence. `Abdu'l-Bahá's repeated reference to Aristotle, Plato and the philosophers of the East (see Keven Brown's article) supports this conclusion. Also `Abdu'l-Bahá's claim in chapter 50 of that the human species exists eternally makes sense only within an essentialistic species concept:
... now we will adduce spiritual proofs that human existence--that is, the species [naw`] of man--is a necessary existence, and that without man the divine perfections would not appear... We have many times demonstrated and established that man is the noblest of contingent beings, the sum of all perfections, and that all beings and all existents are centers for the appearance of the divine effulgence--that is to say, the signs of the Divinity of God are manifest in the realities of all created things... The world, indeed each existing being, proclaims to us one of the names of God, but the reality of man is the collective reality, the general reality, and the center for the appearance of all the divine perfections--that is to say, for each name, each attribute, each perfection which we affirm of God there exists a sign in man... Consequently, the Divinity of God, which is the sum of all perfections, appears resplendent in the reality of man--that is to say, the Essence of Oneness is the possessor of all perfections, and from this unity He casts an effulgence upon the human reality. Man, then, is the perfect mirror facing the Sun of Truth and is its place of appearance: the Sun of Truth shines in this mirror. (SAQ, 50:1-3)`Abdu'l-Bahá's concept of the "human existence", of the "species of man" is closely related to His previously outlined concept of creation. He describes our world as a mirror to reflect the names and attributes of God. According to `Abdu'l-Bahá, a missing of the "species of man" and indeed any species, would imply the non-existence of the respective names and attributes of God. In this context, the term "species" is certainly not used in a biological, but in an essentialistic sense. Together with `Abdu'l-Bahá's statements of evolution as a process of unfolding (see below), "species of man" here indicates the potential to form human beings. If the possibility to form human beings would have been absent during a phase of cosmology and developed later, an important potential of the laws of nature would have been missing.
`Abdu'l-Bahá's emphasis of the essential nature of the human species can be found throughout His writings. By means of: "When we speak of man, we mean the perfect one, the foremost individual in the world, who is the sum of spiritual and apparent perfections" (SAQ 46:3) `Abdu'l-Bahá confirms a usage of the term "man" in the essentialistic sense given above. Statements which emphasize the spiritual nature as a defining aspect of humanity are also found in many other places, for instant in Paris talks: "You cannot apply the name `man' to any being void of this faculty of meditation; without it he would be a mere animal, lower than the beasts." [Paris Talks, p. 175]
In various places `Abdu'l-Bahá emphasizes the time invariance of the species essences and in the same time the evolution, i.e., birth, development and death, of the particular representatives of those essences:
Therefore, all creatures emanate from God--that is to say, it is by God that all things are realized, and by Him that all beings have attained to existence... This emanation, in that which concerns its action in the world of God, is not limited by time or place; it is without beginning or end--beginning and end in relation to God are one... The existence of living things signifies composition, and their death, decomposition. But universal matter and the elements do not become absolutely annihilated and destroyed. No, their nonexistence is simply transformation. (SAQ 53, old translation)The species essences of "all creatures" exist out of time, they are "not limited by time and place". In the language of modern sciences this concept can be translated that the potential to form the various organism is implicitly encoded in the laws of nature. These species essences determine the "space" of all possible organisms. The concept of species essences applies to all organisms: "All beings, whether universal or particular, were created perfect and complete from the first." SAQ (51:4)
The Guardian /6/ gave a few explanations concerning the originality of the human species: "The Bahá'í Faith teaches man was always potentially man, even when passing through the lower stages of evolution" (Effendi, 19??, p. 458). In a letter Shoghi Effendi wrote:
We cannot prove man was always man for this is a fundamental doctrine, but it is based on the assertion that nothing can exceed its own potentialities, that everything, a stone, a tree, an animal and a human being existed in plan, potentially, from the very "beginning" of creation. We don't believe man has always had the form of man, but rather that from the outset he was going to evolve into the human form and species and not be a haphazard branch of the ape family. (Effendi, 1982, p. 85)Shoghi Effendi states that the originality of species is grounded on the principle that "nothing can exceed its own potentialities." This principle means that the ability of the human species to show forth intelligence was not developed during evolution, but was potentially present from the beginning of the universe. Here Shoghi Effendi applies the cause and effect law introduced above. The physical existence of the human species, the effect, requires a respective cause, the human species essence, which "existed in plan, potentially, from the very `beginning' of creation." The time invariant names and attributes of God represent a timeless origin for the human species essence. Humanity is not an accident in our universe as for instance proposed by Jaques Monod (Monod, 1970), but a result of the potentials built into this universe, the unfolding of the names and attributes of God. The human species is not a "haphazard branch of the ape family", but, to use the words of `Abdu'l-Bahá, "the human existence ... is a necessary existence" (SAQ 50:1). In a commentary to the article of Craig Loehle (Loehle, 1990; Loehle, 1992) in The Journal of Bahá'í Studies Keven Brown (Brown, 1994) also proposes a similar explanation. /7/
