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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 many essays on this website.

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Ken Wilber as Lowland Gorilla
"The Planet of the Snake-Oil Loving Apes"
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The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered

Relating Ken Wilber's view of spiritual evolution
to the current evolution debates

Frank Visser

Paper presented at the Integral Theory Conference 2010
Saturday, July 31st, 2010 - John F. Kennedy University, San Francisco


*** Honorable Mention Paper in the Category Constructive Criticism ***

ABSTRACT

How should Ken Wilber's stance on evolutionary theory and neo-Darwinism be evaluated? Evolution is a central concept in Wilber's oeuvre as evidenced by expressions such as: "The Spirit of Evolution", "Evolution as Spirit-in-Action" and "Evolutionary Spirituality". For Wilber, evolution is a spiritual phenomenon, both guided by as well as heading towards Spirit. Yet, in mainstream evolutionary theory, the term "evolution" has quite different connotations. Does integral theory have a substantial contribution to make to the subject of evolutionary theory or is it merely producing metaphors that provide meaning and significance for those in search of an uplifting philosophy of life?
Note: For ease of reading, quotes from Wilber are marked by a dotted line on the left and set in bold type, just like this sentence.

INTRODUCTION

I consider Ken Wilber's view of evolutionary theory to be deeply flawed and disconnected from the scientific literature.

Last year was both the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin's The Origin of Species (which was published in 1859) and the 200th year anniversary of Darwin's birth (1809). All over the world, the importance of Darwin for the development of science has been commemorated. Daniel Dennett (1995: 21) once called Darwin's notion of evolution through natural selection "the single best idea anyone has ever had". The integral community has virtually ignored this event. One can agree or disagree with Dennett's assessment, but one can't ignore the topic.

Not surprisingly, evolution in the Darwinian or neo-Darwinian sense has been largely ignored by Ken Wilber as well. Contrary to what the casual reader of his works may expect—given the prominence of the term "evolution" or "evolutionary" in the integral vocabulary—a detailed engagement with Darwinism is virtually absent from his writings—except for some notable exceptions we will have a chance to focus on later in this talk.

Integral Spirituality

In contrast, Wilber has tried to make a case for "spiritual evolution", or the general idea that evolution at large is driven by some transcendental Force—variously called "Spirit" or "Eros". "There's an Eros to the Kosmos" is one of his favorite phrases. This one occurs in his recent book Integral Spirituality:

That drive—Eros by any other name—seems a perfectly realistic conclusion, given the facts of evolution as we understand them. Let's just say there is plenty of room for a Kosmos of Eros (Wilber, 2006a: 236n.)[1]

This idea of a spiritual Force behind evolution echoes views from spiritualists, esotericists, occultists and creationists.[2] The idea of a "Spirit of Evolution" is Wilber's key concept—more central than holons, heaps, or artifacts; quadrants, levels, lines, states and all that jazz... Long before the quadrants, even before the stages, there was the involution/evolution scheme—it is the most consistent element in all of Wilber's works.[3]

So let us ask, then, the all important question: how strong is his case? Does he have one, scientifically speaking? How does he argue for it? What is the substance and form of his argument?

*

Of course, spiritually, Ken Wilber is free to postulate anything he likes, but because he repeatedly refers to certain scientific data in support of his specific view of evolution, we will have to take a closer and critical look at these data. And if Wilber's purpose is to complement or transcend the current neo-Darwinian theory of evolution with some kind of spiritual theory, it is paramount that the scientific theory of evolution is presented in the strongest possible way. Otherwise, the integral attempt at model-making will end up as a case, not of "transcend-and-include" but "transcend-and-distort"... Not to mention the M-word of "misrepresentation".

However, science is by its very nature bound by a methodological constraint: it cannot just invoke Spirit to explain the (as of yet) unexplained. That's not because science wants to be blind, but because this is the only way to avoid endless circularities: plants grow because God makes them grow, we can think because we have the power of thought, wings evolved because Spirit created them... In science, that is considered to be a non-starter... [4]

Some other considerations have to be taken into account as well, before we turn to Wilber's treatment of evolution.

In spiritualist accounts, the scientific theory of evolution is often presented in a rather gloomy, not to say appalling fashion: according to the scientific worldview, we live in a meaningless and purposeless universe and are the products of random chance. Then, at the very moment you are about to kill yourself, the spiritualists present a much more appealing view of evolution: we are part of a universal process which is not only heading for Spirit, but driven by It as well. It's all "onwards and upwards" in this view of life. Who in his right mind would not vote for the second option? We might well heed Richard Dawkins' admonition here, that in science, what counts is not that an idea is comforting, but that it is true... In the final analysis these emotional judgements don't count. (And for some, of course, science is appealing and spirituality appalling...)

The spiritualist is aided in his appeal because the laymen's understanding of evolution is "creationist": how can things as complex as organisms and organs possibly be the result of evolution by mere chance? Living things, at face value, look designed. Obviously, these things must have been created in some way? Curiously, science has come to a different and opposite understanding: yes, these things have come about without any creative hand. Implausible as it may seem at face value, they can be explained in a more naturalistic way. This switch or conversion to a scientific perspective is something everyone has to make for himself by a certain effort. Now, Wilber wants to complement the science approach by some kind of spiritualist perspective. In this, he caters to the laymen's understanding of most of his readers—who are not aware of the details of evolutionary theory—not to the experts in the field of biology. This is one important reason for his popular appeal.

I think it is for these reasons that Wilber's take on evolution has had no impact in academia so far. Evolutionary science did not change its course after Wilber published his "20 Tenets" on evolution, in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality in 1995, or when he tried to dismiss neo-Darwinism briefly in its popular sequel A Brief History of Everything published a year later (1996). However, his occasional statements on evolutionary theory have met with strong criticism on the Internet and it is to these that we will have to turn to assess Wilber's notions about evolution.

