Re: Some Criticisms of My Understanding of Evolution
December 04, 2007 20:51

I’ve seen these types of similar criticisms raised by a few individuals now and then. The following brief response to these critics is by Alexander Astin, one of the foremost scholars on higher education in the world. You may remember the poll of college students that found 75% said that “religion is important or very important in my world,” conducted by UCLA. Alexander (Sandy) was the lead researcher on that study.

The following is his response to a recent criticism which suggests that I don’t understand evolution because I don’t understand that previous individual mutations are carried forward—but of course I understand that, it’s evolution 101 (in which I have a graduate degree!—the biochemistry of evolution). But my point lies in a different direction, which is what these critics miss: the necessity of a self-organizing force (or Eros) intrinsic to the universe. So here is a brief response back to Sandy, agreeing with his criticism of these critics and then adding my own vis a vis Eros, so that the universe, as Eric Jantsch put it, is indeed “self-transcendence through self-organization”….


-----Original Message-----
From: Alexander Astin
Sent: Monday, December 03, 2007 1:26 PM
To: Ken Wilber
Subject: some evolution issues

Dear Ken:

Lena and I are are enjoying a bit of R & R in (rainy) Kauai, and I just received the message (below) from Frank Visser's Integral World. I'm sure you don't have either the time or the inclination to read much (or any) of his stuff (neither do I), but I was curious about this particular one and checked it out. It challenges your opening paragraphs for SES, which I've always treasured for their insight (and humor). But the challenges seem utterly unconvincing, even though they rely on a number of renown geneticists (Gould, etc). They challenge your example of the evolution of the bird wing, basically arguing that the 100 mutations DON'T have to occur all at once, claiming that each one occurs independently because EACH one is functional to survival! How probable is THIS? (Maybe the half wing helps them run faster?) Or do I somehow have their argument wrong? You can find the discussion by clicking the site under "WILBER WATCH BLOG," scrolling down to DAVID LANE, and Clicking on "Wilber and the Misunderstanding of Evolution."

All of this brings to mind what I see as the Achilles Heel of the whole Evolution-Flatland position: the notion of "random" mutations. I've taught statistics for many years, and we use the term in a very specialized way, much like quantum theorists: We can't predict any given ("random") event, but in the aggregate a large number of such events leads to a very predictable result. But genetic mutations in the aggregate never produce anything as orderly as the normal curve. How is any whole organism or the totality of all living things a"predictable" event? But here's the real problem for the geneticists: any statistician knows that the word "random" doesn't explain or account for anything. It simply describes a situation where the observer/investigator is unable to find any causal antecedent for the event in question. But SOMETHING must have caused it. (In fact, your metaphor "oops" is a perfect substitute term for randomness.) When they embrace the concept of "random" mutations, then, many geneticists think they are somehow explaining something, but in fact they are implicitly admitting that "we don't have a clue as to why this particular mutation happened at this particular time." Why the embattled Creationists haven't seized on this one is beyond me, since it leaves a huge hole in evolutionary theory.

Hope you're well.

Lena and I send our love.


Alexander W. Astin
Allan M. Cartter Professor Emeritus &
Founding Director
Higher Education Research Institute
University of California, Los Angeles


From: Ken Wilber
Sent: Tuesday, December 04, 2007 5:22 PM
Subject: FW: some evolution issues

Hi Sandy,

Yes, you have hit the nail on the head. A few critics have criticized my understanding of evolution by focusing on an occasional metaphor that I use and taking that for my actual understanding. One case is exactly the one that you give--namely, a wing taking "100 mutations" to form. I have no belief whatsoever that the wing actually took 100 mutations—that's just a way to state what you are stating, and also, more generally, that the complex forms of evolution that we see—such as the immune system—are not the products of mere chance mutation and natural selection. Rather, there is force of self-organization built into the universe, and this force (or Eros by any name) is responsible for at least part of the emergence of complex forms that we see in evolution.

I am not alone is seeing that chance and natural selection by themselves are not enough to account for the emergence that we see in evolution. Stuart Kaufman and many others have criticized mere change and natural selection as not adequate to account for this emergence (he sees the necessity of adding self-organization). Of course I understand that natural selection is not acting on mere randomness or chance—because natural selection saves previous selections, and this reduces dramatically the probability that higher, adequate forms will emerge. But even that is not enough, in my opinion, to account for the remarkable emergence of some of the extraordinarily complex forms that nature has produced. After all, from the big bang and dirt to the poems of William Shakespeare is quite a distance, and many philosophers of science agree that mere chance and selection are just not adequate to account for these remarkable emergences. The universe is slightly tilted toward self-organizing processes, and these processes—as Prigogine was the first to elaborate—escape present-level turmoil by jumping to higher levels of self-organization, and I see that "pressure" as operating throughout the physiosphere, the biosphere, and the noosphere. And that is what I metaphorically mean when I use the example of a wing (or elsewhere, the example of an eyeball) to indicate the remarkableness of increasing emergence. But I don't mean that as a specific model or actual example of how biological emergence works! Natural selection carries forth previous individual mutations—but again that just isn’t enough to account for creative emergence (or what Whitehead called “the creative advance into novelty,” which, according to Whitehead, is the fundamental nature of this manifest universe).

Also, as you point out, referring to random chance really means "I have no idea what is going one here"--and that is really what, in Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, I call the "philosophy of oops," as you rightly note. This is a huge hole in the mere chance and selection argument. These items are all meant when I use the metaphor of a 100 mutations. I am fully aware that selection carries forth each previous selection (which still has problems in itself—as you point out, why would a half wing make running easier???), but even if you give that to the evolutionists (which I am willing to do), it still has this gaping hole in it.

The alternative is to see some sort of Eros operating in the universe. It doesn’t have to be a metaphysical force, just an intrinsic force of self‑organization. As Jantsch put it, evolution is “self-transcendence through self-organization.” This is exactly the point Prigogine was making with dissipative structures, and exactly the point I am making when referring to wings or eyes: they are metaphors and examples for this extraordinary capacity of creative emergence that is intrinsic to the universe (exactly as Whitehead explained it). So, no, I don’t take this criticism of my work seriously, although it is a good example of flatland thinking, as you note.

Thanks for noticing this…. All best, Ken


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