Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Tomislav MarkusTomislav Markus works at the Croatian Institute of History, Zagreb, Republic of Croatia. He is the author of "Limits of Spiritual Enlightenment", "Two Roads Diverging: Integral Theory and Contemporary Science", "Twilight in the Integral World: Integral Theory and the Desintegration of Industrial Civilization", "Pitfalls of Wilberian Ecology: A Critical Review of Integral Ecology" and "Paul Shepard and Integral Theory", all published on Integral World.

Limits of
Spiritual Enlightenment

The Theory of Bio-Social Discontinuity
and Great Spiritual Traditions
(with some Remarks about Ken Wilber)

Tomislav Markus (1969-2010)

The roots of spiritual traditions

Man can «search for meaning» only if (s)he lives an abnormal and meaningless life.

In popular culture and in many academic works the term «civilization» had a noble and sublime meaning for a long time. Civilization means to rise above the chaotic outer, wild, natural world and/or the aggressive inner human nature. To be «civilized» means to be moral, noble and rational. Idealization of civilization appear to be something normal, because there aren't opposite terms such as «noble savage» (there is no «noble citizen» or something like that in popular or scientific literature). But through the 20th century some other opinions began to show. Early opinions about the repressiveness of the civilized state—like Sigmund Freud's—still maintained a progressive although somewhat ambivalent perspective. Civilization is perhaps repressive, but still it's something «progressive» and «noble». There were some more positive valuations of «primitive»—mainly simple horticultural societies or, more rarely, hunter-gatherers—in scholarly literature, but they could be dissmissed as a «fallacy of the noble savage».

Anthropogenic problems—or collective pathologies, like war, most diseases, interpersonal exploitation, state repression, pollution, ecological destruction, urban loneliness, violence and anomie etc.—are a fundamental characteristic of all complex societies. In the last 40 years or so many scientists and scholars—anthropologists, archeologists, historians, historic sociologists, biologists etc.—pointed out that recent human history, in the last 10.000 years from neolithic domestification onward, is not progressive but regressive, not in some moral sense, but in the sense of a continual decline of the quality of human life and a continual increase of anthropogenic problems. Deeper causes of great anthropogenic problems and human misery lie not in capitalism or industrial society but in the beginnings of domestification and civilization (Diamond 1974, Fox 1989, Harris 1991, Maryanski-Turner 1992, Livingston 1994, Schmookler 1995, Shepard 1998a, 1998b, Sanderson 1999, Brody 2002, Horton 2000, Hughes 2001, Fagan 2004, Christian 2005, Ferguson 2006, Fry 2007, Rowe 2006, Ponting 2007...). Of course, there are many inconsistencies and ambiguities in the works of these theorists—some of them think, for example, that industrial societies accomplish some kind of progress in comparison with agrarian civilizations, some are focusing on some problem like war, ignoring others—but classical linear progressivism and the idealization of civilization as «rise-and-achievement» is definitively abandoned.

Darwinism or evolutionary biology made possible a scientific foundation of that perspective. The fact of the recent emergence of complex human societies was clearly known in 19th century. But slow affirmation of neo-darwinism, on the basis of the so called "modern synthesis" in the 1930s and 1940s, in the social sciences after 1960, made possible an explanation of deeper causes of anthropogenic problems. The fundamental characteristic of darwinian evolution is a non-directional genetical adaptation of living forms and species to some specific local environment. Darwinian evolution is random, not purposeful and with no «higher»/«lower» forms, no progressive direction, no process toward some goal, only an opportunistic adaptation to local ecological conditions. That means that all species have some natural environment or, in the language of contemporary evolutionary psychology, an environment of evolutionary adaptation. For humans, that environment is a clean and wild environment, ecologically, and small (20-30 members) nomadic groups, socially.

In the last 40 years or so many thinkers pointed out that humans are genetically adapted to these conditions in which our ancestors were living for hundred millions of years (ecological environment) or ten millions of years (social environment). That life, which is usually called hunter-gatherer society, we genetically never abandoned. Social changes were too fast for adequate genetical adaptation (Barash 1986, Fox 1989, Maryanski-Turner 1992, Boyden 1992, 2004, Schmookler 1995, Shepard 1998, 1998b, 1999, Morris 2004, Wilson 2003, 2004). Many darwinian thinkers, sociobiologists and evolutionary psychologists, pointed out the same position in the last 30 years. Of course, in the last 10.000 years increasing numbers of human beings were living in fundamentally different social and ecological conditions: agriculture, nomadic pastoralism, state, cities... but this is exactly a fundamental cause of human problems.