While I am not an evolutionary biologist, my extensive reading in this field demonstrated to me that the world and worldview of science is quite different from what one learns from spiritualist accounts of it. I consider Ken Wilber's view of evolutionary theory to be deeply flawed and disconnected from the scientific literature.

But first we will have to get a feel of what exactly Wilber means by the concept of evolution. For this, we will briefly review his published writings, both in print and online. We may well take this opportunity to see if his ideas on evolution have been consistent over the past three decades.

WILBER ON EVOLUTION - IN GENERAL

Somehow one gets the feeling that Wilber systematically overlooks the relevant literature...
The Spectrum of Consciousness

In his first book, The Spectrum of Consciousness (1977), the term "evolution" features prominently as the heading of Part One of two parts, Part Two being called "Involution". This sets the tone for a thoroughly spiritualist exposition of the subject. As he explained later, in the 20th anniversary edition of the book (Wilber, 1993: xix), at that time he was following A.K. Coomaraswamy's usage of these terms. Briefly, "Evolution", in this sense, means a movement from the One or God to the Many or the manifested world. (Other traditions would call this "emanation"). "Involution", then, is the opposite movement: from the Many to the One. In the first phase, Spirit loses itself in the world, in the second, Spirit returns to itself again as Spirit. In such a book, one would sooner find a reference to Dante than to Darwin...

The Atman Project

In The Atman Project (1980), the meaning of these two terms is reversed. This time, Wilber follows Sri Aurobindo's understanding (Wilber, 1993: xix). This time, involution is the "downward" movement from Spirit to the world of the Many; and evolution the "upward" movement from the world to Spirit. This would remain the dominant model in Wilber's mind for years to come: evolution is seen as a movement that is both driven by Spirit and directed towards Spirit.

In Up from Eden (1981), which was sub-titled "A transpersonal view of human evolution", the same scheme is used by Wilber to organize the field of human evolution, i.e. anthropology. Wilber starts his narrative with the first hominids, but does not cover evolution per se.

Further in the book, Wilber (1981: 304-305) summarizes his view on evolution (following Jan Smuts) thus:

Everywhere we look in evolution... we find a succession of higher-order wholes: each whole becomes part of a higher-level whole, and so on through the evolutionary process. I am not going to argue the point, but take it as plainly obvious that "natural selection" per se cannot account for that process. Natural selection can account, at best, for the survival of present wholes, not for their transcendence into higher-level wholes. To the average biologist, this sounds shocking, but the conclusion, of those whose specific field is the theory of scientific knowledge is straightforward: "Darwin's theory... is on the verge of collapse...."
Up from Eden

Incidentally, this quote is taken from Forgotten Truth (1992/1976: 134n.) by Huston Smith, author of the famous The World's Religions—a scientist of religion, but not a biologist. Smith himself actually quoted this from a Harper's Magazine essay "Darwin's Mistake" by Tom Bethell (1976), which prompted a defense from none other than Stephen Jay Gould called "Darwin's Untimely Burial" (Natural History, 1976), in which he concludes: "I rather suspect that we'll have Charles Darwin to kick around for some time." Rather typically—I must say—we are not informed of this by either Smith or Wilber, who relies solely on spiritualist sources. And spiritualism has a vested interest to see Darwinism fail.

Wilber concludes:

The point, in a phrase, is that the orthodox scientific theory of evolution seems correct on the what of evolution, but it is profoundly reductionistic and/or contradictory on the how (and why) of evolution. But if we look upon evolution as the reversal of involution the whole process becomes intelligible. (Wilber 1981: 305) [5]
Eye to Eye

Speeding up our chronological survey of Wilber's books a bit, we come to Eye to Eye (1983), in which Darwin is briefly mentioned as representative of Worldview-I "Evolution as movement from lower to higher", and in which Wilber comments:

[T]he strict theory of natural selection suffers from not acknowledging the role played by Spirit in evolution. (Wilber 1983: 205).

Skipping a few books in which evolution isn't mentioned, we come to Wilber's magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995), which has aptly been sub-titled "The Spirit of Evolution". In this vast work, Wilber proclaims his "Twenty Tenets" covering all processes of evolution: cosmic, biological and social. But again, neo-Darwinian theory is not engaged. In close to 900 pages, Darwin is mentioned only once in a more-than-passing way:

Although the notion of evolution, or irreversible development through time, had an old and honorable history... it was of course Wallace and Darwin who set it in a scientific framework backed by meticulous empirical observations, and it was Darwin especially who lit the world's imagination with his idea on the evolutionary nature of the various species, including humans.
Apart from the specifics of natural selection (which most theorists now agree can account for microchanges in evolution but not macrochanges), there are two things that jumped out in the Darwinian worldview, one of which was not novel at all, and one of which was very novel. The first was the continuity of life; the second, speciation by natural selection. (Wilber 1995: 10).
Sex, Ecology, Spirituality

Note that—again typically—Wilber claims a scientific consensus for the opinion he expresses—"most theorists now agree"—without specifying which sources he has used to backup this opinion, nor, for that matter, what exactly he means with the terms "micro" and "macro": individual vs. social development, human vs. cosmic evolution, or even the evolution of new species, or races, or organs? This pervasive vagueness on what exactly evolutionary theory supposedly can and cannot explain weakens his statements on evolution. They echo sentiments found in the creationist literature.

Turning to the Twenty Tenets (Wilber 1995: 35-78), the one that stands out in this context is Tenet 12: "Evolution has directionality". Though it takes Wilber twelve pages to argue this point, for which he claims support from numerous authors—mostly philosophers or social scientists, such as Whitehead, Derrida, Foucault, Freud, Marx, and chaos theorists—notably absent are those who should be consulted first: evolutionary theorists. Wilber fails to mention that the notion of directionality in evolution has been and is highly problematic. It was, again, Gould (1989) who vehemently opposed this concept and brilliantly argued for its non-validity (Wilkins, 1997).

