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Don Salmon and Jan MaslowDon Salmon, a clinical psychologist and composer, received a grant from the Infinity Foundation to write a comprehensive study of yoga psychology based on the synthesis of the yoga tradition presented by 20th century Indian philosopher-sage Aurobindo Ghose. Jan Maslow, an educator and organizational consultant, has, with Dr. Salmon, given presentations, classes and workshops in the United States and India on this topic. Both have been studying yoga psychology for more than 25 years.

Ken Wilber's
Evolutionary View
Gets a Trim with
Ockham's Razor

PART I: The Question of Direction
in the Evolution of Consciousness

Don Salmon

Several writers in the world of Integral World have contributed criticisms of Ken Wilber's views on evolution, variously referring to these views as "creativism", as "a new form of creationism," or as just plain pseudo-scientific nonsense.

I'd like to offer some perspectives on the evolution of consciousness that do not—as far as I'm aware—conflict in any way with the mainstream scientific notions of evolution. However, they do, I think, suggest another way of looking at evolution.

Most of this article consists of excerpts from a book that Jan (my wife) and I wrote, "Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness: Seeing Through the Eyes of Infinity." I've added some commentary to make it more relevant to the questions about evolution that have come up on this forum.

For those interested in exploring more on this topic, our major sources for information on the evolution of consciousness were: neuropsychologist Merlin Donald (particularly his "A Mind So Rare"), anthropologist Jeremy Narby, neuroscientist J. Alan Hobson, and zoologist Donald Griffin. Andy Smith also has an extremely detailed account of the evolution of plant and animal consciousness in his book, "The Dimensions of Experience."


"Evolutionary history shows an overall trend toward greater complexity, responsiveness and awareness.
—Ian Barbour

The evolution of consciousness—up to and beyond human consciousness—is the main theme of our book. When I started doing research for the book, one of my first goals was to explore the controversy about direction in evolution. My main knowledge of this area came from reading Stephen J. Gould, who I had thought was thoroughly dismissive of the idea. I assumed that Gould's attitude was shared by most evolutionary biologist, and in fact, I found it very difficult to find respected biologists who felt that the scientific data pointed to some kind of evolutionary direction.

The best I could find at the time (this was around 2002 and 2003) were the two following quotations: Ian Barbour, a physicist and religious scholar, wrote in his book, "Science and Religion", "Evolutionary history shows an overall trend toward greater complexity, responsiveness and awareness. The capacity of organisms to gather, store and process information has steadily increased." And neuroscientist J. Allan Hobson wrote the following in the Scientific American book,"Consciousness": "Consciousness is graded across evolutionary time, over the course of development, and even continuously from moment to moment."

Hobson's statement was particularly fascinating, as it seemed to me to point toward what might be called the "fractal" nature of consciousness. As I continued research for the book, I found that this macrocosmic/microcosmic nature of the evolution of consciousness—over billions of years, over a life time, and in each moment—was so significant, it became the basis for our book (it's also hinted at in Don DeGracia's "Beyond the Physical", which I'm writing about in the Integral World forum).

Several months ago, when I decided to write an article about the evolution of consciousness for Integral World, I was surprised—no, astonished—to find that the whole idea of evolutionary direction as controversial seems to have shifted. Before getting to the passages from our yoga psychology book, I want to offer you a reference and several passages which quite shocked me when I came across them.

The reference is Andy Smith's Integral World article, "The Dimensions of Experience." If you want to look further, you should purchase Andy's book, "The Dimensions of Experience" (available on Amazon), which has an amazing wealth of detail regarding animal (and plant!) consciousness.

But I also found, to my surprise, that Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and—yes! - Stephen J. Gould, have also given a "thumbs up" to the idea of direction in evolution (while of course passionately disavowing even the slightest implication that this suggests any kind of purpose). I offer the following quotations, followed by a section from our yoga psychology book on the question of direction in evolution:


Here is a grudging acknowledgment of some kind of direction in evolution from none other than Mr. Gould himself. Robert Wright writes that,

"You might think that when he says progress is not a general evolutionary trend, he is saying that evolution doesn't tend to produce more and more complex forms of life over time. But he isn't. He concedes that the outer envelope of organic complexity may tend to rise—that 'the most complex creature may increase in elaboration through time.' Nor is he saying that the average complexity of all species shows no trend. 'Life's mean complexity may have increased,' he allows."


