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Does Sociocultural Evolution Exist?
Integral Theorists Say It's So, But Not Everyone Agrees
The topic of cultural development is one of the most important and controversial in integral theory, and one of the easiest to misuse. What’s more, miscommunications about sociocultural evolution can easily create defensive reactions, harmed human relations, and invite rejection of all aspects of integrative philosophy.
The Institute for Cultural Evolution makes a valiant effort at talking about this topic, offering an explanation in only 700 words. They try hard to avoid pushing buttons. Instead of speaking about levels of consciousness, they speak of “cultural intelligence.” Instead of altitudes, they speak of “worldviews.” Instead of speaking about some levels being further along developmentally, they speak of their “mutual interdependence,” or of the values of all levels having “legitimacy” and an “ongoing necessity.”
Is this deception or sleight of hand? Not really. I think it’s actually an example of skillful communication performed from a metamodern, or “second-tier” (teal+) perspective, one which is broad enough to include multiple and seemingly contradictory levels of meaning. An evolved worldview recognizes that “first-tier” (amber, orange, green) thinking uses words as instruments of rhetorical warfare, assertions of their own values as superior to every one of their opponents’ words. Hence, the integralist uses rhetoric to make peace as a prelude to social goods. They try to find words that can be understood and embraced by a wide spectrum of developmental positions with a minimum of unnecessary anger.
Once this task is done, the integralist’s work of applying wisdom is just beginning. The theorist of cultural intelligence must get on with building bridges in a world where there is virtually no common ground left to be found. To do this, the ICE attempts to trace polarized political views to their fundamental value structures, where potential opportunities for evolving them could arise. They make the bed for odd bedfellows.
How cultural development is handled in a political think tank is fascinating, but it’s just one example. Although the front part of the ICE website uses this concept, it doesn’t dig deeper to defend the proposition that societies and cultures evolve.
One example of an integral theorist making the case for development is Ken Wilber’s Chapter 12 of Integral Psychology. In short order, he defines some integral models of sociocultural development and explains how they can be applied. This exposition entails carefully distinguishing these models from psychological and other models such as the perennial philosophy. His four-quadrant model of reality helps in this respect because he can situate them in the Lower-Right (social) and Lower-Left (cultural) boxes.
Wilber assembles an impressive array of twentieth-century thinkers who have advanced sophisticated theories of sociocultural evolution such as Jean Gebser and Jurgen Hambermas, criticizes their shortcomings while embracing their overall paradigm. Borrowing from Gebser, he claims that social history can be seen as a progression from archaic to magic to mythic to mental to integral experiences; and he adds psychic, causal, and nondual on top of those. Wilber agrees with Hambermas that universal pragmatics and communicative action constitute an advance in modern developmental theory, but he faults it for inadequately understanding both pre-rational and trans-rational developments.
Although existing models of sociocultural evolution exist, Wilber does not feel that these are adequate to overcoming a host of objections from postmodern theorists and liberal thinkers. Therefore, he offers five understandings that a truly adequate theory should follow:
That progress unfolds dialectically with dignities and disasters;
That evolution involves both differentiation and dissociation;
That evolution includes both transcendence and repression;
That evolution includes both natural hierarchies and pathological hierarchies; and
That higher evolutionary structures can be sabotaged by lower drives.
Finally, Wilber points to his book Up From Eden as an example of how such a sophisticated integral model might look when more fully fleshed out.
In Wilber’s view, an integral theory of cultural development is a nuanced and multi-faceted one that incorporates pioneering thinkers such as Gebser and Habermas, includes Wilber’s five suggestions, and delves deep into making careful distinctions for the benefit of helping society to evolve out of its present conflicts.
It may be the case that every integral theorist has their own version of a developmental model, one that may or may not look like Wilber’s. Some well-known theories have been written about and partially actualized in recent decades within the evolutionary community, from Spiral Dynamics to Integral Politics to metamodern social criticism. The merits of an evolutionary approach to sociocultural thinking can be judged by such fruits, and by endeavors yet to come.
Of course, none of this has stopped ferocious criticism of stage theories from postmodern academia and the progressive left. They have raised powerful objections that are compelling to a great many people. They have complained about alleged arrogance, Western colonialism, oversimplification of history, neglect of the creative and experimental structures of pre-Enlightenment cultures, and many more issues. Many of these criticisms attack strawmen that don’t reflect Wilber’s nuanced, reconstructed theory of sociocultural evolution, but some (I think) strike a chord.
What’s more, some thinkers have even argued that even if integral developmental models are true, they shouldn’t be widely used because most people aren’t ready to embrace them. This point of view probably comes closest to representing the dominant chord in my own thinking on the subject. I am not too much impressed by the postmodern pluralist (green) critique of stage theory, but they’re right on the money to warn us against arrogance.
One of the biggest shortcomings of developmental thinking is that people inevitably imagine a stairway to heaven; and having done so, highly developed people tend to see themselves at the top of the ladder (or second-to-top), and this harms their self-worth by inflating it; and lesser developed people tend to see themselves at the bottom, and this harms their self-worth by depreciating it.
These tendencies also apply when it comes to forming judgments about entire cultures and social groups, so that self-esteem is potentially harmed all around. The prospect of people using integral theory to go around attacking the faith or culture or values of another group as “less than” their own is an ugly one. Having said that, it doesn’t mean that developmental theory is wrong or useless, only that it’s dangerous in the wrong hands.
Philosophical theories involving hierarchies of worldviews aren’t new, but in centuries past they were often shared only secretly. In a way, Integral theory is aiming to bring a treasure trove of deep esoteric wisdom concerning spiritual development from the Great Traditions into conversation with psychology, philosophy, and cultural studies. But if talking openly about development is a non-starter because people aren’t ready to hear it, then it may be best used primarily among the already convinced or to persons highly open to new ideas, and spoken “in code” in some other contexts.
Perhaps most of the public isn’t ready today to receive insights from developmental studies, but this could be changing. If projects like the Institute for Cultural Evolution (among many other integral endeavors) succeed at making developmental theory relevant for everyday conversations, then we may be witnessing the dawn of a major cultural novelty: enhanced cultural awareness of social evolution, acceptance of its relevance, and willingness to look within the self and at culture to find worlds in need of growth.