Moving on up the evolutionary scale

Spiral ascent: the process is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, because nothing’s completely right or completely wrong

When challenging ideas take root old assumptions wither, writes Dave Rawlings.

When popular uprisings swept North Africa and the Middle East in 2010 and populations set about inventing new societies, I found myself reflecting more and more on the principles of Spiral Dynamics. This is a theory of human development introduced in the 1996 book by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, based on the theory of professor of psychology Clare W. Graves.

I heard Don Beck speaking on the subject some years ago and, as much as the ideas he was putting forward, remember being very impressed by the fact that he’d been psychologist to the South African team that won the Rugby World Cup in 1995!

Spiral Dynamics argues that humans adapt to changing environments by developing increasingly complex conceptual models of the world and these are expressed in attitudes and behaviours. Several distinct stages in this development are identified in the book and given colour labels. They are graphically represented as being arranged in a pattern like a spiral staircase, hence the name.

As well as applying to individuals, the stages also characterise whole societies. So, for example, the first level (beige) refers to groups that are dominated by nature and basic survival instincts. In contrast, the sixth level (green) is focused on community and personal growth, valuing openness and trust.

I’m not going to review the whole structure here. For more detail, see this summary of Beck and Cowan’s book.

What keeps coming back to me is Don Beck’s assertion that moving up the levels is an adaptive process that takes time. In the course of a lifetime, an individual moves from being entirely survival and self-centred to maybe reaching one of the higher, more “civilised” levels. It took thousands of years for human groups to take the same path for the first time. Now, we find ourselves a population spanning a range of levels and we perceive an urgent need to even things out. Leaving aside the massive question of how you decide who is at the “wrong” level, what exactly is involved in a whole society developing in this way?

An example given by Beck in his talk was that of Singapore which has an almost feudal, authoritarian structure despite interacting very successfully with western, liberal democracies. This system will evolve into a more sophisticated one, perhaps more to the liking of Europeans, only when it has created the necessary institutions and when a majority of Singaporeans has come to share the corresponding world view. No-one knows how long this might take and it certainly cannot be forced by outside influences.

If a whole society is disrupted, leaving a crisis in the supply of the most basic necessities as well as a power vacuum, it needs more than an election to rebuild itself.

So that brings us back to the “Arab Spring”.

If a whole society is disrupted, leaving a crisis in the supply of the most basic necessities as well as a power vacuum, it needs more than an election to rebuild itself.

Indeed, we observers expect more than just a re-creation of what went before; we want to see something better, more democratic, emerging from the ruins. Spiral Dynamics says that this can only happen if a majority of the people are “ready” for it and the means are available to create the necessary organisational infrastructure very quickly.

So, if most people have no experience of living in a western-style democracy, it’s very unlikely that they will spontaneously form one. It’s more likely that they will stabilise at a lower level than they occupied before. And their eventual development path may be quite different from the one followed in the industrialised west.

Within Spiral Dynamics, it’s recognised that a range of levels of individual thinking will be present within any group. So, there will be many living through the traumas of post-dictatorship who are well aware of the complexities of nation building. Similarly, there are many within the relatively more stable, established societies of the world who have a very simple view of events. It remains to be seen how much influence they can exert.

As individuals we also display attitudes and behaviours characteristic of a range of levels. What we express depends on the situation, but what seems to matter is which level is the highest that we can assume at all. Then, you may see your own personal development as a process of moving up the spiral, continually expanding your conceptual framework and extending your range of behaviours.

So, is Spiral Dynamics a valid representation of human development? I have to say that it seems very patronising to talk of other people as being at a “lower level” than me. But I also know from discussions around this that we typically overestimate the level we are personally operating at, so maybe I’m completely misjudging people who are actually far more advanced than I am and I just can’t understand their thinking!

How do you move higher when you can’t even comprehend what the next level is? I think it must involve a series of “a-hah” moments that eventually combine to give you a whole new perspective: challenging ideas take root and old assumptions wither.

But the process is evolutionary rather than revolutionary, because nothing’s completely right or completely wrong.


Headline image credit: Karl-Ludwig Poggemann/Flickr
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