Oct 27

Books on Science and Religion #21: Evolution, Devolution, and Degeneracy

Stephen Friberg

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Oct 26, 2014

DARWINDOWNIn the 19th century, evolutionary thinkers like Darwin portrayed Caucasians – meaning northern Europeans – as the world’s most civilized and advanced race. Caucasians, they proclaimed, arrived at their superiority by natural selection – i.e., they arrived at it through competitive means via the survival of the fittest. All this was happy and good – or so it seemed – if you were a northern European of suitable status. Science, according to these thinkers, showed that it was therefore acceptable – perhaps even necessary – to colonize, to bully, to militarize, to govern, and to direct the affairs of other peoples and races provided that you were British, French, German, or American of suitable racial ancestry. Advancement of the strong – these thinkers proclaimed – required it:

One general law, leading to the advancement of all organic beings, namely, multiply, vary, let the strongest live and the weakest die. ― Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species

But there was trouble brewing. And that trouble was degeneracy. Darwin again:

With savages, the weak in body or mind are soon eliminated … We civilised men, on the other hand, do our utmost to check the process of elimination … No one who has attended to the breeding of domestic animals will doubt that this … leads to the degeneration of a domestic race …  ― Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. HydeDegeneracy came in different flavors, so it was thought. There were people with low intelligence (the concept of intelligence quotient was soon to be invented, Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton again). There were people who were mentally degenerate due to insanity. There were those who were weak, deformed, physically disabled or crippled. And there were those who were deemed to be of an inferior race. These people were marrying and having children, often very many children. This posed, according to our evolutionary thinkers, grave dangers to the nation and its progress.

The Baha’i Point of View

In 1912, `Abdu’l-Baha, head of the Baha’i Faith and eldest son of its prophet-founder, was invited by David Starr Jordan to speak at Stanford University. Jordan – the first president of Stanford – was a prominent American peace proponent and `Abdu’l-Baha made universal peace his theme. But Jordan was also a believer in the superiority of the “Nordic races,” a prominent proponent of eugenics, and on advocate of combating “degeneracy.”  Here is how the Stanford Alumni Magazine characterizes his thought:

His most controversial legacy is his work in the field of eugenics, a then-accepted academic discipline that considered selective reproduction as a way to advance humankind. Although he thought the idea of creating a master race a waste of time, he strongly believed that “the germs of pauperism and crime” were biologically inherited. He believed certain state-sponsored measures could improve the human species as a whole—for example, forcibly segregating “feeble-minded” people to keep them from having children. He fretted over the immigration of “temperamental” races from Southern and Eastern Europe and felt that armed conflict was particularly detrimental to the health of the human race, because it removed the strongest individuals from the gene pool.

Palo-Altan-Newspaper-1-Nov-1912-Small`Abdu’l-Baha addressed Jordan’s eugenics approach, it appears to me, not by confrontation but through subtext. In his widely attended talk, he first spoke of science as the “greatest attainment in the world of humanity.” Then he extolled “the extraordinary power of the mind.”  It is the mind, he said, that distinguishes man (using the term in its its generic form) from the animal:

Man is the noblest of the creatures. In his physical organism he possesses the virtues of the mineral kingdom. Likewise, he embodies the augmentative virtue, or power of growth, which characterizes the kingdom of the vegetable. Furthermore, in his degree of physical existence he is qualified with functions and powers peculiar to the animal, beyond which lies the range of his distinctive human mental and spiritual endowment.

 He then addresses – and very directly too – the issue of nature, the survival of the fittest, and our necessary relationship to nature and its processes:

In nature there is the law of the survival of the fittest…. The purpose and object of schools, colleges and universities is to educate man and thereby rescue and redeem him from the exigencies and defects of nature and to awaken within him the capability of controlling and appropriating nature’s bounties. … it is not intended that the world of humanity should be left to its natural state … the intended and especial function of man is to rescue and redeem himself from the inherent defects of nature and become qualified with the ideal virtues of Divinity.  ..  Shall he, then, remain its captive, even failing to qualify under the natural law which commands the survival of the fittest?

That is to say, shall he continue to live upon the level of the animal kingdom without distinction between them and himself in natural impulses and ferocious instincts? There is no lower degree nor greater debasement for man than this natural condition of animalism.

David Starr Jordan

David Starr Jordan

He then address theories of racial superiority, attributing their origins to “despots and conquerors”:

[Baha'u'llah] declared that all mankind is the one progeny of Adam and members of one great universal family. If the various races and distinct types of mankind had each proceeded from a different original paternity — in other words, if we had two or more Adams for our human fathers — there might be reasonable ground for difference and divergence in humanity today; but inasmuch as we belong to one progeny and one family, all names which seek to differentiate and distinguish mankind as Italian, German, French, Russian and so on are without significance and sanction.

