Critique of Ken Wilber, part two

Author: David Christopher Lane
Publisher: The Neural Surfer
Publication date: 1996

E-mail David Christopher Lane directly at

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The Art of Spiritual Hyperbole

[A Ten Part Series]




In A BRIEF HISTORY OF EVERYTHING (1996), Wilber writes on pages
22-23 the following about his understanding of current evolutionary

"The standard, glib, neo-Darwinian explanation of natural
selection--ABSOLUTELY NOBODY [my emphasis] believes this anymore.
Evolution clearly operates by Darwinian natural selection, but this
process simply selects those transformations that have already
occurred by mechanisms that ABSOLUTELY NOBODY [my emphasis]

"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. This will work only if these hundred mutations HAPPEN
ALL AT ONCE in one animal--and also these SAME mutations must occur
SIMULATANEOUSLY in another animal of the opposite sex, and then they
have somehow find each other, have dinner, a few drinks, mate, and
have offspring with real functional wings."

"Talk about mind-boggling. This IS INFINITELY, ABSOLUTELY, UTTERLY
MIND-BOGGLING [my emphasis]. Random mutations cannot even begin to
explain this. The vast, vast majority of mutations are lethal
anyway; how are we going to get a hundred nonlethal mutations
happening simultaneously? Or even four or five, for that matter? 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 [my emphasis]."

"For the moment, EVERYBODY [my emphasis] has simply agreed to call
this "quantum evolution" or "punctuated evolution" or "emergent
evolution"--radically novel and emergent and incredibly complex
holons come into existence in a huge leap, in a quantum-like
emphasis]. Dozens or hundreds of simulataneous nonlethal mutations
have to happens at the same time in order to survive at all--the
wing, for example, or the eyeball."

[End of Wilber quote]


Wow! I can almost see Charles Darwin turning in his grave, Stephen
Jay Gould fainting at a New York Yankees game, Richard Dawkins
spitting out his beer at an Oxford Pub, Daniel Dennett shouting,
"That's the biggest Sky Hook I have ever seen!," and Pat Robertson
praising Jesus saying, "When did Wilber convert to Creationism? He's
on our side now. Hey, the New Age is okay!"


Having taught Darwinian evolution (and its various manifestations,
including punctuated equilibrium) in grammar school, in high school,
in community college, in university, and in doctoral programs,  for
the past seventeen years I must say that Wilber's take on what
evolution is about baffles me.

Not only is Wilber inaccurate about how evolution is presently viewed
among working biologists (remember Wilber says "ABSOLUTELY NOBODY
believes this anymore"--tell that to the two most popular writers on
evolution today) but he is just plain wrong in his
understanding of the details of how natural selection operates. 
One can only wonder how well he has read Darwin, or Gould, or Mayr,
or Dawkins, or Wilson, or even Russell. None of these individuals would agree
with Wilber's assessment. Indeed, they have written extensively
against the type of argument Wilber presents. As Dennett points out
in DARWIN'S DANGEROUS IDEA, evolution proceeds by cranes (a nice
metaphor to explain that evolution works piecemeal and in an
algorithmic process, 1 step, 2 step, 3 step), not by skyhooks
(non-algorithmic processes: 1 step, then an airplane, or 1 kiss, 2
kiss, then baby twins!).

Wilber does not seem to understand that the processes of evolution
are blind. He wants to have it "open-eyed" as if natural selection
all of sudden wakes up when it hears that a "wing has been formed"
(better start chugging) or that an "eye has been completed" (let's
fine tune now). Natural selection does not "start" when the eye is
formed; it works all along without any conscious intention

Not to sound like a groggy professor, but if Wilber turned in the
above quote to me as a college student trying to explain the current
view of evolutionary theory, I would give him an "F" and ask to see
him in my office. Why? Not because there can't be healthy debates
about evolutionary theory, but because Wilber has misrepresented
the fundamentals of natural selection. Moreover, his
presentation of how evolution is viewed today is so skewed that Wilber
has more in common with creationists than evolutionists, even though
he is claiming to present the evolutionists' current view.

And to top it off, Wilber's gross exaggerations are downright
sophomoric (just look at the capitalizations again and ask yourself:
is this how transpersonal psychology should be "grounded"?). It is
little wonder that transpersonal psychology has problems. If Wilber
cannot accurately portray the underlying pretext of his holonic
system, then why should materialists/empiricists believe his
trans-rational realm theory? 

Well, they shouldn't actually if he can't get the details straight
on the one holonic level that we can all see..... But enough of my
reprimand, let us have Richard Dawkins himself in his book, OUT OF
EDEN (not to be confused with Wilber's other misguided view of
evolution, UP FROM EDEN), take Wilber to task (and in so doing prima facie show Wilber that his hyperbole is precisely that: exaggerations that misconstrue the truth).

Keep in mind that Dawkins is addressing creationists, even though
the following quote looks like he is responding directly to Wilber's
misinformation campaign. (Please also note that I will put my
comments via Wilber in brackets.)

[Quote from Richard Dawkins' OUT OF EDEN, pages 76-79]

"Mention of poor eyes and good eyes brings me to the creationist's
[Wilber's?] favorite conundrum. What is the use of half an eye?
[Same holds true for Wilber's 'half a wing'] How can natural
selection favor an eye that is less than perfect [according to
Wilber it can't; according to evolution it easily can]. . . There is
a gradient, a continuum, of task for which an eye might be used. I
am at present using my eyes for recognizing letters of the alphabet
as they appear on the computer screen. You need good, high-acuity
eyes to do that. I have reached an age when I no longer read without
the aid of glasses, at present quite weakly magnifying ones. . .
Here we have yet another continuum--a continuum of age."

