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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.


'From Dirt
to Divinity'

Ken Wilber's pre-Darwinian
Understanding of Evolution

Frank Visser

An author who says “I cannot 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. variation and selection/elimination]
—Ernst Mayr, What Evolution Is, p. 268, Appendix A. 'What criticisms have been made of evolutionary theory'
I don't buy random chance [as an explanation of evolution].
—Roger Walsh (personal communication, Integral Theory Conference 2010)


 Great Chain of Being
1579 drawing of the Great Chain of Being
from Didacus Valades, Rhetorica Christiana.

Imagine an early Christian philosopher in Alexandria objecting to the new theory that the Earth is round. He would say "Then how come we don't fall off the Earth?". In fact, science does explain this by saying that the mass of the Earth is so large, that we are attracted to the earth's surface—as we, in turn, ever so slightly attract the Earth. What is more, there is not really any up or down in the universe. So it's not that Down Under people walk with their heads down, we all do at times, or actually none of us do.

Or, imagine a pre-Copernican Christian philosopher resisting the idea that the Earth moves around the Sun and is not the centre of the universe. Wouldn't he say "Then why don't we notice that we are moving around the Sun with great velocity?". In fact, science would say we don't notice this because the only thing we can notice is acceleration, not constant speed. What is more, we are part of half a dozen movements when we move through space. Not only does the Earth rotate around its axis and move around the Sun, but the Sun itself is moving in a definite direction through space, as is the galaxy we are part of, not to mention larger cosmic systems.

Well, you get the idea. Scientific answers are resisted at first, for apparently common sense reasons, but in the end they are widely accepted, because they explain so much more. And usually, and contrary to the traditional answers, they lead to more and more interesting questions, which in turn lead to further answers.

Ken Wilber's take on evolution remains a fruitful field of study and reflection. He believes evolution is driven, gently but irresistibly, by a spiritual Force or Eros, leading to ever more complex and conscious beings. As I have argued elsewhere, the case he has made for spiritual evolution is weak. In this essay, we will put his position in some historical perspective and look at emotional reasons for not tackling this issue head on (See also Jeff Meyerhoff's essay on the psychology of belief recently posted on Integral World.)

Ken Wilber's resistance of the Darwinian theory of evolution is irrational.


Wilber hasn't written much in detail about evolution, and then mostly couched in metaphor. For example, in a blog posting on in which he defended his particular take on evolutionary theory against some of his online critics, Wilber wrote:

After all, from the big bang and dirt to the poems of William Shakespeare is quite a distance, and many philosophers of science agree that mere chance and selection are just not adequate to account for these remarkable emergences.[1]

The "many philosophers of science" go unnamed, as usual, but we will let that pass for now. More about that later in this essay.

In Integral Psychology we encounter the same "argument":

The bleakness of the modern scientific proclamation is chillling. In that extraordinary journey from matter to body to mind to soul to spirit, scientific materialism halted the journey at the very first stage, and proclaimed all subsequent developments to be nothing but arrangements of frisky dirt. Why this dirt would get right up and eventually write poety was not explained. Or rather it was explained by dumb chance and dumb selection, as if two dumbs would make a Shakespeare.[2]

We find the same metaphor in Boomeritis:

Why on earth would dirt get right up and eventually write poetry? [3]

And another instance, from around the same time:

The attempt to reduce spirit to matter is another folly that has not lacked its champions. But try as one might, one simply cannot reduce spirit to combinations and permutations of frisky dirt. And why this dirt would get right up and start writing poetry has never really been made clear by materialists of any flavor. [4]

And finally, the Audio CD "Kosmic Consciousness" carried as subtitle a perfect summary of this view: "from dirt to Divinity" [5]

So Ken Wilber, resenting the Darwinian idea that natural selection can explain the manyfold wonders of evolution, says: "Why this dirt would get right up and eventually write poetry was not explained." In fact, evolutionary science goes a long way into explaining all this. The interesting questions here are, of course, not why dirt gets right up to write poetry, but how dirt leads to cell walls and replicating molecules, or how human beings have learned to use metaphor—not to mention the endless evolutionary steps in between that have been and are investigated by science.

More then some specific theory about evolution, these fragments capture a kind of feeling regarding scientific materialism and its so-called reductionism.

