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Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, a psychologist of religion, founded in 1997 (back then under the name of “The World of Ken Wilber”). He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: “Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion” (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website.


Integral Design

Ken Wilber's Views on Evolution

Frank Visser

Neo-Darwinian theory can't explain shit. Deal with it."
— Ken Wilber
But the purpose of Behe's [Wilber's] exercise, beyond pedagogy, is simply to overwhelm the reader with nature's complexity,

I have written about Wilber's views on evolution on this website many times. For an overview see "The Wilberian Evolution Report". Ever since Wilber wrote about the evolution of eyes and wings, in A Brief History of Everything (1996), I have wondered what his actual position would be in the Intelligent Design (ID) vs. evolution debate, which has captured the attention of the lay public both in the US and Europe. The questions raised in this debate are relevant for the integral community as well.

For is there, or is there not, a spiritual Something at work in evolution? And if so, can science in any way get hold of this Something? Or is speaking and writing about Spirit as a Force in evolution ("Spirit-in-action"), as Wilber has extensively done in his many works, by its very nature a matter of mere poetry?

Unfortunately, Wilber has not yet given a coherent account of his views on evolution. That is quite strange for someone who has subtitled his major work "The Spirit of Evolution", and who is currently advocating an "Evolutionary Spirituality". Wilber often is satisfied to declare that "there's an Eros [his term for Spirit] to the Kosmos", i.e. there's a spiritual influence at work in the cosmos, which can account for the evolution of complex forms of life. (Implying that, without the postulation of such a Force, this complexity cannot be accounted for in any scientific way.)

From the various ad hoc pronouncements Wilber has made over the years, we can however speculate on what his actual position is. Though he has distanced himself from the Intelligent Design movement on various occasions, the structure of his arguments, his strategy when writing about evolutionary theory, is very close to those of the ID-proponents.

Like them, Wilber has tried to cast doubt on neo-Darwinism, by suggesting that most mutations are lethal, or that it cannot explain the evolution of the bird's wing, or the human eye, by stressing the "jumpy" nature of evolution, in which new species suddenly arise on the scene, and by flirting with Stephen Jay Gould's theory of "punctuated equilibrium"—in which evolutionary periods of "statis", or slow development, are followed by brief periods of rapid evolution—which is now widely seen as an exaggerated point of view.

We find this as early as A Brief History of Everything:

The standard neo-Darwinian explanation of chance mutation and natural selection—very few theorists believe this anymore. Evolution clearly operates in part by Darwinian natural selection, but this process simply selects those transformations that have already occurred by mechanisms that absolutely nobody understands."

The original 1996 edition of the book used even stronger language: "The standard, glib, neo-Darwinian explanation of natural selection—absolutely nobody believes this anymore." Even with this editorial revisioning, the language used is still extreme. "Mechanisms that absolutely nobody understands"? Does Wilber correctly convey the status in the field of evolutionary theory? Does he inform his readers correctly of the facts, or is his own agenda (debunking neo-Darwinian theory) all too obvious here?

Pick up any recent book on evolution, for example Why Evolution is True (2009) by Jerry Coyne, and one can read that the neo-Darwinian principles are by no means found wanting by the biological community. On the contrary. Every day, new evidence to substantiate the theory is added to the already impressive records.

Wilber then goes into the age old topic, so dear among creationists since the time of Darwin, that complex organs (such as eyes and wings) cannot have evolved by evolution, because their intermediary stages supposedly would not have any survival value:

Take the standard notion that wings simply evolved from forelegs. It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing from a leg—a half-wing will not do. A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing—you can't run and you can't fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. (p. 22-23)

A little study of the topic in popular books on evolution very soon shows that this presentation caricatures the whole subject beyond recognition. Many careful and detailed studies on the evolution of wings (and eyes) have been written. In any case, what did not happen during evolution is that through a process of many simultaneous mutations wings suddenly appeared on the scene. Half-wings definitely have an adaptive value. For example, it enables animals to jump from tree to tree across a longer distance, increasing their chances for survival.

Wilber continues:

Once this incredible transformation [i.e. the evolution of a wing] has occurred, then natural selection will indeed select the better wings from the less workable wings—but the wings themselves? Nobody has a clue.

"Nobody has a clue"? Or has Wilber not yet studied the relevant literature?