Whenever Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá defines "man" or "humanity" they stress the eternal existence of humanity, the human ability to mirror forth the timeless names and attributes of God. This fact supports the hypothesis that in the concept of the originality of the human species, the term "species" is not used according to its modern definition but in the sense that it refers to the human species essence. The lack of reference to the biological characteristics of the members of homo sapiens supports the idea that the human species essence is to a lesser degree defined by biological characteristics but mainly by spiritual virtues. This idea would allow the existence of "human beings" in this universe with an organism differing from that of homo sapiens, i.e., with a different metabolism and morphology.
To understand the arguments of `Abdu'l-Bahá, however, it is important to know that occidental and oriental neo-Platonic philosophies have different concepts about the effect of timeless essences in this material world (see the accompanying essay (see Keven Brown's article)). Mullá Sadra for instance formulated the concept of substantial evolution (lit. substantial motion) (see Keven Brown's article). `Abdu'l-Bahá describes this concept in one of the talks published in SAQ:
Know that nothing which exists remains in a state of repose--that is to say, all things are in motion. Everything is either growing or declining; all things are either coming from nonexistence into being, or going from existence into nonexistence. So this flower, this hyacinth, during a certain period of time was coming from the world of nonexistence into being, and now it is going from being into nonexistence. This state of motion is said to be substantial--that is, natural; it cannot be separated from beings because it is their essential requirement, as it is the essential requirement of fire to burn. (SAQ 63:1)`Abdu'l-Bahá describes motion, or translated into modern terminology evolution, as substantial for the world of being. The objects of this world grow, decline and die. They are assembled by chemical elements which later are redistributed again. These continuous changes form a constituent aspect of this world. In an other place `Abdu'l-Bahá emphasizes the continuous change within the physical world together with the time invariance of the essences:
Physical bodies are transferred past one barrier after another, from one life to another, and all things are subject to transformation and change, save only the essence of existence itself--since it is constant and immutable, and upon it is founded the life of every species and kind, of every contingent reality throughout the whole of creation. (`Abdu'l-Bahá, 1978, p. 157)Thus in this world, evolution and change is substantial. The transformation of the material objects, however, grounds in a fundamental time invariant reality. It is based on timeless species essences; its possible "trajectories" are determined by the laws of nature.
... God was, and His creation had ever existed beneath His shelter from the beginning that hath no beginning ... That which hath been in existence had existed before, but not in the form thou seest today. The world of existence came into being through the heat generated from the interaction between the active force and that which is its recipient (Bahá'u'lláh, 1988, 9:8-9).In the context of this essay only two aspects of this statement are considered: (1) The existence of the universe is eternal. As already shown, time itself is God's creation and this universe is a mirror image of the eternal names and attributes of God. Eternal in this context does not mean an infinitely long duration, but independence of time. These names and attributes define the essences for our universe, its blueprints. (2) The universe as we know it today is a result of a long-lasting process. According to this statement the universe is not static but dynamic. Although it is eternal as a whole it's particular state evolves and changes within time, it is subject to substantial evolution. `Abdu'l-Bahá a gave the following interpretation of the second sentence of this quote from the Lawh-i Hikmát:
From this blessed verse it is clear and evident that the universe is evolving. In the opinion of the philosophers and the wise this fact of the growth and evolution of the world of existence is also established. This is to say, it is progressively transferred from state to state. (`Abdu'l-Bahá, Ma'idiy-i-asmani, 2, p. 68, provisional translation by Keven Brown)In interpreting the statement of Bahá'u'lláh given above, `Abdu'l-Bahá explicates the dynamics of the universe. The terms "growth and evolution" indicate, that `Abdu'l-Bahá assumes considerable changes in the development of the universe and not only minor adaptions. The cosmology `Abdu'l-Bahá presents behaves essentially dynamic, changes are the rule and not the exception, evolution is a substantial aspect of this universe. In comparing the classic and modern views of biology, `Abdu'l-Bahá's cosmology fits much better to the historicity, emphasized in modern theories of the development of the universe, and found in the evolution of living systems, than the static universe proposed by Aristotle and accepted by Christianity until the 19th century.