Neolithic domestification means a beginning of an ever increasing schism between human nature (which means adaptation to hunter-gatherer life) and an unnatural/abnormal social environment. Abandonment of natural social and ecological conditions in the last 10.000 years was the main cause of ever growing anthropogenic problems. Civilization is not a hard-won achievement but an abnormal society which generates many features of pathological behaviour, especially in industrial mega-cities. This perspective I have called the "theory of bio-social discontinuity" and about that I recently wrote two books in Croatian (Markus 2006, 2008).

The theory of bio-social discontinuity is not the fallacy of the noble savage. It has nothing to do with morality (nobleness), but only with genetical adaptation. An environment of evolutionary adaptation is not some kind of this-worldy paradise—there are many troubles and misfortunes in hunter-gatherer life (disease, attack of predators, infanticide, personal violence...)—but it's an optimal environment. «Optimal», namely, relatively the best environment for the satisfaction of fundamental human needs: community, homeland, clean and wild environment, social and ecological stability, egalitarity, peace etc. In hunter-gatherer society there can be personal murder, but not war, some sex- and age-distinction, but not class stratification, personal prestige but not state power, modification of the environment (perhaps even the extinction of several species by hunting) but not massive environmental destruction and pollution etc. These features of human behaviour remain inside some fundamental evolutionary parameters and they can be easily understood.

In general, the theory of bio-social discontinuity was criticized in favor of cultural adaptation, namely, a faith in the plasticity of human behaviour and in the power of culture. This position was named a standard model of the social sciences and was criticized in detail in new darwinian literature, especially sociobiology and evolutionary psychology (Wilson 2003, Barkow 2006, Buss 2007, Markus 2008). If man is a tabula rasa and culture is so powerful a thing why are there so many anthropogenic problems and collective pathologies in all civilizations? They are symptoms of a very poor human adaptation. Thanks to culture, humans can create and survive in the abnormal conditions, even as slaves in the mines, but they can't prosper, namely, satisfy their fundamental needs. If a life of slaves or serfs in agrarian civilization is not a good life—because we are not genetically adapted to it—how can a life of workers or employees in an industrial city, be a good life? This life does not have a foundation in our evolutionary past, too.

The irresistible attractiveness of meaningless and destructive consumption in modern society can be explained as compensation. Humans can't satisfy their vital needs—because they live in an unnatural society—and they are looking for material things and technological wonders. High standard of living becomes compensation for low quality of living. But human nature can't be deceived for a long time and humans are looking for peace, community, clean and wild environment etc. again and again. Human beings, like every other, have their own environment of evolutionary adaptation, namely they are genetically adapted to specific social and ecological conditions. This is the most important argument about biological continuity between man and other species, not culture, language, reason etc. Other species—or some of them—can have culture (transmission of informations by non-genetical means), language (different forms of communication), consciousness, reason and other abilities but we cannot emphasize that because it's a return to the traditional perspective of «higher» and «lower» life-forms (other species are some kind of «primitive» humans or they have some abilities but on the «lower» level). This is a subjective approach, choose the criterion and win, not a scientific approach.

What about the «great spiritual traditions» or the «perennial philosophy»? Thinkers—philosophers and theologians—in the agrarian civilizations knew and could know nothing about the theory of bio-social discontinuity and about deep evolutionary time in which the human mind was framed. About million of years of hunter-gatherer life they knew nothing (so called «barbarians» chiefly meant pastoral nomads or simple horticulturalists). They thought that human history and civilization's history is the same. So, they thought that the fundamental cause of human misery and countless anthropogenic problems in their societies was some kind of moral failure in the human mind: original sin in Christianity, a bad heritage from a previous life in indian religions and philosophies or something like that. A «solution» would be some kind of spiritual «enlightenment» or man's rise «above» chaotic and repressive social conditions. That could mean, as in many philosophies, a more elitistic «solution» for a handful thinkers or could have, as in the axial religions, more democratic features.

