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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 100+ essays on this website.


‘Entire populations simply show up’

Ken Wilber on Emergence and Speciation

Frank Visser

Wilber should really study the field of speciation. Perhaps it would be a good idea to educate yourself on a given field of science before integrating it?

Through a Facebook post, I stumbled on an members-only audio on synchronicity published on Integral Life some time ago[1], the last few minutes of which Ken Wilber spends on the problem of the emergence of species. Since Integral World offers a running commentary on all statements on evolution made by Wilber, I will offer my comments on this fragment as well. As usual, these statements are not part of a systematic treatment by Wilber of this "very important" subject (his own words), but are more or less improvised (though they have been repeated almost identically on other occasions).

But that is just a smaller version of the emergence of species. And that's a very important point: the emergence of species.

Synchronicity: A Post-Metaphysical Interpretation

Synchronicity is not really my topic, but Wilber argues that the emergence of species is, in a way, a case of synchronicity as well. After all, how is it possible that new species emerge during evolution, not only a handful of individual specimens but whole groups? As he phrases it, "entire populations simply show up". But do they?

Wilber laments the way Intelligent Design is dismissed by the secular media, because they do have some truth behind them, according to Wilber. Basically Wilber agrees with Intelligent Design when it comes to listing the "problems" of neo-Darwinism, he only disagrees with them about the solution. If only they could upgrade their image of divinity, so that Jehova is transformed into nondual Spirit or Emptiness... Not once has Wilber voiced any critical argument against creationism other than that. Apparently, he thinks their biological arguments are sound. Scientists, obviously, think differently and have been very vocal about this is past years.

Because you hear all these folks... it's so easy... Sam Harris, the selfish gene and all that... it is so easy to make fun of the Intelligent Design movement and all that... and make fun of the Christian myth about how we got here... and say "Darwinian evolution is the only way to go and all else is full of crap..." It's about half right and half wrong. I might say that orange critics are 90% right and 10% wrong, but that the 10% right in creative intelligence, creative design and Intelligent Design and so on is that you can't, you can't explain emergence. It just doesn't work!

This is an important statement by Wilber, it shows his position regarding the the credibility of creationism and the competence of science to explain life's mysteries. "You can't explain emergence. It just doesn't work!" is quite a categorical statement that deserves more analysis then Wilber offers. But that is really his view: science can't explain evolutionary novelty and therefore some "spiritual explanation" is called for. But is the emergence of atoms and molecules, stars and planets really a mystery for science? Is, after Darwin, even the emergence of different species in evolution still "the mystery of mysteries", as it was phrased in the nineteenth century?[2]

And you hear all these people talking about Darwinian evolution even tweaking the numbers... they kind of say, well, natural selection is actually the reason that it's not improbable, that you can get an eyeball if you have a billion years, or something. And that natural selection is a two-step process. And that the first step is always, carry over, so by the time you get close to an eyeball you are saving all the previous selections that worked. So you are not going from nothing to an eyeball in one roll of a dice. That would be impossible. But you are going from a quite large, already selected sequence of events, to the next step. [....]

This is a rather confused line of reasoning. "you can get an eyeball if you have a billion years, or something". This is not the position of science. (But it is the position of some old earth creationists Wilber shows affinity with and even quotes, such as Hugh Ross). When it comes to the evolution of the eye—the favorite example since the days of Paley and Darwin—the famous research done by Nilsson and Pelger tells a different story:

Biologist D.E. Nilsson has independently theorized about four general stages in the evolution of a vertebrate eye from a patch of photoreceptors. Nilsson and S. Pelger estimated in a classic paper that only a few hundred thousand generations are needed to evolve a complex eye in vertebrates. Another researcher, G.C. Young, has used the fossil record to infer evolutionary conclusions, based on the structure of eye orbits and openings in fossilized skulls for blood vessels and nerves to go through. All this adds to the growing amount of evidence that supports Darwin's theory.[3]

So, no "billion years, or something", Ken, but "a few hundred thousand generations". Who is tweaking the numbers here? Richard Dawkins even called it, relatively speaking or course, "a lightweight question, a doddle to answer."[4]

Then Wilber mentions the two-step process of evolution (as if that is the view of scientists as well): the first steps seems to be "saving all the previous selections that worked" (the more primitive forms of eyes), and the second step would be adding some new functionality. But that is not the way evolution is viewed by science at all—it is Wilber's own private view of evolution as a transcend-and-include process.