In none of his many works does Ken Wilber actually describe the results evolutionary science has reached in unravelling these complex questions—contrary to the level of detail his writings on psychology have. This betrays an emotional resistance, and an equally emotional attachment to a certain spiritual philosophy of life. Both before and after Darwin, the idea that natural selection could explain evolution was opposed by several ideologies. One of them was Wilber's favorite idea that there's a Force behind evolution, leading to ever complexer beings—usually called "finalism" or "vitalism".

Scientific revolutions—that the earth is round, that it moves around the sun, or that space is curved—always appear counter-intuitive at first. Until, that is, the evidence can't be ignored any longer. The idea that natural selection can create the complexities of living organisms is no exception. It seems highly unlikely at first sight, that is, until one carefully examines the evidence.

Let us, then, turn to the evidence.


Ernst Mayr (1904-2005)

One can do no better for this then turn to the recent writings of biologist Ernst Mayr (1904-2005) on evolution and its evidence. At the end of his long life, he reached the age of 100 years, Mayr wrote two books for the general public: This is Biology (1997)[6] and What Evolution Is (2001)[7].

Both works are interesting compared to the flood of recent books about Darwin and evolutionary theory because of the historical perspective they provide on the subject (for example, in his dealings with the rise and fall of vitalism) and his analysis of the philosophy of science applied to the life sciences (demonstrating that most of the discoveries in this field did not follow Thomas Kuhns model of paradigm-shifts).

In This Is Biology Mayr divided the wealth of biological material into three broad categories:

  • WHAT? - The study of Biodiversity (chapter 7): how many species are there? how do they relate to each other? how are the various taxonomic classifications founded and validated?
  • HOW? - The Making of a New Individual (chapter 8): how do cells develop into organisms? is there such a thing as recapitulation? what role do genes play during development?
  • WHY? - The Evolution of Organisms (chapter 9): Darwin's many theories (gradualism, common descent, natural selection, sexual selection, micro- and macroevolution explained)

Under the paragraph "Does Evolution Progress?" Mayr give the following interesting comments:

Most Darwinians have discerned a progressive element in the history of life on earth [from prokaryotes to multi-celled eukaryotes]... Is it legitimate to call these changes in the history of life progress? This depends on one's concept and definition of progress. Yet, such change is virtually a necessity under the concept of natural selection because the combined forces of competition and natural selection leave little alternative but either extinction or evolutionary progression.[8]

Does Mayr therefore believe in, or is he favorable towards, Wilber's "progressive evolution driven by Spirit". Not at all, for he continues:

Evolutionary progress is simply the inevitable result of the simple Darwinian principle of variation and selection. It altogether lacks the ideological component one finds in the progressionism of the teleologies (like Spencer) and the orthogenesists. It is curious how many people seem to have difficulty understanding a purely mechanistic path towards progress as represented by Darwinian evolution on which developments are different in each phyletic lineage.[9]

And is this "progress" in some sense inevitable, even under Darwinian conditions? No, says Mayr, because:

Some lineages such as the prokaryotes have hardly changed at all for billions of years. Others have become highly specialized without showing any indication of being progressive, and still others, like most parasites and inhabitants of special niches, seem to have experienced a retrograde evolution. There is simply no indication in the history of life of any universal trend to, or capacity for, evolutionary progress. Where seeming progress is found, it is simply a byproduct of changes effected by natural selection.[10] (emphasis added)

Incidentally, there is one instance where Wilber has discussed evolution in similar, tripartite what-how-why terms, in one of his earlier works, Up from Eden (1981):

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. [11]

An embarrassing statement indeed.

