Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY 2003Frank Visser, graduated as a psychologist of culture and religion, founded IntegralWorld in 1997. He worked as production manager for various publishing houses and as service manager for various internet companies and lives in Amsterdam. Books: Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (SUNY, 2003), and The Corona Conspiracy: Combatting Disinformation about the Coronavirus (Kindle, 2020).


'What Good is
Half a Wing?'

The Wilberian Evolution Debate Continues

Frank Visser

Could it be because Wilber needs evolutionary biology to fail on its own, that he selectively reads all this literature?

In my last posting, The Wilberian Evolution Report, I tried to archive the various statements on biological evolution Wilber had made over the years, and the comments these had generated. A few days ago, on December 4th, 2007, a posting appeared on Wilber's own blog, titled "Some Criticisms of My Understanding of Evolution". In this posting Wilber relates about an email exchange he had with Alexander Astin, Founding Director of the Higher Education Research Institute, who had checked out one of David Lane's essays on Integral World ("Wilber and the Misunderstanding of Evolution").

An immediate side note: there is the obligatory confession "I never read this stuff [in Integral World] and "I am sure you ignore it too", but "I was curious so I checked it out", and "what I found was utterly unconvincing" – we know these rituals by now. Wilber is ignoring his critics at his own cost.

Then Astin comes to his point:

They challenge your example of the evolution of the bird wing, basically arguing that the 100 mutations DON'T have to occur all at once, claiming that each one occurs independently because EACH one is functional to survival! How probable is THIS? (Maybe the half wing helps them run faster?) Or do I somehow have their argument wrong?

Astin then elaborates on the issue of the nature of randomness, as used in statistics, which he has taught (as a social scientist, presumably), and evolution. Evolutionary biologists supposedly appeal to random changes as explanationary principle, which according to Astin only hides their ignorance of what's really going on:

It simply describes a situation where the observer/investigator is unable to find any causal antecedent for the event in question. But SOMETHING must have caused it. (In fact, your metaphor "oops" is a perfect substitute term for randomness.) When they embrace the concept of "random" mutations, then, many geneticists think they are somehow explaining something, but in fact they are implicitly admitting that "we don't have a clue as to why this particular mutation happened at this particular time."

To which is added the telling comment:

Why the embattled Creationists haven't seized on this one is beyond me, since it leaves a huge hole in evolutionary theory.

Again, we know by now the rhetoric of "huge holes" in evolutionary theory that cry out for some complementary "theory" of an Eros in the Kosmos, that is supposedly the true explanation for the complexity of life's forms.

Wilber concurrs approvingly in his reply to Astin – "you have hit the nail on the head", even as to the existence of "holes" in evolutionary theory:

Also, as you point out, referring to random chance really means "I have no idea what is going one here"–and that is really what, in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, I call the "philosophy of oops," as you rightly note. This is a huge hole in the mere chance and selection argument. These items are all meant when I use the metaphor of a 100 mutations. I am fully aware that selection carries forth each previous selection (which still has problems in itself—as you point out, why would a half wing make running easier???), but even if you give that to the evolutionists (which I am willing to do), it still has this gaping hole in it.

And about the mysterious force Eros he adds:

The alternative is to see some sort of Eros operating in the universe. It doesn’t have to be a metaphysical force, just an intrinsic force of self-organization. As Jantsch put it, evolution is “self-transcendence through self-organization.” This is exactly the point Prigogine was making with dissipative structures, and exactly the point I am making when referring to wings or eyes: they are metaphors and examples for this extraordinary capacity of creative emergence that is intrinsic to the universe (exactly as Whitehead explained it). So, no, I don’t take this criticism of my work seriously, although it is a good example of flatland thinking, as you note.

The point he is trying to make, says Wilber, has been missed by the critics:

Of course I understand that natural selection is not acting on mere randomness or chance—because natural selection saves previous selections, and this reduces dramatically the probability that higher, adequate forms will emerge. But even that is not enough, in my opinion, to account for the remarkable emergence of some [which one?] of the extraordinarily complex forms that nature has produced... But my point lies in a different direction, which is what these critics miss: the necessity of a self-organizing force (or Eros) intrinsic to the universe.

