Sunday, June 14, 2009

Understanding evolution: Stephen Jay Gould vs. Ken Wilber

I believe Ken Wilber's Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: The Spirit of Evolution is perhaps the best spiritual treatise ever written. Ever. In human history. Better than the Bible, better than the Torah, better than the Koran, better than the Bagvagita (as frequent readers of this blog will know, I find those other sacred texts rather woeful so perhaps that's not the best comparison). Published in 1995 -- Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (SES) benefits from the wisdom inherent in modernity but I believe it is also better than any of the modern spiritual treatises (Tolle, Chopra, Chodron) that have been put out over the last few decades as well.

SES represents one of the most ambitious intellectual undertakings ever attempted. Wilber's approach goes something like this: he argues that within any academic discipline (chemistry, sociology, psychology, economics, etc.) there are a generally agreed upon set of facts -- and there topics on the edges of the discipline that are still subject to dispute and disagreement. In Sex, Ecology Spirituality, Wilber attempts to take the generally agreed upon facts -- from EVERY discipline -- and map what we know to be true -- from the Big Bang, until today. As I understand it (and this may just be my read, not Wilber's intention) the unspoken hope in creating this map is either to reveal God (if we plot enough data points does it show us the outline of God perhaps -- like a sort of constellation of stars?) or point to God (the universe seems to be going in THIS direction so that must point to the omega point of human existence).

Wilber's map, also know as the 4 Quadrants, looks like this:

It won't make sense until you read the book. Regardless of where you come out in terms of his conclusions, I think you'll find that the 4 quadrant map is extremely cool.

But (you knew there was a But coming right?) there's something very strange that happens when you talk to people who are into Wilber's "integral theory":
  • If you talk with a psychologist who is into integral theory, he/she will often say, 'I really like SES and integral theory, but he doesn't really get the psychology part right -- but I really like the rest of it.'
  • If you talk with a sociologist, you'll often hear, 'I really like the map, I think SES is genius, but he doesn't really understand the sociology that he writes about.'
  • As someone who studies politics, I find Wilber's writings on politics to be dangerously naive -- the sort of thing someone would write who has never tried to move a piece of legislation or made a call or knocked on a door in a campaign.
  • I imagine a similar sort of thing happens in other disciplines as well.
Now some of this may just be professional jealousy. Wilber put this brilliant tome out into the marketplace of ideas and it's natural that some folks would try to knock it a bit -- in the hope that some of his greatness might rub off on them through association. I'm sure some of that is going on -- but I don't think that's the whole story. I really think SES is a case where the WHOLE is greater than the sum of the parts. Wilber constructs this elaborate house made up of plywood understandings of the various parts that make up the whole. And that's probably fine -- the house is beautiful -- and it's the most beautiful house on the block. The world needs generalists and the world needs specialists -- and they are two different kinds of people.

Recently, I started reading Stephan Jay Gould, because I felt like I wanted to better understand evolution, evolutionary biology, and evolutionary psychology. And in a few short sentences, Gould undercuts not only Wilber's understanding of evolution but the ENTIRE THESIS of Sex, Ecology, and Spirituality. Gould is not writing in reply to Wilber -- he's just writing about the evolution of life on earth, but he comes to every different conclusions than Wilber. I want to chew on a few quotes and then talk about what all of this might mean [you can read Gould's whole piece here]:

One might grant that complexification for life as a whole represents a pseudo-trend based on constraint at the left wall but still hold that evolution within particular groups differentially favors complexity when the founding lineage begins far enough from the left wall to permit movement in both directions. Empirical tests of this interesting hypothesis are just beginning (as concern for the subject mounts among paleontologists), and we do not yet have enough cases to advance a generality. But the first two studies - by Daniel W. McShea of the University of Michigan on mammalian vertebrae and by George F. Boyajian of the University of Pennsylvania on ammonite suture lines - show no evolutionary tendencies to favor increased complexity.

Moreover, when we consider that for each mode of life involving greater complexity, there probably exists an equally advantageous style based on greater simplicity of form (as often found in parasites, for example), then preferential evolution toward complexity seems unlikely a priori. Our impression that life evolves toward greater complexity is probably only a bias inspired by parochial focus on ourselves, and consequent overattention to complexifying creatures, while we ignore just as many lineages adapting equally well by becoming simpler in form. The morphologically degenerate parasite, safe within its host, has just as much prospect for evolutionary success as its gorgeously elaborate relative coping with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in a tough external world....

