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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Author of Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.

Looking For
the Grand Sequence

An Integrally-Informed Review
of Tyler Volk's "Quarks to Culture"

Frank Visser

While not aiming for a Theory of Everything Volk does provide a scientifically believable reconstruction of "how we came to be".

Through a Big History related Twitter feed I was recently made aware of the book Quarks to Culture: How We Came to Be by environmental biologist Tyler Volk.[1] It was not only the catchy title that attracted my attention, but also the fact that I have been writing on the interface of Integral Theory and Big History for several years. In my opinion both approaches are in some way complementary, for where Big History has a much more solid grounding in the hard sciences of physics and biology, Integral Theory makes explicit room for interiority and consciousness (i.e. the social sciences and spirituality), and aims to correct perceived shortcomings in the extant holistic models that present "levels of existence", often in a hierarchy moving upwards from the smallest/lowest dimensions to the largest/highest. Tyler's book title seemed to encompass both the exterior (subatomic particles) and interior (culture) dimensions of existence, so this naturally piqued my interest.

“Then Cool Things Unfolded”

Checking out Volk's profile on the internet and the reception of this particular book, I discovered just last month it had received a favorable review in Science—no less:

Tyler Volk, Quarks to Culture
Available from the publisher at 30%
discount (use QUARK as couponcode)
The value of Tyler Volk’s Quarks to Culture is evident when the book is placed against popular histories of the universe, dozens of which have provided evidence for an immense cosmic past. But such histories are often anecdotal, like early British histories of the kings of England. Unlike these works, Volk artfully presents the case for structural continuity and systematic creativity across 13.8 billion years of cosmic history….

A recent emphasis on “big history,” which ranges over similar territory, is recast as “grand sequence” in Quarks to Culture—a term that bypasses the march of events in order to highlight the mystery of temporal change as the fundamental reality. Volk skips the usual rehearsal of geological eras, land colonization, continental drift, and dinosaur extinction, focusing instead on the big picture. In doing so, he manages to frame a complex welter of multidisciplinary information as a “narrative of the universe” that is creative and compelling.[2]

A brief interview with the author by science journalist John Horgan can be found in Scientific American in his Cross-Check column.[3] From which:

I started work on a follow-up book to my earlier Metapatterns Across Space, Time & Mind I soon realized I needed to better understand the metapattern of things-and-relations-in-systems as a primary challenge, or master metapattern, and then realized that going down into the nested systems of one’s biological body is a way of diving back in time in terms of the origins of types (examples: cells as types originated before the animal body, molecules as types originated before cells). This chain of realizations fired up a question that triggered an inquiry and eventually the book: Could I count fundamental levels of types of things? All I had to do was answer that. Then cool findings unfolded.

In his previous book Metapatterns Across Space, Time & Mind (1995) Volk even used the term "holon", which features prominently in Ken Wilber's main work Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995), usually referred to as SES—which was published in the same year. On Amazon, the term "integral" was used in the book description: "This is new epistemology, a radical approach to natural philosophy, and an invitation to become a citizen in a coherent and integral universe. It will inaugurate a whole new way of seeing, for the metapatterns burst with applications to reinvent the way we perceive and to enlarge the shorelines of our wonder."


In SES Wilber had presented a strong critique of holistic models, which were often inspired by systems theory and complexity science, that did only take the exterior dimensions into account and "constructed holistic sequences based on size" (p. 58). In Wilber's opinion, this could only lead to "ontological disasters", in that they confuse and conflate individual and social holons. More specifically, Wilber raised two major objections: that these models more often than not see society as the highest stage above the individual human being, or something like Gaia or the biosphere as such. Instead, he argued that every stage or level has a collective or social component, leading to individual and social holons, and that the biosphere is actually a rather low collective level (Gaia), corresponding to the level of the prokaryotes (bacteria).[5]

