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Frank Visser founded IntegralWorld.net in 1997 (back then under the name of "The World of Ken Wilber"). He is the author of the first monograph on Ken Wilber and his work: "Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion" (SUNY Press, 2003), which has been translated into 7 languages, and of many essays on this website. He currently is Service Desk Manager at the Dutch division of the global online marketing agency DigitasLBi.

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The Wilberian
Evolution Report

A Collection of Debate Snippets

Frank Visser

"Wilber's central metaphor is evolution, yet there is surprisingly little engagement with Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection."
Some online discussions on Wilber's ideas deserve to be filed in a Report. The Wild West Wilber Report was one of them. Here's another. As you can see, this is hardly a debate with an open-mindedness that the topic at hand deserves. Perhaps it is not too late.

As a follow up to my previous essay "If You Meet Wilber On the Road, Kill Him" I present below an overview of the online postings most relevant to the first topic of that essay: evolutionary biology.

Starting with Wilber's infamous paragraph about eyes and wings, and the problems they supposedly pose to evolutionary theory, we see David Lane opening up a thread of criticism, followed by a decade (!) of silence on the matter, then some brief outbursts on both sides, leading to a "final statement" by Wilber on his personal blog. I close with some personal comments.

THE ONLINE POSTINGS

Wilber on Evolution

"The standard, glib, neo-Darwinian explanation of natural selection--absolutely nobody [in later editions changed to: very few theorists] believes this anymore."

"Evolution clearly operates by Darwinian natural selection, but this process simply selects those transformations that have already occurred by mechanisms that absolutely nobody understands.... "

"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."

"Talk about mind-boggling. This is infinitely, absolutely, utterly, mind-boggling. Random mutations cannot even begin to explain this."

"For the moment, everybody has simply agreed to call this "quantum evolution" or "punctuated evolution" or "emergent evolution".

Comments from Critics

David Lane
"Having taught Darwinian evolution (and its various manifestations, including punctuated equilibrium) in grammar school, in high school, in community college, in university, and in doctoral programs, for the past seventeen years I must say that Wilber's take on what evolution is about baffles me."
"Wilber does not seem to understand that the processes of evolution are blind."
Alan Kazlev
"Instead of science, Wilber relies on creationist arguments, although to be fair to him at least he doesn't buy into the religious literalism or young earth timescale of the latter. On this page I take a detailed look at what is wrong with Ken's understanding of evolutionary science."
Tuff Ghost
"Specifically, Dawkins has noted that a spectrum of possibilities exists for the eye and the leg/wing, and thus evolution doesn't have to explain a gap between leg and wing, because a leg/wing works fine (for example, creatures that glide)."
"However, I will say that the ramifications of Wilber leaving the statement as is, without supporting it further or retracting it, are potentially quite large. Not only has it been actively criticized (Falk, Lane), but it is turning people away from Wilber who might otherwise become interested in Integral theory."

Wilber Responds, part I

  • KW Responds, Vomitting confetti, Friday, May 27, 2005
"Folks, give me a break on this one... I know evolutionary theory inside out, including the works of Dawkins et al."

"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."
"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, and scientists when they are not bragging to the world, whisper this to themselves every single day of their lives. I know, I lived in that community for the better part of a decade. And it's truly fascinating, to say the least...."

"This is a great thread, from what I have seen of it, and I hope it continues. But please don't do so by claiming that I don't know evolutionary theory, because in that particular instance anyway, you are absolutely off your nut."

Comments from Critics

Geoffrey Falk
"None of the above alters the fact that Wilber has completely misrepresented the truth that half-wings do exist, and have been documented as existing since Darwin's own Origin of Species."
"So what we have here from Wilber is no documented facts, no relevant details, just his "Einsteinian" authority, his rampant hyperbole, and a laughable appeal to other discredited "thinkers" to back up his own claims to expertise."

Wilber Responds, part II

"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."

Comments from Critics

Jim Chamberlain
"The fact is that neither Diamond (who is no less a materialist than everyone else I'm about to name), nor Mayr, nor Dawkins, nor Lewontin say anything that supports Wilber's view that there are gaps in scientific knowledge of biological evolution (he points to these gaps by asking "how dirt gets up and starts writing poetry" and "how we get from atoms to Shakespeare") that can only be filled by positing immanent Spirit as a "drive" within evolution itself."

"If Wilber doesn't want to call this a metaphysical telos, what kind of telos is it? A "post-metaphysical" telos?"
Jeff Meyerhoff
"Wilber's central metaphor is evolution, yet there is surprisingly little engagement with Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection."
"If he bothered to read his mainstream authority on evolutionary biology, Wilber's puzzlement concerning the evolution of the eye would be resolved."

