Instead of science, Wilber relies on creationist arguments, although to be fair to him at least he doesn't buy into the religious literalism or young earth timescale of the latter. On this page I take a detailed look at what is wrong with Ken's understanding of evolutionary science.
I first read of Wilber's anti-darwinism in a quote from Ken Wilber's A Brief History of Everything and commentary is by Robert Todd Carroll in his Skeptic's Dictionary Newsletter 38. Later when I bought a copy of A Brief History of Everything I read the passage myself, and all I can say is that I agree with Carroll's critique. This whole matter raises grave concerns, because surely the idea of Integral Theory is that it incorporates and unifies all human knowledge and experience in a single overarching paradigm. But if the spokesman and senior theorist of the Integral Movement gets his science so wrong, it does not say much for the Integral Movement, or rather, for his own version of it, as a whole. But surely there can also be an Integralism (an Integral Philosophy) which gets the science right, indeed this is what I advocate.
What follows is then, is Wilber's offending passage, and its refutation. (note - the book is written in a dialogue manner, hence the question and answer format)
"KW: ...The standard neo-Darwinian explanation of chance mutation and natural selection - very few theorists believe this anymore. Evolution clearly operates in part by natural selection, but this process simply selects those transformations that have already occurred by mechanisms that absolutely nobody understands.
Q. For example?
KW: Take the standard notion that wings simply evolved from forelegs. It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing from a leg--a half-wing will not do. A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing--you can't run and you can't fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever. In other words, with a half-wing you are dinner. The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal--also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and they have to somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and have offspring with real functional wings.
Talk about mind-boggling. This in infinitely, absolutely, utterly mind-boggling. Random mutations cannot even begin to explain this....But once this incredible transformation has occurred, then natural selection will indeed select the better wings from the less workable wings--but the wings themselves? Nobody has a clue.
For the moment, everybody has simply agreed to call this "quantum evolution" or "punctuated equilibrium" or "emergent evolution"--radically novel and emergent and incredibly complex holons come into existence in a huge leap, in a quantum-like fashion--with no evidence whatsoever of intermediated forms. Dozens or hundreds of simultaneous nonlethal mutations have to happen at the same time in order to survive at all--the wing, for example, or the eyeball.
Coming from a creationist - whether in its old bible thumping Creation Science version, or its new slick Intelligent Design incarnation) this is what one would expect, indeed it is what these people have been saying for years. Coming from someone who is proposing a unification and integration of all human knowledge, and who to add to that has a science degree, is a bit strange! Let's briefly look at a few of his claims
The standard neo-Darwinian explanation of chance mutation and natural selection - very few theorists believe this anymore.
Not true, as anyone who bothered to inquire into what the scientists themselves were saying would find out. Conveniently, Ken doesn't provide a single reference, from a peer-reviewed journal, or a serious academic work, or even a good popular work for that matter (I don't mean creationists or new age or "new paradigm" type people with no grounding in the biological sciences, I mean someone within the scientific community, or if not, then someone who has interviewed and met with paleontologists and biologists), to support his claim that "very few theorists" still accept Neo-darwinism. Ken if you are reading this, or if one of your students or followers are, and you disagree with my above statement, or think it any way unfair, I challenge you to provide evidence to the contrary. If you can prove me wrong, I will change this page forthwith!
Moreover, the statement in the 2nd edition of ABHOE differs slightly in the original edition, where as Geoffrey D. Falk observes
Now let's look again at the example Ken uses to argue his case:
KW: Take the standard notion that wings simply evolved from forelegs. It takes perhaps a hundred mutations to produce a functional wing from a leg--a half-wing will not do. A half-wing is no good as a leg and no good as a wing--you can't run and you can't fly. It has no adaptive value whatsoever...
Before reading this, I had happened to have recently researched the origin of flight and the evolution of the wing in dinosaurs evolving into birds. So I know that Wilber got it completely wrong here. Here are some of the many ways in which feathered wings may or did evolve. Note that it is not just one of these factors, it is all of them, that led to the development of wings and flight.
