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
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).


A Naturalistic Approach

Frank Visser

Nature's many varied complex systems—including galaxies, stars, planets, life, and society—are islands of order within the increasingly disordered Universe.
None of Nature's organized structures, not even life itself, is a violation (nor even a circumvention) of the celebrated 2nd law of thermodynamics.
Self-assembly, self-organization, and self-ordering do not exist in Nature. Dynamical processes in which “interacting bodies are autonomously driven into ordered structures” always involve energy.
—Eric Chaisson, “The Natural Science Underlying Big History”, 2014.
Nature's many varied complex systems—including galaxies, stars, planets, life, and society—are islands of order within the increasingly disordered Universe.

In May 2013 I published the essay “Integral Theory and the Big History Approach”, in which I introduced to the integral audience a field of study both similar and different to that of Wilberian Integral Theory. Big History is a relatively young school of academic interdisciplinary study, which covers history from the Big Bang to the present day. I introduced some leading Big History authors (Spier, Chaisson, Christian, Jantsch) and compared this scientific approach to reality with the humanities-oriented writings of Ken Wilber. I covered the domains of matter, life, and mind/culture to assess if Integral Theory would qualify as a Theory of Everything.

I concluded they these fields are in fact complementary. Where Wilber is strong in the fields of mind/culture, he has neglected biology and cosmology. On the other hand, Big History authors are deeply versed in the various scientific disciplines, but when it comes to human culture, not to mention spirituality, their narrative becomes less convincing. At the same time, even here they complement the integral approach because of their emphasis on the importance of energy exchanges in the production of natural and cultural complexity. Joseph Voros, a physicist and futurist, has explored the interface between the two approaches on Integral World and has introduced Wilberian concepts into the world of Big History. Not many others, from both sides, have explored this fascinating interface.

Eric Chaisson
Eric Chaisson (Wikipedia)

In this sequel essay, I would like to go more in depth into one prominent author from the field of Big History, the astrophysicist Eric Chaisson. Chaisson conducts research at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and teaches natural science at Harvard University. Earlier this year he published a long review article that articulates his empirical, quantitative approach to cosmic evolution: “The Natural Science Underlying Big History”, a 40-page review essay which appeared in the Scientific World Journal.[1] This explicitly naturalistic approach to the worlds of nature and culture should be of interest to integral readers. Chaisson, coming from the field of astrophysics, prefers the science-term “Cosmic Evolution” to the humanities-oriented “Big History”.

Eric Chaisson is precisely aiming at an audience, both within and without the Big History community, which cherishes such quasi-metaphysical notions as evolution, emergence, transcendence, self-organization, complexity, far-from-equilibrium, etc. These have been co-opted by Ken Wilber and given a subtle spiritualist twist, which not many of his readers—who are not at home in these further reaches of science—will notice. So let's follow Chaisson in his critical examination of some of the key concepts of the new sciences of complexity, to see what we can learn from him.

All quotes are from Chaisson's article “The Natural Science Underlying Big History”, including the headings and subheadings. The text between quotes is a paraphrase of Chaisson's views, unless stated otherwise.



The first line of the summary of Chaisson's article strikes a chord that is very central to his vision of cosmic evolution:

Nature's many varied complex systems—including galaxies, stars, planets, life, and society—are islands of order within the increasingly disordered Universe. (p. 1)

This distinction between complex systems and their environment is crucial for understanding the naturalistic account of cosmic evolution. It is not that these islands of complexity arise mysteriously in spite of their disordered surroundings, but that they become possible because of these surroundings in the first place. If it wasn't for our cool cosmic surroundings, our planet and our bodies would soon get overheated and stop functioning. This is often overlooked in discussions where the apparent contradiction between the rise of complexity is connected to the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics (which briefly states that disorder will increase.) The suggestion is then often made that complex systems somehow go against this pervasive Law, opening the door to quasi-mystical or quasi-transcendental forces.

Chaisson is adamant that there is really no contradiction here. He states, for example:

Our appreciation for evolution now extends well beyond biology; the concept of evolution... has become a robust unifying factor within and among all of the sciences. Yet questions remain: How realistic is our search for unity in Nature and will the integrated result resemble science or philosophy? How have the magnificent examples of order on and beyond Earth arisen from chaos? Can the observed constructiveness of cosmic evolution be reconciled with the inherent destructiveness of thermodynamics? Most notably, what processes underlie the origin and evolution of so many diverse structures spanning the Universe...? (p. 2)

These questions can all be answered in a rational way, so Chaisson believes:

Growing order within “islands” of complexity such as galaxies, stars, planets, life, and society is outpaced by great “seas” of increasing disorder elsewhere in the environments beyond those systems. All such complex systems quantitatively obey the valued precepts of modern thermodynamics. None of Nature's organized structures, not even life itself, is a violation (nor even a circumvention) of the celebrated 2nd law of thermodynamics. Both order and entropy [disorder] can increase together, the former locally (in systems) and the latter globally (in surrounding environments). Thus, we arrive at a central question lurking in the minds of some of today's eclectic thinkers [Mandelbrot, Kauffman, Penrose]. Might there be a kind of essential Platonism at work in the Universe—a general principle, a unifying law, or perhaps a surprisingly simple process that naturally creates, organizes, and maintains the form and function of complex systems everywhere? (p. 2-3)

Let's first follow Chaisson's discourse as he explains his specific energy-oriented approach, before we compare his naturalistic approach with Wilber's understanding of the principles behind complexity and emergence.