To give only one example from Michael Ruse, author of Monad to Man: The Concept of Progress in Evolutionary Biology (1996: 535, quoted in Meyerhoff, 2006a, in a critical review of the Twenty Tenets in his book Bald Ambition), which is the first volume of a trilogy (Ruse 1996, 1999, 2003) on precisely this vexed question of progress or purpose in evolution:

More recent work, for instance on measures of complexity, simply shows . . . that there is just no good reason to think that complexity is a necessarily ever-increasing product of the evolutionary process.

Somehow one gets the feeling that Wilber systematically overlooks the relevant literature... Confronting Wilber's notions about evolution with both Integral World authors (Edwards, Smith, Goddard) and experts in the field (Ruse, Dawkins, Gould, Goodwin) Meyerhoff's (2006) conclusion about the 20 Tenets is sobering:

[T]here are many anomalies and contradictions which show that the 20 tenets do not describe the "'laws' or 'patterns' or 'tendencies' or 'habits'" that "all known holons seem to have in common," as Wilber contends.

WILBER ON EVOLUTION - IN DETAIL

A Brief History of Everything

Sex, Ecology, Spirituality was followed by the more accessible A Brief History of Everything (1996), and this time, Wilber descends to the level of specific examples when arguing his points about evolution. He again resorts to statistical considerations:

Calculations done by scientists from Fred Hoyle to F.B. Salisbury consistently show that twelve billion years isn't enough to produce even a single enzyme by chance.
In other words, something other than chance is pushing the universe. For traditional scientists, chance was their god. Chance would explain it all. Chance—plus unending time—would produce the universe. But they don't have unending time, and so their god fails them miserably. That god is dead. Chance is not what explains the universe; in fact, chance is what that universe is laboring mightily to overcome. Chance is exactly what the self-transcending drive of the Kosmos overcomes. (Wilber 1996: 26)
It is obvious, then, that Wilber leaves essential information out of his presentation when making his points about evolution.

Though we will touch on this chance-argument later, let's just note that Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker (1986), written a full decade before Brief History, is a brilliant treatise on evolution NOT being the product of mere chance but of random chance and non-random natural selection (a distinction lost on Wilber). From its Preface, and as if addressing Wilber in person (1986: xv):

The great majority of people that attack Darwinism leap with almost unseemly eagerness to the mistaken idea that there is nothing other than random chance in it. Since living complexity embodies the very antithesis of chance, if you think that Darwinism is tantamount to chance, you'll obviously find it easy to refute Darwinism! One of my tasks will be to destroy this eagerly believed myth that Darwinism is a theory of 'chance'.

Sahotra Sarkar (2007: 44), "integrative" biologist and philosopher of science, points to the same insight in his book Doubting Darwin?: "Chance may be aided by a potentially infinite number of natural processes." Unfortunately, The Blind Watchmaker is not referenced in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, and Brief History doesn't have any references at all.

In a later book, Climbing Mount Improbable (1997), Dawkins is even more emphatic and explicit (where he refers to the popular chance-argument against evolution):

It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn't work. You don't need to be a mathematician or physicist to calculate that an eye or an hemoglobin molecule would take from here to eternity to self-assemble by sheer higgledy-piggledy luck. Far from being a difficulty peculiar to Darwinism, the astronomic improbability of eyes and knees, enzymes and elbow joints and the other living wonders is precisely the problem that any theory of life must solve, and that Darwinism uniquely does solve. It solves it by breaking the improbability up into small, manageable parts, smearing out the luck needed... (Dawkins 1997: 67-68)

It is equally obvious, then, that Wilber leaves essential information out of his presentation when making his points about evolution and its mechanism. He apparently disagrees with Dawkins on this matter, but without confronting Dawkins' arguments, Wilber's thesis becomes empty. Rhetorical maneuvers like repeating the word "chance" about seven times in one paragraph—as a kind of mantra—cannot compensate for this deficiency.

Dawkins summarizes the options in a more recent work, The God Delusion (2006:121) as follows:

Creationist [and integral?] 'logic' is always the same. Some natural phenomenon is too statistically improbable, too complex, too beautiful, too awe-inspiring to have come into existence by chance. Design [Eros] is the only alternative to chance that the authors can imagine. Therefore, a designer must have done it. And science's answer to that faulty logic is also always the same. Design is not the only alternative to chance. Natural selection is a better alternative. Indeed, design is not a real alternative at all because it raises an even bigger problem than it solves: who designed the designer? [What's the probability of Eros?] Chance and design both fail as solutions to the problem of statistical improbability, because one of them is the problem, and the other one regresses to it. Natural selection is a real solution. It is the only workable solution that has ever been suggested. And it is not only a workable solution, it is a solution of stunning elegance and power. (italics added)

Since Dawkins is talking about "faulty logic", we can best put Wilber's argument in the form of a syllogism:

  1. Science tries to explain evolutionary emergence with chance.
  2. Chance is not capable of explaining evolutionary emergence.
  3. Therefore, something other than chance is needed (i.e. Eros).

The first premise is false, and so is the conclusion (the second premise is true, but irrelevant).

Compare this to Dawkins'syllogism—fully based on scientific facts:

  1. Evolutionary theory is based on chance and natural selection.
  2. Natural selection is capable of explaining evolutionary emergence.
  3. Therefore, no other hypothesis is needed (i.e. Life, God, Spirit).

The alternatives "Eros" or "Oops", as presented by Wilber on the very first page of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995, p. vi), to designate the spiritualist and reductionistic outlook on life, are therefore a case of a false dichotomy. By equating science with chance Ken Wilber presents a straw man argument.

*

Wilber then makes the following, strong statement about neo-Darwinism (Wilber 1996: 22-23):

The standard, glib, neo-Darwinian explanation of natural selection—absolutely nobody believes 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.

Compare this, for starters, with what The New Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1991, vol. XVIII, 859) says about the theory of evolution:

There is probably no other notion in any field of science that has been as extensively tested and as thoroughly corroborated as the evolutionary origin of living organisms.

