Going to the Cows

Going to the Cows


I looked to one of my favorite talks by Abdu’l-Bahá for my subject this time and realized, when I’d begun to look at it in terms of pull quotes, that I had very little to add. Here, in a talk given at the Open Forum in San Francisco, California on October 10, 1912, Abdu’l-Bahá takes up the nature of the human intellect—which is to say, he takes up the question of what it is that makes us human.

The notes were taken that evening by Bijou Straun. The entire text is contained in Promulgation of Universal Peace on pages 356-360. After praising the attendees for their desire to embrace the independent investigation of reality rather than simply accepting the traditions of the past uncritically, he says:

The criterion of judgment in the estimation of western philosophers is sense perception. They consider that which is tangible or perceptible to the senses to be a reality—that there is no doubt of its existence. For example, we prove the existence of this light through the sense of sight; we visualize this room; we see the sun, the green fields; we use our sense of sight to observe them. The opinion of these philosophers is that such perception is reality, that the senses are the highest standard of perception and judgment, in which there can neither be doubt nor uncertainty. In the estimation of the philosophers of the Orient, especially those of Greece and Persia, the standard of judgment is the intellect. They are of the opinion that the criterion of the senses is defective, and their proof is that the senses are often deceived and mistaken. That which is liable to mistake cannot be infallible, cannot be a true standard of judgment.

Among the senses the most powerful and reliable is that of sight. This sense views a mirage as a body of water and is positive as to its character, whereas a mirage is nonexistent. The sense of vision, or sight, sees reflected images in a mirror as verities, when reason declares them to be nonexistent. The eye sees the sun and planets revolving around the earth, whereas in reality the sun is stationary, central, and the earth revolves upon its own axis. …Briefly, there are many instances and evidences which disprove the assertion that tangibilities and sense impressions are certainties, for the senses are misleading and often mistaken. How, then, can we rightly declare that they prove reality when the standard or criterion itself is defective?

DifferentThe philosophers of the East consider the perfect criterion to be reason or intellect, and according to that standard the realities of all objects can be proved; for, they say, the standard of reason and intellect is perfect, and everything provable through reason is veritable. Therefore, those philosophers consider all philosophical deductions to be correct when weighed according to the standard of reason, and they state that the senses are the assistants and instruments of reason, and that although the investigation of realities may be conducted through the senses, the standard of knowing and judgment is reason itself. In this way the philosophers of the East and West differ and disagree. The materialistic philosophers of the West declare that man belongs to the animal kingdom, whereas the philosophers of the East—such as Plato, Aristotle and the Persians—divide the world of existence or phenomena of life into two general categories or kingdoms: one the animal kingdom, or world of nature, the other the human kingdom, or world of reason.

Man is distinguished above the animals through his reason. The perceptions of man are of two kinds: tangible, or sensible, and reasonable, whereas the animal perceptions are limited to the senses, the tangible only. …Reason itself is not tangible, perceptible to the senses. Reason is an intellectual verity or reality. All qualities are ideal realities, not tangible realities. For instance, we say this man is a scholarly man. Knowledge is an ideal attainment not perceptible to the senses. When you see this scholarly man, your eye does not see his knowledge, your ear cannot hear his science, nor can you sense it by taste. It is not a tangible verity. Science itself is an ideal verity. It is evident, therefore, that the perceptions of man are twofold: the reasonable and the tangible, or sensible.

Light bulb!
Light bulb!

As to the animal: It is endowed only with sense perception. It is lacking the reasonable perception. It cannot apprehend ideal realities. The animal cannot conceive of the earth as a sphere. The intelligence of an animal located in Europe could never have planned the discovery of the continent of America. The animal kingdom is incapable of discovering the latent mysteries of nature—such as electricity—and bringing them forth from the invisible to the plane of visibility. It is evident that the discoveries and inventions transcend the animal intelligence. The animal cannot penetrate the secrets of genesis and creation. Its mind is incapable of conceiving the verity of ether. It cannot know the mysteries of magnetism because the bestowals of abstract reason and intellect are absent in its endowment. That is to say, the animal in its creation is a captive of the senses. Beyond the tangibilities and impressions of the senses it cannot accept anything. It denies everything. It is incapable of ideal perception and, therefore, a captive of the senses.

Virtue, or perfection, belongs to man, who possesses both the capacity of the senses and ideal perception. For instance, astronomical discoveries are man’s accomplishments. He has not gained this knowledge through his senses. The greater part of it has been attained through intellect, through the ideal senses. Man’s inventions have appeared through the avenue of his reasonable faculties. All his scientific attainments have come through the faculty of reason. Briefly, the evidences of intellect or reason are manifest in man. By them he is differentiated from the animal. Therefore, the animal kingdom is distinct and inferior to the human kingdom.

Evolution GraphicNotwithstanding this, the philosophers of the West have certain syllogisms, or demonstrations, whereby they endeavor to prove that man had his origin in the animal kingdom; that although he is now a vertebrate, he originally lived in the sea; from thence he was transferred to the land and became vertebrate; that gradually his feet and hands appeared in his anatomical development; then he began to walk upon all fours, after which he attained to human stature, walking erect. They find that his anatomy has undergone successive changes, finally assuming human form (italics mine), and that these intermediate forms or changes are like links connected. Between man and the ape, however, there is one link missing, and to the present time scientists have not been able to discover it. Therefore, the greatest proof of this western theory of human evolution is anatomical, reasoning that there are certain vestiges of organs found in man which are peculiar to the ape and lower animals, and setting forth the conclusion that man at some time in his upward progression has possessed these organs which are no longer functioning but appear now as mere rudiments and vestiges.

