Excerpted from Evolutionaries (Harper Perennial, 2012)
“A developing brain is a sort of snowballing cognitive leviathan that adapts to everything and anything close to it. Learning is one aspect of extreme plasticity, and creativity another. Any species that can do such things as play with the world, imagine it, remember it, and expand its circles of experience . . . will ultimately start to experiment with its own fate.”
—Merlin Donald, A Mind So Rare
In my travels around the progressive spiritual and philosophical world over the last two decades, I have met many unique, contradictory, endearing, and surprising characters, but none quite prepared me for my meeting with Don Beck—a tough-talking Texan academic activist with a unique perspective on cultural evolution. With his soft drawl and his mixture of brashness and charm, Beck helped deepen my appreciation of the powerful insight that consciousness and culture evolve through identifiable stages and structures. It’s a bold and controversial proposition, but it’s one that is definitely worth the time and investment to understand. And in Beck’s hands, this insight takes on a particular cultural relevance. Whereas much of Jean Gebser’s work was concerned with envisioning forms of consciousness as they first emerged in our cultural past, Beck is concerned with those stages as they continue to manifest today. As I’ve mentioned, the sequence of worldviews that define the trajectory of culture’s unfolding are not simply features of our history—they still exist as stable organizing systems for societies around the world. Understanding the reality and nature of these worldviews is one of those ideas, as they say, whose time has come, and I suspect it will play a critical role in making sure that human beings do not repeat the mistakes of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the twenty-first and twenty-second.
While Beck’s system incorporates some of the basic ideas of Gebser, Hegel, and developmental psychology, Spiral Dynamics, as it is known, is a more practical and pragmatic way to look at the evolution of worldviews. It is the brainchild of maverick psychologist Clare Graves, who was Beck’s friend and mentor before his death in 1986. The basic idea of Spiral Dynamics is quite simple—deceptively so. There are eight stages or “value systems” or worldviews (Beck currently refers to them as “codes”) that form the basic structures of human psychology and sociology. These stages make up an ascending evolutionary spiral that both individuals and cultures will pass through as they develop—psychologically, socially, morally, spiritually. Beck refers to these as “bio-psycho-social- spiritual” systems that form a sort of invisible scaffolding in our consciousness, unseen but influential cognitive structures that condition our perspectives and our values analogous to the way DNA influences but does not exactly determine the forms and features of an organism. Indeed, just as Abraham Maslow, the mid-twentieth-century pioneering psychologist, was tracking a hierarchy of needs, Spiral Dynamics tracks a hierarchy of values. In fact, the relationship between those two developmental systems goes beyond mere systemic resemblance; Maslow and Graves themselves were friends and colleagues.
Beck and I first met in 2002, when he visited the offices of EnlightenNext magazine in Massachusetts. He was in his seventies and I was in my thirties, but as luck would have it, we had a couple of things in common more important than age—a passion for the dynamics of evolution and a love for the sport of American football.
I grew up in Oklahoma, so I know something about that unique species of American male known as Texans. First, they tend to have a chip on their shoulder and an independent streak. Beck has both in spades. And second, they love football. So during those first encounters with Beck and Spiral Dynamics, my colleagues and I would spend hours and hours discussing the ins and outs of evolutionary stages with Dr. Beck, and then he and I would slip away, find a television, and watch college football.
Now, as my British wife will attest, when I watch football, especially University of Oklahoma football, I undergo a rather startling personality change. Temporarily, I leave behind my mild-mannered exterior and a whole subpersonality comes to the forefront of my consciousness. It’s as if I’m getting in touch with my tribal roots, with warriorlike values of power, will, and domination that are not so prominent in my everyday personality. A whole new attitude emerges in my consciousness, which I suspect is more related to ancient tribal wars than anything I’m engaged with currently. It is also a predilection that runs in the family (as well as in the state). When my wife first met one of my cousins, who still lives in Oklahoma, my cousin congratulated us on our recent marriage and then quickly asked my wife with some concern, “Have you seen him watch football yet?”
