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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Books: Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (SUNY, 2003), and The Corona Conspiracy: Combatting Disinformation about the Coronavirus (Kindle, 2020).

Neo-Darwinism Incomplete, Hence Spirit Exists?

Brief Comments on Taylor's "Beyond Neo-Darwinism"

Frank Visser

There's no doubt that Neo-Darwinism is incomplete and that its adherents might exhibit some conservatism.

British psychologist and author Steve Taylor, contributor to Integral World, sent me a new essay "Beyond Neo-Darwinism", which I was happy to post on this website. Not because I agree with his views, but because they resonate with what Ken Wilber has argued in relationship to science, and especially Neo-Darwinism. Though Taylors "Perhaps the theory of spiritual evolution provides a little more explanation." is more modest and sympathetic than Wilbers "the only theory that can actually explain the mysteries of evolution satisfactorily", they both share the same worldview: Spirit-first. Both see the Neo-Darwinist model as incapable of explaining life's complexities. His earlier essay "Beyond Materialism" gives a further elucidation of his philosophy. I have responded with "Spiritual science is a contradiction in terms"—which more or less indicates where our loyalties rest. In the current essay he mentions a few items regarding evolutionary science, which invite some brief comments.

Taylor states that Charles Darwin, at the end of his life, had second thoughts about the relative importance of natural selection. "Although he still believed that natural selection was the main way in which variety had arisen in evolution, he harboured serious doubts that it was the only way. He didn't believe that natural selection was sufficient to account for the variety of life forms on Earth, and the seeming ease with which they arise." These doubts, according to Taylor, exist until our very day. The major point of contention is the question if natural selection can ever a creative process that yields complexity, instead of merely a negative way to get rid of what doesn't survive.

In Darwins own words, both the positive and negative workings of natural selection were definitely included, even in the fifth edition of the Origin:

This preservation of favourable variations and the destruction of injurious variations, I call Natural Selection, or the Survival of the Fittest. Variations neither useful nor injurious would not be affected by natural selection and would be left a fluctuating element.[1]

And in my earlier response to Taylor I quoted Stephen Jay Gould where he emphasized in the paragraph "Natural Selection as a Creative Force" that the creative nature of natural selection was in fact Darwins main thesis:

Darwin's theory therefore cannot be equated with the simple claim that natural selection operates. Nearly all his colleagues and predecessors accepted this postulate. Darwin, in his characteristic and radical way, grasped that this standard mechanism for preserving the type could be inverted, and then converted into the primary cause of evolutionary change. Natural selection obviously lies at the center of Darwin's theory, but we must recognize, as Darwin's second key postulate, the claim that natural selection acts as the creative force of evolutionary change. The essence of Darwinism cannot reside in the mere observation that natural selection operates—for everyone had long accepted a negative role for natural selection in eliminating the unfit and preserving the type.[2]

But are random mutations sufficient to account for these marvelous complexities? Taylor doubts this, and with him many spiritual or religious authors, because mutations are mostly considered to be trivial or harmful. And when more than one mutation is required, the chances for that to happen are vanishingly small (Wilber uses the same line of reasoning). Taylor quotes from "the eminent French zoologist Pierre-Paul Grassé" author of Evolution of Living Organisms (1977), to make this point. Looking up that very early work I stumbled on a review by Theodosius Dobzhansky (who is featured here on this website in our series "Great Thinkers in Evolutionary Biology"), one of contributors of the Modern Synthesis in biology, in which he finds much to criticize in Grassé's main work:

