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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld.net 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 175+ essays on this website.
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Saving the World
Through Darwin 2.0

Review of David Loye's Rediscovering Darwin

Frank Visser

All this buzz about selfishness is a major distraction from the thesis that whatever matters in evolution is what can genetically be passed on to next generations.

In 2009, the year the 150 year anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species (1859) was celebrated world-wide, I invited David Loye, an independent Darwin scholar now in his nineties, to write an essay for Integral World comparing Darwin and Wilber.[1] Loye is co-founder of the General Evolution Research Group (GERG), together with Eisler, Corliss, Chaisson, Varela, Csanyi, Banathy, which was set up in Budapest around 1984 by Ervin Laszlo and others. In 2015 Loye got interviewed by Wilber for Integral Life[2], to which I responded in an essay "Duplicating Darwin".[3] In his recent book The Religion of Tomorrow (2017) Wilber praised Loye's work, concluding "we now have Darwin on our side" and mentioned Loye was working on a book called Integral Darwin. In my 7-part review of Wilber's tome, I devoted one part to this discussion, adding a long footnote about the selfish gene and its intended meaning.[4] Because I couldn't locate this book Integral Darwin anywhere online, except for some first pages, I contacted Loye, and his publisher kindly sent me a review copy. It had been retitled as Rediscovering Darwin and was published in February 2018 by the Romanes Press.

Loye's main thesis is that we know only the first half of Darwin's theory, much to the detriment of our world, which is suffering from violence, sexism, pollution and all other modern ailments, and we need the other half to save that world, leading, among others, to a more egalitarian view of male/female relationships. The first half is spelled out in Darwin's On the Origin of Species (1859): the world is a jungle in which only the strongest survive. In modern discourse this has been translated into social Darwinism, the selfish gene, and might makes right. Much less known, says Loye, is that in The Descent of Man (1871), in which human evolution (and sexual selection) was dealt with, a much more positive worldview is sketched: humanity can only evolve by moral progress, increased compassion for others and the refinement of our character. Only when that message is heard, Loye believes, will our world situation improve and can a wholesale nuclear or climate change based annihilation be avoided.

On the Origin of SpeciesThe Descent of Man
First editions of On the Origin of Species (1859) and The Descent of Man (1871).

Many assumptions are made in this Darwin-interpretation. Is Darwin's message from Origin best captured with Spencers "the survival of the fittest"? Is Descent that much understudied? And is its message that of proto-feminism (where it is the female that chooses the male)? And, should we tie these theoretical question to such massive world problems as Loye does? Further, does Loye's thesis in any way provide support for Wilber's theory of evolution as Spirit-driven? And was Darwin, after all, an integral scholar who covered both the external and internal, even spiritual determinants of evolution? In my earlier essays on Loye I expressed some doubts about all these rather black-and-white comparisons of man/women, aggression/love and so on, and especially about the rather grim portrayal of current evolutionary science.

Things get complicated by Wilber's involvement, who has been severely criticized for misunderstanding evolution.[6] Listen to Wilber profusely praising Loye's work:

PRAISE FROM WILBER FOR LOYE:

"David Loye's is one of the few voices so desperately needed in the Darwin debates. Not only does he introduce "Eros" into the picture in a rational, sane, and supportable fashion, he makes the whole evolutionary theory hang together as "Eros-in-action," or, if you want, "Spirit-in-action" or "Love-in-action." It's been clear for quite some time now that the standard neo-Darwinian synthesis can in no way account for the rise from dirt to Shakespeare, and new, believable theories are desperately needed. David Loye's is such a theory. The orthodox will cringe, and go on failing to explain evolution while bad-mouthing all other attempts, the Creative Intelligence folks will correctly spot all the missing holes in Darwinian theory and then-in an entirely unsupported move-fill in those holes by plugging them with Jahweh, a ridiculous move if ever there was one. The holes are supported by the data, Jahweh is not. David Loye's is both spotting the holes, then filling them with something like a self-organization principle, which is a drive to higher levels of organization warranted by the data itself. Call that extra push "self-organization," or "Eros," or "Spirit," or "Love," or what you will, but it is fully justified by empirical data and scientific research. I know of no one doing this as thoroughly and carefully as David Loye. Read him, it's one of the most important topics alive today." — Ken Wilber

From this book jacket blurb, we can distill further questions: Does "the whole evolutionary theory hang together as Eros-in-action or, if you want, Spirit-in-action or Love-in-action"? That's quite a tall knowledge claim. Can the standard Neo-Darwinian synthesis (assuming Wilber refers to the Modern Synthesis) not explain how we go "from dirt to Shakespeare"? Again, quite a tall knowledge claim, when that large evolutionary sequence can be divided into innumerable smaller steps, each studied by its proper scientific disciplines. What about the Extended Synthesis, which covers a dozen modern schools of evolutionary thought which have enriched our picture of evolution tremendously (while accepting its Darwinian foundations)?

