An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Dr. Alexander W. Astin (born May 30, 1932, Washington, D.C.) is the Allan M. Carter Professor Emeritus of Higher Education and Organizational Change, at the University of California, Los Angeles.He is Founding Director of the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA. He has served as Director of Research for both the American Council on Education and the National Merit Scholarship Corporation. He is also the Founding Director of the Cooperative Institutional Research Program, an ongoing national study of some twelve million students, 250,000 faculty and staff, and 1,800 higher education institutions.

Comment on Lane's
"Random Mutations"

Alexander Astin

Brief context: Alexander Astin contacted Ken Wilber in 2007 about Integral World postings related to Wilber's misunderstanding of the theory of evolution. He stated that the concept of "random mutation" did not have explanatory value and only served to cover our ignorance of what causes mutations. See: Frank Visser, The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered, and note 12. In the below reply, received January 29th, 2011, he states that science may be able to find proximate causes, but is unable to understand "the conditions that led to the occurrence of these proximate physical causes in the first place".

Reply to: David Lane, Random Mutations in Molecular Biology: Why Ken Wilber's Creationist Hummer Got Recalled.

Lane's "physical explanations" for mutations are fine, except that they basically avoid my point about causation.

I appreciate Dr. Lane's efforts to explain how mutations occur. His "physical explanations" for mutations are fine, except that they basically avoid my point about causation.

It would be like asking "how come this egg came to be hard boiled, and answering, "that was caused by the egg's spending 10 minutes in a pot of boiling water, which heated the materials inside the shell and caused them to solidify, etc etc." My question is not about the proximate physical causes of an event such as a genetic mutation or an egg hardening, but rather the conditions that led to the occurrence of these proximate physical causes in the first place.

A conscious person, for example, intended to hard boil the egg by placing it in the pot of boiling water for 10 minutes. Shakespeare intended to write a play about a tortured soul named Hamlet by sitting at a desk and moving his pen on a piece of paper. One could, of course, correctly point out that Hamlet was "caused" by the movements of an inked pen on blank pieces of paper, but that hardly constitutes an "explanation" for the existence of that play.

What we have before us is a wild diversity of living organisms, and an even greater number of species that are no longer living and reproducing, together with some pretty good archeological and genetic evidence concerning when at least some of the genotypes came into being. We also know that natural selection was and continues to be a major causal factor enabling certain new genetic forms to survive and reproduce.

None of this diversity and selection happens, however, without alterations in genetic structure. As Dr. Lane points out, we know about some of the proximate physical conditions that can cause genes to mutate, but we know next to nothing about the complex antecedent circumstances that eventually led to the countless specific mutations that were necessary to the formation of most species.

We do know about such things as antibiotics leading to the formation of new bacteria, but that's an environmental change that selects those members of a species that happen to have expressed mutations that resist the normally killing effect of the antibiotic. Short of human surgical interventions at the genetic level, we still don't usually know what caused those particular mutations that enabled a given bacterium to survive the medicine.

Alexander W. Astin
Allan M. Cartter Professor Emeritus &
Founding Director
Higher Education Research Institute
University of California, Los Angeles

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