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

powered by TinyLetter
Today is:
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".

Michael Garfield has a degree in evolutionary biology and works as a scientific illustrator, live painter, essayist, and sound man. He is a graduate of JFKU's Integral Theory certificate program and a member of Ken Wilber's blog editorial team. For more information, visit: Source of this essay:, July 2007.

Evolving an
Integral Biology

AQAL's Insights Into the Big Questions of Evolution

Michael Garfield

As the study of the ever-fluctuating manifestation of life itself, evolutionary biology is an extraordinarily complex discipline - one for which the range of practical application is expanding rapidly, in synchrony with increasingly "organic" technology and a concept of life itself that is repeatedly and necessarily redefined to include an ever-wider range of natural phenomena.[1] With this ever-more enormous jurisdiction comes a new suite of questions - questions that stymie the more traditional methods and theories of biology as a purely empirical discipline, limited in scope and method. According to the University of California at Berkeley's exemplary "Understanding Evolution" website, the central contemporary questions for an evolutionary science include:

  1. Does evolution tend to proceed slowly and steadily or in quick jumps?
  2. Why are some clades very diverse and some unusually sparse?
  3. How does evolution produce new and complex features?
  4. Are there trends in evolution, and if so, what processes generate them? (Caldwell, 2006)

These questions are the product of a perspective - and, in Einstein's famous words, "No problem can be solved at the level of consciousness that created it" (source unknown). Evolutionary science must itself adapt if it is to satisfactorily address these issues without reliance on mysterious, intrinsic properties and other similarly contrived post-facto principles.

What does it mean to say that biology must be fundamentally reorganized? Kurt Koller explains that science as both a general concept and the particular study of any given subject can be triply defined: "1) as a mode of judgment, 2) as methodological inquiry, and 3) as a data domain" (Koller 2006a, p. 6). In other words, any science can be understood as a special means of measuring the "reality" of phenomena against its various criteria, resulting in a valid body of knowledge - one that, in a sense, contains and creates the perspectives from which inquiry proceeds. Therefore, in order to expand the explanatory range of biology, researchers must broaden their vocabulary of acceptable data and, consequently, their arsenal of methods. This is to say, the resolution of these questions may require no less than a redefinition of observable reality itself and the nature of science as a tool for exploring that reality.

A natural place to start such an undertaking is with the burgeoning meta-approach of AQAL theory (one of several proposed "integral" theories, so named for their comprehensive consideration of previously disparate fields of knowledge).[2] In his reformation of science as a whole to reflect the multi-disciplinary essence of AQAL, Koller writes that any truly integral science must integrate "vertically" - that is, it must synthesize the perspectives of sciences from all points along the continuum of complexity - from physics, through chemistry, biology and ecology, to cosmology, and everywhere in between. It must also integrate "horizontally" - that is, it must honor data domains and methodologies that privilege interiors (experiences and cultures) as well as those that privilege exteriors (behaviors and systems) (Koller 2006a, p. 3). In AQAL parlance, an integral biology must honor not only all levels of organization,[3] but also explore the four quadrants - the four domains of any occasion - as valid aspects of every living process.[4] This means utilizing not only the data produced by, but also the methods available to, every discipline constellated around the idea of "living systems" (Koller 2006b, p. 3).

Within each quadrant and across all levels, an AQAL biology must also acknowledge the incredible diversity of lines along which development and evolution proceed. It must also differentiate between the many types of phenomena and their correlative states. The inclusion of these five irreducible elements of any occasion (levels, quadrants, lines, types, and states) is a minimal standard against which an integral biology can be compared. Any failure to do - any attempt to explain all of reality as the epiphenomenon of a single specific domain, vertical or horizontal - inevitably and inappropriately restricts the means available to science. This paper is a preliminary application of three of these basic distinctions - quadrants, levels, and types - to biology, identifying the ways in which they might clarify and help resolve its big questions.


The four quadrants represent not only exclusive "data domains" of an occassion, but also distinct lenses (or quadrivia) through which any such domain can be investigated. Applying each quadrivium to each quadrant's domain creates a matrix of the basic, irreducible "modes of knowing" that can be included in an integral biology. Sean Esbjörn-Hargens (2005, p. 27) has identified eight such modes:

A first-person perspective, when applied to:

  • the first-person singular domain is Phenomenology.
  • the first-person plural domain is Hermeneutics.
  • the third-person singular domain is Cognitive Science.
  • the third-person plural domain is Social Autopoiesis.

