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).

The Two Greatest
Experiments of Life

Metabolism and Morphology

Frank Visser

Ironically, the origin of life problem seems easy compared to the origin of complex life problem.

I have recently argued that a differential approach to Wilberian Integral Studies is helpful. This way, we can sort out areas in which it is strong or at least sophisticated (i.e. psychology, spirituality), areas where its ideas are strongly contested (politics), and other areas where they are just plain wrong (science). Even merely suggesting this is probably anathema to many integralists.

Furthermore, I fully understand integralists can't cover every field of science—though Ken Wilber has attempted to do exactly that, with varying degrees of success. However, as long as Integral Theory is loosely presented as a “Theory of Everything”, it makes sense to explore areas where it is still weak or unsophisticated. At the very least these essays should be seen as informative for the integral audience, even if they don't feel inclined to pursue these studies themselves.


Wilber's pronouncements on science (physics, biology, entropy) have been a category of its own. In his public video pronouncements, he has made rather sweeping, generalizing statements about "the universe" doing this or that, "winding up" or "winding down", as the expression goes. In general he has tried to combat the worldview of reductionistic science with a more uplifting, spiritual outlook on life and the universe. Where science supposedly tells us that things in the cosmos are "running down" (according to the Second Law of Thermodynamics), he implies that at least some phenomena, but perhaps the cosmos as a whole, is following the opposite trajectory.

I have several problems with this presentation:

  • the essential distinction is overlooked between what happens on a global scale (i.e. the universe) and what might happen on local scales (our solar system, or even our planet Earth).
  • the interesting relationship to these two fields becomes obscured: they are not set up against eachother. Some authors claim that we can only have local order or complexity at the expense of a lot of global entropy or disorder (in the form of dissipated heat).
  • the process of complexification happening on Earth is projected on a cosmic scale, as some kind of cosmic, "relentless" force behind evolution (and history), for which there is no evidence. Presenting the "winding up" half disconnected form the "winding down" half turns it into something quasi-mysterious, a modern day substitute for God.

I very well understand the motivation behind this: would it not be great if all uplifting and ascending processes are backed up by an invincible Spirit? Emotionally yes, but rationally not. For there's a drawback to this: we no longer have to look for an adequate rational explanation, if "we are in Gods hands". Wouldn't it be much more interesting to see how far we can get without such an essentially religious assumption?

Where in general and publically Wilber will always support science in all its manifestations, in his dealings with the relationship of science and spirituality he points to the supposed shortcomings of science. It cannot, for example, explain how eyes and wings have evolved, how the human immune system arose, or how life on Earth started in the first place, for that matter. This attitude is not a bit disingenuous. For it obscures the fact that science is booking progress in all these areas every day, and makes the integralist audience less inclined to investigate these areas.

The Vital Question

Can science deal with the growth in complexity we observe on our planet Earth? The origin of complex life? The origin of life itself even? In his recent book The Vital Question (2015) British biochemist Nick Lane convincingly argues that the answers might be around the corner. His award-winning Life Ascending (2009) is well worth reading, as are his books on Oxygen (Oxygen, 2002) and on mitochondria (Power, Sex, Suicide, 2005). We'll deal with this new publication later, but first let us get a feel of Wilber's assessment of what science can and cannot do in these areas.

In an older, quite angry blog post from 2006, directed against Integral World, Wilber sneered that science has always remained "promissory" (an expression taken from Sheldrake) about the origin of life problem, and that "for two thousand years", which apparently justifies Wilber to give his own "solution": introducing a Spiritual Eros. This blog posting was a reply to Jim Chamberlain's critical essay "Wilber on Evolution", which ended by referring to Robert Hazen's book Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origin, in which current theories of life's origin are dealt with and the expectation is expressed that science will find answers to these deep problems any time soon.