This is not to say that Wilber's proposals and interpretations have gone uncontested. The holarchical model has been strongly criticized by authors on Integral World since 2000 (nicely summarized in a monograph on Wilber by Jeff Meyerhoff.[6]). Another larger issue is the question, what actually drives this whole show of the complexification of matter, life and mind/culture? Though Wilber's treatment in SES claims to be non-metaphysical ("there is nothing metaphysical or occult about it"), the subtitle of this work "The Spirit of Evolution" tells a different story. Wilber believes that naturalistic science alone cannot explain the emergence of complexity. For this reason he introduces "Eros" or "creativity" (following A.N. Whitehead) as fundamental categories. Against the reductionistic picture of science that "the universe is winding down" (leaving the rise of complexity supposedly unexplained), he postulates a spiritual force by which "the universe is winding up". On the first page of the first chapter he states:

"Whatever this process of [cosmic, biological and cultural] evolution was, it seems to have been incredibly driven—from matter to life to mind." (p. 3).

In later works he would picture evolution plainly as "Spirit-in-action". And in his last work The Religion of Tomorrow (2017) he explicitly claims that evolutionary processes are driven (or pulled) by Spirit, in a cosmic drama of involution and evolution.

Obviously, affinities and similarities (and differences) between the approaches of Wilber and Volk would be worthy of further clarification. Would Volk's model commit such types of reductionism as analyzed and criticized by Wilber? And would Volk perhaps have a different view on what makes the universe tick? Being a biologist, his model exhibits more biological sensitivity—something conspicuously absent from Wilber's writings, as documented on Integral World—not least of all by me.[7]


Let's start by introducing the hierarchical levels as they feature in Volk's model. They are familiar enough from other holistic models, which usually range from atoms, molecules and cells all the way to entities "larger than us", in this case: geopolitical states:

Table 1: The Grand Sequence (Tyler Volk)
12. Geopolitical states
11. Agrovillages
10. Tribal metagroups
9. Animal social groups
8. Complex multicellular organisms
7. Eukaryotic cells
6. Prokaryotic cells
5. Molecules
4. Atoms
3. Atomic nuclei
2. Nucleons: protons and neutrons
1. Fundamental quanta

In Wilber's understanding, this model shows a conflation of individual (levels 1-8) and social entities (levels 9-12). Where atoms, molecules, cells are distinct entities with clear boundaries, animal and human groups are of a different order. As Volk admits, the boundaries of animal groups are more "fuzzy" than those of individual organisms (p. 121-122). He almost sounds disappointed that complex beings cannot physically merge... (he mentions insects such as ants as an example of this evolutionary impossibility—but also points to certain marine animals which seem to have found ways to do exactly that). This "conflation", however, is easily remedied if we move the upper levels of Volk's model to the "social" column and fill in the empty cells with corresponding values (in bold type):

Table 2: The Grand Sequence (Rearranged)
12. City-Dweller 12. Geopolitical states
11. Farmers 11. Agrovillages
10. Hunters and gatherers 10. Tribal metagroups
9. Animals 9. Animal social groups
8. Complex multicellular organisms 8. Communities of multicellular organisms
7. Eukaryotic cells 7. Communities of Eukaryotic cells
6. Prokaryotic cells 6. Communities of Prokaryotic cells
5. Molecules 5. Groups of Molecules
4. Atoms 4. Groups of Atoms
3. Atomic nuclei 3. Groups of Atomic nuclei
2. Nucleons: protons/neutron 2. Groups of Nucleons
1. Fundamental quanta 1. Groups of Fundamental quanta

What is more, Wilber is aware of the ultimate arbitrariness of the distinction between individual and social:

This distinction between an individual holon and its social holon (environment) is not as easy to draw as it may appear, however, because it's almost impossible to define what we mean by an individual in the first place. The word itself, from the Latin individualis, means not divisible or not separable; by that definition, there are no individuals anywhere in the Kosmos. There are only holons, or dividuals. (SES, p. 64)
In other words, even though an "individual holon" exists inseparable from its social environment, its defining factor is its own particular form or pattern. To the degree that we can reasonably recognize that pattern, we will refer to an individual holon. Its environment we will call the social holon. (SES, p. 65)

When atoms combine into molecules, creating new relations and realities in the process, and individual organisms combine into groups and societies—what's the essential difference? Wilber objects to the notion that collectives and societies, or biospheric Gaia, are somehow "higher stages" we "ultimately belong to". According to Wilber, where atoms are parts of molecules, human beings are members of society.

