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Jim ChamberlainJim Chamberlain is an artist and illustrator whose clients include Atlantic Monthly, Psychology Today, PC World, and many other publications. He has engaged spiritual, integral, transpersonal, transformational approaches since the early seventies. In the nineties Jim trained and earned a credential in Arnold Mindell's Process Work, and has worked in a therapeutic capacity with groups, couples, and individuals. Through most of the nineties, Jim was an instructor for the Integrative Medicine Center of sister hospitals, for whom he taught courses in mindfulness-based stress management. His current focus is on philosophy of mind (and early opera and sacred music).

Reposted from the Ken Wilber Forum (06/23/06), an old version of Integral World's forum.

Wilber on evolution

A Few Comments

Jim Chamberlain

If Wilber doesn't want to call this a metaphysical telos, what kind of telos is it? A "post-metaphysical" telos?

Ken Wilber responded to Jeff Meyerhoff's "Six Criticisms of Wilber's Integral Theory" in a taped phone conversation on Integral Naked. This response covers various topics raised by Meyerhoff, but most of the time is spent on the topic of biological evolution. In the essay below Jim Chamberlain thinks out loud about the way Wilber views evolution and uses mainstream biologists to support his view. The essay below was found in the Ken Wilber Forum of Integral World. This tape will undoubtedly be commented upon by others, since it's the only available source of Wilber speaking in more detail on his current view of the topic of evolution. (FV)


In his response to Meyerhoff, Wilber says:

I don’t know of any more mainstream and respected theorist of evolution than Ernst Mayr...

And he goes on to quote Mayr from Mayr's 2001 book What Evolution Is.

A bit later in the conversation Wilber mentions Richard Lewontin, calling him:

one of the most highly respected, and beloved, you might say, theorists of biology and evolution in particular...

And he goes on to quote extensively from Lewontin's 2000 book The Triple Helix.

Harvard biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) was a lifelong atheist and materialist (as in scientific materialism, which has nothing to do with the materialism of "He who dies with the most toys wins" and "The Material Girl"). In an interview on his 93rd birthday, ("What Evolution Is", Mayr said:

One of Darwin’s great contributions was that he replaced theological, or supernatural, science with secular science. Laplace had already done this some 50 years earlier when he explained the whole world to Napoleon. After his explanation, Napoleon replied, ‘Where is God in your theory?’ And Laplace answered, ‘I don’t need that hypothesis.’

Darwin’s explanation that all things have a natural cause made the belief in a creatively superior mind quite unnecessary.

Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin (b. 1929) wholeheartedly subscribes to scientific materialism and has referred to himself as a Marxist. Commenting on public opposition to scientific ideas about human origins, Lewontin says ["Billions and Billons of Demons", The New York Review of Books, January 9, 1997]:

The primary problem is not to provide the public with the knowledge of how far it is to the nearest star and what genes are made of. Rather, the problem is to get them to reject irrational and supernatural explanations of the world, the demons that exist only in their imaginations, and to accept a social and intellectual apparatus, science, as the only begetter of truth. We exist as material beings in a material world, all of whose phenomena are the consequences of material relations among material entities.

And yet Wilber quotes these men in support of his view on evolution, which is (I transcribed this from the taped phone call):

You either postulate a supernatural source of which there are two types. One is a Platonic given and one is basically theological – a God or intelligent design - or you postulate Spirit as immanent - of course it's transcendent but also immanent - and it shows up as a self-organizing, self-transcending drive within evolution itself. And then evolution is Spirit’s own unfolding. Not in super-natural, but an intra-natural, an immanently natural aspect. And that's basically the position I maintain.

Mayr would have rejected this notion, and he basically does just that in the very book from which Wilber quotes, saying:

those who adopt teleological thinking will argue that progress is due to a built-in drive or striving for perfection. Darwin rejected such a causation and so do modern Darwinians and indeed no genetic mechanism was ever found that would control such a drive.