…The philosophers of the Orient in reply to those of the western world say: Let us suppose that the human anatomy was primordially different from its present form, that it was gradually transformed from one stage to another until it attained its present likeness, that at one time it was similar to a fish, later an invertebrate and finally human. This anatomical evolution or progression does not alter or affect the statement that the development of man was always human in type and biological in progression. For the human embryo when examined microscopically is at first a mere germ or worm. Gradually as it develops it shows certain divisions; rudiments of hands and feet appear… Afterward it undergoes certain distinct changes until it reaches its actual human form and is born into this world. But at all times, even when the embryo resembled a worm, it was human in potentiality and character, not animal. The forms assumed by the human embryo in its successive changes do not prove that it is animal in its essential character.

Throughout this progression there has been a transference of type, a conservation of species or kind. Realizing this we may acknowledge the fact that at one time man was an inmate of the sea, at another period an invertebrate, then a vertebrate and finally a human being standing erect. Though we admit these changes, we cannot say man is an animal. In each one of these stages are signs and evidences of his human existence and destination. Proof of this lies in the fact that in the embryo man still resembles a worm. This embryo still progresses from one state to another, assuming different forms until that which was potential in it—namely, the human image—appears. Therefore, in the protoplasm, man is man.

Conservation of species demands it.

The lost link of Darwinian theory is itself a proof that man is not an animal. How is it possible to have all the links present and that important link absent? Its absence is an indication that man has never been an animal. It will never be found.

Ibn FurnasThe significance is this: that the world of humanity is distinct from the animal kingdom. This is the teaching of the philosophers of the Orient. They have a proof for it. The proof is that the animals are captives of nature. All existence and phenomena of the lower kingdoms are captives of nature; the mighty sun, the numberless stars, the kingdoms of the vegetable and mineral, none of these can deviate one hair’s breadth from the limitation of nature’s laws. They are, as it were, arrested by nature’s hands. But man breaks the laws of nature and makes them subservient to his uses. For instance, man is an animate earthly being in common with the animals. The exigency of nature demands that he should be restricted to the earth; but he, by breaking the laws of nature, soars in the atmosphere high above it.

By the application of his intellect he overcomes natural law and dives beneath the seas in submarines or sails across them in ships. …In brief, all the present arts and sciences, inventions and discoveries man has brought forth were once mysteries which nature had decreed should remain hidden and latent, but man has taken them out of the plane of the invisible and brought them into the plane of the visible. This is contrary to nature’s laws. Electricity should be a latent mystery, but man discovers it and makes it his servant. He wrests the sword from nature’s hand and uses it against nature, proving that there is a power in him which is beyond nature, for it is capable of breaking and subduing the laws of nature. If this power were not supernatural and extraordinary, man’s accomplishments would not have been possible.

…If it be claimed that the intellectual reality of man belongs to the world of nature—that it is a part of the whole—we ask is it possible for the part to contain virtues which the whole does not possess? For instance, is it possible for the drop to contain virtues of which the aggregate body of the sea is deprived? Is it possible for a leaf to be imbued with virtues which are lacking in the whole tree? Is it possible that the extraordinary faculty of reason in man is animal in character and quality? On the other hand, it is evident and true, though most astounding, that in man there is present this supernatural force or faculty which discovers the realities of things and which possesses the power of idealization or intellection. It is capable of discovering scientific laws, and science we know is not a tangible reality. Science exists in the mind of man as an ideal reality. The mind itself, reason itself, is an ideal reality and not tangible.


Notwithstanding this, some of the sagacious men declare: We have attained to the superlative degree of knowledge; we have penetrated the laboratory of nature, studying sciences and arts; we have attained the highest station of knowledge in the human world; we have investigated the facts as they are and have arrived at the conclusion that nothing is rightly acceptable except the tangible, which alone is a reality worthy of credence; all that is not tangible is imagination and nonsense.

Strange indeed that after twenty years training in colleges and universities man should reach such a station wherein he will deny the existence of the ideal or that which is not perceptible to the senses. Have you ever stopped to think that the animal already has graduated from such a university? Have you ever realized that the cow is already a professor emeritus of that university? For the cow without hard labor and study is already a philosopher of the superlative degree in the school of nature. The cow denies everything that is not tangible, saying, “I can see! I can eat! Therefore, I believe only in that which is tangible!”

Then why should we go to the colleges? Let us go to the cow.


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34 thoughts on “Going to the Cows

  1. Are Greeks and Persians really part of the East?


    When people say East, they expect places like China or India, including their greater cultural spheres wether Greater India or the Confucian World. It’s weird for having a lot of references to the East/Orient but no references to India or China.


    A map of the world according to the four cultural spheres of West/Occident, East/Orient, Africa, and Intermediate (the map is in French).

    I think the point still holds about Eastern philosophy despite no Chineese or Indian philosophers ever being mentioned.

    1. I think what one considered East would depend on where one placed the center of one’s world. Almost all commentary I’ve seen on the subject places Christianity as a “western” religion while just about everything else is “eastern”—it’s become, in some circles, a euphemism for “weird” or “occult”

      I’ve always been puzzled by this. It was as if Jesus was born in Nazareth, PA to a father who worked at the Bethlehem Steel company.

      If Abdu’l-Bahá designates Persia and Greece as part of the East, I’m certainly not going to argue with him. As I said it’s a POV thing.

      1. I haven’t heard of any references to Islam, Judaism, or Zoroastrianism, etc as Eastern religions, just Hinduism, Buddhism, etc. Note, all places with majority Abrahamic religion are West and all places with majority Dharmic/Taoic are East. Some places like Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana, South Korea, etc complicate this by having no clear majority, but get lumped by their neighbors.

        The Intermediate Region produced religions both Abrahamic and Iranian as well as a multitude of Pagan faiths. It also produced Babylonian, Jewish, Islamic, and Persian/Iranian philosophies (Christian philosophy is both part of the West and the Intermediate region but more associated with the former) . All of these are considered both part of Western religion and Western philosophy respectively. Greece is considered the center of Western philosophy with Athens and its academy as its capital just like Jerusalem is considered the capital of Western religion.