Thankfully she has, and we are still happily married, but the larger point is that my temporary change of character speaks to the theory of Spiral Dynamics. Spiral Dynamics suggests that, as Gebser also believed, each of the major value systems represents an internal structure that exists within each of us. These can be reactivated at any time, depending on the circumstances of our lives. I’m watching football, and for a couple of hours I can experience, in some rudimentary way, the values and emotions more closely associated with a “might makes right” world of Attila the Hun than with a modern democracy. Now, that doesn’t mean that I lose all control and turn into a tribal warrior, but it does mean that given the right conditions, any of us can, to greater or lesser degrees, reinvoke or reinhabit perspectives and attitudes whose most salient features were formed in earlier eras. Just as evolutionary psychology makes a powerful argument that many of the habits, traits, and impulses that make up our modern character were originally formed deep in our evolutionary past, Spiral Dynamics argues that many of our personal values are actually quite impersonal, formed in the evolutionary cauldron of human history.
“People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them,” wrote the great American author James Baldwin. Baldwin was talking about race, but the statement also captures the way in which the evolutionary history of the species is unavoidably reflected in the interior of our individual psychology. Indeed, according to Spiral Dynamics, we are not blank pages on which we may write any drama we please. No, we are living in the developmental drama of history, and the sooner we recognize the true contours of that script, the more influence we can have on how the play unfolds. In that sense, “trapped” is the wrong word, but we are living in history and history is living in us.
One of the challenges for developmental theorists is understanding the relationship between individual and collective, between cultural worldviews and psychological stages of development. Spiral Dynamics is interesting in that it does seem, at least to some degree, to apply to both. But adherents have also been criticized for blurring the distinctions and drawing unproven correlations. In the pages that follow, I will no doubt be guilty of this myself, but I do so consciously for the sake of illuminating the genuinely powerful features of this perspective, and I ask readers to hold these distinctions lightly.
Beck himself was a professor of sociology at the University of North Texas when he came across Graves’s work in 1974, in an article in The Futurist magazine entitled “Human Nature Prepares for Momentous Leap.” He was immediately taken with the ideas contained in the essay. The open-ended evolutionary nature of Graves’s theory struck him—the feeling that human nature was not some fixed event waiting to be mapped and understood but an unfinished, malleable, evolving system that was still in process, still adapting, still changing. In fact, we might say that he sensed in Graves’s work a shattering of the spell of solidity in relationship to human culture. “The error which most people make when they think about human values is that they assume the nature of man is fixed and there is a single set of human values by which he should live,” Graves declared right at the beginning of the 1974 article. “Such an assumption does not fit with my research. My data indicate that man’s nature is an open, constantly evolving system, a system which proceeds by quantum jumps from one steady state system to the next through a hierarchy of ordered systems.” Never one to contemplate people and big ideas from afar, Beck was soon on a plane to upstate New York, where he met the man behind this fascinating new model. They hit it off at once (Graves loved sports too) and spent hours together discussing the meaning of this new theory.
The trip was nothing short of revelatory. When Beck got back to Texas, he completely changed his research direction to further explore the implications of Graves’s theoretical model. But he also took a new interest in other related models of psychological and moral development that had been popping up in the decades since World War II. So he put his Texas-sized cowboy boots on the ground and headed out to meet the great developmental theoreticians of the day, such as legendary ego psychologist Jane Loevinger, and Lawrence Kohlberg, the celebrated Harvard theorist of moral development. But despite these illuminating visits, he found no work that had the depth of Graves’s theory, so he stayed in close touch with his new mentor, developing a friendship that would span the rest of the older man’s life and define the younger man’s career.
Graves was a maverick whose ideas ran counter to the dominant theories of behaviorism of the day, and even to the more progressive direction of humanistic psychology. He attributed some of the originality of his thinking, his cross-disciplinary comfort level, and “his ability to see differences” to the unusual diversity of perspectives he encountered during his years at Western Reserve University. This formative experience may have been part of Graves’s intellectual salvation, perhaps forging that generalist perspective characteristic of so many Evolutionaries. But he never achieved the reputation or had the influence of other significant theorists. And were it not for the efforts of Beck and another important colleague, Chris Cowan, who worked with Beck to mold Graves’s ideas into a more contemporary form, Graves’s unusually integrated approach to human development might still remain obscure. In the light of history, we might say that Graves’s rejection by his peers was simply a result of being far ahead of his time. Yet it also points to one of the most salient aspects of his theory—that “life conditions” play a critical role in development. As times change and culture evolves, the kind of people who take the cultural center stage change as well. In war, we need generals and men willing to fight. In peacetime, we celebrate very different kinds of achievements. Similarly, as culture evolves, we newly appreciate those theorists and theories whose contributions correspond more to the needs of our own moment than the time when they were alive. Today, an evolutionary theory like Spiral Dynamics is filled to the brim with new forms of explanatory power that are more suited to helping us sort through the culture wars and the so-called clash of civilizations. And so we might say (using Darwinian language) that it has become more suited and “fit” for the cultural environment of the twenty-first century.
