Integral World: Exploring Theories of Everything
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

Andy SmithAndrew P. Smith, who has a background in molecular biology, neuroscience and pharmacology, is author of e-books Worlds within Worlds and the novel Noosphere II, which are both available online. He has recently self-published "The Dimensions of Experience: A Natural History of Consciousness" (Xlibris, 2008).



Civilizations, Spiral Dynamics,
and the Emergence of a Global Holon

Andrew P. Smith


The terrorist attacks on New York and Washington have raised public awareness of fundamental differences existing not simply between nations, but between entire civilizations. Spiral Dynamics offers some tools for understanding some of these differences, but its projections into the future can be challenged on a number of grounds. A broader approach based on universal principles that apply throughout the holarchy illuminates several important issues, including 1) the driving forces of cultural change; 2) the critical distinction between transformation and transcendence; and 3) the features of a possible universal or global culture that might emerge from today’s conflicting civilizations.


The events of Sept. 11, as the mass murder/suicide is calmly referred to in intellectual articles like this one, have unearthed an aching urge among Americans to understand what is, and has been, going on. Why do many people in other parts of the world apparently have such a deep hatred for us? What must we do, how must we change, to address their grievances? And most important of all, where is all this likely to lead the world?

A consensus seems to be building around two fundamental points. First, the perpetrators of the attack on America, and their collaborators, must be punished. If they are to be loved at all, let us give them what Ken Wilber calls "tough love"–the kind that unflinchingly sees through the subject’s personal facades, rationalizations and defenses, and prescribes a treatment designed to force the subject to see through them, too. And second, the perpetrators, small in number and crazy in mind as they may be, do represent a much larger segment of humanity whose differences with us can no longer be ignored.

Huntington’s Disease

What are these differences? An excellent and much-discussed starting point into this topic has been provided by Harvard’s Samuel Huntington, whose article "The Clash of Civilizations?" describes our world as dominated by eight or so major cultural groups–Western, Chinese, Japanese, Hindu, Islamic, Slavic, Hispanic and African–which in his view now replace nation states as the units of human societies whose interactions determine global events (Huntington1993). Huntington’s article was written nearly a decade before the events of Sept. 11, and looks highly prescient, for the attack on America quite surely represents a conflict not between any two countries, but between two civilizations, Western and Islamic. One of Huntington’s major theses is that this represents a new shift in the world order, and provides a glimpse into the form that future global conflicts will take.

However, it’s one thing to identify the players, another to understand the game. "Civilizations," says Huntington, "are differentiated from each other by history, language, culture, tradition and, most important, religion." Yet each of the civilizations Huntington identifies exhibits substantial heterogeneity with respect to at least one of these factors, and Western civilization is heterogeneous in all of them. Though religion has unquestionably been at the heart of many of the world’s deepest and most enduring conflicts, it plays little if any role in the dynamics existing between the West and most other civilizations at this time except Islamic; conversely, it is in the forefront of conflicts within civilizations–in Northern Ireland, for example, in China, and even in America. It is a mistake, Huntington advises us, to consider differences between countries "in terms of their political or economic systems or in terms of their level of economic development." Yet our differences with Japan reside virtually one hundred percent in the way we relate to a common economic system; our differences with mainland China are enormously exacerbated because we support Taiwan, which has a "history, language, culture, tradition and religion" identical with those of the mainland. Many Israelis are far closer, in all those parameters excepting religion, to the Islamic world than to the West.[1]

So while not denying Huntington’s premise that today’s most important conflicts are between civilizations, we must be careful about identifying the root sources of these conflicts. I believe Huntington himself fails to see that these civilizations are not simply different from each other, but different in kind. Students of anthropology often compare societies or cultures by making a table, and listing the equivalent features of each. For example, what kind of family structure does the society have? What kind of economic organization? What religion? And so on. But if we try to compare Huntington’s civilizations in this manner, we quickly see that some of them have categories that others do not. Many of the most important issues confronting one civilization are not even recognized as issues by another.

Suppose we compare our Western civilization with Islamic, for example. Ours makes much more use of computers and the internet than Muslim societies do. It would be possible, but certainly oversimplifying the situation, to conclude that we merely have a different way of communicating from the way the Islamic world does. We are not talking here about two languages, one with a very different structure from the other. We’re talking about an entirely different level of communication, where social interactions occur that don’t exist, or exist to much less a degree, in a civilization lacking this type of communication. Similarly, it would be highly misleading to compare science, as the West’s way of knowing the world, directly with Islamic knowledge as found in the teachings of their religion, or though other customs that have grown up over time in their civilization. Science fulfills roles, and raises both opportunities and problems, that are invisible to traditional Islamic society.

In short, a weakness of Huntington’s analysis, as Ken Wilber has recently pointed out (2001), is that it lacks a sense of the vertical. Civilizations are not simply "tectonic plates"; they are growing, evolving organisms, and some are much more evolved than others. As these vertical dimensions become more evident to us, we come to appreciate that the conflicts they engender–that is, the conflicts between levels or stages–are much more fundamental, and difficult to deal with, than those that occur on the same level. In Wilber’s terminology, the differences are not translative but transformative. Moreover, since civilizations, as Huntington is certainly correct to emphasize, provide us with much of our identity, these conflicts are about different kinds or levels of identity. They are not just about what we identify with, but how we identify with it.

This understanding leads to a very different view of what the conflicts are between civilizations. Consider again the relationship between the West and Islam. In the common perception, the key difference between these two civilizations is that Islam believes in Mohammad, Allah, and the teachings of the Koran, whereas the West has a scientific worldview (tempered perhaps with Christianity). According to the view I am suggesting here, which I will be elaborating as we go on, the real difference is that members of Islam have some belief (which happens to involve the Koran) which is much more important to their identity than any belief is to those of us in the West. The Islamic identity to a very large degree derives from their conception of Allah, and their relationship to Allah. The identity of those of us in the West, in contrast, is not heavily dependent on our relationship to any one concept, but is constructed from our relationships to many different concepts. So the crux of the problem is not that Muslims believe one thing, while Westerners believe something else. It’s that the nature of belief itself is very different in the two different civilizations.

The Never-Closing Circle

A different way of classifying civilizations, not inconsistent with Huntington’s yet adding the critical vertical dimension to it, is offered by Spiral Dynamics (SD), formulated by the late Clare Graves, and now popularized by Don Beck (Beck 2000). SD, which will probably be familiar to most readers at this site, also identifies about half a dozen or so cultures or civilizations, which are conveniently labeled by colors such as beige, red, purple, blue, orange and green. The beige-purple—red end of this spectrum is represented by primitive tribes or feudal societies living at a subsistence or near subsistence level; these are the earliest types of human societies to have appeared on earth, and still exist in some areas of the world today. Blue cultures are characterized by highly authoritarian nations, common today in the less developed world. Orange is the modern, free-market state found in the West, while green is a more liberal, tolerant culture that significant numbers of people within the West seem to be adopting. Each of these cultures has, in addition to a distinct type of political, social and economic organization, a distinct worldview, reflected in a particular set of customs, morals, values and beliefs of its citizens.

Beck’s cultures don’t correspond in any simple way to those named by Huntington, which would be more familiar to conventional students of political science. Several of Huntington’s civilizations might be described by Beck as representing the same kind of culture; for example, Chinese and Islamic civilizations are basically blue, while Western and Japanese are orange. Moreover, most if not all of Huntington’s civilizations contain more than one type of culture as defined by Beck. Thus tribal groups are found in many blue cultures, and even in the inner cities of orange cultures in the West. In fact, even in the absence of such subgroups, the people in any one civilization are not likely to be uniform in their views. In the West, large numbers of people have a cultural view characteristic of people in blue societies, others have an orange worldview, while still others have a green worldview. For this reason, a culture in Beck’s sense is commonly defined in terms of its center of gravity, the stage at which a majority of its members seem to exist.

The most important difference between the two classifications, however, is that SD is an evolutionary model, and therefore recognizes the critical vertical dimension. It does not simply identify and describe different types of cultures, but claims that they emerge, develop and change according to certain rules. Thus beige cultures are the first to evolve, followed by purple and the other color types. One type of culture can’t develop into any other type of culture, but only into one particular other type (and in Beck’s view, much of the world’s problems result from our ignorance of this law, and our attempts to violate it). Stasis, regression or extinction of a particular culture are also possible, but skipping stages–going from beige to blue, for example, or from red to orange–is not, nor is it possible for certain cultures to go off in a different direction, traversing a spectrum completely different from that of other cultures.

