Abbas & Darwin


The following excerpts from a speech delivered by Abbas Effendi in San Francisco in 1912 set the tone for the Bahá' attitude toward what is commonly referred to as "Evolution Theory":

[the philosophers of the West] find that [man's] anatomy has undergone successive changes, finally assuming human form, 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 ...

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.

- `Abdu'l-Bahá, The Promulgation of Universal Peace

Thus Abbas establishes that he bases his proof of the uniqueness of man on physical features: a missing link in the fossil record is "an indication that man has never been an animal."

Abbas makes it quite clear that he thinks man shares no common ancestry with any animal, and thus arrogantly asserts the superiority of homo sapiens sapiens.

So what is this missing link which Abbas refers to? There was never any single missing link, so where is he getting his information? This is what I think he means: he means the missing link will never be found because it is a hidden, mystical distinction between man and ape.

What, indeed, is Abbas claiming that we are supposed to find? He certainly does not contest the evidence of human evolution. What he is contesting is the link between apes and man.

... 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 Promulgation of Universal Peace

Abbas is willing to accept that man evolved, but not from anything without a human essence. He explains that if man once resembled a worm, it doesn't follow that he was a worm. Abbas says that, though man had the brain and personality of a worm, he had the "potential" to be human, whereas an ordinary worm slithering by at the time had no such "potential". If man followed such a parallel course, supposedly from some pre-existent design, how can we possibly distinguish him from the other fish, or apes for the matter?

... from the beginning of man's existence he is a distinct species. In the same way, the embryo of man in the womb of the mother was at first in a strange form; then this body passes from shape to shape, from state to state, from form to form, until it appears in utmost beauty and perfection. But even when in the womb of the mother and in this strange form, entirely different from his present form and figure, he is the embryo of the superior species, and not of the animal; his species and essence undergo no change. Now, admitting that the traces of organs which have disappeared actually exist, this is not a proof of the impermanence and the nonoriginality of the species. At the most it proves that the form, and fashion, and the organs of man have progressed. Man was always a distinct species, a man, not an animal. So, if the embryo of man in the womb of the mother passes from one form to another so that the second form in no way resembles the first, is this a proof that the species has changed? that it was at first an animal, and that its organs progressed and developed until it became a man? No, indeed! How puerile and unfounded is this idea and this thought! For the proof of the originality of the human species, and of the permanency of the nature of man, is clear and evident.

Some Answered Questions, #47

Abbas was not proposing any experiments; he was just vehemently rejecting any connection between man and animal, regardless of whatever evidence there was. Abbas was just being a bigot, that's all.

      5.0       4.0       3.0       2.0       1.0      .0
       |         |         |         |         |         |
       |         |        A.robustus ******    |         |
       |         |         A.boisei ***********|         |
       |         A.aethiopicus ****  |         |         |
       |         |         |         |         |         |
   A.ramidus *   |         |         |         |         |
   A.anamensis ****        |         |         |         |
      A.afarensis **********         |         |         |
       |       A.africanus ***********         |         |
       |         |         |         |         |         |
       |         |     H.habilis **********    |         |
       |         |         | H.erectus ****************  |
       |         |         |      archaic H.sapiens *****|
       |         |         |         |     Neandertals **|
       |         |         |         | modern H.sapiens **
       |         |         |         |         |         |

The fact is that the fossil record shows us a reasonably continuous chain of human development (please refer to Jim Foley's Hominid Species page for details on the hominid fossil record). That is enough to show that we once resembled apes. Whether there were apes with potential and apes without potential is a mystical issue that has no place in the search for useful evidence.

There is no way for Abbas' claim to be proven or disproven by science, because his claim presents no means of proof or disproof. His claim suggests no distinction between physical phenomena; it is unscientific and should be kept clear of any empirical discussion on evolution.

Frankly, I am more impressed by the fundamentalist Christian case against evolution: at least they give passing consideration to the evidence.

Abbas praises "Science" emphatically, but he seems to blur the boundaries of science and philosophy, so I don't know what he means by "science", but he probably intends the definition used in the middle ages which Muslims are more familiar with. In fact he criticizes modern science as being too materialistic (demanding tangible evidence). When Abbas says "science" we should read "metaphysics". When he says "materialistic philosophy" we should read "modern science".