Cosmic Evolution

Cosmic Evolution (Eric Chaisson)


Most approaches of the subject of complexity deal with information content or decrease of entropy (called negentropy). These are often highly abstract and lack precision, not to mention quantifiable aspects. Biologists cannot agree on a complexity metric, Chaisson writes. For example, numerical genome size doesn't help us, when it is found that the wheat genome is several times the size of the human genome. Thermodynamic approaches to complexity at least point to the relevance of energy or heat:

Energy flows caused by the expanding cosmos do seem to be as central and common to the structure and function of all complex systems as anything yet discovered in Nature. Furthermore, the optimized use of such energy flows by complex systems, as argued below, might well act as a motor of cosmic evolution on larger scales, thereby affecting physical, biological, and cultural evolution on smaller scales... All complex systems—whether alive or not—are open, organized nonequilibrium structures that acquire, store, and utilize energy. (p. 4)

Chaisson proposes to use a new measure of the energy produced or processed by complex systems: Φm, or “energy rate density”, which stands for “the amount of energy passing through a system per unit time and per unit mass.” (p. 4-5) Absolute amounts of energy don't mean much. The Sun, for example expends more energy than a human being, but when we take into account their mass, the situation reverses dramatically.

The energy rate densities for human beings and our modern society are approximately a million times greater than for stars and galaxies. (p. 5)

Chaisson give the following estimates for energy rate densities:

PHYSICAL Stars and galaxies 0.001 - 100
BIOLOGICAL Plants and animals 1.000 - 100.000
CULTURAL Premodern and modern societies 100.000 - 1.500.000

A convenient graph summarizes Chaisson's findings:

Figure 2: Energy rate density, Φm, for a wide spectrum of systems.
(“The Natural Science Underlying Big History”, p. 6)

The bulk of Chaisson's article deals with the various principle systems in Big History: the Galaxy, the Sun, the Earth, plants, animals, human beings and human civilization, premodern and modern-technological. The overall trend is a huge increase in energy production and processing. For these technical details I refer the reader to the article itself. What follows is a brief overview of the salient points.


Milky Way Galaxy

Our Milky Way shows development during its life span, in which it has “cannibalized” at least hundreds of smaller galaxies or galactic fragments. Ancient stars show themselves by their lack of heavier elements, which have been generated in recent times, relatively speaking. The influx of matter and gases is still occurring today. Galaxies sustain themselves by acquiring additional resources from their environment (otherwise they would have ceased to exist long ago). Galaxies are thought to contains dark matter, which affects their Φm negatively, since dark matter has mass, but no luminosity. Galaxies contain dark matter, but stars do not. The complexity of galaxies is lower than that of stars (which show complex layers of density and activity). Differences between types of galaxies turn out to be explainable by one parameter only, their mass. Galaxy formation is driven mainly by gravity forces and energy flows resulting from conversion of gravitational potential energy, and minor processes such as cooling and the accretion of gas.

The formation, development, and evolution of galaxies, as minimally understood today from observations of different objects of different ages in different places, do display, en masse, simplicity transforming into complexity—the utter simplicity of the early primordial Universe giving way naturally to one in which matter is clumped, structured and ordered. (p. 9)

The Milky Way resembles a veritable life form, showing metabolic processes and adaptation:

Although of lesser complexity and longer duration, the Milky Way is nearly as metabolic fand adaptive as any life form—transacting energy while forming new stars, cannibalizing dwarf galaxies, and dissolving older components, all the while adjusting its limited structure and function for greater preservation in response to environmental changes. (p. 9)
Our Sun

Our Sun, an average star, is an ordered system that builds itself up due to gravitational and nuclear forces, radiating a lot of heat and low-grade light in the process. On balance, disorder increases by this process:

All agrees with the 2nd law of thermodynamics, which demands that entropy, or disorder, increases overall in any event. The Sun's external environment is regularly disordered, all the while order emerges, naturally and of its own accord, within the stellar system per se... (p. 9)

As galaxies do, a star has a life span with stages of development. Over the past 5 billion years, the luminosity of the Sun as roughly doubled. This will increase dramatically when it ends it's life span as a Red Giant, during which some heavier elements will be synthesized such as Carbon. Our star is presumably to small to generate elements heavier than Oxygen. At the end of its life time:

While nearing its end fate, the Sun's constitution will have become more complicated than when it first began fusing as a homogeneous sphere of mostly Hydrogen gas about 5 billion years ago. The future Sun will be unable to survive these changing conditions. It is destined for deletion from, that is, will be physically selected out of, the local population of stars.

It will have become a black dwarf, emitting zero luminosity. Stars larger than the Sun have produced all the heavy elements we find on Earth and which have been indispensable form life. Again, gravity is the main engine driving all these complexity creating processes.

Planet Earth

Earth is a rocky planet, that has received most of its structure (core, mantle and crust) in its earlier stages. The Earth's internal energy flow comes from gravitational contraction, the accretion of material through the early meteoritic bombardment and the radioactive decay of heavy unstable nuclei. This limited energy flow still causes tectonic activity, causing mountains to arise and volcano's to become active. Mid-oceanic trenches are sites of the greatest heat flow at or near the surface of the Earth today, especially in underwater vents. Even so, most of the energy flow comes not from inside Earth but from outside, from the Sun.