Why, then, all these fallacious national and racial distinctions? These boundary lines and artificial barriers have been created by despots and conquerors who sought to attain dominion over mankind, thereby engendering patriotic feeling and rousing selfish devotion [and leading people to fight and die] at their command upon the field of battle, shedding their innocent blood for a delusion such as “we are Germans,” “our enemies are French,” etc.

You will find no support for eugenics or racism in `Abdu’l-Baha’s words – here or elsewhere. Rather, he urges us to recognize that mankind is one and that we are all members of the same family. Racism and eugenics are theories derived from the urgings of those who wish to divide and conquer.

19th Century Theories of Degeneracy and their Consequences

time-machine-posterThe change from optimistic reading of evolution to pessimistic concerns about evolutionary decline and decay in the later part of the 19th century provides a remarkable story – one that provides a precautionary lesson for those who view science as the source of social ideals.

As before, we follow Richard Olson’s Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe. For a short and readable overview, we recommend the British Library’s excellent Post Darwin: Social Darwinism, Degeneration, Eugenics. Here is how the Library sets the scene:

Darwin’s evolutionary ideas helped many Victorians to imagine a dynamic world of progress. It seemed to fit perfectly, for a period of time at least, an image of Britain at the forefront of an industrialised and wealthy modern world in which man had definitively tamed nature for his own ends.

Towards the end of the 19th century, however, theories of evolution were the basis of fears of social, racial and cultural degeneration and decline. Evolution was countered by frightening examples of ‘devolution’. Some of the most popular fiction of this period – including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), Henry Rider Haggard’s She (1887) and H G Wells’s The Time Machine (1895) – explored scenarios of frightening devolution.

Some of the reasons for these fears were improved data collection that highlighted issues that previously were easily ignored.  Other reasons were social problems created by the industrial revolution and rapid population growth – the rise of urban slums and urban unrest. Olson characterizes these as follows:

british slumsThe growing collection of social statistics seemed to suggest that insanity, alcoholism, prostitution, and criminality were all increasing dramatically. Such increases were certainly in some part artifacts of increasing sophistication in diagnosing and recording conditions that were simply invisible previously; but they were also partly the real consequences of rapidly growing urban poverty.

Also, the problem was caused by the “biologicalization” and the “evolutionization” of these problems by such thought leaders as the psychiatrist Henry Maudsley. Again, Olson:

Darwinian psychiatry, as practiced by cultural leaders such as Henry Maudsley in Britain, Benedict Morel in France, and Cesare Lombroso in Italy, began to see these trends as the consequence of the pressures of industrial society working on less-fit segments of the population. … these men all developed theories of “degeneration,” according to which atavistic tendencies accelerated over time. Such views seemed consistent with the second law of thermodynamics, which suggested that in the long run chaos must triumph over order.

Maudsley claimed that “inherited weakness” or another “debilitating cause” made some people “unequal to the struggle for life” through “degeneration.” These people were “waste thrown up by the silent but strong current of progress; they are the weak crushed out by the strong in the mortal struggle for development; they are examples of decaying reason thrown off by vigorous mental growth.”  Evolution, he claimed, was being inverted:

All the moral and intellectual acquisitions of culture which the race has been slowly putting on by organized inheritance of the accumulated experience of countless generations of men are now rapidly put off in a few generations, until the lowest human and animal elements only are left.

poster4 guess whos coming to dinnerIn many ways, the problem of degeneration was an invented problem – a consequence of the replacement of Christian and European Enlightenment theories that held everyone to be equal.  The evolutionary theories that were their replacement looked at the health (or lack-thereof) of individuals and the consequence for the societies they were a part of as due to lack of biological fitness – and to racial mixing with people from non-Caucasian racial backgrounds..

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the notion of degeneration became increasingly powerful, because it seemed that poverty, criminality, alcoholism, immorality, and insanity were becoming ever more pervasive features of life in the most civilized portions of the world. Degeneration became a dominant literary theme, and fear of degeneration gave rise to a series of social movements, from the temperance movement through the nudist movement to the race-hygiene movement, aimed at reversing degenerative trends.

The central feature of all such movements was that they tended to see degeneration, not as a primarily economic or ethical or religious or philosophical problem, but as a problem that had its roots in medical and biological facts and that thus had to be addressed through medical and biological interventions.

Eugenics – and racial hygiene – emerged from this way of thinking.