Have creationists correctly "spotted all the missing holes in Darwinian theory"? All of them? Should we really turn to them to find out what's missing in "Darwinian" theory, or should we first and foremost turn to the specialists of this field of science? Are "the Creative Intelligence folks" (Wilber refers to Intelligent Design, I assume) really introducing Jahweh into their picture, or are they just arguing design can be inferred when we look at nature's "irreducible complexity"? Does Loye identifiy the same problems as spotted by creationists?

And does it really help to solve all these problems "with something like a self-organization principle, which is a drive to higher levels of organization warranted by the data itself"? Is self-organization best explained by the postulation of such a generic drive, or is that actually a question-begging non-solution? And does it really not matter what we call this drive ("what you will"), or should we insist on precise terminology here? And is such a notion really "fully justified by empirical data and scientific research"—again, a very vast knowledge claim—or is it just suggestive and requiring more theory-building?

Obviously, we are no longer in the field of careful and responsible Darwin-scholarship or evolutionary theory building here, but have stepped into a world of huge and inflationary knowledge claims. Wilber and Loye find each other in this, they are not mincing words. They form a strategic alliance in the sense that Loye, who is a self-published author struggling for recognition, can use support from celebrities such as Wilber (and Laszlo), and Wilber is badly in need of supportive scholars who know at least one particular field of evolutionary science, and its history, in detail. Both write about evolution from a wider, strikingly non-biological perspective, inspired by complexity and chaos science, but not necessarily by recent developments within evolutionary science itself.

REDISCOVERING DARWIN

Rediscovering Darwin
Romanes Press, 2018

With this background we can go through Loye's latest book, which summarizes his thesis in engaging writing. The 177 page book starts with an astonishing 13 pages of rave reviews, presumably commenting on his earlier works, by authorities of various kinds: I count a psychologist, a historian of evolution (Richards), Ken Wilber, Ervin Laszlo, a mathematician, a psychologist, a mental health scientist, a brain scientist, a humanistic psychologist, a radio host, a biologist (Salthe), a psychologist, a neural network theorist, a futurist, a nutritional activist, a nanotechnologist, an integralist (McIntosh), a film producer, a singer, an evolutionary visionary activist, a crusading moral economist, a Chair of graduate studies, a renaissance scholar, a biophysicist, a psychologist, a futurist, a biologist (Maturana), another futurist, a sociologist, a systems philosopher, and a magazine founder. An impressive list, but with few exceptions no evolutionary theorists proper. So this is obviously Loye's own network of scientists and philosophers.

Under mysterious Cold War circumstances Loye was secretly invited to join a group of scientists in Budapest, who were enamored by the recent advances in chaos and complexity science. Self-organization, autopoiesis and autocatalysis were keywords in that area. It was emphasized that we are not the passive products or external forces, but active agents in our own evolutionary process. With this mindset, Loye reads in Descent how Darwin can be seen as a precursor of these recent advances in science. When he describes how biological variation is much more "on the constitution of the organism than on the nature of the conditions to which it has been subjected", Loye sees self-organization at work. Turning to chaos theory—which states that small changes can have large and unforeseen consequences, the so-called "butterfly effect"—he quotes Darwin who describes "correlated variation" in saying "when slight variations in any one part occur, and are accumulated through natural selection, other parts become modified." This seems to me altogether far-fetched. Of course variation will (in part) be independent of the environment, and changes will be interrelated, due to genes being on the same stretches of a chromosome.