Wilber is skeptical:

But it’s a bit of an inside joke to anti-reductionists, and it’s a joke because materialists, by their own accounts, cannot actually solve the problems of materialistic reductionism, and so they issue what Rupert Sheldrake jokingly called “a promissory note”—which says, in effect, “I cannot solve these problems today using materialism, but I will be able to do so tomorrow; I will definitely deliver on this promise in the not-too-distant future.” And as Sheldrake notes, they have been saying that for two thousand years, and they still can’t do it, but they still keep issuing the same promissory note! So I couldn’t help laugh at the ending of Chamberlain’s post, because this is in essence his entire argument against me, and just notice how it ends:

"(When Wilber quotes Lewontin he says that the book is recent. 2000 is not as recent as 2005, which is when the National Academy of Sciences published Genesis: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origin, by Harvard-educated scientist Robert Hazen. In it, Hazen discusses three possible, plausible, testable scenarios for life's origin, none of them requiring the introduction of some mysterious explanatory factor such as Wilber's "Eros" or some mysterious "drive" that "reaches into the closure principle through an opening." The scenarios Hazen presents are being tested, and while we don't have an answer today, it now appears quite probable that someday in the not-too-distant future we will.)"

So yes, let's congratulate ourselves that we don't have to go down that road, and can bath in the sunshine of a spiritual view of life and the cosmos! But if we take the trouble to actually investigate the progress of science in this area, we will be amply rewarded.

One has to slowly absorb this statement of the promissory nature of science. As if the origin of life isn't a tad difficult do solve given that it happened about 4 billion years ago! And the real question should not be "has science solved this by now?" but "has science booked any progress?". It most certainly has, as we will see.

Has science really been working on this problem "for two thousand years", as Wilber/Sheldrake suggested in this blog posting, without any success? This is a vintage Wilber overstatement. Two centuries ago the idea of a vitalistic Life-Force was still very common. It was only in the mid-nineteenth century that the Ages of the Earth slowly dawned on modern man. It was only in the mid-60 of the last century that the double helix structure of DNA was unraveled. It's only in the past decades that the complexities of life's origin have been investigated.

Says Robert Hazen:

The experimental investigation of life's origin is a surprisingly recent game. Two centuries ago, many scientists accepted the intuitively reasonably idea, championed by Aristotle and a pantheon of other ancient scholars, that a life force permeates the cosmos. A central precept of this doctrine, known as vitalism, is that life arises spontaneously all around us, all the time. The question of life's origin wasn't asked—at least not in the modern experimental sense (Genesis, p. 83)

Besides, there's actually a certain religion that has been promising us things for two thousand years, and... well, never mind.

One of the interesting findings of this research has been that life started pretty early on this planet, but then for 2 billion years did not evolve to any complexity higher than that of bacteria.

What went wrong with this Eros, one might say?

About this Eros, Wilber wrote (in an online posting ("Excerpt A: An Integral Age at the Leading Edge") which supposedly was an excerpt of his still to be published Volume 2 of the Kosmos-trilogy):

Eros. Eros basically is derived from one fact: Spirit creates the entire manifest world and every holon in it; in fact, every holon is Spirit-in-itself playing at being Other (e.g., the great nest of morphogenetic potential often summarized as matter, body, mind, soul, and spirit is actually Spirit-as-matter, Spirit-as-body, Spirit-as-mind, Spirit-as-soul, and Spirit-as-spirit). Since the reality, suchness, or isness of every holon is actually Spirit, but because most holons do not realize that they are Spirit, then each holon, so to speak, has an itch for infinity: each holon has a drive, a desire, a push, a telos, a hankering for God—which means, a drive to realize Spirit-itself, a drive which ultimately wants to embrace the entire Kosmos itself. This is a drive toward higher unions, wider identities, greater inclusion—culminating in God-realization, or every holon’s realization of Spirit, by Spirit, in Spirit, as Spirit. " ("An Integral Age at the Leading Edge", 2001, note 26: On the Nature of Involutionary Givens.)

