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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 1


When Darwin published his book The Origin of Species in 1859 (Darwin, 1985) he presented the first consistent theory which explained the diversity of biological species by natural means. Until this date the majority of naturalists, including the most illustrious ones, were convinced that special Creation by God is the only reasonable explanation for the existence of complex order of life (Dawkins, 1986; Mayr, 1991). The central theme of Darwin's theory is the modification of species which stands in violent contrast to most previous theories in biology where the species was thought to represent a fixed, timeless entity. According to Mayr, Darwin replaced the classical creation as voluntary design by the concept of natural selection:
It dealt with the mechanism of evolutionary change and, more particularly, how this mechanism could account for the seeming harmony and adaption of the organic world. It attempted to provide a natural explanation in place of the supernatural one of natural theology. In that respect Darwin's theory was unique; there was nothing like it in the whole philosophical literature from the pre-Sokratics to Descartes, Leibniz or Kant. It replaced teleology in nature with an essentially mechanical explanation. (Mayr, 1991, p. 68)
The main challenge of Darwin's new theory was not that it presented an alternative origin of the complex forms of life, but it threatened commonly accepted world views of the 19th century. At least in biology, the picture of a God, caring for His Creatures, was replaced by the mechanistic and aggressive principle of the survival of the fittest. If biological characteristics are subject to natural selection, one should expect the same for the innate forms of instincts and social behavior. An if one does not believe that nature divides into a set of distinct, unrelated realities, thus, if one believes in the unity of nature, one should expect the same fundamental driving forces in the development of our cosmos, in the evolution of life and even in forming biological and social characteristics of humanity. In the 19th century until today, many people conclude from the concept of the survival of the fittest that our universe is driven by a blind mechanism, that at the bottom of our universe there exists no purpose, no plan, no goal.

Today, biological evolution is the widely accepted model to explain the appearance and development of life on this planet. Statements, similar to the ones given by Dawkins (Dawkins, 1986, p. 287) "No serious biologist doubts the fact that evolution has happened nor that all living creatures are cousins of one another", Howells (Howells, 1993, p. 4): "Evolutionary theory is now the center of the whole science of biology" and Mayr (Mayr, 1982, p. 626): "It is perhaps fair to state at the outset that no well-informed biologist doubts evolution any longer, in fact, many biologist consider evolution not a theory but a simple fact documented by the change of gene pools from generation to generation and by the changes in the sequence of fossils in the successive accurately dated geological strata" are common place. Nevertheless, even in the West there are still objections against the theory of evolution mainly from fundamentalistic Christian groups (Beardsley, 1995).

1.1) Darwinism discussed by the early Bahá'í community

The consequences of Darwinism were not only heatedly discussed in the occident, but also in the orient (for details see Keven Brown's essay /1/ ). They were also considered by a group of members of the newly emerging Bahá'í Faith who were exiled by the Ottomanian authorities to Palestine, and for many years were confined to the old fortress of Akká. `Abdu'l-Bahá, the son of the prophet founder of the Bahá'í Faith, in several talks spoke about the evolution of the human species claiming the originality of the species. Most of these talks were given at two different occasions: during the visit of Miss Barney in Akká /2/ and during `Abdu'l-Bahá's journey through the United States. /3/