That aside, the distinction between individual development and its social expressions seems illuminating. It doesn't seem to invalidate Volk's model if we slightly reclassify its levels into individual and social levels—though it would interrupt his neat combinatory logic. But more evolved social groups require more evolved group members—so they evolve together.

Case Study: The humble water molecule

Where Volk's approach is markedly different from Wilber's is in the description of the way we navigate and move upward through the various levels. Let's take the simplest of examples, used by both Wilber and Volk: the emergence of the water molecule. When two Hydrogen atoms and one Oxygen atoms combine into one water molecule, resulting in a new entity with features not seen in its constituting components, Wilber describes this remarkable transformation as follows (in the context of his Twenty Tenets of evolution, under the item "self-transcendence"):

When an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms are brought together under suitable circumstances, a new and in some way unprecedented holon emerges, that of a water molecule. This is not just a communion, self-adaptation, or association of three atoms; it is a transformation that results in something novel and emergent—different wholes have come together to form a new and different whole. There is some sort of creative twist on that has gone before. This is what Whitehead referred to as creativity (which he called "the ultimate category"—the category to understand any other category), and Jantsch and Waddington called self-transcendence. (SES, p. 42)

In typical Wilberian fashion, this elementary chemical process is rephrased in an almost mystical-theological frame of reference. Volk, not unexpectedly, takes are more mundane—but therefore more illuminating—approach:

We might pause here on humble H2O, the water molecule. It looks something like a round head (the oxygen atom) with two round ears (the hydrogen atoms) sticking up at two o'clock and ten o'clock, like a simple cartoon. It is polar. Each hydrogen atom's single electron is tugged towards a powerful electron grabber, the oxygen atom, which, when solo, lacks two electrons in its own mandala. Thus, in the overall system of the polar H2O molecule, the two hydrogen ears are positively charged relative to the more negatively concentrated oxygen head.
This polarity gives the potential for weak bonds among water molecules. The hydrogen side of one molecule gets weakly linked to the oxygen side of other water molecules. These so-called hydrogen bonds among water molecules are like ribbons that form and break. Because the hydrogen bonds are weak compared to the tethering of electrons to nuclei in the atoms themselves, the hydrogen bonds play a crucial role: they make water, well, slippery, wet, watery. (p. 64)

Where in Wilber's "explanation" the existence of water seems almost miraculous, requiring a spiritual intervention, in Volk's analysis, the origin of water molecules becomes not only understandable but inevitable. The water molecule has filled its electron shells and has reached a preferred energy-state (Volk uses the phrase "energy repose"). This difference in flavor and substance of these two approaches is exemplary for how spiritual philosopher Wilber and scientist Volk approach the subject. Even though Wilber quotes extensively from scientific sources in the first few chapters of his Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, he puts a spiritual and abstract spin on these scientific findings which make the realities of the various domains of matter, life and mind/culture disappear below the horizon.

Ken Wilber definitely needs a reality-check.


Both authors try to formulate cross-domain principles that hold true across the domains of matter, life and mind/culture. The problem here is to find concepts that are not merely descriptive, such as "emergence", "transcend-and-include", "transformation", but that really clarify something. While it may be true to say that molecules "transcend-and-include" atoms—Wilber's mantra—it doesn't really help us understand how molecules have come to be in the first place. Through a process of transcendence? Emergence? Transformation? This is clearly insufficient to count as scientific explanations. Volks suggestion is: combogenesis.