As indicated at the beginning of this section, "substantial evolution" applies to all levels in this contingent world. As `Abdu'l-Bahá explained, everything in our universe stems from a single root. The physical appearance of the universe developed and proceeded from stage to stage:
It is necessary, therefore, that we should know what each of the great existents was in the beginning--for there is no doubt that in the beginning the origin was one: the origin of all numbers is one and not two. Then it is evident that in the beginning there was a single matter, and that one matter appeared in a particular form in each element. Thus various forms were produced, and these various forms as they were produced became permanent [istiqlal, lit. independent], and each element was specialized. But this permanence was not definite, and did not attain realization and perfect existence until after a very long time. (SAQ 47:2)Following this quote, our universe undergoes substantial evolution. The whole material universe required an unimaginably long time (cosmological time scales, e.g., 10 to 30 billion years) to evolve to the state that we know today. During the development of the universe, stars and planets appeared. According to `Abdu'l-Bahá, the concept of substantial evolution applies to the whole universe. Matter, planets, stars, etc. evolved from a common origin. Obviously, `Abdu'l-Bahá envisioned not only minor modification, but substantial changes.
But it is clear that this terrestrial globe in its present form did not come into existence all at once, but that this universal existence gradually passed through different phases until it became adorned with its present perfection... In the same manner, it is evident that this terrestrial globe, having once found existence, grew and developed in the matrix of the universe, and came forth in different forms and conditions, until gradually it attained this present perfection, and became adorned with innumerable beings, and appeared as a finished organization... (SAQ 47:4).The development of life on earth is explained as a long-lasting process (geological time scales, about 5 billion years). Life is not static or in a steady state as believed by Aristotle and in the "classical" Christian world, but it continuously changes:
Similarly, the terrestrial globe from the beginning was created with all its elements, substances, minerals, parts, and organisms; but these only appeared by degrees: first the mineral, then the plant, afterward the animal, and finally man. (SAQ 51:5)First `Abdu'l-Bahá emphasizes that the laws of nature and species essences for the formation of planets and for biological development are eternal and do not evolve. The unfolding of the potential realities, of the eternal names and attributes of God into actual existences, however, has the form of an evolution. After a long time the universe evolved to the state we see today. In the matrix of the universe the terrestrial globe came into being and developed slowly until its present form. Similarly, biological life evolved over a long period of time. Representatives of the human species appeared after plants and animals.
The view of the evolution of the universe and life on earth presented by `Abdu'l-Bahá agrees with the findings of modern sciences. This universe is considered to be essentially dynamic, the development of life grounds in substantial evolution. In agreement with oriential neo-Platonism, `Abdu'l-Bahá proposes that the timeless reality unfolds within time resulting in substantial evolution. This tradition contrasts occidental neo-Platonism because the existence of timeless species essences is not equated with a static world. `Abdu'l-Bahá's concept of evolution differs from most schools of thought in modern biology in that it is based on an essentialistic fundament. Features evolved during evolution are understood to reflect the eternal names and attributes of God. They reveal the complex potentials built into this world by our Creator from the very beginning.
