I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about evolution and Evolution. Evolution with a small “e” is about physical development—the development of the fetus in the womb of its mother, passing through a variety of stages before it becomes recognizably human and independently viable; the physical development of the species (which maybe is evolution in small caps) in which man has passed through a variety of physical forms before arriving at this particular stage at which it has a quaking sense of itself as human, not cat or dog or ape.
I use the word quaking deliberately. My recent discussions of the human condition with people from a wide spectrum of belief and knowledge has left me with the impression that while we are not comfortable behaving like animals—who have no litanies of animal rights or elected governments to protect them—neither are many of us quite ready to give up what we conceive of as animal freedom to do what we want when we want to do it. We are a conflicted species that simultaneously wants to be human (and humane) and bestial (because it affords pleasure). Our grasp on our humanity is sometimes very slight, trembling, and even reluctant.
To be sure, not all of us are engaged in that ideological thumb wrestle at that level. People of faith take it on faith that we are more than mere animals, but struggle with their human reality just the same. In many religious ideologies, the physical nature is seen as not simply and neutrally as an imperfect state for humans, but a state of Evil. The uneasy relationship between human ideals and the demands of the animal body is posited as a no-holds-barred, take-no-prisoners war of good and evil. You are a one or a zero in a zero sum game.
The Bahá’í philosophy on this are quite clear. Bahá’u’lláh writes in a volume entitled The HIdden Words:
O SON OF SPIRIT! Noble have I created thee, yet thou hast abased thyself. Rise then unto that for which thou wast created.
This, of course, begs the question: for what were we created. And this is where Evolution with big, fat, capital E comes in.
The Universe we live in is in a constant state of evolution and growth. The planet we live on, likewise. Every life form on it. And of all those lifeforms, it can be argued that, in some ways, we are evolving most swiftly and in directions no other animals are.
Humanity has evolved in unique ways to fill a unique niche. We have evolved in ways beyond the mere honing of physical attributes. We have evolved intellectually, emotionally, spiritually. Our human institutions, likewise, have evolved. Our grasp of the universe has evolved, which means our sciences have also evolved. Everything we are and everything we touch is evolving.
And yet, we cling to old models, old ideas. We dislike and distrust change. And lately I’ve been thinking we dislike evolving because it requires that we continually revise our estimation of ourselves from the micro to the macro level, and reassess our place in the Universe. More than that, I think we dislike it because it bestows on us a terrifying responsibility: Having developed the capacity and the tools to bend nature, we have as the Bible notes, become little less than gods—at least in our own estimation. We have the ability to control our evolution and our environment in a way that no other life form on the planet has. That means our evolution has become, in many ways, a matter of choices that we make or fail to make, and the responsibility for those choices comes squarely home to roost in the problems we face in our quickly shrinking world.
Animals, darn them, don’t have to contend with that. Animals just evolve without conscious choice. Their social organizations are instinctual—most of ours are learned and crafted. They have no social institutions—we couldn’t survive without them. They have no laws to live by—we make new ones every day, many having to do with how we treat other animals (human and non).
It’s just not fair.
One of the things that’s gone into my contemplation of human evolution is this talk that Abdu’l-Bahá gave on Modernism and human evolution in 1912 during His sojourn in America.
All created things have their degree or stage of maturity. The period of maturity in the life of a tree is the time of its fruit-bearing. The maturity of a plant is the time of its blossoming and flower. The animal attains a stage of full growth and completeness, and in the human kingdom man reaches his maturity when the lights of intelligence have their greatest power and development.
From the beginning to the end of his life man passes through certain periods or stages each of which is marked by certain conditions peculiar to itself. For instance during the period of childhood his conditions and requirements are characteristic of that degree of intelligence and capacity. After a time he enters the period of youth in which his former conditions and needs are superseded by new requirements applicable to the advance in his degree. His faculties of observation are broadened and deepened, his intelligent capacities are trained and awakened, the limitations and environment of childhood no longer restrict his energies and accomplishments. At last he passes out of the period of youth and enters the stage or station of maturity which necessitates another transformation and corresponding advance in his sphere of life-activity. New powers and perceptions clothe him, teaching and training commensurate with his progression occupy his mind, special bounties and bestowals descend in proportion to his increased capacities and his former period of youth and its conditions will no longer satisfy his matured view and vision.
Similarly there are periods and stages in the life of the aggregate world of humanity which at one time was passing through its degree of childhood, at another its time of youth but now has entered its long presaged period of maturity, the evidences of which are everywhere visible and apparent. Therefore the requirements and conditions of former periods have changed and merged into exigencies which distinctly characterize the present age of the world of mankind. That which was applicable to human needs during the early history of the race could neither meet nor satisfy the demands of this day and period of newness and consummation. Humanity has emerged from its former degrees of limitation and preliminary training. Man must now become imbued with new virtues and powers, new moralities, new capacities. New bounties, bestowals and perfections are awaiting and already descending upon him. The gifts and graces of the period of youth although timely and sufficient during the adolescence of the world of mankind, are now incapable of meeting the requirements of its maturity. The playthings of childhood and infancy no longer satisfy or interest the adult mind.
From every standpoint the world of humanity is undergoing a re-formation. The laws of former governments and civilizations are in process of revision, scientific ideas and theories are developing and advancing to meet a new range of phenomena, invention and discovery are penetrating hitherto unknown fields revealing new wonders and hidden secrets of the material universe; industries have vastly wider scope and production; everywhere the world of mankind is in the throes of evolutionary activity indicating the passing of the old conditions and advent of the new age of re-formation. Old trees yield no fruitage; old ideas and methods are obsolete and worthless now. Old standards of ethics, moral codes and methods of living in the past will not suffice for the present age of advancement and progress.
This is the cycle of maturity and re-formation in religion as well. Dogmatic imitations of ancestral beliefs are passing. They have been the axis around which religion revolved but now are no longer fruitful; on the contrary, in this day they have become the cause of human degradation and hindrance. Bigotry and dogmatic adherence to ancient beliefs have become the central and fundamental source of animosity among men, the obstacle to human progress, the cause of warfare and strife, the destroyer of peace, composure and welfare in the world. Consider conditions in the Balkans today (1912); fathers, mothers, children in grief and lamentation, the foundations of life overturned, cities laid waste and fertile lands made desolate by the ravages of war. These conditions are the outcome of hostility and hatred between nations and peoples of religion who imitate and adhere to the forms and violate the spirit and reality of the divine teachings.
While this is true and apparent, it is likewise evident that the Lord of mankind has bestowed infinite bounties upon the world in this century of maturity and consummation. The ocean of divine mercy is surging, the vernal showers are descending, the Sun of Reality is shining gloriously. Heavenly teachings applicable to the advancement in human conditions have been revealed in this merciful age. This re-formation and renewal of the fundamental reality of religion constitute the true and outworking spirit of modernism, the unmistakable light of the world, the manifest effulgence of the Word of God, the divine remedy for all human ailment and the bounty of eternal life to all mankind.
In the talk, Abdu’l-Bahá speaks about different areas in which we are evolving—areas in which our social institutions evolve with our intellectual intuitions. They are (but not limited to)
- The aggregate life of humanity (our evolution as a social organism)
- Laws, administration, and social institutions
Having floated the idea that everything around us evolves because it has to in order to keep up with our need for continued growth, I’d like to explore some of the areas in which we are evolving with different degrees of success (and resistance) and consider what it is we are evolving toward.