We’ve already seen (Books on Science and Religion #20: Social Darwinism and Scientific Racism) how racism had been “scientized” in Germany.  In the United States:

Racial mixture subsequently came to be seen as a critical cause of degeneracy, and anti-miscegenation legislation was passed in a number of states. Even those few authors who thought that there might be some evidence for increasing mental ability by mixing breeds that were close to one another in the racial hierarchy, for example, Italians and the Irish, were convinced that mixing whites and blacks led to physical and moral degeneration.

In Germany, the concept of race-hygiene was introduced


By the end of the 20th century, social Darwinism and the fear of degeneration, Olson tells us, led to race-hygiene, temperance, and eugenics movements that became especially important in Germany and the United States well into the 20th century.  They also created a new anti-scientific mood. Olson concludes:

The century that began in Western Europe with such high hopes that scientific knowledge of society might help to identify features of the good life and to procure them for all humans thus ended with a growing sense that science could do neither.

My own conclusion is that 19th century evolution theorists and social Darwinists made proposals about the roles of evolutionary mechanisms in the social world we live in that were highly speculative, based on unproven theories, and lacking in empircal support. And some of them lead to great harm. Today, the risk is still present. There is much that is purely speculative and not backed by empirical research that claims evolutionary theory as its support. As in the 19th century, we too often put our faith in bad science.

Next Blog

In the next blog we review the eugenics movement in Germany – which culminated in programs of mass sterilization and the first uses of gas chambers, paving the way for the “final solution” – and in tthe United States – where anti-miscegenation laws prohibiting marriages between blacks and non-blacks were widely enforced, forced sterilization was carried out, and immigration from countries deemed racially unhealthy was restricted.


This is the 21st in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Oct 19

Books on Science and Religion #20: Social Darwinism and Scientific Racism

Stephen Friberg

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Oct 19, 2014

We prefer not to think about it, but science can lead to evil.

Atomic BombOne way, of course, is through technology enhanced by science. Think of bombs able to kill hundreds of thousands of people in seconds, of paralyzing nerve agents like sarin, or of car bombs used to destroy lives and create terror. Imagine military drones and robots loosened from responsible control. Or think of the global warming that has been unleashed by our energy sciences – or the seemingly endless supply of addictive drugs that mock our hopes for our youth.

But there is another way that science can lead to evil – misconstrued visions of reality inspired by science.

Let’s not be afraid. Evolutionary science is no less a science because of social Darwinism and its misuses. And scientific racism has been put firmly to rout by the extraordinary advances of genetics and the compelling evidence that it gives of the oneness of humanity.

But there are important lessons to be learned. Those who admire and love the evolutionary sciences should learn to appreciate why so many people strongly distrust evolution. Those who want science to be the source of morality can see how ideas claiming to be derived from science can be distorted or bent to support very destructive prejudices. Evolution, in particular, seems to have been particularly susceptible to being misused – even by the best and the brightest.


Richard Olson

Group Selection and Darwin’s Descent of Man

We have been following Richard Olson’s highly informative overview – Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe – on the 19th century origins of modern scientism. We turn to it now to describe how Darwinism helped create the scientific racism that came to be so influential in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially in Germany. In what follows, we quote extensively from chapter 9.

First, we need to set the scene. In the 2nd half of the 19th century, Olson writes, those trying “to understand and shape European events and trends … had to come to grips with competitive capitalism and imperialism and their consequences, whether they applauded or opposed them.”  Similarly, they had to explain “how pervasive and powerful religious institutions have been throughout history” while simultaneously “explaining why they were on the decline during the nineteenth century.” 

Darwin, in the Descent of Man, grappled with these issues by introducing the concept of group selection (a perspective now mainly out of favor). This, according to the historian Richard Weikart writing in The Origins of Social Darwinism in Germany 1859-1895, was thought to mean that:

Tribes and nations united to fight each other and the ones showing the greatest selflessness and devotion to their society survived and passed on their moral character to their offspring. Wars between nations are a modern manifestation of the struggle for existence. … Darwin also promoted racism in Descent by designating some races as inferior physically, mentally, and morally. Thus Darwin did use the concept of the struggle for existence to explain militarism, imperialism,and racial competition, but he did not use his theory to encourage such activity.

According to Olson:

Darwin’s emphasis on inter-group competition, especially on tribal competition, provided the central arguments of militaristic, imperialistic, and overtly racist ideologies in the writings of men such as Walter Bagehot (1826-77) in Britain, and Ernst Haeckel and Friedrich von Bernhardi (1849-1930) in Germany.

832px-Deutsches_Reich1Social Darwinism and Scientific Racism in Germany

Even though Darwin enjoyed an enthusiastic audience and widespread support for his thought in England, it was in Germany that he was most popular: Nowhere else did Darwinism, both as a biological theory and as the foundation for social thought, become as deeply rooted and broadly accepted as in Germany.”