UNFOLDING, EMERGENT, OSCILLATING, SPIRALING BIO-PSYCHO-SOCIAL SYSTEMS
“Briefly, what I am proposing,” Graves writes in the article that first introduced Beck to his work, “is that the psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiraling process marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behavior systems to newer, higher-order systems as man’s existential problems change.”
By “older, lower-order” and “newer, higher-order” systems, Graves was referring to the systems of values or worldviews that were developed in the historical crucible of humanity’s evolutionary emergence from prehistoric hominids to modern humans. In the Spiral Dynamics model, there are eight in all, although the final two are more speculative, having not entered into the cultural mainstream yet and active primarily in rare individuals. In the 1990s, Beck and Cowan made the unusual decision to color-code these systems, making them more memorable. Spiral Dynamics can be seen as having many parallels to Gebser’s model, although it adds more stages. Part of the revelation of an evolutionary worldview is in beginning to see theorists from vastly different contexts tracking such similar territory. The names of the stages may be different, the exact sequencing may vary, but we can see deep and important similarities in the patterns being recognized and the evolutionary dynamics being observed.
Graves’s first system (beige), which Beck now refers to as Survivalist, is a sort of clan-based, instinctual, impulsive system in which the goal is to stay alive—an almost pre-language level of consciousness that pre-dates the emergence of contemporary humans. This is similar to Gebser’s archaic stage.
The second system (purple), refers essentially to a similar stage as Gebser’s magic structure, although it is critical to note Gebser’s descriptions are of the system as it first emerged in our ancient past. The basic dynamics of this worldview can still be seen in many indigenous populations, and it is strongly represented in ancient cultures around the world today. Here you have a deeper sense of human bonding as individuals become identified with small clans and tribes; there is a new sense of the dynamics of cause and effect— “the first sense of the metaphysical,” as Beck puts it—as early humans try to explain the unpredictable dynamics of their world. Beck expresses that there is a kind of deep human connectivity in this system, a positive heritage of that almost pre-egoic sense of bonding. I saw Beck once play the song “Stand by Me” at a lecture to capture the relational quality of this value system. Here we have animism, and tendencies to think “ritualistically and superstitiously and stereotypically, thus [trying] to control by incantation, totems, and taboos.” In this level there is, as Graves describes, a “name for each bend of the river, but none for the river.” In the last decades, we have seen a newfound interest in the positive contribution and wisdom of this value system, evidenced by the widespread fascination with shamanism and indigenous cultures.
For the third system of values (red), we have the emergence of the “raw egocentric self—the renegade, the heretic, the barbarian, the go-it-alone, the power-self, the hedonist,” as Beck explains. We have the individual self breaking free of the family, the clan, the safe structures of home and hearth. Here we have tribalism in its many forms and ethnocentrism, along with the first empires. In this system of values, we find plenty of rage and rebellion but also creativity and heroism. Think about the microcultures of inner-city gangs and organized crime, but also athletic achievers and rock stars. We might say that there is tremendous positive vitality, energy, and self-expressiveness in this value system.
The next three systems line up roughly with the three most common worldviews active in the world today: traditionalism (blue), modernism (orange), and postmodernism (green). Beck likes to call them Holy Forces, Free Marketeers, and Egalitarians. Think Billy Graham, Bill Gates, and Oprah. Or the religious right, libertarians, and environmentalists. Or Opus Dei, IBM, and Greenpeace. Graves is just one of the tens if not hundreds of theorists and researchers at this point who have identified a roughly similar series of worldviews active today, though it should be noted that Graves was one of the first to clearly identify “postmodernism” or what he called the “relativistic, existential” system. Given that this value system really didn’t move deeply into the mainstream until the 1960s, it is understandable that previous theorists might not have identified it so explicitly.