Darwin was full conscious of the fact that the change from one species into another one was the most fundamental problem of evolution. Indeed, evolution was, almost by definition, a change from on species into an other one. The belief in constant, unchangeable species was the fortress of antievolutionism to be stormed and destroyed. (Mayr, 1991)Nevertheless, `Abdu'l-Bahá's evolution concept is clearly essentialistic. In contrast to most European philosophers, Mullá Sadra formulated the concept of substantial evolution (lit. substantial motion) (see Keven Brown's article). In addition to the arguments described above in favor of an essentialistic evolution, `Abdu'l-Bahá presented a particular biological argument, the analogy between human ontogeny and phylogeny, to support the compatibility of the human species essence and human evolution.
... But it is clear that this terrestrial globe in its present form did not come into existence all at once, but that this universal existence gradually passed through different phases until it became adorned with its present perfection. Universal beings resemble and can be compared to particular beings, for both are subject to one natural system, one universal law, and one divine organization. So you will find the smallest atoms in the universal system are similar to the greatest beings of the universe. It is clear that they come into existence from one laboratory of might under one natural system and one universal law; therefore, they are analogous to one another. Thus the embryo of man in the womb of the mother gradually grows and develops, and appears in different forms and conditions, until in the degree of perfect beauty it reaches maturity and appears in a perfect form with the utmost grace. And in the same way, the seed of this flower which you see was in the beginning an insignificant thing, and very small; and it grew and developed in the womb of the earth and, after appearing in various forms, came forth in this condition with perfect freshness and grace. In the same manner, it is evident that this terrestrial globe, having once found existence, grew and developed in the matrix of the universe, and came forth in different forms and conditions, until gradually it attained this present perfection, and became adorned with innumerable beings, and appeared as a finished organization.In this paragraph `Abdu'l-Bahá argues for the evolution of humanity on earth. First `Abdu'l-Bahá states that the planet earth once had a beginning and then developed. The situation we see today was obtained after a long evolution. Then `Abdu'l-Bahá formulates the argument for this position in three steps. (1) Because the universe is based on a single origin and is ruled by "one universal law", microcosm and macrocosm, small and large systems are comparable. (2) The human embryo develops from the time point of conception and passes through many different stages. The same is true for the growth of plants from their seeds. (3) Because of the relation between small and large systems due to their common origin the phylogeny, the evolution of life on earth, follows analogous rules as the ontogeny of a particular human being in its mothers womb.
The relation between ontogeny and phylogeny has long been discussed in occidental biology. Embryos of different biological species in their early phases of differentiation are often very similar. For instance bird embryos and mammal embryos become morphologically distinct only at a certain stage of development. Both form gill arches during their early embryonic life which disappear later.
In classical biology until the beginning of the 18th century, the animal world was thought to consist in a single scale of animal organization, the scala naturae, starting from the most primitive animals and ending in humanity as the apex of creation. In classical biology the parallel ontogeny was understood that the higher animals in their embryonic growth start on a primitive level of the scala naturae, go through the intermediate levels until they reach their own place. This concept should not be mistaken for evolution, it is designed to apply to a static biosphere. For instance the French anatomist Étienne Serrès considered "the whole animal kingdom ... ideally as a single animal ... here and there arrests it's own development and thus determines at each point of interruption, by the very state it has reached, the distinctive characters of the phyla, the classes, families, genera, and species" (Mayr, 1982, p. 472). Serrès considers the scala naturae as a continuous scale of increasingly complex organisms. The particular species simply got stuck at a certain point of this scale. This concept became known as the Meckel-Serrès law. Later Agassiz extended this law to the fossil records that the embryo not only has to go through the more primitive stages of life, but that it also reflects the extinct predecessors of its own class: "It may therefore be considered as a general fact ... that the phases of development of all living animals correspond to the order of succession of their extinct representatives in past geological times. As far as this goes, the oldest representatives of every class may then be considered as embryonic types of their respective orders or families among the living" (Mayr, 1982, p. 474).
In his Origin Darwin used the parallelism between ontogeny and phylogeny as an argument in favor of evolution. Here this parallelism is no longer thought to result from the general law of increasing complexification in the scala naturae as proposed by Meckel and Serrès but each embryo was considered to repeat individually the evolution of its own species. Ernst Haeckel reformulated the Meckel-Serrès law into the law of recapitulation: "ontogeny is a concise and compressed recapitulation of phylogeny, conditioned by laws of heredity and adaption." (Haeckel, 1984, p. 111; Mayr, 1982, p. 474) This law became popular and strongly influential in biology, especially in embryology. Around the beginning of this century this laws became more and more questionable and was shown to be wrong at least in its extreme variants (for instance see Gould (Gould, 1977)).
