Spiral Dynamics II — This Time I’m Really Serious
Although I still have some gripes, I think Spiral Dynamics is a useful framework. It provides a shortcut for talking about different forms of thinking (which they call values memes, or V-memes). For someone familiar with the model, you can just say something like “that is a blue way of thinking” and they will know exactly what you are talking about.
One point that stuck out during my listen was the proposition that a particular V-meme can’t really exist outside of its social context. For example, a tribal society isn’t really going to have any adherents to postmodernism because it doesn’t make sense in that context.
Anyway, Spiral Dynamics has two main tiers, the first of which corresponds to recognizable historical trends. Purple and red correspond to tribes and conquering bands, and then Blue seems to cover everything from the development of civilization/agriculture all the way to the Enlightenment (i.e., the pre-modern) period, where religion was the primary carrier of culture. Orange corresponds to Modern period (i.e., science and rationalism), and the Green is post-modern (i.e., relativist, deconstructionist). During these different cultural periods, different kinds of personality traits/social strategies tend to predominate.
In my view, the first tier of Spiral Dynamics should really be broken down into two sub-tiers. The first three levels (Beige, Purple, and Red) are things that I would categorize as “hard-wired” into our brains because their development was driven by biological evolution over the course of millions of years. For example, the Beige color is kind of like “lizard brain” type thinking that is basically pre-human in its evolution (I’m not sure why they say it evolved 100,000 years ago). Homo Sapiens has existed for a million years of so, and its pretty hard for me to imagine that the earliest humans weren’t capable of survivalist thinking.
Blue and Orange also represent ways of thinking that are hardwired by evolution, but that really didn’t blossom (i.e., become ascendant) until the development of civilization and culture. Green is currently dominant in our present culture, but in my view is really kind of an offshoot of Orange.
The Blue-Orange-Green axis is really at the heart of Spiral Dynamics. The first three stages all kind of represent pre-cultural/evolutionary tendencies, and the upper stages (shown below) are really just aspects of post-modernism. But Blue-Green-Orange corresponds to the Pre-Modern, Modern, and Post-Modern concept of cultural development that was already a meme way before the development of Spiral Dynamics.
Spiral Dynamics kind of hooks you by presenting a progression that seems to correspond nicely a lot of what we already know (i.e., the first six levels are already deeply embedded existing memes, real or otherwise) about the evolution of the brain and culture, and then tries to justify its existence by trying to sell us on two other “higher” levels of existence.
To be honest, both of these levels seem to me like they correspond to a sort of post-modern, Godless spirituality. They are kind of like old-school mysticism. Like mystical traditions, they promise to connect us with a certain aspect of our psychology (the rapture part that feels like LSD) via a specific kind of esoteric knowledge.
The mystical tradition is an old one (and, I think, an important one). When you have a spiritual experience, you feel like you are transcending reality. So why give that kind of experience a special color (or two) and slap it on top of a theory that claims to encompass the rest of social-psychological reality?
Despite my complaint that upper tier Spiral Dynamics is (just?) a form of modern mysticism, I think that the podcast I linked to above actually has some very interesting things to say about the Yellow stage. Specifically, those who see all the different levels in themselves (and really, shouldn’t we all?) actually tend to feel isolated, and are drawn to a sort of chameleon approach to interacting within our prevailing cultural institutions.
Man, people love to hear that they are Yellow. The idea that we are special because we are more complete than anyone else, and because of that we probably feel alone and no one understands us and we have to pretend to fit into some ill-fitting box that society wants us to conform to…is just so satisfying.
After all this criticism, I kind of love Spiral Dynamics. The colors are just so damn convenient. Still, I have to criticize it because I am peddling another theory. Namely, that our social institutions have primarily evolved to make production more efficient (they’re Orange!), but that our brains are still constrained by evolution to mostly care about being in a tribe (i.e., we’re really Purple at heart).
Damn, now I can’t even talk about my own theory without those colors seeping in. But I will say this, my preferred theory has implications that don’t really jump out at me from my initial (although perhaps still superficial) dip into Spiral Dynamics. Namely, that self-actualization is best achieved by focusing on relatively small-scale social structures.