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January 29, 2004

Am I missing something?

[This post has been amended to correct an error. See note at end of post for explanation.]

The usually incisive Chris Corrigan supports a good argument on the nature of emerging democracy with this quote via Ken Wilber:

"Evolution... is a process of progressive internalization, for, in the development of the species, the organism achieves increased independence from its environment, the result of which is that 'reactions which originally occurred in relation to the external world are increasingly displaced into the interior of the organism.' The more independent the organism becomes, the greater the independence from the stimulation of the immediate environment."
— G and R Blanck, Ego Psychology, 1974

Chris' argument doesn't rely on the passage. The post is worth reading, and nothing I say here should be taken as criticism of Chris or his fine mind. But am I too far out of line when I think that there isn't an evolutionary biologist anywhere who would read that quote and not scratch her head?

I mean, I see ways in which the statement could almost describe certain limited aspects of the evolution of certain species if you squint, and the paragraph above is almost certainly missing some context by its extraction from the whole work. Also, Wilber is a philosopher and not a biologist, while the Blancks are psychologists. Maybe this is one of those Dillard's Cat things where a piece of ostensibly literal expository writing is actually a metaphor that only People Who Are Smarter Than Me can grasp.

That last is likely. In 1983, I went to a lecture given by Michel Foucault at UC Berkeley. The lecture took an hour and change. The information imparted to me by the end of the lecture: The Socratic Injunction "know thyself" is worthy of study, and is besides that worthy of adoption as a personal credo. Not a bad message if you ignore the hidden tautology, but that's only about fifteen seconds worth of information if you account for the French accent. My smart philosopher friends got impatient with me when I asked them if they'd gotten any more than that from the lecture.

But assume for the moment that I'm not an idiot. Assume that the several times I've tried to read A Brief History of Everything and gotten angry to the point of shaking with Wilber's apparent misrepresentations of the biological sciences were the result of too much caffeine. Let's look at the gist of the statement:

"Evolution... is a process of progressive internalization, for, in the development of the species, the organism achieves increased independence from its environment..."

Is there anybody out there who can provide me with even one example from the entire history of evolutionary biology of such a thing happening? I've tried to come up with them — the coalescing of ancestral protista into eukaryotes, the development of Precambrian wormy phenotypes into the distinctly different, eyed and armored phyla of the Paleozoic, Stanley Kubrick's apes throwing bones at the monolith — and I keep coming up empty. Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

If anything the evidence points to the notion that success on an evolutionary scale is tied to increasing interdependence between the organism and the environment. This is supported by the fact that every mass extinction for which we have contextual information has apparently been accompanied by massive disruptions in the environment that hosted the now-extinct species. If species' evolution included increasing independence from the environment, wouldn't mass extinctions and massive environmental disruptions become less linked over time?

And never mind the quote's apparent conflation of "species" and "organism," a trap the creationists fall into as well. In fact, Wilber sides with the creationists when he says that natural selection is insufficient to explain the diversity of life, as he does in ABHOE.

It's not fair, I realize, to condemn Wilber to the pit of bullshit philosophers based on that one quoted paragraph, or even on the two or three chapters of ABHOE I was able to read before throwing the damn thing across the room. I understand he has some good things to say about the human mind and spirituality and fulfillment and politics.

And Wilber isn't the only (for lack of a better term) "humanities thinker" to appropriate the language of science and misuse it to horribly discordant effect. Take the frighteningly common misuse of Heisenberg by post-modernists. Or Lacan, attempting to use the language of topology in his own special brand of psychoanalysis. "This torus really exists and is exactly the structure of the neurotic."

Whaaaa?

I wonder, after the fashion of Sokal and Bricmont, what the reaction would be were scientists to appropriate the concepts of the humanities and tweak them substantially, to the point where our understanding of the humanities was damaged as a result. What Would Julia Kristeva Do?

[Note: an earlier version of this post mistakenly attributed the quote to Wilber. I regret the error.]

Posted by Chris Clarke at January 29, 2004 07:14 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:
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Comments

"Whaaa?" is right. I suspect that one of the main reasons us humans seem to have such a hard time coming to terms with our present state of affairs is that we have convinced ourselves that we are somehow separate from the world we live in. "Man and Nature" we say, as if there is a cartoon line drawn between us. I, too, while reading this post tried to come up with a single creature... or even thing... that exists independantly of its environment, and couldn't come up with so much as an electron. Perhaps quarks, living on the doorstep to another universe? But that's an environment, too, isn't it? Even some jet propulsed, hermetically-sealed wandering interstellar squid would still be a result of the environment; it's very need to be an enclosed unit dictates so.

It's of course very easy to magnitude seven Wilber's statement: just take him out to a desert or the ocean or the high mountains, leave him there two weeks without so much as a stitch of underwear, then come back and ask him what he thinks now about "higher" organisms divorcing themselves from reality?

Posted by: butuki at January 30, 2004 01:35 AM
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Without the context of the original quote it's almost unavoidable that gaps will be filled and assumptions made in the reading. When I read Chris' post, I read it in terms of the "evolution" of what for want of a better description I'll call the non-physical side of humanity. Intellect, spirit, soul, call it what you will. I think in that context it makes more sense??

Posted by: andy at January 30, 2004 04:54 AM
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That's what I'd like to think too, Andy, and yet when Wilber speaks about the biological sciences he does so in a very precise and literal manner, to my eyes. He then uses his statements as metaphor to illustrate the point he's trying to make. All well and good, but it fails when the literal statement is so far off-base.

But I hope you're right.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at January 30, 2004 09:34 AM
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Can't help you. Never managed to read Wilbur: his fans and reputation give me the heebie-jeebies. Which can be completely unfair: I avoided Rumi for years for the same reason, and he turns out to be just as wonderful as his gushing enthusiasts said he was.

But this quotation doesn't make me eager to spend a lot of time investigating Mr Wilbur, I must say.

Posted by: koshtra at January 30, 2004 09:42 AM
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Chris, I see the quote was actually a double quote: Wilber quoting G and R Blanck. Being basically an ignorant bum :-) (at least where things biological are concerned) I don't know any of them, but since the words weren't Wilber's maybe that allows for a less than literal interpretation?

Posted by: andy at January 30, 2004 09:49 AM
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I'm with butuki on this. That quote does indeed sound like a bit of dualist wishful thinking about humans (well, implied humans, since they're not mentioned specifically in the quotation) as (a) superior and (b) able to separate themselves from their environments. Whaaa? indeed.

(I haven't read him either; this doesn't exactly make me feel like I should!)

Posted by: Rana at January 30, 2004 02:18 PM
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I share your irritation with humanities people in their ofter-cavalier attitude toward the data from the natural world. The fact is, there are many wonderful new lessons and metaphors to be drawn from evolutionary biology, ecology, modern csmology and a host of other disciplines, if people would take their noses out of their hallowed *texts* for long enough to study up on things! New discoveries all the time make old understandings *osolete*. The notion of a separation between humans and "environment" is one obvious case. For a more minor example, I tried to explain to an English PhD a while back that the analogy of semen with seed was simply no longer valid, despite the etymology. She looked at me as if I had two heads!

Posted by: Dave at February 2, 2004 11:56 AM
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