Or another scientific source, called "Project Steve" (2008) in honour of the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould, which is quoted by Sarkar (2007: 166):

Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence.

What "transformations" does Wilber have in mind here? We need to read out the quotation in full to grasp both what Wilber is trying to tell us, and how he is telling it—humorously, but misleadingly: [6]

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, you are dinner. The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal—and also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and then they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings.
Talk about mind boggling. This is infinitely, absolutely, utterly mind-boggling. Random mutations cannot even begin to explain this. The vast majority of mutations are lethal anyway; how are we going to get a hundred nonlethal mutations happening simultaneously? Or even four or five, for that matter? But once this incredible transformation has occurred, then natural selection will indeed select the better wing from the less workable wing—but the wings themselves? Nobody has a clue.
For the moment, everybody has simply 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.

So much is wrong with this "argument", if we can call it an argument, for it has all the characteristics of a straw man argument, in criticizing a point of view nobody actually holds, not even Ken Wilber, as we will see.

Again, let's quote The New Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1991, vol. XVIII, p. 859) on the matter of eyes and wings:

Some conclusions [of evolutionary theory] are well established, for example... that natural selection, the process postulated by Darwin, explains the adaptive configuration of such features as the human eye and the wings of birds.

For starters, Wilber does not seem to be aware that the example of the wing or the eyeball, and its evolutionary "impossibility", has been one of the classic objections since the days of Darwin—leading to the famous phrase "What Good Is Half a Wing?"—which have repeatedly been refuted. According to Sarkar (2007), even Intelligent Design defenders no longer use the example of the eye or the wing, knowing fully well that it is no longer valid. [7]

As to punctuated equilibrium, a controversial theory proposed by Gould and Eldredge in the 1970s, which has become so famous among creationists because it seems to suggest Darwinism fails to explain it, Sarkar (2007: 73) comments:

Even if punctuated equilibrium is the pattern, the processes involved remain squarely within the modern framework of evolutionary theory.

By not informing his readers of both sides of the debate, or rather, of the way real scientists handle these questions, the layman-reader is left to trust Wilber on his word.

Ironically, in 1996, in the very year that A Brief History of Everything was published, Richard Dawkins (1997) published his Climbing Mount Improbable, mentioned before, which contains a full chapter on the evolution of the wing (see Chapter 4: "Getting Off the Ground", pp. 108-137). There's another chapter on eyes—or rather, the many different ways eyes have evolved in the course of evolution (see chapter 5: "The Forty-Fold Path to Enlightenment", pp. 138-198—sixty pages on this topic alone!). The above quote from Brief History disqualifies Wilber as an authority on biological evolution. He has misrepresented a major field of science. [8]

Paraphrasing the highly charged and emotional tone of Wilber's quote—"absolutely nobody believes this", "no evidence whatsoever", "nobody has a clue"—which may be appropriate in a popular book on spirituality but is misplaced in any academic setting—one may conclude that if there's currently one opinion that would justifiably be characterized with the statement "absolutely nobody believes this anymore" it would precisely be Wilber's notion that evolution is driven by Spirit or Eros...

After Brief History Wilber rarely if ever again touched on the topic of evolutionary theory, and only so when pressed by his students, most of which is posted on the Internet. So let's switch our focus to online communications about Wilber's (mis)understanding of evolutionary theory. Some online critics have characterized Wilber's view of evolution as "pop-evolutionism", the popular view that evolution displays an onward and upward trend, so alien to the scientific view of evolution (Markus, 2009). Others (Meyerhoff, 2006b; Chamberlain, 2006, 2007), have highlighted the lack of real engagement by Wilber of Darwin and neo-Darwinism, and the questions raised by the rare occasions in which he did.

ONLINE DEBATES

This rather authoritarian response to criticism is typical of Wilber. However, popularization never justifies misrepresentation.

The infamous eyes-and-wings quote from Wilber prompted a reply from professor of religious studies and a former fan of Wilber, David Lane (1996), which was timely, witty and relevant. It never received a reply from Wilber. Lane acutely highlighted Wilber's misunderstanding of evolutionary theory. Bringing in the relevant literature on the topic of eyes and wings, he commented:

Not only is Wilber inaccurate about how evolution is presently viewed among working biologists (remember Wilber says "absolutely nobody believes this anymore"—tell that to the two most popular writers on evolution today) but he is just plain wrong in his understanding of the details of how natural selection operates. One can only wonder how well he has read Darwin, or Gould, or Mayr, or Dawkins, or Wilson, or even Russell. None of these individuals would agree with Wilber's assessment.

And on Wilber's allusion to the work of Gould and Eldredge on "punctuated equilibrium":

Now, no doubt, Gould and Eldredge have postulated a "speedy" version of Darwinian evolution (punctuated equilibrium), but they are not saying what Wilber suggests: that something mystical is going on. Rather, it just happens that if evolution is mostly a slow dance, there occasionally arises moments for some techno hip-hop.... Yet throughout it all the feet are doing the moving, not some trans-rational force....

Actually, according to Eldredge (2000), environmental changes are "what drives evolution".

Lane concludes his review, commenting on the tone used by Wilber to convince this readers:

What makes Wilber's remarks on evolution so egregious is not that he is more or less a closet creationist with Buddhist leanings, but that he so maligns and misrepresents the current state of evolutionary biology, suggesting that he is somehow on top of what is currently going on in the field. And Wilber does it by exaggeration, by false statements, and by rhetoric license.

Though Lane was very quick to reply to Brief History, Wilber chose not to respond to this particular criticism. One can only wonder why he has chosen this strategy. For a full decade no debate on these issues ensued.

Since his students did read these online criticisms, Wilber could no longer avoid the issue (see Anon., 2005a). In one reply on his own members-only Integral Naked forum, which was reposted on the public blog "Vomitting Confetti" (Anon., 2005b), Wilber stated:

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.