So much for Wilber's half-wing! And the rest of his "disproof" of evolutionary science. As sceptic Robert Todd Carroll (not be confused with Robert L. Carroll, the vertebrate paleontologist, although I'm sure the latter would sympathise with the sentiment :-) comments
Geoffrey Falk says the same thing, but with more references. I can do no better than quote him, and his sources, to show how out of touch Wilber is with modern (and for that matter even early!) evolutionary science.
There are animals alive today that beautifully illustrate every stage in the continuum. There are frogs that glide with big webs between their toes, tree-snakes with flattened bodies that catch the air, lizards with flaps along their bodies; and several different kinds of mammals that glide with membranes stretched between their limbs, showing us the kind of way bats must have got their start. Contrary to the creationist literature, not only are animals with “half a wing” common [i.e., they are not automatically “dinner”], so are animals with a quarter of a wing, three quarters of a wing, and so on.Indeed, Darwin himself, in his Origin of Species—first published in 1859—recorded as much:
Look at the family of squirrels; here we have the finest gradation from animals with their tails only slightly flattened, and from others ... with the posterior part of their bodies rather wide and with the skin on their flanks rather full, to the so-called flying squirrels.... We cannot doubt that each structure is of use [i.e., has adaptive value] to each kind of squirrel in its own country.Nor does that exhaust the examples, even just from Darwin’s own long-extant (1859) catalog:
If about a dozen genera of birds were to become extinct or were unknown, who would have ventured to surmise that birds might have existed which used their wings solely as flappers, like the logger-headed duck (Micropterus of Eyton); as fins in the water and as front-legs on the land, like the penguin; as sails, like the ostrich; and functionally for no purpose, like the Apteryx? Yet the structure of each of these birds is good for it, under the conditions of life to which it is exposed....Completely contrary to Wilber’s deficient understanding, then, although “half a wit” may not be better than none, half a wing certainly is. Even penguins and ostriches know as much.
All of which serves to show how fuddled and backward Wilber's thinking is when it comes to science, presenting the same long disproved arguments as Creationists themselves cling to. This is not to say that Wilber supports Creationism. He very rightly rejects such claims as pertaining to narrow religion disguised as science. Yet at the same time, he rejects not just to the physicalist or atheist interpretations of evolutionary theory by Richard Dawkins, but Darwinism and Neodarwinism as a whole.
Wilber's simple error, which is the same as the error of the Fundamentalist Christian Creationist / Intelligent Design theorists' approach, seems to be to equate the Darwinian process of evolution with physicalism/materialism/atheism/reductionism, and hence, in rejecting materialism, it becomes mandatory to reject the empirical facts of evolutionary science as well. He might instead want to look more closely at the work of Erich Jantsch (Jantsch 1980), whom he cites as one of his inspirations (Wilber 1997, 2000), even incorporating Jantsch's evolutionary stages into his own now famous AQAL diagram. Unlike Wilber, Jantsch showed how a teleological cosmology not only easily accomodates - but indeed uses as one of its foundation pillars - Darwinian science. Darwinism, rather than being a bogeyman or enemy, is in fact shown to be one of the central building blocks of an integral vision of the cosmos. Wilber might also consider how a truely spiritual and metaphysical visions of an evolutionary cosmos, such as that offered by Jesuit paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin, or by the philosopher-sage Sri Aurobindo (the latter again one of his oft-credited influences), do not have to depend on Creationist- / Intelligent Design- style pseudoscientific denials of empirical evidence, when incorporating both the spiritual and the material dimensions in a unified whole. Rather, these visionary cosmologies reveal how the process of biological evolution is the "Life" (Sri Aurobindo 1977 ) or "Biosphere" (Teilhard 1959) stage of the process by which the cosmos evolves from original inanimate matter through the intermediate stages of life and mind to Divinity.
For more on Wilber and Evolutionary Science, see Ken Wilber's Achilles' Heel: The Art of Spiritual Hyperbole, Part Two: EVOLUTION VERSUS MYSTERIONISM? - Wilber and the misunderstanding of evolution, part of David Lane's critiques/essays/reviews of Wilber. For a good overview of Wilber's own position, see the Wilber on Darwinism, part of the Ken Wilber Wikipedia page.
