Check out my review of Ken Wilber's latest book Finding Radical Wholeness

Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
David Christopher LaneDavid Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).


Prefatory Note & Prologue | PART I | PART II | PART III | PART IV

Wilber and the
of Evolution

Ken Wilber's Achilles' Heel, Part II

David Lane

A Brief History of Everything

In A Brief History of Everything (1996), Wilber writes on pages 22-3 the following about his understanding of current evolutionary theory:

The standard, glib, neo-Darwinian explanation of natural selection—absolutely nobody [my emphasis] 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 [my emphasis] understands....

Take the standard notion that wings simply evolved from forelegs. It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing from a leg—a half-wing will not do. A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing—you can't run and you can't fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. This 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 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 [my emphasis]. Random mutations cannot even begin to explain this. The vast, 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 wings from the less workable wings—but the wings themselves? Nobody has a clue [my emphasis]."

For the moment, everybody [my emphasis] 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 [my emphasis]. 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.

Wow! I can almost see Charles Darwin turning in his grave, Stephen Jay Gould fainting at a New York Yankees game, Richard Dawkins spitting out his beer at an Oxford Pub, Daniel Dennett shouting, "That's the biggest Sky Hook I have ever seen!," and Pat Robertson praising Jesus saying, "When did Wilber convert to Creationism? He's on our side now. Hey, the New Age is okay!"

Wilber does not seem to understand that the processes of evolution are blind. He wants to have it "open-eyed"...

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.

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.

Indeed, they have written extensively against the type of argument Wilber presents. As Dennett points out in Darwin's Dangerous Idea, evolution proceeds by cranes (a nice metaphor to explain that evolution works piecemeal and in an algorithmic process, 1 step, 2 step, 3 step), not by skyhooks (non-algorithmic processes: 1 step, then an airplane, or 1 kiss, 2 kiss, then baby twins!).

Wilber does not seem to understand that the processes of evolution are blind. He wants to have it "open-eyed" as if natural selection all of sudden wakes up when it hears that a "wing has been formed" (better start chugging) or that an "eye has been completed" (let's fine tune now). Natural selection does not "start" when the eye is formed; it works all along without any conscious intention whatsoever.

Not to sound like a groggy professor, but if Wilber turned in the above quote to me as a college student trying to explain the current view of evolutionary theory, I would give him an "F" and ask to see him in my office. Why? Not because there can't be healthy debates about evolutionary theory, but because Wilber has misrepresented the fundamentals of natural selection.

Moreover, his presentation of how evolution is viewed today is so skewed that Wilber has more in common with creationists than evolutionists, even though he is claiming to present the evolutionists' current view.

And to top it off, Wilber's gross exaggerations are downright sophomoric (just look at the capitalizations again and ask yourself: is this how transpersonal psychology should be "grounded"?). It is little wonder that transpersonal psychology has problems. If Wilber cannot accurately portray the underlying pretext of his holonic system, then why should materialists/empiricists believe his trans-rational realm theory?

Well, they shouldn't actually if he can't get the details straight on the one holonic level that we can all see.... But enough of my reprimand, let us have Richard Dawkins himself in his book, River Out Of Eden (not to be confused with Wilber's other misguided view of evolution, Up From Eden), take Wilber to task (and in so doing prima facie show Wilber that his hyperbole is precisely that: exaggerations that misconstrue the truth).

Keep in mind that Dawkins is addressing creationists, even though the following quote looks like he is responding directly to Wilber's misinformation campaign. (Please also note that I will put my comments via Wilber in brackets.) [Quote from Richard Dawkins' River Out of Eden, pages 76-79]

Mention of poor eyes and good eyes brings me to the creationist's [Wilber's?] favorite conundrum. What is the use of half an eye? [Same holds true for Wilber's 'half a wing'] How can natural selection favor an eye that is less than perfect [according to Wilber it can't; according to evolution it easily can]. . . There is a gradient, a continuum, of task for which an eye might be used. I am at present using my eyes for recognizing letters of the alphabet as they appear on the computer screen. You need good, high-acuity eyes to do that. I have reached an age when I no longer read without the aid of glasses, at present quite weakly magnifying ones. . . Here we have yet another continuum—a continuum of age.
River Out of Eden

Any normal human, however old, has better vision than an insect. There [are] tasks that can be usefully accomplished by people with relatively poor vision, all the way down to the nearly blind. You can play tennis with quite blurry vision. . . There is a continuum of tasks to which an eye might be put, such that for any given quality of eye, from magnificent to terrible, there is a level of task at which a marginal improvement in vision would make all the difference. There is therefore no difficulty in understanding the gradual evolution of the eye, from primitive and crude beginnings, through a smooth continuum of intermediate, to the perfection we seek in a hawk or in a young human.

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....

Sidebar: If you don't like Dawkins ... then read Gould, Dennett, Darwin, or Berra's Evolution and the Myth of Creationism (Stanford University Press, 1990), which say essentially the same thing about evolution. Below is a pertinent quote from Berra which again looks like he is talking directly to Wilber (but he is in fact talking to Biblical Creationists):

Creationists [Wilber again?] frequently make the specious argument that an eye (or ear, wing, lung, etc.) could not have evolved because the intermediate stages would be imperfect and therefore not functional. They miss the point that a structure need not be in a final form to confer an advantage. Some vision is better than none. . . Eyes did not arise suddenly from nothing. They evolved gradually over hundreds of millions of years by incremental improvements over previous models....

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....

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.

Wilber cannot understand half a wing, or part of an eye. Well, those are the very things that Darwin himself talked about in The Origin of Species. Moreover, just read Gould's book on The Panda's Thumb and one will clearly understand the contingencies of nature and how certain parts of the body evolve to be utilized for their advantage (genetic or otherwise).

Although it may seem that this issue of misunderstanding evolution is a small chapter in Wilber's overall work, it is so fundamental to his thinking that it makes one question the entire edifice upon which he has built Spectrum Psychology.

As the cliché says, "God resides in the details." It is those details which Wilber has consistently messed up.

(Keep also in mind that Wilber is being raked over the coals here not because he disagrees with evolution, but because he misrepresents it and misrepresents the current status of the field. If he doesn't want to believe in Darwinian evolution, or algorithmic evolution, then so be it, but at least be accurate in your appraisal of the discipline. Wilber's illustrates a basic lack of understanding.)

In the terminology that I have been using, Wilber looks for the Super-Context, forgetting in the process that every text has a pretext and every context is grounded in the holonic realm which precedes it. Wilber seems to forget his own theological leanings, suggesting that there has be something "mysterious" going on (that nobody understands) when in fact it is much simpler. Things, as Feynman might say, are made of littler things. Look first to those littler things and every-thing becomes a bit clear. Avoid that and you end up thinking that nobody could possibly make a Pizza. But anybody who cooks know that it takes ingredients, those items which are less (not more, not in addition, not super-tremendous) than the completed project, to make a nice pizza pie. Well, Wilber wants to avoid the ingredients in his transpersonal recipe by postulating a Consciousness First principle. Okay, but then don't use that Context to misread the Pretext of Molecular Evolutionists. Or, as Wilber in his more lucid moments might say (like when he is ripping the new physics = mysticism connection): Don't collapse hierarchies in order to squish in God or the Mysterions.

See also:

Additional comment

Ironically, in 1996, in the very year that A Brief History of Everything was published, Richard Dawkins published his Climbing Mount Improbable, 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 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, however much he tries to convince us that he follows this topic "religiously". He even called Dawkins "a preacher" ! Compare the tone and content of the two authors, and decide for yourself. (Note added by Frank Visser, 12/20/06)

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