"I'll take a big-picture guy who's trying to save the planet over a nearsighted professor any day." - David Sloan Wilson
"I agree that an academic evolutionist has little to learn from Ken Wilber about evolution." - David Sloan Wilson
Shouldn't our efforts to create a better world be based on solid science instead of spurious speculations?
In June 2019 Ken Wilber had a conversation in a podcast on IntegralLife with David Sloan Wilson, a professional biologist known for his support for the theory of group selection or multi-level selection. This is remarkable, given Wilber's scant understanding of evolutionary biology, as I have documented on this website in multiple essays. To my knowledge it is the first time (except perhaps for his conversation with Rupert Sheldrake on Integral Naked) that Wilber engaged with a professional biologist, so I was keen to hear how this would work out. I felt disappointment for most of the discussion centered around the value of the four quadrant model and you can leave it to Wilber to explain this to his guests in great and lengthy detail.
Since Sloan Wilson is emphasizing the group dimension and symbolic systems in evolutionary theory, it is only to be expected that he liked the idea of including the collective quadrants into any theorizing about evolution. And, not unimportant, it gave Wilber in turn some credibility towards the world of evolutionary science. So I asked Sloan Wilson on Twitter why he didn't confront Wilber with his misunderstanding and misrepresentation of evolutionary theory, to which he replied that he didn't agree with everything Wilber has said about evolution but he resonated with the larger project Wilber was involved in: to create a better world. Sloan Wilson is active in the promotion of communities where cooperation instead of competition is stressed, as he has described in his latest book The View of Life: Completing the Darwinian Revolution (2019).
David Sloan Wilson
So I tried to find anything online on Sloan Wilson that would clarify this rather forgiving stance of a respected scientist. I found a 8-part blog by Sloan Wilson called "My Spiritual Journey" on his own website of the Evolution Institute, which holds the tagline "We solve real world problems with evolution". Obviously, Sloan Wilson is an activist scientist who has left the world of detached science, in which he has earned his own credentials for many decades. It is also clear from these blog postings that he is actively promoting a spiritual worldview. His This View of Life he sees explicitly as "an updated version of The Phenomenon of Man" (p. xiv), the famous but controversial work of Teilhard de Chardin.
We should be prepared for a curious mix of science and religion, if Teilhard de Chardin is taken to be a mentor in this field. What about this: "Modern evolutionary theory shows that what Teilhard meant by the Omega point is achievable in the foreseeable future." (p. xiv) Not many scientists will go along with that optimism, or even see that as a realistic goal. But it does explain the affinity Sloan Wilson feels with Wilber, who firmly stand in the tradition of spiritual evolutionists (such as G.W.F. Hegel, Teilhard de Chardin, Henri Bergson, Alfred North Whitehead and others).
We should be prepared for a curious mix of science and religion, if Teilhard de Chardin is taken to be a mentor in this field.
On this same website we find a contribution by Wilber to the conference "Does Altruism Exist?" (2015), a topic on which Sloan Wilson published a book with the same title (it was published by the Templeton Press, which is linked to the religiously inspired Templeton Foundation, as the first in a series of short books on "foundational questions in science"). Wilber couldn't attend the conference in person due to health reasons but sent a video called "Introduction to Integral Spirituality", which was prepared for another conference in the same year: "From Self Care to Earth Care", held in Denver, where Wilber lives. Short transcripts from this video can be found on the report page of the altruism conference.
‘The Rock Star of Interspirituality’
But let's first let Sloan Wilson give his take on Wilber, and how he came to know about his work. When participating at the "From Self Care to Earth Care" conference, in 2015, Sloan Wilson was introduced to Wilber by a friend Kurt. He mentions Wilber is "the rockstar of interspirituality" over there, and he started reading the latest edition of Wilber's A Brief History of Everything (1996), which contains the more ominous passages by Wilber on evolution. He gives the following impression he got from Wilber and his writings:
Based on my reading and conversations with Kurt, it didn’t take me long to draw three conclusions from Wilber’s work. First, Wilber was thoroughly committed to methodological naturalism. His story was based on physics, biology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, and wisdom traditions as human constructions. As far as I could tell, he was not at all tempted to stray into supernaturalism, and he also steered away from the excesses of social constructivism in the humanities. This was a relief to me because I also have a solid commitment to methodological naturalism, and my 2005 essay titled “Evolutionary Social Constructivism” was close to Wilber’s position.