In the call, Wilber says, “I don’t believe in a metaphysical telos,” and he also says that he does not believe in a Platonic telos ("I don't believe in any of those," he inisists). He may not believe in a Platonic telos, but in "excerpt A" ["An Integral Age at the Leading Edge"] (which is no less "Wilber-5" than whenever the phone call recording was made) at his Shambhala site, Wilber defines "Eros" an an "involutionary given":

each holon has a drive, a desire, a push, a telos, a hankering for God--which means, a drive to realize Spirit-itself, a drive which ultimately wants to embrace the entire Kosmos itself. This is a drive toward higher unions, wider identities, greater inclusion--culminating in God-realization, or every holon's realization of Spirit, by Spirit, in Spirit, as Spirit.

If Wilber doesn't want to call this a metaphysical telos, what kind of telos is it? A "post-metaphysical" telos?

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy offers definitions of two types of teleology. One is teleological explanation:

Teleological explanations which do not presuppose that what is to be explained is the work of an intelligent agent are to be found in biology, economics, and elsewhere. Their justification typically involves two components: an analysis of the function of the item to be explained, and an aetiological account.

The other type presupposes intelligent design and purpose:

...what spring rain does for crops does not explain why it rains in the spring. But suppose we discovered that some object’s features were designed and maintained by an intelligent creator to enable it to accomplish some purpose.

Wilber posits a telos which presupposes "a drive to realize Spirit-itself, a drive which ultimately wants to embrace the entire Kosmos itself" and he says that this "self-organizing, self-transcending drive" is "within evolution itself."

Whether we do or do not refer to that as a metaphysical telos, that is a telos that Mayr, Lewontin, and the vast majority of mainstream scientists whose research is in the areas of evolution, genetics, self-organization, etc., reject (including Stuart Kauffman). Yet in the phone call, Wilber emphasizes that "mainstream" scientists such as Mayr and Lewontin provide "supporting data" for his ideas on evolution.

This is tantamout to saying, I have an argument, and here are the premises and here is my conclusion, and here are the names of people who support the premises, but not the conclusion. If they don't support the conclusion, but you depend on them to support the premises you use to support your conclusion, then your conclusion is suspect, or at least your use of these people to support your conclusion is suspect.

Let's look at how Wilber's quote of Mayr supports Wilber's views on evolution. Wilber quotes Mayr to support his view that there is progress in evolution. This is what Wilber says on the call:

I don’t know of any more mainstream and respected theorist of evolution than Ernst Mayr, and I’ll just read one very simple quote [from Mayr's book What Evolution Is], and just have done with it. “Is evolution progressive? Are phylogenetically later organisms 'higher' than their ancestors? Yes, they are higher on the phylogenetic tree.”
Then he goes into talk a paragraph or two about that it is very difficult to say what’s better, or what’s higher, and so on. And so he gives both sides of that, but he concludes very simply, “What cannot be denied, however, is that in every generation of the evolutionary process, a surviving individual is on the average better adapted than the average of the nonsurvivors. To that extent, evolution clearly* is progressive.”
End of that topic.

Wilber adds the word "clearly”* to the last sentence and he says it with great emphasis, but it does not appear in the book.

*I'm adding this parenthetical note several days after writing and posting this to the Ken Wilber Forum, from where Frank Visser copied it to his Integral World website. Thanks to Ken Wilber's blog post here (, where he comments on this post, I relooked at my copy of Mayr's book and I see that I was mistaken when I said that Mayr's did not say "clearly." Mayr said "clearly" and Wilber quoted him accurately and I made a stupid mistake by stating otherwise. For that I apologize to Ken. In his blog post, Wilber notes that taped discussions at II "are NOT to be taken as any discussant's actual or academic views, because as everybody knows, in conversations you don't always state your nuanced views. There can be hyperbole, over-generalization, simplification, and sometimes plain forgetting." That's obviously the case, just as it is the case when I post to the Ken Wilber Forum, and as I said, that's where Frank copied this post from. It's just a post, but that doesn't excuse my stupid mistake, and again I apologize.