So I use the following word: combogenesis. The idea is genesis by combination. The word riffs off the informal term for a small, cooperative jazz group, combo. Why coin the term? Quite simply, I haven't found any current word for the concept I want to discuss.
Combogenesis is the genesis of new types of things by combination and integration of previously existing things. (p. 13)
Tyler Volk
Tyler Volk

Combogenesis not only creates new entities such as molecules, cells and societies, it also makes available new relations. This is were Volk's treatment excels, in my opinion. What relations are possible for molecules (such as the water molecule mentioned above) that weren't possible for its atomic elements? How do protons and neutrons behave differently from their quark components? How, for that matter, did multicellularity arise from single-celled organisms and what was the payoff of that process? What exactly did agriculture bring to human beings that simple hunting and gathering couldn't provide? What did life introduce in the universe that matter lacked? And what, finally, did culture make possible, that isn't available to less complex animals and physical matter?

Another intriguing aspect of Volk's model, is his clarification and classification of what has been called the "three big bangs": the atomic, genetic and linguistic explosion that caused the emergence of matter, life and mind/culture in all their myriad forms and variations.[8] Again, theologically or spiritually oriented philosophers would see in this (threefold) explosion of creativity the hand of some higher Being—however abstractly visualized—but a more scientific mind would choose a more mundane explanation. Just as uncountable words can be made by a limited set of letter (alphabet), and millions of species evolved due to less than a handful of DNA base pair combinations, so the entire Periodic System of the Elements can be generated using only a few elements: protons (P), neutrons (N) and electrons. Volk coins this cross-domain pattern the "alphakit".

This can be visualized as follows, showing clearly what a mere combination of elements can accomplish (the diagram is not from the book):

Table 3: The Power of Combination

Given his combinatory logic, it is understandable that Volk switches from individual to social dimensions, at a given point in his model. For when the level of complex multicellular organisms is reached—at two-thirds of the Grand Sequence—there's nothing these organisms can combine with, except with similar organisms. Until then, the logic seems to hold firmly. Quarks combine into nucleons, nucleons combine into atomic nuclei, atomic nuclei combine into atoms, atoms combine into molecules, molecules combine into prokaryotic cells, prokaryotic cells combine into eukaryotic cells, eukaryotic cells combine into complex multicellular organisms.

Literally. Not poetically. Not metaphorically. Not as a matter of speech. Not to suggest a mysterious process in the background. Or to hint at the extraordinary complexities of Nature—the standard ways in which Ken Wilber usually argues his point. Volk offers a strong antidote to the essentially anti-scientific sentiments frequently voiced by Ken Wilber.

Here's a good example of the type of rhetoric Ken Wilber is so fond of:

I mean, think about it. At one point in history, there was nothing but atoms wandering around. And one day, several atoms got together and were just kind of sitting there, having a little tea party, when all of a sudden, a single membrane drops around them and they form a single molecule. All of these atoms become one molecule.
Now, it's really astonishing that universe would do this. Some think that this is some sort of chance, random mutation, but that, in fact, is exactly what it isn't. It's the opposite of chance or randomness.
It's evidence of a force that is pushing against randomness in the universe.
Now, Neo-Darwinian evolutionary theory holds that all these transformations upward were just the result of chance and randomness. But there is no way in hell that the universe went from atoms to Shakespeare [or from quarks to culture] out of random stabs. This is an extraordinarily driven process. (EnlightenNext, 2011, Issue 47.)[9]

Ken Wilber is correct that the stupendous transition from quarks to culture is not a random walk, and that "something else" is driving it, but that "something else" can be explored along religious or along scientific lines. Regarding this question of what actually drives evolution onwards and upwards in all domains, Wilber takes the religious route where Volk offers believable alternatives, that are more grounded in science.