The seventh level, which later came to be called “integral,” marked a significant shift, according to Graves, and is a worldview that is as yet unknown in the world, at least on a large scale. At the integral level, values are influenced less by self-interest and more by a desire for the well-being of the whole, the survival and success of the whole project of human existence. Beck describes this system as being “flex flow,” a way of acting perhaps best described by Graves:
The proper way to behave is the way that comes from working within existential reality. If it is realistic to be happy, then it is good to be happy. If the situation calls for authoritarianism, then it is proper to be authoritarian and if the situation calls for democracy, it is proper to be democratic. Behavior is right and proper if it is based on today’s best possible evidence; no shame should be felt by him who behaves within such limits and fails. This ethic prescribes that what was right yesterday may not be seen as right tomorrow.
The worldviews of Spiral Dynamics can be thought of as complex systems of values. As Beck described it in an interview, “Spiral Dynamics is based on the assumption that we have . . . complex, adaptive, contextual intelligences, which develop in response to our life circumstances and challenges.” They have alternatively been called “value-memes,” sometimes abbreviated to “memes” (not to be confused with Richard Dawkins’s definition of the term as a “unit of cultural transmission”). Ken Wilber, who has incorporated Spiral Dynamics, along with many other developmental models, into his own work, thinks of these stages or codes as “waves of development”—almost like frequency waves across an electromagnetic band, distinct stages that nevertheless blur and blend into one another like colors on the visual spectrum. They are “not rigid levels but flowing waves,” Wilber writes, “with much overlap and interweaving.”
I think of them as complex intelligent systems that help organize our internal lives in much the same way as the skeletal system or nervous system helps to organize our biological lives. The sheer underlying power and influence of these value systems should not be underestimated, and yet it is important when we think about them to adopt a very flexible attitude, recognizing that they are not rigid or absolute distinctions but significant generalizations that enable us to make much greater sense out of the human experience. They represent deep positions in consciousness, natural attractors that tend to call to themselves ecosystems of values that resonate with the underlying principles of the worldview. Graves believed that they also represented different levels of activation in our neurological equipment, suggesting that these worldviews are not merely psychological and social but neurological.
Beck likes to point out that these value systems represent not so much types of people but types in people. We each may express values associated with many of these systems, and yet most people’s values will tend to conglomerate around one primary worldview, their “center of gravity,” as adherents like to say. It is also wrong to think of these systems as inherently bad or good. They are sets of values that adapt to fit certain life conditions. And there can be healthy or unhealthy behavioral expressions of each system. Extreme cultural relativism would be an unhealthy expression of postmodernism (green) while ecological sensitivity and gender equality would be a healthy version of that same value system. You can have an egomaniac expressing a very sophisticated cultural worldview and a decent, good-hearted person expressing the essential values of a worldview much “lower” on the evolutionary scale. Give me the latter person as a dinner companion any day! We have to be wary of the mind-set that “higher is always better.” It’s much more complex than that. As Graves eloquently expressed it, “What I am saying is that when one form of being is more congruent with the realities of existence, then it is the better form of living for those realities. . . . When one form of existence ceases to be functional for the realities of existence then some other form, either higher or lower in the hierarchy, is the better style of living.” Gandhi’s non-violence was a beautiful and effective response to colonialism, but I suspect it would have been less successful in the face of Genghis Khan. Military rule may be an appropriate governance structure for a country on the brink of tribal anarchy, but it would be regressive and disastrous in a more modernized culture.
Those of us who wish to study these stages or transitions through which our consciousness and culture have moved but who lack extraordinary powers of insight into the past need not despair. We can see these stages of cultural development not only by looking back but simply by looking around. As Robert Godwin writes, “We do not need a time machine . . . because in our present world, from the standpoint of psychology, developmental time is cultural space.” What does this mean? Simply put, it means that individuals and cultures existing today in different areas of the world are at different stages of development. While much of the developed world may have reached modern or postmodern stages, there are many other nations and continents that continue to live at a traditional or even tribal stage. And even within countries like the United States, a number of these different value systems are clearly active at once. Indeed, cultures are never monolithic, particularly in a globalizing world, and within any given country there will be individuals who are inhabiting different stages of development, and moving between them as well.
So while our political system loves to use such distinctions as right versus left or conservative versus liberal as all-embracing categories when it comes to public values, “traditional,” “modern,” and “postmodern” are actually much better terms with which to analyze social and political movements in this country. For example, when Richard Dawkins and the new atheists attack religious believers, it’s not just atheism versus religion or left versus right. It’s modernism versus traditionalism. When scientists attack creationists, it’s modernism versus traditionalism. When environmentalists attack the “evil” corporations, it’s postmodernism versus modernism. When my parents sent me to a Catholic grade school because the school was a good one, but fretted that their liberal Protestant son might come under the influence of Catholic beliefs, they were worried that the modern values they held dear would be undermined by more traditional ones.