        The term Western religion refers to religions that originated within Western culture, and are thus which historically, culturally, and theologically distinct from the Eastern religions. The contrast between Western and Eastern religions largely pertains to the distinction between monotheism and polytheism, respectively, and the term Abrahamic religion is often used in lieu of using the East and West terminology. Western philosophy is the philosophical thought and work of the Western or Occidental world. Historically, the term was recently invented to refer to the philosophical thinking of Western civilization, beginning with Greek philosophy in ancient Greece, and eventually covering a large area of the globe. The word philosophy itself originated in ancient Greece: philosophia (φιλοσοφία), literally, “the love of wisdom” (φιλεῖν — philein “to love” and σοφία – sophia, “wisdom”).

        Eastern religions refers to religions originating in the Eastern world—India, China, Japan and Southeast Asia—and thus having dissimilarities with Western religions. This includes the East Asian and Indian religious traditions, as well as animistic indigenous religions. Eastern philosophy includes the various philosophies of South and East Asia, including Chinese philosophy, Indian philosophy, Japanese philosophy, and Korean philosophy.

        This East-West religious distinction, just as with the East-West culture distinction, and the implications that arise from it, are broad and not precise. Furthermore, the geographical distinction has less meaning in the current context of global transculturation.

        While many Western observers attempt to distinguish between Eastern philosophies and religions, this is a distinction that does not exist in some Eastern traditions.


        People only refers to the part of the world colored on that map as the East and the rest of the world as the West with some divisions into Africa, Intermediate, and West in my other map. This is the consistent map when people think of the East and the Orient. I find it so many references to the East, yet there is no references to China, India, Japan, Korea, etc, their philosophers/philosophies, their religions, etc.

        In some circles, means that most ciricles don’t use the word East as a catch-all term for not American/European/Christian/whatever else.

        1. Typo – I meant to say I’m NOT talking academic references, but people’s attitudes. And you’re right, it is often used, in this culture, to mean “not-Christian” which, again, is a matter of point of view.

          The idea that Christianity is somehow “western” in and Islam is “eastern” is a bit odd, geographically speaking.

          The people who made the map you’re looking at also have a world view that causes them to divide the world as they did. Given that the earth is an oblate spheroid floating in space, it possesses no natural East/West, North/South areas or boundaries. Therefore, what is North, South, East or West is completely a human viewpoint issue. Back in the day (waaaay back), the Egyptians viewed their map of the world as they knew it completely upside down from the way our current maps think of Upper and Lower (I just wrote two novels that had to deal with that ancient world reality).

          At any rate, it’s nothing to spark debate, is it?

          1. Judaism, Islam, and even Zoroastrianism are simmilar enough to Christianity to not be considered Eastern. Not Abrahamic would me more accurate than not Christian given people consider religions like Judaism and Islam to be Western.

          2. There are so many different ways to look at what “Eastern” means in this context that I think it would be unprofitable to try to come up with a standard. Neither of us at any rate has the authority to affix a label that everyone should or would agree with. For one thing, I know that some people use the word “Eastern” to mean a particular type of philosophy. And I think that Abdu’l-Bahá may be using it in this way. Others use it to imply “not of us” or “other”.

            Non-Abrahamic doesn’t work in the case of Zoroastrianism, of course, because Zoroaster was also a descendant of Abraham through his third wife, Keturah.

            My point is really that these designations are of human invention and therefore relative, ephemeral and in some ways meaningless except as a way of describing how we relate to them.

          3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abrahamic_religions


            (Edited by moderator for length and wikipedia content)

            I found no evidence or mention of any relationship between Abraham and Zoroaster on Wikipedia or any Zoroastrian websites. Also, given that dating for when Zoroaster lived is debated. We’re not even sure if Zoroaster even lived after Abraham. According to Wikipedia Abraham lived circa 1668 BCE – 1493 BCE according to tradition. Zoroaster lived anywhere from 7000-500 BCE. Show me what evidence you have for the historicity or even legend of Abraham and Zoroaster in Jewish, Zoroastrian, or historical documents?

  2. Abdu’l-Bahá is wrong here. We are clearly related to apes etc. We just happen to have more intellect. Research on language abilities of chimps, bonobos and gorillas has shown they can achieve similar linguistic and other intellectual abilities like a normal 3-year old human child. And anyway, apes are more genetically similar to us humans than to monkeys, which can be explained only by saying we are relatives.

    1. Hi Tom:

      `Abdu’l-Baha is not saying that we aren’t related to the cow or the other animals, and he is not saying that animals don’t have the rudiments of communication (although it is mistaken to say that they “achieve similar linguistic [capabilities … like a 3-year old human child”).

      Rather he is saying that we have more intellect And that this additional intellect means that we have capacities and capabilities that animals don’t!


      1. Abdu’l-Baha is clearly saying we are not related to animals.
        Look at these sentences closely:
        …The philosophers of the Orient in reply to those of the western world say: Let us suppose that the human anatomy was primordially different from its present form, that it was gradually transformed from one stage to another until it attained its present likeness, that at one time it was similar to a fish, later an invertebrate and finally human. This anatomical evolution or progression does not alter or affect the statement that the development of man was always human in type and biological in progression.
        So here he is saying our ancestry was always human in type.
        Or look at this sentence:
        The lost link of Darwinian theory is itself a proof that man is not an animal. How is it possible to have all the links present and that important link absent? Its absence is an indication that man has never been an animal. It will never be found.
        So here he is claiming there is no link between us and apes, it is absent and it will never be found.
        Concerning the linguistic abilities of trained apes, it is true that there are various opinions about it, how much grammar they truly mastered etc. It does look at least like they mastered hundreds of words, in American Sign Language, or whatever other symbolic language an ape was trained in. Of course they can’t speak. They have learned though to understand some of spoken English.

        1. Hi Tom:

          Some people – and some Baha’is – want to interpret `Abdu’l-Baha in the light that you describe. But a reasonable familiarity with the writings of `Abdu’l-Baha makes it very clear that he views human and animals as closely related. He does, as the quotes you give show, draw a distinction between humans and animals on the basis of intellect.

