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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.


Some False Notes

A Response to Faixat's
Musicological Musings on Evolution

Frank Visser

Many Wilber-fans will recognize how close these ideas are to Wilber's integral philosophy, especially when applied to evolution.

In his original and provocative essay "Bye-Bye, Darwin!: The Hidden Rhythm of Evolution", the Spanish mystic-author José Díez Faixat defends a view of evolution that appeals to the musically and mystically inclined. Rejecting the traditional scientific view of the world based on chance and materialism, he appeals to contemparary developments in the sciences of evolution that paint a far more uplifting picture.

According to these views, rather than being the scene of a cooling universe, which will end in an unavoidable heat death (or total entropy), we seem to be living in a Universe which displays an "innate creative tendency of Nature", which generates organisms that have an "inner self-organizing capacity". The days of doom and disaster seem to have been replaced in science with those of life and unlimited progress.

Many Wilber-fans will recognize how close these ideas are to Wilber's integral philosophy, especially when applied to evolution. Though Faixat quotes only two early Wilber books (The Atman Project and Up from Eden), which appeared in the early eighties of the past century, even as recent as April 2012, I received a mailing from the Core Integral group offering a free download of a talk from Wilber called "Wilber Speaks of Love".

In this brief audio file, Wilber repeats his favorite topic that love is what makes the world go round. Everything from atoms becoming molecules, single cells becoming multi-cellular and individuals getting together in groups and societies—it's all the result of one Power of Love or "Eros". Or, as phrased by a different Wilberian mantra: it's all the result of transcend-and-include. As the mailing reads:

Love was present long before the humans who reflexively felt it toward each other - rather, it was present as atoms became molecules and molecules became cells. It's so fundamental that some even posit it as the fifth elementary force in the universe.

Appealing as such a view of the world, and of evolution may be, just how likely is it to be true? I have exposed the laziness of this type of thinking in my Integral Theory Conference paper "The 'Spirit of Evolution' Reconsidered", posted on this website.

Not By Chance Alone

Like Wilber, Faixat builds his case around the idea that the scientific explanation of evolution and its apparent innate trend towards higher complexity is based on chance, and chance alone. This, however, is a popular misconception, repeated by creationists around the globe on every occasion. Putting chance against Eros or Spirit (or whatever one's favorite alternative to the scientific view of evolution is), is a false dichotomy. It reminds one of the "Eros or Oops?" dichotomy Wilber set's up at the beginning of his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution (1995).

I can only give this brief quote from Richard Dawkins on this issue of chance supposedly explaning the mysteries of evolution, since it's the most eloquent I know of:

It is grindingly, creakingly, crashingly obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn't work. (Climbing Mount Improbable, p. 67)

Instead, evolution is seen as the result of the interplay of the two forces of random chance and non-random selection.

Spiritualists of course will deny that natural selection can ever have the power to produce complex organisms and organs. But why don't they ever mention it in their easy dismissal of Darwinism (all we hear is "Darwinism has failed" or is "in crisis")? Are they afraid it still might work after all—and turn their own evolutionary theories into fancies of cosmological proportions? For it is one thing to assume that life on Earth may be driven by some mysterious Force; projecting that Force on the cosmos at large is a tall order indeed!

As it looks now, given the multitude of coincidences that have to be met before intelligent life can develop on any planet (see science writer John Gribbin's recent book The Reason Why: The Miracle of Life on Earth, 2011, that tackles exactly that question), it seems certain that intelligent evolution has occurred only on our planet Earth. That makes it rather risky to extrapolate processes that seem to be at work on our planet to the cosmos at large. (Though it must be conceded that opinions among specialists vary from life is inevitable to life is a freak accident that happened only one).

Even if life on earth seems to defy ordinary laws of nature, entropy—the increase of disorder—still rules in the universe at large. Suns arise, burn themselves up, and explode, to form new stars again, until all of it's fuel has been burnt up. Local increases of order, such as the origin of galaxies, are only possible thanks to gravity, one of the four major physical forces in existence (and no, there's no need to call upon Eros here).

And it must be stressed again and again, that laws of thermodynamics describe closed systems. The earth, on which life has originated, is far from a closed system, given the fact the the energy from the Sun is pouring on it's surface every single day. So the problem is not that evolution, by resulting in increasing order (or negative entropy) seems to contradict the laws of thermodynamacs, but that apparently some organisms learned to use the energy of the Sun for something useful (i.e. create sugars in plants, for starters).

Science, or even orthodox Darwinism, in no way denies complexity being able to arise in some lineages of organisms. What it denies is, that complexity is inevitable and that it is caused by some mysterious Force in Nature. Or that it is the overall purpose of evolution itself.