This rather authoritarian response to criticism is typical of Wilber. However, popularization never justifies misrepresentation. In fact, there are many popularized accounts of evolutionary theory out there these days (Coyne 2009, Dawkins 2009), but none would be guilty of this error. And if Wilber knows evolutionary theory "inside out", this is not reflected in his published writings.

Wilber continues:

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 phrasing is so drenched in absolutes—"virtually all", "hardly any"—that it is difficult to take these statements (the only ones we have to know Wilber's recent views on evolution) seriously. Also, it is an example of psychic, mind-reading kind of scholarship. Nor can Wilber be called a practicing scientist...

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.

This is about the only instance where Wilber actively recommends an author representative of Intelligent Design. Does Behe's book lead to the conclusion that "Neo-Darwinian theory can't explain shit"?

From the Wikipedia entry on Michael Behe:

Behe's claims about the irreducible complexity of essential cellular structures are roundly rejected by the scientific community. The Department of Biological Sciences at Lehigh University, Behe's academic home, has published an official statement which says "It is our collective position that intelligent design has no basis in science, has not been tested experimentally, and should not be regarded as scientific."

The major weakness of creationist accounts of evolution is that they lack an alternative theory.[9] For what does Wilber actually suggest? That God creates rudimentary wings, and that natural selection takes it from there? It leads to the awkward and arbitrary situation that living organisms are a combination of naturally evolved parts together with other parts which are the result of some kind of Divine intervention. [10]

Indeed, if anything applies here it is that "nobody has a clue".

In the blog posting mentioned above, Wilber (Anon., 2005b) makes another curious statement:

But overall integral theory doesn't hang on that particular issue. If physicalistic, materialistic, reductionistic forces turn out to give an adequate explanation to the extraordinary diversity of evolutionary unfolding, then fine, that is what we will include in integral theory. And if not, not. But so far, the "nots" have it by a staggeringly huge margin.

I do question the independence of integral theory from the specifically spiritualist view of evolution Wilber proposes. What if evolution turns out not to be a process "from lower to higher", driven by Spirit? No evolution, no involution. No involution, no Spirit. And no Spirit, no "Eros in the Kosmos".

Again, Wilber alludes to the matter of statistics, so we will conclude with some comments in that area. Concerning Fred Hoyle's estimation of the extreme unlikelihood of the origin of life by chance—whatever that may mean—a lot more can be said.

Dawkins (1985), for example, has called it a "memorable misunderstanding" (Korthoff, 1999), since evolution simply does not work the way Hoyle describes, but in small and incremental steps. It has even been honored with the expression "Hoyle's Fallacy" (Wikipedia):

Hoyle's fallacy, sometimes called the junkyard tornado, is a term for Fred Hoyle's flawed statistical analysis applied to evolutionary origins. Hoyle's Fallacy is a surprisingly easy mistake to make when one has not quite grasped how powerful a force natural selection can be. Hoyle's fallacy predates Hoyle and has been found all the way back to Darwin's time.

Musgrave (1998) gives a lot of helpful hints to solve this mystery, in his essay "Lies, Damned Lies, Statistics, and Probability of Abiogenesis Calculations".[11] He concludes:

At the moment, since we have no idea how probable life is, it's virtually impossible to assign any meaningful probabilities to any of the steps to life...

*

When the topic of evolutionary theory was discussed at Integral Institute in 2006, Wilber (quoted in Visser 2007a) clarified his position regarding Intelligent Design and theistic views of evolution saying:

You either postulate a supernatural source of which there are two types. One is a Platonic given and one is basically theological—a God or Intelligent Design—or you postulate Spirit as immanent—of course it's transcendent but also immanent—and it shows up as a self-organizing, self-transcending drive within evolution itself. And then evolution is Spirit's own unfolding. Not a super-natural, but an intra-natural, an immanently natural aspect. And that's basically the position I maintain.

One can, however, ask: what difference does it make in practice to have a transcendent or an immanent Eros when it comes to science? From the standpoint of science both are out of scope—"meta" or "intra" mean the same thing. Is "intra-physical" a physical notion? Then no physicist, (or perhaps only a New Age quantum physicist, cf. Amit Goswami, Creative Evolution, 2008), would subscribe to it. Or is it "meta-physical"? Then what's the point of calling these ideas "post-metaphysical" (Wilber's latest intellectual phase)? Isn't all of science supposed to be post-metaphysical from the start? This version of Wilberian "post-metaphysical intra-physics" hasn't been thought through sufficiently enough to make sense (Visser 2006, Chamberlain, 2006, 2007).

Again, in 2006, Wilber (2006b) clarified his position further in a blog posting on his own website www.kenwilber.com:

Do I think Mayr or Dawkins or Lewontin or Kauffman believe in telos or Eros that is Spiritual in any way? Absolutely not. Virtually all mainstream theorists embrace scientific materialism.
I am simply saying that most mainstream biologists accept that there are problems and issues at the leading edge of their science, and I am saying that I recognize the same leading-edge problems that they do, but at that point we quickly part ways—virtually all of them believe those issues can be fully solved using scientific materialism, and I of course do not accept that...

Would such a position really help science solve any of the "problems and issues at the leading edge" of biology? I don't think so. Isn't it essential to science that this leading edge continuously recedes back like a horizon, the more science proceeds?

*

And finally, in 2007 Wilber (quoted in Visser 2006—updated in 2007) posted an email exchange with Alexander Astin on his blog[12] , in which he returned to the notorious passage from Brief History about eyes and wings, declaring these examples to be meant purely in a metaphorical sense:

I have no belief whatsoever that the wing actually took 100 mutations [flatly contradicting his statement in Brief History: "The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once", a fine example of Wilber-speak]—that's just a way to state... more generally, that the complex forms of evolution that we see—such as the immune system—are not the products of mere chance mutation and natural selection. Rather, there is a force of self-organization[13] built into the universe, and this force (or Eros by any name) is responsible for at least part of the emergence of complex forms that we see in evolution.

