Evolution As Metaphysics And Spiritual Violence

I recently acquired a DVD set of one of my all time favorite BBC series, James Burkes wonderful The Day The Universe Changed. In episode 8 - Fit To Rule: Darwin’s Revolution, he spends a good deal of time pointing out that the theory of evolution was quickly misused by a variety of political theorists as a justification for their point of view. American free market advocates promoted social darwinism, German racialists proclaimed the necessity of eugenic social programs to preserve the purity of the aryan race, Russian communists saw Darwin foreshadowing the emergence of Marx’s new man.

My point is that many people, then and now, distort the theory of evolution, from Darwin’s foundation work up to the present day. As in the late 19th & early 20th centuries, the idea of evolution (or opposition to it) is used in the present day to promote agendas that have nothing to do with biological evolution. In the American mind, evolution is synonymous with the idea of progress; the next big thing, the next leap forward, the cutting edge, transformation. My first exposure to the idea of evolution was watching the original Outer Limits as a child. In the episode The Sixth Finger, a very young David McCallum crawls into a machine that mutates him into an advanced human with a hyper sized cranium, a genius intellect, psychic powers, & pointed ears! It made for fun sci-fi TV viewing, but had little to do the actual science of evolutionary theory.

From Wikipedia on Evolution (term): “In colloquial contexts, evolution can refer to any sort of progressive development, and often bears a connotation of gradual improvement: evolution is understood as a process that results in greater quality or complexity. This common definition, when misapplied to biological evolution, leads to frequent misunderstandings. For example, the idea of devolution ("backwards" evolution) is a result of erroneously assuming that evolution is directional or has a specific goal, or that it necessarily leads to greater complexity. In reality, the evolution of organisms does not entail objective improvement; advancements are only situational. It is not part of the theory of evolution to consider any one species, such as humans, to be more "highly evolved" or "advanced" than another. Likewise, evolution does not require that organisms become more complex. Depending on the situation, organisms' complexity can either increase, decrease, or stay the same, and all three of these trends have been observed in biological evolution.”

The term evolution abounds in the public discourse of KW & the Integral scene in general. Here in the SF bay area Terry Patten & Craig Hamilton are leading seminars for “an Integral Evolutionary Practice Community”. Andrew Cohen advocates “evolutionary enlightenment” and exhorts his students to “awaken the evolutionary impulse”. Essentially, the term evolution is used as a metaphor for the idealized ultimate unfolding of personal potential. A foundational concept of biology is given a metaphysical meaning. I believe that it is important to question whether this is problematic, if it is a metaphor that can lead to a skewed understanding of the possibilities of human development.

Biological evolution is not a personal process. Individuals do not evolve. An individual may embody and pass on an inherited trait that allows his or her genetic subgroup to better adapt and survive. It is only this process at the interface between individual organisms, their population group, their progeny, and environment that can truly be called evolution. Again from Wikipedia: “Evolution is the change in the inherited traits of a population of organisms through successive generations. After a population splits into smaller groups, these groups evolve independently and may eventually diversify into new species. A nested hierarchy of anatomical and genetic similarities, geographical distribution of similar species and the fossil record indicate that all organisms are descended from a common ancestor through a long series of these divergent events, stretching back in a tree of life that has grown over the 3,500 million years of life on Earth.”

It might be argued that human societies evolve, as in Spiral Dynamics or Dawkins meme theory, through cultural adaptation and the accumulation of knowledge. But again, is this a personal process in any meaningful sense? An individual may make a cognitive, intellectual, or ethical leap, but this may not contribute to the enrichment or adaptability of a cultural group unless conditions are ripe for it to be assimilated. If Buddha or Christ had never come out of the wilderness, would their realization (whatever that means) have meant anything to humankind?

KW, Cohen, and most of the luminaries in the Integral scene espouse an idealist, perennialist metaphysics that holds the pinnacle of human development as the realization of the one divine reality. Our flawed, fragile, & contingent self must undergo a radical transformation to attain this realization. It is easy to see why the metaphor of personal evolution fits into this metaphysical worldview. Too often, however, this has led to a violent devaluing of the self. KW is infamous for endorsing ‘rude boy’ gurus such as Adi Da & Andrew Cohen, who have both had former students make allegations of physical, psychological, & financial abuse against them. If the only worthwhile goal is the transformation of the unrealized self, then any means necessary to achieve that goal can be justified.     