Some commentors to this blog post took offence to this qualification—and I agree. Wilber's "commitment to methodological naturalism" seems to waver as soon as he touches on the subject of evolution. He is exactly "tempted to stray into supernaturalism" when he recommends us to read Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box (1996) because "neo-Darwinism can't explain shit" or quotes unabashedly creationist Hugh Ross in his recent The Religion of Tomorrow (2017). As to "excessive social constructivism", that is indeed heavily criticized by Wilber as one of the shadows of postmodernism. So the relief Sloan Wilson felt might have to be tempered when he learns about Wilber's cruder and unqualified statements on evolution and the status of evolutionary theory ("the modern theory of evolution is catastrophically incomplete").
Second, when Wilber wrote about topics that I knew something about (such as evolution), I found myself agreeing with him in some respects but not others. This was not surprising to me, given that Wilber was functioning as an extreme generalist. No matter how voracious a reader he is (word on the street is that he consumes four books a day), he could not be expected to have an expert’s knowledge on any particular topic. For the most part, his errors (as I saw them) were not fatal to the general case that he was trying to build.
Here he shows some hesitance, though diplomatically phrased, when Sloan Wilson admits that when it comes to "topics I know something about (such as evolution)"—a nice understatement—he disagreed with Wilber "in some respects", though he also noted points of commonality. One wonders what respects Sloan Wilson had in mind here. The general status of evolutionary theory? The mechanisms of natural evolution science has discovered? The relative weight we should give to neo-Darwinism within the larger context of the field? The existence or non-existence of a generic drive towards complexity behind evolution, both cosmological, biological and cultural? How eyes and wings actually evolved? We will never know.
As to Wilber being an "extreme generalist" and therefore can't be expected to be an expert in "any particular topic", this sidesteps the issue that evolution is a central metaphor in Wilber's work spanning four decades, and no side issue for sure. Evolution is also a hot topic in the clash between science and religion, so lends itself to an evaluation of any "integration of religion and science" that is attempted, such as Wilber's. There are certainly areas, such as psychology and spirituality, where Wilber's expertise is profound. But when it comes to evolution, his knowledge is superficial and misleading to say the least. Yet, Sloan Wilson doesn't see these (unspecified) "errors" as "fatal to the general case that he was trying to build." Which is, to create "a spiritual system".
Creating a Spiritual System
Third, Wilber’s goal of creating a spiritual system (integral spirituality), rather than a mere compendium of facts, caused him to use language that would make an academic scientist or philosopher cringe. Religious prose is peppered with words such as “treasure,” “riches,” and “salvation” to make the reader want to adopt the beliefs that are on offer. Scientists and academic philosophers avoid these words like the plague because they are trying to be objective and value-free in evaluating factual statements. Wilber indulged in value-laden language, giving some sections of his book a religious feel. This was not something that I could fault, however, because it comes with the territory of trying to create a spiritual system that motivates people to act. Anyone who plays the spirituality game must use value-laden language, even when they hew to methodological naturalism, because spirituality is all about values.
Here Sloan Wilson has fully identified with the perspective of the religious person, who does not object to the use of value-laden language when the goal is to motivate people to act. That Wilber "played the spirituality game" made it unavoidable his language is value-laden, and not sober-factual, as is common in science. But for Sloan Wilson that was something to be applauded.
The more I read Wilber, the more I marveled at what he was trying to do and how it differed from everything that takes place inside the Ivory Tower.... Intrigued, I emailed four distinguished philosophers of my acquaintance to ask if they knew of Ken Wilber and had an opinion of his work. I know them because they think deeply about evolution in relation to a number of philosophical topics such as morality, consciousness, and epistemology. If any academic philosophers deserve to be called polymaths, it is them. None of them had read or even knew about Ken Wilber (one had heard of the title A Brief History of Everything). The entire corpus of his work is invisible to them. I'll bet that if academic philosophers were exposed to his work, many would claim that he doesn't even qualify as a philosopher.
When academic polymaths who "think deeply about evolution in relation to a number of philosophical topics" have never even heard of Ken Wilber nor read his work, this should make anyone pause. Perhaps this relates directly to the informal and biased way he reports on this field of science, and especially the way his audience is more interested in spirituality and cultural progress than dry science? But Sloan Wilson has a different explanation:
Please don't think that I am disparaging either Wilber or my academic philosopher colleagues. Instead, I am trying to point out a sad state of affairs in academia as a whole, which has developed in a way that excludes someone like Ken Wilber... I feel a stronger affinity to Ken Wilber than to many of my academic colleagues. I'll take a big-picture guy who's trying to save the planet over a nearsighted professor any day.
