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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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The Magic Wand of
Self-Organization

Ken Wilber Meets Neil Shubin

Frank Visser

Wilber prefers the explanatory value of an unspecified force of "self-organization", even with a spiritual or transcendental nature.

Neil Shubin, an American paleontologist, evolutionary biologist and popular science writer, is known for his co-discovery of the Tiktaalik roseae fossil, the fish-with-legs that forms the "missing link" between fish and all land animals. Some evolution critics say evolutionary theory has no predictive power. Well, Shubin figured that this remarkable fossil simply had to exist and was most likely to be found in rocks of a certain age (375 million years ago, a period called late Devonian) and several areas of the globe (he chose Ellesmere Island in Nunavut, Canada). And guess what, after several attempts, described in his first book Your Inner Fish (2008), he found it.

To make the discovery even more remarkable and a testament to the powers of science to cover vast stretches of geological time: "Ellesmere Island was part of the continent Laurentia (modern eastern North America and Greenland), which was centered on the equator and had a warm climate. When discovered, one of the skulls was found sticking out of a cliff. Upon further inspection, the fossil was found to be in excellent condition for a 375-million-year-old specimen." (Wikipedia) Think about this: all these millions of years the face of the earth changed, continents migrated around the globe from tropical to arctic climates, and yet, fossilized traces from this dim past were right below the earth's surface, if only your eyes were trained to spot them.

Some Assembly Required, Neil Shubin

Now Shubin has written a new book: Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA[1], in which he turns to the science of evolutionary development, or "evo-devo", to understand "How did big changes in evolution happen? Is our presence on Earth the product of mere chance?"—questions familiar to the readers of Integral World. With much historical and anectdoctal detail Shubin sketches not only some of the greatest discoveries that have been made in this field, but also the researchers that tirelessly worked to get a clearer picture of the workings of evolution. For a general introduction to evo-devo, Sean B. Carroll's Endless Forms Most Beautiful (2005) is a superb introduction.[2] Carroll described the history of evolutionary theory as three revolutions: (1) the Darwinian revolution, which pointed to natural selection as the major mechanism of evolution, (2) the Modern Synthesis, which incorporated genetics and DNA and (3) the evo-devo revolution, which learned from embryological development how organismal forms actually are made.

This extended or "post-modern" synthesis contains many different schools, and evo-devo is only one of them. Much debate is still going on about how to assess the value of these more recent discoveries. These views range from "the modern synthesis is dead" on the one hand, to "these new insights can easily be incorporated in the modern synthesis" on the other.[3] Most researchers take a middle position—notwithstanding the usual hype in the popular press about Darwin being wrong or refuted—and would say: yes, these recent discoveries enrich our picture of evolution tremendously, but no, this does not refute in any sense the value of the first two revolutions. Carroll and Shubin are representatives of this more integral view. It is a lively field full of animosity in both directions, but that's all healthy and fine. Here's a rough timeline:

PERIOD SCHOOL VERSION
1850-1900 Charles Darwin Evolution 1.0
1900-1950 The modern synthesis Evolution 2.0
1950-2000 The extended synthesis Evolution 3.0
Table 1: Three generations of evolutionary thinking.

Creationists have taken this scientific controversy as an opportunity to promote their own non-scientific alternatives. Perry Marshall, a pro-science creationist, also has strong opinions about the Darwinian classic notions of mutation and selection, and presents recent developments (symbiosis, epigenetics, horizontal gene transfers, etc., but not evo-devo) as alternatives. But as I said in my review of his Evolution 2.0, these discoveries enrich our picture of evolution, but don't tell us how elephants evolved.[4] Ken Wilber enters the picture here as well. He has recently claimed that "the modern theory of evolution is catastrophically incomplete!"[5], but without any empirical specification or even historical awareness—is he referring to the modern synthesis or to the latest scientific findings?—these claims are empty of meaning and just religious propaganda. Wilber prefers the explanatory value of an unspecified force of "self-organization", even with a spiritual or transcendental nature.

‘Antecedents that extend deep in time”

Skipping the historical parts, we learn from Shubin that, again and again, evolutionary innovations are not so much a matter of creating things from scratch but of repurposing what is already available.