These religions were originally a protest against anthropogenic problems and human misery in the agrarian civilizations and they offered a consolation for the miserable masses, faith in the afterlife (Christianity, Islam) or an escape from life altogether (Indian religions). On the other hand, they were quickly tied with powerful political structures in their societies and became an ideological defense of the existing political and economical conditions. Adherents of «great spiritual traditions» were humanistically educated philosophers and theologians. They knew nothing, not only about evolution, but mainly about the wider natural world which sustained them and their societies. They were fiercely anthropocentric, believing in biological and ecological discontinuity. So, they looked for some inner insight (inside the human mind), not for identification with wild natural and other species. Not much ecological consciousness here.

Contemporary efforts for a «greening» of traditional religions—eco-Christianity, eco-Islam etc.—are not much convincing. Of course, that doesn't mean that traditional religions are the cause of ecological and other anthropogenic problems. They are only consequences and symptoms of living in abnormal conditions. Real causes of ecological destruction and other problems always were (and are) material factors—especially demographic and technological expansion—which has no foundation in our evolutionary past and which didn't go by a test of natural selection. The theory of bio-social discontinuity is a materialistic, not idealistic theory. All spiritual traditions contain strong anti-naturalistic overtones or a desire to "transcend" death and suffering (death denial), just like contemporary animal rights and other secular ideologies (technological medicine).

Modern secular ideologies—liberalism and its leftist heresies (marxism, anarchism and others)—offered secular salvation in this world by conquest of nature, technological expansion, increasing standard of living etc. That effort could eliminate or decrease some anthropogenic problems (like most infectious diseases or some worst kind of human exploitation), but many other problems are created or augmented. That can't be avoided because modern industrial society created even more a gulf between human nature and unnatural society. Industrial megacities is the most unnatural environment in human history with abnormal social (competitiveness, loneliness, random violence, terrorism, breakdown of family...) and ecological (polluted, devastated, overpopulated, mechanized and plastic milieu, fit for robots but not for organic creature, adapted to a wild natural world). Contemporary efforts for the «greening» of secular ideologies—eco-liberalism, eco-marxism etc.—are not much convincing, too. They are basically secular versions of the axial religions.

The accusation of human nature—instead of civilization—is alive and well today, even in many secular thinkers. Many darwinians think that the cause of anthropogenic problems is competitive and aggressive human nature, or a «dark side» of it. They often emphasize war and hierarchy which, presumably, has some foundation in human nature (Edgerton 1992, Sanderson 2001, LeBlanc 2003, Thayer 2004, Dyer 2006, Livingstone 2007, Gat 2008). This obviously reminds one of the christian metaphysics of good (soul, reason) and bad (original sin) aspects of human nature and can be explained as it's secular version. This is quite ironic because many of these darwinians—Richard Dawkins is only the most famous—are combative atheists. But from a darwinian perspective this interpretation hasn't any sense at all. How is this radical dualism in the human mind framed? How can natural selection frame two radical opposite forces in a living being? How and when is it created? What is the «dark side» and «bright side» in the other species—because they have to have it, too (biological continuity)?

Here is the problem: an antagonism between a scientific and a moral position. The great majority of darwinians are liberal humanists who believe in (modern) civilization, historical progress and contemporary liberal democracy. But liberalism is a humanistic doctrine, basically a secular Christian heresy (marxism, anarchism, socialism are liberal heresies with more egalitarian overtones). There are strong tensions between scientific positions (which leads toward the theory of bio-social discontinuity) and moral/political positions (faith in progress and civilizations) among many darwinians. For many, civilization must be some kind of holy cow, which cannot be questioned. The standard model of the social sciences (all or almost all human behavior follows from culture/social conditions) is replaced by the standard model of social darwinism (all human behavior follows from genetical heritage), but it's only one possible interpretation. The other is the theory of bio-social discontinuity. About that I wrote in detail in my book Darwinism and History (Markus 2008).