No scientist will greet this "evolution as reversal of involution" solution with enthusiasm for one second. It is obvious that Wilber is promoting an ideological approach to evolution. And even if this quote was from 1981, when Wilber still believed in perennialism (Wilber-2), in his current, post-metaphysical phase (Wilber-5), he still holds on to the notion of a spiritual Force behind evolution, as exemplified by this audio statement by Wilber posted at his website in 2006:

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 in super-natural, but an intra-natural, an immanently natural aspect. And that's basically the position I maintain.[12]


In What Evolution Is, Mayr treats the subject of evolution even more systematically and thoroughly. He states that acceptance of Darwinism was hindered by several ideologies prevalent both before and after Darwin. (So one can be a pre-Darwinian even after Darwin, if one does not accept Darwins radical solution to the problems of evolution). He speaks of "the retarding influence of widely held philosophical views" when it comes to the reception of Darwinism.[13]

Interesting for our integral context, Mayr describes the notion of the Great Chain of Being or scala naturae (the "ladder of nature"), in which beings from minerals to plants to animals to human beings were seen in one continuous, linear spectrum. Later on, under the influence of evolutionary thinking, this rigid and static presentation was somehow made more dynamic:

Eventually it was realized that the static scala naturae could be converted into a kind of biological escalator, leading from the lowest organisms to ever higher ones and finally to man... Evolution, indeed, was change, but it seemed to be a directional change, a change toward ever greater perfection, as it was said at that time... [14]

But all this was strictly speaking still pre-Darwinian.

To make this clearer, Mayr defines three versions of evolutionary thinking[15]:

  1. transmutational - Evolution occurs through the production of new species or types, owing to a mutation or saltation.
  2. transformational - Evolution occurs through the gradual transformation of an existing species or type into a new one, either
    1. by the direct influence of the environment or by use and disuse of the existing phenotype, or
    2. by an intrinsic drive toward a definite goal, particularly toward greater perfection, and
    3. through and inheritance of acquired characters.
  3. variational (Darwinian) - A population or species changes through the continuous production of new genetic variation and through the elimination of most members of each generation...

Ken Wilber's view of evolution seems to be of the pre-Darwinian 2b. variety: Evolution proceeds "by an intrinsic drive toward a definite goal, particularly toward greater perfection". Of course, he will argue that his view is "trans-Darwinian", in the sense that he takes what is valuable from premodernity (the Great Nest of Being and the spiritual life Force) and modernity (evolution through natural selection of organisms once they have appeared on the scene), casting aside its reductionism. But all in all, this puts him in the category of the "transformational", pre-Darwinian philosophers.

Mayr concludes his discussion of these "transformational" ideologies, otherwise known as finalism, in a sobering way:

These theores were abandoned when no mechanism could be found to drive such trends. Furthermore, such drives, if they existed, should result in "rectilineair" (straight) evolutionary lineages, but the paleontologists showed that all evolutionary trends sooner or later change their direction or may even reverse themselves. Finally, once can explain lineair trends as the product of natural selection. Indeed, there is no evidence whatsoever to support any belief in cosmic teleology.[16] (emphasis added)

In the audio mentioned above, Wilber referred to Mayr's What Evolution Is favorably, in an attempt to use him as support for his progressive view of evolution.[17] I hope to have demonstrated that this goes against the entire spirit of Mayr's conclusions.


[1] Ken Wilber, 'Some Criticisms of My Understanding of Evolution',

[2] Ken Wilber, Integral Psychology, Shambhala, 2001, p. 55.

[3] Ken Wilber, Boomeritis: The Novel that will Set you Free, Shambhala, 2002, p. 43.

[4] Ken Wilber, foreword to Marilyn Schlitz & Tina Hyman (eds.), Integral Medicine: A Noetic Reader, 2003 (not sure when this book was published, I could not find it, at least not under this title, FV).

[5] Ken Wilber, Kosmic Conscousness: from Dirt to Divinity, Abridged edition, Sounds True Inc., 2003.

[6] Ernst W. Mayr, This Is Biology: The Science of the Living World, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1996.

[7] Ernst W. Mayr, What Evolution Is, Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 2001.

[8] This is Biology, p. 197.

[9] This is Biology, p. 197-8.

[10] This is Biology, p. 198.

[11] Ken Wilber, Up from Eden: A Transpersonal View of Human Evolution, Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1981, p. 305.

[12] Ken Wilber, Ken Responds to Recent Critics,, 2006.

[13] Ernst W. Mayr, What Evolution Is, p. 73.

[14] What Evolution Is, p. 8.

[15] What Evolution Is, p. 77.

[16] What Evolution Is, p. 82.

[17] Ken Wilber, Ken Responds to Recent Critics,, 2006. See also the comments made by Jim Chamberlain and Jeff Meyerhoff on this episode.

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