Perspectives on Evolution

The harmony of science and religion is a fundamental principle of the Baha’i Faith. Abdu’l-Baha declares, “if religious beliefs and opinions are found contrary to the standards of science they are mere superstitions and imaginations; for the antithesis of knowledge is ignorance, and the child of ignorance is superstition.”1

While conflict between religious doctrine and scientific theory is a recurring theme throughout the history of humanity, a contemporary example of this tension is found in discussions regarding evolution and the origin of our species. Given the centrality of the theory of evolution to the scientific enterprise and the importance of reconciling the teachings of the Faith and the established precepts of science, we thought it beneficial to briefly review some of the Baha’i principles on the subject. Shoghi Effendi cautions us, when studying Abdu’l-Baha’s teachings on the subject, that “these various statements must be taken in conjunction with all the Baha’i teachings; we cannot get a correct picture by concentrating on just one phrase.”2

There are points of unequivocal agreement between Abdu’l-Baha and the science of evolution, such as the principle that humans, like all other species, have evolved over time: 

[M]an, 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…3

Abdu’l-Baha asserts that life is “very ancient” and states that man emerged in a much more recent time frame:

… we established before through rational arguments that life on this earth is very ancient — not one or two hundred thousand, or even one or two million years old: it is ancient indeed…4

… man was produced ten or a hundred thousand years ago…5

Other pronouncements of Abdu’l-Baha do not conform to the prevailing scientific views on evolution. Foremost among these are statements indicating that man is not simply an advanced animal. The Faith teaches that although human beings did evolve over time, we have always been a distinct species:

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.6

Another principle of the Baha’i teachings is the belief that “Man” has always existed. Abdu’l-Baha describes this principle:

Therefore, it cannot be said there was a time when man was not. All that we can say is that this terrestrial globe at one time did not exist, and at its beginning man did not appear upon it. But from the beginning which has no beginning, to the end which has no end, a Perfect Manifestation7 always exists. This Man of Whom we speak is not every man; we mean the Perfect Man.8

When Abdu’l-Baha says “it cannot be said there was a time when man was not,” it appears evident that he is not implying that man always existed in his physical manifestation on earth. In fact, the next line of that quotation clearly states, “at [the earth’s] beginning man did not appear on it.” We can therefore deduce from these principles that man has always existed in its spiritual potentiality and that, at some point in history, that potentiality became manifested in physical form. The question is whether that physical manifestation came about at the same time as the origin of life on earth.

There are a number of places where Abdu’l-Baha suggests that is not the case. For example, He states:

[T]he 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.9

This statement implies that man only appeared after the animal kingdom came about, rather than purporting that man existed in physical form from the earliest stages of life.

Additionally, it seems that Abdu’l-Baha maintains that from the time humans were manifested physically in the world, we were in a form which allowed us to reflect our spiritual attributes:

…from the moment of his appearance man has possessed perfect composition, and has had the capacity and potential to acquire both material and spiritual perfections.10

It is unlikely that the simple organisms which first emerged on this planet were possessed of that capacity.

Therefore the physical form of man descended from other species, but whenever the spiritual potentiality of man was manifested in physical form, it became a completely distinct species. Precisely when this happened, or what physical or spiritual mechanism triggered this transformation is unknown. Even if our physical frame was inherited from other species, once that form was sufficiently evolved and became infused with the soul of man, it became distinct from all other creatures. Before that point, we may say that the spiritual reality of man existed in potentiality but had not yet been manifested, just as the seed contains the potentiality of leaves, branches, and fruits, which are not yet evident.

Taken holistically, we believe that the Baha’i view on evolution allows both the essential spiritual uniqueness of our species and our physical evolution, without the need for assuming that man existed from the origin of life on this planet and evolved in parallel fashion with all other creatures. But there are still some questions to be answered and reflected upon. For example, what does the assertion “man was always … man” mean scientifically? How do we reconcile the fact that a vast percentage of our DNA is identical with Chimpanzees? Were the first humans born to non-humans? What do you think?