          Consider the following statement by `Abdu’l-Baha, which is an excellent summation of his expressed views on the subject:

          Man is endowed with an outer or physical reality. It belongs to the material realm, the animal kingdom, because it has sprung from the material world. This animalistic reality of man he shares in common with the animals.

          The human body is like animals subject to nature’s laws. But man is endowed with a second reality, the rational or intellectual reality; and the intellectual reality of man predominates over nature. . . . Yet there is a third reality in man, the spiritual reality.


          And consider the following:

          Similarly, the terrestrial globe from the beginning was created with all its elements, substances, minerals, atoms and organisms; but these only appeared by degrees: first the mineral, then the plant, afterward the animal, and finally man. But from the first these kinds and species existed, but were undeveloped in the terrestrial globe, and then
          appeared only gradually.

          What these quotations show is the grand sweep of development that has led to humanity in light of the emergence of our intellectual capacity. Much as a seed doesn’t develop into a mighty tree all at once, so our intellectual capacities doesn’t appear all at once but as part of a process in time.

          The point of view of `Abdu’l-Baha is that the intellectual properties which we possess were there all along, much as the tree is in the seed all along. In the language of modern physics, intellectual capacity was there in the laws of nature all along. If the laws of nature didn’t allow for the emergence of intelligence, there would have been no possibility for it to happen. Or, putting it in `Abdu’l-Baha’s terminology, we are built into the laws of the universe.

          If we consider the quotations you have shared in light of these things, then their meaning becomes more clear. You shared the following:

          …The philosophers of the Orient in reply to those of the western world say: Let us suppose that the human anatomy was primordially different from its present form, that it was gradually transformed from one stage to another until it attained its present likeness, that at one time it was similar to a fish, later an invertebrate and finally human. This anatomical evolution or progression does not alter or affect the statement that the development of man was always human in type and biological in progression.

          This can be summarized as saying that evolution took place but that the end-result – animals with intellectual capabilities which in combination we call humans – was there all along. Our existence is built into the laws of universe.

          The other quote you give is not as clear the previous quote:

          The lost link of Darwinian theory is itself a proof that man is not an animal. How is it possible to have all the links present and that important link absent? Its absence is an indication that man has never been an animal. It will never be found.

          The way I understand it is to recognize that intelligence is an intellectual thing and that the transition from animal to man won’t leave a materially clear mark in the fossil record. And indeed it hasn’t.

          I can share a paper we published several years ago in the Journal of Baha’i Studies that looks at the full breadth of the `Abdu’l-Baha’s quotations on evolution issues more fully if you would like to see it.


          1. Hi Stephen, yes, I would like to see the paper you published. Because the quotes you provided above do not say we are related to animals.

          2. Tom, I’m pretty sure I’ve posted these passages before in previous discussions of human evolution, but it bears repeating, I guess.

            “In the world of existence man has traversed successive degrees until he has attained the human kingdom. In each degree of his progression he has developed capacity for advancement to the next station and condition. While in the kingdom of the mineral he was attaining the capacity for promotion into the degree of the vegetable. In the kingdom of the vegetable he underwent preparation for the world of the animal, and from thence he has come onward to the human degree, or kingdom. Throughout this journey of progression he has ever and always been potentially man.”    — Abdu’l-Bahá, Promulgation . . . p. 225 (talk at a private residence in New York)

            It’s also worth reminding everyone that the references in the Bahá’í writings to scientific principle and to human evolution are copious. We’re used to scriptural records that are fragmentary at best, so it’s important to remember that these passages need to be read as part of a larger context.

            Here’s is yet another passage from a talk by Abdu’l-Bahá on the same subject:

            Third, the human body has one form. In its composition it has been transferred from one form to another but never possesses two forms at the same time. For example, it has existed in the elemental substances of the mineral kingdom. From the mineral kingdom it has traversed the vegetable kingdom and its constituent substances; from the vegetable kingdom it has risen by evolution into the kingdom of the animal and from thence attained the kingdom of man. After its disintegration and decomposition it will return again to the mineral kingdom, leaving its human form and taking a new form unto itself. During these progressions one form succeeds another, but at no time does the body possess more than one. (Abdu’l-Bahá,1 September 1912, Talk at Home of Mr. and Mrs. William Sutherland Maxwell)

            The above passages make it clear that Abdu’l-Bahá is saying that, yes, man rose through evolution through the animal condition. Does that help clarity?

          3. Maya, in the quotes you provided above, he is contradicting himself compared to what he said in the Open Forum in San Francisco, where he says that man has never been an animal. Looks like his views have evolved backward, from more scientific views on Sept. 1, 1912 to less scientific views on Oct. 12, 1912, at least unless Bijou Straun misquoted him. But I suppose Straun tried to write quickly Abdu’l-Baha’s words correctly word for word, maybe in shorthand, so he could keep up with the speed of the speech.
            Anyway, the view of Sept. 1 is not entirely scientific either. Humanity has not gone through a vegetable kingdom. Nowadays we know that bacteria are not plants, that they are not more closely related to plants than to animals. And so plants are an offshoot of protozoa, a different offshoot than animals, and in no way are ancient plants ancestral to us.

          4. Tom, I recalled having covered this before, but I’m happy to answer it again. It seems you’re looking at “man” as being the purely physical phenomenon—a collection of material components the arrangement of which, alone, make him man. What Abdu’l-Bahá is saying is that, no, “man” is not just a particular arrangement of physical components. He is a synthesis of the physical (animal) and divine. In fact, there’s a passage in which Abdu’l-Bahá says almost exactly that:

            “The inner ethereal reality grasps the mysteries of existence, discovers scientific truths and indicates their technical application. It discovers electricity, produces the telegraph, the telephone and opens the door to the world of arts. If the outer material body did this, the animal would, likewise, be able to make scientific and wonderful discoveries, for the animal shares with man all physical powers and limitations. What, then, is that power which penetrates the realities of existence and which is not to be found in the animal? It is the inner reality which comprehends things, throws light upon the mysteries of life and being, discovers the heavenly Kingdom, unseals the mysteries of God and differentiates man from the brute. Of this there can be no doubt.