The reasons have a lot to do with the strong support for science in Germany, the strong support for the scientific materialisms of Marx and Buchner, the status of German liberalism, and finally the enthusiastic and energetic endorsement of Darwin by Ernst Haeckel, an accomplishment scientist and more than energetic advocate of Darwinism. Olson again:

First, throughout the nineteenth century, in almost every domain of intellectual life, German thinkers emphasized change, transformation, and historical processes. …  Germans were preoccupied with change and open to evolutionary ideas.

220px-ErnstHaeckelSecond, in Ernst Haeckel, Darwin found a disciple who was an outstanding professional biologist and even more effective than T. H. Huxley in promoting Darwinian ideas. … Haeckel built an entire philosophy of life around evolution, explicitly using it to ground ethics, educational practices, a nontheistic religion, attitudes toward imperialism, war, German racial superiority, and so on.

Third, Darwinism … offered scientific materialist popularizers such as Ludwig Buchner a way to understand the origin and development of the entire universe without appeal to a divine designer-creator. This was tremendously valuable given their opposition to established religion…

Ernst Haeckel (1834 – 1919), to quote Wikipedia, “was a German biologist, naturalist, philosopher, physician, professor, and artist who discovered, described and named thousands of new species, mapped a genealogical tree relating all life forms, and coined many terms in biology”.  His first book on evolution – The History of Creation: or the Development of the Earth and Its Inhabitants by the Action of Natural Causes. A Popular Exposition of the Doctrine of Evolution in General, and That of Darwin, Goethe, and Lamarck in Particularsold more copies than even Darwin’s, making Haeckel Darwin’s popularizer par-excellence.

At the core of Haeckel’s perspective was a strong endorsement of a cruelly competitive vision of Darwinian struggle:

The theory of selection teaches that in human life as in all animal and plant life everywhere, and at all times, only a small and chosen minority can exist and flourish, while the enormous majority starve and perish miserably and more or less prematurely…. [Evolution] is aristocratic in the strictest sense of the word.

Tibetexpediton, Anthropometrische UntersuchungenHaeckel believed strongly in evolution as the “scientific view of humankind” and his enthusiasm for evolution led him to promote infanticide for children who were “weak, sickly, or affected with any bodily infirmity.”

For Haeckel, religion and Christianity were simply superstition and a source of error. Nature operating without design, Haeckel believed, rather than God, created everything:

Nowhere … in the evolution of animals and plants do we find any trace of design, but merely the inevitable outcome of the struggle for existence, the blind controller, instead of the provident God, that effects the changes of organic forms by a mutual action of the laws of heredity and adaptation.

And he was a thorough-going racist. Famously, he wrote:

The psychic distance between the crudest savage and the most perfect specimen of the highest civilization is colossal—much greater than is commonly supposed…

The lower races, he believed, were:

… psychologically nearer to the mammals (apes and dogs) than to civilized Europeans, we must, therefore, assign a totally different value to their lives.

Olson, writing about Haeckel’s racism, describes him as joining “his version of Darwinism to his long-standing beliefs in German racial superiority and to the Aryan superiority theories of count Gobineau.” Haeckel was:

a believer in the racial superiority of Northern Europeans, and he justified a colonial policy, especially in Africa, that discounted the interests of indigenous populations on the grounds that their “value” was vastly less than that of the colonizers. Haeckel’s racism became increasingly virulent and extensive as the First World War approached.


Wikipedia writes that:

Haeckel divided human beings into ten races, of which the Caucasian was the highest and the primitives were doomed to extinction. Haeckel claimed that Negros have stronger and more freely movable toes than any other race which is evidence that Negros are related to apes because when apes stop climbing in trees they hold on to the trees with their toes, Haeckel compared Negros to “four-handed” apes. Haeckel also believed Negros were savages and that Whites were the most civilized.

Olson concludes that:

Though Haeckel’s extension of Darwinian biology did not create German racism, it certainly encouraged it. Moreover, it provided updated scientific support for both a ruthless racist colonial policy that had long-term consequences in South Africa and a domestic focus on racial purity that ultimately fed the later views of the National Socialists.

Moderation and Civilization

Baha’u’llah, in a statement about moderation, emphasizes its importance:

Whoso cleaveth to justice, can, under no circumstances, transgress the limits of moderation. He discerneth the truth in all things, through the guidance of Him Who is the All-Seeing.

He also emphasizes what can happen when the limits of moderation are transgressed:

The civilization, so often vaunted by the learned exponents of arts and sciences, will, if allowed to overleap the bounds of moderation, bring great evil upon men. Thus warneth you He Who is the All-Knowing. If carried to excess, civilization will prove as prolific a source of evil as it had been of goodness when kept within the restraints of moderation.