Then this:

Although interesting and portentous events have occurred since, from the flowering of dinosaurs to the origin of human consciousness, we do not exaggerate greatly in stating that the subsequent history of animal life amounts to little more than variations on anatomical themes established during the Cambrian explosion within five million years. Three billion years of unicellularity, followed by five million years of intense creativity and then capped by more than 500 million years of variation on set anatomical themes can scarcely be read as a predictable, inexorable or continuous trend toward progress or increasing complexity.

And then my favorite quote:

Sigmund Freud often remarked that great revolutions in the history of science have but one common, and ironic, feature: they knock human arrogance off one pedestal after another of our previous conviction about our own self-importance. In Freud's three examples, Copernicus moved our home from center to periphery, Darwin then relegated us to "descent from an animal world"; and, finally (in one of the least modest statements of intellectual history), Freud himself discovered the unconscious and exploded the myth of a fully rational mind. In this wise and crucial sense, the Darwinian revolution remains woefully incomplete because, even though thinking humanity accepts the fact of evolution, most of us are still unwilling to abandon the comforting view that evolution means (or at least embodies a central principle of) progress defined to render the appearance of something like human consciousness either virtually inevitable or at least predictable. The pedestal is not smashed until we abandon progress or complexification as a central principle and come to entertain the strong possibility that H. sapiens is but a tiny, late-arising twig on life's enormously arborescent bush - a small bud that would almost surely not appear a second time if we could replant the bush from seed and let it grow again. [Full article by Stephen Jay Gould here.]

Wilber's entire thesis rests on complexification -- on the idea that the increasing complexity we see in evolution points us towards God. And here Stephen Jay Gould, one of the world's leading experts on evolution, in just a few short sentences says, 'nope, evolution likes simplicity just as much as complexity.'

Look, I don't know who's right, Gould or Wilber (and I imagine some integral theorist out there has found a way to harmonize the two) -- but it is alarming to say the least to see Gould, one of the world's experts on evolution look at the same data -- and come away with the opposite conclusion (from Wilber).

I just want to make two notes about this:

1. This simple exercise points to the dangers of being seduced by a theory. Oftentimes we look at a theory on paper -- and it just feels right and so we become passionate about it. But are we qualified to evaluate the merits of the theory? Do we have data to back up the theory? And are we equipped to evaluate the merits of that data? In the modern world, we are all completely in over our heads -- we rely on tools and technology that we don't understand. And by necessity we take most things on faith -- even the most rational scientifically minded of us -- because we can't all be specialists at everything.

2. What I LIKE about Gould's point above is the way that it destroys ego. That's one of the biggest problems of integral theory -- it is so goddamn egocentric. Integral theory seems to wish for a world where the wise meditative theocrats rule over the ignorant tribalists. [We've seen what that world looks like actually -- it's Tibet prior to the Chinese invasion -- it's a feudal world with stone age technology where a handful of theocrats rule over the desperate and permanently impoverished population.] It is no surprise then that problems of ego cripple the integral movement every time it seems on the verge of a major breakthrough in popular consciousness.

So again, I don't know who's right or wrong on this issue of the evolutionary merits of complexity vs. simplicity -- but I think there's great food for thought in the dissonance between these two writers. I think it also suggests that the next great spiritual work won't be the product of any one person. Increasingly, even the world's smartest person is no match for Google and the modern world's capacity for parallel processing. What would SES look like as a collaborative project with each of its pieces written by the experts in each particular field? Would the thesis still hold or would we end up with a very different map of the universe? [Said slightly differently would it be possible to MAP all of the knowledge on Wikipedia -- and if so, what would it tell us?]

Update #1: I see that that others have plowed this path before I had (which of course, I should have figured out BEFORE I start writing this post). But if you google: Stephen Jay Gould and Ken Wilber, you'll find lots of interesting further reading.

Update #2: I actually find Stephen Jay Gould's writings on "non-overlapping magisteria" to be unhelpful. So I think Wilber is right to whack him on that.


Anonymous said...

"Ego" is just a signifier (signifian)... but "noma" as a neologisme is a signifier too!!! only less usedit than "ego".
Didnt you understand the metaphor´s trick yet!??

Wake-up! illuminate yourself BRO!!

chaordic regards from buenos aires, NN

RFK Action Front said...

Um, thanks for the comment. But what the heck are you talking about? I'm all for clever and cryptic -- but can I trouble you to break it down a little bit for me? Thanks.

Patrick said...

