Spiral Dynamics: A Model for how our Understanding of the World is Changing

COVID gave me a lot of extra time to think, and in the spirit of the title of this blog, I wanted to share some reflections about human knowledge that I am carrying within me for a while now.

We all noticed how polarized our discussions on social media and offline have become, and they often crystallize along a right/left spectrum. To the majority in my circle of friends, the main threat to humankind consists of the destruction of its environment (pollution, climate change, biodiversity, etc.) and growing inequality and exclusion in all its forms (poverty, racism, sexism, etc.). To a smaller part of my personal circle of friends (but to many outside of it), socialism/communism and the suppression of free enterprise and individual liberties seem the primary threats of our time. The COVID pandemic brought this chasm to the forefront like even Brexit and the Trump election couldn’t.

I would like to suggest a different frame about thinking and talking about these things (because clearly no one in either group is convinced by any arguments of the other group). It is not my own frame, but a sociological (and to some extent spiritual) model for the evolutionary development of individuals, organizations, and societies, based on the work of Clare Graves, Don Beck and Ken Wilber (which are all Westerners, giving the model a somewhat Western tilt, for which I apologize in advance). The model is called Spiral Dynamics and posits the following:

Like human development of individuals who go through different levels of consciousness as they move from infant to toddler to child to teenager to adolescents to adults to middle-agers to old age, human societies as a whole similarly go through such stages of consciousness (awareness and views of the world and themselves in it). Each stage is important for society’s development, none of them can be skipped (like you can’t skip those sucky teenage years), and each open up a new world of understanding and insight into “how things are”.

At the archaic stage (emerging ~250,000 years ago), humans were becoming self-aware, inventing fire, mostly acting on instinct and primarily focused on fighting to survive another day.

At the magic stage (emerging ~50,000 years), humans banded together in indigenous families, perceiving their surroundings mostly as a world inhabited by spirits that needed to be appeased. Central values were the family community and magic rituals to cope with any phenomena of their environment they didn’t understand. We still have some societies like this today in places like the Amazon forest or the like, and there are laws to leave them alone because they would not be able to cope with being catapulted into the modern world.

At the hero stage (emerging ~5,000 ago) we have the age of warlords and warrior cities/nations, exemplified by Sparta vs. Greece, Genghis Khan, the Vikings as well as modern despots or ISIS. Any mafia family and street gang still lives at this level of consciousness. The primary values are to advance the interest of one’s own group at the expense of the others. There are always winners and losers (seen unemphatically as a rule of nature), religion is practiced with a sentiment of ‘my god is stronger than yours’ or ‘god will give us victory over our enemies’. It’s a ruthless, self-centered and very bloody affair, and the only way to contain its excesses is through the next stage of consciousness that humans developed into:

At the absolutistic stage (emerging ~2000 years ago) we see the introduction of the law & order state to curb all the bloodshed from the tribal wars. A clear set of (often very harsh) laws, rules and contracts governed by hierarchical institutions and courts ensure a more orderly functioning of society. God becomes a judge living up high who rewards the rule-followers with heaven and punishes the rule-breakers with hell. The Greek and Roman Empires, the Chinese Dynasties, the Catholic Church, the British Empire or the Amish society today are examples of this. A large part of the world lives at this stage today, particularly within traditional Catholic or Evangelical Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, or Islam. At this stage of consciousness, the primary values are the belief in the ruling truth (the law, the Bible, the Koran, etc.), adherence to its rules and norms, and staying within the role society has assigned to you. The excesses of this are of inquisition, cast systems, Sharia law, colonialism and all the ugly stuff that has been done throughout history in the name of ‘the law’. It is a very stifling and suffocating environment, and therefore the thinking of individuals evolved as they tried to break free, opening the doors to the modern stage.

At the modern stage (emerging ~500 years ago), people started reclaiming their individuality expressed by a breaking free from stale religious norms (Reformation) or passionately rejecting religion altogether (Marx or new Atheists like Dawkins), demanding a say in the rule that govern them (Democracy), turned their attention to what can be seen and measured (Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution) and focused on the pursuit of individual liberty, prosperity and happiness (Capitalism). Its values are rationality, scientific evidence, individual enterprise pursuing material success and hedonistic enjoyment. This stage brought about incredible advances for human knowledge and prosperity, but also resulted in massive exploitation of the environment and our fellow humans across the globe, demonstrating that its trajectory is unsustainable for humankind to survive on a planet with finite resources. A large part of industrialized and emerging market countries today predominantly work like this, it’s the world all of us grew up in. However, the modern consciousness is not able to answer questions about issues that cannot be measured by science or money, such love, friendship, community or meaning, which is why human thinking evolved further:

