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.

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Hi Andrew, yes I agree it is still left open for more possibilities to be involved. As Brian Swimme integrates modern science into what he's saying he also very much keeps the magic and mystery of it all alive.
I always enjoy your insights and your clarity, Joseph. Thank you for this.
Hi, Joseph, I also appreciated your critique and agree that this is an element of Integral Theory (particularly, Integral Spirituality) that needs to be further addressed. I do see appreciative reflection on the 'evolutionary journey' of the cosmos, and of the earth community, as potentially spiritually edifying, and have appreciated the work of Swimme and others in this area, but I have also been concerned about what appears to be an idealistic, commodified, and almost fetishizing appropriation of the notion of 'evolution' by the (Integral) self-help industry. I think you've really articulated some of the potential dangers with this development clearly and incisively in your post, and I share your concerns about a totalizing transcendental idealist inclusivism.

In the paper I wrote for the upcoming IT Conference, I also tried to look at some of these issues -- particularly the problems I see with both inclusivist and identist pluralist approaches to interreligious relationship and scholarship. I notice that another individual at the conference, Geert Drieghe, is also talking about similar issues (I haven't read his paper yet), and Sean Esbjorn-Hargens is arguing for an Integral "ontological pluralist" approach (which he applies to the issue of climate change). Concerning the latter, I just skimmed over Sean's paper and appreciate what he's doing -- the paper actually looks quite interesting to me -- but I am concerned that this "ontological pluralist" approach might be applied in Integral circles only to "relative realm" issues, essentially leaving the (potentially totalizing) spiritual transcendentalism you mentioned untouched.
I just noticed that Steve McIntosh has submitted a paper for the Integral Theory Conference on the question of evolution and progress that may have some relevance to this discussion.
Hi Joseph, Bruce and All

Just wanted to say this is one of the best posts, and follow up threads, that I've read for quite a while, either here or on any of the other "integral" online forums I frequent.

Joseph, your post feels balanced in its appreciation of the contributions of Integral and also incisive in its criticisms of the same. Free of excess jargon and clearly laid out, it fully expresses my own unease and helps clarify for me what it is that has been making me uneasy all this time - Thank You!

Bruce, I especially liked this phrasing of yours: an "almost fetishizing appropriation of the notion of 'evolution' by the (Integral) self-help industry." The words "hit", "nail" and "head" come to mind. :-)

Hi Bruce

Thanks for the paper by Steve McIntosh. I was only able to read the first five or six pages, but it seems well thought out. I'll be interested to see where he goes with it.

I was checking out the conference website & evolution seems to be a popular theme. I noticed that Terry Patten is presenting a paper on 'evolutionary spirituality' and Frank Visser has a paper on the skewed statements KW has made on the subject of biological evolution over the years. You'll have to let us know if there's some sort of dustup on the subject. :>)

Also, thank you everyone for your kind comments.

You can see the ITC papers at this link. See not only Visser's but Meyerhoff and Stein's papers.
I also posted this video largely in response to this thread. It seems to me -- though I'm willing to look at it from another, more sympathetic angle -- that the Boomer narcissism that is being denounced by Cohen is powerfully (and ironically) exemplified by the view of "evolution" that he is promoting.
There's some blog commentary by John Wagnon on Visser, Stein, and others available at this link.

Visser's paper is one of the ITC award-winners, by the way.
Indeed. Recall our prior Gaia discussion on Hamilton's Authentic Enlightenment wherein you said this on 4/20/09:

"One of the reasons I posted this essay was because of his conclusion. He makes an appeal to “post-postmodern” forms of spirituality, but in my opinion, the nature of his argument suggests to me that he hasn't grasped the postmodern critique clearly enough to even begin going 'post' yet."

There are a lot of gems in that thread on the obvious Boomeritis involved in this movement.

PS: the old thread is stored at Google docs and takes a minute to fully load.

Balder said:
I also posted this video largely in response to this thread. It seems to me -- though I'm willing to look at it from another, more sympathetic angle -- that the Boomer narcissism that is being denounced by Cohen is powerfully (and ironically) exemplified by the view of "evolution" that he is promoting.

I may be a little late to this discussion, but I just discovered it through another post about Andrew Cohen's new publication: Evolutionary Enlightenment. Over the past year, I've engaged in discussions with the EnlightenNext community, attended a few meetings and made some friends with some nice people. Overall, I've kept my distance with stepping on board as a member, because I remain uneasy with Cohen's philosophy, teachings, and even a gut-sense that something about him is "off." A generous friend from this community offered me his copy of the new book before it was published. I've read a little over half the book so far, jotting down notes in the margins and filling the book with notes of my own. Joseph, I have to say that your astute reflections on this subject hit the nail on the head and left me with quite a lot to think about. I ended up writing some spiritual reflections on mysticism and evolution, but I'll save that for the end of this post.


