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Origin of Complex Order in Biology:
Abdu'l-Baha's concept of the originality of species compared to concepts in modern biology

by Eberhard von Kitzing

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Chapter 6


The question of the origin of our world and complex biological order has always fascinated mankind. Within this essay some philosophical aspects of the origin of order are discussed using the example of our biosphere, the origin of the different, well adapted forms of life, the appearance of manifold species. Three different meta-physical species concepts are considered: that of classical biology, modern biology and the proposals given by `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the prophet founder of the Bahá'í Faith.

In classical biology the biosphere was considered to be static. It was once created by God, and since its origin the fauna and flora was considered to have remained more or less unchanged. The various species were assumed to be defined by their respective timeless species essences, by archetypes which keeps them unique and distinct. These concepts are rooted in the ideas of Plato. Complex order is considered to represent God's creation. In contrast to Plato and the neo-Platonists, Aristotle considered the existing order to be sufficient for it's own maintenance and reproduction. His species concept agrees well with many modern species definitions. Today, a species in considered to be defined by their actually existing population, by the gene pool common to an interbreeding community. Together with Aristotle, most modern biologists don't believe in species essences. Because Aristotle considered this world to be static, for him, the populations were fixed entities. All modern species definitions, however, are based on evolution, designed to explain the findings in biology and palaeontology indicating a changing world. Today, the existence of species essences is generally thought to be incompatible with evolution.

Impressed by the astonishing progress made in physics and chemistry during the 19th century, there was an important fraction of scientists who tried to reduce biology to physics and chemistry, to mechanics. For these people, evolution is the necessary result of a few fundamental laws of nature. The universe was assumed to exist eternally, thus a "first cause" was not required and the temporal regression was assumed to be infinite indeed. The hierarchical regression is not solved in such models. The question for the origin of the universe as such is left open. For representatives of this view, such as Büchner, evolution is the necessary result of the mechanical laws of nature.

More biologically oriented scientists were convinced that the well adapted complex biosphere cannot originate from a few mechanical laws. For them, evolution is not the unfolding of potentialities encoded in these laws of nature, but consist in "créatrice de nouveauté absolue" (Monod, 1970, p. 130), in the emergence of absolutely new characteristics. In such ad hoc creations of complex order, a new kind of creative force is introduced, because evolution is considered not to represent the unfolding of some in principle objective and reproducible, but actually hidden, potential order. Being principally unpredictable and irreproducible, this postulated creative force is rather similar to an élan vital in a different disguise. These concepts assume the creation of biological order, but don't explain it. In such concepts, the complex order of our universe remains inexplicable in principle.

In contrast, modern mathematical biologists again consider (often perhaps unconsciously) more essentialistic models of evolution. A reality which is grounded in unpredictable and irreproducible characteristics cannot be modeled by mathematical equations. In mathematical evolution models, selection is based on an in principle objective fitness function. Because the existence of the fitness function is not explained, such concepts suffer from the problem of the infinite regression. They are certainly suitable as a scientific theory on an intermediate level. But they cannot provide their own philosophical fundament, the origin of the fitness function.

As shown in the accompanying essay by Keven Brown (see Keven Brown's article) Darwinism was extensively discussed in the Near East during the second half of the 19th century. In the Arabic speaking world, Darwin's work was mainly accessible through the translations of popular books, written for instance by Büchner, Haeckel or Spencer, about their philosophic interpretation of Darwin's theory of evolution. These authors generally equated Darwin's biological theory with mechanistic concepts of the origin of complex order in our universe. Consequently, the main interest in the Orient addressed these philosophic consequences of Darwinism. `Abdu'l-Bahá was very likely well informed about the disputes of evolution in the Near East. With Western visitors and during His visits to Europe and the United States He extensively discussed evolution and formulated philosophical concepts of the origin of complex order presented in the light of the teachings of His father. In the talks published in PUP and SAQ explicit reference is made to the "philosophers of the West" and to "some European philosophers". Thus, these arguments specifically address those ideas formulated, published and widely distributed in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century.

With the combined argument of Plato's classical concept of the perfect harmonious universe and the modern time invariance of the elemental laws of nature, `Abdu'l-Bahá argues in favor of the existence of a timeless human species essence. With the reference to the time invariant laws of nature `Abdu'l-Bahá discloses a strange characteristic of the concept of self-creative evolution: If the biological characteristics are created anew during evolution, a certain chain of amino acids would have had certain characteristics until a certain time point of cosmological evolution and different newly created ones after this time point. The problems of changing laws of nature become even more severe if they are extended to cosmogony. Such changes have not yet been discovered in our universe. They would prevent to disclose the past of our universe.

In classical biology the timeless species essences were considered to preserve the biological populations. Although there were few attempts to combine essentialism with evolution, those theories rejecting essentialism succeeded among competing approaches. This led to the widely accepted conclusion that essentialism and evolution are mutually incompatible. With the analogy between human phylogeny and embryonic ontogeny `Abdu'l-Bahá demonstrates that essentialism and evolution are not contradictory. As the information stored in the DNA chains regulate the development of growing organisms and unfolds their hidden potentials during their life, the species essence "guides" evolution on the geological time scale. The cosmogony `Abdu'l-Bahá proposes builds on a non-trivial, essentially complex origin. "Chance and necessity" (Le Hazard et la Necessité (Monod, 1970)) are shown to be insufficient to explain the universe and to bring forth a complex biosphere, a third category is added: free Will. I.e., the universe is considered to be indescribable by a closed set of few fundamental laws, but it is presented to be substantially complex from the very beginning, to be essentially open!

`Abdu'l-Bahá's major interest in the subject of evolution did certainly not address particular mechanisms of the evolution of different forms of life. As the head of the young Bahá'í community, He clearly saw the tendency of Darwinism to "leak out" and to give answers in cosmology and social evolution, as pointed out by authors such as Büchner, Haeckel, Spencer, Dawkins or Dennett. In their widely distributed books, Büchner and Haeckel claimed that the results of 19th century's science and particularly evolution biology explicitly excludes the existence of a creator. According to the understanding of the author of this essay, `Abdu'l-Bahá mainly concentrated on the philosophical question whether our cosmological, biological and social order is arbitrary, accidentally or trivial, or whether it is based on a potential complex order existing from the beginning. `Abdu'l-Bahá formulated several arguments in terms of the particular scientific background at the beginning of the 20th century, showing that species essences, that a world view based on the eternal names and attributes of God absolutely makes sense in the light of the findings of modern sciences. His arguments are still valid today.


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