At the post-modern stage (emerging ~150 years ago) people realized that living life purely based on scientific facts and material success remains empty, and that there are other, more important things to life, such as community, peace and love. It marks the birth of Albert Schweitzer’s “Reverence for Life”, the UN, the civil rights movement, the environmentalist movement, feminism, hippie culture, etc. The dominant values at this stage are peaceful community, inclusion of everyone, the rejection of the idea of absolute truths, sensitivity to other cultures and experiences, and the pursuit of world-centric (rather than ethnocentric) diversity. This consciousness introduced a new sense of compassion, and since the end of WWII enabled the most peaceful and collaborative era in the history of humankind. However, as every stage before, this stage too has its own limitations, namely its dismissal of fundamental economic principles such as markets and entrepreneurship, the assault on liberties in the name of diversity and inclusion, and its paradoxical tendency to elevate the rejection of absolute truths to an absolute truth itself. Post-modern (groups of) societies today are found predominantly in Northern and Western Europe, Canada and blue states/sanctuary cities in the US, as well as urban hubs in emerging economies. (As a side note, Communism in this model is best understood as a tragic attempt to impose the modern value of materialistic Atheism along with some post-modern values like inclusion and equality (not diversity though!) with the radical means of a absolutistic law & order society. A very toxic cocktail).

Now, all of these stages have in common that they vigorously fight both the previous stage (the one they transcended and which they view as fully obsolete) and the successor stage (the one they don’t understand yet and feel threatened by), and claim their own consciousness is “the right” way to look at the world. When in fact, each stage is just that: A stage on the great conveyor belt of history that is advancing the development of human consciousness. Yet they can’t see that, and mostly stay trapped within their own paradigms, which is the primary cause for all the fruitless arguments and tribal polarization we see on social media. Political discussions today feel like a stalemate, where no one is willing or able to give ground. The only way to transcend this, is by the next stage of consciousness:

At the integral stage (emerging ~50 years ago) people for the first time in human history started recognizing and reflecting on the fact, that there are such things as development stages. That each of us is bound by the indoctrination of our own upbringing, our own culture, our own lens of looking at the world. And in doing so, they realize that all the opinions and views of all these previous stages are not a matter of right and wrong, but merely a natural expression of the stage these societies are at. We don’t laugh at a toddler because he believes in Santa Claus, but instead even encourage this view because we know it’s a natural way for a toddler to look at the world, and he will grow out of this stage eventually. And yes, we get mad sometimes at the volatile behavior and black/white thinking of our teenage kids, but we know it’s how they see the world and it’s part of what they have to go through to become an adult. Applying this way of thinking to human societies as a whole, we suddenly realize we don’t have to be mad at absolutistic people who believe the world is 6000 years old, or modern people who believe individual liberty and capitalism is the pinnacle of human existence, or post-modern people who believe gravity is racist. Instead, we realize that all of these stages introduced crucial new facets to human thinking that transcended the serious limitations and blind spots of earlier stages and advanced human societies as a whole. Our task then, is not anymore to fight and have arguments with people who (over)emphasize any of the other ways of thinking, but to consider what’s worth retaining from each worldview vs. what needs to be thrown out, and integrate those elements into our life and society that make sense in specific situations (hence the word ‘integral’). Then I can invest and build a successful business to earn money (modern), advocate for the environment and the inclusion of marginalized groups (post-modern), while adhering to the necessary rules that govern our peaceful coexistence (absolutistic). Heck I can even decide to go to war (hero) if a specific situation like WWII calls for it. Most of all, I can let go of my preconceived notions that I have “the right” way of looking at the world and be forgiving towards others for their (overly) passionate views. Because everyone’s views are just an expression of the stage they necessarily have to go through in their personal development (and which they will eventually transcend), I don’t have to hate them anymore for it, which is incredibly liberating. And because I know now that even my own thinking in such integral terms will eventually be transcended by yet another stage of human development (one that I don’t understand yet).

For the lefties and righties in my circle, this comes with inconvenient notions though that both won’t like to hear.

For the free market & personal liberty capitalist, it means that in order to move forward in your personal development, you will eventually have to embrace the basic tenets of post-modernism (the fundamental merits of equality, diversity and inclusion, but of course not its excesses like vegan diets, gender-neutral pronouns or believing gravity is racist). Moving forward is the only way to transcend your current worldview, the limitations which causes you (and your fellow human) harm every day.

For the world-centric, environment loving social justice warrior, it means you need to grow to accept that your community-oriented way of looking at the world is not the end-all, but again only an incomplete part of the whole. In order to move forward in your personal development, you will eventually have to accept that some absolutistic and modern principles (like religion, individualism or capitalism) might be crucial elements to living an integrated and full life, and by throwing these babies out of the bathwater, you will do yourself (and your fellow human) harm.

The good news is that this new, integral way of looking at the world and yourself sets you free to be a more relaxed and complete person. Because each of us has all these stages of consciousness in us, and consciously or subconsciously applies them at different times. Acknowledging that notion, fully embracing it and integrating it into our daily lives allows us to get closer to becoming the humans we truly are.


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