First I wanted to share a few reflections concerning spiritual violence: now I am not a "monist" per se, even though I am at least intellectually appreciating non-dualism. My understanding of non-dualism, however, is not that the self must be annihilated, but that it is a unique expression of the infinite, or Godhead. Perhaps this is more of a Western, Jungian, or alchemical idea, but for me the ego is the tip of the ice berg, of which the Self is the deeper dimension and the individuation process an important part of the transcendent realization. This is probably equating metaphors terribly, but there is a Zen Koan that says: before I saw mountains, then there were no mountains, now there are mountains. The self doesn't get squished. If anything, for me a healthy realization only enhances the unique experience of being embodied, with a unique take on life, a personality, and individual experience. For me, true non-duality is not the loss of the personal in favor of the impersonal. But I realize this can often be a challenge, especially with a powerful mystical experience, we are tempted to "bliss out" into the infinite. The true challenge is integrating this universal dimension back into everyday life.


Many spiritual traditions bring up this issue, in Zen it is the "stink of enlightenment." Like Alan Kazlev points out by referencing Sri Aurobindo's "intermediate zone" guru, mystical transformation is a messy process and is not necessarily easy. There can be many spiritual snags, where the initiate or practitioner can get stuck and end up inflating their ego. In a time where spiritual traditions are being rediscovered in a materialistic age, and where many people are desperate for meaning and transcendence, the danger of spiritually-sick Gurus is prevalent. I wonder how prevalent this might be in the Integral community's teachers, especially in light of the recent events.


Concerning biological evolution and cultural evolution - I'd add there are many other theories besides Spiral Dynamics, or Wilber's developmental framework. Marshal McLuhan is one more mainstream example, but then there is also William Irwin Thompson's work with the Lindisfarne Association that is often un-mentioned, despite there being a sophisticated theory of cultural evolution which is more in line with the life and mind sciences than developmental psychology (as in Wilber's case). I'm referring to Thompson's work with Ralph Abraham, a mathematician, Francisco Varela, Lynn Margulis and James Lovelock. Personally, I am studying these folks and find their insights to be quite rewarding, and perhaps more accessible to mainstream dialogue (though ironically talked about less) than Wilber's work. But perhaps that's comparing apples and oranges. (I'm a student in the Goddard Consciousness Studies program researching many different theorists, including Wilber).

You're right that it is probably easier to see that human societies undergo large-scale transformations over big stretches of time. But to equate these multi-generational transitions with individual growth is dangerous, and often gives way to ideology (WE can change the world immediately through our actions!) Cultural evolution has always taken generations. I'm open to the possibility that in this time period, where so much is happening at once, single individuals may be able to contribute a lot more than ever before. Sure. But let's not forget the big picture. It keeps us humble, patient, and in it for the long haul where the transformation is going on.


Anyhow, here's that piece I wrote reflecting on spirituality and personal evolution:


More so than appropriating new "memes" or "genes" - the story of social transformation is genuinely coming from within, a shift in our orientation. Jean Gebser regarded them as "mutations," but a mutation is a turbulent and difficult thing. It cannot be mastered by the conscious ego, ideology or rationalization. Rather than seeing us as purely self-evolving beings climbing a ladder of evolution, does it not make more sense to understand individual growth as a movement towards the center - towards wholeness? If we are constantly oriented towards the position of "constant evolution," or an infinite "growth to goodness," ironically, we may miss out on the life at hand. If you are an esotericist, you might recognize that the only way for human consciousness to evolve is to clear the way for that which is hidden to sprout up in ourselves. To let the "soul" more actively participate in all facets of life, consciously. As we clear a path in ourselves, we allow these so-called higher worlds to participate in this one: making coffee, going to work, raising a family, inventing and innovation, good works and conscious living. You might call that participation an "evolution," and perhaps in the long haul it is, but let's not fetishize the term and collapse it into an idea, nor conflate it with what we know about biological evolution. 

This is just an observation about the individualized use of the term "evolution." It's easier to understand socio-cultural evolution because it is stretched out across history, observable in the transformation of ideas, mythologies and the orientation of human consciousness over time.


Frank Visser at Integral World liked my essay & has kindly reposted it on his site. Hot damn! Does this mean I'm 2nd tier?

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