Does the story of Ernst Haeckel, German materialism, and the excesses of scientific racism illustrate this?

Next Blog

In the next blog we talk about the rise of theories of degeneracy – the idea that whole societies could undergo physical and intellectual collapse if the unfit were allowed to reproduce.


This is the 20th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Oct 12

Books on Science and Religion #19: A Prologue to Social Darwinism

Nature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Platopic2Oct 12, 2014

Modern philosophers, leading thinkers, intellectuals, and certain scientists are the public intellectuals of the day. Sometimes, such a role is thrust upon them, or they court it successfully.

We must ask, what is the source of a public intellectual’s leadership? From where does this leadership derive its authority?

And is this leadership the same as that of a priest or a theologian? Is it different?

It strikes me that these are very important questions that we should be asking of – and about – our leaders of thought and their ideas. And we should ask it of the leaders of thought in the 19th century as well, especially those who claim science or philosophy as their source of authority about social and political issues. We cannot ignore the sometimes horrific fruits of their ideas and their labors.

We ask it now because we are soon to explore the dark side of evolution, including the rise of theories of degeneracy of Henry Maudsley, the pioneering British psychiatrist, and the highly influential scientific racism of Ernst Haeckel, Darwin’s foremost German popularizer, whose thinking we will describe in the next blog.

But first lets try to answer the question by taking into account the Baha’i point of view.

They have Entangled All Men, Themselves Included, in the Mesh of their Devices

Manikshi Sahib

Manikshi Sahib

Baha’u’llah, the prophet-founder of the Baha’i Faith, touched on the issue of intellectual leadership in the Tablet to Mánikchí Sáhib, written to a prominent Zoroastrian roughly at the same time that Darwin published the Descent of Man. Baha’u’llah encourages his readers to deliberate on the needs of the age, its exigencies and requirements:

Every age hath its own problem, and every soul its particular aspiration. The remedy the world needeth in its present-day afflictions can never be the same as that which a subsequent age may require. Be anxiously concerned with the needs of the age ye live in, and center your deliberations on its exigencies and requirements.

But he warns against those “intoxicated by self-conceit”:

We can well perceive how the whole human race is encompassed with great, with incalculable afflictions. We see it languishing on its bed of sickness, sore-tried and disillusioned. They that are intoxicated by self-conceit have interposed themselves between it and the Divine and infallible Physician. Witness how they have entangled all men, themselves included, in the mesh of their devices. They can neither discover the cause of the disease, nor have they any knowledge of the remedy. They have conceived the straight to be crooked, and have imagined their friend an enemy.

It is in this tablet that Baha’u’llah announces the well-known Baha’i principle called the tabernacle of unity:

Regard ye not one another as strangers. Ye are the fruits of one tree, and the leaves of one branch.

self-conceitWhat does this mean for our question here?

First of all, Baha’u’llah does not focus on science. Those “intoxicated by self-conceit”, the Baha’i writings make clear, most often refer to the leaders of faith who have failed to maintain the unity and integrity of religion. It is they, through their failures, who have led “men of science” to look elsewhere for answers to questions that religion proved unable, in case after case, to be able to address. Indeed, the intent of most religious leaders seemed to be to maintain their leadership and authority.

But this is not the whole of the answer, for Darwin and many of his followers became materialists, meaning that they came to dismiss religion and the significance of spiritual evolution as important components of the answer to the problems of the day.  In modern parlance, they “threw out of the baby with the bathwater,” rejecting all of religion along with its bad parts.

For an educated evolutionary thinker aware of the similarities of his or her passions and innate tendencies to those in the animal kingdom while at the same time aware of the power of education, rationality, and culture, this is a strange and perverse reaction altogether and ievidence of both bias and ideological partisanship. (Obviously, pious proclamations of emancipation from blind belief and dogmatism does not necessary mean a reduced susceptibility to their influence, as the enthusiasm of Marxists, colonialists, nationalists, militarists and others of materialist persuasions clearly shows.)

Science as the Source of Social, Intellectual, and Moral Authority

So, to answer the question about what is the public intellectual’s source of authority, the answer has often been that it is science and philosophy that is the source of his or her authority. From this point of view, the scientific revolution and the European enlightenment overthrew the despotism and dogmatism of religious theology and replaced it with the pure light of science and rational (or empirical, or idealist, or positivist, or whatever the flavor of the day is) philosophical thought.

But suppose the “pure light of science” and the philosophical counterparts of theology were only another dogmatism and the enlightened thinker merely fooling himself that his views were meaningful? (The herselves – with maybe one exception (George Elliot) – were quickly suppressed.) And suppose the eager and grateful audience was merely swayed by blind belief of precisely the variety supposedly swept away in the rejection of religion?  As we will see, the reaction to Darwinism often seemed to be of this later “enthusiast” variety, especially in Germany (although the United States and the British Isles were quite susceptible too).

