An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Frank Visser founded in 1997 (back then under the name of "The World of Ken Wilber"). He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: "Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion" (SUNY Press, 2003) and of many essays on this website. He currently is service desk manager for the worldwide Sara Lee websites at the online advertising agency Lost Boys.


Ken Wilber's

How Not to Make a Case
for Spiritual Evolution

Frank Visser

So what exactly is the "novelty" that evolutionary theory supposedly fails to account for?

In a recent members-only video on Integral Life, titled "Can Evolutionary Science Explain Evolution Itself? / The Mystery of Evolution"[1], Ken Wilber reiterates his view on evolution before a group of students. (Though the larger part of the video is about first-person consciousness, and the inability of science to explain it—or should we perhaps say that science says consciousness is not what we think it is? However, in this essay, we will focus here on evolution proper).

From the Intro text:

Nothing has done more to revolutionize our understanding of the universe than the theory of evolution. It has almost universally reformatted the way we think of the world and of ourselves, plugging the human condition into a much larger story of creative emergence, a legacy that extends all the way back to the Big Bang. But as much as our modern scientific methodologies have helped to illuminate the natural world around us, pressing ever-deeper into the unknown, they have done very little to eliminate the wondrous Mystery we all find ourselves suspended in. Science has been able to provide the "what" and the "how" of evolution, but the "why" remains just as elusive as ever—why is there something instead of nothing? Why does there appear to be a natural "tilt" of the universe toward increasing creativity and complexity? Why can't evolutionary science seem to bring us any closer to understanding our own interior experiences, as scientific materialists attempt to explain consciousness by explaining it away?

In this video, Wilber clarifies his position: science is helpful with phenomena "once they have arisen", but is unable to explain phenomena "when they appear for the first time". For this, something else is needed, Wilber calls it in his writings and talks: Eros, Spirit-in-Action, or let's just call it God. Consequently, such a spiritual view of evolution generates feelings of awe, as testified by one of his students and approved by Wilber.

I consider this view to be the result of lazy thinking and in the end harmful. It does not explain anything. It is anti-discovery. It makes an easy division in on the on hand reductionistic science, which does its own job of clarifying the details of nature, and on the other hand, evolutionary spirituality, which "explains" evolution and provides an inspiring wordview of growth.

Your Inner Fish

Why then, can scientists write with so much passion and fascination—yes, a sense of wonder even—on the evolution of organisms and their organs, down to the level of the genes, as for example Neil Shubin in his immensely engaging book Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body? And really explain things in the process? Shubin recently discovered a fossil of a fish-with-legs on Ellesmere Island, Canada, which provides the missing link between fish and land animals. He named it Tiktaalik, meaning "big sweet water fish" in the language of the Canadian indigenous people.

Science doesn't deny the Mystery, it deepens it.

So what exactly is the "novelty" that evolutionary theory supposedly fails to account for? Telling enough, this is never specified in Wilber's talks and writing. An eye? A wing? A horse? A dinosaur? Fish getting onto land? Where exactly does science fail and is it in need of a spiritual hypothesis? If this isn't specified, everything becomes meaningless. The pathos is misplaced, as is the casualness of Wilber's pronouncements on evolutionary theory throughout his entire writing career.

Shubin, who specializes in the origin of novel faunas and anatomical systems, writes on his personal website:

I seek to understand the mechanisms behind the evolutionary origin of new anatomical features and faunas. The philosophy that underlies all of my empirical work is derived from the conviction that progress in the study of evolutionary biology results from linking research across diverse temporal, phylogenetic, and structural scales. The Origin of Novel Faunas and Anatomical Systems: Much of today's vertebrate diversity was defined by ecological and evolutionary shifts that happened during two critical intervals in the history of the Earth: the Devonian and the Triassic. These periods serve as the focal point for my research because they witness the origin of both new ecosystems and new anatomical designs. My expeditionary research supplies new fossils and a paleo-environmental context to understand the origin of faunas, whereas our morphological, functional, and developmental studies yield hypotheses on anatomical transformations.

We still need to have a solid integral debate on evolution. This current year being the bi-centennial of Darwin's birth in 1809 (and the 150-year anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species in 1859), there could hardly be a better time. This makes the evolution video on Integral Life so disappointing.

We could start it like this. Darwin essentially proposed some kind of null hypothesis:

The apparent design in nature can be explained without invoking some kind of Designer [Read: Spirit, Eros, Force, Power, Mind, God].

In statistics, the null hypothesis is a plausible hypothesis which may explain a given set of data. A null hypothesis is tested to determine whether the data provide sufficient reason to pursue some alternative hypothesis. This is precisely what Dennett has aptly called "Darwin's Dangerous Idea". It is an idea that flies in the face of what every man and woman in the street, today as much so as in the days of Darwin, believes about biological organisms: they are too complex to have been evolved by random chance—consequently, they point to the existence of some Designer. That's the alternative hypothesis.

Now first, it is important to understand that science has to start with such a "reductionistic" view. Not only is such a view simpler then any other, it also avoids the circularity in any non-reductionistic view that holds that plants grow "because they want to grow". Or, holons group into larger holons, because there is a "tendency" in nature to do so, for that matter. Or, fish managed to get onto the land, because Eros pushed them gently... you get the idea. This has hardly any explanatory value: it assumes precisely what has to be explained. It is the logical fallacy of begging the question.