Typically for our planet Earth, and unlike planets such as Mars or Mercury is its atmosphere. The so called climasphere consists of the lower part of the atmosphere, and the upper ocean and absorbs and remits solar radiation. Most of this is used to heat up the Earth and to produce weather patterns, but a tiny fraction is intercepted by living plants during their photosynthesis process. The Earth too contributes to the rise of disorder, as the heat it emits is lower in energy than the incoming sunlight, even as the Earth itself grows more complext—all according to the 2nd law of thermodynamics.

Life on Earth would not be possible without the continuous influx of solar energy, itself the product of energy flows within the Sun's body, as we have seen above.


Green plants have been responsible for the Oxygen build up in the Earth's atmosphere, which enabled more complex organisms to arise. Bacteria were absorbed by these more complex life forms, which greatly increased their energy consumption levels:

Apparently, energy use was strategically at the heart of this singular evolutionary step in the history of life (eclipsed only perhaps by the origin of life itself), as with all major milestones in cosmic evolution. (p. 15)

Complex organisms need more energy than simple ones, to maintain their structure and functionality, but only 0.1% of the solar energy reaching Earth is captured by photosynthesis. Stated otherwise, the electromagnetic energy of only 1 out of very 1000 photons reaching Earth is converted into chemical energy of plants.

Even at that low efficiency of energy conversion, photosynthesis represents the world's largest battery; it stores huge quantities of energy both in living plants as well as dead plants (fossil fuels) as coal, oil and gas. (p. 15)

Plants too, contribute the the rise of entropy (disorder) in the environment:

As with the energetics of any complex system, energy reradiated as waste heat fundamentally causes an entropy rise in the surroundings, thereby adding to the natural thermal balance of Earth's atmosphere in accord with thermodynamic's 2nd law. (p. 16)

Interestingly, higher plants (angiosperms, responsible for most of the present flowering plants), and especially commercially cultivated crops, are more energy efficient than more primitive plants (gymnosperms). So called C4-plants (such as maize, sorghum, millet, amaranth, and sugercane) are the most efficient, followed by C3-plants (such as rice, beans, potato, tomato and sugar beets). C4-plants use up less water and CO2 and have greater nutrients uptake.


What photosynthesis is for plants, respiration is for animals. Where plants produce O2, animals consume it. Increased O2 levels in the atmosphere (see above) resulted in more complex animal life: invertebrates, fish, amphibians, reptiles, mammals and birds. Invertebrates and lower vertebrates (fish, amphibians and reptiles) are cold blooded and require external heat sources to function well and have less active metabolisms. Mammals and birds, in contrast, are warm-blooded and can sustain, and are in need of, much higher energy levels. Bird's metabolisms are among the highest known, as is arguably their complexity, given that they live and have to function in three dimensions and have to work against gravity. (A similar argument, Chaisson adds, can be made for insects among the invertebrates and airplanes among the machines—both have the highest energy levels).

As noted above and stressed again and again, there is no evidence that these energy enhancements were goal-directed, rather each seems to have granted selective advantages for many sundry species at each and every step of the twisting and turning evolutionary process. (p. 20)

We human consume about 2800 kcal/day in the form of food to fuel our metabolism. And metabolism, as a dissipative process, produces heat.

Heat is generated continuously owing to work done by the tissues among the internal organs of our bodies, including contracting muscles that run the heart, diaphragm, and limbs, ion pumps that maintain the electrical properties of nerves, and biochemical reactions that dismantle food and synthesize new tissue. (p. 21)

And we contribute to the rise of disorder in the Universe:

Sanity checking yet again, this is how humankind, like all members of the animal world, contribute to the rise of entropy in the Universe. We consume high-quality energy in the form of ordered foodstuffs and then radiate away as body heat (largely by circulating blood near the surface of the skin, by exhaling warm, humidified air, and by evaporating sweat) an equivalent amount of energy as low-quality, disorganized infrared photons. Like the stars and galaxies, we are indeed dissipative structures as are all Earthly life-forms, thereby making a connection with previous thermodynamic arguments that some researchers might (wrongly) think pertinent only to inanimate systems. (p. 22)

So far, having dealt with galaxies, stars, planets, plants, and animals, we have seen, Chaisson concludes:

All these systems are open to their environments, with matter and energy flowing in while products and wastes flow out, indeed all resemble metabolisms at work on many scales. Whether stars, galaxies, or life itself, the salient point seems much the same: the basic differences, both within and among Nature’s many varied systems, are of degree, not of kind. We have discerned a common basis upon which to compare hierarchically all material structures, from the early Universe to contemporary Earth, again, from big bang to humankind inclusively. (p. 23)

Brains, especially human brains, are notoriously costly in terms of energy consumption (and production). Primate evolution shows an increase of brain/body ratio. Some clever birds (crows and ravens) even match these levels. Human brains have the highest energy density among organisms.

Relatively big brains are energetically expensive. Neurons use energy as much as 10 times faster than average body tissue to maintain their (structural) neuroanatomy and to support their (functional) consciousness; the amount of brain devoted to network connections increases disproportionately with brain size and so does the clustering and layering of cells within the higher-processing neocortex of recently evolved vertebrates. (p. 25)

We could afford to allocate more energy to our brains, when it was no longer needed for digestion, as is the case for large apes. Brains are also vulnerably, especially during O2 shortage. Social group pressures are thought to have contributed to the rapid growth of brain size in humans. Cooking our food freed up our time and enabled a greater and more efficient energy intake.