Again, the absolutist and casual style is striking. And how are we to respond to statements made by Wilber on science, when they are taken back a decade later, without acknowledging they were a mistake? And if now the human immune system features as a test case for a spiritual theory of evolution, are we to take this merely as a metaphor too, as soon as science discovers how it actually evolved?

We need not look very far... From Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion (2006: 159-160), in which we meet our friend Michael Behe again:

Another of Behe's favorite alleged examples of 'irreducible complexity' is the immune system. Let Judge Jones himself take up the story:
'In fact, on cross-examination, Professor Behe was questioned concerning his 1996 claim that science would never find an evolutionary explanation for the immune system. He was presented with fifty-eight peer-reviewed publications, nine books, and several immunology textbook chapters about the evolution of the immune system; however, he simply insisted that this was still not sufficient evidence of evolution, and that it was not "good enough."'
Behe, under cross-examination by Eric Rothschild, chief counsel for the plaintiffs, was forced to admit that he hadn't read most of those fifty-eight peer-reviewed papers....

But Wilber concludes his reply to Astin with unshaken confidence:

So, no, I don't take this criticism of my work seriously, although it is a good example of flatland thinking.[14]

I rest my case...

So, let me get this straight...

Ken Wilber has engaged neo-Darwinism basically only once in his complete oeuvre spanning three decades and twenty plus books, by giving specific examples of organized complexity, such as eyes and wings, that supposedly cannot be explained by natural selection (contrary to what leading scientists such as Dawkins spell out to the public at that same time). And now, a full decade later, these biological examples are to be understood in a purely metaphorical sense, merely illustrating the "extraordinary capacity of creative emergence that is intrinsic to the universe"? Has science turned into poetry?

So Wilber doesn't even try to make his case in the arena of science?

One is sadly reminded of Sir Peter Medawar's (1961) devastating review of Teilhard de Chardin's The Phenomenon of Man, in which he wrote: "it is the style that creates the illusion of content"... In this context, Medawar also wrote: "its author can be excused of dishonesty only on the grounds that before deceiving others he has taken great pains to deceive himself."

*

In 2009 IntegralLife.com featured a video on evolution, in which Wilber (2009) kept repeating his ideas for an audience of eager students. From this members-only video:

Science is helpful with phenomena once they have arisen, but is unable to explain phenomena when they appear for the first time.

I consider this view to be the result of lazy thinking and in the end harmful (Visser 2009a). It does not explain anything. It is anti-discovery. It makes an easy and arbitrary division between on the one 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 worldview of growth and development.

In the end, Ken Wilber is faced with the same dilemma 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 to 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 has found out to his own dismay. (Coyne, quoted in Visser 2009b).

As Sarkar (2007: 96) comments after his balanced assessment of Behe:

[T]he conceptual issues that Behe raised, however intractable they may have seemed to him in the 1990s, have increasingly been resolved by empirical work in molecular evolution. What is troublesome—if the pursuit of knowledge is one of our salient goals—is that ID creationists have not modified Behe's original claims (at least in public). This attitude is not acceptable for any serious scientific claim, though it may be so if ID [or Wilber's philosophy] is to be taken as a theological thesis.

In summary, Wilber's statements in this field have been less than helpful. He echoes objections to evolution from creationist corners, but never provides enough details to be convincing. And when he finally does give details, he retracts them a decade later in what has been, above all, a rather lame and inauthentic reply—by not taking ownership of extreme statements on evolution done in the past and turning everything into metaphor.[15]

CONCLUSIONS

  • Ken Wilber and/or the integral community have missed an opportunity last year to join the worldwide debate on the relevance of Darwin and neo-Darwinism, and its relationship to spirituality, including the Intelligent Design approach.
  • Ken Wilber has not made a strong case yet for his "theory" of spiritual evolution. It lacks scientific grounding, echoes sentiments from creationists, and is unclear, biased and highly selective in its formulations. It lacks a true engagement with science.
  • By not being responsive to online criticism directed at this theory, Ken Wilber has not lived up to the ideal of Habermasian "communicative rationality", in which viewpoints are freely exchanged in search of the best arguments. Nor has he taken responsibility for extreme statements on neo-Darwinism done in the past, when confronted with criticism. He has misrepresented a major field of science in a less than respectful way.
  • And finally, though this talk had as its manifest subject Ken Wilber's views on evolution, it's hidden subject has been—as you may have guessed—why has it been so extremely difficult to discuss these matters within the integral community? Openness to criticism and public debate are the hallmarks of science and philosophy.

I would therefore like to give the last word to John Stuart Mill (1863: 17), from his treatise on liberty:

In the case of any person whose judgment is really deserving of confidence, how has it become so? Because he has kept his mind open to criticism of his opinions and conduct. Because it has been his practice to listen to all that could be said against him; to profit by as much of it as was just, and expound to himself, and upon occasion to others, the fallacy of what was fallacious.

Thank you very much.

NOTES

[1] Note the qualification added by Wilber "the facts of evolution as we understand them". We will focus today on precisely this understanding, or misunderstanding, of "the facts of evolution" as they are presented by Ken Wilber. Note also the casual style of this statement, "plenty of room for a Kosmos of Eros", which, as we will see is a pervasive aspect of his writing style. Pleasant for the reader, no doubt, but problematic when a more academic analysis is called for.

[2] To give one prominent example from the field of Theosophy: H.P. Blavatsky, who might be called the mother of Intelligent Design, graphically wrote in her The Secret Doctrine (1888, II, 52): "Nature, unaided, fails". She was one of the first to publically oppose Darwin from a spiritualist point of view, looking for a kind of "third way" in trying to stay clear from both dogmatic creationism and materialistic science. She held, among other things, that Darwin was not so much wrong as partial ("Occultists themselves are ready to concede partial correctness to the Darwinian hypothesis"), that evolution was driven by a Divine force (called the Logos), and that a universe of chance should be replaced by a universe of purpose ("nature is not a fortuitous concurrence of atoms"). Views quite similar to Wilber's. Contrary to Wilber, she entered into a lively debate with Darwin, even if only in print. In her The Secret Doctrine Darwin or Darwinism is mentioned over 200 times. Another spokesman of this Theosophical lineage phrased it in a kindred way (Lester Smith, 1990):

The ordered complexity of living things certainly is suggestive of intelligent design. Indeed, the entire universe gives eloquent testimony of being a product of mind and intelligence, as some scientists have maintained. Yet, under the sway of a contemporary fashion, most of them disregard the logical requirement for a source of order and believe that creative intelligence is the last thing to emerge, merely a culmination of a long series of fortunate accidents conserved in evolution. Let us reverse this hypothesis and suppose that intelligence is primal, that the cosmos is grounded in and pervaded by intelligence.