From  Derrida And Nonduality: On The Possible Shortcomings Of Nondual Spirituality by Gregory Desilet (on the Integral World website).

“Metaphysical positions that postulate a cosmic oneness or a fundamental unity at the heart of being accomplish a kind of violence toward the other. These positions, whether viewed as varieties of “transcendentalism” or “monism,” include the possibility for attaining forms of pure transcendence. Here every manner of otherness ceases to be other through varieties of denial ranging from appropriation, as when discovered to be error or illusion (all is really one), or cleansing (sacrifice or redemption) as when found to be a contamination, an accident in essence that must be “repaired.” In a unitary model the dynamic tension between self and other collapses and this collapse is viewed as a goal and a cause for celebration.

As a model for human conflict in the real world this metaphysical approach to opposition provides, on the one hand, momentum for varieties of colonialism (understood broadly) and, on the other hand, incentive for scapegoating. Here monism manifests itself as a polarizing monistic antagonism because it induces an identification of otherness as inessential intrusion and thereby worthy of appropriation or elimination in the endeavor to restore the whole to its pure and natural state. The transcendentalism implicit in monist metaphysical positions induces a focus on various programs of self perfection as improved self-awareness, higher consciousness, self-actualization, and ultimately self-transcendence into the ultimate oneness of pure consciousness or pure being.”
Peter Bampton, a loyal student of Andrew Cohen, attempts to refute Cohen’s critics in his essay  American Guru: Andrew Cohen & Allegations Of Abuse (also from the Integral World website). It’s a long, grandiose, jargon laden exaltation of Cohen’s teaching work.  His rhetoric exhibits a manichaean quality, creating absolute dichotomies contrasting the internalized division of ‘the ego’ vs the enlightened teacher, or the externalized separation of loyal disciples vs those who betray the guru.

“A genuine Guru or Master is only interested in the literal transformation of his students (meaning their motivation is pure), and indeed they are choicelessly surrendered to their function as “dispellers of darkness”. That means their task is to expose and dismantle, without compromise, the structures of ego that inhibit the emergence of a liberated transformed human being. In all but very rare cases, this entails profound “psychic surgery.”

“It is the student’s responsibility first and foremost in these situations to trust their freely chosen Guru/Teacher/Master more than the fury of their mind and emotions... But while this is simple to say, maintaining this thread of connection to the Guru amidst the storms of spiralling doubt and narcissistic rage can be an immensely challenging matter.”

“The temptation to betray the revealed truth is a very real and present danger in relationship with the Guru/Teacher/Master. A genuine Teacher is only interested in destroying our attachment to the illusion of separate existence.”

“As soon as any seed of doubt or suspicion or mistrust regarding the Guru is held as an unquestioned truth and solidified, the ego can, oh so insidiously and deviously, begin raising the drawbridge and sealing its defences. Now it has bedrock on which to build its toxic edifice. The ego seals its defences with denial or repression.”

“To the degree that we are not surrendered to Love and Truth, we will betray.”

Following the example of his teacher, he invokes evolution as a divine principle;

“Evolution moves in mysterious ways. When the totality of our experience is being embraced and nothing is being denied, when we are no longer holding onto grievances, fixed conclusions about who we are, who Andrew Cohen is and what is possible now, then all boundaries and fixed positions break down and dissolve in the liberating surge of the Authentic Self.”

“When I look back on it now, the explosion that began on the night of July 30th 2001, and that continued to flare forth unabated like an erupting volcano for several weeks, was a collective initiation into a new matrix of human evolutionary potential.”

Maybe I’m attempting to weave two very different threads together here, but it seems to me that there is a connection. That there is a tendency in the Integral scene to invoke evolution as a metaphysical principle. That there is an inherent seed of violence in the transcendental nondualism that is representative of the major expressions of Integral theory. That the ‘integral guru’ who most fervently uses the term evolution in his rhetoric has been accused of emotional & physical violence against his students.

I believe that the tragedy of the Integral movement is it’s totalizing bent. Despite the rhetoric of honoring all stages & lines, in practice the “lower” stages tend to be treated as stepping stones to the privileged realization of the transcendental condition. This tendency distorts a genuinely insightful synthesis. The ongoing metaphysical distortion of the theory of evolution, & the violence inherent in the metaphor of evolution as development is a shadow of Integral theory that has not been acknowledged.