Ray Kurzweil also points out the ever complexifying emergence to consciousness and the's an excerp from "The Age of Spiritual Machines"

The Exponentially Quickening Pace of Evolution
As you will recall, after billions of years, the unremarkable planet called Earth was formed. Churned by the energy of
the sun, the elements formed more and more complex molecules. From physics, chemistry was born.
Two billion years later, life began. That is to say, patterns of matter and energy that could perpetuate themselves
and survive perpetuated themselves and survived. That this apparent tautology went unnoticed until a couple of
centuries ago is itself remarkable.
Over time, the patterns became more complicated than mere chains of molecules. Structures of molecules
performing distinct functions organized themselves into little societies of molecules. From chemistry, biology was
Thus, about 3.4 billion years ago, the first earthly organisms emerged: anaerobic (not requiring oxygen)
prokaryotes (single‐celled creatures) with a rudimentary method for perpetuating their own designs. Early
innovations that followed included a simple genetic system, the ability to swim, and photosynthesis, which set the
stage for more advanced, oxygen‐consuming organisms. The most important development for the next couple of
billion years was the DNA‐based genetics that would henceforth guide and record evolutionary development.
A key requirement for an evolutionary process is a ʺwrittenʺ
record of achievement, for otherwise the process would be doomed to repeat finding solutions to problems
already solved. For the earliest organisms, the record was written (embodied) in their bodies, coded directly into the
chemistry of their primitive cellular structures. With the invention of DNA‐based genetics, evolution had designed a
digital computer to record its handiwork. This design permitted more complex experiments. The aggregations of
molecules called cells organized themselves into societies of cells with the appearance of the first multicellular plants
and animals about 700 million years ago. For the next 130 million years, the basic body plans of modern animals were
designed, including a spinal cord‐based skeleton that provided early fish with an efficient swimming style.
So while evolution took billions of years to design the first primitive cells, salient events then began occurring in
hundreds of millions of years, a distinct quickening of the pace. [8] When some calamity finished off the dinosaurs 65
million years ago, mammals inherited the Earth (although the insects might disagree). [9] With the emergence of the
primates, progress was then measured in mere tens of millions of years. [10] Humanoids emerged 15 million years
ago, distinguished by walking on their hind legs, and now weʹre down to millions of years. [11]
With larger brains, particularly in the area of the highly convoluted cortex responsible for rational thought, our
own species, Homo sapiens, emerged perhaps 500,000 years ago. Homo sapiens are not very different from other
advanced primates in terms of their genetic heritage. Their DNA is 98.6 percent the same as the lowland gorilla, and
97.8 percent the same as the orangutans. [12] The story of evolution since that time now focuses in on a humansponsored
variant of evolution: technology.

And with the emrgence of human consciousness, complexity then evolves to higher forms through stages of developent.

Excellent read by the way.

Also, I think pre or post Chinease invaded Tibet was not an integral culture, more like blue on Spiral Dynamics.

Interesting post...

RFK Action Front said...

Hi Patrick,

Thanks for reading the post and for your thoughtful comment.

The long Kurweil quote certainly supports Wilber's position. I'm agnostic on the question -- I like the beauty we see in more complex life forms and yet I can also see Gould's point that evolution is random and selects for simplicity as much as for complexity. I will note that Kurweil is not a biologist or expert on evolution per se -- so I wonder if perhaps there is some sort of engineer's bias in favor of complexity that we see in his writing (that may or may not be supported by the evolutionary evidence)? I just don't know.

I'm interested by your note about China/Tibet at the end too. You're saying that Tibet wasn't an integral (second tier) society prior to the Chinese invasion? (If that is what you are saying), I totally agree. But then why do so many Buddhists in the West fetishize pre-invasion Tibet? (Or maybe you were saying something different?)

zeilvereniging said...

Hi RFK Action Front blogger,

would it be ok for you if i post your blog on wilber and gould on ?

i could not find you contact details so i try to reach you with this reply.

thanks in advance,

Frank Visser
Author of: Ken Wilber: Thought as Passion (SUNY 2003).

Frank Visser said...

sorry, picked the wrong google account, this is the one to use and reply to.

frank Visser

RFK Action Front said...

Hi Frank:

Thanks for your comment. I'm fine with you cross posting so long as you write: "cross posted from RFK Action Front" and give a link to my original post at the beginning and end of the piece.

RFK Action Front

Frank Visser said...


i posted the essay here:

could you give your real name? the anonymity looks a bit awkward in an essay. And a picture and some biographical info perhaps? That's the format for Integral World essays.

many thanks,

f.visser3 at upcmail dot nl

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