Culture wars are an ancient phenomenon. We can see them in mythology as the “gods” of one value-system battle the “gods” of another. When traditional culture and the monotheistic religions emerged, they struggled for centuries against paganism and polytheism. Many of our current battles have been going on since the emergence of modernism, all the way back in Voltaire’s time. Each emergent worldview is, as Hegel told us, in a dialectical relationship to the one before it and is an answer to the problems created by the previous stage. Each one also transcends and includes the values of the previous level of development. The scientific values and achievement-oriented ethos of modernism were a reaction and, in some sense, an answer to problems created by the self-negation, superstition, and otherworldliness of traditionalism, much in the same way religious group solidarity (“anyone can be a Christian”) and moral strictures of traditional religion helped mitigate the tribal chaos and ethnic violence of an earlier time period (a developmental process we see occurring again in places like Rwanda). Again, each stage is very dependent on the life conditions of the moment. We postmoderns often lament and ridicule the heavy-handed morality and restrictive attitudes of traditional religion, but if we were raised amid the tribal wars of the Congo, where raping and pillaging have become part of the fabric of a broken society, we might come to appreciate and even embrace the role that restrictive religious attitudes play in establishing strong moral boundaries around the power of unrestrained violence and sexuality. Again, different worldviews are responses to different life conditions. This is not a one-size-fits- all world.
“I WAS ANSWERING QUESTIONS THAT NOBODY WAS ASKING”
Beck was taken with Graves’s theory in part because of his own background. In particular, it helped give new perspective to his ongoing contemplation and struggle with that defining feature of American life—race. Beck grew up in Purcell, Oklahoma, and while Oklahoma was never part of the Confederacy or “old South,” racial prejudice and segregation was still a major part of life in America’s oil patch. Beck recalls a formative moment in 1953 when he was a junior in high school playing a basketball game in the school gym, which had high windows that ringed the court on one side. No blacks were allowed in the gym, but one year, during the intensity of the playoffs, when the locals took a passionate interest in the fortunes of the young team, he noticed faces appearing in the high windows. Wondering exactly what was happening, he walked outside to find out that young black boys were climbing up on high ladders just to get a glimpse of the game. The image of those black boys from the segregated high school across town straining to watch the white team play left an imprint on Beck’s mind and brought home the painful and poignant tragedy of America’s race relations.
Some years later, this experience would inform Beck at the University of Oklahoma when he chose the Civil War as a subject for his doctoral thesis. Influenced by one of his professors, renowned social psychologist Muzafer Sherif, he studied the process of polarization that made the Civil War an inevitable result of the extreme positions held in this country in the 1800s. He often imagined what he might have done, with current knowledge, to short-circuit the tension of the era. What if he could have had Lincoln’s ear in 1859? Could war have been avoided? Little did he know that more than a quarter century later he would get a chance to make a difference in a similar situation.
In 1980, Beck was presenting on Spiral Dynamics at a conference in Dallas. In the audience that day was a South African who had worked closely with both blacks and whites in the coal mines of his native land. “You just explained my country,” he exclaimed to Beck after the speech, and promptly invited him to speak at an industrial conference in Sun City. That was the first trip. Beck would make more than sixty in the decade to come, as he fell in love with the unique character of a country where it seemed as if almost all of Graves’s value systems were alive and active in the culture, and jockeying for attention and power. “It was a microcosm of the planet,” he explains.
When Beck says that all of Graves’s value systems or worldviews were active in South African culture, he really means it—with the possible exception of the first (beige) stage, a survival-based worldview usually only seen in desperate circumstances. For example, the magic (purple) worldview was alive and active in the Zulus and their rich culture and sacred places. “The purple worldview is heavily laden with so-called right-brain tendencies,” he explains, “such as heightened intuition, emotional attachments to places and things, and a mystical sense of cause and effect. I have a well-developed purple sense myself, having spent so much time with the Zulus.” In fact, it was in Africa that Beck began to understand, he told me, the “majesty and dignity” of this value system, one rarely seen in the United States, at least not outside the city of New Orleans or the surviving Native American cultures.