            “As we have before indicated, this human reality stands between the higher and the lower in man, between the world of the animal and the world of Divinity. When the animal proclivity in man becomes predominant, he sinks even lower than the brute. When the heavenly powers are triumphant in his nature, he becomes the noblest and most superior being in the world of creation. All the imperfections found in the animal are found in man. In him there is antagonism, hatred and selfish struggle for existence; in his nature lurk jealousy, revenge, ferocity, cunning, hypocrisy, greed, injustice and tyranny. So to speak, the reality of man is clad in the outer garment of the animal, the habiliments of the world of nature, the world of darkness, imperfections and unlimited baseness.

            “On the other hand, we find in him justice, sincerity, faithfulness, knowledge, wisdom, illumination, mercy and pity, coupled with intellect, comprehension, the power to grasp the realities of things and the ability to penetrate the truths of existence. All these great perfections are to be found in man. Therefore, we say that man is a reality which stands between light and darkness. From this standpoint his nature is threefold: animal, human and divine. The animal nature is darkness; the heavenly is light in light.” — Promulgation of Universal Peace, p 465

            In other words, there is the vehicle (the animal) and the driver of the vehicle (the human). What is truly human about us is the rational soul that animates our intellect and which no other animal has. What he is saying—and what seems very clear to me—is that while our physical bodies have evolved through the animal condition, our rational soul did not. It is uniquely human. This is why he says no “missing link” can exist, because the soul isn’t something that gradually evolves in an animal; it is an endowment, a reflection of a greater intellect.

            Abdu’l-Bahá describes this by saying that when man had reached a certain point of physical perfection, the soul was “attracted” to him. In other words, when the human body had the physical capacity to be a fitting vehicle for the rational soul or human intellect, the soul was able to be reflected in it and we began to be in control to a greater and greater extent of our own evolution.

            You wrote: “Humanity has not gone through a vegetable kingdom.” In fact, current scientific thought is that all life originated from the same source. The difference between what Abdu’l-Bahá calls “kingdoms” is how far back the branch in the tree of life bifurcates. As Carl Sagan liked to say, we’re all made of star stuff.

            But that’s our bodies. Neurologists and psychologists are realizing more and more that there is a difference between the brain and the mind. Not long ago on NPR I heard a neurologist speak about addiction or any sort of compulsive behavior and note that we often find our brains looking at something that is both pleasurable and harmful (drugs, alcohol, sweets, etc) and saying “Yes, yes, yes!” while our mind, aware of the potential harm, says, “No, no, no!”

            Abdu’l-Bahá’s message is simply this: you are not the sum of your animal parts.

          5. Maya, I know modern science thinks that all life on this earth originated from the same source, some kind of primitive bacterium-like being that was the ancestor of us all. Still, we have not come through a vegetable phase. Vegetables are in a separate kingdom, not ancestral to us.
            I am aware that the Baha’i Faith teaches that only people have souls, animals don’t. Though the Old Testament speaks of mortal souls, including animal souls, in the original Hebrew, where the Hebrew word for soul is nephesh. But I guess for you such passages are not inerrant. So do you think that at some point in history, maybe at the time of Neanderthals or what, God just started inserting souls into people, while our ancient ape ancestors did not have souls? Or Australopithecus hominids did not have souls yet?To me it seems more logical that if we have souls, then animals have souls too, and souls evolve.

          6. Modern science suggests that all life, including plant life, evolved from the same source. When Abdu’l-Bahá speaks of the vegetable state or kingdom, he’s referring to a specific set of qualities—growth, for example; he is not saying that we were once plants. He is saying that we once had the qualities inherent in what we now call plants. We derived sustenance from the environment and the sun and we had the power of growth, but not the animal capacity for movement or volition.

            I’m hoping that Lisa Ortuno, our resident biologist, might be persuaded to do a better job of describing this than I just did. But something else to bear in mind is that this single source theory is of fairly recent vintage. The language to describe the mechanics didn’t exist as such at the time Abdu’l-Bahá was trying to convey these ideas about our evolution. In fact, it’s arguable that they exist now for our language is also having to evolve to take in new understandings. This is why Abdu’l-Bahá speaks at the level of concepts—in this case, the concept of the unity of life.

            Tom, you keep coming back to the inerrancy of scripture. I thought I had made it clear that, while Bahá’ís view the more ancient scriptures as inspired by God and attempts to record the words and actions of His Messengers, we do not view them as inerrant. I know that some Christian denominations teach that God miraculously preserved the Bible from error, but that is demonstrably not true, and none of the many books makes such a claim.

            What Abdu’l-Bahá says about the soul is that when we had acquired sufficient perfections it was “attracted”. I don’t pretend to know when in our evolution this happened. I doubt it’s really relevant to our ultimate potential. Nor do I pretend to understand the mechanism. I don’t know if australopithecus had a soul. Is it important that we know that now? What seems important to me is that we DO have souls and that our future as a species depends heavily on the education of those souls and the recognition that our perfection lies not in indulging our animal hungers but in cultivating our human virtues.

            The Bahá’í writings say that every life form has a spirit, but that the rational soul is a uniquely human. I find this the only explanation of the massive gulf between human beings and animals that makes sense. And it is a massive gulf. If all animals had souls and souls evolved, then it would be the same as if neither animals nor humans had souls: there would be many species that were almost human—or at least human enough that we’d be discussing whether they had the right to a higher education, free speech and legal counsel when they were arrested for the commission of a crime.

            But that’s not how it is. There are animals who live in a completely natural condition and human beings who gave the animals their names, and who write detailed explanations about their evolution.