If you are already lost, here's the short version:

"each holon has a drive, a desire, a push, a telos, a hankering for God—which means, a drive to realize Spirit-itself, a drive which ultimately wants to embrace the entire Kosmos itself."

So this is Ken Wilber's vision about what makes evolution tick. This is what he has to offer to the world of philosophy and science. Things just "want" to grow upwards in complexity and consciousness, and this happens through a "transcend-and-include" process of "emergence". The new science talks of "self-organization" and Wilber co-opts this term giving it a spiritualized twist: there now is a veritable "drive towards self-organization in the Cosmos".

But science knows nothing of these drives, nor does it need them.


Genesis, Robert Hazen

In the book GENESIS: The Scientific Quest for Life's Origin (2005) mentioned by Chamberlain, Hazen points to a conundrum in science that also forms the basis of Wilber's philosophy. The heading of the first chapter expresses this well: "The Missing Law". Are we perhaps missing out on a deep principle of Nature that can explain why, against all odds it seems, organisms tend to become more and more complex and conscious over time? Wouldn't that be a magnificent discovery?

But let's read carefully what Robert Hazen writes, for he makes a crucial distinction:

"Systems as a whole do tend to become more disordered with time, but at the local scale of a cell, an ant colony, or your conscious brain, remarkable complexity emerges." (p. 12)

This is the starting point of Wilber's "Eros in the Kosmos" philosophy: things not only "go down", they also "go up". But Hagen carefully makes the distinction between global and local phenomena.

Hazen continues:

"In the 1970s, the Russian-born chemist Ilya Prigogine recognizes that these so-called complex emergent systems arise when energy flows through a collection of many interacting particles." [emphasis added] (p. 12).

So the idea for these avant garde scientific pioneers is not that a "Something" is pushing things onwards and upwards, but that "when energy flows through" strange things can happen. We might think of water flowing down a drain or hurricanes arising from warm ocean water. No mysterious force behind these processes is needed as explanation, it is just a matter of "self-organization".

What makes it highly interesting, these emergent complex systems "speed up the dissipation of energy as mandated by the second law." (p. 13).

Meaning, that contrary to our first impression, these phenomena don't go against the Second Law of Thermodynamics ("order disappears") but they follow it faithfully! Think of a bottle of wine you want to empty. If you just turn the bottle head down, it takes a while to empty the bottle. But if you let the wine turn around in some kind of spiral, this bottle is emptied in far less time. By the turning of the wine, air can easily enter the bottle when the wine pours out.

That's the trick! Complex systems can emerge when energy flows through them, and the right conditions (water, rock, air, temperature, present) are present. Without these conditions, the process wouldn't be able to start. True, sugars, amino-acids, carbon-chains don't arise "just like that", they have to be stirred to get it all started.

Hazen concludes confidently:

"The recognition and description of such emergent systems provides a foundation for origin-of-life research, for life is the quintessential emergent phenomenon." (p. 13).

In an interesting YouTube video of a lecture given in the 2008 Darwin year, Robert Hazen explains exactly how far science has come in explaining the origin of life:

Robert Hazen concludes by stating: “We don't know every detail but there's no reason to resort to a supernatural description of the origin of life when we have so many chemical evidence we can go through, from simplicity to complexity.”

In this informative video lecture, he discusses the processes where complexity arises when individual particles or organisms "obey local rules"—a key concept in complexity science circles—to display complex or social behavior. Examples used are sand dunes, spiral galaxies, a slime mould (a curious organism consisting of individual beings), neurons in a network (producing consciousness), the social behavior of ants, and an orchestra of individual musicians.

In the video, Hazen argues against the position of Intelligent Design, which will have quite some adherents in his audience, but as to the structure of the arguments it makes no difference as far as Wilber's integral philosophy is concerned. Both point to supposed shortcomings of science, to bolster their own spiritual solutions.