Wilber Responds, Part III

"Do I think Mayr or Dawkins or Lewontin or Kauffman believe[s] 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..."

Comments from Critics

Jim Chamberlain
"Ruse says, 'Beware of anything that answers everything. It usually ends by answering nothing.'"
"Merely asserting something, no matter how loudly, doesn't make it true. Confident assertion is no substitute for argument, even though most of us, in our uncritical moments, can be persuaded by people who seem to know what they're talking about, whether or not they really do. The only way other people can assess the truth of an assertion is to examine reasons and evidence that might be given in support of it, or else to seek out evidence or reasons not to believe it."
Frank Visser
"If one sub-titles one's major work "The Spirit of Evolution", a solid understanding of standard evolutionary theory is a first requirement."
"Perhaps Wilber, with his eyes-and-wings statements, only wanted to argue for a spiritual take on evolution. Is there such a thing as "Integral Design" -- that includes science (but this time, without misrepresenting it) but also points out where it currently fails, in a fundamental sense? In my opinion, evolutionary theory would be a perfect case study to assess the validity of integralism."

Wilber Responds, Part IV

"I have no belief whatsoever that the wing actually took 100 mutations--that's just a way to state what you are stating, and also, 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 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. "

Comments from Critics

Frank Visser
"This reply by Wilber leaves one speechless - the mind just goes blank. So the original extreme and dogmatic statements about the evolution of eyes and wings in A Brief History of Everything - "nobody has a clue" - were never meant to be taken literally? They were meant as metaphors for creative emergence? How careless can one get in writing about science?"
Geoffrey Falk
"The thing is, even if Eros did exist, any (guided) mutations it might produce toward some "evolutionary goal" would only be passed on to offspring if they conferred survival (and reproductive) value on their organisms more than was conferred by the other genes they were competing against. Any mutations or even outright creations, even Eros-guided ones, which didn't act to propagate themselves through the gene pool at that particular period in history, would get selected out of the population in exactly the same way as "random" mutations get selected against."

And as to the immune system example, Falk has added:

"Wilber has recently touted the immune system as something which cannot be accounted for on the basis of neo-Darwinian evolution: "[T]he complex forms of evolution that we see—such as the immune system—are not the products of mere chance mutation and natural selection.... " And yet, from Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion: "Another of Behe's favourite alleged examples of "irreducible complexity" is the immune system. Let Judge Jones himself take up the story" Read more...
"Or is the immune system example just another "metaphor"? No, it ain't. "

Wilber Continues, Part V

"Science has been able to provide the "what" and the "how" of evolution, but the "why" remains just as elusive as ever—why is there something instead of nothing? Why does there appear to be a natural "tilt" of the universe toward increasing creativity and complexity? ... Science is helpful with phenomena once they have arisen, but is unable to explain phenomena when they appear for the first time."
Frank Visser
"I consider this view to be the result of lazy thinking and in the end harmful. It does not explain anything. It is anti-discovery. It makes an easy division in on the on hand reductionistic science, which does its own job of clarifying the details of nature, and on the other hand, evolutionary spirituality, which "explains" evolution and provides an inspiring wordview of growth."
"So what exactly is the "novelty" that evolutionary theory supposedly fails to account for? Telling enough, this is never specified in Wilber's talks and writing. An eye? A wing? A horse? A dinosaur? Fish getting onto land? Where exactly does science fail and is it in need of a spiritual hypothesis? If this isn't specified, everything becomes meaningless. The pathos is misplaced, as is the casualness of Wilber's pronouncements on evolutionary theory throughout his entire writing career."
Frank Visser
"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.) "
"Wilber is faced with the same dilemma's 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 by explained that way. This often takes only a few years, as Behe c.s. have found out to their own dismay."
"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. "
"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."


FURTHER REFLECTIONS

Blind chance or Spirit?

Looking back on this "debate" one is struck by the fact that the only two real options seem to be:

  • Either one believes in a blind-chance, random, materialist universe,
  • or one believes in a spiritual universe, driven by Eros, Spirit, or God

Scientists are supposed to believe in such a "reductionist" world view, spiritualists (such as Wilber -- "I, of course, don't accept that") don't, they reject such "reductionism".

This is, however, a misconstruction popular in spiritualist circles. Paint the reductionist universe as black and grim as possible, and then offer your own glowing alternative spiritual vision.

What is conveniently overlooked is one simple fact: evolutionary theory does NOT rely on blind chance as an explanatory principle, alone[1].

And that makes all the difference.

We all know the examples of the typewriting monkey creating Shakespeare, or the Boeing 747 getting assembled by a storm in a junkyard -- these examples are brought up by anti-Darwinists to show the improbability of complex organisms (or mechanisms) being put together by chance. But that's not at al the thesis of Darwinism.