With Graves’s work fully internalized, Beck had another critical piece of the puzzle when it came to sorting out the racial prejudices that he had struggled with in his life. Indeed, as he read the newspapers and watched television in South Africa, slowly absorbing the cultural climate and political polarization that was occurring, he realized a surprising truth—one that might have seemed nonsensical to the uninitiated but represented a radically different perspective on the political tensions of the country. “Oh my God,” he realized. “This is not about race.”
To most South Africans, the societal fault lines were clear. It was black versus white, African versus European. But for Beck, it wasn’t so simple. This struggle really masked a deeper conflict, one between value systems. Yes, on the surface it certainly seemed that white Afrikaners simply resented and devalued black Africans and their culture. But according to this new perspective, there was another layer of conflict occurring between worldviews that, in and of itself, had nothing to do with race. So Beck began to educate his audience on the importance of these cross-cultural value systems, pointing out that there were other ways to see the differences among the peoples than through the lens of color. Each race had individuals spread throughout the spiral of development. Not all Afrikaners were the same. Not all blacks were the same. If he could get people to see this, he realized, it would create new pathways for alliances across color lines. Not only did Spiral Dynamics transcend racial distinctions, it had more explanatory power. “And paradigms change only when the new paradigm offers more explanatory power than the one it replaces,” he notes.
Beck took up the challenge of South Africa’s cultural evolution with a passion of a true believer, the stubbornness of a Texan, and the hardiness of a boy raised less than a decade after the Depression and Dust Bowl. “I had to shape myself to South Africa,” he explains. “For example, I respected the Afrikaners rather than condemned them. The only way to speak to the Afrikaner is through religion or rugby, and I chose rugby . . . My role was to shift the categories people were using to describe the South African groupings from ‘race,’ ‘ethnicity,’ ‘gender,’ and ‘class’ into the natural value-system patterns, allowing for a new dynamic of change. Many were able to connect across these great racial divides to find the basis for a sense of being ‘South African.’ ” He appeared on TV (especially on Good Morning Africa, the equivalent to Good Morning America), he wrote articles for newspapers, and he inserted himself into every high-level discussion about the future of the country that he could. He made a great many friends and more than a few enemies, some among progressive foreigners who felt he was too accommodating to the white power structure. Beck wanted to find solutions that took into account each of the many worldviews active in the politics of the country, and this didn’t sit well with many liberals. “I was advocating a different solution than what the postmodern system demanded, which was the instant redistribution of power, since the only reason for the European-African gaps in development, [according to that value system] was blatant racism.”
Exactly how influential Beck was with respect to the transformations that occurred in South Africa and the avoidance of civil war is uncertain. Without a doubt, he was a significant voice among the many contending for power and influence in that country in the late 1980s. What we do know is that the emerging idea of stages and worldviews in the evolution of human consciousness and culture had at last had its day in the political sun. It had gone from the sweeping theories of the Hegelians to the research studies of developmental psychologists to the intuitions of Gebser to the constructions of Habermas, and in the hands of an unexpected advocate it was taken out of the garage of theory and research and allowed to drive around in public. And most important, it played a small but perhaps not insignificant role in avoiding a civil war that would have set southern Africa back generations.
EXPLAINING A COMPLEX WORLD
Frankly, when I first read about Spiral Dynamics, I was unsure what to think. The whole idea seemed so unlikely. “Isn’t this oversimplistic?” I thought to myself. “An act of unbelievable hubris and reductionism? How could the extraordinary complexity of human culture be whittled down to essentially eight stages of development? Isn’t this exactly the kind of idea that allows us to mistreat and marginalize people of other races, creeds, and cultures?” But as I began to understand the tremendous subtlety and complexity of the theory, I was able to see the truth of it in my everyday experience. And as I identified these cultural codes in myself and in the people around me, and came to appreciate the rich intellectual pedigree of this evolutionary perspective, my initial fears were assuaged. Eventually, I actually began to naturally perceive the world through this spectrum of worldviews. Far from being reductionist, this fundamental idea was enriching my understanding of the human condition. I began to see these differing value sets not as merely good ideas or helpful pointers but as important truths—not absolute truths, not final truths, not scientific truths, but “orienting generalizations,” as Ken Wilber likes to say, that help to make profound sense out of the human experience.