For the moment, everybody has simple agreed to call this "quantum evolution" or "punctuated evolution" or "emergent evolution"—radically novel and emergent and incredibly complex holons come into existence in a huge leap, in a quantum-like fashion—with no evidence whatsoever of intermediate forms. Dozens or hundreds of simultaneous nonlethal mutations have to happen at the same time in order to survive at all—the wing, for example, or the eyeball.

These statements are so far removed from the academic literature on the subject that it makes one cringe. "No evidence whatsoever of intermediate forms"? "Radically novel and emergent and incredibly complex holons come into existence in a huge leap"? This can only impress the lay person, not someone at home in the literature on evolutionary theory.

And mind you, this is the only field of study Wilber can claim to have at least some formal training in—given his degree in biochemistry.

When questioned by some of his students about his apparent lack of understanding of evolutionary theory, a few years back, he wrote (Vomitting confetti, Friday, May 27, 2005):

Folks, give me a break on this one. I have a Master's degree in biochemistry, and a Ph.D. minus thesis in biochemistry and biophysics, with specialization in the mechanism of the visual process. I did my thesis on the photoisomerization of rhodopsin in bovine rod outer segments.

I know evolutionary theory inside out, including the works of Dawkins et al. The material of mine that is being quoted is extremely popularized and simplified material for a lay audience.

Since when does popularisation justify misrepresentation? There are dozens of popular books on evolution that state the facts clearly.

Publicly, virtually all scientists subscribe to neo-Darwinian theory. Privately, real scientists—that is, those of us with graduate degrees in science who have professionally practiced it—don't believe hardly any of its crucial tenets.

Again, the language here is worded so strongly that it's hard to take seriously. "real scientists... don't believe hardly any of its crucial tenets"? Would Jerry Coyne count as a real scientist? or Neil Shubin? Has Wilber ever practiced in this field of science? Has he ever published anything of academic value on the subject of evolutionary theory? I don't think so.

Then Wilber makes the following ominous suggestion:

Instead of a religious preacher like Dawkins, start with something like Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. And then guess what? Neo-Darwinian theory can’t explain shit. Deal with it.

Again, a quick search on the Internet about the reception of Behe's ideas makes clear that he has been discredited wholesale by the scientific community. In a recent book, The Edge of Evolution, Behe has even retracted many of his earlier statements! (See Coyne's review of Behe's book in the New Republic [June 2007]: "He now admits that the entire edifice of evolutionary theory is true: evolution, natural selection, common ancestry." And why? Because the evidence is too convincing).

That leaves Wilber in the awkward position that his sole source for claiming that "neo-Darwinian theory can't explain shit" has changed his mind in favor of orthodox neo-Darwinian theory. A very lonely position indeed.

Then Wilber touches on the ID-proponents themselves, who very often come from a fundamentalist Christian background:

The extensive problems with evolutionary theory as it now stands is exactly why “creation science” has made huge inroads across the country, including standing up in court cases where scientific evidence is brought in on both sides.

Isn't it far more plausible that creation science finds support because Christian fundamentalist believers feel threatened in their faith by evolutionary theory? If evolution created us, there's no God? What "extensive problems" does Wilber hint at (given that even Behe no longer believes they exist?). And doesn't he know that the "scientific evidence" in favor of ID was found wanting even by the judge?

The problem is that creation scientists—who are almost entirely Christians—after having convincingly demonstrated that neo-Darwinian theory has loopholes large enough to drive several Hummers through—then try to prove that Jehovah is in one of the Hummers. But, of course, the fact that neo-Darwinian theory cannot explain the central aspects of evolution, does not mean that a specific type of God can. But they never would make the kind of headway they have unless neo-Darwinian theory is the piece of Swiss cheese that it is.

Neo-Darwinian theory can't explain the central aspects of evolution? Is that Wilber's message to his lay readers? Isn't that the very same strategy employed by ID-proponents, who try to point to "irreducibly complex" phenomena that could not possibly have evolved in any Darwinian way?

And more to the point: does that fact that science cannot (at this moment in time) explain a certain phenomenon give any support to the implicit suggestion that Intelligent Design (or "Integral Design" for that matter) can?

In his recent book Integral Spirituality Wilber addresses the ID-movement again, albeit in a brief footnote (p. 241-242):

Proponents of ID have one truth on their side: scientific materialism cannot explain all of evolution (it can explain pretty much everything except major holistic transformational leaps). With that, I quite agree.