After I had written the above, I found an interesting discussion at Integral Naked, Wilber's own forum, regarding the fact that Ken Wilber's claims that Darwinism cannot sufficiently explain evolution indicate a lack of scientific understanding on his part. This caused Wilber's to write a response, which appears at the Vomiting Confetti blog. Here is what he says. I am quoting it in total (along with my own resposnes), because reading his reply has seriously diminished the respect I had for him as a critical thinker. I mean, I can forgive Wilber not understanding Sri Aurobindo, since one he would have to truly immerse himself in the great sage's writings, the way he has with Da Free John for example, and to put his own mental preconceptions and intellectualising aside, to get a proper insight as to what Sri Aurobindo is actually saying. But for him to make so many obvious and simple errors regarding Evolutionary Science, an area he claims to have studied for a decade or more, that is another matter altogether!
Moreover, the frequent claims by both Wilber and his followers that he himself takes notice of criticism of his work, and corrects his errors accordingly, seem to be falsified by his inability here to listen what even his own students are saying. Instead, he resorts once again to Creationist Arguments and, now, authoritarianism.
First, the text as in itself:
"Folks, give me a break on this one. I have a Master's degree in biochemistry, and a Ph.D. minus thesis in biochemistry and biophysics, with specialization in the mechanism of the visual process. I did my thesis on the photoisomerization of rhodopsin in bovine rod outer segments. I know evolutionary theory inside out, including the works of Dawkins et al. The material of mine that is being quoted is extremely popularized and simplified material for a lay audience. Publicly, virtually all scientists subscribe to neo-Darwinian theory. Privately, real scientists -- that is, those of us with graduate degrees in science who have professionally practiced it -- don't believe hardly any of its crucial tenets.
Instead of a religious preacher like Dawkins, start with something like Michael Behe's Darwin's Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. And then guess what? Neo-Darwinian theory can't explain shit. Deal with it.
The extensive problems with evolutionary theory as it now stands is exactly why "creation science" has made huge inroads across the country, including standing up in court cases where scientific evidence is brought in on both sides. The problem is that creation scientists -- who are almost entirely Christians - after having convincingly demonstrated that neo-Darwinian theory has loopholes large enough to drive several Hummers through then try to prove that Jehovah is in one of the Hummers. But, of course, the fact that neo-Darwinian theory cannot explain the central aspects of evolution, does not mean that a specific type of God can. But they never would make the kind of headway they have unless neo-Darwinian theory is the piece of Swiss cheese that it is.
But all that this really proves, in my opinion, is that there is an Eros to the Kosmos, an Eros that scientific evolutionary theory as it is simply cannot explain.
But overall integral theory doesn't hang on that particular issue. If physicalistic, materialistic, reductionistic forces turn out to give an adequate explanation to the extraordinary diversity of evolutionary unfolding, then fine, that is what we will include in integral theory. And if not, not. But so far, the "nots" have it by a staggeringly huge margin, and scientists when they are not bragging to the world, whisper this to themselves every single day of their lives. I know, I lived in that community for the better part of a decade. And it's truly fascinating, to say the least…."
This is a great thread, from what I have seen of it, and I hope it continues. But please don't do so by claiming that I don't know evolutionary theory, because in that particular instance anyway, you are absolutely off your nut."
Sounds impressive, doesn't it? If, that is, you are not familar with evolutionary science, and easily overawed by charismatic authority figures. But anyone who does not fall into either of those categories sees that Wilber's resposnes is actually lacking in substance. And unless these issues are confronted and addressed, the Integral Movement looks like ending up as just another authoritarian, anti-science, and ironically for a rationalist like Wilber, anti-rational, dogma.
Let us now analyse Wilber's claims in greater detail.
KW: "Folks, give me a break on this one. I have a Master's degree in biochemistry, and a Ph.D. minus thesis in biochemistry and biophysics, with specialization in the mechanism of the visual process. I did my thesis on the photoisomerization of rhodopsin in bovine rod outer segments. I know evolutionary theory inside out, including the works of Dawkins et al. The material of mine that is being quoted is extremely popularized and simplified material for a lay audience. Publicly, virtually all scientists subscribe to neo-Darwinian theory. Privately, real scientists -- that is, those of us with graduate degrees in science who have professionally practiced it -- don't believe hardly any of its crucial tenets".