 

  1. Abdu’l-Baha, Baha’i World Faith – Abdu’l-Baha Section, p. 239 []
  2. Shoghi Effendi, Arohanui – Letters to New Zealand, p. 85 []
  3. Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 183 []
  4. Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, New Translation, §41 []
  5. Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, New Translation, §46 []
  6. Abdu’l-Baha, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 358 []
  7. We interpret the term “manifestation” in this context to be referring to human beings generally rather than a Manifestation of God such as Baha’u’llah. []
  8. Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 196 []
  9. Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, p. 199 []
  10. Abdu’l-Baha, Some Answered Questions, New Translation, §49 []

About the Author

Matt Giani is a professor of educational policy at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His research focuses on inequality and social mobility in higher education. Matt draws his inspiration from his exuberant daughter Clara, his incredible wife Shadi, and the Baha'i teachings. Halim Beere helped form the startup Illiac Software, where he is Chief Technical Officer and programmer for the music software Harmonia. He is also a composer, earning his doctorate from the University of Illinois and drawing musical inspiration from the Baha'i Writings, his beautiful family, and computer code. He still lives in the Urbana-Champaign area with his wife Renee, daughter Roya, son Darius, two cats, and one dog.

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Discussion 18 Comments

    1. Thank you for linking to this thesis. Indeed I read it as part of my research, and it deserves deep and thoughtful reflection! While I differ with some of your son’s conclusions, (for example, that Abdu’l-Baha unequivocally teaches parallel evolution), the paper is thorough and well researched. It deeply explores both the Baha’i Writings and the scientific literature on evolution and is clearly an important resource. Thank you for sharing it!

  1. An excellent contribution towards our evolving understanding of the nature and reality of us (humans).
    Latent is the reality of understanding……poietic process of engagement with life.
    High five and hugs.

  2. This is a somewhat controversial topic. There are people like me who are pro parallel evolution, and others like my beloved son who are believe that we descended from animals. No doubt this divergence of views will be expressed in the comments of this article. It is unlikely that we will arrive at unanimous agreement on this topic but a few points worth mentioning are:

    “It is unlikely that the simple organisms which first emerged on this planet were possessed of that capacity.” – We are informed by ‘Abdu’l-Bahá that at conception the embryo looks nothing like an adult human but nonetheless will always develop into a mature person, never one of the animals. Perhaps our ancestors were the same.

    “Therefore the physical form of man descended from other species…” – This seems to be a statement of interpretation. I am sure that you meant ‘Therefore, it would seem, that the physical form of man…”

    ‘Abdu’l-Bahá also cautions us about distorting Scripture to fit current science when He relates the adoption by the enlightened Muslims of the erroneous helio-centric Ptolemaic system. In the Quran Muhammad had said, “The sun moves in a fixed place of its own”. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, in Some Answered Questions, goes on to say, “…the Muslim divines, finding these verses contrary to the Ptolemaic system, were obliged to interpret them figuratively, for the latter was accepted as incontrovertible fact and yet was explicitly contradicted by the Qurân.” It is my hope that we Baha’is will not repeat the mistakes of the past.

    1. Thank you for your comment! We could have been more explicit that we are offering just one interpretation. While we can’t say definitively what ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s view was on parallel evolution, we were struck during our research how often Baha’is subscribed to that view as if it were the official Baha’i position. Part of the motivation for this post was to demonstrate that the Writings themselves do not seem conclusive. Indeed, several passages contradict parallel evolution, while those that support it may (in our view) be interpreted otherwise.

      Your caution against distorting scripture to fit science is appreciated! On the other side of the coin, scripture is interpreted, and so we must likewise caution ourselves against ignoring or invalidating science to fit our limited understanding of scripture. Hence ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s statement: “Religion and science are the two wings upon which man’s intelligence can soar into the heights.”

      Thank you for contributing to this discussion! Thoughtful and articulate comments like yours enrich the learning experience for everybody.

  3. Actually, the Universal House of Justice has clarified that the concept of “parallel evolution” has no valid basis in the Baha’i writings. The House of Justice wrote the following to an individual believer who asked about the Bahá’í view on evolution:

    “The Bahá’í view of evolution is more complex and nuanced than that put forward today by those who present evolution and creation in dichotomous terms. Evolution may be understood as the means set in motion by God through which life changes and unfolds. A Bahá’í can strive to reconcile contemporary scientific views with the published statements of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá, which need not be understood to imply a kind of parallel evolution. Rather, ‘Abdu’l-Bahá has explained that human life came into existence when the appropriate conditions were established” (5 July 2010).

