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T.R. Raghunath, a professor in Nevada, gave an interesting talk at the SACP conference explaining Aurobindo Ghose‘s theory of the development of consciousness. There were a number of intriguing points in Raghunath’s talk, but the one that jumped out at me was a point about evolution. Aurobindo, according to Raghunath, accepts “the fact of evolution,” but not “Darwin’s explanation” of evolution. It is a developmental process that has the goal of growth, unfolding. Biological evolution is itself a developmental process of the spirit, in a way that diverges from a Darwinian materialist explanation.

A bell went off in my head when I heard this. In a later conversation with Raghunath, I asked him whether Aurobindo would support the contemporary idea of intelligent design and related critiques of Darwinian evolution, and he said basically yes: there is a guiding spiritual principle at work in the development of new species, it cannot be merely a matter of natural selection through random beneficial mutation. Throughout Raghunath’s talk I had been noticing Aurobindo’s influence on Ken Wilber, and here I saw a still more direct link.

On page 23 of what probably remains his most-read and best-known work, A Brief History of Everything, Wilber makes this now-infamous claim:

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. The wing will work only if these hundred mutations happen all at once, in one animal — and also these same mutations must occur simultaneously in another animal of the opposite sex, and then they have to 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. Random mutations cannot even begin to explain this. (emphases in original)

This is exactly the claim of irreducible complexity made by Michael Behe, perhaps the most visible proponent of intelligent design. Certain organs in complex organisms, so the claim goes, are too complex to be explained by random beneficial mutation and natural selection, the centrepieces of evolutionary theory since Darwin. While Wilber has not to my knowledge used the term “intelligent design” itself, he has explicitly admitted the connection of his ideas with Behe’s. In a discussion on his own “Integral Naked” website, now apparently down from that site but reposted on many pages including this one, Wilber told his students: “Instead of a religious preacher like Dawkins, start with something like Michael Behe’s Darwin’s Black Box: The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution. And then guess what? Neo-Darwinian theory can’t explain shit. Deal with it.”

I am not convinced by intelligent design. Its central idea of irreducible complexity seems to have far more holes in it than Darwinian evolution ever did. This site gives a list of the many possible ways that a half-wing could indeed be useful enough to be an evolutionary adaptation; similar possibilities are out there for the eye, the bacterial flagellum, and pretty much any other examples that design proponents have used. Irreducible complexity turns out to be reducible after all. (It took me a long time to realize that not so long ago God had actually been a legitimate scientific hypothesis.) Nor am I convinced by Wilber’s appeal to (his own) authority:

Folks, give me a break on this one. I have a Master’s degree in biochemistry, and a Ph.D. minus thesis in biochemistry and biophysics, with specialization in the mechanism of the visual process. I did my thesis on the photoisomerization of rhodopsin in bovine rod outer segments. I know evolutionary theory inside out, including the works of Dawkins et al. The material of mine that is being quoted is extremely popularized and simplified material for a lay audience. Publicly, virtually all scientists subscribe to neo-Darwinian theory. Privately, real scientists — that is, those of us with graduate degrees in science who have professionally practiced it — don’t believe hardly any of its crucial tenets.

Until I see actual evidence that “real scientists” believe something more like Behe’s intelligent design than a standard Darwinian account, I’m going to go with the overwhelming consensus of what they actually say in public, as well as the arguments that make sense in my own limited research on the issue. I put a lot more trust in those than in the authoritative “trust me” of a single insightful philosopher-scientist who has nevertheless shown an increasing tendency to the authoritarian qualities of a cult leader. It’s often difficult to follow science as a layperson, but this is one of the cases where it’s likely the easiest.

The question that interests me most in all this, though, is why Aurobindo and Wilber both felt the need to turn to intelligent design in the first place. Did Wilber’s graduate experiments on cow eyes really convince him, as an experimental hypothesis, that they couldn’t have been evolved by chance? Or was his a system like his mentor’s untenable if the universe was a product of random chance?

I’m not ruling out the former possibility, but I’m interested in the latter one. (Aurobindo, at least, did not himself do any experiments dissecting eyes!) A Darwinian biology seems hard to reconcile with an idealist view that spirit guides the workings of the material universe. It is probably no coincidence that Darwin published On the Origin of Species soon after the deaths of Hegel and Schelling, the last great German systematizers who tried to create a “philosophy of nature,” a philosophical understanding of the natural world that (like Aristotle’s) was not just metaphysics but physics. During their lifetimes, nature could still be viewed the way they viewed it, as the progressive self-unfolding of a self-aware world-spirit. Darwin stands roundly at odds with such a worldview. Although the Hegelian worldview involves the kind of development from simpler to complex systems that characterizes Darwinian evolution, there is a conscious teleology in this movement, a progressive intelligence at work, not the scattershot workings of random chance. Aurobindo and Wilber have both seen themselves as continuing Hegel’s project, and as they have tried to do so they have also placed themselves at odds with the confirmed experimental observations of biologists.

In a way the problem parallels the problem of suffering, where the world around us is too full of misery and evil to be the work of an omniscient and omnipotent God. When we look at the physical world, we find no active, intelligent or benevolent spirit underlying it, but careless, callous random chance. If we are to look for a spirit behind the world, perhaps it is more plausible to see what Śaṅkara saw: the world is an illusion, the spirit misperceiving itself, making a mistake. But then that view poses deep problems of its own. Evolution tempts me more to the account of the Buddhist suttas, where there’s nothing particularly good about the world and its suffering, except for the fact that we have a chance to get out of it.