We've seen how badly Wilber fared on those "transformational leaps", that is, if by that he meant the evolution of eyes and wings.

But Wilber provides, in the very footnote, a solution to this deepest problem of evolutionary theory:

But all that is required to get and keep evolution moving forward is a minimalist Eros [Spirit]...

This force of creative advance into novelty is one form of Spirit-in-action, and that Eros is all that is then required for evolutionary theory to work just fine. That's why evolution shows so many fits and starts; it's a creative artwork, not an intelligent engineering product (because if so, that engineer is an idiot).

The proponents of ID parlay their one little truth into the demand that the Jehovah of Genesis be that Eros, and there is not the slightest evidence for that anywhere in heaven or on earth.

Does Wilber imply that for his Eros-theory, even if "minimalist", there is "the slightest evidence... anywhere in heaven or on earth"? Is there any believable way Wilber can demonstrate how his Eros explains the emergence of complex organisms and their organs? Minimalist or not, it's still "the hand of God" he is invoking. Wilber may be more sophisticated then the average fundamentalist, but the logic is the same. (And to Behe's credit, he goes into much more biochemical detail then Wilber has ever done.)

Ken Wilber is faced with the same dilemmas as the Intelligent Design-adherents. The moment he declares that some phenomenon (in his case: the evolution of eyes and wings) cannot "possibly" be explained by Darwinian principles, he is vulnerable for every new discovery by science, which demonstrates that it can be explained that way after all. This often takes only a few years, as Behe c.s. have found out to their own dismay.

Ironically, in the very same year that A Brief History of Everything was published (1996), Richard Dawkins wrote a book dealing with exactly these two topics: the evolution of eyes and wings (Climbing Mount Improbable, 1996). But the difference between Wilber and Dawkins—a "real scientist" indeed—is that Dawkins is not satisfied with simply stating things, but takes the trouble to demonstrate and illustrate his theories with empirical findings rarely found in Wilber's books.

As said at the beginning of this essay, to find out what Wilber's actual position is regarding evolution, one has to look wide and far (this, incidentally, holds true for many other topics he has touched). For example, in one of his online writings (Excerpt A, "An Integral Age at the Leading Edge", Part V, "Integral Methodological Pluralism"), we again encounter his familiar train of arguments. He also touches upon the subject of speciation:

[E]volutionary sciences ... 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.

"An entire population of mammals showing up"? Again, one wonders what biology textbook would substantiate such statements. Haven't mammals evolved out of reptilian creatures over millions of years (or rather: from common ancestors showing characteristics of both)?

Wilber again gives his own fabricated theory of evolution, with multiple mutations arising simultaneously in many animals...:

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 of that happening are of course off the scale of the believable or even the possible.

No, in some mysterious way, entire populations simply show up.

If that is Wilber's version of "The Origin of Species", it makes sense to consult our contemporary authority on the subject, Jerry Coyne (who not only has a chapter on this in Why Evolution is True, but also wrote an authorative academic treatise on "Speciation"), who is explicitly defending the gradualist, neo-Darwinian model:

We... have plenty of evidence for speciation. We see lineages splitting in the fossile record. We see closely related species separated by geographic barriers. And we see new species beginning to arise as populations evolve incipient reproductive barriers—barriers that are the foundations of speciation.

No doubt, Mr. Darwin, were he to awaken today, would be delighted to find that the origin of species is no longer a "mystery of mysteries". (Why Evolution is True, p. 189)

Actually, Wilber's retorical strategy resembles that of Behe in many ways. Coyne described the latter in his review of The Edge of Evolution:

This description is entertaining and instructive, and those unacquainted with molecular biology will be wowed by the elegance of this adaptation. Indeed, such complex features were what lured many of us into biology, hoping to explain their evolution.

But the purpose of Behe’s [Wilber's] exercise, beyond pedagogy, is simply to overwhelm the reader with nature’s complexity, hoping to raise the question of how mutation and natural selection could possibly have built such a feature—as if being wowed were the same as being persuaded.

Instead of constantly employing suggestive language when dealing with this subject—"incredible", "mysterious", "huge leaps"—and absolutist phrases such as "nobody has a clue", "everybody believes this", "nobody believes that"— isn't it high time that Integral University starts a course in evolutionary theory to get at a more sober, and more adequate assessment of the field of evolution?

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