SD fits well with still broader evolutionary models, and in particular with Ken Wilber’s holarchy (Wilber 1995). The cultures proposed by SD, like any other form of existence, are holons, with each culture, according to Wilber, transcending and including the previous. Thus an orange culture is considered to be not simply a different culture from a blue one, but a higher, more advanced one. More advanced in what sense? In every sense, actually, but perhaps the easiest way to appreciate the vertical dimension is by observing the dynamics proposed to occur when one culture makes the transition to another. A particular type of culture emerges, according to Beck, because it satisfies the needs of its members; at a certain point in its development, however, it confronts needs that it can’t satisfy, and which can be satisfied only through development to the next stage. Thus a blue, authoritarian society initially develops by satisfying the needs of its members for, among other things, security against other societies. To the extent that this society is successful in achieving this aim, it creates a populace that eventually takes its benefits for granted, and begins to chafe for greater freedoms, such as the ability to own their own businesses, or to criticize their nation’s leaders. These freedoms can’t be provided by the blue structure; they can be provided, however, if the blue evolves into the orange, free market type of society. In this sense, as well as in others that I will discuss as we go along, we can rank these societies in a hierarchical order. Each type of culture satisfies the needs satisfied by those below it, and thus includes the earlier cultures; but also satisfies new needs, or provides new degrees of freedom, in this way transcending the earlier (though as we shall see later, transcend is not really the correct term).

From this point of view, it follows that the often bewildering differences in customs, morals, values, beliefs and so on between people of different cultures or civilizations are not simply the highly contingent and largely unpredictable outcome of evolution under different conditions, but to some extent reflect an orderly process. In other words, while SD would certainly agree with Huntington that members of different civilizations in the world today are not all on the same page, it claims that we are all reading from the same book, and must eventually read all the same pages. This is a fairly strong claim, and certainly injects a hopeful, optimistic tone into our future. The problem, according to SD, is not so much getting everyone to agree on where we should go as everyone becoming aware of where we are going.

But where are we going? In Beck’s view, evolution is open-ended. Though cultures develop through certain characteristic stages, there is a great deal of fluidity in both the rate at which they develop, and in the form in which they manifest the basic traits of a particular stage. Most significant, in Beck’s view, there is no end to the process. While Western orange/green societies are more advanced and progressive than the red/blue cultures of other civilizations, the West, just as much as these other civilizations, has immense problems that can be overcome only by evolution into still higher stages. If blue evolution into orange overcomes certain problems unresolvable within the framework of assumptions underlying blue, orange must likewise evolve into green, a multicultural society that has begun to develop in America and in other parts of the West. But green, too, has its problems, and must evolve into still higher stages. Beck has labeled these stages as yellow, turquoise, and coral, and even further, teal and plum.

If such stages are real possibilities, we might ask whether at some point they would create a post-civilization planet, one in which the clash of civilizations has been reconciled in the form of a truly universal global culture. However, at present, these stages are mostly hypothetical. According to Beck’s analysis, there are no yellow, yet alone turquoise or coral, societies; there are only a few individuals who may have, or be developing, the worldview that would be characteristic of someone living in such a society. But even this worldview is difficult to describe. Beck and Wilber commonly refer to the higher stages as "second tier" or "worldcentric", meaning that individuals at this stage are looking beyond their own culture and civilization to entertain the well being of the entire planet. It would seem then, that this development would be closely related to some of the higher stages of consciousness in Wilber’s model, where one transcends identity with the individual or bodymind. On the other hand, such states have traditionally been considered to be realizable only by long, intense spiritual practices. Because the individuals realizing them have been quite rare throughout history, there is no model of the kind of culture they might correspond to. Indeed, from the descriptions of these states that appear in the literature, might one well ask whether they are compatible with, or relevant to, any kind of human society.

As noted earlier, however, SD is really just a portion of a much broader holarchical view. This view, I believe, reveals a number of universal or at least very general principles that may help us understand where the evolution of civilizations could be headed. I will discuss some of these principles here, and in particular address the issues of 1) the forces that drive evolution through different stages of cultures; 2) the kinds of evolutionary changes that cultures and other types of holons can undergo; 3) the form that a universal culture, what I call a global holon, would likely take; and 4) the nature of human consciousness in such a hypothetical future civilization.

The Direction of Connection

If we are to gain any insight into the future of human societies, surely one of the first questions we need to ask is how cultures change–what are the driving forces? As noted above, Beck claims that a lower culture, such as blue, evolves into a higher one, such as orange, because the latter resolves certain problems that can’t be resolved within the framework or worldview of the former. This view echoes Wilber’s more general one of evolution throughout the holarchy, developed more than two decades ago, where a new level emerges when existence at one level is frustrated from developing further. Only the emergence of a higher level can reconcile these problems (Wilber 1980).

Beck/Wilber, therefore, are claiming–whether they would care to put it this way or not–that new cultures emerge for much the same reason that new species do: because they are fitter in some way than what preceded them. They are able to compete more effectively with existing cultures, as well as, perhaps, with a variety of challenges from the non-human world.

Selection, however, is only part of evolution[2]. It makes the final choice, but does not determine what the candidates are. To say that orange societies are fitter in some sense than blue still begs the question: how does one get from blue to orange? What are the forces impinging on a society that create a new one that is fitter?

One way to approach this question is to ask, what does it really mean for one society to be higher or more advanced than another?[3] Beyond giving a specific example, such as orange society permits more individual freedom than blue society, what is it about this kind of society that makes this greater freedom possible? My claim is that there is a very simple answer to this question: the degree of development of a society depends directly on the number and complexity of interactions of its members. The greater the number and variety of social interactions, the more evolved that culture. Thus members of a blue culture have more interactions with each other than those of a red culture, and these interactions are more complex than those of red, orange members have more social interactions than blue, and green more than orange.

Before considering some of the evidence for this claim, and discussing how it leads to an understanding of the forces driving evolution of societies, let’s consider the situation at lower levels of the holarchy. It’s very easy to demonstrate that the relationship I just formulated is a universal principle, operating not just with human societies but at all levels of existence we are aware of. Consider the evolution of atoms into higher forms of life. This begins when atoms interact, that is form chemical bonds, with each other, to form molecules. Molecules are considered to be a higher form of life than atoms--they have emergent properties that atoms don’t have--and they do so precisely because of these interactions. A molecule is more than the sum of its atoms only by virtue of these interactions.

Molecules, in turn, may then form bonds with other molecules like themselves, forming still larger and more complex molecules (a protein, for example), which have still newer emergent properties. These more complex molecules, however, feature not only a greater number of interactions among their atomic components, but also a greater variety and complexity. In very small molecules, the interactions among atoms are mostly direct, resulting from the bonding between an atom and its immediately adjacent neighbors. As molecules become larger, however, the number of immediate neighbors any atom has becomes very small relative to the total number of atoms present. In these circumstances, indirect interactions become much more prominent and significant in understanding the properties of the entire holon. One atom may influence many other atoms very distant from it. Without going into details of how this is accomplished (see Smith 2001c), we can simply note that these indirect interactions are often quite complex, and generally become both more numerous, and more complex, as higher molecular holons emerge.

This principle plays out on the next level of the holarchy as well. The evolution of molecules eventually culminates in cells, which interact with one another to create still higher forms of existence–tissues, organs and organisms. In these multicellular holons, too, indirect interactions come to dominate, with cells in one part of the body affecting those in distant parts. Thus cells in the brain and in the endocrine glands can have a critical impact on the behavior of very large numbers of cells that they have no direct contact with. And the higher, more evolved the organism, the more numerous these indirect interactions, and the more prominent a role they play.

To summarize, then, and as discussed in detail elsewhere (Smith 2001d,e), whenever holons interact with each other, they create a higher form of existence. Though such interactions are horizontal, or hetarchical, they result in vertical or hierarchical change. And the greater the hierarchical change, the greate r the contribution of indirect hetarchy.