Biologist Arthur Peacock writes:

"The evolutionary process is characterized by propensities toward increase in complexity, information processing and storage ... .'


Michael Waldrop, in his book, "Complexity" (pg. 296), writes: "I don't believe in nihilism... the idea that nothing is better than anything else... I do think you can talk meaningfully about progress... You see an overall trend toward increasing sophistication, complexity, and functionality. ... As elusive as it is, this overall trend toward increasing 'quality' of evolutionary design is one of the most fascinating and profound clues as to what life is all about."

Again on pg. 294 of the same book, he discusses the notion of a possible "new" law of evolution that should address "the deceptively simple fact that evolution is constantly coming up with things that are more complicated, more sophisticated, more structured than the ones that came before. ... Learning and evolution move agents... in the direction of greater and greater complexity. Why?"


Here is a dialogue between Robert Wright and Daniel Dennett:

Wright: "So, I'm just saying that to the extent—I think we've agreed that observing, what is it, I guess `ontogeny' is the term, you know, the development of an organism, that it has its directional movement toward functionality by design, and that's in fact a hallmark of design. Would you agree that to the extent that evolution on this planet turned out to have comparable properties, that would work at least to some extent in favor of the hypothesis of design—to some extent, to any extent?"

Dennett: "Ummm, Yeah, I guess. Yeah. Yeah. [Dennett later said it was incorrect to interpret his answer as suggesting he supported any idea remotiely resembling 'intelligent design']

Wright [after describing ontogeny, i.e. the maturation of an organism]: "I would submit that if you step back and observe life on this planet in time lapse, including not just the evolution of human beings, but the cultural--including technological--evolution that led to where we are today, the process would look remarkably like that. And in fact you yourself in your most recent book, Freedom Evolves, you say--there's a sentence something like, `The planet is growing its own nervous system, us.' And it's true—it looks like that."

Dennett: Yeah, absolutely.

Wright: "And there is a functionality about it"

Dennett: Yeah, yeah.

Wright: "And you agree there's been a directionality about it"

Dennett: Yes.


And finally, our good friend, the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, from his book, "The Ancestor's Tale":

"...I have long wondered whether the hectoring orthodoxy of contingency might have gone too far. My review of Gould's Full House (reprinted in A Devil's Chaplain) defended the popular notion of progress in evolution: not progress towards humanity—Darwin forfend!—but progress in directions that are at least predictable enough to justify the word. As I shall argue in a moment, the cumulative build-up of complex adaptations like eyes strongly suggest a version of progress—especially when coupled in imagination with of the wonderful products of convergent evolution."


From "Yoga Psychology and the Transformation of Consciousness: Seeing Through the Eyes of Infinity:

Here is the initial section on the evolution of consciousness. First, we briefly discuss the controversy. Next, we make a suggestion regarding a framework for the idea that consciousness becomes more complex.

Some may be reluctant to consider the possibility that the activity of such primitive organisms reflects any kind of conscious intelligence. If, however, one is willing to concede that a shrub or slime mold possesses some form of intelligence, it seems hard to dispute that it is probably less complex than that of a snowy owl or a South American sea lion. Nevertheless, the idea that consciousness has somehow grown in complexity over the course of evolution continues to be very controversial.

Does Consciousness Become More Complex Over the Course of Evolution?

Some scientists who dispute the notion of a hierarchy of consciousness suggest that adaptability should be the main measure of intelligence. According to this line of thought, a frog's intelligence is no less than a human's, since a frog's intelligence helps it adapt to its environment equally as well as our human intelligence helps us adapt to ours. Such scientists might suggest, for example, that human beings would be hard-pressed to live on lily-pads and subsist on a diet of whatever flies we could catch with our tongues. But is adaptability the same as intelligence? Neuropsychologist Merlin Donald points out that if we use the criterion of adaptability, one might say "corporate CEO's are no more or less intelligent in an adaptive biological sense than, say, maggots, a conclusion that may have a certain emotional resonance for many, but falls a bit short on the evidence."