In a compilation of talks published under the title Some Answered Questions (cited as SAQ), given in Akká during 1904-1906, `Abdu'l-Bahá explicitly mentions "some European philosophers", who believed in the "modification of the species." During the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th the concepts of the biological species experienced a drastic change. To understand `Abdu'l-Bahá's arguments a minimal knowledge is necessary about the concepts of evolution discussed during the second half of the 19th century and of the history of the concepts of biological species in the Occident and Orient. The classical concepts of species originate in the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. The biological species was thought to be determined by a timeless species essence. Due to its dependence on the eternal species essence the biological species was likewise assumed to be unchanging. A distinction between a species essence and its biological species, its actual representation in form of a population, was not necessary due to the close relation between both terms. During the 19th century evidence accumulated from fossil findings that this picture was no longer tenable. The early theories proposing biological evolution were firmly grounded in variants of essentialistic species concepts, e.g., the evolution theory of Lamark. In 1859, however, Darwin published his theory of biological evolution, in which he considered the random variation of the species and the consequential natural selection of the fittest to be the driving forces of evolution and the origin of the different species known today. This continuous change of the biological species was incompatible with the classical species concept. Consequently, in the hundred years following the publication of the Origins a concept of evolution was developed where the existence of species essences was understood to contradict evolution and consequently rejected. A widely accepted theory of evolution settled only during the first half of the 20th century. `Abdu'l-Bahá's remarks about evolution were stated while the discussion of the correct understanding of evolution and the species was still unsettled. Because of the general level of `Abdu'l-Bahá's statements, about evolution it is very likely that `Abdu'l-Bahá was not interested in details of evolution biology, but in the philosophic consequences of Darwinism. He was one of the few religious philosophers at the end of the 19th century who accepted the development of the biosphere as such, but He severely criticized the philosophic concepts of puposelessness and godlessness of evolution of our universe. Contrary to most contemporary scientists and philosophers, `Abdu'l-Bahá understood evolution as a support for the existence of God (Hatcher and Hatcher, 1996).

A second group which was explicitly mentioned by `Abdu'l-Bahá in the talks about evolution are the "philosophers of the East". Their species concepts are rooted either in Aristotle's or Plato's ideas. The discussion about the correct understanding of the origin of the diverse forms of life which took part mainly in Europe also spread into the near East. There the mayor interest concentrated on the impact of the theory of natural selection on philosophical and sociological questions. Apparently, `Abdu'l-Bahá took care to remain well informed about those disputes. The diverse species concepts of the islamic philosophers are not further considered in this essay. They are, however, carefully presented and discussed in an accompanying essay of Keven Brown (see Keven Brown's article).

1.2) About "some European philosophers"

In the Near East the evolution discussion addressed mainly philosophical and social issues. The early literature about evolution available in arabic were translations of popular representations of Darwinism (e.g., Büchner (Büchner, 1904) and Haeckel (Haeckel, 1984)). These authors wrote those books to spread a new world view, based entirely on the empirical sciences. They combined the theory of biological evolution with an atheistic, mechanistic philosophy. These concepts were presented as a direct consequence of the new finding of "modern" sciences. But still today Darwinism is often described to indicate a universe without purpose, without a plan or goal (Dawkins, 1986; Dennett, 1995).

Because `Abdu'l-Bahá's explicit reference to "some European philosophers" the views of Ludwig Büchner and Ernst Haeckel are presented and discussed in this essay. Ludwig Büchner (1824-1899) was one of those authors, who popularized Darwinism together with a materialistic world view in the West, but also in the Near East, by publishing many books and pamphlets about his philosophic ideas. He tried to base his world view on natural sciences. The first edition of his famous, and widely spread book Kraft und Stoff (Energy and Matter) (Büchner, 1904) was published in 1855, four years before Darwin's Origins. As early as in 1855, Büchner postulated the evolution of the species following the teachings of Lamark. The book Kraft und Stoff appeared in 21 editions and was translated into 15 languages. German and English edition were reprinted several times in North America, where he gave many lectures during his visit in the winter 1872-1873. In this book, Büchner severely criticizes the prevalent Christian belief as myths and childish ideas /4/ undermining the moral of the society, and presents his world view, apparently only based on the facts and discoveries of "modern" sciences, as the reasonable alternative. Büchner considered the Golden Rule as the foundation for human moral behavior. For him, solidarity is the essence of human ethics. Of course, such a view provoked the resistance of German conservative circles including the churches. As a consequence, Büchner had to give up his position at the Tübingen university.