[3] Initially, in the form of the Great Chain of Being, it was decidedly perennialist, and therefore metaphysical in context—interpreted by Wilber rather abstractly as levels instead of the various beings of the scala naturae, as it was traditionally understood. Lately it has been recast in a so-called "post-metaphysical" framework—though not entirely non-metaphysical, as we will see.

[4] Also, the scientific or "reductionistic" view of evolution is best seen as a Null-hypothesis:

The apparent design in nature can be explained without invoking some kind of Designer [Read: Spirit, Logos, Eros, Force, Power, Mind, God]. (Visser 2009a)

This Null-hypothesis has to be tested thoroughly, before we turn to an alternative hypothesis, as formulated by Wilber, on various occasions:

[T]he strict theory of natural selection suffers from not acknowledging the role played by Spirit in evolution. (Wilber 1983: 205).

The proper approach should be to present the scientific, "reductionistic" view on evolution as strongly as possible. Unfortunately, in Wilber's writings this is far from the case. Two mistakes can be made here: (1) the Null hypothesis is never rejected and (2) the Null hypothesis is rejected too soon. Ken Wilber seems to be guilty of the second mistake.

[5] In a footnote he also gives a statistical reason for his belief in a cosmic Force driving evolution:

Recent evidence [no source] suggests 7-9 billion years for the Big Bang, which makes it even more difficult to account for emergent evolution with statistical probabilities. Scientists used to say that because evolution had a virtually unlimited amount of time, the emergence of higher life forms and man could easily be explained by statistical likelihoods. That unlimited time was drastically reduced by the strong evidence of a 15-billion-year limit, a limit that severely (and in the opinion of some, fatally) strained probability figures. Cutting that limit in half will, I predict, completely destroy that statistical argument, which will leave science unable to account for the how or why of evolution. I.e. there is a "force" driving evolution that far outdistances statistical probabilities—and that force is Atman telos [Eros]. (Wilber 1981: 304)

We will return to this topic of statistics later in this talk. But please note that current estimates from NASA of the age of the universe still give 13.7 billion years (Wikipedia).

[6] Wilber takes the same stance here as the notorious Bishop Samuel Wilberforce (what's in a name?), who tried to silence one of the first public debates about Darwin's Origin of Species by ridiculing the theory and his opponent (Thomas H. Huxley). When asked if he really thought he was descended from a monkey, Huxley's legendary answer was, as reported by a newspaper (Sidgewick, 1898):

He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.

In my opinion, if one has to resort to ridicule, in a scientific or philosophical debate, one has already lost the argument...

[7] To give only one recent rebuttal, taken from a random online source, a "Pseudo-science" webpage hosted by Steven Dutch:

One problem with the half-a-wing criticism is that it ignores exaptation, the adaptation of a trait originally developed for one function to some other function. But apart from exaptation, the half-a-wing criticism is completely false.
Actually, half-formed eyes and wings can be very useful. Any light-detecting ability, however rudimentary, will enable an organism to seek shelter, find food, and avoid predators. Similarly, half-formed wings aren't as useless as often imagined. The idea that eyes and wings can only function if fully formed is completely false. Indeed, it's a lot easier to see how partial versions of these organs could function than it is for many other organs. Creationists assume that problems in evolution are insoluble without making even the slightest attempt to see if solutions exist. (Dutch, 2002)

[8] In River out of Eden, published around the same time, Richard Dawkins (1996, quoted in Lane, 2006) turns again to the topic of the evolution of the eye, this time backing his statements up with references to recent researches into the evolution of the eye, and the surprisingly short timespan needed to get this done:

Thus the creationist's question—"What is the use of half an eye"?—is a lightweight question, a doddle to answer. Half an eye is just 1 percent better than 49 percent of an eye, which is already better than 48 percent, and the difference is significant. A more ponderous show of weight seems to lie behind the inevitable supplementary: "Speaking as a physicist, I cannot believe there has been enough time for an organ as complicated as the eye to have evolved from nothing. Do you really think that there has been enough time?" Both questions stem from the Argument from Personal Incredulity. Audiences nevertheless appreciate an answer, and I have usually fallen back on the sheer magnitude of geological time. If one pace represents one century, the whole of Anno Domini time is telescoped into a cricket pitch. To reach the origin of multi-cellular animals on the same scale, you'd have to slog all the way from New York to San Francisco.
It now appears that the shattering enormity of geological time is a steamhammer to crack a peanut. Trudging from coast to coast dramatizes the time available for the evolution of an eye. But a recent study by a pair of Swedish scientists, Dan Nilsson and Susanne Pelger, suggests that a ludicrously small fraction of that time would have been plenty. When one says 'the' eye, by the way, one implicitly means the vertebrate eye, but serviceable image-forming eyes have evolved between forty and sixty times, independently from scratch, in many different invertebrate groups....

[9] Dutch (2008) even starts his review of Behe's book:

How do you review nothing? Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box is a touchstone of the Intelligent Design movement. Criticize Intelligent Design and you'll be told "Oh, you need to read Michael Behe." Well, here it is. I've read Behe, and nowhere in his book is there a single scientific statement in the sense of something that can be tested.