Ernst_Haeckel_1860And what is abundantly clear – or should be abundantly clear – is that even great scientists like Darwin and Haeckel were seduced into making pronouncements on social and intellectual issues that extrapolated far beyond any conceivable kind of scientific warrant in their theories or the experimental state of the art.

In short, they weren’t being true to their scientific calling. And in doing so “they have entangled all men, themselves included, in the mesh of their devices. They can neither discover the cause of the disease, nor have they any knowledge of the remedy.”

And the price that we have paid for their doing so has been immense and tragic. If you claim, like Darwin, that a high station is due to evolutionary struggle for supremacy, don’t be surprised if you are judged to have encouraged such struggle and the massive wars and slaughters that it entails.

Next Blog

In the next blog we talk about how Darwinism fared in Germany where it not only became extraordinarily popular but morphed into what we now call scientific racism. We also trace the rise of theories of degeneracy – the idea that whole societies could undergo physical and intellectual collapse if the unfit were allowed to reproduce. Both of these trends were unforeseen by the pioneers of evolution.


This is the 198th in a series of blogs on the modern science and religion literature. The author, Stephen Friberg, is a Bahá’í living in Mountain View, California. A research physicist by training, he wrote Religion and Evolution Reconciled: ‘Abdu’l-Bahá’s Comments on Evolution with Courosh Mehanian. He worked in Japan for 10 years before joining the semiconductor industry in Silicon Valley.

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Oct 10

Faith and Freedom

Evolution (Oh Yeah!)

Evolution (Oh Yeah!)

Unlike our animal cousins, human beings’ behavior is less affected by instinct than it is by observation, nurture, experience and guided learning. We live in complex relationships that form an even more complex society. Existing in that society requires that we learn the skills necessary to that existence.

As children, we require the guidance of parents, teachers and a body of knowledge about ourselves and our world. That guidance must originate somewhere—especially in areas where the effects of blindly following instinct can be ambiguous and/or dire—for we seem not to be very good at these things naturally. Or, as a psychologist acquaintance put it on a panel we shared, we may be born with nascent qualities—empathy, for example—and unlearn them. We human beings need someone to teach us—not what to think—but how to think, how to treat other humans, how to love, how to balance our personal desires and rights and responsibilities against those of the people around us.

Even more central to the human experience, we must learn how to balance our material or physical desires against our total welfare. An example of this is the brain/mind dichotomy when it comes to physical pleasure and/or addictions. What the brain desires, the mind rules against, knowing things that can bring intense, if ephemeral physical pleasure can be destructive to the total person. Read the rest of this entry »


Oct 05

Books on Science and Religion #18: Social Darwinism and the Descent of Man

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Oct 5, 2014

In 1871, emboldened by the success of On the Origin of Species and having more to say on the topic of evolution, Darwin published The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex. According to Wikipedia:

Darwin applies evolutionary theory to human evolution, and details his theory of sexual selection, a form of biological adaptation distinct from, yet interconnected with, natural selection. The book discusses many related issues, including evolutionary psychology, evolutionary ethics, differences between human races, differences between sexes, the dominant role of women in choosing mating partners, and the relevance of the evolutionary theory to society. 

descent of manIn recent blogs, we have been looking at Darwinism, scientism, and social Darwinism through the lens of the book Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe by Richard Olson. Olson non-polemically defines scientism as “the transfer of ideas, practices, attitudes, and methodologies from the context of the study of the natural world … into the study of humans and their social institutions.” He defines social Darwinism as an “appeal to evolutionary arguments, whether Lamarckian of Darwinian in tone and whether focused on individual or group dynamics, to argue on behalf of any social policy.”

Olson emphasizes that there were “sweeping theories of evolution that incorporated the idea that evolution extended fully to human physical and mental developments as well as to societal change well before Charles Darwin published anything on evolution.” These were politically influential and had influence on government policy as early as ten years before Darwin’s participation. But, he emphasizes, “Darwin’s work gradually eclipsed all prior investigations of evolution in term of their impact upon scientistic social theorizing”. The Descent of Man was Darwin’s opportunity to weigh in on the continuing dialogue 12 years after publication of the Origin of the Species, especially with regards to humans and the evolution of groups. Read the rest of this entry »


Sep 28

Books on Science and Religion #17: Darwin and On the Origin of Species

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Sept 28, 2014

In 1859 Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published On the Origin of Species – a greatly influential and widely read book arguing for a theory of evolution based on natural selection that is also one of the foundational texts of 19th century materialism. 1,170 copies were on sale for the first edition, but the numbers sold grew rapidly, reaching a phenomenal 108,000 by 1901.

