Don Beck’s Integralism: Spiral Dynamics, colors of thinking and human development

by editor

Dr. Don Beck is a pioneer theorist of human development whose ideologies have been imbibed into Ken Wilber’s integral thinking. Don Beck has been developing, implementing and applying the theory of “Spiral Dynamics” of human evolution for more than three decades and has a commendable record for making the understanding of evolution/transformation of human values and cultures easier and simpler. “Spiral Dynamics” as a term, was born in a book of the same title, authored by Don Beck and Chris Cowan. Based on Professor Clare Graves’ “biopsychosocial” levels of human development, “Spiral Dynamics” elaborates the levels of human evolution (thinking, perspective, culture and value systems) in terms of spirals that progress in upward movement and in which one level/layer transcends, but also includes the other.

What is Spiral Dynamics? If “Spiral Dynamics” is all about human consciousness development, why should it be represented in spirals and what does it got to have in common with integralism? For the first part of the question, spirals are a dynamic expression of cosmic forces. Our DNA structure is a spiral. Galaxies evolve as spirals. Above all, spiral is a symbol of evolution and a “dominant universal fractal”.When Don Beck and Chris Cowan framed the book Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change in 1996, they were building on Dr. Clare Graves’ value systems of human development.

Through decades of research, Graves built what he called, “the emergent, cyclical, double-helix model of adult biopsychosocial systems development”. Since Graves opined that the “double-helix” spiral is a great way to visualize the process of human development, he used it to illustrate the various stages, types and kinds of development in his first-tier and second-tier structures. Don Beck and Chris Cowan took Gravesian spiral and built upon it to reach to a wider, diverse audience. They developed Graves’ notion of memetics or value systems to suit all world cultures and groups.

“Spiral Dynamics” includes memetics or what are called different memes or core value systems. These core value systems act as organizing principles and express themselves through “memes” or self-propagating ideas, cultures, habits or practices. There are first-tier memes and second tier memes. Even after such a long history of humanity on earth, we have completed only the first-tier and are just into the second tier. The Spiral’s first-tier involved a 100,000 year epoch that was basically dominated by the instinct of survival. The second-tier, according to Beck and Wilber, is a great jump from the level of “survival” to that of “being”. The first six levels, also called “subsistence levels” are marked by “first-tier thinking”, while the next two levels are marked by “second-tier” or integral thinking. Ken Wilber’s integral thinking draws upon ideologies from this Spiral in order to define what was and what would be the state of human consciousness development.

Spiral Dynamics and Colors of Thinking: Ken Wilber used Spiral Dynamics to define the prediction of a future integral era. According to Beck and Cowan, each level of human development is illustrated by a color and a dominant trait or thinking pattern of the people in that level. Below is a glimpse of the colors of thinking:

1. Archaic-Instinctual (Beige color): This was the first stage and is marked by nothing by the instinct for survival. Basic survival, food, shelter, security and sex has prominence. The mind uses all practices, habits, instincts to just survive. This trait was dominant in the first human societies and can still be found in new born infants, mentally-ill or elderly people, street-starving masses and even late-stage Alzheimer’s patients. In human history, this stage was started from 100, 000 B.C.

2. Animistic-Magical (Purple): Everything is animistic at this level. Magical beings go on a promenade on earth and make eventful entries into people’s lives. Curses, spells, blessings and ills dominate. Kinship is revered and lineage gains importance. This can be seen in family rituals, ancient shamans, spirit animals, medicine men, magical and ethical beliefs, tribes, superstitions, Third World set-ups etc. The primary trait was to “sacrifice to the ways of the elders and customs as one subsumed in group”.

3. Egocentric-Power Gods (Red): Impulsive, powerful, egocentric and heroic. This was the first emergence of an exclusive, extraordinary egocentric trait and was generally found in powerful tribes like the Vikings. Magical spirits, dragons, beasts, gods, goddesses, powerful beings etc. dominated the scene and everyone was under the control of one powerful leader or group. Feudal lords rose up during this time with empires established in power and glory. In this world, the powerful orders, the underling obeys. This trait or consciousness can be seen in feudal set ups, gang leaders, rock stars, people in frontiers or rebellious youth.

4. Absolutistic-Mythic order (Blue): The world is under the dominance of one – an Order, a religion or an all-powerful other. Those who follow the righteous order or Other are blessed with heavenly life, while those who object to it are subjected to cruelty and punishment. Everyone has to follow the code to live in communion with the society and reap the benefits of being faithful. There is only one right way to think and law and order is dictated by that right way/order. Predominantly fundamentalist, conventionalist and conformist way of life. This trait or level can be found in fanatical religious groups, puritan America, Dickensian England, totalitarian societies groups that stick to moral codes.

5. Multiplistic-Achievist (Orange): Orange is the color of the scientific and strategic society. Dominated by self-will, it marks the growth of the society through scientific and industrial revolution. Instead of succumbing to the “herd mentality”, people are individualistic, rational and achievement-oriented. Materialism dominates here and the world is a place where science rules over everything. This trait can be seen in the Wall Street, in the middle classes of the world, in fashion and cosmetics industry, cold war countries/strategies etc.

6. Relativistic-Sensitive (Green): The green period dominated during the early 20th century. Predominant traits are communication, networking, human bonding and ecological sensitivity. Set against hierarchy and social institutions, this level achieves “lateral bonding and linking” and egalitarianism among groups. There is belief in and acceptance of pluralism, diversity, multicultural society, relativistic value systems etc. “Value communities” or groups are formed based on shared sentiments carry this trait. This can also be found in movements like Greenpeace, animal rights, eco-feminism, human rights movements, diversity movements.

With the above six, the first-tier growth of human consciousness development is over and we proceed to the second-tier. The second-tier growth is integral and according to Graves, Beck, Cowman and Wilber, will be the evolution of an integral era on earth. Two major waves that predominate the second-tier:

7. Systemic-Integrative (Yellow): According to the Spiral theorists, this wave started around the 1950s. It accepts all kinds of belief systems and forms, bases itself in pluralities and integration of pluralities. Everything is considered to be complementing its opposite trait. In Wilber’s words, “Egalitarianism is complemented with natural degrees of ranking and excellence. Knowledge and competency should supersede power, status, or group sensitivity.”

8. Holistic (Turquoise): Integration of differences. A universal holistic system which works by a “grand unification of things” or what Wilber calls, “a theory of everything”. The height of this level of development can be the height of integral thinking, though integral consciousness is said to have emerged by 1970s itself. “Turquoise thinking uses the entire Spiral; sees multiple levels of interaction; detects harmonics, the mystical forces, and the pervasive flow-states that permeate any organization.”

Integral Thinking or Integral Politics will be but a by-product of the Holistic wave of second-tier development of human consciousness. Such a growth will bring together countries and continents and view the world as a unified whole. In politics, it would mark the start of a great “Third Way” that “transcends, yet includes” everything that went by and all that is to follow. But for this to happen, we need to overcome the first-tier memes of scientific materialism (orange), mythic fundamentalism (blue), egocentricism (red), magical hierarchy (purple) and over-sensitive relativism (green).

Reference Links:

1. An overview of Spiral Dynamics of Don Beck

2. Spiral Dynamics integral or SDi by Don Beck and Ken Wilber

3. Colors of the Spiral mentioned by Graves

4. Don Beck and his Spiral Dynamics

5. Don Beck’s Biography and Resources

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