In the argument that, because of the common origin in a universal law human phylogeny resembles human ontology, `Abdu'l-Bahá uses only a very weak form of parallelism. For the sake of the argument only the development of the embryo as such is required. From this `Abdu'l-Bahá only concludes for the evolution of life on earth. Particular concepts such as the Meckel-Serrès law or Haeckels law of recapitulation are not involved. The appeal to those well known and widely accepted concepts, however, certainly helped to support `Abdu'l-Bahá's argument.
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 [naw`]. 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 its present form and figure, it is the embryo of a distinct species [naw`], and not the embryo of an animal. Man's species [naw`iyat] and essence [mahíyat] have undergone no change [taghyí, also "modification"] whatsoever. Now, assuming that the traces of organs which have disappeared actually exist, this is not a proof of the impermanence and the nonoriginality of the species [naw`]. At the most it proves that the form, nature, and organs of man have progressed. But man was always a distinct species [naw`], a man, not an animal... For the originality of the human species [naw`] and the permanence of the essence [mahíyat] of man, is clear and evident. (SAQ 47:7)This quote starts with the major conclusion drawn by `Abdu'l-Bahá in chapter 47 of SAQ. Although humanity undergoes an evolution on this planet, changes in all respect as the embryo does in the mothers womb, but "... from the beginning of man's existence he is a distinct species." Here `Abdu'l-Bahá extends the analogy between ontogeny and the evolution of humanity. The embryo is human from the time point of conception although during ontogeny it changes in all respect. In the same sense the human "species and essence" exists from the beginning of the universe and does not change during evolution, it remains original. A very similar statement is given in an other chapter:
To recapitulate: just 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 formation in the matrix of the world, is also a distinct species--that is, man--and he has gradually passed from one form to another. Therefore, this change of appearance, this evolution of members, this development and growth, does not prevent the originality of the species [asálat-i naw`]. (SAQ 49:7)The embryo in the womb of the mother starts single celled, passes through many states, until it obtains maturity and strength to survive in this world. Throughout all this development, beginning with a single cell, this embryo is human. The biological aspects of the embryonic growth depend necessarily on the DNA as a (more or less) constant, "time invariant" origin of development. The genome, the DNA guides the necessary formation of the organs and their mutual interactions. Changes, mutations or defects in the genome generally tend to ruin the new life. The embryo is human from the time point of conception, its DNA is human, not that of fishes, nor that of higher primates. It maintains its potential and actual "human characteristics", its particular genome, through all the stages of development. `Abdu'l-Bahá argues that in the same way as the embryo remains human, "Man's species and essence have undergone no change/modification" and "man, from the beginning of his formation in the matrix of the world, is also a distinct species". According to this view the human species essence is a time invariant, substantial characteristic of the laws of nature, it reflects the timeless names and attributes of God. /8/ The evolution of humanity, of every creature on this planet depend upon their essences.
In classical biology the species essences were thought to be directly responsible for the inner and outer appearance of their particular representatives. Only minor variations from the "ideal" were thought to be tolerable. `Abdu'l-Bahá contrasts this view with the analogy of human phylogeny with the embryonic development. The embryo starts single celled and passes through very different states while it remains human. The same genome rules the development through these different forms. In the same way, biological evolution does not imply that the species essence must change to allow for all the different stages and developments during evolution. On the contrary, the existence of the species essences, the time invariant laws of nature, ensure that a development towards complex life forms is possible. Species essences define the "natural compositions" (SAQ 47:4), i.e., the requirements to form a functional, dynamic living system which does not immediately desintegrate. As the constant DNA "guides" the development of an individual the time invariant species essences "guide" evolution as a whole. The species essences ensure that a certain composition of chemical elements always leads to the same result, that a particular composition does not once produce a fish, later an ape and finally a human being.