Wilber does not mention that earlier in the book, Mayr says:

There is great discussion on this question because the word “progress” has so many different meanings. For instance, those who adopt teleological thinking will argue that progress is due to a built-in drive or striving for perfection. Darwin rejected such a causation and so do modern Darwinians and indeed no genetic mechanism was ever found that would control such a drive. However, one can also define progress purely empirically as the achievement of something that is better, more efficient, and more successful than what preceded it. The terms “higher” and “lower” have also been criticized. For the modern Darwinian it is not a value judgment, but “higher” means more recent in geological time or higher on the phylogenetic tree.

To say that something is higher on the phylogenetic tree is to say that it is higher on a diagram of patterns of descent (i.e., a dendrogram or tree diagram). Mayr explains that being higher on the phylogenetic tree doesn’t necessarily mean “better” or “more complex.”

But he says:

If we consider a modern car as representing progress over the Model T Ford, we are equally justified to call the human species progressive compared to lower eukaryotes and prokaryotes. However, Darwinian progress is never teleological.

Many definitions of evolutionary progress have been offered. I particularly like one that emphasizes its adaptationist nature: Progress is “a tendency of lineages to improve cumulatively their adaptive fit to their particular way of life, by increasing the number of features which combine together in adaptive complexes.”

Here Mayr quotes Richard Dawkins.

After quoting Mayr, Wilber mentions the name of Mayr's book and notes that the foreword was written by Jared Diamond. Is this Wilber doing his name-dropping gimmick? I think so, and I think his quoting Mayr and Lewontin is of that order as well, but that's just my opinion, the inference I draw from what I read and hear.

The fact is that neither Diamond (who is no less a materialist than everyone else I'm about to name), nor Mayr, nor Dawkins, nor Lewontin say anything that supports Wilber's view that there are gaps in scientific knowledge of biological evolution (he points to these gaps by asking "how dirt gets up and starts writing poetry" and "how we get from atoms to Shakespeare") that can only be filled by positing immanent Spirit as a "drive" within evolution itself.

Jimsun (hi) suggests that Wilber may be speaking metaphorically when he speaks of Eros (which is one of the terms Wilber uses to refer to the "drive" he posits), but I don't think so, for if he were, why would he continually ask these rhetorical questions about dirt writing poetry? Wilber asks these questions because he believes that science cannot explain how we go from atoms to Shakespeare, unless we say that "Spirit" is "within" evolution as a causal force, i.e., a "drive."

I have quoted Wilber before on the causal closure of physics from his 2-part conversation with Alan Wallace, where he says:

There are at least 3 different ways to approach the closure problem. The non-approach is "That’s just it, nothing to say." That’s such a pigheaded response. First of all, it’s like why on earth, if you look at evolution itself, why does it keep winding itself up in these orders of complexity? The closure principle doesn't explain why dirt gets up and starts writing poetry. It’s incomprehensible to me that somebody can actually look at you with a straight face and say something like that. Nonetheless, there are a lot of them out there at Jane Loevinger’s stage five and they all seem to believe it.

One of the 3 ways is this:

Some higher level of complexity or organization or higher ontological level, however you want to conceive it, reaches into the physical closure through an opening, such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, and simply pushes stuff around there.

I quote this not to open up the causal closure question but to show why I do not think Wilber is speaking metaphorically when he speaks of there being "an Eros to the Kosmos." (But for another perspective on the completeness of physics, see David Papineau's essay "The Rise of Physicalism", in which Papineau asks and answers the question, "Why have so many analytic philosophers in the second half of the twentieth century suddenly become persuaded that everything is physical?")

(When Wilber quotes Lewontin he says that the book is recent. 2000 is not as recent as 2005, which is when the National Academy of Sciences published Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origin, by Harvard-educated scientist Robert Hazen. In it, Hazen discusses three possible, plausible, testable scenarios for life's origin, none of them requiring the introduction of some mysterious explanatory factor such as Wilber's "Eros" or some mysterious "drive" that "reaches into the closure principle through an opening." The scenarios Hazen presents are being tested, and while we don't have an answer today, it now appears quite probable that someday in the not-too-distant future we will.)

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