Just check what Ernst Mayr wrote about the two-step nature of evolution:

Almost all of those who opposed natural selection failed to realize that it is a two-step process. Not realizing this, some opponents have called selection a process of chance and accident, while others have called it deterministic. The truth is that natural selection is both. This becomes obvious as soon as one considers the two steps of the selection process separately.
At the first step... new variation is produced. Chance rules supreme at this step... At the second step, that of selection (elimination), the "goodness" of the individual is constantly tested.... This second step is a mixture of chance and determination.
The fundamental difference between the first and the second steps of natural selection should now be clear. At the first step, that of the production of generic variation, everything is a matter of chance. However, chance plays a much smaller role at the second step, that of differential survival and reproduction, where "the survival of the fittest" is to a large extent determined by genetically based characteristics. To claim that natural selection is entirely a chance process reveals total misunderstanding.[5]

Again, Wilber totally misleads his readers and listeners here. His reporting of science doesn't exceed the gossip level, and the ideas he presents are more or less his own. Ironically, he does get that evolution works in small steps, and the the human eye is preceded by more primitive forms of vision. But where science see chance variation as the source of evolutionary novelty, Wilber sticks to his transcendental explanations to explain how evolution can make progress.

Let's continue. He now tries to joke himself through the whole topic:

Numbers still don't work. Even if it can happen, that happens in one individual. That's going to happen in another individual. If the first is a boy, all that has to happen in a girl as well! And that boy and girl have to find eachother on the whole face of the planet! And then you get wine and dinner and sex and all that... And than the siblings will have to have sex with eachother! Well, I don't care, that's cool with me... But if their version is based on incestuous relations then we have a Freudian problem here....

So Wilber seems to think that, according to science, new evolutionary organisms miraculously show up in the case of one individual, due to a number of very unlikely mutations, and that that poor individual has to wander the globe to find a mate that just happens to have the same number of unlikely mutations... It is a joke he often repeats (starting with A Brief History of Everything, 1996), and which entertains his audience to no end. Has he never heard of population genetics? According to science populations diverge and get split, to produce new species, the members of which don't interbreed anymore. Variations become species.

Wilber continues:

But they don't talk about species emerging. And how does that happen?? And whole populations show up. All at the same time! At least many of the biologists acknowledge this by saying "there is no first instance". And that, to me, links [indelible] to the four quadrants. Every occasion has four quadrants. And the lower quadrants are, you know, social and cultural. So even these people are supporting the four quadrants! There is no singular without a plural. That doesn't happen anywhere in the universe!

Scientists don't talk about speciation? John Wilkins (see note 2) mentions and discusses dozens of species definitions in his Species: A History of the Idea (2009). Being uninformed is one thing, but keeping your readers uninformed about basic science is unforgivable.

I can make it very easy, the Khan Academy offers a speed course:

Khan Academy, Speciation

Then Wilber makes the startling statement "And whole populations show up. All at the same time!" And he clarifies: "At least many of the biologists acknowledge this by saying 'there is no first instance'." But, again, this expression is used by scientists in a completely different context.

Says Richard Dawkins when asked when the "first human" lived (see also the YouTube video below this essay):

At first sight it seems obvious that there has to have been a first person, there has to have been a first rabbit, and a first rhinoceros. After all, people are people, aren't they, and their ancestors were not people. If you go back sufficiently far enough, your ancestor was a fish! So at some point between that ancestor, say your 200 million great grandparents, who were both fish [laughter], and your actual grandparents, who were both human, there must have been a time, mustn't it, where the first human was born, whatever the species was, and we tend to think it was Homo ergaster, sometimes called Homo erectus. Mustn't there have been a time when, so to speak, the last Homo erectus parents gave birth to the first Homo sapiens baby?
And the answer is: No. There never was a first person, there never was a first rabbit, or first rhinoceros, because every organism ever born belonged to the same species as its parents. Yet, in spite of that, your two hundred millionth great grandfather was a fish. It is not actually that paradoxical, it all happened very gradually, and you could think of parallels, like you can see the hour hand on your watch moving, but when you come back an hour later you find that it has moved.
At some point we cease to think about ourselves as middle-aged, and we start to think about ourselves as old, but nobody goes to bed middle-aged and wakes up and says [now I am old]...
So in order to understand evolution you have to get the idea that it is extremely gradual, and there was never any animal ever born who belonged to a different species than its parents. And not only was it very slow... if you go further back then your two hundred millionth great grandfather, they were worms, and so on... [6]