The analogy between human ontogeny and phylogeny may also be used to get a first impression what `Abdu'l-Bahá means by species essence. In classical biology the essence was assumed to represent an ideal picture for the members of the species, e.g., an ideal horse. Such an essence definition is certainly alien to evolution. Species essences which are assumed to guide evolution have to be more general. What characteristic of the embryo remains constant during ontogeny? At least the biological side of the embryo's development depends on the genetic information content. This is largely constant from the time point of conception through birth until death. Analogously, one could understand the species essences as the information of which composition of chemical elements leads to a living being. `Abdu'l-Bahá's concept of species essences may indicate an equivalence with the assumption of the existence of an objective, reproducible fitness function. In mathematical evolution models, the fitness function guides evolution because it "decides" which members survives and which die. The strict link between the biological species as a reproductive community and species essences in classical biology is lost in such generalized concept of species essences.
If, on the other hand, these passages are thought to be not so much concerned with fundamental verities of the origin of life and human spiritual reality, but with particular concepts of how biological life evolved on earth, than this analogy could be understood to indicate parallel evolution. The analogy between human phylogeny and embryonic ontogeny particularly invites to interpret `Abdu'l-Bahá's arguments in terms of parallel evolution. In this case, utterances such as "But from the beginning of man's existence he is a distinct species ... But man was always a distinct species, a man, not an animal" (SAQ 47:7) and "man, from the beginning of his formation in the matrix of the world, is also a distinct species... Man from the beginning was in this perfect form and composition, and possessed capacity and aptitude for acquiring material and spiritual perfections" (SAQ 49:7) can be understood that `Abdu'l-Bahá refers to the biological evolution of humanity, and "beginning" indicates the time point of the first appearance of the human species on earth. In this case those statements formulate a picture of biological evolution radically different from the theories of modern evolution biology. In parallel evolution there would exist a biologically distinct line of the human species from the beginning of the existence of life on earth, i.e., at the stage of very primitive life forms, to modern homo sapiens sapiens. Because the originality of species is a rather general principle such distinct lines of parallel evolution would have to be assumed for each individual biological species: "All beings, whether large or small, were created perfect and complete from the first, but their perfections appear in them by degrees." (SAQ 51:4)
As indicated in the introduction, some authors indeed understand those statements to propose parallel evolution. This interpretation is at variance with the fact that the definitions of the human species given in the Bahá'í writings refer to the spiritual nature of humanity. There seems to exist no biological species definition in the writings. Without such a definition any biological interpretation of `Abdu'l-Bahá's species concept would contain a considerable amount of speculation. Philosophically it is not difficult to assume such a model of evolution, but because it claims to describe the biological reality, parallel evolution must be translated into applied biology. Otherwise such a claim would "begin with words and end with words". (Bahá'u'lláh, 1988, 5:15)
If one prefers to understand `Abdu'l-Bahá's writings to imply parallel evolution one has to answer a series of questions if this concept is seriously taken:
Briefly, the evidences of the intellect of man are manifest and clear. Man is man by reason of this intellectual faculty. Therefore, the animal kingdom is other than the human kingdom. Notwithstanding this, the philosophers of the West have adduced evidences to demonstrate that man had his origin in the animal kingdom. /13/ ... In other words, he [man] was transferred from one state to another until he reached this human shape and form. They say that the manner of man's formation can be compared to the links of a chain, which are connected to one another. However, between man and the ape one link is missing. Great scientists and philosophers have searched for it, some even devoting their whole lives to solving this problem, but until now they have been unable to find that missing link.First `Abdu'l-Bahá emphasizes the distinction between the human and the animal kingdoms (see above). After explaining the theory of the European philosophers of the descent of homo sapiens from the animal world, `Abdu'l-Bahá stresses that no link has been found /14/ between homo sapiens and higher primates. The analogy between human evolution and ontogeny follows. Finally `Abdu'l-Bahá states that the link between apes and human species will never be found.
... The philosophers of the East say: If the human body [haykal] was originally not in its present composition, but was gradually transferred from one stage to another until it appeared in its present form [as the philosophers of the West say], we would postulate that although at one time it was a swimmer and later a crawler, still it was human, and its species has remained unchanged. The proof for this is that the human embryo is at first a mere germ. Gradually the hands and feet appear and the lower limbs become separated from each other, and it is transferred from one form to another, from one shape to another, until it becomes born with this shape and appearance. But from the time it was in the womb in the form of a germ, it was the species of man and not like the embryo of other animals. It was in the form of a germ, but it progressed from that form to this most beautiful form. Therefore, it is clear that the species is preserved.
