Sept 30, 2012. According to the Bahá’i teachings, humans are a product of creation. We are built into the laws of the universe – not descended from animals. (Please keep in mind that the Bahá’i teachings are not saying that the science of evolution is wrong – far from it. Rather, they are saying that an interpretation, an explanation, a metaphysics in terms of descent from animals is wrong.)
Think about some of things that the Bahá’i perspective on the origins of man entails. We are not just related to animals. We are related to everything in the whole universe. We are related to:
- the plant world with its ancient and magnificent sequoias, its great forests, its teeming and endlessly fertile blanket of life covering the whole of the earth and filling its oceans;
- to the earth with its magnificent mountains, its vast plains, its fertile valleys, its great deserts;
- to the oceans in their vastness and it life-sustaining powers – oceans that are the source of the rain and snow that water our rivers and fields and make our life possible;
- to the endlessly rich and multifacted, never repeating mineral world with its diamonds, its multitudinous grains of sand ground down from rocks great and small, its iron, copper, and aluminum ores that make our modern world possible;
- to the air above, with its clouds, its gentle breezes, its violent storms, and its embrace of the earth in a blanket of warmth that allows us to live and protects us from the harmful rays of the sun;
- to the sun itself, with its great fusion furnaces that generate the light and warmth that keep the earth alive and generate the “star stuff” we are made from;
- to the universe with all of its vastness, its glory, its immense and lonely clouds of gas and particles from which all things are derived; and
- to the very laws of the universe itself, from which all created things come and which contain the templates of all things.
The theory that we are descended from the animals “is an evident error”, according to the authoritative teachings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, the son of Baha’u'llah, the prophet founder of Bahá’i Faith.
Darwin’s theory is much too narrow! It captures only a narrow splinter of the vastness of the universe and of creation! And it fails to incorporate what we now know about the intricate interweaving and interdependence of all aspects of the universe, aspects essential to our being.
The Descent of Man
The main conclusion here arrived at, and now held by many naturalists who are well competent to form a sound judgment, is that man is descended from some less highly organised form.
The grounds upon which this conclusion rests will never be shaken, for the close similarity between man and the lower animals in embryonic development, as well as in innumerable points of structure and constitution, both of high and of the most trifling importance,—the rudiments which he retains, and the abnormal reversions to which he is occasionally liable,—are facts which cannot be disputed. … The great principle of evolution stands up clear and firm …
Clearly, Darwin’s conclusions draw on biological considerations, as well as his theory of evolution. And very clearly, Darwin was not a physicist. He was not accustomed to looking – as physicists are – to the origins of things in elemental phenomena and the laws of nature. He traces the origins of man to the animal world, and then stops.
Another source for his view are less than scientific – his belief that there is only one alternative way to describe the situation – and that is by a separate act of creation, i.e., what would later be called creationism.
He who is not content to look, like a savage, at the phenomena of nature as disconnected, cannot any longer believe that man is the work of a separate act of creation.
And he characterizes those who sees thing differently than he does as being “like a savage.” Ultimately, though, it is biological similarities that animates his view:
He will be forced to admit that the close resemblance of the embryo of man to that, for instance, of a dog … all point in the plainest manner to the conclusion that man is the co-descendant with other mammals of a common progenitor.
As I describe above, modern scientists do not stop – as does Darwin – at a common mammalian progenitor. Here, from Wikipedia, is a partial list of biological predecessors starting from the very earliest life forms:
Prokaryotes inhabited the Earth from approximately 3–4 billion years ago…. The eukaryotic cells emerged between 1.6 – 2.7 billion years ago. The next major change in cell structure came when bacteria were engulfed by eukaryotic cells [leading] to mitochondria or hydrogenosome or algae and plants. … about 610 million years ago … multicellular organisms began to appear in the oceans in the Ediacaran period. … About 500 million years ago, plants and fungi colonised the land and were soon followed by arthropods and other animals.
Physicists, geologists, planetary scientists, and cosmologists describe evolution as going back further still, back to the emergence of life, to the emergence of the oceans, to the beginnings of the earth, to the origins of elements, and further still to the fundamental laws of the universe. So, even from the perspective of descent, Darwin’s description is inadequate. If we must use the language of descent, we must also say that man is descended from bacteria, eukaryotic cells, prokaryotes, biological soup, rocks, stars, cosmic dust, and the big bang.
Truly, as `Abdu’l-Bahá noted in Some Answered Questions more than one hundred years ago, the idea that man is descended from the animals is a theory in evident error. It is a view that ignores and excludes everything else in the universe, includings the laws of the universe.
Is Descent the Right or the Wrong Word?
Obviously, Darwin had his facts right. There is no mistaking the biological lineage of man. But his use of the terminology of descent – while it accurately conveys a sense of development along biological laws, is ultimately vague, unscientific, and highly misleading in many ways. And it is these many ways that it continues to mislead and misdirect, to give a scientific aura to what is ultimately speculation or social fads and fancies (remember Freudianism?). And in many ways, it is a remnant of a pre-scientific way of thinking where whom you are descended from is of the utmost importance.
Darwin had another reason for holding that man was descended from the animals, and that was his view that the differences between men and the animals in terms of intelligence and creativity were not very great. We will discuss this perspective of Darwin’s – still a very influential one – next week, comparing it to `Abdu’l-Bahá perspective.
This is the 28th 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.