He summarizes the problem at hand as follows. Science needs to explain these four steps:

  1. the emergence of biomolecules. In the classic Miller-Urey experiment vulcanic conditions were simulated, and amino acids were created in the test tube. In other experiments, where dense interstellar clouds were simulated, sugars and formaldehyde were created. Hazen has worked with high-pressure conditions (like are present in the deep seas) and was able to produce long carbon-chains of molecules, catalyzed by minerals. The prebiotic synthesis of biomolecules has occurred with relative ease. Minerals play key roles.

  2. the emergence of organized molecular systems. This is more tricky. Of the millions of possible organic molecules, life uses a few hundred that are key. Again, self-organization of these bigger molecules happens under the right circumstances (200 degrees, 2000 atmosphere). The end product even smelled like Jack Daniels, he proudly announced. Lipids spontaneously form membranes, resulting in proto-cells. Life's molecules display chirality (being left-winded), a property that might have been produced by mineral surfaces such as feldspar, diopside or calcite.

  3. the emergence of self-replicating molecular systems. This is the really hard one. Metabolic cycles arise that keep themselves going and which self-replicate. But here too, Hazen reports successes: 9 out of 11 key steps of metabolic cycles have been sythesized in the laboratory! His colleague Horowitz (who has written extensively about emergence) believes these auto-catalytic processes happen on alle planets (everywhere where we find water, CO2, rock etc.) Kauffman has suggested his own version of autocatalytic cycles what might have started "on their own".

  4. the emergence of natural selection. This, finally, is again an easy part. When self-replication has taken off, mutations will happen and natural selection will set in. Hazen emphasizes—and it can't be stated too often, especially in integral circles—that selection isn't "random". On the contrary, it is the opposite of random! It retains what is useful and has been tested in life's circumstances.

As a sidenote, theorists differ as to the conclusion that life is some kind of one off "freak accident", or that life is actually something to be expected in this particular universe. These are the extremes that form a whole spectrum of opinions. And some say that, for some mysterious reason, the universe is "just right" for life to arise (the so-called Anthropic Principle").

So all in all, the final explanation of the origin of life hasn't been found yet, but it would be very wrong to gloss over these advancements, if only because they are more testable and empirical than "Eros".

This whole field of "abiogenesis"—meaning the origin of life from non-living material—is vast, and even Hazen is only one player in the field. Wikipedia lists dozens of major theories.

Abiogenesis, or biopoiesis, is the natural process of life arising from non-living matter, such as simple organic compounds. It is thought to have occurred between 3.8 and 4 billion years ago, and is studied through a combination of laboratory experiments and extrapolation from the genetic information of modern organisms in order to make reasonable conjectures about what pre-life chemical reactions may have given rise to a living system....

Earth is the only place in the Universe known to harbor life. The age of the Earth is about 4.54 billion years. The earliest undisputed evidence of life on Earth dates at least from 3.5 billion years ago, during the Eoarchean Era after a geological crust started to solidify following the earlier molten Hadean Eon. There are microbial mat fossils found in 3.48 billion-year-old sandstone discovered in Western Australia. Other early physical evidence of a biogenic substance is graphite in 3.7 billion-year-old metasedimentary rocks discovered in southwestern Greenland.

That still gives about one billion years for life to get started, one would say. But the conditions before 4 billion years ago are considered to be too hostile for any form of life (or if these forms have existed, they would most certainly have been destroyed), so that leaves a much smaller period for life to arise (again). But how on earth was this possible?


One author who has ventured into this realm is Nick Lane. He states bluntly that, ironically, the origin of life problem seems easy compared to the origin of complex life problem. Life started very early on when the planet Earth was formed. But from the moment simple life in the form of bacteria was formed, it stagnated for over 2 billion years ("the boring billion", as it is called erroneously, for it is an exciting field in itself). Why? What held these bacteria back, and what caused in the end some organism to grow towards complexity and produce the visible part of the Tree of Life?