My immediate response, upon reading the above, is, Is Wilber honestly living in the same universe as the rest of us???? While I do not have a PhD in evolutionary biology (with or without a thesis!), one of things I have devoted my life to is the study of the history of life on Earth. And I have never heard of or met any biologists (apart from one botanist lecturer who was also a Creationist Christian) working in the field or in the lab expressing these sort of doubts. I have corresponded (via email) with real scientists, as well as done volunteer work at the Paleontology department of the Museum of Victoria, and I have never ever once, not once, heard or been told any doubts (publically or privately) expressed regarding the validity of Neodarwinism. Not once. Nor have I seen anything in any of the magazines such as New Scientist and Scientific American. Nor have I noticed any admissions from evolutionists on the Web. Surely if these sort of doubts are so widespread - I don't mean among a few Creationists, I mean among mainstream evolutionary science - then surely somewhere someone would have said something. It's human nature not to be be very good at keeping secrets. Even the sectrets of occult scocieties beecome known. Spy agencies, any sort of cover ups. We hear about it eventually. So why don't we hear from even one of these scientists "with graduate degrees in science" who are professionally practicing science, that no scientist anywhere can accept the findings of evolutionary biology?
If Wilber - who claims as he does to be a specialist in this field - is saying one thing, and every other person in this area is saying the opposite, who are we to believe? And if Wilber really does have special information regarding his claims, why doesn't he give the details, rather than just saying "this is how it is" and expecting us to believe it without questioning?
KW: "Instead of a religious preacher like Dawkins,"
Ad hominen attack. Dawkins certainly does have an ideology, a fixed point of view, just like Wilber, myself, and everyone else. That makes him passionate, but it doesn't make him religious. Atheism is not a form of religion, despite what its critics claim.
KW: "start with something like Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution.
Out of curiosity I looked up this book on Amazon com. Here is what one reviewer (J. E. Robinson) says.
See also the following blog entry by Andrea Bottaro Behe and bugs: Genesis of a Creationist canard? which points out - on the basis of his favourable review of another Discover Institute work, Behe's complete lack of scientific understanding.
Now, I am sure Mr Behe is a really decent guy, and completely sincere in what he does; I looked at his photo on Wikipedia and I got a really nice "vibe" from him. I don't want to criticise him or anyone, and I do feel a bit bad about critiqing him, for this reason. But unfortunately, we are talking about science here, and building upon the edifice of human knowledge, so it is important to get things right.
And as for the intellectual dishonesty inherent in the Intelligent Design movement as a whole, see New Scientist vol 187, no.2507 (9 July 2005) "The End of Reason".
KW: " And then guess what? Neo-Darwinian theory can’t explain shit. Deal with it."
This is the most disturbing part of Wilber's response. A paternalistic and authoritarian put down - I am right, they are crap, deal with it. True his response was not intended for public consumption, and were it to be so he would obviously write with more restraint and less foul language. And it is also true that Wilber has a chronic and debilitating illness which would try anyone's patience. Maybe he just write this reply on a bad day. But, even if spoken with anger, it does show where his head is at. It also does raise serious concerns as to Wilber's ability to, in the words of one supporter, provide "a coherent vision that seamlessly weaves together truth-claims from such fields as physics and biology...[etc]" (Jack Crittenden What is the Meaning of "Integral"?). Whatever else he may have seamlessly woven, Darwinian thought, and hence evolutionary biology as a whole, is not one of them!
KW: "The extensive problems with evolutionary theory as it now stands is exactly why “creation science” has made huge inroads across the country, including standing up in court cases where scientific evidence is brought in on both sides. The problem is that creation scientists -- who are almost entirely Christians-"
But what about Christian teleologists like Teilhard de Chardin (1959) and Simon Conway Morris (2005) who are able to bring other dimensions into the discussion without having to destroy the foundations? Not all Christians are creationists. There are Christians who are evolutionists and Darwinians to boot, there faith is large enough for them to be not threatened by facts regarding the material world. For that matter, not all Creationists are Christians. There are also Jewish creationists, Muslim creationists, and even Hindu (Hare Krishna) creationists.
