Spiral Dynamics is a model which explains the evolution of human consciousness. That doesn’t sound too exciting, but since first hearing about it on the Liturgists Podcast, my eyes have been opened to see the world in a brand new way, and not to overstate things, but I think pondering these concepts and their implications has honestly changed my life.
What is it?
Spiral Dynamics (I’ll abbreviate it as SD) says that human consciousness evolves, both individually and collectively, through a series of stages.
Just as biological evolution naturally selects advantageous “genes” for organisms to thrive, sociological evolution naturally selects advantageous “memes” for society to thrive. What’s a meme? It’s a sociological trait: a way we act, a way we think, a way we see the world, etc. Memes are grouped into containers: the Liturgists call them value memes, but I think “stages” is an easier way to visualize it. Personalities and worldviews of individuals evolve through these stages, and cultures/groups evolve through them collectively as well.
Each stage has an associated color used to identify it. Here are the colors:
Beige is the “survival” stage, when man is on his own, fending for himself for food and survival. Babies start in this stage, as did primitive man. And Leonardo DiCaprio in the Revenant. If you are half-eaten by a bear, you’re going to be living in survival mode.
Purple is the “magic” stage, when tribes emerge, who sacrifice to the gods to gain collective favor. Think of the native Na’vi people from the movie Avatar. Tribes are important because there is strength in numbers: strength to hunt wild game, strength to collectively plant and harvest, etc. The world is seen as a magical place, where good fortune is associated with favor from the gods; the converse is true too: if there is bad fortune (drought, famine) then the gods are angry, and the tribe will perform a sacrifice to appease them.
Red is the “warrior” stage, when the conqueror with the huge ego reigns supreme. Purple tribes stil exist but may be represented in war by a red leader. Characteristics of a red consciousness are aggression, “might makes right”, dictatorship, and the like. If you’re the strong one, red is great. If you’re weak, this kind of society isn’t so great for you.
Blue is the “authority” stage, when man closely follows morals, rules, and hierarchy, in order to protect the society. It is a natural progression from red, in that adherence to a moral law or sacred text is done in the name of equality and fairness for all the people, in a sense as a rebellion against the red dictatorship. The authority of the blue sacred texts is not questioned, and personal sacrifice in the name of the greater good is a virtue.
Orange is the “modern” or “achievement” stage, when man uses reason to question hierarchy and achieve for himself. The hierarchy and rules from the blue society may be left behind in the effort to advance the individual and strive for greatness. Sacred traditions may be examined under a (literal) microscope, using new rational techniques like the scientific method.
Green is the “postmodern” or “pluralistic” stage, when man equally values all viewpoints and strives for harmony. Think the Beatles, hippies, Woodstock, free love, political correctness, existentialism. It is tough for green societies to get much done, since all opinions and viewpoints are given equal weight.
THE SECOND TIER
There are more colors: yellow, turquoise, coral… but we’ll get into this later.
Some other notes
1. Evolution of collective human consciousness through the stages has been speeding up. Beige emerged 100,000 years ago, purple 50,000 years ago, red 10,000 years ago, blue 5,000 years ago, orange 300 years ago, and green 150 years ago. The actual dates aren’t that important, but the “speeding up” is important, as it suggests that newer stages are soon to come.
2. Every culture has a “center of gravity” in one of the colors. America may be a green country where a more remote tribal village in Africa may be purple or red. And of course all of America is not the same: evangelical churches are often blue, universities tend to go green, hospitals may be orange.
3. As Ken Wilber writes, each stage transcends and includes the previous stage. When you move from red to blue, you don’t lose your red. You learn new colors, new values, new ways of seeing the world, but the old ones aren’t gone. They may rise to the surface in certain situations, but you will usually be at home in your newest color. Also, you may incorporate aspects of later colors if you exposed to them, even though you haven’t really moved to the next stage yet.
4. We are not supposed to think the stages in terms of better or worse; instead, “previous” and “next” is probably better. However, whatever stage you are, you fear the next stage, and loathe the previous stage. In other words, you look forward with hesitation, and backward with disdain.
5. The colors alternate between individual-centric (the warm colors: beige, red, orange) and group-centric (the cool colors: purple, blue, green). Also, the group-centric colors tend to have a more spiritual or religious emphasis.
Some applications of Spiral Dynamics
The Liturgists Podcast presented an interesting application of SD: selling a car. If you are a marketing agency, and you are marketing a brand new car, how would you sell it? (I’m stealing this almost directly from them)
- To a beige person: here’s a car for $250 since you’re just scraping by.
- To a purple person: this car is the best car for your tribe.
- To a red person: this car is SEXY. It will get you laid. Men drive this car.
- To a blue person: this car is practical, safe, and built in America.
- To an orange person: this car has all the latest bells and whistles.
- To a green person: this car is good for the environment and mankind.
And if you’re selling a car which has a target demographic (let’s say, a pickup truck being sold to red men) then there’s a specific way to market the car for maximum impact on that demographic.