The invasion of land by descendents of fish did not originate a new organ—it changed the function of an organ that already existed. Moreover, virtually all fish have some kind of air sac, whether lung or swim bladder. Air sacs shifted from being used for a life in water to later enabling creatures to live and breathe on land. The change did not involve the origin of a new organ, instead the transformation was, as Darwin said more generally, accompanied by a change of function.(p. 15-16)
The not-so-hidden secret is that biological innovations never come about during the great transition they are associated with. Feathers did not arise during the evolution of flight, nor did lungs and limbs originate during the transition to land. What's more, these great revolutions in the history of life, and others like them, could not have happened otherwise. Major changes in the history of life didn't have to wait for the simultaneous origin of many inventions. Massive change came about by repurposing ancient structures for new uses. Innovations have antecedents that extend deep in time. Nothing ever begins when you think it does. (p. 27)

Morphological differences between species are often just a matter of differences in the timing in which the various organ structures are laid down in development, since all start from a single cell. And this timing is governed by regulator genes, that switch on and off the genes that build proteins and subsequent forms. Our genome consists about 1-2% of these protein encoding genes, it has turned out. And what about the rest of the genome? About 8% is the result of viral insertions! And even more surprising: the bulk of the genome is full of endless repetitions due to so-called selfish genes that know only one thing: replicate (formerly called "junk DNA"—part of this, but not all of it, is now recognized as having a gene regulatory function). "All told, over two-thirds of our entire genome is composed of strings of repeated copies of sequences with no known function. Duplication in the genome has run amok." (p. 140). Most of this has been learned by the study of "monsters", which have six fingers or which have legs or wings on locations where you would expect a different appendage. What took most researchers by surprise, especially those of the neo-Darwinist school, is that organisms as different as flies, mice and men share the same "genetic toolkit" which they can use to build up their bodies. With recent techniques of genetic manipulation we can even reproduce these "monsters" at will.

Small genetic changes, especially when they happen early in development, can have large consequences. Our brains, for example, have increased in size in a relatively short time-span, even though we share many genes with our closest ancestors. For example, everything from flies to humans have the NOTCH gene, but we have three duplications that are involved in the building of our neocortex. A viral infection, similar to HIV, provided extra genes to mammals, that enabled its female members to suppress their immune system, so the growing embryo is not prematurely aborted (after all, it is half the product of foreign genes coming from the father). Jumping genes that start out with randomly moving around through the genome can end up becoming a regulator gene, which switches on and off certain complex features. Another crucial human gene, related to the creation of memories, too seems to have originated from a viral infection—again, weirdly enough, related to HIV. You can't make this up:

The genome is the stuff of B movies, like a graveyard filled with ghosts. Bits and pieces of ancient viral fragments lie everywhere—by some estimates, 8 percent of our genome is composed of dead viruses, more than a hundred thousand of them at last count. Some of these fossil viruses have kept a function, to make proteins useful in pregnancy, memory, and countless other activities discovered in the past five years. Others sit like corpses where they are attached to the genome only to be extinguished and decay. (p. 166)

Then again, sometimes whole genomes are incorporated into cells, as has been the case with the bacteria that would become our mitochondria (and chlorophyl in plants). Here too, instead of building something from scratch, evolution prefers to "acquire" ready-made functionalities that are already present and tested in other organisms. Multi-cellularity, which was a huge step forward in the emergence of complex organisms like us, can be the result of single-celled organisms joining forces (for temporary defence against predators), or alternatively, dividing themselves as they normally do but without losing contact with their offspring. Microbes turn out to have the genes to make cells stick like that, though they use them for a different function.

"Nothing ever begins when you think it does: antecedents appear earlier and in different places than we imagine" (p. 216)—this is the take home message of Shubin's latest book.

Neil Shubin, PhD, with a fossil model of Tiktaalik roseae

‘Just by looking at evolution itself’

This presentation of the current state of evolutionary (and develomental) biology flatly contradicts much of Wilber's understanding of the subject. He generally claims that science can understand the evolution of things once they have emerged, but not how they could have emerged for the first time—thus opening the door to transcendental and spiritual views of evolution that center around notions of novelty or creativity. He often resorts to theological pronouncements (based on Whitehead's process philosophy or Eastern schools of thought) that mystify these evolutionary innovations instead of clarifying them. And he uses a rhetoric that makes things like eyes and wings look so complex that no natural causes could have made them to emerge (a common tactic of creationists). Or he suggests that evolutionary science can explain microevolution but not macroevolution. The contrast with Shubin (and his colleagues), who actually study these areas, couldn't not be stronger.