Heated food does accelerate chewing and digestion, allowing the body to absorb more nutrition per bite; cooking may well be a uniquely human trait. Energy-based selection would have naturally favored those hominids who could cook, freeing up more time and energy to devote to other things—such as forming social relationships, creating divisions of labor, and fueling even bigger brains, all of which arguably advanced culture. (p. 25)

The evolution of energy density doesn't stop with humans. We have learned to use energy to our advantage:

To examine how well cultural systems resemble physical and biological systems—and thus to explore cultural evolution within a unifying cosmic context—it is instructive to quantify culture, where possible, by means of the same heretofore concept of energy rate density. I do so largely in order to skirt the vagueness of social studies while embracing once again empirical-based energy flow as a driver of cultural evolution. (p. 26)

Chaisson wants to give energy use a causal status in the explanation of evolution:

In contrast to most cultural studies, the present analysis seeks to specify, even if only broadly, such a causative agent, or prime mover, in the guise of cosmic expansion, which, in turn, orchestrates flows of energy within increasingly evolved, complex systems. Culture itself is often defined as a quest to control greater energy stores. Cultural evolution occurs, at least in part, when far-from-equilibrium societies dynamically stabilize their organizational posture by responding to changes in energy flows through them. Quantitative assessment of culture, peculiar though it may be from a thermodynamic viewpoint, needs to be addressed no differently than for any other part of cosmic evolution. (p. 26)

Our culture has become, not only the most energy-intensive, but also the most wasteful. Only sustainable energy management will therefore guarantee our future. In our technologically advanced culture, the evolution of energy processing has taken a next step:

[T]he brief history of machines can be cast in evolutionary terms, replete with branching, phylogeny, and extinctions that are strikingly similar to billions of years of biological evolution, though here, cultural change is less Darwinian than Lamarckian hence quicker too. Energy remains a key facilitator of these cultural evolutionary trends, reordering social systems much like physical and biological systems from the simple to the complex, as engineering improvement and customer selection over generations of products made machines more elaborate and efficient. (p. 29)

The most complex artifacts created by human beings, computers, exhibit the same patters of evolution:

This discussion of the rise of machines [includes] the origin and evolution of computers, which also effectively exhibit increases of Φm with the advancing evolution of computer complexity during the past few human generations. In all, the quantitative assessments of machines provide a remarkably good reality check of this admittedly unorthodox, thermodynamic interpretation of cultural evolution. (p. 29)

All major human inventions, from the art of cooking to the advent of computers, have this energy component which is often overlooked in narratives about human cultural evolution.


More relevant perhaps to our discussion on Integral World is Chaisson's examination of some key concepts that have dominated the discourse about complexity. They are highly relevant to assess Ken Wilber's contribution to the field. In this section, Chaisson also comments on work done by other Big History authors, such as Spier and Christian, to profile his empirical approach.


The concept of self-organization has great appeal to those in search of an explanation of life's complexities. Chaisson, hower, is less enthusiastic:

Self-assembly, self-organization, and self-ordering do not exist in Nature. Dynamical processes in which “interacting bodies are autonomously driven into ordered structures” always involve energy... Renowned colleagues regularly yet vaguely assert self-organization as the basis for life’s structure and function, often bolstered with elegant mathematics yet devoid of empirical data justifying the transcendent leap to self-organization from their otherwise reasonable stance that physical laws govern chemistry, biology, and the process of evolution itself. No unambiguous evidence exists for any event in Nature occurring spontaneously, alone, or without energy exchange; energy of some type, at some level, and for some time seems always involved in any material change. (p. 30)

Wilber's postulation of an immanent "drive towards self-organization" is demystified when we ask the question: where did the energy come from to accomplish this particular type of complexity?—be it galaxies, stars, planets or living organisms. This way, these organisms are connected to their surroundings, and theoretically integrated with the all-powerful Second Law of Thermodynamics.


Again, nonequilibrium is such an enticing concept for many. Systems in perfect equilibrium are practically dead, it is in states of nonequilibrium that things are possible. What is overlooked, however, often is the role that energy plays in the creation of these states:

However, robust energy is integrally involved in the origin and evolution of real physical, biological, and cultural systems—regular inflows of energy, which literally drives (i.e., forces) them away from the disordered equilibrium of isolated systems that have no external input. In particular, energy flows provide a physical basis for biological life, allowing life to sustain excursions far from equilibrium, and, for cultural activities as well, maintaining cities, societies, and civilization itself in dynamical steady states of order and organization while temporarily imbalanced. (p. 30)

Here too, Chaisson demystifies Wilber's use of concepts from the sciences of complexity. As the daily input of solar energy creates the complexities of the weather system, our daily food intake sustains an extreme state of nonequilibrium for us humans. Again we should always ask: where did the energy come from?


A common theme in studies about how complexity and consciousness became possible in the universe is about the fact that the life conditions seem "just right"—leading some to speculations about the fine tuning of our Universe by some Power, or alternatively, to the postulation of multiple universes (in which these conditions are less favorable to our form of live, while our universe coincidentally turns out to be favorable).