          7. Maya, that is so wrong to think that our ancestors had once the qualities like plants, with sustenance from the environment, but not the animal capacity for movement. Our ancestors are derived from the earliest eucaryote that existed, which was derived from some kind of symbiosis of two types of bacteria or archaea. The earliest eucaryote probably did not contain chloroplasts, so it would not have derived sustenance from the sun by photosynthesis. It is true that some eucaryotes do have photosynthesis, like the plants generally do, and they are eucaryotes. But their chloroplasts are believed to be derived from some later symbiosis, when some later eucaryote absorbed some cyanobacterium that then started living inside the eucaryote. That is why chloroplasts still have some DNA in them, not connected to the DNA in the nucleus of each eucaryote cell. The earliest eucaryote was a symbiosis of some bacterium or archaeon with a bacterium that became our mitochondria, note that mitochondria also have their own DNA. All eucaryote cells have mitochondria, and all have nucleuses. So it is believed that our eucaryote protist ancestors did not have photosynthesis, were not able to derive sustenance from the sun. Instead they had to eat organic material around them.
            And furthermore it is believed that they did have the animal-like capacity for movement, like the most primitive unicellular eucaryotes, the protists like amoebas, parameciums etc., still have this capacity for movement. Some might temporarily attach themselves to something, but before they attached, they had movement. Similarly bacteria and archaea, which are procaryotes like from which we are ultimately derived, they do have a capacity for movement. Some do attach to something, but they were mobile before they attached.
            Anyway, later some protists became multicellular, some evolved into animals, some into plants, some into fungi. Those who evolved into animals are among our ancestors. And it is true that some animals are sessile like plants, but normally that means that at least in an early stage of their juvenile life they were mobile, before they attached to something and became sessile. Some biologists have indeed theorized that our earliest chordate ancestors were similar in lifestyle and even appearance like the modern tunicates, which are indeed sessile in their adult life stage. But when they are still a larva, very young, they are still mobile, swim around, until they attach to some surface under water and become sessile like plants, just moving in place to catch food around them. But of course they don’t have photosynthesis. They don’t derive sustenance from the sun, they have to catch food around them.

          8. Tom, I think Lisa Ortuna, who is both a Bahá’í and a biologist would be able to discuss this more in depth with you, but let me appeal to logic. If we are all, as science is telling us (and, indeed, as the Bahá’í Writings suggest) evolved from a single type of life, that itself, possessed the properties of what we would call a plant, then it is inescapable that the evolved species that is now human came from a life form that had those properties. And there certainly must have been a time when the life forms that evolved into humans did not have the capacity for voluntary movement.

            There are, in fact, lifeforms on the earth now that straddle the line between plant and animal. Algae, for example. And yes, humans do derive sustenance from the sun. We derive certain vitamins from the sun—D, for example. Our bodies respond to the sun in other ways as well, by producing melanin, for example.

            The thing that we have to bear in mind when discussing evolution is that everything on the planet evolved from simpler life forms. Let’s take apes and humans. While humans were never chimpanzees and we did not evolve from chimpanzees, both chimps and humans evolved from a simpler ancestor that was neither chimp nor human physically. Both chimps and humans are more highly evolved life forms than our nearest shared ancestor, which, by the way was much farther back on the tree of life than previously thought.

            What Abdu’l-Bahá is saying is that humanity evolved from one set of characteristics to another until we reached this physical form and that it is not this physical form that makes us human. It is the rational soul that makes us human.

            Remember, too, that the taxonomy we use to differentiate between life forms is a human invention and therefore suffers from human limitations. This is why scientists are being challenged continually to create classifications that are meaningful. Just looking at the genesis of the definition for a mammal is subject to change and even argument.

          9. Sorry, in the first sentence I meant to say ‘sustenance from the environment and the sun’. That is what is wrong. These ancestors derived sustenance from the environment, but not the sun, they did not have photosynthesis, as I describe in detail in that reply. Only a few types of bacteria, the cyanobacteria, have developed photosynthesis, and they were not in our line of ancestry.

          10. Also I wanted to discuss the issue of animal souls. Of course if animals have souls, then their souls don’t have much intellect and have only a more primitive sense of right and wrong. Far less evolved than our souls. So can’t have right to human education or right to a counsel when we detain them for some misdeed. As far as human education, some people have taught some parrots some English, like the famous parrot Alex, who knew and spoke plenty of words, some people have taught some apes some American Sign Language, but none of them learned to read or write English even a little bit, so they could not pass even first grade. Their language abilities were similar like an average two-year old child.

          11. If animals had souls—by Bahá’u’lláh’s definition of a soul (that is, the rational faculty) then they would be human beings–not necessarily in human form, but intellectually human.

            Bahá’u’lláh says that every life form does have a spirit. Animals have a spirit that gives it volition. But only humans have a rational soul and it is this rational soul that distinguishes humans in the way you mention. Animals can’t learn languages in the same way that humans do. They do not conceive of the meanings of words, but only what the words cause to happen. Dogs know that the sound “walk” that their human makes results it going outside. They also know that when their guardian picks up a leash, it “means” the same thing. The dog will never learn that the word “walk” means to put one foot in front of the other or that it can be used symbolically as in “walk the walk”. They associate the word with a pleasant pastime, but they do not know what it means. Likewise, while a gorilla may learn a sign language vocabulary comparable to a two-year-old humans, he does not have the capacity of a two year old to ideate and extrapolate from the abstract meaning of those words.

            Some argue that this is the first step on the way to real language, but if so, why are there no animals that are almost at the level of human beings in this regard who have built little pockets of competing civilizations. Meanwhile, I must note, you and I are carrying on a conversation not just using symbolic language, but doing it with characters that are also symbolic of sounds to create words with a myriad meanings that we string together in to content heavy sentences that are almost entirely about abstract, non-physical reality. And we are doing it using a technology that neither of us understands fully but that allows us to communicate across vast distance.

            That is the evidence of a vast difference between a human being and our most evolved animal cousin. Bahá’u’lláh refers to the cause of that difference as the rational soul.