Provided that we assent [to this theory] that man was at one time a creature swimming in the sea and later became a four-legged, assuming this to be true, we still cannot say that man was an animal. Proof of this lies in the fact that in the stage of the embryo man resembles a worm. The embryo progresses from one form to another, until the human form appears. But even in the stage of the embryo he is still man and his species remains unchanged.
The link which they say is lost is itself a proof that man was never an animal. How is it possible to have all the links present and that important link absent? Though one spend this precious life searching for this link, it is certain that it will never be found. (`Abdu'l-Bahá, 1984, Vol. 2, pp. 304-307)
After a first reading of the position of the "philosophers of the East", which generally states also the position of `Abdu'l-Bahá, this quote might be understood to support parallel evolution. The sentence: "... we would postulate that although at one time it was a swimmer and later a crawler, still it was human, and its species has remained unchanged ..." obviously invites for such an interpretation. This view is strengthened by the comparison of the evolution of the human species with the development of the human embryo. As indicated above this analogy forms a conclusive argument that timeless species essences are compatible with evolution.
`Abdu'l-Bahá's reference to the missing link cannot be understood to support parallel evolution. Any fossil finding of an ancient human form, which should exist according to the parallel evolution model, would be interpreted as such a missing link. At the time, when `Abdu'l-Bahá was in the States the question of the missing link was heatedly discussed in scientific circles as well as in the public. It was a real challenge whether Darwin's theory of biological evolution applies also to the human species. The first missing link ever presented, the Piltdown Man, was bogus and it took nearly forty years to discover this forgery (Howells, 1993). Haeckel (Haeckel, 1984, p. 116) dicussed the Java Man, the finding of the Dutch military physician Eugen Dubois in 1891, as the missing link between apes and humanity. Today many fossil findings are known which allow to trace back human evolution. Putative predecessors of the human species lived about 5 million years ago in Africa (Clark, et al., 1994; Leakey, et al., 1995; Leakey, 1994; Tattersall, 1997; White, et al., 1994; White, et al., 1995; WoldeGabriel, et al., 1994). A direct link between modern higher primates and homo Sapiens expected by some scientists at the time of `Abdu'l-Bahá's visit in the States, however, was never found. Today it is assumed that homo sapiens and the modern higher primates have a common ancestor, but are not directly linked.
Particularly, the first of the two arguments is well established in occidental philosophy and was understood to represent a strong counterargument against evolution. In referring to the oriental neo-Platonic concept of substantial evolution `Abdu'l-Bahá formulates an understanding of Plato's harmony argument radically different compared to the philosophic concepts of classical occidental biology. `Abdu'l-Bahá does not deny the facts which are generally used to support biological evolution, but criticizes their philosophic selfcreationistic interpretation, that the order, which constitute the existence of human beings, represents not the unfolding of potentials inherent in nature, but should have evolved during evolution. Using the concepts of a harmonic universe and the time invariance of the fundamental laws of nature `Abdu'l-Bahá argues in favor of a complex origin of our world.
By the analogy between human ontogeny and phylogeny `Abdu'l-Bahá carefully illustrates how the existence of a timeless human species essence does not contradict substantial evolution, the development of a biological human population on earth. As the fertilized human egg passes through many very different phases, it is human since the timepoint of conception. Its "being human" does not prevent all those changes, the genetic information is even a necessary precondition for the unfolding of all the inherent potentials of this new member of the human society. Likewise, the existence of species essences may be understood as the necessary precondition that evolution from the simple towards complex biosphere is possible. Because of the conviction of many occidental philosophers and biologists that species essences and evolution are mutually exclusive, this analogy represents an important element in `Abdu'l-Bahá's arguments in favor of a timeless human species essence. Interestingly, the facts about the "constant genome", which were discovered by modern microbiology after `Abdu'l-Bahá gave those talks, even strengthens this argument of `Abdu'l-Bahá.
The essentialistic concept of the originality of species stands in vivid contrast to the occidental evolution concepts, where mostly essentialism and evolution were considered to be mutually exclusive. The concept of substantial evolution is compatible with an evolving universe based on a timeless, perfectly harmonious reality, representing the eternal names and attributes of God.