The Guardian newspaper in England, echoing a widespread modern sentiment, considers On the Origin Species as “part of the literary canon: Darwin joins Aristotle and St Augustine, Shakespeare, Milton and Stuart Mill, Dickens, Dostoevsky and Balzac in that pantheon of texts that provide the foundations of western culture.” Darwin is now regarded as one of the greatest thinkers of all times.

Read the rest of this entry »


Sep 26

First of All, Do No Harm

Maya Bohnhoff

Maya Bohnhoff

I frequently find myself involved in discussions about the role of religion and/or revelation in the world. It is assumed, on occasion, that when religious people talk about what their faith means to them or has done for them, they are saying that without religion, they would never have pondered those subjects at all, or would not consider the consequences of their actions.

To be honest, every day experience leads me to believe that not many people actually DO consider either the consequences of their actions or their impact on others. Still, I think every thoughtful person considers, to some degree, these consequences. Where religion or faith or spirituality makes a difference is in what factors you take into account, what premise you start from, or what you understand to be the goal of your behavior—or indeed your existence.

To illustrate, on an anti-theist site I once frequented, someone was celebrating having offended their Christian in-laws by replacing the baby Jesus in the nativity the in-laws had given them with a spaghetti noodle (a reference to the “Flying Spaghetti Monster” analogue for God). While this person, and most of the commenters on the thread, felt this was well within the realm of appropriate human treatment, the teachings of faith put that action out of bounds.

I have a natural urge to be sarcastic (perhaps you’ve noticed), but because I’m also striving to live by the teachings of my faith and to internalize them (to write the law of God upon my heart, as the scriptures say), I may start my consideration of what is appropriate communication in a different place than someone who does not share my behavioral benchmarks. In simple terms, my anti-theist confreres on this particular forum did not share with me a common standard for how to communicate ideas to other human beings,

Let’s look at the noodle-tivity situation: my standard starts with the impact of my behavior on the other people involved—in this case, my spouse’s parents. Now perhaps this individual didn’t care much for her in-laws, but it’s more likely that the insult wasn’t aimed at them at all, but at their faith. As one of the correspondents put it: “Showing disrespect for people and showing disrespect for books of spurious origin are two very different things. Books and traditions are not humans, they don’t have unalienable rights or feelings.”

FsmThis begs the question of who, then, is the real target of the disrespect. Faith (or any other ideology) can’t be hurt or alienated by any amount of noodles or mockery. Only people can. So, what is the point of being unkind or hurtful to an ideology?

Let’s not be squeamish: the real goal is to affect the feelings of the person who holds the belief such that they will come to agree that their beliefs are worthy of being mocked. I have asked many times if the person doing the mocking has ever changed their deeply beliefs or worldview or even what they ate for lunch because someone they loved or respected (or whom they didn’t even know) mocked them. I have yet to receive an answer.

Jesus makes the point that it’s easy to love the people who love us and who treat us well. Where push comes to shove is when we’re dealing with people who don’t treat us well.

 “But I say to you who hear: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, and pray for those who spitefully use you. To him who strikes you on the one cheek, offer the other also. And from him who takes away your cloak, do not withhold your tunic either. Give to everyone who asks of you. And from him who takes away your goods do not ask them back. And just as you want men to do to you, you also do to them likewise.

But if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you hope to receive back, what credit is that to you? For even sinners lend to sinners to receive as much back. But love your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil. Therefore be merciful, just as your Father also is merciful.” (Luke 6:27-36)

Jesus presses His followers to love even their enemies and to return evil with good. That’s hard to do—the history of the Christian church demonstrates that, graphically. Few people today seem to live by that dictum, but I think most readers would agree that a lot of grief could be avoided if they did. People fight and contend with each other continually. Some are willing to harm others in insidious ways out of antipathy and, regardless of where it comes from, the Golden Rule is trumped again and again by political, economic and personal considerations.

There are passages in the writings of Bahá’u’lláh in which He says when we feel antipathy for another person, we should “behold Me standing before your face” and love them for the love of God.

Here’s the passage in context:

It is Our wish and desire that every one of you may become a source of all goodness unto men, and an example of uprightness to mankind.  Beware lest ye prefer yourselves above your neighbors.  Fix your gaze upon Him Who is the Temple of God amongst men.  He, in truth, hath offered up His life as a ransom for the redemption of the world.  He, verily, is the All-Bountiful, the Gracious, the Most High.  If any differences arise amongst you, behold Me standing before your face, and overlook the faults of one another for My name’s sake and as a token of your love for My manifest and resplendent Cause. We love to see you at all times consorting in amity and concord within the paradise of My good-pleasure, and to inhale from your acts the fragrance of friendliness and unity, of loving-kindness and fellowship. Thus counselleth you the All-Knowing, the Faithful. (Gleanings from the Writings of Baha’u’llah CXLV1)

Light bulb!

