Friday, April 25, 2008

Evolutionary Science, Fundamentally Confused?

In the introductory text of a recent Integral Naked audio, a talk between Ken Wilber and Rupert Sheldrake ("Integral Evolutionary Biology"), this astonishing statement can be read:

There is perhaps no field of human inquiry more fundamentally confused than evolutionary science—especially given its monumental task of trying to essentially account for the entire history of the manifest world, from the Big Bang to this present moment in time, along with every mutation, deviation, and transformation in between.

After Wilber has himself given such a thoroughly confused presentation of the status of evolutionary theory (see "The Wilberian Evolution Report"), he still has the guts to present his own theory as a revelation:

It is an extraordinary science that requires an equally extraordinary framework, comprehensive enough to make sense of the entire spectrum of evolutionary emergence—especially as it becomes increasingly necessary to explain things like consciousness, hermeneutics, and spirituality in evolutionary terms.
The talk with Sheldrake, predictably, barely touches on the subject of evolutionary biology, or any of the topics which are debated in this field of science. It is a long monologue of Wilber, endured politely by Sheldrake, trying to convince Sheldrake of his particular take on holons, going back to the old legends of how he discovered his holonic model by comparing all existing evolutionary models.

Talking about confusion. On the vexed question whether natural evolution can produce eyes and wings on its own (i.e. without the assistence of some higher Force, Spirit, Eros, God), Wilber has subsequently stated:

  • "Absolutely not - absolutely nobody believes this anymore."
  • "Evolution can't explain shit, deal with it".
  • "Give me a break on this, I know the subject inside out."
  • "Well, biologists may still believe it, but I know what they are really thinking."
  • "Well, eyes and wings are perhaps possible, but the immune system is not".
  • "Anyways, whatever materialistic biology comes up with, we will include it in our system."
  • "I never meant that statement about eyes and wings to be taken literally, it was just a metaphor for the complexity of evolution."

Yeah, right. And it is precisely this complexity that evolutionary theory tries to unravel, in its own careful way. With metaphors, if necessary, but never with "bad poetry" (see: Richard Dawkins, Unweaving the Rainbow), which only misleads the reader into thinking that science has found no way of explaining the evolution of eyes and wings. Which is patently false.

An "integral evolutionary biology" could mean so much more: a careful positioning of the various authors (Dawkins, Gould, Mayr, Lewontin, Kaufman, even Sheldrake, etc.) within the landscape of biology. But that requires a lot more then saying: evolutionary biology belongs to the Lower-Right quadrant, so we will include it, but without the reductionism. Bla, bla, bla...

One of Wilber's main poins of criticism is that evolutionary biology (and materialistic science in general) excludes, or explains away, interiority. In this audio, Wilber again makes his habitual statement that transcendental reality should no longer be seen as something that is beyond matter, but as "something within" (which is the hallmark of Wilber-5, his current phase of thinking).

Unfortunately, he has never, in his recent online and published writings, fleshed out this statement, though his very post-metaphysical turn depends on it. If metaphysics speaks of transcendental realities, and post-metaphysics (as generally understood) denies them, where exactly does Wilber's integral post-metaphysics stand? It denies them, but not entirely? Not beyond, but within? Isn't that just a semantic manoeuvre?

Again, bad poetry which deludes the reader into thinking that something has been explained.