Optimality is likely favored in any system’s use of energy—not too little as to starve it, yet not too much as to destroy it. Societies, machines, and cities, among other cultural systems also display energy flows within certain optimal ranges—different ranges for different systems of different masses—and if those systems acquire too little or too much energy they abort, reverting to their simpler selves. Thus, my hypothesis addresses both growth of complexity and return to simplicity, as well as stipulating those conditions when either outcome is favored. (p. 31)

Taking a stand in the fine-tuning discussion, Chaisson writes:

[S]uccessful complex systems seem neither fine-tuned nor perfectly built, nor do they exhibit maximum energy flows or minimum entropy states. Rather, optimization is a constraining feature for a bracketed range of maximum and minimum values of Φm, above and below which, respectively, a system cannot function. (p. 31)

Some Big History authors (most notably Spier and Christian) have popularized the notion of “Goldilocks conditions” present in the universe, in which for example our climate is not too far removed from the Sun but also not too close to prohibit it. In many respects, we seem to exist in a Goldilocks situation. Chaisson, being a man of facts and figures, is no supporter of this poetic approach:

[T]here is no need to relabel the scientifically based concept of energy-optimization by appealing to humanistically inspired fairytales. t. There is no need to reinvent soft terms that invoke myth or fantasy, yet which cheapen the hard science describing such complex systems; there is nothing intractable here, although big historians may think so when relating the history of humans and their cultural inventions, which some of them apparently regard as special or separate from other systems in the Universe. (p. 31)

As to predicting what the future will bring us in terms of evolution, Chaisson cautions against too much self-confidence:

Given that random chance is an intrinsic part of evolution on any scale, at any time, and for any system, there will always be a strand of uncertainty in the outcome of any change. However, as Nature selects for or against system viability, determinism is also a vital part of the action.The two—chance and necessity—work in tandem, comprising the process of differential natural selection (and not only for biological systems, rather likely for every complex system)... No one knows, or probably ever will, the proportions of each in any given transaction; some favor chance, and others favor necessity. That same inexact mixture of randomness and determinism is also why realistic outcomes of most changes will never be precisely predictable but will remain processdependent and undetailed; all systems that obey nonlinear dynamics preclude predictions far into the future. (p. 31-32)

Given the above argument, however, it will be likely that future forms of evolution will display, yet again, an increased capacity to deal with energy.

Structure and Function

Complex systems display structure and function. Growth and evolution of structure correlates with increased function. This applies both to brains as to computers:

[A]s for brains (cf. Section 4.6), if their neuronal meat is the structure, then their conscious mind is the function, and probably nothing much more or mystical than that. Again, structure seems precedent, fundamental, and perhaps even a precondition for viable function. Structure can exist without function, yet not conversely; thus the aesthetic cliche “form follows function” is probably reversed for most complex systems in Nature, much in accord with Darwinism generally and with apologies to architects everywhere. (p. 32)
Natural selection and Adaptation

Chaisson extends concepts from biology to the wider scope of cosmic evolution:

The word “evolution” should not be restricted to biology alone; a broad interpretation of this term generally applies to all complex systems, living or not; thus the subject of cosmic evolution includes physical, biological, and cultural evolution. Likewise, the process of “selection” can be considered generally, as it naturally affects complex systems throughout Nature; hence, natural selection applies not merely to living systems but to all systems that naturally experience physical, biological, and cultural selection. (p. 32)

Commenting specifically on neo-Darwinism, he writes:

Nothing in this paper disputes neo-Darwinism; the facts of biological evolution are unassailable even if the mechanism by which it works is still unresolved. As proposed here, energy flow, provided it is optimally favored by a mutated living system’s altered genome, is envisioned to aid biological selection; energy itself conceivably acts as a central means by which biology’s evolutionary mechanism works. (p. 32-33)

This way, adaptation and selection have become generic concepts. Where biological evolution follows Darwin, cultural evolution follows Lamarck—which works faster and more effective.

That is not biological (Darwinian) selection, but it is cultural selection; any complex system is naturally selected or rejected by means of interactions with its environment and that includes, and might be dominated by, energy flows in the area. For all biological and cultural systems, if the energy acquired, stored, and expressed is optimum, then those systems survive, prosper, and evolve; if it is not, they are deterministically selected out of existence... All things considered, natural selection is a universal phenomenon dictated by not mere chance, nor even by only chance or necessity; rather, natural selection within and among all complex systems engages both chance and necessity. Nothing in Nature seems black or white, rather more like messy shades of gray throughout. (p. 33)

Ken Wilber's rather strained relationship to the concept of Darwinian evolution has been noted on Integral World several times. It is refreshing to notice that Chaisson not only has no problems with it, but accords it a universal application.


Even more than self-organization, the concept of “emergence” has captured the imagination of many integral readers. It has become a veritable buzz word, also in integral circles. But what does it actually explain?[2] One could, indeed, picture every single step between Hydrogen and Human as a miraculous emergence, “crying out for a spiritual explanation”, as Wilber would phrase it. Chaisson is predictably more sober in his analysis:

Tenably, energy drives systems beyond equilibrium while selection aids the emergence of greater complexity for those systems able to manage the increased energy flow per unit mass. In other words, normalized energy flow might itself be the trait most often selected by successful systems of the same kind; if so, emergence becomes technically synonymous with creativity... Perhaps not as mysterious or magical as some complexity scientists imply, emergence might be hardly more than the straightforward outcome of ways that energy naturally and hierarchically enriches system structure and functionality. (p. 33)

Compare this to Wilber's favorite topic of cosmic creativity, where he treats creativity and spirituality as almost identical. Again, mystification has replaced explanation. In stark contrast, Chaisson concludes soberly and sensibly:

[L]ife itself and its consequent behavior are hardly more than an energetic driving of organic molecules out of equilibrium sufficient to create emergent structures with functions as complex as those of living systems; life needs no mystical properties any more than it needs élan vital, which faded away with improved insight after decades of struggles to decipher it. Perhaps it is too much for one paper to challenge both of the cherished concepts of selforganization and enigmatic emergence so central to orthodox complexity science. Critics will likely judge my attitude as an abandonment of holism and a retreat to reductionism, which it is not; complex systems can indeed manifest more than their whole yet less complex parts. Rather, I regard my considered temperament as a promising way to evade opaque mysticism while promoting quantitative synthesis throughout natural history. (p. 34)

Existence allows for many variations, both above and below the average. These are not exceptional:

Nature is rich in outliers, indeed they are sometimes beneficial for diverse, changing, complex systems; without variation, evolution would not produce novelty and creativity seen throughout the Universe... There are no perfect species or perfect stars, nor even necessarily average members within any category of complex system; nor are there likely to be exceptionless regularities or evolutionary “laws” in the real world... Whether for stars and galaxies, plants and animals, or society and technology, rare outliers, exceptions, and overlaps are occasionally evident—indeed expected—among complex systems in an imperfect Universe. (p. 34)
Cultural Complexity

Chaisson sees humans as part of Nature, therefore, even cultural evolution should (at least in part) be amenable to a naturalistic analysis.

Cultural evolution is a product of biological evolution, the former building upon the achievements of the latter. Provenance counts; networks of bodies and brains within the human web can build elaborate systems. And it is the rapid pace of cultural evolution, in addition to its ability to harness energy intensely, that makes cultural systems so remarkable. (p. 35)

There's even a moral imperative here, according to Chaisson:

For big historians to declare that sentient, technological society is not analyzable in the same way as stars, galaxies, and life itself, it is tantamount to placing ourselves anthropocentrically in some special category or atop some exalted pedestal, raising the age-old spectre of mystical rulers and arrogant institutions. It would be as though Nature adheres to a universal concordance, creating all known systems in a single, unified, evolutionary way—but only until the big history story reaches us, at which time, society, and our cultural inventions are alleged to be different, or artificial, or privileged. I reject such teleology, which has so often been detrimental to humankind during much of recorded history. My stance on cosmic evolution, in this review as well as in my decades-long research program, very much includes culture and civilization among all natural systems, indeed regards human society and our remarkable technology “on the same page” (as literally in Figure 2) alongside every type of complex system observed in the Universe. (p. 35)
Sigmoidal Curves

As to the rate of complexification, some see as increasing exponentially, culminating in a Singularity, Chaisson is more realistic:

That is, Φm values for a whole array of physical, biological, and cultural systems first increase slowly and then more quickly during their individual evolutionary histories, eventually leveling off throughout the shaded area of Figure 2; if true, then the master curve of Figure 2 is probably the compound sum of multiple S-curves... Ultimately most systems, including unstable stars, stressed species, and inept civilizations, do collapse when they can no longer sustain themselves by optimally managing their energy flows; such adverse fates, which are natural, common outcomes of cosmic evolution, are partly the subject of another study that explores practical applications of cosmic evolution to human society. (p. 35)


Chaisson summarizes his philosophy by stating:

Physical, biological, and cultural evolution has produced a wide spectrum of complexity in Nature, each comprising an integral part of an all-inclusive, cosmic-evolutionary scenario of who we are and whence we came. Galaxies, stars, and planets, as well as life, society, and machines, play roles in a comprehensive story of ourselves, our world, and our Universe. For all these systems and many more, their dynamical steady states act as sources of novelty and innovation, taking advantage of random chance and lawful determinism to advance along the arrow of time toward greater complexity. Among myriad manifestations of order and organization on Earth and beyond, complex systems seem governed by common processes and properties, as though simple, underlying Platonic Forms pervade the cosmos. (p. 35)
No purpose or plan is evident in the observed rise of universal complexity for those systems able to utilize optimally energy flowing through them; there is no evidence whatsoever that cosmic evolution obeys some grand design or intelligent designer. Nor is there any obvious progress either; we who study Nature incrementally progress in understanding while ambitiously deciphering this grand scientifically-based story, but no compelling evidence exists that evolution itself is progressive or directed (as in “movement toward a goal or destination”); cosmic evolution is an aimless, meandering process, partly facilitated by energy flowing through open, nonequilibrium, complex systems. (p. 36)

And he ends on a cautionary note, given the precarious state of our planet Earth:

All things considered, humanity, together with its society and its machines, might be among the minority of winning complex systems in Nature, continuing to make big history while advancing cautiously along the arrow of time. (p. 36)



Wilber writes suggestively and often metaphorically, where Chaisson as a scientist is careful, detailed and specific.

A predictable response from integral quarters to Chaisson's Grand Evolutionary Synthesis would be: great, but this is all a Right Hand quadrant affair (and therefore materialistic and subtly reductionistic, i.e. holistic but materialistic). It overlooks the Left Hand quadrants, of consciousness and culture, that feature so prominently within the integral Scheme of Things. How valid is that criticism? It displays the natural response of integralists when presented with rivaling ideas, to allocate it to one of the quadrants.

At the very least these material-energetic dimensions should be integrated into the integral model. When Wilber writes about energy, it is often subtle energy (see for example his “Excerpt G: Toward a Comprehensive Theory of Subtle Energies”) and not the regular forms of energy studied by science. The fact that organisms need and use energy can seem trivial in this context (“of course we need food, to be able to live”), but Chaisson argues for a more causal role: it is precisely because we learned to use energy in ever greater quantities that most of human and cultural life has become possible. Those complex systems that manage to process energy more efficiently get selected over those that don't. That's why evolution proceeds as it does.