Loye laments that these recent advances are being picked up by the social sciences more easily than by the evolutionary sciences—which is quite ironic given that their principles supposedly apply to evolution at large. Could it be that the social sciences study human beings as active creators and codifiers of culture, rather than slow results of natural evolutionary processes? Cultural and biological evolution surely follow their own trajectories? Loye implies that Origin deals with biological evolution and Descent with human cultural and future evolution, but this makes me pause. Isn't Charles Darwins The Descent of Man primarily a treatise on, well... the descent of man? Wasn't the primary agenda of Descent to argue for a fully "lowly origin" of mankind, being the descendants of tree-inhabiting apes, a most shocking truth in the days of Darwin? And more specifically, Wallace, his co-discoverer of natural selection, didn't believe humans were purely the result of natural processes—some spiritual intervention was needed to explain their mental capacities. Darwin emphatically rejected that claim.

Two camps have emerged that battle over the legacy of Darwin, Loye opines: the gatekeepers, who want to defend a narrow interpretation of Darwin at all costs, and the gatebreakers who want to widen its scope. Among the gatekeepers he lists: the Neo-Darwinians of the Modern Synthesis, who see random variation and blind chance as paramount, the "super-neos" of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, and the anti-evolution creationists, who deny evolution in any form. This seems to me a rather reductionistic view of the field of evolutionary science. We have many more schools of thought ranging from symbiosis to epigenetics and from group selection to evo-devo these days. In the opposite camp Loye sees: Darwins disciple Romanes, Julian Huxley, the human potential movement in psychology, evolutionary systems science (Laszlo), Eastern spirituality (Wilber) and feminism (Eisler)—all of them are opposed to the "selfish-gene paradigm" of orthodox science. Wilber too, usually reduces the playing field to either Neo-Darwinism or some sort of spiritual evolutionism.

Interestingly, when Loye went through Wilber's Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995), he seems to have been just looking for terms that sounded familiar to him, given his scientific background. He is overjoyed that Wilber quotes from Laszlo's writings on general evolution, and concludes:

Darwin's great advance, I began to see, as if carved in stone, had come from how in a more simple time he had been able to transcend enough of the complexities to grasp the vital sense of evolution as an integrated whole.
Now out of an immense increase of the complexities, it seemed clear that both Laszlo and Wilber had set out to do the same for our time. Out of this venture had come Laszlo's formation of our group and work towards his Akashic Field Theory. Now here was the exotic rise of Wilber's work and the tempting mystery of Wilber's Quadrants. (p. 51)

What Loye overlooks is that Wilber's scholarship regarding Darwin's contribution is very poor indeed in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality. As I have argued elsewhere[7], Wilber has both tried to minimize Darwin's contribution to our understanding of the evolutionary process ("the idea of evolution was already in the air"), and accuse Darwin of "obscuring for over a century" that evolution is in essence a spiritual process driven by Eros. Both can't of course be true at the same time. But instead of merely collecting evidence for a view that was already known, Darwin radically broke with that view. Darwin believed in variation (and selection), not in mysterious processes of transformation, as his predecessors and contemporaries did. It is here that Wilber's scholarship is most wanting and in need of a substantial correction.

And do we really need to resort to Laszlo's Akashic Fields or Wilberian mystical metaphors to make sense of evolution and Darwin's contribution? I seriously doubt it.[8]

‘THE SELFISH GENE PARADIGM’

Taking a closer look at the "selfish gene paradigm" which Loye laments and holds responsible for much of our societal ills, how accurate is this actually? As I remarked in an earlier essay[3]:

Isn't it entry-level understanding of evolutionary theory that "fittest" in "survival of the fittest" (not Darwin's term, but Spencer's) does not mean strongest, or most selfish, or aggressive, but "most adapted to the demands of the environment"?...
So yes, physical strength can be selected for, but so can speed, or color, or agility, or flexibility—or yes, even human intelligence. This changes everything. Sometimes it helps to be big, but in different circumstances it helps to be small. It all depends. Competition and cooperation both exist in nature. Both can be included in a Darwinian perspective. If talent for competition works, it is passed on. If cooperation works, it is passed on too. Ironically, a talent for cooperation is even competitive!
Large male northern fur seal and harem of smaller females
Large male northern fur seal and harem of smaller females

Most importantly, is it fair to jump from the notion of the selfish gene to the ills of society when Dawkins has made it explicit that the important word in that expression is gene and not selfish?[4] All this buzz about selfishness is a major distraction from the thesis that whatever matters in evolution is what can genetically be passed on to next generations. And both selfish and altruistic behavior can have a genetic component. Furthermore, the simple dichotomy of a masculinist Origin and a more feminist Descent overlooks that sexual selection, introduced in Descent, not only involves female choice, but also, and most visibly, male competition, often violent, between males, or for the favor of the females. I don't think sea cows with huge harems are a good example of feminism in nature!