Well, these points are obviously related: the more biology succeeds in explaining complex life forms or organs (such as eyes and wings) on a naturalistic basis, the less need there will be for such a Force – if there ever has been one, as far as science is concerned. Since Wilber has invested much in his theory of an Eros in the Kosmos, he has a deep interest in not telling his readers how far biology has come. Or in exaggerating the difficulties encountered in that field of science. Misrepresentaton anyone?

Could it be because Wilber needs evolutionary biology to fail on its own, that he selectively reads all this literature? Is that why he carelessly claims that evolutionary theory "can't explain shit", is believed in by "absolutely nobody" and that "nobody has a clue" about how wings evolved in the first place?

And guess what, as to the example of the wing (or the eye) which Wilber brought up in A Brief History of Everything to suggest that random evolution in itself was not capable of bringing forth these exquisitely complex organs, he now writes—shamelessly—that this was never meant to be taken literally:

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 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.

I am not alone in seeing that chance and natural selection by themselves are not enough to account for the emergence that we see in evolution. Stuart Kauffman and many others have criticized mere change and natural selection as not adequate to account for this emergence (he sees the necessity of adding self-organization).

Of course I understand that natural selection is not acting on mere randomness or chance—because natural selection saves previous selections, and this reduces dramatically [?] the probability that higher, adequate forms will emerge.

But even that is not enough, in my opinion, to account for the remarkable emergence of some of the extraordinarily complex forms that nature has produced. After all, from the big bang and dirt to the poems of William Shakespeare is quite a distance, and many philosophers of science agree that mere chance and selection are just not adequate to account for these remarkable emergences.

The universe is slightly tilted toward self-organizing processes, and these processes—as Prigogine was the first to elaborate—escape present-level turmoil by jumping to higher levels of self-organization, and I see that "pressure" as operating throughout the physiosphere, the biosphere, and the noosphere.

And that is what I metaphorically mean when I use the example of a wing (or elsewhere, the example of an eyeball) to indicate the remarkableness of increasing emergence. But I don't mean that as a specific model or actual example of how biological emergence works! Natural selection carries forth previous individual mutations—but again that just isn’t enough to account for creative emergence (or what Whitehead called “the creative advance into novelty,” which, according to Whitehead, is the fundamental nature of this manifest universe).

Explaining complex forms of life

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?

Well, do eyes and wings count as creative emergence? Yes or no?

If so, then why suggest to the reader that evolutionary biology doesn't know how to explain the evolution of these complex organs? Why withhold to the reader how far science has come? "I don't mean that as a specific model or actual example of how biological emergence works!", says Wilber. Then why bring up the point in the first place? Just to "illustrate" the necessity of one's own theory of an Eros in the Kosmos? And what added value does this Eros actually have when it comes to explaining these emergences?

Is Wilber not aware that the example of the wing and the eye is THE standard objection to Darwinian evolution since the days of Darwin himself? Or that by casting doubt on the competence of evolutionary biology to explain the development of these organs – with arguments that will really convince only the lay readers – he is taking a stand in this debate? "What good is half a wing?" has been called the creationist mantra. Lane as called Wilber a closet-creationist, and though some have objected to this qualification – Wilber doesn't believe in Jehova, for example, but neither do the more sophisticated ID-proponents – his style of argumentation is strikingly similar.

Astin brings up the example of the wing and makes a wild guess: "Maybe the half wing helps them run faster?" and Wilber echoes this in his reply. He is even willing to concede to the biologists that half wings make one run faster! Well, do they? Why rely on the guesses of a social scientis, when it comes to biology? Austin does seem to defend Wilber's statements that random chance alone can't produce a wing, when it requires 100 simultaneous mutations, and adds that the critic's point that each of these mutations have survival value is unlikely. Why not consult the experts?

For isn't biology's whole agenda to explain life's complexity in all its forms, inluding eyes and wings, in the midst of a seemingly random universe? Does that qualify as "creative emergence"? I would think so. How exactly does that differ from "mere" biological emergence?

Wilber does not tell us.

The evolution of flight

So let's take this example first and really dig into the details. Again and again stating that random mutation and selection are "not enough" to explain this is, well.... just not enough.

A quick Google search on the hallowed phrase "What good is half a wing" brings this up as the first lucky hit: the Secular Blasphemy blog by Jan Haugland, entry of 27/6/2003 (and many others could be listed):

But what good is half a wing? - The Evolution of Flight

One of the problems faced by evolutionary scientists is the origin of flight. For small animals, like insects, it is not too difficult. Sufficiently small organisms fly automatically. They have a hard time staying on the ground. As mass increases, the problem reverses. An animal the size of an elephant could never get enough muscle power and airlift to fly.