Nick Lane
Nick Lane

Lane argues that there's a penalty for bacteria for growing bigger. Bigger bacteria take more time to divide, and smaller ones win out in this race. What is more: bacteria breathe through their skins, and the bigger they become, the more the skin surface / body volume ratio goes down. They simply can't sustain a bigger organism through a relatively smaller breathing area. So the threshold against growing bigger seems sealed. Why then, did complex organisms arose at all, even if it took billions of years to find the secret?

The late Lynn Margulis had revived the idea (coming from Russian scientists of the early 20th century) that mitochondria (the energy factories in our cells) and chloroplasts (the light-capturing engines in plants) were originally bacteria that were captured, but not digested, by another group of bacteria called archaebacteria. This Lane sees as a kind of "freak accident", but once it had happened, progress towards complex organisms could no longer be stopped. These descendants of bacteria would multiply within the cells of animals and plants, to provide the energy needed for these larger organisms.

What makes it even more interesting is that these organelles have their own DNA, which is very similar to the DNA of bacteria, and not at all like the DNA or larger organism. This results in many problems related to the match or mismatch of these two DNA types: bacterial and eukaryotic (this includes technical dealings with aging and health, the supposed usefulness of anti-oxydants (a myth Lane destroys) and cell death.

What I profoundly liked is that he sees evolution as consisting of two great experiments: metabolism and morphology. Bacteria all more or less look alike. Because of this reason it took many years to discover that there are in fact two very distinct bacterial kingdoms: the "normal" bacteria and so-called "archaebacteria". These differ in crucial ways, especially in the way their membranes are built. (Remember, membranes are crucial for all bacteria). What is more, Lane speculates on the way these two large groups of bacteria might have evolved. But bacteria are expert in living in the most extreme of circumstances. Put differently: they can "eat" practically everything, as long as this "food" provides them with the necessary electrons to sustain their biochemical processes.

microbial life: an experiment in metabolismmulticellular life: an experiment in morphology
Microbial experiment in metabolism; multicellular experiment in morphology.

In stark contrast to this, multi-cellular organisms differ not so much in the way they get their energy as well as in their life forms. Life is an exuberant experiment in trying out different physical forms, from wales to giraffes and from sequoias to ferns, not to forget the fungi and yeasts. This is usually what we see as Nature, the manifold variety of life we encounter in the wild. But the world of bacteria is as interesting as that of the larger creatures. For that reason, Redmond O'Hanlon once remarked during a lecture in Amsterdam: in terms of research "bacteria is where the action is."

Lane also has specific ideas about the exact location where life's origin can be found. He has specialized in the so-called "alkaline vents" in the deep sea, the most famous of which is the "Lost City Hydrothermal Field" in the mid-Atlantic ridge, that are not as extreme in conditions as the more well-known "black smokers", but more moderate so life's process could make a start. These rich mineral environments capitalize on the difference between acid ocean water and alkalic rock, a gradient that makes crucial processes of life possible. This life-sustaining process is called "the serpentinization of olivine". Doesn't that sound poetic or what?

We should note that the energy flows mentioned in the beginning of this essay as foundational for self-organization to arise are by definition the result of gradients. A truly crucial concept in this area of science. As in the good old hurricane that can only arise and grow if the proper heat- and pressure-gradient conditions are set up.

This then, is the direction we should be heading for a solution to the problem of life's origin (and its subsequent evolution). Not by prematurely introducing a spiritual concept such as Eros, but by actually investigating the problems at hand. No force is pushing life's form upwards, no force is holding them back. But under the right conditions—which as we have seen consist of water, air, minerals, temperature, pressure and gradients—magnificant things can happen and have happened.

It wouldn't have to be necessary to say these things, but in Wilberian circles it definitely is.

A 1.5-meter-wide ledge on the side of a chimney is topped with dendritic carbonate growths that form when mineral-rich vent fluids seep through the flange and come into contact with the cold seawater. (Wikipedia)

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