More to the point: Loye also mentions Frans de Waal, author of Good Natured (1996) as evidence that we are not selfish by nature, but to the contrary, social and moral animals. Dawkins, discussing these matters in Unweaving the Rainbow (1998), in a chapter called "The Selfish Cooperator", comments[9]:

The position I have always adopted is that much of animal nature is indeed altruistic, cooperative and atteded by benevolent subjective emotions, but that this follows from, rather than contradicts selfishness at the genetic level. Animals are sometimes nice and sometimes nasty, since either can suit the self-interest of genes at different times. That is precisely the reason for speaking of 'the selfish gene' rather than, say, 'the selfish chimpanzee' . The opposition that De Waal and others have erected between biologists who believe human and animal nature is fundamentally selfish, and those who believe it is fundamentally 'good-natured', is a false opposition—bad poetry.
It is now widely understood that altruism at the level of the individual organism can be a means by which the underlying genes maximize their self-interest. However, I don't want to dwell on what I have expounded in earlier books such as The Selfish Gene. What I would now re-emphasize from that book—it has been overlooked by critics who appear to have read it only by its title—is the important sense in which genes, though in one way purely selfish, at the same time enter into cooperative cartels with eachother. This is poetic science if you like, but I hope to show that it is good poetic science which aids understanding rather than impedes it. (p. 212-213)

So things are not so black-and-white in science as spiritually inclined thinkers like Wilber and Loye want us to believe. Nor is it always wrong to use metaphors in science, as long as we are careful if it is good poetry. Wilber's "Eros" seems to me to be a case of bad poetry; it doesn't really explain how evolution actually works.

Animals are sometimes nice and sometimes nasty, since either can suit the self-interest of genes at different times. —Richard Dawkins

Loye's major point is that not enough attention has been given to Darwin's ideas on moral development. This too can be questioned. The "Natural Morality" page on Wikipedia states:

Natural morality describes a form of morality that is based on how humans evolved, rather than a morality acquired from societal norms or religious teachings. Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is central to the modern conception of natural morality, although its roots go back at least to naturalism.

Not surprisingly, many quotes are given from The Descent of Man in this introductory article. Again, just as Darwin emphatically claimed we are descended from pre-human animals, our sense of morality too has evolutionary roots. He is averse to any suggestion that in both cases spiritual factors have played a role in evolution. This should make us suspicious of any attempts to argue the opposite claim—let alone a spiritual element of cosmic proportions.

Loye makes much of the fact that in Descent Darwin used the words "love", "moral sensitivity" and "mutual aid" much more than "survival of the fittest", "competition" and "selfishness", and that this is not reflected in the book's index, and presents this as a world-shaking scientific discovery. Since we are counting words now: the term "natural morality" gets over 50 million hits on Google:

As an interesting aside, Loye mentions his GERG-group member Eric Chaisson, an astronomer who we have encountered when covering the Big History literature.[10] In his paper "The Natural Science Underlying Big History", discussed in this essay, he states unambiguously that the emergence of complexity should be understood along naturalistic lines:

Nature's many varied complex systems—including galaxies, stars, planets, life, and society—are islands of order within the increasingly disordered Universe.
None of Nature's organized structures, not even life itself, is a violation (nor even a circumvention) of the celebrated 2nd law of thermodynamics.
Self-assembly, self-organization, and self-ordering do not exist in Nature. Dynamical processes in which “interacting bodies are autonomously driven into ordered structures” always involve energy.

This fatally goes against much of the cosmic speculations about Eros by Ken Wilber, in which an inherent drive towards complexity is postulated in nature, to explain the sequence "from dirt to Shakespeare". I refer to Chaisson's long article for the finer details. Loye closes by discussing Darwin's stance towards religion and spirituality. Though he himself did not believe in either God or the after-life, he did see that the belief in unseen agents was universal, and played its role in human culture.