Now let’s consider this process in human societies, where the interactions involve communication between individuals. In the earliest societies, tribal cultures in the beige or purple area of the spectrum, interactions between people were almost entirely direct and in the present: one member communicated with another through language or through some nonverbal means. Two people not in each other’s physical presence (within sight, hearing or smell) generally could not communicate with each other, or could do so only crudely, by leaving some sign of their previous presence.

Over time, the frequency of these direct interactions changed. As language developed, one of its most important consequences was that it allowed an increasing amount of information to be communicated from one person to another in some length of time. For example, using language, one person can not only communicate to another, say, the presence of some game animal at some place, but can describe that place in great detail. Language, even its nascent stages, also made it possible to describe events temporally, to say when something happened or will happen. This kind of information exchange is largely beyond the capabilities of other animals, and the amount of information that could be communicated in this manner grew steadily as oral language developed.

But even more significant, the development of language also made it possible for humans to communicate with one another indirectly, that is, with people not in their physical presence. One example of indirect communication that emerged very early in our history is the handing down of oral traditions; by this means, members of a society no longer living were able to communicate with those who were. A second example was the establishment of customs, mores, rules and laws; again, these constitute a form of communication between people or groups of people who not only are not in each other’s physical presence, but who may not even be contemporary. A third example is the use of symbols that could be permanently engraved on cave walls, on utensils, or on various types of artifacts.

New advances in communication have continued to occur throughout our history–written language, logic, mathematics, science, the printing press, telephone, television, computers, the internet--and most significant, all of these advances have increased not only the number of social interactions–that is, the number of other people any single individual can communicate with–but have added new levels of complexity to these interactions. For example, to write a letter to someone who lives a great distance away is one kind of indirect communication. To write a book that is read by many distant people is a different kind, not simply because the number of people reached is much greater, but because the nature or the content of communication with each person is unique. Furthermore, communication achieved in this way may result instill other interactions. Thus if someone reads a book and then discusses it with someone who hasn’t read the book, the author of the book is now communicating through another layer of indirectness. This is an example of what I mean when I refer to increasing complexity of social interactions.

In should be obvious that in modern, orange/green Western societies, both the number and complexity of social interactions is greater than ever before in history. This incomprehensibly intricate web not only enables each of us to communicate with a truly vast number of other people–now approaching literally everyone in our society–but to do so in multiple ways, ranging from direct face-to-face meetings to the kind of indirect interaction where participants are not only not known to each other, but are frequently not even aware that communication is going on. And to reiterate, this situation is highly analogous to the relationships that exist between holons on lower levels of existence. The nature of human communication is, of course, quite different from that between cells or atoms, but the principle is very much the same. In every case, holons are interacting in increasingly more complex ways, leading to an increasingly evolved social structure of these holons.

In conclusion, then, the differences between the stages of societies identified by SD can be related directly to the number and complexity of social interactions of their members. With this understanding, we are now in a position to predict some of the forces that are likely to play a major role in social evolution. They are anything that potentially increases these interactions.[4 ]

One such force would be increasing population, because that not only generally increases the number of interactions between people in a society, but makes it likely that the complexity of interactions will also increase--as when, for example, groups begin to coalesce within this society, as interacting units composed of many people. The larger the population of a society, the more necessary it becomes for smaller groups of more manageable size to form. When they do form, they set up situations of indirect communication, as when an individual in one group communicates , through the group, to an individual of another group.

A growth in population by itself, of course, will not ensure that a society evolves to a new stage, nor can we point to a simple relationship between population size and complexity. But population growth is definitely a force making evolution more likely. When such growth suddenly explodes, assuming it does not exceed the capabilities of the society to provide its people with their basic needs, the probability of emergence of a new stage increases.

As just implied, another major force in social evolution is new developments in political, economic or social organization. The earliest cultures tended to have very little organization. A primitive band might have a leader, but generally people communicated freely and directly with others. As societies began to create organization–for example, separate classes of people who were responsible for different forms of labor--lines of indirect communication began to form. People within a subgroup may communicate directly with each other, while their interactions with people of other subgroups are most frequently indirect. Centralized, blue type cultures accelerated this trend, because in order for a central authority to control a large population, there must be several layers of delegations through which orders flow. Even a dictator must have a group of trusted officials to carry out his orders, and these officials, in turn, depend on still others to reach everyone in the population. Direct communication occurs among members of each layer, and to a lesser extent between members of adjacent layers. But most communication of individuals between layers is indirect, and the further two layers are from each other, the more indirect the communication is.

Democracy, even as it broke down centralized authority, increased social interactions even further, in large part because this type of government allows individuals to be members of more than one subgroup simultaneously. Huntington notes that a citizen of Rome is also an Italian, a Catholic, a Christian and a European; but she is in addition perhaps an employee of some company, a member of several social clubs, a volunteer, and a committee member. Membership in such a large number of both hierarchical and hetarchical groups creates the potential for an enormous number of indirect interactions with others.

A third force that increases the complexity of interactions among people, as made explicit in the earlier discussion, is new advances in communications technology--or indeed, in any form of technology, regardless of what it's called, that increases social interactions. Thus not only modern communications media, but also automobiles, airplanes and other modern forms of transportation have greatly contributed to the complexity of social interactions. In fact, almost all forms of modern technology have this effect, because they sustain large urban organizations where it is mandatory for individuals to interact with large numbers of other people in their everyday lives.

This last point might seem counterintuitive to some people. It’s often claimed that modern Western technology has a profoundly alienating effect on human beings, robbing them of social interactions, not enriching them with them. If by social interactions one means direct, face-to-face encounters , this charge is often true. As societies evolve on Beck’s spectrum, something is definitely lost, a point I will return to later. However, what is lost is not sociality as I define it, but only the most direct forms of it. Using the broader version of sociality, it’s clear that Westerners are among the most social people on earth.

These forces that I have just described,, and others that also promote greater social interactions, don't operate completely independently of one another, of course. They often enhance one another, as for example when new forms of technology promote political changes, or population growth induces development of new technology. The essential point, though, is that the concept of increasing social interaction provides a focal point for identifying the underlying dynamics of social change. Any force that increases social interactions is a force that will tend to drive a culture to evolve to a higher form.

Lifelines and Safety Nets

With this view of the relationship of social interactions to the evolution of societies, let’s return to the issue of how we are to compare the different civilizations identified by Huntington. As I suggested earlier, the most significant conflicts between civilizations take place on the vertical scale, between cultures of a different color, in the parlance of SD. This is not to belittle the very real differences that even people of the same cultural stage can have, but in these cases there is at least a common language that is largely lacking when different levels are involved.

To highlight the difference, consider a simple metaphor: a man hanging by a rope over an abyss. The rope is the man’s literal lifeline. It’s the focus of all his attention; nothing else matters to him. He will hang on with all of his might, and to the best of his powers, defend the rope against anyone or anything that threatens it.

Now imagine that a series of ropes are thrown to the man, so he is no longer dependent on just one, but has several that can save him. In the limit, we can imagine the construction of a web of such ropes–literally a safety net. While this net is just as essential to this man’s life as the rope was before, no individual strand of the net carries such importance. Cutting a strand may weaken the net, but it will not destroy it. Consequently, the man no longer thinks in terms of particular strands, but in terms of the entire net.

The man hanging by the rope represents a member of purple, red or possibly blue society, and specifically, let us say an Islamic culture. The rope is the man’s belief in Allah, Mohammad and the Koran. It is the main lifeline that connects him to his society, giving him meaning in life and making him feel secure.

The man hanging in the net we will take as a member of the West. The net is constructed of multiple interlocking principles–for example, freedom of speech and other acts of the bill of rights; a scientific, materialist view of existence; a belief in the sanctity of private property; the right to compete in an open marketplace. These and other principles, the strands of the net, have been woven through numerous interactions between him and other people of his society; that is, they were derived over a long period of time through complex legal, social and cultural processes.

The net fulfills much the same ultimate function as the rope, providing the man with meaning and security. Yet the rope and the net are clearly very different. One way to highlight the difference is to imagine the response of each man to a challenge to his source of meaning. To criticize the Koran, to attack it in any way, is to threaten the believer’s lifeline, and thus his life. It is to cut off all meaning in his life. Just how serious Muslims take such criticism–and not just a few hard-line terrorists, but the great majority of the one billion members of this civilization–was shown by the death sentence imposed on author Salman Rushdie for publishing such criticisms. Such a response makes it very clear that Muslims believe their society is not simply insulted, but threatened to its core, by any challenge to the Koran. And to the extent that the Koran is the main lifeline of these believers, the response is quite rational.