Bird-size organisms, which obviously sometimes fly, provide us with the obvious problem: how did wings first evolve? Naturally, no creature was one day born with functional wings. And since evolution can't plan ahead, and will only select for traits that are benefitial here and now, anti-evolutionists have argued that organs like wings (and, even more popularly, the eye) never could have evolved by natural selection. How good is half a wing?

The most obvious possible answer to the origin of flight we can find from observing animals like the squirrel. It has a big tail that helps it float in the air as it jumps from tree to tree. Some species actually have wings that are sufficient to help it glide, but not good enough to fly. It is not hard to imagine a gradual evolution where the gliding ability increased slowly until one day one of them could fly.

An alternative hypothesis is that predators evolved wings to increase their speed while running, gradually being able to make longer and longer jumps. Since flying has evolved independently countless times on Earth, both of these scenarios may explain some occurences, but there are also instances where both scenarios raise some serious objections.

Kenneth Dial has just launched a third theory, perhaps most closely related to the second above. Accidentally, while doing experiments on partridge chicks, he observed that even young birds with partially formed wings were aided by them when in increasing running speed. Small improvements will, as it mostly does in evolution, mean the difference between life and death. And even adults sometimes prefer running while flapping its wings to flying when trying to avoid a pursuer, as the picture shows.

The answer to the original question is that half a wing is half as good as a whole wing, and sometimes better than no wings.

There is an interesting chapter devoted to the evolution of wings in Richard Dawkins' Climbing Mount Improbable.

Isn't this refreshing? Welcome to the world of science. Indeed, Climbing Mount Improbable (which I mentioned in an endnote to Lane's essay on Wilber's (mis)understanding of evolution), gives a superb treatment of exactly this topic.

What makes the comparison with Wilber even more interesting is that both use the mountain metaphor for levels of complexity. Dawkins argues that, though it may look "improbable" at first sight – Astin, please note the statistical jargon here – both the evolution of eyes and wings can be explained on the basis of a "purposeless" universe. Not only is this an impressive feat, it is the first hypothesis sciene should try out from the principle of economy. Invoking a Force (Eros?) that drives all evolution may well be the end of science. (For how close is this to "Trees grow because they want to?"). It can only be invoked when all naturalistic explanations have failed – and even then.

More on the half wing, half eye and even half lung issue can be found on Steven Dutch' Pseudoscience homepage:

One problem with the half-a-wing criticism is that it ignores exaptation, the adaptation of a trait originally developed for one function to some other function. But apart from exaptation, the half-a-wing criticism is completely false.

Actually, half-formed eyes and wings can be very useful. Any light-detecting ability, however rudimentary, will enable an organism to seek shelter, find food, and avoid predators. Similarly, half-formed wings aren’t as useless as often imagined.

The idea that eyes and wings can only function if fully formed is completely false. Indeed, it’s a lot easier to see how partial versions of these organs could function than it is for many other organs. Creationists [as does Wilber] assume that problems in evolution are insoluble without making even the slightest attempt to see if solutions exist.

The splendid site gives this:

Complex traits must evolve through viable intermediates. For many traits, it initially seems unlikely that intermediates would be viable.

What good is half a wing?

Half a wing may be no good for flying, but it may be useful in other ways. Feathers are thought to have evolved as insulation (ever worn a down jacket?) and/or as a way to trap insects. Later, proto-birds may have learned to glide when leaping from tree to tree. Eventually, the feathers that originally served as insulation now became co-opted for use in flight.

A trait's current utility is not always indicative of its past utility. It can evolve for one purpose, and be used later for another. A trait evolved for its current utility is an adaptation; one that evolved for another utility is an exaptation. An example of an exaptation is a penguin's wing. Penguins evolved from flying ancestors; now they are flightless and use their wings for swimming.

Is it so difficult to inform the readers of all this? Why does Wilber never go beyond the laymans-level argument-from-ignorance? Because that suits his purpose.

And where's the integrity in all this, where one is held accountable for one's statements, instead of stating that one's treatment of the evolution of complex life forms was meant as a metaphor to promote one's own "theory"?