So the point is not that no member of a new species emerges "on its own", but that no child belongs to a different species than its parent. When the issue of individual vs. collective is brought up by Wilber, to be able to introduce his quadrant model, he claims "whole populations show up", but he can't use this first-animal example as argument, let alone that "many of the biologists acknowledge this". Acknowledge what, actually? As said, population genetics adequately takes care of the collective dimension in evolution (which properly understood, is a collective phenomenon anyways).

If Wilber would just mean: looking back in time through the millions of years of evolution, species seem to "show up" in a relatively short time span, it would be a different matter and we could have a sensible discussion. Instead, he really seems to mean "entire populations miraculously show up." But even the "Cambrian Explosion"—the emergence of numerous phylae in a relatively short span of time—isn't considered to be an explosion anymore by paleontologists, given that it stretched across millions of years in the dim past. It's an optical illusion.

Donald Prothero laments this creationist tendency in his Evolution: What the Fossils Say and Why it Matters:

Of all the distortions of the fossil record that the creationists promote, the worst is their version of the Cambrian Explosion... The problem with the creationists' fascination with the Cambrian Explosion is that it's all wrong! The major groups of invertebrate fossils do not appear suddenly at the base of the Cambrian but are spaced out over strata spanning 80 million years—hardly an instantaneous "explosion"! (p. 161),

In the online Excerpt A, a fragment from a book-in-progress (Kosmic Karma and Creativity, which will probably never see the light of day), Wilber uses the same dubious line of reasoning—unlikely mutations, boy seeks girl, speciation is mystery, support from science—but applies it this time to a whole class (not species) of organisms: mammals. Never mind that mammalian evolution took millions of years to be completed.[7]

Even evolutionary sciences support this conclusion, in that they all agree on (even if they cannot explain) the fact that there are no first instances in evolution. When the first instance of a new species arises—for example, the first mammal—it never arises by itself; what first shows up is an entire population of mammals. It makes sense if you think about it. For a new species to arise, there must occur dozens of major beneficial mutations. The odds against that happening are of course astronomical; but worse, the same dozen mutations must occur in another animal of the opposite sex; and then, on the entire world-wide planet, they must find each other; and then mate, and then their offspring have to survive and mate—and the odds of all that happening are of course off the scale of the believable and even the possible. No, in some mysterious way, entire populations simply show up—and that means, the insides and outsides of the singular and the plural arrive on the scene together: the four quadrants simultaneously arise and mutually tetra-evolve, as we have been saying all along.
(How do entire populations simply show up? What "mechanism" can possible account for that? The short answer is: Eros. See the endnote on involutionary givens.(30) But whatever we decide on the "how" of it, the factual "what" of it is that the inside and the outside of the singular and the plural arrive on the scene simultaneously: the quadrants tetra-evolve.)[8]

Is Wilber really interested in the evolution of mammals? No. He just wants to make his dogmatic points about how he sees evolution happening, "as we have been saying all along". With no real engagement with real scientists whatsoever.

Then Wilber seems to challenge scientists to come up with specific details (quite hypocritical, because he never specifies his spiritual explanation):

So they are inadvertently acknowledging this, but then [...] where do species come from? Show me an example! They then say, well, at some point they show up. But tell me how the first instance worked. And then it gets terribly silent.

Wilber should really study the field of speciation. Perhaps it would be a good idea to educate yourself on a given field of science before integrating it, in a misunderstood form, in your meta-model? And don't spread mis-information to your science illiterate audience? Start with Jerry Coyne, author of the popular books Why Evolution is True (2009) and Faith or Fact? (2015), but who's academic book is titled, you guessed it... Speciation (2004).