A third-person perspective, when applied to:

  • the first-person singular domain is Structuralism.
  • the first-person plural domain is Ethnomethodology.
  • the third-person singular domain is Empiricism.
  • the third-person plural domain is Systems Theory.

Although all of these appear in one form of biology or another,[5] no discipline presently recognizes the legitimacy of all others. In spite of a century of hints from fields as disparate as psychology and physics that life is as much a process of mind as it is one of matter, contemporary biology remains a largely empirical affair. Evolutionary scientists study interiors indirectly (sexual selection, cultural evolution, evolutionary neuropsychology) but most of them refuse the consideration of consciousness as anything but a material epiphenomenon - one so ill-defined and experimentally elusive, it fails to merit study. It is a disconcertingly rare breed of biologist who even acknowledges the significance of how interior changes are inter-causally related to behavioral and systemic changes - and thus how culture at all levels, as well as individual experience, drive evolution just as much as exterior form and relationship. Recent work by Martin Nowak and Natalia Komarova has yielded mathematical models that describe the emergence of syntactic language (and possibly every complex system) as the result of an interplay between the world an organism perceives, its form and behavior, and its cultural and eco-social contexts - in other words, between the four quadrants (Nowak & Komarova, 2001, p. 288). Although their work applies only a single methodology to the phenomenon of evolution, it strongly indicates that evolutionary processes are the product of a complex nonlinear interaction to which no single discipline has total access. In other words, biology must move from its typical stance of suspicious heterophenomenology to embrace those modes of knowing that consciously acknowledge and study the importance of interiors in evolution. This demands an expansion of the term "biology" to include the irreducible study of the inner life; evolution is a process of variation and selection that operates on and with experiential and cultural units as well as physiological ones. This has already tentatively begun, with biology's inclusion of the "meme" - Richard Dawkins' word for a unit of cultural selection, akin to the gene. However, to date few formal studies of evolution via the meme have been done - and none that incorporate both first-person and third-person methodologies.[6]

It is worth noting, before moving on, that this integration provides the framework for a proper conception of scientific knowledge itself - one that recognizes the passage of data from grounding in intuitive immediacy, through intersubjective validation, into concretion as objective theory - resolving difficult philosophical issues about the ontological nature of reality and the relationship between ideal and pragmatic knowledge (Depraz, Varela, & Vermersch, 2003, p. 85).[7]


Levels of organization seem doubly afflicted in biology. On the one hand, the emergent properties of order at different scales are widely acknowledged but there is disagreement over which level is the "correct" perspective from which to understand the rest; on the other hand, there is tremendous confusion about the metaphysical reality of levels themselves that has seriously disrupted any rational dialogue about directionality in evolution. These two afflictions are presented below, along with how a first-sweep re-evaluation by integral theory might resolve them.

The first affliction has resulted in a long-raging debate between various camps within biology, each of which insists that evolution works primarily at a different specific level of organization.[8] Charles Darwin's identification of the individual organism as the unit of selection has come under fire in recent years, following Dawkins' cogent argument that selection operates on the gene itself (Dawkins, 2006).[9] The opposition of these views seems to say more about the biases of the investigators than about any objective reality, and should thus be regarded are nonexclusive and complimentary until proven otherwise. Complexity theory already deals with vertical inter-causation; the mature translation of this to biology would be the study of how each level has, as one of its emergent properties, a unique unit of variation and selection. This yields a more flexible and informative science, one that holds a broader context in which the influences of various selection pressures across levels can be studied simultaneously rather than attempting to squeeze the "how" of the entire universe into one particular stratum.

Again, a rigorous multi-perspectival approach demands that biologists redefine "life" and "evolution" to include a wider range of phenomena - because self-organization, intelligence, inheritance, and other characteristics commonly associated exclusively with "organisms" are present in both "pre-biotic" and "trans-biotic" systems (Deacon & Sherman, 2006, p. 1). In fact, all of the qualities used to describe a living system by some of the principal cyberneticists work equally well with viruses, evolving computer programs, and possibly even the entire universe - all of which can be described as "dynamic organizations of intelligent information expressed in energy and matter" (Miller, 1978, page unknown). Failure to recognize a commonality of process across levels in this way continues to be a major obstacle for biology; even the most venerable modern evolutionary biologists, such as Edward O. Wiley (the father of the evolutionary species concept), hit a brick wall when attempting to understand the origin of life because they refuse to accept the possibility of variation and inheritance in systems too simple for a genome (E.O. Wiley, personal communication, 2006). AQAL biology has no such difficulty; it does not see a universe in which life's very existence is a challenge to reason, but a universe that is itself, in some fundamental sense, alive.

