The terrestrial globe from the beginning was created with all its elements, substances, minerals, atoms and organisms; but these only appeared by degrees …
Sept 23, 2012. The Bahá’i teachings say that we are not descended from the animals.
These days, many disagree. Animals came before humans, they say. Our bodies are only slightly different than that of other animals, they point out. And science shows we share a biological lineage with animals.
This theory has found credence in the minds of some European philosophers, and it is now very difficult to make its falseness understood, but in the future it will become evident and clear, and the European philosophers will themselves realize its untruth. For, verily, it is an evident error. (`Abdu’l-Bahá, Some Answered Questions, p. 174)
Why should we view the idea that humans are descended from animals as in evident error?
Are the Humans Descended from the Animals?
When `Abdu’l-Bahá discussed whether or not humans were descended from the animals, he would first carefully lay out the positions of the European thinkers of his day. And then he would reply with one or more of several arguments. Below, I summarize several of these arguments – some of which can be difficult to understand – and then consider them from the standpoint of our ongoing discussions about evolution and the laws of nature.
My understanding is the following: `Abdu’l-Bahá is saying that humans are built into the “excellence” of the laws of creation – we are built into the laws of nature.
We exist from the beginning. But that existence in the beginning was potential, not actual. When our world came into existence, the laws of combination and growth came into play, and animals, humans, and everything else slowly came into visible existence.
Humans – who are different than animals because of their tremendous capacities derived from their intellect, their creativity, and their ability to grow spiritually – are therefore not descended from the animals. Humans are an existence whose perfections are derived from creation and the laws of nature, not their growth trajectory, not their biological heritage, and not by descent.
The argument from composition
The argument from composition is the closest – in my estimation – to the perspective of modern physics. `Abdu’l-Baha says that humans are composed of elements and that whenever those elements are arranged in a certain way in a certain setting, humans come into existence:
… all these endless beings which inhabit the world, whether man, animal, vegetable, mineral — whatever they may be — are surely, each one of them, composed of elements. … the perfection of each individual being — that is to say, the perfection which you now see in man or apart from him, with regard to their atoms, members or powers — is due to the composition of the elements, to their measure, to their balance, to the mode of their combination, and to mutual influence. When all these are gathered together, then man exists.
As the perfection of man is entirely due to the composition of the atoms of the elements, to their measure, to the method of their combination, and to the mutual influence and action of the 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 method of combination and mingling, and the same influence of the other beings, exactly the same man existed then as now.
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. 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 necessaries which now exist, exactly the same lamp will be obtained.
What this means – very simply and directly – is that humans are created by the laws of nature and the perfections of creation – not by descent from animals. It is an error to attribute a final result to only the preceding step – it is an error to say that man comes from the animal – when the evident truth is that it is the whole of creation and all of the laws of nature are what humans come from.
The argument from combination and growth looks at human existence from the perspective of growth processes. Like the growth of an embryo in the womb of a mother, growth processes create the configuration of elements that is necessary for a human being to exist. Our existence results from the laws of nature (or creation) and the dynamics inherent in nature (or creation) that bring existence from potentiality to reality.
[It] is evident that in the beginning matter was one, and that one matter appeared in different aspects in each element. Thus various forms were produced, and these various aspects as they were produced became permanent, 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.
Then these elements became composed, and organized and combined in infinite forms; or rather from the composition and combination of these elements innumerable beings appeared. But it is clear that this terrestrial globe in its present form did not come into existence all at once … . [O]riginal matter, which is in the embryonic state, and the mingled and composed elements which were its earliest forms, gradually grew and developed during many ages and cycles, passing from one shape and form to another, until they appeared in this perfection, this system, this organization and this establishment, through the supreme wisdom of God.
Let us return to our subject that man, in the beginning of his existence and in the womb of the earth, like the embryo in the womb of the mother, gradually grew and developed, and passed from one form to another, from one shape to another, until he appeared with this beauty and perfection, this force and this power. But from the beginning of man’s existence he is a distinct species.
So even if described as evolving by an evolutionary process, humanity is always a distinct species, much as a deep canyon is always potentially a river even before it rains.
Many people – especially biologists – have been tempted to think only in terms of what is common to both humans and animals. `Abdu’l-Bahá urges us to also consider how we are different:
Though man has powers and outer senses in common with the animal, yet an extraordinary power exists in him of which the animal is bereft. The sciences, arts, inventions, trades and discoveries of realities are the results of this spiritual power. This is a power which encompasses all things, comprehends their realities, discovers all the hidden mysteries of beings, and through this knowledge controls them.
Therefore, it is evident that man has a gift which the animal does not possess. … The animal is the captive of the senses and bound by them; all that is beyond the senses, the things that they do not control, the animal can never understand, although in the outer senses it is greater than man. Hence it is proved and verified that in man there is a power of discovery by which he is distinguished from the animals, and this is the spirit of man.
`Abdu’-Bahá points out is that humans are different than animals – we have unique capabilities that the animals don’t have, capabilities variously described as intellect, mind, creativity, or spirit. One way to understand what this means – if we take the central lessons of evolution and emergence to heart – is that humans are an existence which has emerged from the animals and that the unique powers and capabilities of humans cannot be explained by or attributed to an inheritance from the animals. Humans have something new. So we cannot say that we are descended from the animals – only that our biological side is.
The argument from the perfection of existence
For all existing beings, terrestrial and celestial, as well as this limitless space and all that is in it, have been created and organized, composed, arranged and perfected as they ought to be; the universe has no imperfection, so that if all beings became pure intelligence and reflected for ever and ever, it is impossible that they could imagine anything better than that which exists.
… 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 the body was without this chief member, surely it would be imperfect.
This is difficult for me to fully grasp. My understanding of it derives from my scientist’s grasp of the laws of nature. Everything is in the laws of nature- including those perfections that are us. If we weren’t there, we could never exist as humans, and the universe, as far as we are concerned, wouldn’t exist either.
We are not descend from the animals, the Bahá’í writings say. Rather, we are a separate species inherent in the nature of creation – what scientists describe as the laws of the universe.
Some will welcome this idea – physicists and others who view the laws of the universe as the template for all things that exist, living or otherwise. Others – accustomed to viewing evolution as independent and sacrosanct – will reject this view.
But, the light-shedding truths that these ideas express – I suggest – will win the day. I predict that – as research into the nature of minds and into what humans are gathers pace – the evidence for these views will grown exponentially.
This is the 27th in a series of blogs on evolution and religion. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked at NTT in Japan before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.