    This theme is further elaborated in the foreword to the revised translation of Some Answered Questions, as quoted below:

    “To develop a fuller picture of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s exposition of a given subject… the attentive reader should consider any chapter within the context of the entire book, and the book within the larger context of the entire body of the Bahá’í Teachings.
    A notable case in point is the treatment of the subject of the evolution of species, which is taken up explicitly in Part 4, and which must be understood in light of several Bahá’í teachings, especially the principle of the harmony of science and religion. Religious belief should not contradict science and reason. A certain reading of some of the passages found in Chapters 46–51 may lead some believers to personal conclusions that contradict modern science. Yet the Universal House of Justice has explained that Bahá’ís strive to reconcile their understanding of the statements of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá with established scientific perspectives, and therefore it is not necessary to conclude that these passages describe conceptions rejected by science, for example, a kind of “parallel” evolution that proposes a separate line of biological evolution for the human species parallel to the animal kingdom since the beginning of life on earth.
    A careful review of ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s statements in this volume and in other sources suggests that His concern is not with the mechanisms of evolution but with the philosophical, social, and spiritual implications of the new theory. His use of the term “species”, for example, evokes the concept of eternal or permanent archetypes, which is not how the term is defined in contemporary biology. He takes into account a reality beyond the material realm. While ‘Abdu’l-Bahá acknowledges contemporary biology. He takes into account a reality beyond the material realm. While ‘Abdu’l-Bahá acknowledges elsewhere the physical attributes that human beings share in common with the animal and that are derived from the animal kingdom,1 in these talks He emphasizes another capacity, a capacity for rational consciousness, that distinguishes man from the animal and that is not found in the animal kingdom or in nature itself. This unique capacity, an expression of the human spirit, is not a product of the evolutionary process, but exists potentially in creation. As ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains, “…since man was produced ten or a hundred thousand years ago from the same earthly elements, with the same measures and quantities, the same manner of composition and combination, and the same interactions with other beings—it follows that man was exactly the same then as exists now”. “And if a thousand million years hence,” He goes on to say, “the component elements of man are brought together, measured out in the same proportion, combined in the same manner, and subjected to the same interaction with other beings, exactly the same man will come into existence.”2 His essential argument, then, is not directed towards scientific findings but towards the materialist assertions that are built upon them. For Bahá’ís, the science of evolution is accepted, but the conclusion that humanity is merely an accidental branch of the animal kingdom—with all its attendant social implications—is not.”

  4. Following on the last post, a few key points are very important to consider when trying to understand the entire body of Bahá’í teachings on the subject of evolution.

    First, when `Abdu’l-Bahá stated that “Man was always a distinct species, a man, not an animal” (Some Answered Questions, p. 183), he was referring to the spiritual reality of man – or our souls – and not our bodily forms. This conclusion is supported by the fact that, in other passages, `Abdu’l-Bahá repeatedly refers to “the animal nature of man” (The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 41), which is a reference to our lower or material nature, as distinct from our higher or spiritual nature. “The reality of man,” He reminds us, is “the human spirit” (The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 260). And “the reality of man is clad in the outer garment of the animal” (The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 465). So when `Abdu’l-Bahá states that “Man was always a distinct species, a man, not an animal”, He is referring to our spiritual realities and not our bodily forms.

    Second, `Abdu’l-Bahá stated “there is no doubt that in the beginning the origin was one: the origin of all numbers is one and not two. Then 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” (Some Answered Questions, p. 181). Likewise, He stated on another occasion that ““the origin of all material life is one” (Promulgation of Universal Peace, p.349). These statements are incompatible with a parallel theory of evolution.

    Third, the concept of latency helps us understand how the reality of man (our spiritual essence, or soul) was present from the beginning of creation, even though it took millions of years for a material body to evolve that was able to serve as a vehicle for this spiritual reality. The metaphor that is used most commonly in the Bahá’í writings to convey this concept is that of the fruit being latent in the seed. Thus Bahá’u’lláh wrote: “Consider… how the fruit, ere it is formed, lieth potentially within the tree. Were the tree to be cut into pieces, no sign nor any part of ths fruit, however, small, could be detected. When it appeareth, however, it manifesteth itself, as thou hast observed, in its wondrous beauty and glorious perfection” (Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh, p.155). And thus `Abdu’l-Bahá explained that humans are “the fruit of the tree of creation” (Divine Philosophy, p. 123). “If man did not exist in this world, it would have been like a tree without fruit” (Selections from the Writings of `Abdu’l-Bahá, p.120). “This world is also in the condition of a fruit tree, and man is like the fruit” (Some Answered Questions, p.200-201).