When Haeckel published his Welträtsel (World's Mysteries) (Haeckel, 1984) in 1899, he was a famous scientist and professor in ordinary in zoology at the Jena university. He was one of the first supporters of Darwin's evolution theory. A major purpose to write this book was to overcome the "artificial and pernicious contrast between natural sciences and philosophy, between the results of experience and thinking." (Haeckel, 1984, p. 6) Haeckel insisted that empirical studies (natural sciences) must be guided by reason (philosophy): "An overemphasis of empiricism is a similarly dangerous error as the opposite one of speculation. Both paths of understanding are mutually indispensable." (Haeckel, 1984, p. 30) This book further polarized the heated public debate about evolution, particularly because he not only promoted Darwinism, but also claimed the principle incompatibility between Christian dogma and evolution. /5/ Haeckel tried to build his monistic religion on the classical ideals of truth, beauty and goodness: "Within the pure cult of the `true, good and beautiful', which is at the center of our monistic religion, we find suffcient reparation for the lost anthropomorphic ideals of `God, freedom and immortality'." (Haeckel, 1984, p. 480) He claims that the monistic religion is based of experience and rational arguments: "This monistic religion and ethics differs from all others that it is exclusively based on pure reason, that its world view grounds in the sciences, experience and reasonable faith." (Haeckel, 1984, p. 507)

1.3) Recent evolution discussions in the Bahá'í community

There are an increasing number of books and articles dealing specifically with the question of evolution in the Bahá'í writings. Anjam Khursheed (Khursheed, 1987) and B. Hoff Conow (Conow, 1990) propose a biologically distinct evolution of the human species parallel to the animal kingdom. Julio Savi (Savi, 1989) seems to leave this question open, whereas Craig Loehle (Loehle, 1990; Loehle, 1994) claims the principle compatibility of the Bahá'í writings with the today's commonly used scientific model of the evolution of life on earth: "In conclusion, in the context of the Bahá'í teachings it is possible to take both a religious view of evolution without altering science and an evolutionary view of religion without losing faith." These statements were criticized by Arash Abizadeh (Abizadeh, 1990). It followed a lively discussion about this article in the following issues of the Journal of Bahá'í Studies (Ayman, 1992; Brown, 1994; Hatcher, 1992; Loehle, 1992). Keven Brown (Brown, 1994) proposes that the writings of `Abdu'l-Bahá refer to the archetype of human species. More recently Hatcher (Hatcher and Hatcher, 1996; Hatcher, 1993) presented A Scientific Proof of the Existence of God where he carries out a short proof of the existence of God by `Abdu'l-Bahá using particularly facts of biological evolution in the argument.

The repeated statements of `Abdu'l-Bahá that "... from the beginning of man's existence he is a distinct species ...", that the human species does not descend from the animal, and similar ones, have lead several Bahá'í s to the conclusion that humanity as a biological species developed in parallel to the animal kingdom. This concept is designated in this essay as the parallel evolution model. Anjam Khursheed (Khursheed, 1987), B. Hoff Conow (Conow, 1990) and others apparently assume that there was a separate biological line for the human race running in parallel to the vegetable and animal lines. The line consisting of pre-human creatures are considered to be distinct from the animal world, but shaped like animal species. Anjam Khursheed (p. 91) writes : "At one stage it may have resembled a fish, at another an ape, but all the way through its evolution it was a distinct species undergoing a process of design." Very similar statements are given by B. Hoff Conow (Conow, 1990, pp. 59-60): "Bahá'u'lláh and `Abdu'l-Bahá say simply that the human being has always occupied a distinct evolutionary tier although his form and shape evolved and changed over millions of years... So even though in his first stage man was aquatic, and in a later stage may have appeared ape-like..." The present essay proposes an alternative interpretation of those passages, grounded on the understanding that `Abdu'l-Bahá explicitly refers to the discussion of the reality of the biological species in Europe. Those statements present convincing arguments in favor of the concept of the originality of the human species particularly rebutting the ideas of self-creation of complex biological order hold by some "European philosophers", or the mechanistic view that evolution is the necessary result of the mechanical laws of nature.