For example, in the domain of physics, it is cosmic cooling and gravity that allow the levels of material complexity and relations to build as a sequence from quarks to atoms. Because of cosmic cooling quanta became nucleons, nucleons became nuclei and nuclei with electrons became the first simple atoms. At a much later time in cosmic history, most of the more complex atomic nuclei were (and are being) forged in the interior of exploding stars—again, environments that facilitate the natural combinatorial potentials of the nucleons on the prior level. (Those complex atoms get their electrons—what Volk calls “exit prizes” (p 51)—as they leave the stars to enter the swirling gases and even planets of the universe.)

In contrast, at the chemical level the much weaker electromagnetic forces take over: atoms with their electrons shells of various sizes find ways to connect, which would be unthinkable in the earliest universe or it's hottest sites.” In the biological domain of living organisms, endosymbiosis and cell division are the crucial mechanisms that open the windows to greater complexity. Cell division might actually have started multicellularity by not completing its process, so that cells sticked together. Endosymbiosis was the great and unique event of a merger of two types of bacteria, with one (archaea) becoming the host for the other (bacterium), resulting in organisms that could grow enormously in size and complexity, whereas bacteria alone kept running into unassailable limitations—as they still are today.

At no point does any miraculous or transcendental step occur. This undercuts a major thesis of Wilber's cosmology.

The fine granularity of Volk's levels is evenly distributed between the domains of material/physical, chemical/biological and mental/cultural. These three basic divisions Volk calls "dynamic realms". These are, of course, the realms of matter, life and mind:

The twelve levels form a set of similar phenomena that can be used to seek additional findings. Within the grand sequence, there are three largest-scale, natural families of adjacent levels, designated the dynamical realms: the realm of physical laws, the realm of biological evolution, and the realm of cultural evolution. Common themes shared by the levels within each realm are related to a realm's core dynamics. Within the grand sequence the dynamical realms imply another theme: each realm had a first level, its base level, which can serve to focus further analysis. (p 149)

Table 4: Dynamical Realms

From the base levels of each domain, all of its phenomena came about from the overarching dynamics born at its base level (as well as from local dynamics specific to each level). The fundamental quanta established physics and chemistry, the dynamics for the next 4 levels. Prokaryotic cells established biological evolution, the dynamics for the next 3 levels. Tribal metagroups established cultural phenomena, the dynamics for the next 2 levels (so far, but see below).

Playfully switching between the dynamical realms and their levels, Volk notes common themes that illuminate fundamental processes. According to Volk, for example, Darwinian principles of "propagation, variation and selection" are explicitly at work in the two “evolutionary” realms[10] and what cultural evolution adds as special to that common theme is a “dual-tier” PVS in society and the mind. Common themes across realms stand out as well: the origin of eukaryotic cells, combining two different kinds of prokaryota (bacteria and archaea) is paralleled in the origin of agrovillages, where plants and animals are domesticated and integrated into one unity. Both overcame important energy constraints for further growth towards complexity: once the eukaryotic cell was established, complex biological life took off. And once the agrovillages were established, food production and population growth increased dramatically. Their previous stages (prokaryotes and hunter-gatherers) were somehow not able to grab these opportunities.


Speculating about our future Volk suggest we might be on our way to a next level (or even a next dynamical realm?) when we transcend the level of the geopolitical states, and arrive at a situation of "stable relations of nations within the new larger thing" (p. 195). Will "globalization, the Internet and instant news cycle" we are witnessing today usher in the noosphere, Volk asks (with a reference to Teilhard de Chardin)? But his answer is sober: "Given these considerations, we don't seem to be at the new level yet." (p. 198). What will happen to the individual, within these ever-growing spheres of collective life? Will AI get integrated into human life, like the endosymbiosis of the eukaryotes of the past? Are we in the Antropocene, where we have "humanized" the biosphere beyond any doubt? A planetary world-culture might be "the final level of the realm of cultural evolution" (p. 204). If so, would that be the opening towards a new dynamic level, beyond biology and culture (as we know it)? With these questions Volk leaves the reader to ponder the content of this very, very rich and stimulating book.