Eventually, my fears were turned on their head. I began to see how clunky, ill-advised, and even dangerous it is to act in the world—socially, spiritually, politically, and especially militarily—with an ignorance of these basic worldviews that structure and condition our lives. Frankly, it’s like using nineteenth-century medicine in a twenty-first-century world. Instead of being a vehicle for marginalizing other people and cultures, this perspective is one that I came to see as an essential tool to prevent the mistreatment of other peoples and cultures.
Nevertheless, the idea remains controversial, and it will take some time for the understandable stigma associated with stages and hierarchy to work its way through the intellectual currents of our time. Here, again, it helps to keep a certain context. In evolutionary terms, it was not so long ago that human beings were using leeches on the sick or sacrificing babies to appease the gods. One day, I suspect, we will look back and feel similarly about how we have understood cultural development in our own age. That is not to imply that it’s easy to make a transition from theory to practice when it comes to the new perspective on evolution. The issues are so complex. Indeed, when it comes to applying the values of one worldview to a society steeped in the values of another, it is easier to do more harm than good. One person’s barbarian is another’s indigenous elder. One person’s genital mutilation is another’s sacred ritual. How and where do we make distinctions, draw the lines? And yet the idea that we should unilaterally adopt a hands-off policy when it comes to other cultures is a pretension we can ill afford in today’s world.
So we invade Iraq and think that they should be able to immediately embrace the freedoms of modernism and waltz into a democratic future. We’re surprised when they don’t welcome us with wide-open arms and shocked at the sectarian conflict that erupts. We struggle to understand the nature of tribal dynamics in Afghanistan. Scarred by our failures, we retreat to a live-and-let-live policy, or to a protected isolationism, and hope for peace. Or perhaps we resort to cynicism and embrace pessimistic views of history. Only, that doesn’t work either and another Pearl Harbor or 9/11 rouses us from our reverie, calling us to be proactive in the world. But then we imagine in our arrogance that we can quickly remake cultures in our own image, establishing modernism and democracy like some global Johnny Appleseed, distributing our idea of freedom behind the barrel of a well-intentioned gun. And so we alternate between a history-free, naïve idealism that believes too much is possible and a history-laden realism that has no faith in the future. An evolutionary worldview allows us to steer between those extremes and adopt the best attributes of both. Evolutionaries express an idealism that says the future is open-ended and extraordinary change and development is absolutely possible. But they also need to embrace a realism that acknowledges that evolution takes time and that it happens within the context of deep-rooted and complex historical patterns. To simply bypass these, avoid them, or pretend they don’t exist is to work in denial of real forces that are shaping the tides of history.
Spiral Dynamics also allows us to get out of the business, as Beck points out again and again, of expecting people to be different from how they are, to somehow change worldviews overnight. That’s not the path to pragmatic, workable global cultural evolution—at least not in the short term. “I’m not trying to change people,” Beck often says, by which he means he’s not trying to manipulate an individual’s basic worldview. “People have a right to be who they are.” But there are healthy and unhealthy expressions of each code in his spiral system, and some play better with others in our increasingly crowded global melting pot. Indeed, there is a huge difference between the traditional worldview of a Billy Graham and the one of an Osama bin Laden; the modernist spirit that sends people to the moon or the one that turns a blind eye to environmental destruction.
Of course, this cultural perspective is never going to be as simple or as easy to define as individual psychology. Evolutionary systems like Beck’s or those of other theorists tracking similar territory certainly do not constitute final proclamations on the nature of human culture. But no longer are they merely pet theories or shot-in-the-dark guesses as to how consciousness and culture evolve. Social science surveys indicate clearly that at least three dominant worldviews or value systems are active in the United States. They may not call them traditional, modern, and postmodern, but the data largely corroborate the developmentalists’ descriptions. How will we negotiate the dynamics between these worldviews in the years to come? Political pundits often evoke the memories of the good old times of the 1950s and ’60s when politicians were more bipartisan and we were able to get more positive legislation through a more amicable Congress. I have my doubts as to the accuracy of their rose-colored memories, but nonetheless, they are right about one thing. The cultural landscape is different today. The postmodern worldview became a force in the United States in the late 1960s and changed the cultural and political character of our country permanently. We should focus on understanding the new dynamics of a more complex world rather than longing for a modernist consensus that is lost forever.
Spiral Dynamics, along with other new theories of cultural evolution, represent some of the new fruits of the effort to understand this more complex world. But it will be up to future generations to use this emerging knowledge to reshape and transform the contours of our global culture—hopefully, much for the better.