A Serious Critique of Spiral Dynamics

A potentially non-canonical overview of spiral dynamics

Recently I was encouraged to take a look at something called Spiral Dynamics (SD). I did, and now I want to explain what I like and don’t like about it. I probably don’t understand it that well, but I am going to focus on two propositions which may or may not actually be essential to this particular way of thinking:

First, social institutions are evolving toward a holistic ideal

It is obviously true that social institutions (such as governments) are evolving. We used to have despotism, then feudalism, then constitutional monarchy, then democracy, etc. Anyone who ever played Civilization knows that.

Clear evidence of social evolution

However, I think limiting our analysis of social institutions to governments is very superficial (not that I am accusing anyone of doing that, aside from perhaps that graphic I pasted at the top of the article). I am more interested in social organizations that help people make money like joint-stock corporations and mortgage back securities.

My view is that most social evolution happens when society encounters some kind of problem that prevents us from making more money (say, loan originators don’t want to hold loans) and then some clever person comes up with a concept to manage the problem and society lives happily ever after with a better overall happiness score.

Anyway, I definitely agree that social institutions are evolving. I am just not sure if they are following the nice upward spiral pattern indicated in that graphic. Some things, like Facebook, look like they might lead to a global holistic utopia where everyone is friends. But some things (like Bitcoin and Candy Crush) are surely going to lead to global environmental collapse because we’re just going to have a pile of coal fired server farms (and cell phones) in China mindlessly wasting away incomprehensible amounts of computing power until the world goes up in flames and the waves that were once the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf wash over us.

The end is near

Also, if you read the fine print on that SD diagram, it looks like the time periods of social evolution are rapidly getting smaller and smaller in a Zeno’s paradox/AI singularity kind of way. So…shouldn’t we have reached the Spiral Dynamics singularity about 10 years after chart was first published? Maybe we did, or soon will, and we just haven’t noticed.

Second, individual psychological development follows a similar pattern

Again, here I have a mix of “this is obvious” and “I totally disagree”. The main thing that’s obvious is that as kids grow up they start to exhibit different strategies that tend to get more complex. The idea that human psychological development is impacted by the development of social institutions is hard to argue with. But the idea that it follows the same exact stages reminds me a bit too much of good old embryonic recapitulation.

In any case, the SD graphic also looks a lot like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

Maslow’s Hierarchy

The obvious difference is that one picture is a right side up pyramid and the other is kind of like an spirally upside down pyramid. Now, my point is not to say that Spiral Dynamics is just a ripoff of Maslow (I think the similarity is on purpose). What I really want to do is critique both of them. I am pretty much on board with a more simplified version of the pyramid that kind of looks like this:

Simple (right side up) Pyramid #1

The big difference (apart from the lack of pretty colors) is that aside from these two basic levels, I don’t really see a good reason for ordering all of the sub-levels how they are ordered. Who gets to decide that ‘esteem’ is a higher level than ‘love’? Also, is safety really higher on the chart than the need for sleep? Try standing up to an angry mother bear, or a wolverine, or a charging unicorn and see how high up the chart you feel.

Anyway, my view is that during most of our evolutionary development, there was pretty much only one long term strategy for satisfying basic needs, and that was to develop strong social ties to other humans (also, maybe, learning how to make arrows, but that’s not going on my pyramid.) So the result is something like this:

Simple Pyramid #2

This really isn’t that different from Maslow’s pyramid, or the Spiral version. Those two both mention a lot of social needs type stuff. But this is about as far as I really feel comfortable agreeing with the order they present.

There is one other notable difference between my view and the Spiral Dynamics point of view. According to that diagram that the higher we go, the wider our social circle gets. As we move toward enlightenment we go beyond our tribe to embrace the whole world, then the universe, and then…Nirvana. I don’t buy it.

During the course of our brain’s evolution, we didn’t know millions of people. Our ancestors only interacted with a band of say, 100 people. So our brains are really only designed to embrace 100 people, and no amount of social evolution is going to change that. Evolution of actual animals as complex as humans is really slow. The time periods mentioned on that graph don’t even show up on an evolutionary time scale. So I can’t really accept that there is some radical new level of psychological development involving holistic embrace of the whole world that only became possible in the last decade or so (with the possible exception of some combination of mind-altering drugs and immersive VR, but let’s face it, VR technology really isn’t ready for that).

We aren’t quite there, but soon…

Anyway, there is an interesting point to be made by tying together some of these critiques. Social institutions can evolve quickly. But a lot of social evolution just ends up creating new kinds of economic relationships. In a modern world, money can buy pretty much everything. The evolution of technology and social institutions have led us a pyramid that looks something more like this:

Simple Pyramid #3

Thus, there is this big paradox because while social institutions are evolving in a way that makes money-earning more and more efficient, our psychology is chained down, by good old fashioned biological evolution, to really care about other people. The difference between pyramid #2 and pyramid #3 is tearing us apart.

What we need

Deep down, what we really need is to develop and depend on lifelong friendships characterized by unbreakable loyalty and careful grooming, and what we get are 2 to 3 year stints with different colleagues working in different cities for the same gigantic corporation selling mortgage backed securities over Facebook in exchange for bitcoin.

What we get

So, my first problem with Spiral Dynamics is that I don’t like global holistic Utopia. My brain isn’t that big. My brain is stuck in some long past Paleogenic era where I can only have something like 10 true friends and 100 true acquaintances. My second problem is that it doesn’t put enough emphasis on money, and all the lovely and terrible things that come with it. So instead of striving to continuously move up spiritual levels like some D&D playing Scientologist, I would rather just find some way make money with real friends.

Update:
This story is actually getting a fair number of views. In the meantime, my thoughts on the matter have changed substantially. If you are interested in the evolution of my thought re: Spiral Dynamics, see my other posts:

Patent Attorney, Crypto Enthusiast, Father of two daughters