Developing such a conception of nonlinear causation across levels would dissolve one of biology's enduring disputes, between gradualists and catastrophists (evolution occurs over time vs. evolution occurs in rapid bursts).[10] Both the fossil record and developmental evolutionary biology of extant organisms yield myriad examples of both rapid, dramatic evolution and incremental, creeping evolution; campaigning for the one true mode is, in light of the evidence, a parody of the empiricism to which so many modern biologists merely pretend.

To be fair, most biologists are specialists, only superficially literate in chaos theory's revelations of the universe's fractal structure and how sensitivity to initial conditions can make two events at the same level create effects that "flow" upward and manifest at totally different scales. One gene mutation might lead nowhere, and another might totally redesign the limbs of the organism - it is a matter of context. What appears gradual at one level can appear catastrophic at another, and vice versa. Vastly more useful models of evolution will emerge once there has been significant progress in the theory of how different levels of organization are vertically intermeshed - a worthy challenge for integral biology.

The second affliction can be seen most strongly in the debate between those who insist that evolution is a directed march to higher order, and those who insist that evolution lacks any teleology. The latter conviction, that any directionality scientists might see is a tautological artifact of retrospection, is in part a reactive move; the highly contentious notion of evolution's trend towards greater complexity is out of favor due to its history of being co-opted to rationalize moral atrocity.[11] This is also a consequence of confusion; many biologists insist that there is no satisfying universal definition of complexity, and so such discussions are moot. For those whose definition of "complexity" is vaguely correlated with the gross number of an organism's traits, teleological evolution is refuted by overwhelming statistical evidence that indicates as great a trend towards "lower," simpler organisms.

A frequent rebuttal is that the rarity of any advanced structure can be explained by noting the inverse relationship between depth and span - that the development of a trait increases in inverse proportion to its incidence within a given population. However, this does not address the apparent evidence of trends toward disorder; nor does it, being a rule of ontology, necessarily hold true for the phylogenetic world of Neo-Darwinian evolution.

This may be the central confusion dominating the argument over evolution's directionality. In the words of notorious evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould, and contrary to the convictions of several prominent integral theorists, "ontogeny does not recapitulate phylogeny" (Gould, 1978, page unknown). Whether this means the two actually operate in accordance with different principles is, however, a separate question.

In spite of their insistence that development and evolution are separate processes, biologists tend to regard both categorical groupings, like taxonomies, and developmental hierarchies as equally "real." Both of them are organized along continua of increasing inclusivity; but the first kind of hierarchy describes an evolutionary series in which each iteration replaces the last, while the second kind of hierarchy describes a process of development via differentiation and inclusion. The first is phylogenetic - the increasing inclusion is abstract, a part of the description, occurring in theoretical space at a right angle to time. The second is ontological - the increasing inclusion is what is being described; it can be watched through a microscope. That is a big difference. The question is not ultimately whether ontology recapitulates phylogeny, but whether phylogeny recapitulates ontology.

Answering this question requires that a further distinction be made between translative adaptations at a particular level, and transformative adaptations between levels. Integral theory has less trouble with level conceptions than traditional scientific models, because it embraces both quantitative and qualitative distinctions; according to AQAL, levels are qualitative phenomena. The statistical evidence leveraged against teleological evolution no longer holds up under this distinction, because the majority of variation is translative and not transformative - the quantification of complexity requires that another axis be added to the graph. Thusly defined, homeobox mutations that alter the number of cell divisions during embryonic development result in adaptations that are merely translative (even if they radically alter function, such as those responsible for the evolution of the tetrapod limb from the ray fin of Teleost fish). Transformative adaptations, then, would be only those that result in a dramatic integration of the organism as a building block of a new and "higher" agent, a new unit of selection. One such transformation would be the evolution of sociality in Class Insecta.

Technically, even transformative adaptations can be described as the consequences of quantitative developmental change, in the same way that red is qualitatively different from yellow and the difference can be described as one of wavelength. These are mutually informative modes of inquiry, belonging to separate quadrivia.[12] The difference between qualitative and quantitative change is evolution is not a matter of scale, but whether the adaptation "merely" changes the topology of the organism's parts, or whether, in so doing, it actually shifts the locus of individual experience and behavior "upward" into a more inclusive system. Transformative evolution modifies an organism's in such a way that it becomes - to use a linguistic metaphor - just a part of speech in a new syntactic language.