Here we can show the limits of «spiritual enlightenment». In hunter-gatherer societies there is no call to «rise above», «enlightenment», «spiritual wisdom» etc. It's not because hunter-gatherers are ignorant and primitive savages, but because they live in the optimal environment in which fundamental human needs can be satisfied. If humans have a community, a homeland, a clean and wild environment, peace, egalitarity etc. why should they look for «enlightenment»? Among hunter-gatherers there are no ascending or descending traditions (one of the crucial statements in Ken Wilber's theory). These positions have their roots in civilization. Ascending tradition (basically axial religions) meant to «rise above» abnormal social conditions in agrarian civilizations, and descending tradition (basically liberalism and other secular ideologies) is tied to the myth of «historical progress». If human beings live in the optimal—not: perfect—social and ecological conditions there is no need for a «rise above» nor for «progress», because both concepts are symptoms of a deep dissatisfaction with existing living conditions.

Humanistic ideologies—from axial philosophies and religions to their modern secular versions—are constantly in «search for meaning». But man can «search for meaning» only if (s)he lives an abnormal and meaningless life. If this «search» is collective, this means that men are living in an abnormal and unnatural society in which they cannot satisfy their fundamental needs. In the abnormal circumstances of civilizations «spiritual enlightenment» can be a sensible option for a handful of individuals but not for the vast majority of human beings. Efforts to accomplish «wisdom» and a «rational life» in civilization can be enlightened and praiseworthy—surely better than destructive and meaningless consumption—but it is ultimately some kind of escape too, namely an escape from abnormal social conditions. Contemporary humans can escape to science, philosophy or art, not only to sex, TV, Internet, drugs and other consumer goods, but escape they must because they live in an unnatural society. Among hunter-gatherers there is no desire for transcending death or suffering, because they are a normal part of nature and life, not some abnormal phenomenona.

Science is not a product of some historical particularity, like the so called scientific revolution of the XVII. century or industrial society. Science has a foundation in the cognitive structures of the human brain, which is the product of hundred million of years of biological evolution. Science—as a method of comprehension of the world—existed in all human society, but in different forms, from knowledge of local environment to modern abstract and universal knowledge about evolution, Earth, cosmos etc. Science and modern science—and, especially, technology—are not the same thing. So, a defense of science isn't and can't mean a defense of some social and historical particularity, like industrial society or capitalism. In contrast, spiritual traditions were and are loaded with a metaphysical (non-empirical) and idealistic approach and they have no foundation in human nature. For that reason, science should not have some addition in lofty metaphysical theories.

Here we cannot write about the practical consequences of this idealistic approach in detail, but its prospect is not good either. A change of consciousness as «solution» for countless anthropogenic problems of contemporary societies? What about climate change? Financial and economic crisis? Energy crisis or peak oil (the end of the era of cheap fossil fuels)? Wars and terrorism? Ecologist and anhropologist Paul Shepard called recent humany history «a ten thousand years of crisis» (Shepard 1998a). The contemporary dismal state of humanity could be seen—as many radical ecological thinkers pointed out in the last 30-40 years—as the culmination of a path which began in the neolithic domestification. Environmental historians showed that many civilizations have collapsed because of the devastation of their environmental and energy basis (Hughes 2001, 2006, Ponting 2007). Global demographic (a significant reduction of the population) and social (reduction of political, cultural, technological and economical complexity) collapse—of course: not the end of the human species—is a real possibility in the next 40-50 years.

The greatest threat are not so much climate changes (as many ecologically minded people think), but the end of the era of cheap fossil fuels, which are absolutely crucial for the normal operation of mass industrial societies (Kunstler 2006, Heinberg 2004, 2005, Leggett 2006, Deffeyes 2008, Greer 2008, Newman 2008). For them, there are no real alternatives at hand, now or in the foreseeable future (so called «alternatives» are really technologies for the production of electric energy, not some new energy sources and they are all only derivatives of fossil fuels). Oil peak (namely, great increase of energy price in the last several years) is a deeper cause of the recent deep recession—the real end of «growth»—of global capitalist economy, not some new version of the Great Depression of the 1930s. In 2030 there will be about 8,5-9 billion people and oil/gas for only 1,5 billion.

How can a «change of consciousness» or «spiritual enlightenment» help us in all this mess? This can be helpful for this or that individual as a consolation for living in abnormal social circumstances—nothing more. This is the problem for every idealistic approach, which is typical for spiritual traditions.

Case study: Ken Wilber

Wilber can't expect to be taken seriously by science, if he doesn't take science seriously.