/2/ Büchner and Haeckel based their world views on the conservation of matter and energy. Thus, the time invariance of the laws of nature was a fundamental assumption of their philosophies.
/3/ Some pre-Darwinian approaches to evolution, which Mayr does not consider to represent "real" evolution, because they are still based on an essentialistic species concept, assumed saltations or "mutations" in the species essence, thus the appearance of a new species is accompanied by the anew generation of a new species essence. Maupertius in 1756 proposed the following concept of speciation: "Could we not explain in this way how from only two individuals the multiplication of the most various species could have resulted? Their first origin would have been due simply to some chance production, in which the elementary particles would not have kept the order which they had in the paternal and maternal animals: each degree of error would have made a new species; and by repeated deviations the infinite diversity of animals which we know today would have been produced." (Mayr, 1982, p. 403)
/4/ The forms of life are virtually unlimited from a human perspective. The "space" of atomic assemblies corresponding to living organisms is only small, if compared to the space of all possible atomic assemblies.
/5/ The argument supports the originality of any species essence.
/6/ After the passing of `Abdu'l-Bahá in 1921, the leadership of the Bahá'í community entered a new phase, evolving from that of a single individual to an administrative order founded on the "twin pillars" of the Guardianship and the Universal House of Justice.
This administrative order was originally envisaged by Bahá'u'lláh in his Book of Laws and was given further shape by `Abdu'l-Bahá, particularly in His Will and Testament. In that document He appointed His eldest grandson, Shoghi Effendi, as Guardian of the Bahá'í Faith and also referred to the future election of the Universal House of Justice, a legislative body of which the Guardian would be the "sacred head and the distinguished member for life." (see http://www.bahai.org)
/7/ Keven Brown (Brown, 1994) writes: "`Abdu'l-Bahá makes it clear that he considers the human species to have existed from the beginning and not to be a modification of an earlier animal species. He says the same thing about all other species... Certainly, `Abdu'l-Bahá does not intend by the term species (naw`iyat) the external, physical forms of creatures, for these are constantly appearing and disappearing. Many species have died out, and others are in danger of extinction. Rather by `species and essences' he is probably referring to something akin to preexisting `laws of form' that determine all the possible modes in which creatures can appear."
/8/ It is interesting to note that Monod used the same example to explain that human evolution should not be compared with ontogeny, because the embryo develops according to its inherent genetic potentials and evolution, according to Monod, consists in anew creations.
/9/ `Abdu'l-Bahá certainly is not a Lamarkian. `Abdu'l-Bahá proposes that the less complex species appeared first: "first the mineral, then the plant, afterward the animal, and finally man." (SAQ 51:5) For Lamark the sequence is reversed. He assumed an evolution towards increasing complexity and perfection. Each species started simple and slowly accumulated perfections. For him speciation, i.e., the appearance of new species, is a continuous process which would occur even today. Humanity is the result of the evolution of "ancient worms" whereas "modern worms" appeared only recently, had not much time to acquire perfections and are still at the beginning of their evolution to develop elaborate morphologies.
/10/ In the World Wide Web link "http://www.talkorigins.org/faqs/faq-speciation.html" from the Talk.Origins Archive a long list of articles is presented, reporting discovered speciations.
/11/ On the australian subcontinent there existed a marsupalian wolf. This wolf was morphologically very similar to the mammalian wolf. Nearly identical forms have here evolved independently without close biological relationship. The requirement to hunt certain type of prey was independently answered by very similar solutions (Riedl, 1976, p. 162).
/12/ The alternate assumption that `Abdu'l-Bahá simply could have erred in the question of biological evolution is not considered, because the interpretation of the analogy between phylogeny and ontogeny as an argument supporting the compatibility between species essences and evolution fits into the evolution discussion at the turn of the century. Today this analogy can be taken as a cornerstone for developing a philosophy of a non-trivial origin of complex order in our universe.
/13/ Only passages where `Abdu'l-Bahá explains the position of the "philosophers of the West" are omitted in this quotation. They are similar to those quoted above.
/14/ This talk took place in 1912.
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