This kind of response to criticism would be inconceivable in the West, to the man in the net. Americans generally don’t react with such fear or hostility to challenges to their beliefs[5]. This is partly because the net-like structure of their system means that no one belief or principle is essential. To attack one particular principle, to cut one strand, is not to cut them all. But the difference goes much deeper than that. The heart of it lies in the fact that each of these principles, itself, has a multi-strand nature. The net is woven so tightly that it is impossible to isolate a single strand. So tightly, indeed, that the net is virtually uncuttable by any type of direct criticism.

The classic illustration of this condition is freedom of speech. For a society to honor the principle of free speech, it must tolerate virtually any criticism, including criticism of free speech itself. So if someone wants to criticize free speech, or any other American principle, she will certainly provoke an argument, but no one will feel deeply threatened by that view. Even if the opponent tries to broaden the attack, making a reference to "the American way of life", the security of a typical American is still not threatened. As all real Americans know, such arguments, far from weakening our system, actually strengthen it. The more they are allowed to take place, the firmer the support becomes. This is just because "the American way of life" means, as much as anything else, the right to bitch to one’s heart’s content.

Freedom of speech–and other Western principles as well–is therefore in a very real sense a paradoxical concept. To attack these freedoms is to support them, and to defend them is sometimes (as when we profile Arab airline passengers) to attack them. It’s not that the concept of free speech doesn’t exist; it’s that it exists in a realm beyond words. This makes all our efforts to describe it in words–including any attempts either to praise it or to criticize it–ultimately fail.

How did such paradoxical concepts emerge? They are the product of any society with a large degree of complex, indirect interactions among its members. The greater the degree of indirectness, the more layers intervening between two communicating individuals, the further removed ideas, principles and beliefs become from the direct descriptions provided by simple language. The concept of freedom of speech represents, in effect, the end result of a communicative act begun with individuals who are no longer alive today, but who are still interacting with us over the centuries. And though the paradoxical nature of these beliefs means we can’t really express them in words, all members of our society do have an understanding of them (some of us more than others, though), an understanding that goes beyond words. Our ability to understand them is a key characteristic of our worldview, one that distinguishes us from cultures where this understanding is not present, or much less developed.

This, then, is the heart of the conflict between the West and Islam. What a Westerner means when he says he believes something (in the social sphere) is frequently very different from what a typical member of Islamic civilization means when he says he believe something. The specific beliefs of Islam as found in the Koran are much less significant to this conflict than the simple fact that they are specific.

Of course, not all Muslims believe in the Koran with the single-mindedness that I have described here. Many people might protest that I have in fact singled out what may be a fairly small minority. In a very perceptive analysis, Ray Harris recently pointed out that there are many Muslims who adopt a much more moderate view of the Koran (Harris 2001). But there are degrees of moderation. One degree rejects killing of nonbelievers, any acts of war or terrorism against the West or other non-Muslim civilizations, but still may be very defensive about the Koran. As I noted earlier, there was widespread support in the Muslim world for the fatwah against Rushdie; though there were significant Muslim voices speaking up in his defense, the numbers allied against him in no way were comparable to the number of Muslims now advocating terror against the West.

Another degree of moderation goes beyond the notion of war against non-believers, and is open to other non-literal interpretations of the Koran and other holy texts. Moderates in this second sense make up a much smaller number of Muslims, and one might argue that they are really no longer typical members of Islamic civilization, but more Western (i.e., orange) in their outlook. In any case, these distinctions simply underscore the fundamental point that the problem, the difference between the West and Islam, really is not about specific religious beliefs. It’s about what it means to believe in something–how the act of believing takes place.


So far, we have seen that a fundamental distinction between societies or cultures of different stages of development lies in the number and variety of social interactions among their members. I also pointed out that this is a universal principle, found at other levels of the holarchy as well. However, while the number and complexity of social interactions is obviously a continuous variable or set of variables, allowing us to conceive of an infinite number of stages of societies, most models, including Beck’s and Wilber’s, identify a limited, fairly discrete number. While this number may be somewhat arbitrary, it is based on another fundamental relationship, what Wilber calls transcendence. Let’s examine this term more closely.

In Wilber’s holarchy model, existence begins with atoms (or perhaps still lower, subatomic forms of matter), and develops through molecules, cells, organisms, and human beings. Each level is said to transcend and include the one below it. So the relationship between, say, an orange society and a blue one should not only be something like that between a blue one and a red one, but also something like the relationship between an organism and a cell, a cell and a molecule, or a molecule and an atom. Or speaking more precisely, the relationship between individual members of different types of societies should be like these lower level relationships, for in Wilber’s view, societies represent a different aspect or quadrant of existence on the human level, and all lower forms of life, too, are held to have such social aspects. So strictly speaking, we should compare societies with societies, and individual humans with individual organisms or other biological/material forms of existence.

With this in mind, let’s consider Wilber’s principle of "transcend and include" as it applies to both societies and individuals. As I noted earlier, an orange society transcends and includes a blue one, in Wilber’s view, because it solves the same basic problems the blue one evolved to address–feeding, clothing, sheltering and ensuring the security of its citizens–while going beyond these accomplishments to provide its members with new freedoms the blue can’t provide. The same type of relationship is evident with respect to the earlier red to blue transition, or the later orange to green.

We can also see this relationship, according to Wilber, when we compare individual members of different societies. A member of an orange society is alleged to have a different brain structure (an exterior aspect) from that of a member of a blue society, as well as a different type of consciousness or worldview (interior aspect). Though such differences in brains are not scientifically detectable, Wilber apparently hypothesizes that there are certain neuronal connections found in the orange brain that are not found in the blue brain, and which are associated with the different interior experience or consciousness of these two types of people. The brain of the orange member transcends and includes the brain of a blue member, in Wilber’s view, because it contains and preserves all the structures and connections that the latter has, while adding its new structures or connections. Wilber’s reasoning here is based on the existence of a similar type of relationship, which is scientifically established, found between the so-called triune brain of humans and other higher vertebrates, on the one hand, and lower vertebrates that contain only a limbic brain, or only a reptilian brain, on the other hand. In this case, both the transcending and including are much clearer (though still imperfect, as I shall explain in a moment), as all triune brains contain the limbic and reptilian brain, and all limbic brains contain the reptilian brain–and in each case, the interior experiences of the latter are to some extent preserved, even while new experiences emerge. So Wilber is basically proposing that a similar, if more subtle, relationship exists between the brains of people of different types of cultures.

The same transcend and include principle is found in lower forms of existence. An organism transcends its individual cells, because it retains these cells and their properties, but exhibits new properties that the individual cells lack. The same relationships also exist between a cell and its component molecules. The cell has properties in addition to those of its individual molecules.

The concept of transcend and include is a very critical one, but as I have argued at great length elsewhere (Smith 2000a, 2001a, c), Wilber’s use of it confuses two kinds of hierarchical relationships, one of which I refer to as genuinely transcendent, and the other as transformative. I believe it’s very important to identify and criticize this confusion, because as we shall see later, it has major implications for how we understand not only the relationships between different civilizations existing today, but how we are to view any new civilization that might emerge in the future. But the distinction is most easily appreciated if we return, for the time being, to a comparison of individuals, rather than of societies.

To reiterate, it’s Wilber’s view that the characteristic brain associated with members of any type of society transcends and includes the brain of members of any lower society, as well as the brain of lower, non-human vertebrates. It retains the previous structures and functions, as well as interiority or consciousness, while adding new ones to them. An obvious question should be raised by this: if a member of an orange society, say, has a brain and interior experience that transcends and includes the brain and interior experience of a member of a blue society, why is the orange member unable to see the world from the point of view of the blue member? Why is there such a clash of cultures or civilizations in the first place? Some people might argue that orange can in fact see the world with the eyes of the blue, but can also see the limitations of that view, the need for going beyond it. But this argument is clearly not open to either Wilber or Beck, because one of the central points found in all their writings on SD is that members of one culture do not understand the viewpoint of members of a lower culture. Both writers are particularly harsh on the green culture, which Wilber refers to as "the mean green meme" because it shows no understanding at all of the needs of the blue meme or culture.