In particular, I was struck by a passage that sounded eerily Wilberian. In a passage where he recalls a discussion he had with Ernst Mayr about the heretical ideas of Richard Goldschmidt (who opposed the idea of gradual evolution in favor of macromutations that lead to new species, or "hopeful monsters"), he argues:

The assault on Goldschmidt's idea was immediate and fierce. The most salient criticisms challenged the chances that a hopuful monster could be viable and ultimately reproduce. First, the mutation would need to make viable and fertile offspring. It was well known by that time that most mutants, let alone dramatic ones, were either sterile or died before they could give rise to offspring. Even if a mutant were to survive and be fertile, its fate would still be unsure. It wouldn't do if only a single mutant were present in the population—it would need to find a mate that also had the mutation. For Goldschmidt's hopeful monster to give rise to a major revolution in a single step, a chain of unlikely events would have to happen: a major mutation would have to make a viable adult; it would have to happen in males and females simultaneously; and some of those individuals would need to be able to find each other, mate, rear their own offspring, which themselves could reproduce. (p. 149)

Now compare this to Wilber's long winding but fact-free prose on where neo-Darwinism supposedly fails:

We can think of this as "Spirit-in-action", if we wish we can think of this as "Evolution-in-action", as long as the evolution is updated, from the mere neo-Darwinian synthesis, which the more you look at that, the more absolutely inadequate it becomes to account for evolution.
One quick example. The standard talk is of mutations occurring, in humans or any other life, genetic material, and then this, apparently, has some capacity to help an organism survive, in the overall, generalized, "survival of the fittest". But in order for that to happen, a couple of almost impossible things have to happen.
One, to get from one species to the next, you have to have mutations occurring, anywhere from six to eight. Almost all mutations are lethal. So we are going to have this extraordinary capacity of six to eight mutations occurring, none of them lethal. They are drawing together to create some kind of organic system, that is going to give, whoever inherits that, a major advantage in survival of the fittest.
So we have these extremely improbably genes, all coming together, at the same time, that will also include all of the improvements that are going to increase average survival and advantage of the fittest, and in fact none of them have actually been checked out. So they are coming together, still in some random kind of fashion, and it is sort of said that when they are passed on, they are going to do much, much better, in the competition, for survival.
So how those are actually known to do that, how these six mutations are, unbelievably, going to produce something that is going to make a subsequent organism just incredibly more survival capable... that is not explained.
If you look at something like the immune system, with hundreds of components, and it was supposed to come into existence more or less at the same time, all at once, but none of those components has yet been checked! So how do we know, that all hundred of these things, are going to automatically work together, without ever having done so before, to create an immune system that is going to take care of this organism.
That is really stretching the belief that that could occur. That's just the beginning. Those hundred things that are going to get together in one organism—the male—the number of hundred random mutations have to come together in the female! She's in Mexico, he's in Siberia [audience starts laughing]. Somehow they have got to find each other... a little dinner.... some flowers... a little candy... and they have sex.
And all of these marvelous, outrageously impossible things have to come together and then their offspring, is like some kind of super-offspring, that has all these things in place, and then we have to make sure that they grow up and, you know, don't get eaten by bears, or anything, and then they also have to come together, and mate, and produce more of those kinds of things, and they have to somehow catch on and start their life processes, and so on.
And the whole thing, in general, starts to sound so outlandish, that is what Plato called "a likely story", and so we have this likely story of evolution, occurring under those circumstances... and it really strains the imagination.
Now all of this is put in place, because the assumption is that there is nothing in the universe, that drives it upward. There is only a universe that drives toward entropy, dissipation, and downward movement. So that is what evolution is pushing against. And if it is not pushing against and against it, the odds are very small that it is going to overcome any of those problems.
Female in Mexico, male in Siberia... how in God's name do we get them together, and all of those dozen or so mutations have to occur simultaneously, and non-lethally, and without even being tried... and that those are somehow going to get together... How? Not explained. How they come together in the first place, not explained.
The odds of having a dozen non-lethal mutations occur together, simultaneously, is something like one in seventeen billion, and this has to occur IF the male in Siberia and the female in Mexico actually find each other. A likely story!
So what we are really have to backup and look at is the idea that somewhere in the cosmos, is it just a drive to fall apart? What we see as evolution moves—from dust to Shakespeare—is a winding up. There is some sort of force, of upper evolutionary drive, that is behind this extraordinary capacity that evolution has produced. Again, from quarks and strings and atoms, to you!
That is not a random process! There is no way in hell that is a random process. So one of the ways to talk about this is as "Spirit-in-action".
And of course many of the founders of evolution had something very similar in mind. And so we can see evolution as a Spirit-in-action, that is first pushing uphill, and second, self-organizing, inherently self-organizing, to bring these various factors together, not just to have them randomly separated, and falling apart, and making it less and less likely that they are even going to find each other,...
And so Spirit-in-action becomes the very means and mechanism whereby the manifest universe is manifested by Spirit. So what we have is an actual intermediate mechanism that helps us understand how something comes out of nothing. How this extraordinary, marvelous, unbelievably gorgeous universe has come into being. As Spirit-in-action, as an inherent self-organizing drive, as something that is vital, conscious, creative..
Whitehead said there are only three categories needed to get a universe going. One was the concept of "the One", one was "the Many", and the third was "the creative advance into novelty". And if you look at evolution on the whole, that is primarily what you see. You see atoms growing into molecules, molecules into cells, cells into multi-cellular organisms, organisms into plants, into amphibians, into reptiles–each of these with increased physiological ingredients and components.
Where did those all come from? More random mutations and natural selection? Right! [eyes rolling upward]
They came into being through a self-organizing drive to produce this higher and more holistic material. And so just by looking at evolution itself, we can start to get a very positive sense, of what Spirit—talking a bit metaphorically and anthropocentrically—what Spirit might have in mind, because from the very beginning it is driven in a certain direction. Of greater wholeness, of greater love, of greater care, of unfolding. And that is a extraordinarily beautiful set of requirements for the cosmos to unfold into.
And if I were Spirit, just looking into something that I would help to create, the Grand Canyon would be a great start! And then all of these extraordinary capacities that humans have, that deers have, that ants have... Some of these animal capacities are staggering. And all of that has been part of this ongoing evolutionary growth of... Spirit.[6]