In his review of Behe's Darwin's Black Box Dutch biologist Korthof (1997) takes another approach. Behe in fact argues that some cases—the blood clotting system, or the bacterial flagellum, but not eyes or wings—of what he calls "irreducible complexity" can't be explained by Darwinian theory. Korthof takes the position that this amounts to a potentially valid falsification of Darwinism, irrespective of what motives or theological convictions Behe might have.

Actually, Darwin himself invited critics to actively look for these instances. If phenomena can be found that display irreducible complexity, Darwinism is refuted (for these cases, but not for others). However, if these phenomena turn out to be not irreducibly complex, Darwinism wins. The trouble with these attempts at refuting Darwinism, are that again and again, as science proceeds, it does find ways to explain the seemingly unexplainable (or find "reducible complexity", Adami, 2006).

[10] Paul Davies (1999) has alerted us to the fact that life isn't just a matter of complexity, but of specified complexity (see also Dembski, 1998), in this case , spelled out and mediated by DNA. A simple push, however "gently", will not do here. According to Korthof (1997), invoking a Designer to explain complex organs or organisms is a "scientific dead end", because there is no way we could understand the ways of working of this Designer.

[11] Musgrave writes: "Every so often, someone comes up with the statement "the formation of any enzyme by chance is nearly impossible, therefore abiogenesis is impossible". Often they cite an impressive looking calculation from the astrophysicist Fred Hoyle, or trot out something called "Borel's Law" to prove that life is statistically impossible. These people, including Fred, have committed one or more of the following errors:

  1. They calculate the probability of the formation of a "modern" protein, or even a complete bacterium with all "modern" proteins, by random events. This is not the abiogenesis theory at all.
  2. They assume that there is a fixed number of proteins, with fixed sequences for each protein, that are required for life.
  3. They calculate the probability of sequential trials, rather than simultaneous trials.
  4. They misunderstand what is meant by a probability calculation.
  5. They seriously underestimate the number of functional enzymes/ribozymes present in a group of random sequences.

[12] Astin had read one of my blogs titled "Eros or Oops?" (Visser 2007b), which questions this dichotomy, so prevalent in Wiber's works, and pointed to David Lane's essay on evolution, as reposted on Integral World. The two gentlemen fully agree on the low value of the material found there, but apparently Astin couldn't help reading some of it (as a kind of integral pornography). In one of the rare cases in which Wilber has tried to reply to criticism directed at his (mis)understanding of evolutionary theory, he clarifies his view on evolution as:

The following is his response to a recent criticism which suggests that I don't understand evolution because I don't understand that previous individual mutations are carried forward—but of course I understand that, it's evolution 101 (in which I have a graduate degree!—the biochemistry of evolution). But my point lies in a different direction, which is what these critics miss: the necessity of a self-organizing force (or Eros) intrinsic to the universe.

As the current paper argues, the necessity for Eros depends wholly on a misrepresentation of the scientific view of evolution.

[13] The concept of self-organization is ambiguous. Either there's an external force molding matter into organisms (as in vitalism); or matter is "self-organizing'(and therefore self-sufficient)—but "a force of self-organization" which "is responsible for at least part of the emergence of complex forms"? One is tempted to ask, which part? It is telling that Kauffman calls his approach a "physics of biology" (1993: 641)—hardly a transcendental programme... But if even Kauffman (1993) doesn't buy Wilber's theory of Eros, who will?

[14] In their email exchange Wilber and Astin again raise the age-old issue of the survival value of "half a wing". Astin naively remarks: "Does the half-wing make them run faster?". Wilber concurs by replying:

Also, as you point out, referring to random chance really means "I have no idea what is going one here"—and that is really what, in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, I call the "philosophy of oops," as you rightly note. This is a huge hole in the mere chance and selection argument. These items are all meant when I use the metaphor of a 100 mutations. I am fully aware that selection carries forth each previous selection (which still has problems in itself—as you point out, why would a half wing make running easier???), but even if you give that to the evolutionists (which I am willing to do), it still has this gaping hole in it.

Why would half a wing make running easier? Any popular scientific source can provide an interesting answer. For example (American Institute of Biological Sciences, 2006):

An article by Kenneth P. Dial and two co-authors in the May 2006 issue of BioScience summarizes experimental evidence indicating that ancestral protobirds incapable of flight could have used their protowings to improve hindlimb traction and thus better navigate steep slopes and obstructions. By using their protowings in this way, they would presumably have had an advantage when pursuing prey and escaping from predators.
Dial and colleagues performed experiments on several species of juvenile galliform (chicken-like) birds, concentrating on chukar partridges. Chukars can run 12 hours after hatching, but they cannot fly until they are about a week old. Even before they are able to fly, however, the birds flap their developing wings in a characteristic way while running, which improves their ability to climb steep slopes and even vertical surfaces. Dial and colleagues have named this form of locomotion "wing-assisted Iincline running" (WAIR). After they are able to fly, chukars often use WAIR in preference to flying to gain elevated terrain, and exhausted birds always resort to WAIR.
Dial and colleagues describe experiments showing that if the surface area of chukar wings is reduced by plucking or trimming the feathers, WAIR becomes less effective for climbing slopes. Dial and colleagues propose that incipiently feathered forelimbs of bipedal protobirds may have provided the same advantages for incline running as have now been demonstrated in living juvenile birds. Their work thus supports a new theory about the evolution of flight in birds. WAIR, which the authors believe to be widespread in birds, appears to offer an answer to the question first posed by St. George Jackson Mivart in 1871: "What use is half a wing?

[15] And 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 in which Wilber writes about evolution is misplaced, as is the casualness of Wilber's pronouncements on evolutionary theory throughout his entire writing career. (Visser 2009a). Ken Wilber seems content with the circularity involved when novelty is explained by... postulating novelty, creativity by... creativity, spirituality by... spirituality. Science, if anything, tries to avoid such circularities. To Ken Wilber, presenting his "theory" of spiritual evolution driven by Eros to science, a current day evolutionary theorist would probably just say: I have no need of such a hypothesis...

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