          12. Maya, concerning plants, algae are traditionally classified among plants. It is possible that for example red algae evolved from protists independently compared to green algae, from which all land plants evolved. But still, even red algae are traditionally considered to be plants. They are certainly not transitional between animals and plants.
            You are certainly right that we get vitamin D from the sun acting on us. And I have read that likewise most mammals get vitamin C a similar way, from the sun, although some ancestor of us and monkeys has lost that ability, so we don’t have it. It is true that adult tunicates are sessile like plants, and we might have evolved through a phase like that. I don’t know if tunicates get a vitamin from the sun. But even if they do, they are sessile only as adults, as babies they swim around before they get attached to something. So I can’t see how they could ever be considered to be plants. But I would certainly welcome a discussion about it with Lisa Ortuna.
            I certainly don’t think a two year old baby is more able to ideate and extrapolate from the meaning of sign language words than a gorilla. It is a little baby after all. So if it has a soul, the soul is surely not capable of more than the spirit of a gorilla trained in sign language. You do acknowledge that gorillas have at least spirits, if not souls. And if we humans have immortal spirits, then I would think animals too have immortal spirits. At least most of the Christians who distinguish between souls and spirits, think both souls and spirits are immortal. At least souls and spirits of people. Many Christians think animals have mortal souls and spirits. The Bible is not very clear about it.

          13. I’ll have to refer you to Lisa or Steve for more on the ever blurring lines between life forms.

            I don’t know if animal spirits are immortal. I don’t believe Bahá’u’lláh speaks to that, though He has much to say about the human spirit and the human soul.

            You would be wrong about the two year old child being able to ideate where even an adult gorilla cannot. I’ve raised three children, all of which proved themselves not only able to comprehend the meaning of words at a young age but to express their understanding. My youngest child had memorized the entire alphabet by the age of two and recognized not only the sounds, but the images of the letters when she saw them. She swiftly moved from that to understanding what sounds they made in words. She was able to encode words (recognize sequences of sounds) at a very early age. And yes, she could extrapolate from the reactions to words what they meant and she could check her surmises against reality by asking, “Mommy, what does that mean?” I could then give her an example of the meaning of a word.

            I’m not talking about just saying “cat” and having her point to a picture of a cat. I’m talking about being able to use metaphors to ascribe meaning.

            Again, though, my point is that Abdu’l-Bahá is not saying we evolved from what we now call plants but that plants and humans had a common ancestor that possessed the qualities of plants. We evolved, He is saying, through a plantlike state. And this makes sense if, indeed, all life has a common origin.

          14. I thought Baha’i Faith teaches that animals are mortal, in contrast to human souls. Now if Baha’i Faith does not teach whether animals have mortal or immortal spirits, then that is an important lack of doctrine. After all, any pet owner, like I used to be, I would want to know if after death I will be reunited with my dog or not. That is very important to me.
            Concerning gorillas and your talented two-year old, I don’t know if she was unusually talented or whether some gorilla could achieve the same. I have never heard of an ape being taught the alphabet. I don’t have kids so I don’t know that much. When my sister was two years old, I was just 8, so I don’t remember much. But she surely did not know the alphabet at that age, even though she is very intelligent.
            I do understand what you are saying, that at some point our ancestors were like plants, with no voluntary movement. At least I figure you mean movement from place to place. For example some plants do close flowers for the night, so that is some movement. Whether you would call it voluntary, I guess that would depend on what is meant by voluntary. After all, plants don’t have brains or even nerves. But it is not like plants bending to the wind, it is movement generated by the plant. Just like for example adult tunicates have movements to get food, though they can’t move from place to place, they are attached to some rock or something, under water. But I think tunicates do have nerves, even if not a brain. So with them it is easier to speak of voluntary movement.

        2. Tom, I just wanted to make sure you understand the distinction that Abdu’l-Bahá is talking about when He uses the word “man” or “human”. He’s not talking about the physical bodies we possess and is clear in many of his commentaries that we have evolved through ALL of what he refers to as “kingdoms”. All life on Earth evolved from a single form and Abdu’l-Bahá points to this when he underscores the unity of the human race.

          What the Bahá’í teaching on this is that while all animal life has spirit, including man, man alone of all the animals possesses a rational soul that is a reflection of the intelligence possessed by God. It is a spiritual reality, not a physical one. And we wee the results of it literally at our fingertips as we type these intricately coded messages to each other using characters and words that are entirely symbolic on a device invented by the human intellect. Though we are 99.9% like our nearest animal cousins, they are not almost human. They may be taught sign language, but the sign language and all the layers of symbology that go into it was invented by human beings–99.9% like the chimpanzee, yet lightyears apart.

          We recognize this difference in the very fact that human laws of conduct do not apply to animals. No legal action goes into effect if an animal eats its young or kills another animal. We may feel sad, or feel loss or feel anger at such an eventuality, but we do not arrest the animal and charge it with murder. But if human beings commit such deeds, we are outraged because we know–perhaps innately–that we are different. We are capable of distinguishing between good and evil, as the Genesis story tells us.

          And this, in a nutshell, is why there will never be a missing link between animal and man. Our bonobo cousins, as close as they are genetically, are not liable for their behavior–they are incapable of immorality or sin, if you like, because they don’t have what God endowed mankind with. This is what Bahá’u’lláh refers to when He says that God has endowed us with “the robe of such gifts”.

          As a science fiction writer, I find this a particularly delightful prospect because it means that when we are finally mature enough to venture to other worlds, we may find human beings there, as well. They may look nothing like us at all, but if they also possess a rational soul, then they will be as human as we are.

          1. Of course we don’t punish apes if they do something bad, we don’t bring them in front of a judge. But apes can punish other apes. If a child ape does something bad, the parent can smack him as punishment. If an adult ape does something bad, he can be for example ostracized. So yes, apes too can distinguish between good and evil. And we too can punish animals. For example if you have a dog, you can teach him to stop bad behavior if you tell him ‘no’. So he learns the behavior is bad.

          2. Tom, you wrote: “Of course we don’t punish apes if they do something bad, we don’t bring them in front of a judge. But apes can punish other apes.”