Darwin's Cold Shudders

The human eye, demonstrating the iris

Back to Faixat. He claims, among other things, that "Darwin himself confessed that it was absurd to imagine that the eye could have evolved by natural selection." This is, again, a popular and unfortunate misconception, based on selectively quoting from Darwin's Origin of Species. In this book (6th edition, Chapter 6) Darwin does indeed give a confession, about a problem which gave him "cold shudders":

To suppose that the eye, with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration, could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest possible degree. (Darwin 1872)

But to leave it at that is intellectually irresponsible, for Darwin continues:

Yet reason tells me, that if numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist; if further, the eye does vary ever so slightly, and the variations be inherited, which is certainly the case; and if any variation or modification in the organ be ever useful to an animal under changing conditions of life, then the difficulty of believing that a perfect and complex eye could be formed by natural selection, though insuperable by our imagination, can hardly be considered real. (Darwin 1872, 143-144) [See] (Emphasis added)

In the days of Darwin, these were indeed a lot of "ifs", for sure. But in the past decades, research by, for example, Nilsson and Pelger has shown that intermediate steps to complex eyesight do exist. For starters, check out the Wikipedia article "Evolution of the Eye" and the PBS series from 2001 on the subject. In previous essays I have referred to the marvelous chapter on the evolution of the eye in Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable, called "The Forty-fold Path to Enlightenment".

And predictably, Gould and Eldredge are called upon by Faixat to "prove" that gradual Darwinism has been refuted. Never mind that both Gould and Eldredge were staunch Darwinists, and that the much-hyped theory of "punctuated equilibrium" was in no way meant to undermine Darwinism per se. Wilber has used the same tactic in A Brief History of Everything, suggesting that orthodox Darwinism is no longer believed in by scientists ("absolutely nobody believes this anymore"). Again, without really entering into this complex debate among evolutionary biologists. No wonder this theory has been so popular among creationists!

Major Transitions in Evolution

J. Maynard Smith (1920-2004)

In a much more interesting part of his essay, Faixat refers us to the work of J. Maynard Smith, on the so-called "Major Transitions in Evolution". Maynard Smith supposedly acknowledged that "we do not have anything in the Neodarwinian theory that permit us predict in the long run an augmentation of complexity", when in fact all that it says is that a growth of complexity is neither inevitable nor specifiable. Complexity has certainly sprung up, in some cases, when it provided evolutionary advantages (see my previous essay "Some Paradoxes of Evolution")

In a very interesting way, in the paper/chapter linked to above, Maynard Smith describes and explicates three genetic mechanisms that have resulted in higher complexity:

  1. Duplication - Genes and genome parts can be duplicated during cell division. The duplicate parts can get a new functionality, not present in the original organism.
  2. Symbiosis - Whole genomes of two different organisms fuse into one new organism, as when plants and animals originated from the symbiosis of bacteria and one-celled organisms.
  3. Epigenetics - This new, though controversial field of research has shown us that it is not so much how many genes you have but what you do with them, that makes a difference—for genes can be turned on or off, by cellular or even environmental influences.

Wide scientific vistas open up in all three of these domains. None of these processes ever require a belief in a spiritual Force in the Universe, such as Wilber's Eros, nor, for that matter, an elaborate musicological theory of evolution as proposed by Faixat (giving a whole new meaning to the expression "string theory"). Evolution is not simply a matter of holons turning into more complex holons by a mysterious transcend-and-include process, where the transcend-part is caused by a metaphysical principle. Such phrases are empty of content, and don't explain anything in a really scientific sense.

To conclude, the first part of Faixat's essay is spent on setting the stage for what is to come, his musicological theory of evolution. But when, as I have shown above, not much is left of this stage, when the evidence is examined more closely, is there really any sense in going into the details of Faixat's theory?

While he displays a detailed knowledge of the various phases of biological and hominid evolution, why on earth would evolution be governed by a "standing wave" that determines when new phyla or species are supposed and allowed to arise on the scene? Indeed, how can a spatial metaphor of sound waves and nodes explain phenomena that occur in a chronological way during evolutionary time? And where does this leave room for the huge impact of contingency? Was the comet that destroyed the dinosaurs perhaps set by a cosmic clock-work—or in this context, a Cosmic Metronome?

Incidentally, cosmic cyclical influences on biological evolution are entirely possible and have been defended. As Bill Bryson recounts in his A Short History of Nearly Everything (not to be confused with Wilber's A Brief History of Everything), Ice Ages are triggered by the earth's cycle, or rather, irregularities in its cycle, causing abrupt climate changes that offer opportunities for species to make an evolutionary spurt. Most likely, the ending of the last Ice Age enabled primitive human societies to explore agriculture in the Near East, launching human civilization. Not because they obey a Music of the Spheres, as Faixat seems to suggest, but because evolution got an impulse from yet another fortuitous occurrence of nature.

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