    This conception of latency, conveyed through the analogy of the seed and the fruit, enables us to recognize that the fruit is qualitatively different than any other part of the same tree, even though it is part of that tree, and it depends on the prior development of every part of the tree to create the conditions from which it could eventually appear. But the entire tree, including the fruit, comes from the same seed, and the tree is one. In addition, this concept of latency helps us understand how something could be “present” from the beginning, even though it was not always manifest. As the Guardian explained, “everything, a stone, a tree, an animal and a human being existed in plan, potentially, from the very ‘beginning’ of creation. We don’t believe man has always had the form of man, but rather that from the outset he was going to evolve into the human form” (7 June 1946).

    And finally, we must remember the fundamental Bahá’í teaching that “Religion must stand the analysis of reason. It must agree with scientific fact and proof” (`Abdu’l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace, p. 175). Thus, if we can interpret a statement of `Abdu’l-Bahá in two different ways, one of which is in agreement with reason and scientific evidence, and the other of which is not, which interpretation should we accept? We should clearly accept the interpretation that is supported by science.

    1. Thanks so much for your thorough and thoughtful response, as well as for sharing these resources. These quotes are a really important contribution to the conversation.

    2. Just as Matt stated, thank you so much for your careful and in-depth response! I have met several Baha’is who have found this topic of evolution to be a source of mental anguish and tests. A profound consideration of the Writings, in light of science and reason, can be incredibly helpful.

  5. Spot on, Michael. Beautiful! Thanks to the authors for an excellent anf grounded treatment of an important topic that is all too prone to acrimony, misunderstanding or simplification.

    What neither creationists nor neo-atheists swearing by the likes of Richard Dawkins do not know is that the biological community is far from any consensus on the specific matter of random genetic mutation vis-à-vis directed mutation (mutation that while random in mechanism is somehow consistently oriented towards increasingly complex organisms). We wouldn’t have theories like Carporale’s and Mohr’s if the matter were somehow settled. These are genuinely competing hypotheses that are being researched even as we speak.

    As late William S. Hatcher brilliantly pointed out, a simple logical mistake is made by claiming natural selection in itself generates complexity, even partially. It demonstrably preserves certain (already occurred) favourable mutations which biohistorically constitute new, and more complex, life forms. But in and of itself it generates no new alleles. Natural selection is much better described as a kind of a purification process by which certain alleomorphs are purged from the population.

    Then there’s the fact that Charles Darwin was a Lamarckian. He formulated his theory of natural selection before the birth of modern genetics, and he tacitly assumed that acquired characteristics could be passed on to the next generation. In other words, in his model any creative or adaptive response of an organism can be passed on to the subsequent generation. This logically implies a steady upward movement of complexification which he explicitly also professed in his writings. That he recognized punctuation at the macroscale doesn’t take away his Lamarckian assumption of steady complexification at the micro level. The theory of punctuated equilibrium by Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge (both atheists or agnostics by the way) disagrees squarely. It is based on modern genetics of which Darwin knew not. There is no heredity in adaptive responses. An organism passes on the same genes when it is old as it would have when it had just reached sexual maturity. Only spontaneous genetic mutation can generate new alleles.

    To sum up, science itself is a living and evolutionary thing. Most vitriolic battle camps have little to do with science, non-creationist or creationist. The Baha’i view is more nuanced, all-encompassing and beautifully consistent with the ever-clarifying picture provided by living science.

    1. Thanks for your thoughts Sam. Halim and I were both very much inspired by William Hatcher’s work on the topic, so I’m glad you referenced him in your comment.

    2. As you eloquently state, this topic is prone to oversimplification, and the Baha’i teachings are incredibly nuanced. Thank you for your insights … and it is true, I love William Hatcher’s work!

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