As evidence for this sentiment, Sloan Wilson quotes from a review he got in The New York Review of Books where the reviewer H. Allen Orr laments that Sloan Wilson has tried to "extend evolutionary theory from biology to all society", which makes Sloan Wilson in turn lament the ivory tower nature of much science. This is an important issue. But shouldn't our efforts to create a better world be based on solid science instead of spurious speculations? And I don't mean to pass judgement on Sloan Wilson's own scientific work here, but point to the weak scientific basis of Wilber's musings on evolution.
Here's the thing. Simplifying and popularizing evolutionary theory is fine (and Sloan Wilson knows, he wrote Evolution For Everyone, 2007); misrepresenting and ridiculing it is not—least of all in the name of "creating a spiritual system". And Wilber is exactly guilty of the latter on multiple occasions. In the end it is all a matter of integrity.
Sophistication is out of the window
In response to several of the comments this blog post received, Sloan Wilson tellingly admits:
Thanks to everyone for these comments. I agree that an academic evolutionist has little to learn from Ken Wilber about evolution, but that is not what I am driving at with this series. Wilber can be commended for trying to create a spiritual system that stays within the bounds of methodological naturalism. Will a more sophisticated knowledge of evolution enhance or undermine that project? I regard the project as important and think that it can be enhanced by contemporary evolutionary science. My challenge to academic evolutionists is—are you willing to play the spirituality game, and if not, what makes you uncomfortable about it?
But honestly, methinks that if Sloan Wilson tries to apply evolutionary principles to society at large (not everybody is convinced this is even possible or desirable), shouldn't this scientific foundation be as sound as possible? He is specifically enamoured with Wilber's four quadrants model, in which individual and social, interior and exterior dimensions are give equal weight. Sloan Wilson's interest in how human communities can thrive when cooperation is stressed over competition resonates with Wilber's conviction (and that of many spiritual or conscious evolutionists) that evolution is more than the dreaded competition promoted by neo-Darwinism, and that the "salvation of the planet" depends on seeing the light of cooperative efforts towards the good.
It strikes me that in all these exchanges, "evolution" is often reduced to "human evolution", and more specifically to "human cultural evolution". This allows Wilber to quickly conclude in his broad brush and sweeping style that "evolution occurs in all four quadrants, as Integral Meta-theory maintains", but this analysis is superficial. Yes, human beings have symbolic culture, and in that sense the four quadrant model seems applicable, but this broad conclusion about evolution and its workings as such is premature. With genes, now memes are added to the mix. Ironically, that terminology was introduced by the "ultra-Darwinist" Richard Dawkins. And I won't even start about Dawkins as the supposed champion of selfishness, for that is a popular misreading that doesn't belong here.
From this same Dawkins Wilber could have learned that natural evolution (if that's the topic we are talking about) is not merely the result of chance, but of chance and selection. Instead of studying closely both the Modern and the Extended Synthesis of evolutionary science, Wilber is content to postulate an "inherent creative drive towards novelty" (echoing Whitehead), which is not an explanation at all, but a question begging restatement of the problem of how to explain evolutionary novelty. It provides no mechanism, no process, no explanation. Incidentally, Sloan Wilson has a somewhat strained relationship to this field as well.
In the conference contribution of Wilber, which can be viewed in the video below, Wilber repeats his worn out arguments about how science can't explain evolutionary novelty, and only his integral notion of "Eros in the kosmos" or "spirit-in-action" does justice to that problem. And how evolution "continues to build more and more order out of more and more chaos and drives the universe from dust to deity—that is, the awakening in all four quadrants to ever more inclusive realities." I won't bother you with going again over these details, but this is exactly the language that, as Sloan Wilson says "would make an academic scientist or philosopher cringe."
As said many times, this isn't evolutionary theory, but evolutionary theology. Above all, it explains nothing. Worse, it doesn't even care for an explanation.
 David Sloan Wilson, "My Spiritual Journey", 8 parts, evolution-institute.org, July-September, 2015.
 For an overview of this tradition see: Steve McIntosh, Integral Consciousness: And the Future of Evolution, Paragon House, 2007, chapter 7: The Founders of Integral Philosophy.
 Commentary 8, Altruism and Integral Spirituality, “Steering toward the Omega Point: A Roundtable Discussion of Altruism, Evolution, and Spirituality”, evolution-institute.org, December 10, 2015. Based on the below video presentation by Ken Wilber.
 See: David Sloan Wilson and Massimo Pigliucci, "On Human Cultural Evolution", letter.wiki, May-July 2019. Pigliucci is one of the founders of the Extended Synthesis and editor of Evolution: The Extended Synthesis, MIT Press, 2010, to which Sloan Wilson has contributed the chapter "Multi-Level Selection and Major Transitions".
Introduction to Integral Spirituality | Ken Wilber, video presentation prepared for "From Self Care to Earth Care", 2015.