KW: "-- after having convincingly demonstrated that neo-Darwinian theory has loopholes large enough to drive several Hummers through-"
To me this is cognitive dissonance. How can someone claim to "know evolutionary theory inside out", and yet be taken in by Creationist arguments! As numerous books and websites show, Creationism / Intelligent Design does not "convincingly demonstrate" anything; but rather represents sophistic deceptiveness (taking quotes out of context, presenting old theories as if they are still current, etc - see e.g. Plimer 1994) and much worse, an insidious political agenda. It is only because few people understand how real science works, and moreover many folks, especially those from a Christian background, are taken in by these deceptive thin edge of the wedge tactics and the pseudoscience arguments that justify them.
What Wilber still fails to appreciate is that Creationism and Intelligent Design (whose arguments as we have seen he buys into) are not part of a kuhnian paradigm shift against an outmoded theory, but rather a wave front of religious reactionism (Blue Meme, Ken) movement against secular modernity (Yellow Meme, more advanced, get it?) ) in all its forms [for the meaning of these colours see Spiral Dynamics. And while the idea of linear evolution is ridiculously simplistic, as a generality one can say that a secular enlightened civilization is a better place to progress from than a reactionary theocratic one!]. A good overview of this phenomenon is presented in New Scientist vol 188, no.2520 (8 October 2005), surprisingly sympathetic and perceptive coverage of the rise of Fundamentalism.
KW: " -- then try to prove that Jehovah is in one of the Hummers. But, of course, the fact that neo-Darwinian theory cannot explain the central aspects of evolution, does not mean that a specific type of God can."
Another fallacy. Wilber considers that Creationism and Darwinism are both equally wrong, as neither can explain the facts. In fact, as shown by the evidence presented on this page, Darwinism can explain the facts physical reality, whereas religious fundamentalism cannot.
KW: "But they never would make the kind of headway they have unless neo-Darwinian theory is the piece of Swiss cheese that it is."
A cursory look at the Talk Origins website will show that the current evolutionary paradigm is anything but full of holes; in fact every single claim and objection offered by Creationistst and ID people, including, as we have seen, those objections that Wilber himself raises, have been conclusively answered there.
Actually I sympathise with Wilber here, because I have been where he is now. As the reader will no doubt gather, my interests include esotericism as well as evolution. When I was quite young (in my early 20s) I was interested in creating a cosmological synthesis of the two; along the lines of Steiner and Blavatsky (I still am, but now on a much more mature level). And I thought, just as Wilber does now, that the Creationists really had stumbled onto something. Sure they off on a limb with their biblical literalism, but maybe they really did discover something. I could then find out what it was, and provide my own explanation, using esotericism.
Well, I did look into Creationism, and their claims. I found their lack of understanding of the fossil record to be hilarious, and moreover the reason for what they believed was shown to be not scientific limitations with the Neodarwinian paradigm, but simply that the fact of evolution really offended their belief ina literal physical Adaam and Eve and all the rest. Under a veneer of science that didn't impress me then (and still doesn't now), as their real justification for believing what they do is fundamentalist Christianity. This combined with stupid references to things like the fossil "man tracks" in the Paluxy riverbed near Glen Rose, Texas, even then known to be fake, left me with a feeling of disappointment. It would have made my job of presenting an esoteric evolutionary cosmology easier. But I couldn't find anything of value or usefulness in anything they said. So I that the Darwinian evolutionary paradigm is right after all, and all these people, whether fundamentalists or esotericists, simply are unable to come to terms with that fact (in the same way that the collapse of the Ptolemaic geocentric universe also pulled down the Graeco-Islamic-Medieval cosmology of celestial spheres and God as the "prime mover" behind the sphere of fixed stars)
KW: "But all that this really proves, in my opinion, is that there is an Eros to the Kosmos, an Eros that scientific evolutionary theory as it is simply cannot explain. "
This is an over-simplistic dualism. There are many dimensions of existence that lie outside the province of physicalistic science. But that does not mean that physicalistic science is incorrect in its understanding of material reality, any more than it means that Hermetic Occultism is incorrect in understanding the Astral reality, and so on.
KW: "But overall integral theory doesn't hang on that particular issue."
