Review (Guest): Evolutionaries – Unlocking the Spiritual and Cultural Potential of Science’s Greatest Idea

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Carter Phipps

3.0 out of 5 stars The Evolution Religion: Making Sense of Evolution,August 15, 2012

By F. Visser “Frank Visser”

Carter Phipps has been executive editor of the now defunct EnlightenNext magazine, formerly known as What is Enlightenment? In this role, Phipps did many interviews with leading authorities in the fields of science and spirituality. He also authored many essays, among which in 2007 an intriguing overview essay about the many meanings assigned to the term “evolution”, called “The REAL Evolution Debate”, in a special issue devoted to “The Mystery of Evolution”. Over the years, this essay grew into the book.

In this highly readable and informative essay, Phipps distinguished no less than twelve approaches to evolution. Usually only two or three reach the media spotlights (i.e. 1. neo-Darwinism and 7. Creationism, otherwise known as Intelligent Design), which severely limits the number of intellectual options available. (Though truth be told, perspectives 1-6 can be qualified as scientific; perspectives 7-12 are better seen as speculative, so Darwinism and Creationism are iconic for their respective fields).

Some of their current or historic representatives are listed here, Phipps mentions many more, including their main works and historical influences:

1. The Neo-Darwinists (Dawkins, Gould, Dennet, E.O. Wilson)
2. The Progressive Darwinists (Carrol, Jablonka, Lamb)
3. The Collectivists (Bloom, Lynn Margulis, David Sloan Wilson)
4. The Complexity Theorists (Goodwin, Kaufman, Laszlo)
5. The Directionalists (Conway Morris, Gardner, Wright)
6. The Transhumanists (Ettinger, Gibson, Kurzweil)

7. The Intelligent Designers (Behe, Dembski, Johnson)
8. The Theistic Evolutionists (Miller, Peacocke, Polkinghorne)
9. The Esoteric Evolutionists (Blavatsky, Steiner, C. Wilson, Tarnas)
10. The Process Philosophers (Whitehead, Hartshorne, Griffin)
11. The Conscious Evolutionists (Teilhard de Chardin, Dowd, Marx Hubbard)
12. The Integralists (Aurobindo, Gebser, Wilber, Combs)

This is definitely a helpful list, that brings clarity to an otherwise impenetrable field. It should have been included in the book, even if only as an appendix.

Of course, such an elaborate scheme immediately raises the question about the validity of each of these approaches to evolution. Are all these authors equally qualified to speak out on this topic of biological evolution? Taking the idea of evolution from science and run with it is for sure not the same as illuminating its intricate workings. How many pay lip service to Darwin but continue to pursue their own philosophical or religious points of view?

How many of these spiritualists have taken the idea of evolution–often ill-understood in the form of pop-evolution–to mean we are going onwards and upwards towards an ever brighter future? Have the spiritual authors in this catalog really understood the radicality of Darwin's message, that evolution is indeed possible and has happened without any Divine Plan or Driving Force?

From this wider perspective, the strictly scientific view of evolution will readily been seen as “reductionistic”, “dogmatic” or worse. But from a scientific point of view, all these various wider interpretations of the idea of evolution just don't belong to the field of scientific truth. They provide meaning and comfort to those who adhere to them, but that's a totally different ball game. And of course, seeing yourself as being part of a global (and even cosmic) evolutionary process, which will culminate in every higher states of consciousness and culture–this turns out to be Phipps' worldview, when you have finished reading his book–is uplifting indeed. Attuning yourself to the “Spirit of Evolution” (Wilber's favorite expression) is presented as a new and contemporary religious ideal, supported by science…

It is clear from the above that Phipps is less interested in finding a scientific explanation for creative processes, both in nature as in ourselves, than in celebrating a religious philosophy of life. Evolution has become his religion. If Phipps was really interested in “the origin of novelty” and how scientific disciplines such as “evo-devo” currently conceptualize this, much of his feeling of mystification by this topic would subside…

In the end, Phipps follows the same logic as Wilber: in our cultural and religious history, mythical religion has been succeeded by rational science, and the current evolution/creation debate is largely a clash between these two worldviews. But, so the argument goes, creationists do point out “real problems” in evolutionary theory, that science supposedly cannot solve. Therefore, a post-rational mystical spirituality is called for, that can “explain” these anomalies-the origin of novelty-without having to return to a literal interpretation of creation myths. Cultural evolution moves on.

So Phipps, like Wilber, aligns with science against pre-rational religion, but tries to trump science with the help of mysticism, in his case an “evolutionary spirituality”. There was a time when I deeply liked this strategy: it allows one to be modern and scientific, and at the same time deeply religious. But this project breaks down when you get to specifics. What exactly is it that a spiritual Eros can explain? Does a mystical-integral view of evolution avoid the severe drawbacks of creationism? Until now, neither Wilber nor Phipps have created a solid case…

In my opinion, this mystification doesn't help us in understanding the processes of evolution… If we look back at past evolutionary forms of life, there never has been a transcendental mystery involved in their evolutionary processes that lead to their existence. Wilber defended his amateurish comments on biological evolution with exactly the same “argument”: what he actually wanted to point at was that “they are metaphors and examples for this extraordinary capacity of creative emergence that is intrinsic to the universe.”

There's a deep ambivalence–or should I say dishonesty?–in these integral or evolutionary statements about evolution, between what is actually claimed and what isn't. On the one hand, there's the claim that science by itself can't explain evolution, and that other principles are needed–Eros, the evolutionary impulse, the Spirit of Evolution, creativity–but when pressed for details, all claims to offer explanations are abandoned and rephrased as metaphors. In the end, this is fact-free science, that can be used for whatever philosophical or religious purpose one wants. Phipps wrestles with this, at times, but is in the end too much a believer in the evolution religion to be convincing.

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