            I think you’re missing my point. WE distinguish between animals and humans tacitly and explicitly. We know that animals don’t have the capacity to comprehend nuanced laws such as “thou shalt not kill”, so we don’t fault a cat for killing a mouse or even for killing another cat that tries to invade its territory. WE humans don’t expect human behavior of animals and we don’t (at least in the main) condone animal behavior such as killing your neighbor’s young of human beings.

            Cats or apes will smack their young or another animal for causing physical harm or predation. A kitten who plays too roughly with it’s mother will get its ears boxed; a cat who invades another’s territory will get chased away; a dog who steals another’s food will be savaged. That’s instinctive self-preservation, not recognizing “good” and “evil”. I think you will agree that the human conceptions of good and evil go far and away beyond the idea of self-preservation.

          3. Maya, self-preservation is not the only reason animals punish each other. For example if an animal hurts a young of an animal mother, the mother will punish the offending animal. And it is not only offspring that are necessarily protected. Among some animals, other relatives protect each other. Or sometimes friends protect each other.
            Also recent research has shown that some animals have compassion even for strangers. And animals generally also have incest taboos. So in a way they do have sense of right and wrong.

          4. Again, I think you miss my point. We human beings do not regard animals of any kind, even those 99.9% like us genetically, as being human or almost human. We do not expect them to behave like human beings or to grasp the concept of good and bad as an intellectual reality. We do not expect them to comprehend the moral or spiritual implications of their behavior because we know they are incapable of doing so. Conversely, we do have standards of behavior for human beings and are generally appalled when they are broken because we believe the human beings should have known better.

            Another way of looking at it is that while human beings may be just another animal to a cat or dog, we do not think of cats and dogs—or even bonobos—as being just another human being. They are not, for example, covered under the US Constitution as having the rights accorded humans in society, nor are they expected to vote, serve in the military, or attend school.

            In observing the “incest taboo” you speak of, an animal isn’t doing any higher reasoning. ‘t is responding to instinct. In fact, he’s not reasoning that mating with his daughter, say, is “wrong”. He’s responding to pheromones. A female of his own family will not smell like a potential mate—literally. She won’t have the right chemistry and he will usually not be attracted to her sexually. This is an evolutionary benefit because it will keep the bloodline from becoming inbred, thus doing harm to the animal’s progeny.

            This sense does fail in animals and breeders have found ways to make it fail, including artificial insemination, to the detriment of countless domestic animals.

          5. OK, you are right that incest is instinct. Though not as reaction to pheromones. Close relatives have pheromones too. But when an animal grows up from early childhood with individuals of the opposite sex, the instinct is not to have sex with them. It works similarly with humans. I did not want sex with my mom or with my sister because of some reasoning that it is wrong, but because my instinct told me it is yucky. And similarly many of our other moral decisions are really instinctual. Most of us have instinctual compassion. We hate to see others suffer, that repulses us. Similarly in some animals, they have similar instinct of compassion. Of course on top of it, we do learn that some actions are disliked by our parents. Similarly for example dogs learn that some actions of them are disliked by their owners. We do not expect a two year old baby to reason out morality any more than a dog does.
            Likewise a baby can’t vote, serve in the military, does not have the same rights as an adult, has not much more rights in this society than an animal. It has the right to life of course, but so do some protected species, like bald eagles. It seems to me like the difference between adult non-retarded humans, and babies and animals, is we have much greater power of reasoning than they do.

          6. “OK, you are right that incest is instinct. Though not as reaction to pheromones. Close relatives have pheromones too.”

            Yes, they have pheromones, but they are pheromones that are biologically unattractive to males that are related too closely for the pairing to result in healthy offspring. At least, when the mechanism is working, that’s what occurs. As I said earlier, this sometimes fails and inbreeding results.

            Tom, the difference between a baby and a dog is that the dog can never learn enough of anything in any fashion to grow up to be an adult human being. It is not the nascent condition of the life form that is the issue, but its potential.

            Animals may be similar to human beings in material ways, but intellectually they are not similar enough that we expect them to behave like human beings.

            “It seems to me like the difference between adult non-retarded humans, and babies and animals, is we have much greater power of reasoning than they do.”

            Yes, we do. And it is such a huge gulf between us and our most closely related animal cousins, that it cannot, IMO, be explained as simply that we have more of whatever it is that all animals have. If that were the case, then, as Abdu’l-Bahá says, the missing link would not be missing.

          7. I am a linguist, so I don’t know all that much about biology, but I don’t think the animal instinct against incest is due to unattractive pheromone. I think it is like with us people, due to imprinting, that we grow up in a family where those we grow up with have been imprinted in our minds as family, so the imprinting prevents incest. But for example in chimpanzee bands, the family is just the mother and her children, the father is always unknown, due to the promiscuity in the band, plenty of males mate with the mother. So the incest instinct works to prevent sex with the mother and with siblings, but not with the father, his daughters have no idea which one of the males is their father, the pheromones don’t tell them, so when they reach puberty, they have sex with the father just as much as with the other males in the band. And so sometimes they have baby chimpanzee births with the father. I have an interest in evolution, due to my interest in religion, so I have read plenty about chimpanzees. And besides, when I was a little boy, until about 7th grade, my main interest was zoology. So I still have some interest in biology.
            Of course you are right that animals don’t have the potential to grow up to have the intellect of a normal human adult, or even a teenager. But if animals have souls, then the souls of some of them have similar intellect like human two-year old babies. Not much to be sure, but then if a baby grows up severely retarded, with the mentality of a healthy two year old baby, that retarded baby did not have much potential either. Will learn to speak a number of words, and understand even more, like the famous parrot Alex, but cannot learn to read or write. Or if the retarded person is deaf, will learn some of sign language, like American Sign Language if he grows up in America, but will never sign intelligently with other deaf people, will not learn to read anything. Like the chimps, gorillas, or bonobos, who learned a little ASL, to be able to sign a little with their human handlers. Still, you surely believe the severely retarded person has a soul.

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