It is true that Chaisson doesn't tell us much about human consciousness and culture—about which Wilber provides a wealth of data—but in Chaisson's worldview, “intentionality and directionality are irrelevant in evolution” (a comment he makes on p. 34 of his article). But if atoms, galaxies, stars and planets have their own rudimentary forms of consciousness and culture, Wilber, as a declared panpsychist, hasn't adequately made a case for it—though he has alluded to it at times, at least for atoms, by suggesting that even they are aware of eachother's presence:

[Integral Theory] is panpsychic (a term I’m not fond of, preferring “pan-interiorist,” meaning all beings have interiors or proto-consciousness, a la Whitehead, Peirce, Leibnitz, etc.)—to wit, atoms do not depend upon being known by humans, but they do depend upon being known by each other. (“Response to Critical Realism in Defense of Integral Theory”, January 2014,

The title and subtitle of the current essay (“Integral Theory and Cosmic Evolution: A Naturalistic Approach”) would sound as a tautology in the wider world of science. For how else could the subject of cosmic evolution be approached other than through naturalistic means? But in the context of Integral Theory this emphasis is not immediately obvious. Wilber speculates about a spiritual Force or Drive in the cosmos—spelled 'Kosmos' by him to include the dimension of interiority, which he even ascribes to atoms—and frequently points to the avant garde fields of complexity science, self-organization studies and emergence theories to suggest that

[S]omething other than chance is pushing the universe. (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, 1996, p. 26).

This “something other than chance” is Wilber's beloved concept of Eros or Spirit. Of course, no scientist can subscribe to this metaphysical notion, as it is wedded to the realm of empirical data. Wilber, in turn, has been at pains to present this idea in the most innocent version, a "post-metaphysical", "intra-natural", "self-organizing", "self-transcending" and "immanent" drive towards complexity present in all domains of existence. A “Spirit of Evolution”. As he clarified in an audio recording about evolution around 2006, which was posted on

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 a super-natural, but an intra-natural, an immanently natural aspect. And that's basically the position I maintain.

Apparently, according to Wilber, such a “minimalist metaphysics” of an “immanent Spirit” is necessary to explain life's complexities. However, a closer look at science teaches us that no scientist would explain the world exclusively with the help of the concept of chance. They often use tandem concepts such as chance-and-necessity, chance-and-determinism, chance-and-lawfulness. In my opinion, this chances everything. If naturalistic science can explain the complexities of existence without having to resort to quasi-mystical notions such as Eros, Wilber's Kosmic worldview is in danger of collapsing. At the very least, it deserves a closer examination.

extreme weather
The Spirit of Weather: atmospheric spirituality?

My favorite example to drive this point home is the weather. A typical Wilberian explanation of the atmospheric complexity would go like this. “In the past premodern man believed that gods rule the weather: thunder, lightning, rain and storm. Modern man tried to explain the weather through materialistic methods of measurements, but the weather system turned out to be way too complex for that. We can't even predict next week's weather with 100% accuracy. And who can explain why the sun shines today, but tomorrow a thunderstorm may occur, and next week a freezing snow?

How can this variety be explained only on the basis of air pressure and temperature? Shouldn't the Second Law of Thermodynamics predict that Natures strives for equilibrium? Therefore, there is every reason to postulate an innate drive in nature towards atmospheric complexity. It is creative, unpredictable, and pervasive. One thing is certain about it: it is irresistible. There is a “Spirit of Weather”. It is not a metaphysical force, but an immanent force (of course it is also transcendental, but for now we will forget this). It is not supernatural, but intra-natural. When you can align yourself with this “Spirit”, you enter the new and revolutionary field of atmospheric spirituality.”

Obviously, what this “explanation” overlooks is that the Earth is not a closed system. The Sun pours its energy continuously in the Earth's atmosphere (yes, irresistibly), and this makes all the difference. It is the main driving force behind atmospheric complexity. By heating up the air close to the equator, it rises up and moves north (on the Northern hemisphere). Because the earth turns around its axis, circular movements are set up: clockwise for high pressure areas and anti-clockwise for low pressure areas. Land and water masses add there complexity: wind coming from the ocean brings rain and winds, but coming from the continents it tends to be dry and sunny. Local effects are added by differences in the landscape, mountains rigs or lakes can cause weather variations. Different layers in the atmosphere behave differently, as does the air temperature close to the earth's surface. All in all, the weather system becomes more and more complex, chaotic and unpredictable. But nowhere in this process the laws of nature are violated. No mystery here.

A silly example? Perhaps. Has Wilber ever written about the weather? I don't think so. But it captures the spirit of his approach towards complexity, biologically and culturally, and how he goes about to explain it. He even extends this approach to the domain of matter and cosmology: even in atoms, there is this “intrinsic drive” towards complexity, so atoms form molecules, molecules form cells, and cells form organisms. For Wilber, consciousness goes all the way down.

In a way, Integral Theory and Big History start at opposite ends. Integral Theory has its core business in psychological and spiritual development, and its impact on human culture. But it extrapolates this approach to the evolution of life, and even to the level of the atoms, which are seen as having some form of proto-consciousness Wilber calls interiority. Big History starts at this bottom level and works its way up towards higher forms of complexity: stars, galaxies, planets, life, human beings and human culture. In this cosmic view, humanity comes only at the very last second. In the integral view, humanity is more or less paradigmatic (since we have interiority, the whole cosmos should have it).