Finally, Wilber presents his "solution" to the problem of emergence in evolution:

But what I am saying is that it is a moment-to-moment micro-genesis. And micro-genesis is a tetra-quadrant affair and at least these four dimensions emerge moment-to-moment, and there is a tetra-selection pressure. Each quadrant has to fit with the quadrant of the moment before it. In a transcend-and-include fashion. And if it doesn't fit it won't stick. And you have to have all four growth pressures. There is on Eros in the I, an Eros in the We, an Eros in the It. And all three of these growth pressures produce that dimension, of the next moment. And then all four dimensions of the next moment have to fit with the previous moment, and then add their own creativity. Their own transcendence.

Wilber shows himself here to be a pre-Darwinian "transformationist", to use the classification of Mayr, and not a Darwinian "variationist"[5]. Many biologists before (and during the time of) Darwin believed that evolution was some kind of mysterious transformation of species into other species. How that transformation was effected was indeed rather a mystery. It was Charles Darwin who proposed natural selection as an explanation. That Wilber sees this transformative process happening in four dimensions or quadrants doesn't matter.

Ken Wilber is still behind the times and has to rely on a free-floating "creativity".

And he concludes:

And synchronicity events are events where all these things start to line up... every moment is a synchronicity moment.

And just how exactly does that explain the emergence of species? If your claim is that science needs to be supplemented by transcendental explanations, then the proper procedure is to fully test naturalistic explanations first. And for this you really, really, need to know what you are talking about.

Oh, and please stop using the word "simply"...


[1] Corey de Vos and Ken Wilber, "Synchronicity: A Post-Metaphysical Interpretation",, November 17, 2010.

John Wilkins, Species: A History of the Idea

[2] The phrase is from astronomer Sir John Herschell, and was used in a letter to geologist Lyell. See John Wilkins' blog "The mystery of mysteries - early naturalistic views of species origins",, March 29, 2007.

John Wilkins PhD is Honorary Fellow at the University of Melbourne, Australia, and Research Fellow at the Ronin Institute, Monclair, NJ. He has taught at the University of Queensland, the University of Sydney, the University of New South Wales, and the University of Melbourne. He is the author of Species: A History of the Idea (2009), and Defining Species (2009), co-author of The Nature of Classification (2013), and edited Intelligent Design and Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2010). He has published on species, the evolution of religion, cognition, and the history and philosophy of science. He lives in Melbourne Australia.

[3] "Vision itself relies on a basic biochemistry which is common to all eyes. However, how this biochemical toolkit is used to interpret an organism's environment varies widely: eyes have a wide range of structures and forms, all of which have evolved quite late relative to the underlying proteins and molecules." ("Evolution of the eye", Wikipedia.)

[4] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden, pages 76-79. Quoted in: David Lane, "Wilber and the Misunderstanding of Evolution",

[5] Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is: From Theory to Fact, (Science Masters) Paperback, January, 2004, p. 132-133.

Wilber would do well to check out Appendix A: "What Criticisms Have Been Made Of Evolutionary Theory?" (p. 269): "The story of evolution as it was worked out during the past fifty years continues to be attacked and criticized. The critics either hold an entirely different ideology, as do the creationists, or they simply misunderstand the Darwinian paradigm. An author [such as Wilber] who says: "I can not believe that the eye evolved through a series of accidents," documents that he or she simply does not understand the two-step nature of natural selection [i.e. random variation and non-random survival and reproduction, see p. 119-120]." (emphasis added)

[6] Richard Dawkins, "Why there was no 'first' human",, 24 Oct 2013, Sydney Opera House Talks & Ideas.

[7] "The evolution of mammals has passed through many stages since the first appearance of their synapsid ancestors in the Pennsylvanian sub-period of the late Carboniferous period. By the mid-Triassic, there were many synapsid species that looked like mammals. The lineage leading to today's mammals split up in the Jurassic; synapsids from this period include Dryolestes, more closely related to extant placentals and marsupials than to monotremes, as well as Ambondro, more closely related to monotremes. Later on, the eutherian and metatherian lineages separated; the metatherians are the animals more closely related to the marsupials, while the eutherians are those more closely related to the placentals. Since Juramaia, the earliest known eutherian, lived 160 million years ago in the Jurassic, this divergence must have occurred in the same period." ("Evolution of mammals", Wikipedia.)

[8] Ken Wilber, "Excerpt A: An Integral Age at the Leading Edge", p. 96, 2002. Reposted on, 2006.


Richard Dawkins: “There never was a first person, there never was a first rabbit, or first rhinoceros, because every organism ever born belonged to the same species as its parents.”

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