"Any normal human, however old, has better vision than an insect.
there are no tasks that can be usefully accomplished by people with
relatively poor vision, all the way down to the nearly blind. You
can play tennis with quite blurry vision. . . There is a continuum
of tasks to which an eye might be put, such that for any given
quality of eye, from magnificent to terrible, there is a level of
task at which a marginal improvement in vision would make all the
difference. There is therefore no difficulty in understanding the
gradual evolution of the eye, from primitive and crude beginnings,
through a smooth continuum of intermediate, to the perfection we
seek in a hawk or in a young human."

"Thus the creationist's question--'What is the use of half an
eye'?--is a lightweight question, a doddle to answer. Half an eye is
just 1 percent better than 49 percent of an eye, which is already
better than 48 percent, and the difference is significant. A more
ponderous show of weight seems to lie behind the inevitable
supplementary: 'Speaking as a physicist,' I cannot believe there has
been enough time for an organ as complicated as the eye to have
evolved from nothing. Do you really think that there has been enough
time?' Both questions stem from the Argument from Personal
Incredulity. Audiences nevertheless appreciate an answer, and I have
usually fallen back on eh sheer magnitude of geological time. If
one pace represents once century, the whole of Anno Domini time is
telescoped into a cricket pitch. To reach the origin of
multi-celluar animals on the the same scale, you'd have to slog all
the way from New York to San Francisco."

"It now appears that the shattering enormity of geological time is a
steamhammer to crack a peanut. Trudging from coast to coast
dramatizes the time available for the evolution of an eye. But a
recent study by a pair of Swedish scientists, Dan Nilsson and
Susanne Pelger, suggests that a ludicrously small fraction of that
time would have been plenty. When one says 'the' eye, by the way,
one implicitly means the vertebrate eye, but serviceable
image-forming eyes have evolved between forty and sixty times,
independently from scratch, in many different invertebrate

[end of Dawkins' quote]


Sidebar: If you don't like Dawkins (I am thinking of Steve at this
moment), then read Gould, Dennett, Darwin, or Berra's EVOLUTION AND
THE MYTH OF CREATIONISM (Stanford University Press, 1990), which say
essentially the same thing about evolution. Below is a pertinent
quote from Berra which again looks like he is talking directly to
Wilber (but he is in fact talking to Biblical Creationists):

"Creationists [Wilber again?] frequently make the specious argument
that an eye (or ear, wing, lung, etc.) could not have evolved
because the intermediate stages would be imperfect and therefore not
functional. They miss the point that a structure need not be in a
final form to confer an advantage. Some vision is better than
none. . . Eyes did not arise suddenly from nothing. They evolved
gradually over hundreds of millions of years by incremental
improvements over previous models. . . ."

[end of Berra's quote]


Now, no doubt, Gould and Eldredge have postulated a "speedy" version
of Darwinian evolution (punctuated equilibrium), but they are not
saying what Wilber suggests: that something mystical is going on.
Rather, it just happens that if evolution is mostly a slow dance,
there occasionally arises moments for some techno hip-hop...... Yet
throughout it all the feet are doing the moving, not some
trans-rational force.....

What makes Wilber's remarks on evolution so egregious is not that he
is more or less a closet creationist with Buddhist leanings, but that
he so maligns and misrepresents the current state of evolutionary
biology, suggesting that he is somehow on top of what is currently
going on in the field. 

And Wilber does it by exaggeration, by false statements, and by
rhetoric license.

Wilber cannot understand half a wing, or part of an eye. Well, those
are the very things that Darwin himself talked about in the ORIGIN
OF SPECIES. Moreover, just read Gould's book on the Panda's Thumb
and one will clearly understand the contingencies of nature and how
certain parts of the body evolve to be utilized for their advantage
(genetic or otherwise).

Although it may seem that this issue of misunderstanding evolution
is a small chapter in Wilber's overall work, it is so fundamental to
his thinking that it makes one question the entire edifice upon
which he has built Spectrum Psychology.

As the cliche' says, "God resides in the details."

It is those details which Wilber has consistently messed up.

(Keep also in mind that Wilber is being raked over the coals here
not because he disagrees with evolution, but because he
misrepresents it and misrepresents the current status of the
field. If he doesn't want to believe in Darwinian evolution, or
algorithmic evolution, then so be it, but at least be accurate 
in your appraisal of the discipline. Wilber's illustrates a basic lack
of understanding.)

In the terminology that I have been using, Wilber looks for the
Super-Context, forgetting in the process that every text has a
pretext and every context is grounded in the holonic realm which
precedes it. Wilber seems to forget his own theological leanings,
suggesting that there has be something "mysterious" going on (that
nobody understands) when in fact it is much simpler. Things, as
Feynman might say, are made of littler things. Look first to those
littler things and every-thing becomes a bit clear. Avoid that and
you end up thinking that nobody could possibly make a Pizza. But
anybody who cooks know that it takes ingredients, those items which
are less (not more, not in addition, not super-tremendous) than the
completed project, to make a nice pizza pie. Well, Wilber wants to
avoid the ingredients in his transpersonal recipe by postulating a
Consciousness First principle. Okay, but then don't use that Context
to misread the Pretext of Molecular Evolutionists. Or, as Wilber in
his more lucid moments might say (like when he is ripping the new
physics=mysticism connection): Don't collapse hierarchies in order to
squish in God or the Mysterions.

In our next installment:





E-mail The Neural Surfer directly at

I want to go back to the home base now.