Richard Dawkins, in Climbing Mount Improbable, (1996, p. 67, and many other places), states it in his own way:

It is grindingly, creakingly, obvious that, if Darwinism were really a theory of chance, it couldn't work

On the contrary, Dawkins explains that evolution works through chance mutations and... natural selection. It is through selection that minor improvements are preserved and passed on to the next generations. And minor improvements lead to major improvements in the long run.

And Dawkins doesn't think "punctuated equilibrium" is such a big deal, again, contrary to Wilber's original statement. (Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, published a full decade before Wilber's Brief History, spells this out).

So evolution-as-chance or evolution-as-Spirit is a false dichotomy[2], that aborts any real debate from the start.

The "evolution debate" so far

So what do we have here, after a decade of attempts to get this debate started?

  1. We have Wilber making a statement about eyes and wings in Brief History that is obviously false. It should have been admitted right after it was spotted by Lane.
  2. Instead, we have seen Wilber implicitly defending this statement by claiming to know the field inside out. This makes things only worse, because if this were true, why this elementary mistake?
  3. When critics continue to point this out, Wilber claims that evolutionary theory is in deep trouble, and recommends the reading of Behe's work for starters. He does not mention Behe's work has discredited with solid arguments by mainstream biologists.
  4. So Wilber continues to give the impression to his readers that (1) he knows what he's talking about and (2) evolutionary theory can't explain evolution ("Neo-Darwinian theory can't explain shit. Deal with it").
  5. He then offers his spiritual alternative, "There's an Eros to the Kosmos", without spelling out why this would help solve evolutionary theory's problems. This is rather cheap.
  6. As an afterthought he offers the suggestion that even if evolution turns out to be based on physicalist principles, he can include this in his AQAL model, no problem.
  7. What he does not mention is that evolutionary theory's explanatory principles are not at all physicalist (except in a very remote, but meaningless sense) and it can very well explain the evolution of organisms and their organs without any recourse to spiritual principles.
  8. And he resorts to the rhetorical device of making fun of all these scientists who promise to explain life eventually, but -- quoting Sheldrake on this -- "have been saying that for two thousand years".
  9. Again, great lines before a lay audience, but Wilber does not mention that this attitude is the standard, anti-scientific, anti-explanatory stance of creationists and Intelligent Design theorists.
  10. He does not recognize that the primary task of evolutionary biology is not to explain how life started in the first place (though that is a field of interesting research) but how life's forms evolve over time.
  11. He also misconstrues the critics as stating that materialist science accepts Spirit(?), where in fact they have consistently accused him of misrepresenting evolutionary theory. To that accusation he has never replied other then with the blanket statement "I know the field inside out". Well, apparently not.
  12. In the meantime, scientists simply go on explaining the diversity of life and its evolving forms. And as to poor old eyes and wings? Their evolution has been explained with ingenuity, perseverance and success. But you won't read about that in Wilber's writings.
  13. Wilber has recently (December 2007) stated that his eyes-and-wings example was never meant as an exact description of a biological process, but merely served to illustratie "the necessity of a self-organizing force (or Eros) intrinsic to the universe."
  14. Why this extra hypothesis is needed is not explained. The biological evidence so far (withheld to his readers by Wilber) does not seem to call for it.

Looks like the real debate on the integral take on evolution still has to begin... But ironically, if you want to know about evolution, Wilber might very well be the worst place to start.

However, the prospects for such a debate are grim, given Wilber's track record so far, and the notable fact that all three responses by Wilber on this vexed topic of evolutionary theory were set in the context of barely disguised anger at those who have the guts to disagree.

Until this issue is cleared, I would advise to not even use the term "evolution" anymore, for whatever it is ("Evolutionary Spirituality") that Wilber tries to convey with his ideas on psychological and cultural development.

NOTES

[1] More on this issue can be found here: John Wilkins, "Evolution and chance", Talkorigins.org, 1997.

[2] For other misconceptions about evolutionary theory, see Mark Isaak, "Five Major Misconceptions about Evolution", talkorigins.org, 2003, which lists five of these:

  • Evolution has never been observed.
  • Evolution violates the 2nd law of thermodynamics.
  • There are no transitional fossils.
  • The theory of evolution says that life originated, and evolution proceeds, by random chance.
  • Evolution is only a theory; it hasn't been proved.

FURTHER READING

  • www.talkorigins.org - The major site about the evolution vs. creation controversy. Very comprehensive.
  • www.wasdarwinwrong.com - created by Gert Lokhorst, gives a lot of interesting background material to the topic of evolution, including reviews of the relevant literature.





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