1.4) The organization of this essay

This essay contains five chapters. After this introduction, chapter 2 describes the development of the species and theories of evolution in occidental sciences. The classical term "species" distinguishes substantially from its modern use, particularly with respect to its philosophical background. Classical and modern concepts of the origin of complex biological order are presented in chapter 3. In chapter 4, `Abdu'l-Bahá's arguments in favor of the originality of the human species are presented. Finally, in chapter 5 various modern concepts of the origin of order in our universe are discussed and related to respective concepts from the Bahá'í writings. A possible relation between a created universe and modern sciences is discussed. The essay closes with the moral of the evolution story.


    /1/ Keven Brown: `Abdu'l-Bahá's Response to Darwinism: Its Historical and Philosophical Context, to be published. Originally, it was planned to discuss the views of the "philosophers of the East" and the "European philosophers" in a single essay. Because the material found to be relevant for discussing `Abdu'l-Bahá's originality of the human species was steadily increasing, it was decided to present two separate essays. The development of the species concepts beginning with Aristotle and Plato, through the medieval ideas to the islamic philosophers until the middle of the 19th century are presented and discussed by Keven Brown.

    /2/ The origin of the talks in Palestine is described in the foreword of the book Some Answered Questions: "The talks between `Abdu'l-Bahá and Laura Clifford Barney took place during the difficult years, 1904-1906, when He was confined to the city of Akká by the Turkish government and permitted to receive only few visitors. At the time He was under constant threat of removal to a distant desert confinement. As interlocutor, Miss Barney arranged for one of `Abdu'l-Bahá's sons-in-law, or for one of the three distinguished Persians of His secretariat of that period, to be present during the talks to insure accuracy in recording His replies to the questions asked Him. `Abdu'l-Bahá later read the transcriptions, sometimes changing a word or a line with His reed pen. They were later translated into English by Miss Barney. The original Persian texts are today a part of the Bahá'í archives of Haifa." (SAQ, from the publisher's foreword to 1964 edition). These talks were published by Miss Barney under the title Some Answered Questions (cited as SAQ). Therefore, the Persian original of SAQ belongs to the body of authentic Bahá'í scriptures. The English translation is being revised in the moment. In this essay quotes from SAQ were taken from the revised not yet authorized version, courteously provided by Keven Brown.

    /3/ During the visit in the United States in 1912 `Abdu'l-Bahá gave public talks at many occasions. Many talks were recorded in Persian and in English: "This treasury of His words is a compilation of informal talks and extemporary discourses delivered in Persian and Arabic, interpreted by proficient linguists who accompanied Him, and taken stenographically in both Oriental and Occidental tongue." (PUP, from the introduction to 1922 Edition) The English text of the Promulgation of Universal Peace (cited as PUP) is based on the English notes which in many places deviates considerably from the Persian, proofread manuscripts. In a letter to an individual, Shoghi Effendi explicitly mentioned the inaccuracy of the translations in Promulgation of Universal Peace: "Regarding your questions: The translations in Promulgation of Universal Peace are too inaccurate, in some places, to use them as an absolute basis for discussing some point, and he has not time at present to go over them, so the best thing is to put down any discrepancies as being due to this." (19 March 1946 to an individual, cited from a Memorandum of the Research Department of the Universal House of Justice, dated 19 March 1995). In an other letter Shoghi Effendi emphasizes that only the Persian original may be considered as authentic: "Regarding the report of Promulgation of Universal Peace Ultimately the Persian originals must be the basis for authentic statements made by the Master, but this will require time, scholars and research work not available at the present time." (5 July 1950 to a National Spiritual Assembly) Consequently, important quotes from PUP were retranslated by Keven Brown.

    /4/ Büchner or Haeckel considered their ideas to be based on the facts of empirical sciences. Today, several of those ideas are themselves obsolete, according to the known facts of sciences.

    /5/ According to Haeckel, revelation consists either in "fiction, in deception or imposture." (Haeckel, 1984, p. 29) He caricatured the Christian view of God as being extremley antropomorphic: "This antropomorphism results in the paradox view of God as a gaseous vertebrate." (Haeckel, 1984, p. 366)

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