An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber

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Mark EdwardsMark Edwards has an M.Psych in Developmental Psychology and a PhD in organisation theory from the University of Western Australia. He now works at Jönköping University in Sweden where he teaches and researches in the area of sustainability and ethics. Before becoming an academic he worked with people with disabilities for twenty years. He is the author of Organizational Transformation for Sustainability: An Integral Metatheory (Routledge, 2009) .

Integral Sociocultural Studies
and Cultural Evolution

Towards a more integrative approach to the analysis of collective development and the possibility of an Integral egalitarianism

Mark Edwards

  1. Some issues regarding developmental assessment in the collective quadrants
    • Introduction
    • Integral philosophy and sociocultural justice
    • Some criticisms of the Integral approach to collective development
    • Wilber's defence
    • The "good news" and the "bad news" of developmental assessment
    • Epochs or cultures: what exactly is being ranked?
  2. Developmental principles for an integral sociocultural science
    • 1: Evolution is a universal and Kosmic process
    • 2: The 4-Quadrants and their Homologous Structures
    • 3: The Collective Lines of Development
    • 4: The movement of Kosmic involution
    • 5: The Descending Movement of the Kosmos
    • 6: Develomental Integration in the Collective Domain
    • 7: The Kosmic Egalitarianism of the Nondual Ground
    • 8: Every holon includes a relational as well as an agentic orientation
  3. Some concluding thoughts and a summary
    • How can an Integral analysis of cultures and societies proceed?
    • Phases and updates
    • Summary
The future of integral studies … hinges fatefully on the precise stance we take towards evolution itself: in what domains does evolution operate, and what does it actually mean.
"The Eye of Spirit", Chapter 2
"The Way Up Is the Way Down"
"Sex, Ecology, Spirituality", Chapter 2

Some background

If we apply the same developmental logic that Wilber has proposed for individual growth to the collective domains, then Integral philosophy should regard global assessment and ranking practices as invalid and unnecessary in many instances.

This is the third essay in a series that looks at areas of inconsistency in Ken Wilber's explication of his Integral philosophy. As stated previously, I am an enthusiastic supporter of Wilber's Integral model and recognise his extraordinary achievement in producing this important and original body of ideas. My criticisms differ from those offered by other writers in that my comments are all derived from the consistent application of the Integral model itself. In other words, I maintain that Wilber does not consistently apply some basic elements of the Integral model (e.g. its structures of quadrants, levels, and lines, its epistemological principles, its developmental dynamics) to all the topics that he discusses, and, consequently, a number of important omissions and inconsistencies show up in his treatment of various topics.

To recap, the first essay looked mainly at the omission of collective and behavioural forms of spirituality identified through a consistent application of Integral principles to the transpersonal bands in the collective and behavioural quadrants. The second essay looked at the integration of Integral philosophy's epistemological and structural components and the want of an interpretive strand in the model's epistemological base. This third essay looks at the lack of a thorough application of several developmental principles, such as the concept of developmental lines, from the collective domains of the model. This results in Integral philosophy's tendency to uncritically rank the developmental attainment of various cultures and societies while remaining largely silent on matters of social and cultural justice for indigenous populations.

This essay does not attempt to offer a full or even partial treatment of the social justice critique of evolutionary models such as Integral philosophy. Although Wilber has written on this issue many times over many years, I believe that this important task requires further attention from Wilber and his colleagues. The objective here is far more modest. What I hope to show in the following is that the basic principles of Integral philosophy itself, when applied consistently to the issue of sociocultural evolution, raise some serious concerns regarding the assessment and ranking of cultures on global unidimensional scales of development, irrespective of how universal or cross-culturally valid those scales may be. I maintain that, if we apply the same developmental logic that Wilber has proposed for individual growth to the collective domains, then Integral philosophy should regard global assessment and ranking practices as invalid and unnecessary in many instances. In addition to this, because Integral philosophy actually incorporates the valid perspectives of the transpersonal philosophies and Nondual revelations, it should be a voice for a type of Kosmic egalitarianism which, according to many scriptures and sacred teachings, has absolutely no place for the grading of evolutionary attainment, whether that be for individuals, cultures, or other collective forms..

Wilber has always been sympathetic to the plight of the marginalised cultures and groups in his writings, however, because his works have always taken a developmental rather than social historical perspective, there remains much ground for further consideration of the impact of his ideas in this area. In this essay I hope to build on Wilber writings and provide a framework for an Integral sociocultural studies that, i) takes a more sophisticated approach to issues of developmental grading and assessment, and ii) provides an Integral framework for a more sensitive perspective on indigenous issues and sociocultural justice.