Light bulb!

I don’t expect everyone to relate to that, just understand that it’s more than a pretty sentiment. As I said, it’s easy to love people who are in your US group. In my experience, the teachings of my faith offer a catalyst to expand that group to include even “enemies.”

Taken to a wider stage, if I apply the teachings of my faith about human oneness to health care or immigration reform, say, or to how I would react to being terrorized or imprisoned for my faith (as are the Bahá’ís in Iran), I begin at a different starting point than most people I’ve observed. I begin from the premise that we really are one family, that there is no THEM and US but only US.

That changes the debate … or at least it should.

If I take seriously the idea that I can love people who wish me ill for the love of God, I stand a chance of not perpetuating the sort of tit for tat we see on a huge scale in places like Palestine or Iraq … or Facebook.

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Sep 21

Books on Science and Religion #16: The Evolution of English Evolution

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Sept 21, 2014

The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century is one of those wide-ranging and fascinating books of history that British writers do particularly well. Its author – Peter Watson – tells us that The modern mindevolution is not only one of the dominant topics of modern thought, but that it gives us the needed framework for understanding that thought:

Our century has been dominated intellectually by a coming to terms with science … various fields of inquiry [physics, cosmology, chemistry, geology, biology, paleontology, archaeology, psychology, mathematics, anthropology, history, genetics, and linguistics] are now coming together powerfully, convincingly, to tell one story about the natural world.This story, as we shall see, includes the evolution of the universe, of the earth itself, its continents and oceans, the origins of life, the peopling of the globe, and the development of different races, with their different civilisations.

Underlying this story, and giving it a framework, is the process of evolution. As late as 1996 Daniel Dennett, the American philosopher, was still describing Darwin’s notion of evolution as “the best idea, ever.” Read the rest of this entry »


Sep 14

Books on Science and Religion #15: Great Britain, The Industrial Revolution and Capitalism

SRFRIBERG-4a-WbNature in its essence is the embodiment of My Name, the Maker, the Creator. Nature is God’s Will and is its expression in and through the contingent world.


Sept 14, 2014

Our last several blogs looked at 19th century developments in the relationship between science, scientism, materialism and religion in France and Germany as outlined in Richard Olson’s historical overview of the 19th century origins of modern scientism, Science and Scientism in Nineteenth-Century Europe.

France and Germany were transformed by the French revolution and the subsequent Napoleonic Wars, radically changing to focus on education, science and technology. Accompanying these changes in focus were the emergence of social and cultural movements that exalted science and claimed it to be a replacement for religion as the guiding light Polytechnique_seal.svgfor society. The influential French intellectual Auguste Comte, for example, argued that societies go through three stages of development with religion as the most primitive (the three stages are the religious or theological stages, the intermediary philosophical or metaphysical stage, and finally the advanced and mature scientific stage). Germany – or more specifically, Prussia – invented the modern research university and the compulsory modern education system. And then several of its philosophers and radical thinkers invented two of the most influential forms materialism – the “scientific” materialism of Büchner and Vogt, and the “historical” materialism of Marx and Engels.

England was spared direct attack during the Napoleonic wars where it emerged as the victor. As a consequence, it became the predominant world military power. A contributor to its victory and increasing influence was the British industrial revolution and the emergence of modern capitalism, which we review next. But before doing so, we review the Baha’i approach to material progress and capitalism. Read the rest of this entry »


Sep 01

Books on Science and Religion #14: Marxism and Dielectical Materialism

john_kenneth_galbraithUnder capitalism, man exploits man. Under communism, it’s just the opposite.

John Kenneth Galbraith

August 31, 2014

Materialism in the 19th century materialism came in many forms and guises. Already, we’ve reviewed several of them already in our series of blogs on Richard Olson’s book Science and Scientism in Nineteenth Century.

Perhaps the most famous – and certainly the most notorious – of those 19th century materialisms is what later came to be called dialectical materialism. Developed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, it became the basis for communism and systems of government around the globe. Like the scientific materialism of Vogt, Moleschott, and Buchner that we reviewed last week, dialectical materialism portrayed itself as based on a true scientific understanding of reality. In actuality, like scientific materialism, it was based on French ideas about socialism and on positivist thinking, on 19th century German philosophical arguments of Hegel and Feuerbach, and on various other social and intellectual developments of the time.
Read the rest of this entry »


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