If Wilber is now willing to "giving" in to science (i.e. that half wings make one run faster), who is he to give anything when it comes to this field of science? Or actually, who is he to integrate anything in his integral framework, when what is integrated is treated so carelessly?

Random mutation and selection

Let me say a few things about the nature of randomness, since it forms the heart of Astin's email message, and Wilber comments approvingly on these ideas as well.

Astin suggests that scientists claim the evolution is a random process, but that that in itself explains nothing: "random" just hides their ignorance of "what's really going on". And again, Wilber and Astin seem content to suggest that biologists just don't know what's really going on – note the same sentiment in Wilber's original statements about evolutionary biology "nobody has a clue".

Well, don't they?

First, as I have tried to point out in my earlier essay, evolutionary theory does NOT rely on blind chance as an explanatory principle, alone. It relies on random mutation PLUS natural selection. The distinction seems lost on Wilber. (Or if he acknowledges it, it is still "not enough" – again, enough for what? Enough to explain the development of complex life forms? And all compexity or only some? the ID pet phrase "Irreducible complexity" comes to mind. Is Wilber addressing this issue at all?

Again, gives as a clue, quoting from Dawkins:

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

Darwinism is widely misunderstood as a theory of pure chance. Mustn't it have done something to provoke this canard? Well, yes, there is something behind the misunderstood rumour, a feeble basis to the distortion. one stage in the Darwinian process is indeed a chance process – mutation. Mutation is the process by which fresh genetic variation is offered up for selection and it is usually described as random. But Darwinians make the fuss they do about the 'randomness' of mutation only in order to contrast it to the non-randomness of selection. It is not necessary that mutation should be random for natural selection to work. Selection can still do its work whether mutation is directed or not. Emphasizing that mutation can be random is our way of calling attention to the crucial fact that, by contrast, selection is sublimely and quintessentially non-random. It is ironic that this emphasis on the contrast between mutation and the non-randomness of selection has led people to think that the whole theory is a theory of chance.

Even mutations are, as a matter of fact, non-random in various senses, although these senses aren't relevant to our discussion because they don't contribute constructively to the improbable perfection of organisms. For example, mutations have well-understood physical causes, and to this extent they are non-random. ... the great majority of mutations, however caused, are random with respect to quality, and that means they are usually bad because there are more ways of getting worse than of getting better.

This last comment from Dawkins directly addresses the key point of Astin's email message, that geneticists have "no clue" about why mutations happen.

So focusing on chance as the hallmark of "flatland science" – another convenient fiction – is again a misrepresentation. Suggesting that geneticists have no clue about why mutations happen may be true or not, but is besides the point. Eros will definitely not tell us why mutations happen. Nor will an integral science be interested into the details of this process.

The Competence Question

In this reply to Astin, Wilber, as usual, claims to have understood biological evolutionary theory – "in which I have a graduate degree!—the biochemistry of evolution". But one really wonders if he was really paying attention in those school days:

"The next two years were spent, almost literally, in solitary reading and research, eight to ten hours a day. I had decided to pursue degrees in chemistry and biology, simply because they came so easily to me that I didn't have to waste time studying them, but could instead spend every hour out of class pursuing Eastern philosophy and religion, Western psychology and metaphysics. I recklessly managed somehow to graduate with enough honours to be offered a scholarship at the University of Nebraska (Lincoln) in biochemistry/biophysics, and during the first year of graduate school, continued to do nothing more then read, study, and take notes — and the names in my notebooks were not Krebs, Miller, Watson, or Crick. But Gaudapada, Hui Neng, Padmasambhava, and Eckhart." (F. Visser, Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion, SUNY Press, 2003, p. 22) Emphasis added.

The upcoming First Integral Theory Conference planned for next year may well include this topic of biological evolution – let's call it "Wilber on Wings" – to do a close reading of Wilber's statements on evolutionary biology and an assessment of his competence as a reporter on this particular field of science.


This is what the The New Encyclopaedia Britannica has to say on evolution:

"Some conclusions are well established, for example... that natural selection, the process postulated by Darwin, explains the adaptive configuration of such features as the human eye and the wings of birds." (1991, vol. XVIII, p. 859).
"There is probably no other notion in any field of science that has been as extensively tested and as thoroughly corroborated as the evolutionary origin of living organisms." (Ibid, p. 862)

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