The book of Pierre P. Grassé is a frontal attack on all kinds of "Darwinism". Its purpose is "to destroy the myth of evolution as a simple, understood, and explained phenomenon," and to show that evolution is a mystery about which little is, and perhaps can be, known.... The main argument, variations of which are repeated throughout the book, is that evolution cannot be explained by chance....
No evolutionist supposes that evolution is a product of chance alone... Chance does enter at the levels of mutation and recombination... However, chance is counteracted by the antichance factor, natural selection. Grassé has no use for natural selection....
Grassés analysis leads to strange conclusions. We are told that "the immanent finality is an intrinsic property of living beings; without it they would not exist."
To invalidate natural selection as an evolutionary factor, Grassé dusts off the ancient objection that complex organs, such as the eyes of vertrebrates, have too many interdependent parts which must all be simultaneously present to make the organ functional... Natural selection builds complex organs by gradually improving simple ones, which nevertheless perform useful functions in their possessor...
The title of the last chapter, "A new interpretation of evolutionary phenomena" catches the eye. Alas, the novelty is questionable and the validity even more so. Having rejected mutation and natural selection as sources and guides of evolution, Grassé has no other choice but to say that the real causes of evolution have not yet been discovered....
The mutation-selection theory attempts, more or less successfully, to make the causes of evolution accessible to reason. The postulate that the evolution is "oriented" by some unknown force explains nothing. This is not to say that the synthetic, or "Darwinian" according to Grassé theory has explained everything. Far from this, this theory opens to view a great field which needs investigation. Nothing is easier than to point out that this or that problem is unsolved and puzzling. But to reject what is known, and to appeal to some wonderful future discovery which may explain it all, is contrary to sound scientific method. The sentence with which Grassé ends his book is disturbing: "It is possible that in this domain biology, impotent, yields the floor to metaphysics."[3]

This could be a review of one of Wilbers or Taylors books: the explanatory power of scientific theories of evolution is downplayed in favor of a metaphysical "theory" that is not further specified. The randomness of evolution is stresses over the non-random workings of natural selection. Intrinsic properties and an immanent finality of organisms are seen as cause behind their complexity, instead of the interplay between organism and environment. The new "theory" that is presented has nothing a good theory should have: a specification of the mechanisms involved.

Taylor's alternative to neo-Darwinism amounts to:

An alternative is to suggest that evolution is not a random and accidental process, but has an impetus behind it, a tendency to move towards increased complexity and increased awareness. In other words, evolution is a teleological process—that is, it moves in a certain direction, with a certain purpose. At the same time, this impetus means that living systems have a inherently dynamic quality, which enables them to respond to challenges with creative flexibility.

But introducing a metaphysical or spiritual principle—be it Jehova, Eros, Spirit, impetus or drive—is not the same as theoretically clarifying biological and evolutionary phenomena. That Taylor insists that his view is different from creationism or Intelligent Design (Wilber usually follows the same strategy) is hardly convincing. He just has a different concept of the Divine. In Taylors worldview, Spirit or "fundamental consciousness", apparently of cosmic proportions, "gives rise to material forms and living beings, and pervades them." This is quite a tall order for an attempt to explain how animals got more complex during evolution. How can that possibly work? Is there any evidence for this cosmic scenario? A theoretical vacuity looms here...

He points to the German idealists, Sri Aurobindo, Teilhard de Chardin, Henri Bergson, Michael Murphy and Ken Wilber, to assure his readers he is in good company, but these "spiritual evolutionists" represent the speculative views of evolution that Darwin laid to rest. Where both his forerunners and contemporaries believed in mysterious evolutionary transformations, Darwin introduced the notion of variation (and selection) to account for life's complexities—without the need to postulate any Creator Spirit. This is the radicality of Darwin few spiritual authors are willing to accept.

Where Wilber usually just points to Kauffman and Prigogine to argue for a creative universe, Taylor goes into much more detail. He points to areas of research where the claims of Neo-Darwinism are called into question. For example, in the schools called "The Third Way of Evolution" or "The Extended or Post-Modern Synthesis" (which are similar but not identical), it is believed that (and the last sentence if favorite among creationists):

Although this theory [neo-Darwinism] can account for the phenomena it concentrates on, namely variation of traits in populations, it leaves aside a number of other aspect of evolution, such as the roles of developmental plasticity and epigenesis, or of nonstandard mechanisms such as assimilation. Most important, it completely avoids the origination of phenotypic traits and organismal form. In other words, neo-Darwinism has no theory of the generative.[4]