If, as Ken Wilber defines it, evolution's directional thrust is not translative but transformative, "the production of ever-higher unities," then there does in fact appear to be an average movement in this direction over the history of life (Wilber, 1980, p. 117). The pursuit of unexploited niches has unequivocally driven an increase in the diversity of organisms - and increasingly complex environments select for organisms capable of navigating them.[13]


Biology has already thrown up its hands against the insurmountable difficulty of trying to find a universally-applicable species concept; there currently exist over twenty working definitions of what constitutes a species, each more or less useful, depending on the focus of study. In the same way that biologists are often wont to explain away consciousness as a human-specific emergent material property, the postmodern truth implied by this inability to find a single ultimate species concept seems to have gone unseen. Biologists, like everyone else, hold their theories dearly - even when they are acutely aware that such abstractions are only a pale imitation of nature itself, they still tend to argue that one perspective can be absolutely better than the rest. Once they grow more comfortable as a whole with fluidly applying their taxonomies and other typologies where appropriate and spend less time bickering over who has the most accurate classification, its applicability with grow a hundredfold.

However, because biologists regularly deal with multiple typologies, this is one area in which an AQAL renovation might be relatively easy. Systematists already turn their habitual categorization upon themselves. There are two kinds, supposedly: the "splitters," who have a penchant for seeing multiple clades where others see only one; and the "lumpers," who usually focus on the similarities between organisms and try to streamline taxonomies. The lumpers typically see the splitters as more interested in the honor of naming than in accurately reflecting "real" natural distinctions; the splitters accuse the lumpers of simplifying a complex reality beyond the point of usefulness. Some of the "elders" recognize scientists of a third type, one that understands the relativity of both positions, but note that even these unusually level-headed individuals tend towards one behavior or the other (Linda Trueb, personal communication, 2006).[14]

This primitive classification has the potential to bloom into a mature meta-typology, one that puts the theory in the context of the theorist. Identifying a researcher's personality type would help properly identifying the epistemology and practical significance of their classifications and methods - ultimately alleviating much of the current intra-disciplinary quarreling.[15] With a meta-taxonomy of taxonomies and the methodologies used to obtain them, biology could turn its eye to how they might best be used.

This new level of organization is important on an even more personal scale. Knowing how a particular student of biology operates might be just as important as knowing their personal interests, insofar as it contributes to helping him find his place in academia - to elucidate how best he might perform useful and satisfying work in his field of choice.

Lastly, evolutionary biology might be able to refine integral theory by offering the fruits of its vast inquiry into the nature of the "individual." AQAL currently distinguishes two types of occasions - individual and social - but individuals are nebulously defined according to the degree to which they are centrally organized and experienced. Until there is consensus over whether such a thing as a discrete, agentic individual can even be said to exist, any debate over the existence of collective consciousness, the self-awareness of Gaia, et cetera, is exceedingly pointless.

The title of this paper refers to the evolution of an integral biology; however, the word "evolution" is only partially suitable for describing the science's incipient re-imagination. AQAL's gift to biology is not its replacement with a fitter descendent - not a translative evolution - but an expansion of both its range of inquiry and the toolbox of available perspectives from which it can conduct that inquiry. It is the progressive development of a new science of life that finds a place for all sciences of life - a transformative evolution, a move towards a more "mature" science. It is a qualitative shift towards a pursuit of knowledge that, in its acceptance of all available evidence and methods, may finally come to a satisfying position on the questions that currently so confound it.

Works Cited

Caldwell, Roy, and Lindberg, David R, principal investigators. (2006). The big issues, in Understanding evolution: Your one-stop source for information on evolution. Retrieved 14 December 2006, from University of California, Berkeley web site:

Dawkins, Richard. (2006). The selfish gene (30th anniversary edition). New York: Oxford University Press.

Deacon, Terrence, & Sherman, Jeremy. (2006). Autocell: A constructive co-dependent solution to origins of life. Unpublished manuscript.

Depraz, Natalie, & Varela, Francisco, & Vermersch, Pierre. (2003). On becoming aware: a pragmatics of experiencing. Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company.

Esbjörn-Hargens, Sean. (2006). Integral ecology: A post-metaphysical approach to environmental phenomena, in AQAL: Journal of integral theory and practice, Vol. 1, No. 1. Spring 2005.

Gould, Stephen Jay. (1977). Ontogeny and Phylogeny. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Koller, Kurt. (2006). An introduction to integral science, in AQAL: Journal of integral theory and practice, Vol. 1, No. 2. Summer 2006.