Why is this so? If the green brain and its worldview transcends and includes the blue brain and its worldview, shouldn’t it be able to empathize with it? Even if it has a broader worldview, shouldn’t it be able to see the importance of allowing blue to emerge and develop in its own time, as it did in the past during the formation of the green society itself? What else could transcend mean if not that?

To understand the source of green’s blindness, consider the relationship between brains that exhibit larger and more obvious differences: a triune human brain (any type of culture), on the one hand, and that of a lower vertebrate with just the limbic brain (such as a lower mammal or a bird). A human brain does contain the limbic brain, and to a limited extent, we can be said to share the mentality of a bird. We feel some of the same basic emotions, for example, and have a somewhat similar sensory experience of the world. Yet most of us, most of the time, have trouble empathizing very strongly with a bird, or seeing or feeling or sensing the world in just the way that a bird does. The reason we can’t is because our limbic brain is controlled to a large extent by the upper level of the triune, the cerebral cortex. It’s probably quite rare that we experience emotions as purely–that is, as free from certain thoughts-- as birds or lower mammals do. Human evolution required a great deal of repression or at least control of the limbic system, and the higher the social stage we find ourselves in, generally speaking, the greater the degree of control.

In fact, the interactions between cortex and limbic system are two way, with each having considerable influence on the other, and they correspondingly separate us from the animal world in two ways. On the one hand, cortical control of the limbic system prevents us from identifying with this world; it’s what makes us almost always more than other animals. On the other hand, limbic influences on the cortex prevent us from transcending this world, from being able to see it and relate to it completely objectively. As human beings in societies, the locus of our identification is largely in the cortical brain, and this brain is by no means entirely free from influences from the animal world below. Because it is not, it’s view is still colored by these lower influences, even if the shades, so to speak, are a little different.

The same argument applies to a comparison of individual members of different cultures. Whatever structures or connections may distinguish the orange brain, say, from the blue brain, they are very much interrelated to the latter. The typical member of a free market economy may not have the same concern for security that a typical member of an authoritarian society has, but neither has this concern been transcended to the point where it can be considered objectively. It has just been overgrown, so to speak, with new concerns. This fact becomes especially clear during times of crisis–one could not ask for a better example than Sept. 11–when even orange and green members largely forget their needs for economic or multicultural freedoms, and become, very much like members of the blue meme, preoccupied with simple measures of security. Many people in America became converted to blue on that day, and for those really close to the horror–trapped in the World Trade Center–the transition surely went even lower, all the way down to purple and beige. Surely if we had truly transcended these lower memes, we could not be so affected by their concerns. We might be fully aware of them, but we would not identify with them.

In addition to illustrating that the relationships between the different memes are not transcendent, this example makes another extremely crucial point that I will return to later: the differences between members of societies that are green, orange, blue and so on are not permanent. Unlike the differences between human beings and lower animals, which are absolutely refractory to bridging through any amount of training, education or experience, humans may pass from red to blue to orange to green in a single lifetime. And though it is less common, one may also move through these stages in the opposite direction, that is, regress. The reason this is possible is because these different stages reflect the interactions of the same deep structures of the brain with different social environments. While the brain of any human being has a different deep structure from the brain of any other kind of animal, all human beings–that is, all Homo sapiens–have the same deep structure. The colors of Beck’s spectrum reflect changes in surface structure, which can occur whenever there is a major change in social environment.

So already we can see that the relationships between members of different cultures are not the same as those between any kind of human being and lower animals. To imply that they are, as Wilber does by representing each type on a different level, is quite misleading. But on top of all that, even the larger, more permanent differences between human beings and lower animals are not, as we have just seen, examples of a transcendent relationship, either. The relationship is rather what I call transformative . This is also a holarchical (higher vs. lower) relationship, but it’s quite different from a transcendent relationship.

Further insight into the nature of transformative relationships can be obtained by examining them on lower levels of existence, where we can consider structures, or what Wilber calls exteriors, without being concerned about interior experience. Consider the relationship between a biological tissue and its component cells. A tissue has properties not exhibited by individual cells, and component cells within a tissue may share in these properties. For example, cells in the brain have properties of perception and communication that cells that exist outside of tissues, outside of organisms, lack. But the reverse is also true; cells that exist outside of organisms may have properties that cells within tissues in organisms lack. Most micro-organisms, for example, can move about freely, whereas cells within tissues cannot. At a still lower level of existence, the same type of relationship manifests itself between molecules and their component atoms. Atoms within molecules frequently have properties that the same kind of atoms existing independently lack, such as the ability to carry certain ionic charges, or to communicate with other atoms within the same molecule. Conversely, atoms outside of molecules have a less restricted range of possible movements.

So we see that a signal characteristic of a transformative relationship is that while something new is created, something old is lost. Cells in tissues obtain new properties, but sacrifice ones that independent cells exhibit. In the same way, when societies evolve through Beck’s spectrum, their members at each stage acquire new properties or freedoms or possibilities, but always at the expense of former ones. An obvious example of properties that orange society members have lost, for example, is the kind of communion with nature that people of tribal cultures take for granted. It is an assumption of both Wilber and Beck, which I completely share, that the new properties are higher, more advanced than the former, but the latter are not negligible, and their loss eventually begins to cause problems beyond those created by the inherent limitations of any new culture. That is to say, as blue evolves into orange, and solves the problem of economic freedom and individualism, and orange evolves into green and solves the problem of multiculturalism and tolerance, the problem of alienation from nature, which really began way back when beige evolved into purple, has only gotten worse. Transformation, in other words, solves some problems, but cannot solve other problems. I will return to this point later, as it has important implications for our understanding of a possible global civilization.

However, transformation is not the only kind of development possible in the holarchy. There are relationships where new properties emerge without former ones being lost, and these are the kind that I define as genuinely transcendent. Consider an organism again. I noted earlier that cells within tissues in organisms lose some properties while gaining others. Not all cells within organisms give up properties, however. In any organism, there are cells that that do not form tissues, but exist in a state much like those of cells outside of organisms. White blood cells, and other members of the immune system, exemplify this type of holon. They retain the ability to move fairly freely within the limits of the organism, largely unconstrained by social interactions with other cells. Likewise, there are within cells atoms that are not bonded into molecules, but move about like atoms outside of cells.

Both cells and organisms, therefore, have a type of holarchical organization that is qualitatively different from that of molecules or tissues. They not only have new properties not found in their component holons, just as molecules and tissues do, but they also retain the properties of these component holons, a feat which is not matched by molecules and tissues. In this sense, they can be said not simply to transform their component holons, but to transcend them. Transcendence always signals the emergence of a new level of existence; a cell represents a new level above atoms and molecules, and an organism a new level above cells and tissues. In fact transcendence has a double meaning, one corresponding to the transcended level and one to the transcending level. The former meaning refers to the fact that some (not all) holons within the new, transcending holon maintain their former properties–individual atoms within the cell, or unbonded cells within an organism. The latter meaning refers to the fact that the new transcending holon–the cell or the organism–is an autonomous unit, not part of a higher-order holon, even while it integrates a whole set of different kinds of lower-order holons.

As shown most clearly by the examples of cells and organisms, transcendence and transformation are directly related to the different kind of structural organization present in the two kinds of holons. Consider a transformative holon, such as a molecule. Molecules are formed by the bonding together of atoms into a larger and more complex unit; these units may then also bond together, to form a still more complex molecule. The more complex molecules may also bond together, forming a still higher molecule. The same progression occurs with cells, which form simple cell units, which bond together to form complex cell units, which form tissues, which form organs. The result is a pure holarchy, each higher including all of the lower. In cells and organisms, however, there is a mixture of such pure holarchy, on the one hand, with non-nested hierarchy, on the other hand. Any cell contains each of the lower forms of holarchy in a free form as well as in a form bonded into a higher form: individual atoms, individual small molecules, individual larger molecules, and so forth. So the higher structures do not include all of the lower ones; not all the hierarchy is nested. The same with organisms. It is this type of structure that allows cells to transcend all their atoms and molecules, and organisms to transcend all their cells and tissues.