Ken Wilber has dealt with these questions of complexity in his magnum opus Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (1995), and provided answers strikingly different from Chaisson's. Wilber quotes from Big Historians Erich Jantsch (The Self-Organizing Universe, 1980) and Ervin Laszlo (Evolution: The Grand Synthesis, 1987), among others, who attempted an early general synthesis of evolutionary processes in the domains of matter, life and mind/culture. Wilber too deals with the apparent contradiction between the physical processes that follow the Second Law (“the universe is winding down”, in Wilber's terminology) and those that show self-organization (“the universe is winding up”—as he is fond of saying defiantly but very carelessly), thus aligning themselves with the biosphere, which shows irreversible trends towards complexity.

In Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, practically the only book written by Wilber that covers these areas of complexity science, Wilber states:

[U]nder certain circumstances matter will “wind itself up” into states of higher order, as when the water running down a drain suddenly ceases to be chaotic and forms a perfect funnel or whirlpool. Whenever material processes become very chaotic and “far from equilibrium,” they tend under their own power to escape chaos by transforming it into a higher and more structured order—commonly called “order out of chaos.” (Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, 1995, p. 13-14)


[A]spects of the physiosphere are headed in the same direction as the biosphere, and that, put roughly, closes the gap between them. The material world is perfectly capable of winding itself up, long before the appearance of life, and thus the “self-winding” nature of matter itself sets the stage, or prepares the conditions, for the complex self-organization known as life. (p. 14)

Wilber doesn't specify which physical processes have this ability to “wind themselves up”. He only refers to

“subtler (and more significant) aspects of the physiosphere”. (p. 10)

Note the marked difference in style between Wilber and Chaisson. Wilber writes suggestively and often metaphorically, where Chaisson as a scientist is careful, detailed and specific. I have no idea what physical processes Wilber is actually refering to in these quotes, when he says “long before the appearance of life”. All the elements of the physiosphere, the building blocks of all future life, haven't been built by self-organization, “under their own power”, but by intense gravitational, quantum mechanical and nuclear forces in the various processes of nucleosynthesis (as explored by Fred Hoyle). Perhaps “the self-winding nature of matter” gets its impetus from energy influxes from outside. What the field of Big History has made clear is that it's the environmental gradients that matter in cosmic evolution: between the hottest stars and the coolest space a dynamic is set up that made life possible (as is the case in the deep sea hot vents where life probably has first originated, in the form of heat-loving bacteria). Complexity can thrive near these energy gradients. Only by breaking down these processes into manageable chunks and studying them in detail can we hope to find real explanations.

How not only to describe but also to explain these trends towards complexity across multiple domains is of course the Holy Grail of any Grand Evolutionary Synthesis. Wilber seems to argue for an innate, but unspecified, driving force in the cosmos behind all processes of self-organization and emergence, where Chaisson points to energy flows as a major, if not the major, driving force. Wilber doesn't theoretically connect the increase of entropy on the one hand and order on the other hand, where Chaisson is more explicitly relating them. Chaisson, therefore, is not tempted to postulate any innate drive towards self-organization. Instead, he points to the crucial role of energy gradients everywhere in nature, that have made complexity possible. The principle of economy demands that we take this naturalistic approach very seriously.

The perspectives of these two approaches—Integral Theory and Cosmic Evolution—differ dramatically. In Integral Theory human consciousness and culture occupies half of reality as defined by the Four Quandrant model (not surprisingly for a model that started its career in the field of psychology), though relevance is claimed for the pre-human stages as well. Small wonder that it is very data rich on these individual and social phenomena. Inner and outer reality are seen as the two main dimensions in existence. In the integral view,there is not only an outer universe of exteriorities, but also a (metaphorical?) inner universe of interiorities to be explored.

By contrast, the Cosmic Evolution approach covers the whole life span of the (outer) cosmos—spanning 14 billion years and even the far future—and sees human self-consciousness coming on the scene at the very last moments (and for the moment only on Earth and only among one of the millions of species that exist or have existed in the past. The fact that we haven't fathomed the nature and workings of human consciousness yet is therefore not regarded as fatal in this community. There is every reason to expect we will figure this out in the future. Both communities share an enormous knowledge-optimism: we can truly know reality in all of its manifold dimensions. What would a meta-model look like, that includes both approaches?


I found a photo of Chaisson attending a meeting of the General Evolution Research Group, founded by Ervin Laszlo in 1984. Apparently Chaisson has, contrary to Laszlo, later chosen a conventional approach to science, for he is not dealing with quantum physics, let alone the Akashic Field hypothesis, to make sense of cosmic evolution.

The General Evolution Research Group
The General Evolution Research Group in Florence, 1986. From left to right circling the table clockwise: Eisler, Corliss, Chaisson, Laszlo, Varela, Csanyi, Banathy. Empty chair is where Loye was sitting before he got up to take these photos.


[1] Eric J. Chaisson, “The Natural Science Underlying Big History,” The Scientific World Journal, vol. 2014, Article ID 384912, 41 pages, 2014. doi:10.1155/2014/384912. This essay is available online from both the publisher's and the author's websites.

[2] An interesting resource well worth reading which Chaisson refers to in this context, “for a brief review of the slippery concept of emergence,”, is: Peter A. Corning, “The Re-emergence of ‘Emergence’: A Venerable Concept in Search of a Theory”, Complexity, vol. 7, nr. 6, 2002, p. 18-30.

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