On the contrary, if Wilberian Integral Theory has so many problems with Darwinian science that it feels it has to jump in the Creationist/ID camp, with Wilber even recommending ID literature, that shows there is something seriously wrong with his version of Integral Theory! So yes, it does hang on this issue; evolutionary science so often can serve as a litmus test regarding how "grounded" an esoteric or alternative theory of reality is (Blavatsky for example denied that man evolved from apes)
KW: "If physicalistic, materialistic, reductionistic forces turn out to give an adequate explanation to the extraordinary diversity of evolutionary unfolding, then fine, that is what we will include in integral theory."
Ironically this is exactly what I do with my own integral paradigm.
KW: "And if not, not. But so far, the “nots” have it by a staggeringly huge margin, and scientists when they are not bragging to the world, whisper this to themselves every single day of their lives. I know, I lived in that community for the better part of a decade. And it's truly fascinating, to say the least…."
And I for one would be most interested to learn more of this mysterious community of insecure scientists that Ken lived amongst! ;-)
KW: "This is a great thread, from what I have seen of it, and I hope it continues. But please don't do so by claiming that I don't know evolutionary theory, because in that particular instance anyway, you are absolutely off your nut."
I will leave it to the reader to decide who is off their nut. :-)
For another response to Wilber's reply see Geoffery Falk's response (Wilberian De-Evolution May 27, 2005) (scroll down). Falk - the author of Stripping the Gurus - has a rather objectional style and few manners, but I do get the impression that he at least knows his science. He makes some excellent points here, and it is a shame that he has to jump on his sceptical-materialistic high horse; that simply encourage critics to ignore the valid things he is saying.
Finally, for a further comment on Wilber's reply and Falk's counter-reply, see Matthew Dallman on Wilber, Evolution, and Arguments from authority (Friday, May 27, 2005) (compare with Michel Bauwens). Matthew makes the following prediction:
What then does this say for Integral Theory? If the total theoretical content of the Integral Movement is synonomous with Ken's own words, then the whole thing seems already to have become just another sectarian dogma resting on the personal authority and intellectual brilliance of the founder, and unable to go beyond that vision, like, say Anthroposophy which is based solely on Steiner's voluminous teachings. But if Wilber can be seen as just one theoretician among many, without any cult of personality (and there already does seem to be a worshipful attitude (perhaps confusing Wilber with the daimon of the integral movement?) from my cursory readings of some of the Integral Naked postings, and some of the essays posted at The Reading Room and Integral Visioning, then the movement I feel does have great promise.
Sri Aurobindo (1977) The Life Divine, Sri Aurobindo Ashram, Pondicherry
Brush, A.H. (1996). On the origin of feathers. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 9: 131-142.
Conway Morris, Simon (2005), Life's Solution - Inevitable humans in a lonely universe, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge
Darwin , Charles (1859), The Origin of Species (London: Collier-MacMillan, Ltd.). (1962 edition)
Dawkins, Richard (1986), The Blind Watchmaker: Why the Evidence of Evolution Reveals a Universe Without Design (New York: W. W. Norton & Company).
Dingus, Lowell & Rowe, Timothy (1998), The Mistaken Extinction: Dinosaur Evolution and the Origin of Birds (Freeman) back
Glen J. Kuban (1996) The Texas Dinosaur/"Man Track" Controversy , Talk Origins Archives
Jantsch, Erich (1980) The Self Organizing Universe (New York: Pergamon).
MacRae, Andrew (1998), Re: feathered dinosaurs; Newsgroup: talk.origins; Date: 1998/06/30
Plimer, Ian (1994) Telling Lies for God: Reason vs. Creationism Random House Australia (out of print but some good reviews here) - back
Prum, R. and Brush, A.H., (2003) Which came first, the feather or the bird? Sci Am. 2003 Mar;288(3):84-93.
Teilhard de Chardin, Pierre (1959), The Phenomenon of Man, (Collins London, Harper & Brothers Co. New York)
Wilber, Ken (1997) An integral theory of consciousness (Journal of Consciousness Studies, 4 (1), )
----- (2000) Sex Ecology and Spirituality, 2nd ed.
----- (2000b) A Brief History of Everything pp.20 (2nd edition, Shambhala Boston, 2000