There is another, more powerful reason for resistance to the idea that consciousness has become more complex. Many scientists are concerned that even the suggestion of some kind of directionality in evolution might open a door through which religious dogma could enter and distort their objective findings. However, as we see from the work of those like biologists Anthony Trewavas and Toshiyuki Nakagaki, it is possible to pursue these questions in a rigorous scientific manner.

Some who object to the idea of directionality suggest that if we look at the course of evolution over several thousand or even several million years, it appears as though changes in intelligence have occurred in many directions rather than as a straightforward increase in complexity. However, physicist and theologian Ian Barbour suggests that if we take the long view, "evolutionary history shows an overall trend toward greater complexity, responsiveness and awareness. The capacity of organisms to gather, store and process information has steadily increased."

Recent studies in developmental psychology and cognitive neuroscience have shown that there is a remarkable parallel between the increasing complexity of consciousness over the course of evolution and the way in which it unfolds over shorter timeframes. As Harvard neuroscientist J. Allan Hobson describes it, "Consciousness is graded across evolutionary time, over the course of development, and even continuously from moment to moment." Hobson himself has described the emerging complexity of consciousness over the time span of billions of years. Developmental psychologists such as Susan Harter and John Flavell have tracked a similar emergence over the course of a human lifetime. Francisco Varela, Brian Lancaster and other cognitive neuroscientists suggest that a comparable progression of consciousness unfolds in each moment of human experience.


In this chapter, we're using the word "consciousness" to include both subjective experience and intelligence.

There is a wide range of positions amongst scientists regarding the nature of consciousness. For example, some, like biologists Anthony Trewavas and Toshiyuki Nakagaki, who see evidence of the workings of intelligence in one-celled organisms, might not see this as evidence that a paramecium or pomegranate has any kind of subjective experience (i.e., feelings). On the other hand, there are some (e.g., psychologist Harry Hunt) who believe there is evidence for subjectivity even in primitive organisms. There are very few who would assert that either intelligence or subjective experience is anything more than a complex working of matter. In this chapter, we're using the word "consciousness" to include both subjective experience and intelligence. For now, the term is intended to be entirely neutral with regard to whether or not consciousness can be explained as a purely material phenomenon. [in other words, in the early section of the book, we are presenting the evolution of consciousness in terms acceptable within the current physicalist framework; later, we present the same data within the context of vast non-physical planes of consciousness].

In the sections that follow, we will describe what science has discovered about the increasing complexity of consciousness as it unfolds over these three different time frames. We will do this in terms of three categories—knowing (cognition), feeling (affect) and willing (volition). Many centuries ago, Aristotle used these categories to encompass the full range of conscious activities. While many ways of describing consciousness have since been developed, cognitive scientists continue to use a framework which is essentially the same as the one used by Aristotle. For the present, we'll define knowing as the capacity for registering and (to a lesser or greater degree) comprehending distinctions in the environment; feeling as the largely physiological responses that accompany acts of knowing and willing; and willing as the active response to what is known and felt. [again,"knowing, willing and feeling" are initially defined in ways we thought would be acceptable to the physicalist; later in the book, they will be presented in the light of a different way of knowing].

In the 18th century, the philosopher Immanuel Kant declared "knowing, willing and feeling" to be the fundamental components of the mind. Philosopher Charles Pierce, following Kant, described the "triad" of knowing, willing and feeling in psychology. After several decades of narrowly focusing on cognition, neuroscientists have come to see that, in addition to cognitive science, there is a need for a "volitional" and "affective" neuroscience—in other words, knowing, willing, and feeling.

It is important to keep in mind as we present the scientific evidence of the increasing complexity of consciousness, that it is all based upon speculation derived from observation of external behavior and, in some cases, similarities between human and animal brain structure or function. Scientists have had no direct experience of the consciousness of these creatures (or, if they do, they don't acknowledge it in mainstream academic journals).


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