Taylor even questions the role of mutations in speciation, by stating "The standard view is that random mutations slowly create more and more variety over millions of years, and eventually these differences build up into distinct, new species. But it may not be quite as simple as this." Again, he relies on Grassé, where he could more fruitfully have consulted Jerry Coyne's and H. Allan Orr's Speciation (2004), which gives an exhaustive treatment of the whole field. Mutations cause variations, Taylor holds, but never true evolution. But isn't the whole Tree of Life built of diverging groups of organisms, that slowly accumulate differences, from variations to species to genera to classes to orders to phyla... How is a supposed Spirit taking care of all that?

He also touches on the difference between emergence and his spiritual philosophy.

The only real difference between the theory of emergence and 'spiritual evolution' is that the former suggests that emergence happens spontaneously, as an inherent property of systems, and of life itself. But of course, this doesn't explain where this inherent property comes from, or even what it is. The idea that new levels of order spontaneously emerge from lower levels seems magical...

This seems a mystification to me of the topic of emergence. Take the very simplest example I can think of: the water molecule. H and O atoms spontaneously merge into H2O molecules. Do we understand why this happens? Yes, because O wants electrons which H can provide. And do we understand why water behaves the way it does and has properties not found in the H and O atoms? Again, yes, because of the way electric charges get divided over the water molecule. Do we need to explain any further where this "inherent property" of emergence comes from? I don't think so.

And lets face it: hasn't this been the strategy followed by Wilber over the years? Take a few shots at the supposed shortcomings of Neo-Darwinism and jump to a Spirit-infused worldview?

The phenomena of "adaptive mutation" seems to point to a creative aspect of nature: "In adaptive mutation, it's almost as if the mutations aren't random at all, but are somehow being 'directed' to react to the situation in the appropriate way, exactly when they are required." Solutions have been offered from the new field of quantum biology. But Taylor has a better suggestion: "adaptive mutation could simply be an expression of the same creativity that allows life forms to move towards greater complexity and consciousness (and that allows living systems to spontaneously generate new levels of order and complexity)." In this way "creativity" or "flexibility" become a container for all the phenomena we still don't understand. We still would like to know how a Spirit gets this done to the level of genetic mutations!

Summing up, there's no doubt that Neo-Darwinism is incomplete (no field of science has final answers) and that its adherents might exhibit some conservatism (both rational and irrational). But it does not at all follow that the way out of this situation is to embrace spiritual worldviews that are characterized by grand knowledge claims coupled with a theoretical emptiness. And lets face it: hasn't this been the strategy followed by Wilber over the years? Take a few shots at the supposed shortcomings of Neo-Darwinism and jump to a Spirit-infused worldview?

No, the field of evolutionary biology is alive and kicking, and the various post-modern schools are adding their own nuances to the scientific picture of evolution. It is, in the words of Dobzhansky, "a great field which needs investigation." One can think of the field of evo-devo or evolutionary developmental biology, which has clarified how organs are built from genetic toolkits of ancient evolutionary origin. We know now how a fly embryo builds its wings! Methinks that an integral view of these biological schools might yield a fascinating view of what we currently know about evolution. An accomplishment that pales so called spiritual theories of evolution, which have to rely on unspecified notions of creativity. Jumping from the incompleteness of Neo-Darwinism to the existence of Spirit is an unwarranted and hasty conclusion.


[1] Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species, Fifth edition, 1869.

[2] Stephen Jay Gould, The Structure of Evolutionary Theory, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2002, pp. 137-141, Chapter Two: "The Essence of Darwinism and the Basis of Modern Orthodoxy"

[3] Dobzhansky, T. (1975). Darwinian or 'Oriented' Evolution? Evolution, 29(2), 376-378. doi:10.2307/2407229

[4] Gerd B. Müller, Stuart A. Newman, Origination of Organismal Form: Beyond the Gene in Developmental and Evolutionary Biology, MIT Press, 2003, p. 7

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