Human societies and civilizations, which I noted earlier transform but do not transcend one another, exhibit the characteristic structure of pure holarchy associated with transformation. With Western orange/green societies, for example, we can see smaller groups of the blue, red or even lower type of social organization. These subgroups, however, do not float around free, but are imbedded within larger hierarchies that constrain their behavior. The police force in any large American city, for example, which has much of the blue structure, does not behave like a little independent nation, but must answer to the processes of democracy, which are orange/green in their development. Many voluntary organizations may have a tribal-like structure that is reminiscent of purple or beige cultures, but these organizations, too, must conform to higher blue and eventually orange rules. To be sure, there are some exceptions to this rule–illustrated, for example, by street gangs or more organized crime syndicates–but the very fact that we describe their behavior as law-breaking indicates a recognition that they do not conform to what we consider a normal and healthy societal structure. In fact, as I have emphasized many times in my writings, all societies today are very much in the process of continuing to evolve, so they will manifest some features that are not characteristic of fully-evolved holons at lower levels.

In summary, there are two fundamentally different kinds of vertical evolutionary change in the holarchy, transformation and transcendence. Both result in the emergence of new properties, but transformation does so at the expense of former properties, while transcendence preserves former properties. Transformation is associated with the emergence of new stages within a single level of existence, while transcendence occurs when a new level emerges. Holons like cells and organisms, which form a new level, I refer to as fundamental or autonomous holons (fundamental because they represent the lowest stage on the new level as it develops further; autonomous because such holons are capable of reproducing themselves, and therefore of existing outside of still higher holons). Holons like molecules and tissues, as well as human and animal societies, which form stages within levels, I refer to as social or intermediate holons.

Ken Wilber, for all his genius at making useful distinctions, has never understood this one. It’s perhaps easier to see for hard scientists who focus in particular on the lower levels of the holarchy, which Wilber has not emphasized much (as I have discussed elsewhere, the lower levels of his holarchy exhibit in several respects an astonishing disregard for some very basic scientific facts). Yet the distinction between transformation and transcendence applies, as we seen, to our own level of existence as well, and involves both exterior and interior properties. Wilber’s failure to observe this distinction results in several inconsistencies in his model, as has been pointed out by several other critics besides myself (Washburn 1999; Goddard 1999; O’Connor 2001). I have already mentioned one of these inconsistencies: his model implies that the relationship between triune and limbic brains is similar to that between the brains of humans of different cultures. Another example is provided by the relationship of higher states of consciousness to those of ordinary human experience, which clearly is of a different order from the relationship of any particular ordinary human interior to any other (e.g., orange vs. blue). I will elaborate on this point later.

Wilber deserves considerable credit for trying to make his model as comprehensive and inclusive as possible, and in particular for trying to link the historical evidence for humans with different types of interior experience with other evidence of higher states of consciousness. He began this project with his book Up From Eden, written about twenty years ago, and has filled in many more details since. But his attempt to solve the problem by putting each type of person/experience on a distinct level is overly simplistic, and prevents us from realizing certain insights about the possible future evolution of our planet. Let’s now consider some of these insights.

The Integral Planet

The preceding discussion should have made it clear that I regard the stages of social evolution presented in Beck’s model as just that–stages, not levels, of existence. Each new type of culture brings with it new freedoms and new possibilities, but it also sacrifices previous possibilities. In light of the way evolution at lower levels has proceeded, an obvious question to ask is: can social evolution create an entirely new level of existence, one that both transcends and preserves the lower stages? The lesson of nature has been that at every level, only a limited number of new stages appear before they become integrated into a new holon that incorporates them all. Thus molecular evolution culminated in the cell, and multicellular evolution in the organism. Can we conceive of a new fundamental holon, consisting of all human and animal life on earth, integrated into a unified form of existence?

That the next transition might in fact be of this kind is suggested by Huntington’s very definition of civilization as "the highest cultural grouping of people and the broadest level of cultural identity people have short of that which distinguishes humans from other species." This definition, which I find both obvious and profound, implies that the barriers between civilizations are the last that must be removed before humanity on the planet can be unified. If the different civilizations on earth can resolve their differences–not necessarily in the sense that all conflict of any kind is eliminated, but in that conflict is controlled to the point where it does not threaten a larger order, as is more or less the case within the larger civilizations today–then we could surely speak of peace on earth in a way that was never before conceivable. Could we also speak of a new form of life, of which individual humans are, so to speak, merely the cells? Of a global intelligence that transcends that of any single member?

While this scenario may sound highly speculative, it actually has a very solid grounding in evolutionary theory. It’s not just the argument by analogy that I am so personally fond of making: that by creating a new and unified form of life, evolution would be following the same path it took when it created cells out of molecules, and organisms out of cells. We can go further and claim that if life on earth is to survive in the long term, it has to evolve in this way. If evolution of any kind is to continue, a new level of existence, represented by a new fundamental holon that includes all now existing lower forms of life, is destined to emerge. This is the claim I’m going to argue on behalf of.

To make this argument, we begin by asking why holons like cells and organisms evolved in the first place. As I discussed earlier, both cells and organisms have a unique, mixed-hierarchical structure, in which many different kinds of lower-order holons are preserved. Within cells we see individual atoms, small molecules like amino acids, complex molecules like peptides, more complex molecules like enzymes and receptors, still more complex structures like membranes and mitochondria–all integrated into a single unit. Likewise, in organisms we see individual cells, simple tissues, more complex tissues, simple organs, more complex organs, again, all integrated into a single unit. The question I’m posing here is, why? Why could n’t evolution have proceeded in a purely holarchical fashion, joining atoms into small molecules, small molecules into more complex molecules, and so on, with each new holon containing all the lower ones? Why was this process eventually interrupted to create something with a very different kind of organization, the cell?

There is a very simple answer to this question: reproduction[6]. In order for any holon at any level of existence to survive, at least beyond the lowest forms of matter, it must either be able to reproduce, or be part of a higher holon that can reproduce. All holons beyond atoms eventually die, so if they can’t reproduce or be part of some holon that does, their particular stage and level of existence can’t survive and develop. Only fundamental holons, however, can reproduce. Purely holarchically-organized holons (social holons), like molecules and tissues and societies, which are formed simply by adding together more and more units, can’t reproduce themselves.[7] It’s true that tissues and societies undergo a process something like reproduction, in which they replace or renew themselves, but this results from the reproduction of their component fundamental holons (cells and organisms), and is not genuine reproduction of the social holon.

The same principles that apply to cells and organisms apply to higher forms of life. As life on earth is presently constituted, there is nothing beyond the level of the organism that can reproduce itself, and this includes human societies and civilizations. Because civilizations can endure for much greater lengths of times than our own individual lifetimes, as much as thousands of years, it’s easy to think of them as immortal, but of course they aren’t. All civilizations eventually die, and when they do, a particular type of culture becomes extinct. Elements of it may survive and be passed on to another civilization, but much is forever lost.

One might imagine the earth continuing on in this manner, with new civilizations arising and replacing older ones, for a very long period of time, but not indefinitely. Sooner or later, the planet will encounter a challenge that requires a unified response. On the sooner end of the scale, we may, despite all advances in technology, reach a practical limit on the earth’s population, and begin to run out of resources needed for physical survival. A different kind of challenge might come from another, more advanced civilization on another planet. Such a civilization would not necessarily be hostile towards us, or lack compassion for our position–we might even have good reason to welcome its arrival–but this event would probably signal the end of the current cultural evolutionary trends occurring on earth.[7] Still another possibility, not highly likely in the near future, but very likely over great enough periods of time, is impact of our planet with another cosmic body capable of destroying it. We may develop the means to deal with relatively small comets, but a much larger intruder, one of size on the order of earth itself, might be beyond our means to cope with. And if course if we survive everything else, some day in the inconceivably distant future, there will the decline and loss of the sun to deal with.

Planet Earth, in short, faces the same fundamental challenge the first cell-like structures faced, and the earliest multicellular organisms faced. If it’s to survive and contribute to further evolution, it has to have a centralized, unified intelligence–one that is capable of making and enforcing decisions impacting the entire planet-- as well as the means to reproduce itself–i.e., to spread its civilizations to other parts of the universe. Even if there are other ways to deal with some of the possible challenges confronting us, there is no response that can deal with all of them as certainly and decisively as evolution into this higher form of life.