Koller, Kurt. (2006). Architecture of an integral science, in AQAL: Journal of integral theory and practice, Vol. 1, No. 3. Fall 2006.

Miller, James Grier. (1978). Living systems. New York: McGraw Hill.

Nowak, Martin A., & Natalia L. Komarova. (2001). Towards an evolutionary theory of language, in Trends in cognitive sciences, Volume 5 Number 7. pp 288-295.

Wilber, Ken. (1986). The atman project: A transpersonal view of human development. Wheaton, Illinois: The Theosophical Publishing House.


[1] For this reason, and because no aspect of biology can legitimately be analyzed without respect to its origin and role in evolution, the term "biology" will often be used in this paper to mean "evolutionary biology" and even "the study of evolutionary dynamics."

[2] The terms "AQAL" and "integral," while not equivalent, will be used interchangeably for the purposes of this paper.

[3] Scientists and non-scientists alike often use the terms "development" and "evolution" interchangeably, in spite of the fact that nearly all evolutionary biologists recognize them as two qualitatively distinct processes. This conflation of ontogeny and phylogeny has severely confused the already heated discussion about the hypothetical given-ness of organizational structures - and tends toward a teleological zealotry that has crippled the reputability of more than one otherwise-credible institution.

[4] The four quadrants represent the individual and collective aspects of both the interiors and exteriors of an occasion; they are loosely correlated with the universally-adopted linguistic perspectives. The Upper Left (UL) and Lower Left (LL) quadrants describe occasions in first-person singular and plural ("I" and "we" - experiences and cultures), respectively. Third-person singular and plural aspects of an occasion ("it" and "its" - behaviors and systems) are likewise addressed by the Upper Right (UR) and Lower Right (LR) quadrants.

[5] There is much work to be done, for example, in the fields of biosemiotics and sensory ecology - which study how organisms exchange information through signs and the sensory adaptations of organism to their environment, respectively - and discerning what they might have to say about the process of evolution itself (Esbjörn-Hargens, personal communication, 2006).

[6] There is the chance that such work exists and has not yet percolated through the journals; but with academia as splintered as it is, the search for any such integrative research has, thus far, been futile.

[7] Figuring this out would go a long way to resolving problems in biology with some of AQAL's other elements - specifically, as mentioned below, the tendency to absolutize one theoretical model or the causal influence of one level of organization.

[8] The concept of levels itself is less contentious in this debate, because here it is a static categorization. The identity of each level is in some sense immutable; genes do not evolve into individual they?

[9] Notice that neither side insists that its unit of selection is the "only," merely the "primary" - simultaneously acknowledging and dismissing the priority and relevance of the complimentary perspective. Typical.

[10] This is not a purely polar argument; there are a number of alternate (but equally absolutist) models, such as Gould and Eldredge's theory of punctuated equilibrium.

[11] Never mind that this kind of voodoo is structurally equivalent to denying the existence of nuclear energy because it can be used to build a bomb.

[12] The point is, because any occasion has correlates in all four quadrants, there is no process or principle in evolution that is inaccessible to the UR and LR - just aspects of those processes. Thus, when Ken Wilber argues that a transcendent erotic principle is necessary to bandage biology's inability to explain evolution in its own terms, he is basically saying that biology can never meet its own validity claims. If this interpretation of Wilber is correct, his argument is a subtle reduction to the left-hand quadrants in strict opposition to his own meta-theoretical edifice.

[13] As a last word on the subject, the issue of directionality could also possibly be resolved by resorting to the traditional distinction between so-defined neg-entropic process of evolution and entropic process of involution; it all hinges on whether the universe is an open system, for which self-organization or self-dissolution would only exist relative to the observer and arguments over the directionality of evolution would be rendered moot by proper contextualization. At any rate, an AQAL biology must be able to study life as a process that moves through all regions of the phase space - evolution as a directional process, to be sure, but an omni-directional one

[14] The evidence therefore suggests a useful binary typology that evolves across levels - an interesting question might be how splitters and lumpers organize their experience (and create their formal theoretical classifications) at various levels of psychological development. Because each level is able to operate on its antecessors, one would expect to see systematists at (for example) Robert Kegan's 3rd, 4th, and 5th orders to create radically different taxonomies.

[15] Although, to pay the dialectic of progress its due, this would inevitably result in a whole new level of quarreling about how various personality typologies are used to classify a researcher and his phylogenetic hypothesis. Given their fond familiarity with the concrete, scientists are understandably uncomfortable about formalizing such introspection.

Comment Form is loading comments...