Looking to the future, Loye opines we don't need a Modern Synthesis, but a Super Synthesis. In relationship to Wilber's person and work, Loye mentions in a puzzling passage that he felt some reservations to some of Wilber's ideas (unfortunately unspecified), but in the end wanted to align with his larger project:

As for the problem that earlier stopped me, as others also came to feel about their differences, it melted within all that was rare and right in Wilber's vast spread of understanding. I came to know him, like him, and in wonderment see how out of the charisma of his "controversial" pioneering had emerged a remarkable contribution to the scientific, spiritual and popular understanding of evolution. (p. 137)
Along with other important Gatebreaker contributions from Laszlo, Eisler and others, I came to feel that Wilber's matrix could be vital for the Super Synthesis... Wilber's matrix wasn't perfect, as ferocious critics swarmed to point out. Nothing ever is. But there was nothing else like it around and the more I looked at it the more I became fascinated by its possibilities. (p. 138)

He sees he integral movement as playing a crucial role in establishing this Super Synthesis. He mentions an Altenberg conference of 2008, "Towards an Extended Evolutionary Synthesis", held at the Konrad Lorenz Institute, and another meeting in 2016, "New Trends in Evolutionary Biology", by biologists at the Royal Society, both acknowledging the limitation of the survival of the fittest notion and the need to move on, but both failing to include the "long ignored social and systems science" of the Descent. Then again, that same year of the first conference the first Integral Theory Conference was held, at the John F. Kennedy University in California, were integral students gathered to discuss "Integral Theory in Action: Serving Self, Others and Kosmos". For Loye, these integralists are the real Gatebreakers of today. He could have mentioned that after a couple of these integral conferences held in the US (in 2008, 2010, 2013 and 2015), the torch has gone to Europe, to Hungary, again, where several Integral European Conferences have been held since then (in 2016, 2018 and an upcoming one in 2020).

David Loye
David Loye (b. 1926)

To conclude, Loye's main thesis is that we have erroneously applied Darwin's first theory about natural evolution (from the Origin) to society, where we should instead have been inspired by his second model, of cultural evolution (from Descent). Would that imply that this first model is still the most accurate when it comes to natural evolution, including when the "descent of man" is concerned? It is an important conclusion given Wilbers repeated attempts to cast doubt on modern evolutionary theory even in that area. Has Loye given an accurate description of what that first model implies? I don't think so, given his stereotyped analysis of the "selfish gene paradigm" as the only scientific game in town. Much more can be, and needs to be said, about evolutionary science. Have we neglected Darwin's ideas about the evolutionary origin of morality or the future of humanity itself, as Loye claims? Perhaps, but not to the degree that he makes it out to be. This is a healthy field of study.[3]

All in all, his portrayal of the gloomy state of science and our salvation in Darwin 2.0 strikes me too much as conspirationalist New Age science.

NOTES

[1] David Loye, "Darwin and Wilber", www.integralworld.net, February 2009.

[2] David Loy & Ken Wilber, "For the Love of Darwin: Beyond the Selfish Gene", www.integrallife.com, February 2015.

[3] Frank Visser, "Duplicating Darwin: Ken Wilber's and David Loye's Misreading of Neo-Darwinism", www.integralworld.net, February 2015. See also: David Lane & Andrea Diem-Lane, "Darwin's Moral Sense: The Evolution of a Conscience [What's Love Got to Do with It?]", www.integralworld.net, February 2015.

[4] Frank Visser, "Is Darwin Really 'On Our Side'?: Ken Wilber's Misreading of Neo-Darwinism", www.integralworld, June 2017.

[5] David Loye, Rediscovering Darwin: The Rest of Darwin's Theory and Why We Need It Today, Pacific Grove, CA, Romanes Press, 2018.

[6] Frank Visser, "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered: Relating Ken Wilber's View of Spiritual Evolution to the Current Evolution Debates", wwwintegralworld.net, August 2010. For more recent essays see: Frank Visser, "My Critical Essays on Ken Wilber", www.integralworld.net

[7] Frank Visser, "'Precisely nothing new or unusual', Ken Wilber on Darwin's Lasting Contribution", www.integralworld.net, November 2019.

[8] Frank Visser, "Wilber and Laszlo, Two Authors of Evolutionary Fiction", www.integralworld.net, April 2014.

[9] Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder, London, Houghton Mifflin, 1998.

[10] Frank Visser, "Integral Theory and Cosmic Evolution, A Naturalistic Approach", www.integralworld.net, December 2014.



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