Here’s a more poignant application: American politics. Think of Donald Trump. As a powerful narcissistic egomaniac, he’s almost the perfect embodiment of red. (Yeah I know his skin is orange — too bad orange isn’t the SD color for the ego warrior, that would have been perfect.) Now, if Democrats are green, and he’s red, that’s three stages back, and per point #4 above, Democrats view him with a whole ton of disdain. Blue Republicans would also view a red egomaniac with disdain, but much less so than a Democrat. More importantly, however, if a blue Republican fears the green postmodern Democratic revolution (the “bern”), which is two stages ahead and threatens their blue morals, rules, and hierarchies… they may allow a red leader to emerge, to lead them into battle and overtake the green enemy.
I recognize that people don’t fit into neat categories and labels, and this may sound like a vast oversimplification. The point is, people have different ways of seeing the world, and being in the world. (I’ll be writing more about Trump later, too.)
Some things I’ve read about Spiral Dynamics prescribe a formulaic schedule to try to predict human individual development: at age 0 you are beige, age 2 you become purple, age 4 you become red, age 6 you become blue, age 16 you become orange, age 21 you become green. While I agree that individuals can move through different worldviews, I definitely disagree that we all do so at the same rate.
I myself have been blue from around age 15 until only recently. I would say that I was orange in some aspects: I have always had a healthy respect for science and technology, for example, which are orange things. But my overall color would have probably been blue.
Like me, many people certainly “peak” at a certain stage, most probably because the culture around them has peaked. Someone born into a militaristic ISIS family would probably peak at red, and to them, any talk of gender equality and saving planet earth (green topics) would be nonsense. Which brings me to…
The second tier
If you’re in the second tier of SD, you start at the color yellow, which is supposedly supposed to be a mirror of beige, but as the Liturgists say, an octave higher. The colors start to repeat: yellow(beige), turquoise(purple), coral(red), and so on. Society isn’t there yet, so they haven’t chosen all the colors, or said what they’re supposed to mean yet. It’s all very theoretical, and esoteric, and maybe not that useful yet. But once you read other ideas above and beyond SD (like Ken Wilber’s Integral Vision), it can become extremely compelling. Here’s an analogy.
Imagine an ant walking across a wooden floor. The floor has sections of color, corresponding to the SD colors. When the ant finally reaches the edge of the floor (green), it seems there is nowhere else to go — until the ant realizes there’s a wall there… and they can climb up, not just forward. Another dimension, if you will. They begin to walk up the wall — that’s yellow. They are alone; all the other ants are still on the floor, whether walking or standing still. The ants on the floor don’t look up at the wall, they don’t know it exists. As the ant walks up the wall higher and higher, they realize they’re not actually on a wall: they’re on a pole. And they can walk around the pole, to see different lines of ants approaching the pole from several directions. They are becoming turquoise.
The “lines of ants” refer to several different aspects of growth. There is a line for the development of religious thought, philosophical thought, technological advancement, physiological needs, psychological needs, etc. Now we’re getting into Ken Wilber’s integral theory. If you’re the ant on the pole from my example, you can look down and visualize concentric circles radiating out from the center of the pole — starting with green, then orange, then blue, all the way “out” to beige — correlating different lines of development with each other. You can see patterns, systems, and how everything is interrelated. I have more to say about this in another post. (And I’m getting way out of my league, but this fascinates me, so I want to keep going.)
Applications of the second tier
Once you get to the second tier, you can escape the fear and loathing associated with moving between stages in the first tier. You can see it all as a spectrum, a journey if you will. And you’re not afraid. You’re not threatened. You understand that everyone sees the world through their own lens, their own paradigm, their own stage of consciousness. You can identify the beauty and usefulness of each color. You don’t feel the need to drag someone who disagrees with you into your own stage of development.
And the real beauty, the real victory, is found when you appreciate someone for being the best at their own stage.
As an example, think of a tragic event, like Hurricane Katrina. Many people are displaced from their homes, or sick/injured in the aftermath. Imagine the reaction of someone living in an unaffected area. Each SD-color person would react differently, right? But try to imagine the reaction of each SD-color person, assuming they were the healthiest embodiment of their stage of development. What would it look like?
- BEIGE: I will watch out for this type of weather in the future so I can continue to survive.
- PURPLE: our God is angry with America. We have deserved this. We must repent and pray.
- RED: I will use my power to help these people, whatever it takes.
- BLUE: let us donate to a charity to help the victims of this tragedy. It is our duty under God to help the needy.
- ORANGE: I will work hard to develop an improved satellite system to more accurately predict weather patterns in the future.
- GREEN: let us welcome the displaced into our homes and extend our inclusive love to all people.
Do you see what I’m getting at? In a higher tier of thinking, we wouldn’t judge one reaction as better than the other, but we would appreciate when someone does the best they can from the worldview in which they operate. What else could we truly expect?
This was a long first “real” blog post. There’s a lot more to say about this topic and if you’ve come this far and are interested in learning more, I’ll be writing more about the second tier in the future, but I’d highly recommend listening to the Liturgists Podcast episode about SD in the meantime, as well as reading what others have to say.
If you’d never heard about SD before, I hope you enjoyed learning something new, as I have enjoyed writing this. I haven’t yet touched upon the most fascinating (to me) application of SD yet, which is viewing the origin of the Bible and the evolution of Christian religious thought from the lens of SD and Integral Theory. It will take a few more posts to explain, and I wanted to explain SD first, since it’s kind of the basis for a lot of my thinking.
See you soon!