A Contradictory Doctrine: Man as the Sum of His Parts

Abbas would often contradict himself, and the topic of Evolution is no exception. Here he maintains that man is a purely materialistic composition, and that any modification of his composition would reander him non-human:

As the perfection of man is entirely due to the composition of the atoms of the elements, to their measure, to the method of their combination, and to the mutual influence and action of the different beings--then, since man was produced ten or a hundred thousand years ago from these earthly elements with the same measure and balance, the same method of combination and mingling, and the same influence of the other beings, exactly the same man existed then as now. This is evident and not worth debating. A thousand million years hence, if these elements of man are gathered together and arranged in this special proportion, and if the elements are combined according to the same method, and if they are affected by the same influence of other beings, exactly the same man will exist. For example, if after a hundred thousand years there is oil, fire, a wick, a lamp and the lighter of the lamp--briefly, if there are all the necessaries which now exist, exactly the same lamp will be obtained.

These are conclusive and evident facts. But the arguments which these European philosophers have used raise doubtful proofs and are not conclusive. - Some Answered Questions, #46

How could a random process have produced the great biological variety and complexity we see in the world?

The process of Natural Selection is not purely random. A stream doesn't run downhill for random reasons, though the water it contains flows in random patterns. Random mutations are not the rule in Natural Selection; environment is.

Please refer to this discussion on evolution of complex organs.

If Evolution is supposed to be so gradual, how then do we find periods of rapid change and other periods very little change?

That is because evolution occurs in response to environmental changes. There is nothing in evolution theory that requires an even pace. The error here is in thinking of evolution as a random process. We must remember that it is the environment that dictates which mutations will endure. Think of the randomness in quantum mechanics, which is not a 50/50 "anything can happen" flat distribution, but randomness under natural law. Think also of the physiological environment, which also dictates what mutations would take effect. If a species scatters across the globe, its internal factors continue to guide the species' evolution, a kind of "Evoltuion by Design", but this principle is 100% Darwinian; there is no pre-existent design necessary.

Similar patterns in evolution are easily forced by global environmental changes and internal physiological variables. Furthermore, there is no serious theory that sees human evolution as truly parallel. The small parallels that may have occured in relative isolation are miniscule compared to the changes that occurred in Africa. Furthermore, "Evolution by Design" does not explain the many divergences that occurred in isolation, which Natural Selection certainly does.

As to the suggestion that Abbas' words on science and history are not necessarily to be regarded as authoritative and infallible:

Historians cannot be sure Socrates did not visit the Holy Land. But believing as we do that `Abdu'l-Bahá had an intuitive knowledge quite different from our own, we accept His authority on this matter....

- Shoghi Effendi, Arohanui (1946)

Some Answered Questions is absolute gospel to Bahá's, and defines many Bahá' doctrines on scientific topics. Baha'is are warned not to interpret scripture too freely, though certain limitations in personal understanding force them to interpret somewhat.

Abdu'l-Baha's arguments do indeed differ with Evolution Science on physical causes and effects, and since he believed to be infallible, his word is doctrine.

What about Abbas' argument that non-existence cannot become exustence?

I don't consider this a relevant critique of "Natural Selection", because Darwin never claimed that something came from nothing. Rather, Darwin's whole point is that we evolved instead of appearing instantaneously.

How could man evolve from animals when the second law of thermodynamics states that systems cannot increase in complexity?

You have to look at evolution as a whole to understand its relation to the 2nd law of thermodynamics. Looking at it from an anthropocentric perspective confuses the issue.

There are many non-closed systems that have been known to increase in complexity. The problem is that they are often mistaken for closed systems. The human race is not a closed system, and there is plenty of evidence that the 2nd law of thermodynamics may soon get the best of us.

One must always take care in defining one's systems when weilding the "second law": localized complexity can often come about at a cost -- that cost is increased entropy in the system. What is the price the Universe pays for its support of human evolution?

There is considerable doubt that man has one common ancestor. Doesn't this counter evolution theory?

Nobody is saying that we have one common ancestor, except for the Creationists, of course. The Evolutionists, on the other hand, appear to believe that we may have evolved partly by interbreeding between similar subspecies. Bahá'ís, of course, believe in one common ancestor for all humans, though they persist in distinguishing Man's ancestor from that of the monkeys.

Coming eventually ...

What about Creationist claims that apes are too anatomically different from man to be related to man?

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