What would such a new, fundamental holon look like? Its most important features–beginning with its consciousness as a distinct entity--would be invisible to the ordinary human consciousness, just as the most important properties of organisms are not evident to their component cells. In fact, from the point of view of many people on earth, the change from our current situation might hardly be noticeable, and none of us would find the transition beyond our previous imaginings . Nevertheless, this view of the future has some important implications for the relationships of civilizations that are not immediately apparent from more conventional approaches to this question.

One of the most important of these implications is simply that there still would be civilizations, in the plural. An implication of SD, it seems to me, is that some day all of earth will have developed to a single higher civilization, be it yellow, turquoise, or whatever. But if the evolution of lower levels of existence is any guide, this is not in our future. As I emphasized earlier, new fundamental holons have a characteristic mixed hierarchical structure, in which all the lower stages of existence are preserved as independent stages as well as within higher ones. Not all lower holons experience conflicts that must be resolved by evolving into higher ones. Some find their resolution simply by dwelling within these higher ones. This means that a unified earth would not only contain, say, green or yellow or whatever the highest civilization was, but also orange, and blue, and even lower cultures. It would contain them for the same reason organisms contain different levels of multicellular holons, and cells different levels of molecular structures–because in order to survive and reproduce, all of them play necessary functions. No one type of culture, in Beck’s sense, has it all or can do it all.

I think this is a very difficult point for many of us to see. I have no trouble admitting that it’s been hard for me to see. Those of us in the West are likely to believe that our own civilization–perhaps with some fine tuning, at the least, or further evolution, at the most–would be capable of serving as the basis for a unified global civilization. Don’t we need science, and rationality, and individualism, and precise language, and a codified legal system, and a free market, and multiculturalism, and all the other features we associate with the West? Presumably yes, but there are many other things a unified planet would require, and these could most easily be provided by other cultures.

What are these other features? Recall the earlier point that as cultures evolve and provide their members with new freedoms and possibilities, they also lose older freedoms and possibilities. Tribal cultures at the beige-purple stage, for example, generally have a relationship with the natural world that is much more intimate than that of people of Western societies. Members of red cultures, in Beck’s scheme, tend towards hedonism, with a special knowledge of sensory pleasures in all their manifestations. Members of blue, highly centralized societies have discipline, and the ability to act quickly and decisively in response to orders. Qualities like these and others described by Beck in the lower stages are not unknown to modern people in the West, of course, but just because our civilization has moved so far apart from its earlier roots, we tend not to be as familiar with them, or as able to exercise them as fully, as those who grew up and participated in cultures where they were central.

And make no mistake, all of these properties are potentially vital to a global civilization. Out of a closer relationship to the natural world could come new ideas and technologies that would help all of us live in better harmony with the material and biological aspects of the earth that are fundamental to our survival. A better understanding of pleasure would help moderns avoid the Scylla and Charybdis of too much stress, on the one hand, and overdependence on quick fixes like drugs, on the other. Self-discipline is one of the most precious of all human tools, essential to success in almost any endeavor.

In conclusion, a global civilization would be strongest, wisest and most enduring if it were able to retain all the earlier cultural stages that led up to it. Within these cultures, which would be ultimately restrained by an overarching global entity, but not by any of the values, morals, beliefs or assumptions of any of the more advanced civilizations on the planet, important aspects of our heritage would be allowed to flourish, perhaps developing in ways beyond the limits achieved when these cultures first evolved. Though Beck has argued that such cultures must constantly evolve in order to overcome certain obstacles, this rule, I believe, only applies to such cultures when they are in a competitive position with one another–when they have to gain new advantages to survive. Within a new fundamental holon, where each civilization and culture recognized not simply the right, but the necessity, of the existence of every other one, it would be possible for cultures to remain indefinitely at any stage. This is a very clear lesson that emerges from examination of lower levels of existence, and I see no reason why it shouldn’t apply as well to human beings and their societies.

Stages vs. Levels of Consciousness

So far, I have considered the new global or planetary holon from the point of view of what Wilber calls exteriors–the structural organization of societies. What about interiors, the kind of conscious experience people in this global civilization would have? If we accept the Beck/Wilber view that members of each type of culture have a distinct type of consciousness, our global civilization would exhibit people with many types of consciousness, much as is the case today. But if the new fundamental holon comprising the entire planet and all its civilizations is a truly unified entity, it would have its own consciousness, much higher than that of individuals associated with any of the participating civilizations. It would in fact be the next genuine higher level of consciousness, not simply another stage of consciousness.

What’s the difference between a new stage and a new level of consciousness? I have already mentioned one distinction. Stages of consciousness, of the kind associated with Beck’s cultures and with the lower levels of human development in Wilber’s model, are not permanent. As we saw before, a person with the interiority characteristic of a blue culture can, simply by participating in an orange culture, realize the correspondingly higher interiority. This change can involve upward movement of several levels, and within a fairly short period of time. Movement in the reverse direction is also possible, though less common. If an orange society collapses into a blue–as when a democratic, free-market state, perhaps in response to an outside threat, regresses to a blue, centralized state, much of the population will soon follow. This is inevitable, because all human beings share the same deep structure in their brains, the same kinds and basic arrangements of neurons. What distinguishes people in different cultures is the surface structure of the brain, the connections between certain kinds of neurons whose arrangements are plastic, that is, not entirely fixed. The surface structure is determined by the social environment the individual is embedded in. When that social environment changes, so does the individual’s worldview.[9 ]

A new level of consciousness, in contrast, is permanent, at least within the limits of the new fundamental holon it’s associated with. It does not depend on the social organization that an individual participates in, because it does not identify with any particular social organization. It identifies with the entire new holon, in this case the planet. An implication of this is that individuals associated with any particular stage of society can realize this higher level of consciousness. People of different cultures may have different ways of understanding this higher level, and somewhat different approaches to it, but any stage can be a departure point for it.

Another difference between stages and levels of consciousness is that stages do not require special efforts on the part of individuals to realize. When human beings develop from birth to adulthood, they pass through several stages of consciousness, in the Beck/Wilber sense, and this is automatic and inevitable. When people move from one culture to another, and begin to adopt the views characteristic of that new culture, this process, too, is fairly inevitable. While the degree of changes vary somewhat with the individual, the essential point is that the individual is not required to make efforts that differ significantly from those people make in other areas of their lives. This does not mean that the process of realizing a higher stage is necessarily easy or free of conflict or trauma. It may often be very difficult, particularly when the transition, for various reasons, occurs quickly, and the individual is an adult who has been accustomed to a different worldview for a long period of time. There may be great resistance to change, even if the individual believes the change is necessary. But the difficulty is psychological, involving change in surface structures; the problem is learning to think in a different way.

Realization of a new level of consciousness, however, does require efforts of a very special kind. The process is not "natural", in the sense that it will inevitably happen, and while it may be promoted by participating in a particular kind of social environment, the presence of the latter is no guarantee by any means that change will occur. The challenge is no longer to think in a different way; it’s to transcend all thinking completely. This involves changes in deep structures, changes which are almost certainly physical as well as psychological.[10] To realize a new level of consciousness is to become not just a different person, but a different species.

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between stage and level of consciousness, however, is that a new level of consciousness transcends the old. A new stage, as I discussed earlier, transforms the previous stage, but does not transcend it[11]. We have also seen some of the implications of this relationship. In the process of transformation, something is gained, but something is lost. The focussed discipline of the blue worldview may come at the expense of alienation from nature. The discipline, in turn, may be lost in the transition to a still higher worldview. Realization of a new level of consciousness, in contrast, brings with it the potential to preserve all the lower stages. Another way to make this point is to say that a new level integrates the lower stages. It does not simply overgrow them, obscuring the voices of the old with those of the new one, but creates a relationship where all the voices can be clearly heard.

A new level of consciousness would not necessarily be realized by everyone in a truly global society. Elsewhere, I have argued that it probably would not (Smith 2000a). At the very least, a global civilization would be compatible with large numbers of people existing at all lower stages of consciousness, a situation that is clearly untenable now. Peace on earth, in other words, is not necessarily the same as utopia. But from where the world sits today, that should be welcomed as a great improvement.


