Socio-Cultural Evolution 2 – worldviews

The table below was introduced in the first blog in this series socio-cultural evolution 1. It suggests that there are clearly identifiable stages of development of deep cultural value systems.


courtesy of ICE
Explaining the rich complexity of these conceptions is beyond our scope here. I will make a few points that hopefully start to clarify some of the key ideas:
  1. These worldviews appear in individuals as ‘mind-sets’ that underpin behaviour. When they coalesce in societies as dominant modes of thinking and being they can be identified as forming the basis of that communities organizing principles and norms of law and behaviour (ie: the centre of gravity of the ‘culture’ of that society).
  2. Each worldview provides a framework for meaning, an idea of what ‘the good life’ is and a distinct identity for the individual or community that identifies with that structure.
  3. These worldviews unfold developmentally in both individual lives and the bigger sweep of socio-cultural development. Each structure transcends and includes the previous one. A good way of visualising this for an individual is that our compound individuality consists of a number of ‘sub-selves’ much like a nest of Russian dolls. It is the interaction of this ‘committee’ of selves, each with their own worldview that makes up the richness of our character.russian-dolls
  4. This means we have to be very careful and sensitive when correlating individual stages of life such as infancy, childhood, adolescence and adulthood with cultural phases of development such as pre-traditional, traditional, modern etc. Although it can be demonstrated that these structures share similar cognitive foundations, they are obviously very different in many ways. (I have lost count of the number of times I have lost people on this when I crassly refer to entire communities as ‘adolescent’!!)
  5. A person or community is never ‘at’ a level. All the levels up to and including the highest stage realised is available as a crucial component in ones compound individuality and the key enduring competencies of any structure can be activated by suitable life conditions. Often the more stressful and threatening the situation, the more the foundational ‘survival’ structures are activated.
  6. It is meaningful however to identify the highest structure that has stably emerged in a society or individual. This will be the structure that is active when we are ‘at our best’ or, conversely, if we fail to act from our most inclusive and wise self we feel we have ‘let ourselves down’.


I would like to quote Wilber, to reinforce the inclusiveness of these models:
An Integral Synthesis, to be truly integral, must find a way that all of the major worldviews are basically true (even though partial). It is not that the higher levels are giving more accurate views, and that the lower levels are giving falsity, superstition or primitive nonsense. There must be a sense in which even ‘childish’ magic and Santa Claus myths are true. For those worldviews are simply the way the world looks at that level, or from that wave, and all the waves are crucial ingredients of the Kosmos….
….It will do no good to say “Well we have evolved beyond that stage, and so we now know that Santa Claus is not real,” because if that is true – and all stages are shown to be primitive and false in light of further evolution – then we will have to admit that our own views, right now, are also false. It is not that there is one level of reality, and those other views are all primitive and incorrect versions of that one level. Each of these views is a correct view of a lower yet fundamentally important level of reality, not an incorrect view of the one real level. The notion of development allows us to recognize nested truths, not primitive superstitions.    Wilber, A Theory of Everything

I like this passage as it really emphasises the inclusive aim of the integral project. The next post in this series will try and flesh out some of the contours and characteristics of the major worldviews.

I would also like to highly recommend the system of worldview analysis that is Spiral Dynamics. It is a very elegant system that uses colour codings to identify at least 8 distinct ‘Value Meme’s’. It is one of the most useful models in that the terminology facilitates very precise analysis and diagnosis of the complex multi-dimensional meshing of these systems and how they play out in the real world.

Some links to follow:
SDi home website:         Spiral
An excellent book review:  Spiral Dynamics book review Esalen
Ken Wilber’s summary of the model:  Ken Wilber on SD




Socio-Cultural Evolution 1- surface/deep culture

I want to launch into the controversial topic of socio-cultural evolution. This is the idea that there can be identified certain cross-cultural stages of development that appear to be universal.

Firstly we need to make an important distinction. We can distinguish between two aspects of any culture:

exterior/surface culture

Surface culture includes all the superficial expressions of a culture. Whether we wear a sari or a suit, wear a bowler hat or a headscarf, eat curry or fish and chips, pray in a church or a mosque, listen to reggae or bangra, drive on the left or the right, celebrate Eid or Christmas. These are the things that make life vibrant, interesting and colourful. They are what most people mean when talking of the joys of multi-culturalism, diversity and tolerance. They are the aspects of culture where there is no better or worse or higher and lower. There is simply personal preference, historical familiarity and sentimental attachment. Although we need to be sensitive to peoples preferences and fear of the unfamiliar there is no question of legitimately ranking these aspects of culture in terms of ‘more evolved’ or ‘less evolved’.

interior/deep culture

Deep culture refers to the hidden value systems and world-views that lie behind the surface expressions. Whether we believe in gender equality or misogyny, whether we believe in individual freedom or subservience to a theocratic dogma. Is truth handed down from the king, an omnipotent deity or do we need to use reason to struggle towards understanding the universe? Is our primary allegiance to elders and the clan, our nation state or all of humanity? How do we understand concepts like honour, freedom, guilt and duty?

These are the aspects of cultures that can legitimately be studied and examined for patterns and stages. We can attempt to outline how these stages could be related in a holonic way, with each stage transcending and including the last. Perhaps to see how modern, progressive and inclusive worldviews are a result of building on successive stages of previous development. This will enable us to honour and respect the contributions of all worldviews whilst negating the negative effects of their partiality.

We may then have a framework for trying to discuss and untangle some of the enormous cultural dynamics that the globalised world is facing today.

An organisation at the forefront of developing these ideas is the Institute for Cultural Evolution.

This excellent paper on their site explores the philosophy underpinning this approach:

Premises and Principles of an Evolutionary Worldview

The next post on this topic will introduce some of the cultural worldviews that have been identified in these types of models. As a taster here is an excellent diagram from the ICE that illustrates the sort of information that can be organized using this approach. I will be using this diagram extensively!

1_X5JZveA4ZcOkFQvCDYbK-A[1]courtesy of Institute for Cultural Evolution