Here Wilber effectively presents the long discredited theory of hopeful monsters as state-of-the-art evolutionary theory, so he can dismiss it off hand. Instead of taking the trouble to read up on the latest literature, but "just by looking at evolution itself", Wilber employs his magic wand of self-organization to "explain" these complex phenomena. And in his dictionary, introducing Spirit into the picture counts as explanation. He talks about providing an "actual intermediate mechanism, that helps us understand" evolution... And look how he suggests he is bringing an "update to the "mere neo-Darwinian synthesis", blissfully unaware of what the extended synthesis has brought to the table.

A truly sad state of affairs. Whoever wants to present a new theory of evolution should first study what is currently known. But of course it is always much more uplifting to hear that our ability to think is the result of a cosmic spiritual drive towards consciousness, than to a viral infection that enabled us to create neuronal tissue. Uplifting perhaps, but scientifically without any value whatsoever. And since when is it true that "of course many of the founders of evolution had something very similar in mind"? Of course? Wilber probably refers to Hegel and Spencer, not to Darwin or Mendel.

It is sometimes suggested in the popular scientific press that evo-devo has somehow rehabilitated Goldschmidt's notion of hopeful monsters[7], but that is a misunderstanding.[8] There's no better authority than Sean B. Carroll to close this case once and for all:

The architects of the Modern Synthesis united evolutionary disciplines by asserting that the mechanisms that operated at the level of individuals in populations and species were sufficient to account for the great differences that evolve over geological time. If, as some have propose at various times over the past century, changes in form were due to very rare, special mutations... then this extrapolation would not be justified. For a half century since the Modern Synthesis, this specter of a "hopeful monster" has lingered. The facts of Evo Devo squash it.
The extrapolation from small-scale variation to large-scale evolution is well justified. In evolutionary parlance, Evo Devo reveals that macroevolution is the product of microevolution writ large. (Endless Forms Most Beautiful, p. 291)

It does really mean something if even the front-man of evo-devo sees continuity with the traditional evolutionists.

NOTES

[1] Neil Shubin, Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA, New York: Pantheon Books, 2020.

[2] Sean B. Carroll, Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo-Devo and the Making of the Animal Kingdom, New York: Norton, 2005.

[3] Douglas J. Futuyma, "Can Modern Evolutionary Theory Explain Macroevolution?", In: E. Serrelli and N. Gontier (eds.), Macroevolution, Springer, 2015.

[4] Frank Visser, "Our DNA as Proof for God's Existence?, Review of Perry Marshall's "Evolution 2.0: Breaking the Deadlock Between Darwin and Design", www.integralworld.net, January 2017.

[5] Ken Wilber & Corey de Vos, "Kosmos: An Integral Voyage", integrallife.com, July 16, 2019.

[6] Ken Wilber, "Taking evolution into account", 2014, Fourth Turning Conference, video #4. Reposted on integrallife.com, December 19, 2017.

[7] Tanguy Chouard, "Evolution: Revenge of the hopeful monster", nature.com, 17 February 2010; and Olivia Judson, "The Monster Is Back, and It's Hopeful", New York Times, January 22, 2008.

[8] Carl Zimmer, "Hopeless Monsters: A Guest Post from Dr. Jerry Coyne", www.nationalgeographic.com, January 24, 2008. See also: Günter Theißen, "The proper place of hopeful monsters in evolutionary biology", Theory in Biosciences volume 124, pages349-369 (2006).



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