Second, a test of this null-hypothesis has to be done thoroughly and fairly. Only when it has become clear to anyone involved in the discussion that science, left to it's own, fails to explain evolution should we consider an alternative. And this point certainly has not been reached yet. If we may draw a comparison with marketing, where one can make a Go-error (put something on the market too early) or a Drop-error (same, but too late or not at all), Ken Wilber has made a Go-error. He has proclaimed the need for a spiritual take on evolution without having given an adequate overview of the field (including Intelligent Design).

In this, it's not enough to conjure up some counter examples and proclaim that the naturalistic theory of evolution has been refuted (as Wilber tried, but dramatically failed to do in A Brief History of Everything in his highly dubious statements about eyes and wings). His later statement that these lines were merely meant to illustrate the "necessity of a self-organizing force (or Eros) intrinsic to the universe", again begs the question, because this necessity should first properly be debated. It is one thing to cater to a layman's understanding of evolution; convincing the specialists in this field is something different.[2]

Again, where has it become necessary to invoke such an alternative hypothesis? Certainly NOT when it comes to the subject of the evolution of eyes and wings?! Science turns out to be very well capable of advancing a believable hypothesis (see also Shubin's book in the chapter on vision). Hiding this information from his readers disqualifies Wilber as a trustworthy reporter on one of the major fields of science.

Darwin's famous and succesful "inheritance-with-modification" explanatory model is replaced by Wilber's notions of "inheritance-with-novelty" or "karma-and-creativity" (as the work title of volume 2 of his Kosmos-trilogy has been called for many years now). But if novelty or creativity is treated as something sui generis (which needs no futher explanation), doesn't that lead us to a rather circular notion, in which novelty is explained by... novelty?[3] In contrast, Darwinists like Shubin often explain the emergence of new organs by nature's ability to re-use older structures (e.g. the reptilian jaw-bone re-emerges as our ear-bone, when hearing became more relevant then chewing, etc.). No need for any Eros here.

Even in the days of Darwin, when these topics were hotly debated on both sides of the argument, the null hypothesis of evolution—no extra Force is needed to explain the emergence of complex life forms—looked implausible to the layman. But precisely for that reason, it has turned out to be such a bold and fruitful hypothesis.

When Wilber, in his "An Integral Theory of Consciousness" (1997)—one of his very few essays published in an academic journal—, refers to Daniel Dennett as implying that "there's an evolutionary logic apparently pandemic in its operation", right under a table featuring the Great Chain of Being and Conscioussness, he conveniently ignores that Dennett has in fact refuted exactly such a Mind-first view of evolution in his Darwin's Dangerous Idea!

Andrea Diem-Lane on this website, on Dennett's book on Darwin:

What is Darwin's dangerous idea?

Darwin's idea is the single best idea anyone has ever had, argues Dennett. It is also the most dangerous one. What he means by this is that it burns, like a "Universal Acid," through any misconceptions we have about nature. Special Creation is burned away; the Cosmic Pyramid of God, Mind, Design Order, etc. is annihilated; Plato's essentialism is destroyed; Locke's primacy of Mind is no more.

Darwin single handedly demystified the world with his reductionism and usurped all of our traditional understandings in one swoop.

It's not enough to call Dennett a "reductionist" or Dawkins a "preacher", or to claim that the evidence for self-organization is "overwhelming". That, to say the least, is a strange way to make your case. In science, that is. By thus referring to Dennett, Wilber tries to get science on board, when in fact his spiritual theory of evolution places him outside the field of science altogether.

It's another form of Mysterianism.


[1] Posted February 5th, 2009.

[2] If Wilber still has doubts about the possibility of "chance" evolution of eyes and wings, he would do well to consult Ernst Mayr, who writes in What Evolution Is (2001, 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]."

[3] See for a preliminary sketch of these ideas Wilber's "Excerpt A: An Integral Age at the Leading Edge; Part I: Kosmic Karma" (2002):

In other words, this present moment is both similar to the preceding moment and also somehow different. That issue—the relation of the present to the past—turns out to be crucially important, for it touches every aspect of our lives (psychological to sociological to spiritual). It appears that the past-and-present somehow constitute an inheritance-with-novelty—in other words, the present moment is a mysterious mixture of karma and creativity. That karma-and-creativity appears to be the very matrix of our moment-to-moment reality, and how we conceptualize that matrix will therefore be a crucial ingredient in our own self-understanding.

One wonders, when will these ideas really be fleshed out and published, so they can enter the public domain for a proper evaluation?.

In the same Excerpt A (Part V: Integral Methodological Pluralism) Wilber repeats his line of argument first proposed in A Brief History of Everything for the evolution of eyes and wings, but this time applied to the emergence of mammals:

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.

So Eros collectively creates mammals, and then Darwinian evolution takes over? Is there any evolutionary theorist out there who takes this seriously?

Either there is a drive behind evolution, or there isn't. If 99,99% of all evolutionary theorists don't buy this idea, shouldn't this tell us something? If Wilber's aims at revolutionizing evolutionary theory in any fundamental way, he still hasn't, after all these years, made a compelling case.

Let's finish by quoting Ernest Mayr, author of the authoritative What Evolution Is (2001), from a section on "The Origin of Evolutionary Novelties":

Some of Darwin's critics [such as Wilber] readily admitted that an existing structure could be improved by use and disuse or by natural selection, but how could such processes produce an entirely new structure? ... There are two different pathways by which an evolutionary novelty can be acquired: by an intensification of function or by the adoption of an entirely new function." (p. 204).

Further Reading

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