The American thinker and transcendental philosopher Ken Wilber is probably the most notorious adherent of the «great spiritual tradition» today. His opus shows some typical limits of the traditional spiritual/idealistic approach. But first one personal remark. When I encountered Wilber's work ten years ago, in my twenties, I was very excited because of my youthful ideals about «spiritual values» and «moral enlightenment». But not today. The theory of bio-social discontinuity means a materialistic and naturalist perspective, because it sees material factors—evolutionary heritage, ecological and social circumstances—as fundamental. Wilber's position is clearly an idealistic one.

His works abound in metaphysical speculations about «spirit», «mind», «evolution» (in a metaphysical sense) etc. In this we can or we can't believe, but we can't test it by empirical verification. The theory of bio-social discontinuity has more explanatory value because it can explain not only the cause of anthropogenic problems, but the cause and origin of the idealistic approach, like Wilber's, as well. In the worst cases, spiritual traditions were fossilized in religious dogmas and defense of authoritarian social regimes. In the best cases, the «wisdom» of great spiritual tradition was an affirmation of some fundamental human needs mentioned above. But it was always an extremely idealistic and anthropocentric perspective with a strong bias in favour of human exemptionalism, faith in biological (man is not an animal) and ecological (man is not a part of nature) discontinuity. Wilber thinks that the fundamental problem is «lack of understanding and mutual agreement in the noosphere» (Wilber 2000b). Well, that can think a well-to-do western intellectual, but this is hard to tell to countless victims of contemporary anthropogenic problems. And this is one more example of Wilber's ahistorical and idealistic approach.

A second problem with Wilber's work is that it belongs to the tradition of Indian mysticism, plus some version of idealistic western philosophy, like Hegel's. It hasn't any substantive connection with modern western science. Modern science contains a primacy of materialistic and naturalistic perspectives or statements which can be empirically tested. Some scientific discipline—physics, chemistry, astronomy—are not specially relevant for human beings and their societies. But others, like evolutionary biology, ecology or the social sciences, have crucial significance.

How much value does Wilber's work have from a scientific perspective? Not much. Some thinkers—D. Lane, A. Kazlev, F. Visser—pointed out Wilber's ignorance of evolutionary biology and contemporary evolutionary theories two-three years ago (their articles are on About them—sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, darwinian anthropology, evolutionary sociology etc.—Wilber knows nothing except several incidental and always negative remarks. Wilber's concepts of evolution and devolution are remnants of the social evolutionary theories of the 19th century and they follow from their faith in «progress». But the concept of progress in biological science was abandoned long time ago, as eminent historians of biological thought pointed out (Ruse 1996, 2006, Bowler 2003). This concept can't have completely different meanings in science if we want to retain some theoretical coherence. For darwinians, only biological species evolve, not society, mind or «spirit».

Wilber's knowledge of the relevant social sciences is not much better. He doesn't know of the scholarly criticism of faith in «historical progress», mentioned above. About the theory of bio-social discontinuity and many thinkers mentioned above Wilber says nothing. He maintains an anachronistic hobbesian perspective about hunter-gatherers (if he recognizes them at all, because they often write about «tribal/traditional/indigenous society» and similar vague and confusing terms), which has been abandoned long time ago. In his support, he does mention Gerhard Lenski (a historical sociologist who specialized in the history of civilization and who significantly changed his position from late 1980s onward) in one book (Wilber 2000b), and in the other he mentions—incredible but typical for him—a novelist: Michael Crichton (Wilber 2005). This utterly superficial approach speaks for itself (for various historical objections of Wilber's work see Rothberg-Kelly 1998, especially Juergen Kremer's article). Again, he need't concur with «revisionistic» historical social sciences but he should know them profoundly. Otherwise, he cannot be taken seriously.

Integral theory cannot be «integral» if it doesn't contain a profound knowledge about sciences, especially human-relevant sciences. But Wilber's theory is a closed and self-referential system, not a system of scientific hypotheses and theories which can be tested and refuted. So, not surprisingly, he founded an Integral Institute, even an Integral University. His disciples are hagiographers like Brad Reynolds, not serious and independent thinkers. His perhaps most popular work, A Brief History of Everything, contains a dialogue between Wilber and some laudable inquirer, who doesn't examine Wilber's work critically, but puts easy-to-answer questions (Wilber 2000b). In fact, this is not dialogue at all, but pure monologue.

Wilber can't expect to be taken seriously—surely not in the scientific community—if he doesn't take science seriously.


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