Views: 911

Reply to This

Replies to This Discussion

I will post this here and at the SocialGo site as it is not entirely clear to me where this group will wind up.

As an aside, I watched Creation on DVD a few days ago & highly recommend it. It is an emotionally moving video about Darwin, his personal & family difficulties around the time he decided to publish On The Origin Of Species. I won't spoil it by going into detail.

Just for fun, here is the link to the Outer Limits episode, The Sixth Finger:

great post joseph! question: can we apply darwin's biological theory to the universe in general that is posited to have been around for about 10 billion years prior to biological evolution on this earth? are the 4 forces of physics that drive the galaxies evolutionary or fixed laws? fwiw, i do lean towards the idea that cultures are evolving because of some process in the collective consciousness; i.e.-archaic/magic/mythic/rational/integral....
also, i too have become very wary of the metaphysical claims being made by integral gurus in general. i have no doubt that meditation can be beneficial to many people but i highly doubt that it helps folks jump stages in the way wilber claims, and i've always said that drawing metaphysical conclusions from meditation practices is dubious at best;i.e.- reincarnation, the nondual is universal reality etc...........
also, do we know yet how physical life became alive and biological and how biological life became conscious or is anything we say about that sheer speculation?
Yes, excellent post Joseph. You've summed up several threads we've had at the forum prior to your joining. If interested in some of those prior harbingers to your thoughts particulary see the threads by Desilet in the archives, when he joined us for a short time.
Fantastic Post, Joseph.

Say, are you one of the Beams & Struts Bloggers by any chance? If not why not.

best wishes,
Hi Andrew

It seems to me that the long slow process of emerging complexity in the cosmos is the matrix of biological evolution, but I would not say they are the same process. Biological evolution is of a whole different order of complexity. And I guess the unfolding mental/information processes are of a different order emerging from the matrix of biology in a nested hieirarchy of complexity. Damn, I'm starting to sound like DeChardin


andrew said:
also, do we know yet how physical life became alive and biological and how biological life became conscious or is anything we say about that sheer speculation?
Hi Edward

Thanks. I remember there were threads with Gregory Desilet participating in the early days of the Gaia pod, but I never delved into them. How do I access the archives now?

You guys have probably seen that Brain Swimme presentation that deals with this subject matter, but it would probably be good to have it here as a refresher as it ventures into the territory of Andrews question. I'll just link the two parts that apply the most.

Birth to Earth
Earth to Life

Joseph said:
Hi Andrew

It seems to me that the long slow process of emerging complexity in the cosmos is the matrix of biological evolution, but I would not say they are the same process. Biological evolution is of a whole different order of complexity. And I guess the unfolding mental/information processes are of a different order emerging from the matrix of biology in a nested hieirarchy of complexity. Damn, I'm starting to sound like DeChardin


andrew said:
also, do we know yet how physical life became alive and biological and how biological life became conscious or is anything we say about that sheer speculation?
Joseph, look in the Definitions and Resources forum, links to prior Gaia threads, then "synergist spirituality" and "Derrida" threads.
thanks for the links seth! i do get that the chemicals mixed with sun and water brought about life and life brought us brains eventually and if that's what happened and that's all there is i'm good with it. but there could be more to it than that, perhaps even much more.....who knows? i make a lousy gnostic!lol
Very interesting post, thank you.
I've quoted and linked it in my site for my book American Guru, which is about Andrew Cohen and authoritarian gurus in general.
The article can be found here:
William Yenner
Y'all might also appreciate John Heron's old critique of Wilber along these lines at Kazlev's site. While I have problems with the latter two's own metaphysical interpretations I nonetheless find agreement with much of the critique.

Another insightful critique of the integral guru phenomenon is given by Edwards at this IPS forum thread.

Reply to Discussion


What paths lie ahead for religion and spirituality in the 21st Century? How might the insights of modernity and post-modernity impact and inform humanity's ancient wisdom traditions? How are we to enact, together, new spiritual visions – independently, or within our respective traditions – that can respond adequately to the challenges of our times?

This group is for anyone interested in exploring these questions and tracing out the horizons of an integral post-metaphysical spirituality.

Notice to Visitors

At the moment, this site is at full membership capacity and we are not admitting new members.  We are still getting new membership applications, however, so I am considering upgrading to the next level, which will allow for more members to join.  In the meantime, all discussions are open for viewing and we hope you will read and enjoy the content here.

© 2024   Created by Balder.   Powered by

Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service