"In conflicts between civilizations," Huntington says, "the question is ‘What are you?’ That is a given that cannot be changed." What we are can change, and will change, but not easily or quickly. I have tried to paint here a very broad picture of how these changes occur, and how a future global civilization reconciling the current conflicts might be organized. I believe such a civilization is quite possible, and that it is not really that far off, on a historical scale–within the horizon of a few centuries, perhaps even sooner. That does not mean that we do not face immense immediate problems which will demand more immediate solutions. This analysis has not offered any. But in a way, that is just the point. Any time in history has its conflicts and challenges, to which we can respond in two ways. One response is to develop new relationships among individuals and their societies that alleviate these conflicts. The other, much more difficult response is to transcend these relationships. The first response leads us to higher stages, with new freedoms and possibilities, but also with new conflicts and challenges. The second lesson points us beyond all these stages, and all their conflicts, to a world unimaginably different from that in which human beings have always resided. The two responses are not incompatible, but neither does either imply the other. As we try to bring peace to the planet, we can use the clash of civilizations as a reminder of how, and why, to bring peace to ourselves.


  1. Many other important criticisms of Huntington’s analysis have been raised in a series of responses to his essay by other scholars. See
  2. I am not talking here about what evolutionists commonly call group selection, which involves selection of certain groups or societies of individuals because some of their members have certain genetic mutations (See Sober and Wilson 1998). The following discussion is about cultural evolution, a process distinct from Darwinism. The difference is explained more fully in the following footnote. See also Smith (2000a), Chapter 9.
  3. An alternative, more direct approach to the same problem is to ask how change occurs in societies–that is, what are the dynamics of cultural evolution? Elsewhere (Smith 2000a), I have argued that cultural evolution results from a process of a) random changes in the thoughts of individuals and closely correlated with these changes in thoughts, changes in the social relationships these individuals have with other individuals; and b) selection for those thoughts/relationships (which are simply what evolutionists call memes) which strengthen society in some manner. This process occurs not just in human societies, but in all social holons on all levels of existence (though what changes in the case of lower levels is not thoughts but an equivalent process that affects social relationships between holons), and it has some analogies with the Darwinian dynamics of random mutations and natural selection. However, the analogies are imperfect, because whereas mutations affect the deep structure of the holon involved (its genetic makeup), the changes in memes affect surface structure (i.e., they do not involve hard-wired changes in the brain, but changes in patterns of brain activity that can be reversed or modified). Since only surface structure is affected, the process does not select for individuals of different genetic makeup; it only selects for memes that strengthen society in some manner.
  4. What strengthens society? Any meme that increases the number or complexity of social interactions between members of the society will strengthen that society. Why? Because the greater the number and strength of these interactions, the faster memes can spread and be selected, and the faster societies can evolve new ways of dealing with their problems. In other words, this kind of evolution forms a kind of positive feedback system. It is evolution of the evolutionary mechanism itself. What is selected are conditions that favor an increase in the rate of evolution. So there are two ways to describe the differences between higher and lower cultures in Beck’s scheme. We can say, as the discussion in the text emphasizes, that the higher the society, the greater the number and complexity of social interactions. Alternatively, we can say the higher the society, the faster it evolves.
  5. See footnote 2 for a much more direct route to this conclusion. The reason I have emphasized the more indirect argument is because I want to emphasize what the differences are between civilizations or cultures, not how they came to be so. But as the discussion and footnote 2 should make clear, the two answers are really the same.
  6. In analyses of the Rushdie affair, some Muslims compared the reaction against his book The Satanic Verses to Western "political correctness"–a strongly antagonistic and often hostile attitude towards virtually any beliefs that threaten notions of equality among races, genders, sexual orientation, and other minority groups. I believe there is some validity to the comparison–some members of the PC movement have demonstrated in ways that basically deprive people with controversial views of their traditional rights to freedom of expression. I think not only of attempts to pressure universities into canceling talks by certain authors, but the widespread public anger directed at baseball player John Rocker for his negative comments against minorities. Such incidents show that not all Americans take criticism of their beliefs mildly
  7. But there are significant differences between these Western responses and the Muslim world’s treatment of Rushdie. While people in America may occasionally receive death threats for their views, these threats are not nearly as serious, nor as widely supported by the population, as the fatwah against Rushdie. The majority of people who espouse PC fight with nothing deadlier than words. Further, Rushdie’s fate was decided soon after his book was published–all possible dialogue with the Muslim world was refused--whereas anyone arousing the ire of the PC movement at least has the option of modifying, clarifying or in the extreme recanting her views. Finally–and I think this is the most significant point in the context of this discussion–the PC movement is not directed against critics of orange views, that is, against attacks on traditional American freedoms. These freedoms, and the criticisms against them, are by now so well-established that very few people take criticism of them very seriously. The PC movement is really directed against critics of green views. These notions are much newer and less established in America, and still unsupported by a large segment of the population. So one could say that just as Islamic culture has not developed to the point where it feels secure against attacks on its core beliefs, the green portion of America has not developed security against its core beliefs. These beliefs, that is, have not yet been fully integrated into the seamless web of orange beliefs.
  8. Perhaps another answer to this question can be derived from an examination of how social stages evolve. As I discussed earlier, the more evolved a society, the greater the number and variety of its social interactions. This greater connectedness itself, however, accelerates the rate of evolution, creating a positive feedback system. Such systems are ultimately unstable; they lead to rates of growth or change that can’t be sustained indefinitely. Formation of a new fundamental holon, therefore, may be a response to this instability.
  9. Why can only fundamental holons reproduce themselves? The quick answer is that reproduction is a complex process that requires the participation of holons at many different stages–different kinds of molecules within cells, different kinds of tissues within organisms. Furthermore, holons have to survive a minimum length of time in order to reproduce before they die. Only the mixed-hierarchical structure of fundamental holons is capable of satisfying these requirements.
  10. Competition with other civilizations is probably the force that would provide the most impetus to unification on earth. Competition is also, of course, the essential driving force of evolution on lower levels.
  11. People who seek to advance beyond, or remain beyond, the dominant worldview of their culture have always understood this, and have sought social support to maintain their views. Thus Andrei Sakharov and other Russian dissidents, who were basically people with orange views living within a blue culture, maintained regular meetings and contacts with one another, supported by books, articles, letters and other forms of communication smuggled in from the West. In America there is a long tradition of people dissatisfied with prevailing political, economic or cultural norms forming their own society, with its own rules and customs. In the most extreme cases, individuals cut off from all direct social contacts with others, indirect contacts such as books are used. Without such lines of communication, the individual regresses, as surely as an animal without food starves.
  12. For some discussion of what these changes are like, see Smith (2000b)
  13. In this discussion, I am using the terms "transform" and "stage" in a very broad sense. I am not distinguishing between stages that differ in deep structure–such as humans vs. other animals–and those, like members of different human societies, that differ only in surface structure.


Beck, D. (2000) "Stages of Social Development "

Goddard, G. (1997) "Airing our Transpersonal Differences"

Harris, R. "The vMemes of War"

Huntington, S.P. (1993) "The Clash of Civilizations? Foreign Affairs 72, 22-49; or online at:

O’Connor, J. (2001) "Development in the One-Scale Model"

Smith, A.P. (2000a) Worlds within Worlds

Smith, A.P. (2000b) Illusions of Reality

Smith, A.P. (2001a) "The Spectrum of Holons"

Smith, A.P. (2001b) "All Four One and One Four All"

Smith, A.P. (2001c) "Excelsior"

Smith, A.P. (2001d) "Who’s Conscious?"

Smith, A.P. (2001e) "Lateral Differences"

Sober, E. and D. S. Wilson (1998) Unto Others. The Evolution and Psychology of Unselfishness. (Boston: MA: Harvard University Press)

Washburn, M. (1999), "The Pre/Trans Fallacy Reconsidered"

Wilber, K. (1980) The Atman Project (Wheaton, IL: Quest)

Wilber, K. (1981) Up From Eden (Boston: Shambhala)

Wilber, K. (1995) Sex, Ecology, Spirituality (Boston: Shambhala)

Wilber, K. (2001) "Some Thoughts on Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations

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