Wilber has never dealt with the material and biological realms in any detail—he took them more or less for granted (atoms, molecules, cells, etc.) and only mentioned them in passing to demonstrate the validity of his "transcend-and-include" philosophy. Volk does take the trouble to dive deep into these various levels and discovers principles and processes that give us a much deeper understanding. It also casts doubt on Wilber's sweeping statements regarding a universe that is "winding up" due to spiritual principles as of yet undiscovered by science (but envisioned during meditative states). Wilber's expertise stands out in the psychological and cultural realm, where he sketches the "Stairway to Heaven" ranging from the premodern, through the modern and postmodern phases of cultural evolution, to the most advance mystical stages. A Wilberian keynote is the developmental step to world-centrism, to combat both etnocentric and egocentric tendencies in our current world. These two approaches seem to be complementary to me. Integralists would do well to study authors like Volk who entertain a deep fascination with big pictures but bring in more field-specific expertise, especially when it comes to physics and biology. While not aiming for a Theory of Everything Volk does provide a scientifically believable reconstruction of "how we came to be".

Ths is not to say that everything under the sun has now been clarified. Volk fittingly ends with a confession of our (current scientific) ignorance before the mystery:

One point struck me after having spent much time investigating the levels—how they came to be and what they led to. The origins of levels tend to involve some of the largest enigmas to our understanding... For example, the origins of the eukaryotic cell, animals, agriculture, geopolitical states. These enigmas are fields of research unto themselves, fields of waving flowers announcing question upon question from all their petals glistening in the sun of reality. One can stand before these fields in rapture. Entering them is even better. (p. 188)


[1] Tyler Volk, Quarks to Culture: How We Came To Be, Columbia University, May 2017.

[2] Barry Wood, "Quarks, culture, combogenesis", Science, 19 Jan 2018, Vol. 359, Issue 6373, pp. 281. See: Barry Wood, "A multidisciplinary tour of cosmic history charts the "grand sequence" of existence",, January 16, 2018.

[3] John Horgan, "How Quarks Turned into Cultures: Big-picture biologist Tyler Volk talks about his book on How We Came to Be", June 7, 2017.

[4] Tyler Volk, Metapatterns Across Space, Time & Mind, Columbia University Press, 1995.

[5] Interestingly, one of Volk's earlier works dealt with this topic: Gaia's Body: Toward a Physiology of Earth, MIT Press, 2003.

[6] Jeff Meyerhoff, Bald Ambition: A Critique of Ken Wilber's Integral Theory, Inside the Curtain Press, 2010. Chapter 1: Holarchy - 1a: Holons, 1b: The Twenty Tenets.

[7] Frank Visser, "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered: Relating Ken Wilber's view of spiritual evolution to the current evolution debates",

[8] See for example: Holmes Rolston III, Three Big Bangs: Matter-Energy, Life, Mind, Columbia University Press, 2010.

[8] See Frank Visser, "Arguments from Ignorance: The "Frisky Dirt" Discussion So Far",, and David Lane, "Frisky Dirt: Why Ken Wilber's New Creationism is Pseudo-Science",

[10] In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, Ken Wilber warns against holistic approaches that make the biological level (B) paradigmatic for the other two, of physics (A) and culture (C):

Of course, many system theorists actually use the dynamics of B, or living systems, and make them paradigmatic for all levels, with equally embarrassing results but now in both directions: B underexplains C and overexplains or is retrotensive with A, trying, for example, to read autopoiesis into the physiosphere—unconvincingly. All of these difficulties come from the lowest common denominator approach and/or the attempts to privilige any single domain. ("The Limits of the Exterior Approach") (p. 117)

Volks seems to do justice to all three domains. Though his centre of gravity is in physics and biology, his focus on animal and human social groups gives him ample opportunities to introduce and discuss language, in- and outgroups, the "unbounded we" (his term), "seeing others as potential 'us'" and the expanded cognitive horizon of "mental time travel". Thus, his predominantly externalist approach takes quite some excursions into interiority and intersubjectivity to qualify as "integral".

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