If we truly wish an integral embrace of the premodern, modern and postmodern then we need a way to put the theory of evolution in a context that both honours its truths and curtails its abuses.
(Integral Psychology, 1999, CW Vol.4, pg. 581)

One of the most important critiques of Wilber's Integral philosophy is the contention that it, like other evolutionary models of social development, is inherently biased towards western ideals of social growth. Critics maintain that this bias supports, both directly and indirectly, a view that modern industrialised societies are more evolved than indigenous cultures, the underdeveloped societies of the poor third world, and other powerless and marginalised societies. This critique is important because if it has any validity at all, then Integral philosophy will fail in its endeavour to open up a cross-cultural, life-affirming and inclusive vision of what we and our world are, and what we might become. Consequently, it is crucial that Integral scholars show why these accusations are not in any way accurate and, even more importantly, show how Integral cultural studies can proactively include the valid concerns of its social and cultural justice critics. This is not a matter of political correctness or concession to the relativist paradigm, or even of simply providing rational explanations for these injustices from an Integral perspective. It's also a question of how Integral philosophy itself, in this age of globalisation, can be a force against the continuation of collective forms of injustice and social oppression, and be a voice for cultural diversity and human rights.

Integral philosophy and sociocultural justice

Wilber has written extensively on the huge problems that any evolving system can be subject to. He recognises that the dynamics of development can result in severe pathologies and injustices. He has identified these problems and described why they appear and the various forms that they appear in. He has explained why things can go so very wrong in the evolution of new and more integrative forms of being and the disastrous impact that these pathologies can have on individuals, groups, races, and societies. But in all this, Wilber has never discussed how Integral philosophy itself can add a new voice to those calling for social justice and cultural respect for marginalised groups, such as indigenous cultures who have born the brunt of the "bad news" of modernity. Throughout this essay particular reference will be made to the situation of indigenous cultures. No other cultural or social grouping has been so brutalised, so decimated, and had so much taken from them by modern industrialised societies as indigenous communities. Assessing the evolutionary value of indigenous cultures that have been ravaged by all sorts of modern ills without recognising this is hardly a valid, let alone an integral, approach to collective developmental analysis.

Wilber has made a very timely stand against the pessimistic and the rather nihilistic values of the cultural relativists and has written extensively on the huge advances that modern western culture has brought to the dignity of human life. This essay does not wish to refute these qualitative developments in cultural life in any way. What it does aim to do, is take another look at the way an Integral sociocultural science might investigate the evolutionary standing and value of contemporary indigenous cultures and other marginalised social groups in the world community, and to do this in a way that is consistent with the basic principles of the Integral framework.

From Wilber’s response to his critics it is clear that he wants to defend Integral philosophy's capacity for integrative analysis and the developmental ranking of cultures so that a bigger picture of humanity's potential future can be envisioned. However, in defending this vital, and in his hands frequently illuminating, task of developmental analysis, Wilber has tended to focus on only those developmental principles within his model that support a teleological and ascending view of cultural evolution. In so doing he has left the Integral model open to very valid attacks from his sociocultural critics. They point out that, although Wilber purports to write a "history of everything", he omits what many regard as one of the most profound cultural event in human history - the decimation of human cultural and social diversity. These critics point to the absence of Wilber's treatment of power relationships, within and between cultures, that marginalise and oppress groups and societies. They also point to the very real possibility of there being some important cultural capacities that indigenous cultures are perhaps more advanced in than modern western societies. I also find it curious that Wilber books deal so infrequently with issues of cultural and social justice. The world's sacred writings abound with references to the need for justice at this collective level. If Integral philosophy actually incorporates the insights of the world's great religious leaders, as indeed it claims to, where are all the references in Wilber’s writings to those sacred texts that show concern for social and cultural justice, the poor, the marginalised, and the folly of ranking one person or group over another. An Integral history of the Kosmos that substantially neglects such topics is asking for trouble, and I believe that Wilber's strong criticism of the cultural relativists, many of whom come from a social justice background, does not address these key criticisms of his evolutionary model.

Wilber is aware of the long history of oppression endured by indigenous peoples. He has also written an immense amount that assumes that indigenous cultures are at an "evolutionary dead end". Although I believe that Wilber has been remiss in not addressing issues of cultural evolution and social justice more thoroughly, his Integral philosophy does have the potential for providing a more balanced and sensitive perspective on this topic. While Wilber has offered a powerful defence against critics of his ranked stages model of evolution, he has not to date drawn attention to components of his Integral philosophy which call for non-ranking and non-assessment, which highlight the developmental complexity of the collective domains, and which call for social justice and compassion based on, what might be called an "Integral egalitarianism". It is my intention in this paper to complement Wilber's focus on cultural ranking and the ascending focus of his treatment of collective evolution (which to this point has been his chief concerned in his cultural critics) with an assessment focus that is more overtly integrative and "this-worldly" in intent. Specifically, I want to identify those elements of Integral philosophy that call for non-ranking, for inclusion of the "Other", and for a more grounded focus on developmental diversity.

Some criticisms of the Integral approach to collective development

Critics of Wilber’s Integral approach to collective development have identified a number of shortcomings in the model. Some of these have come out of a misunderstanding of the model and some have not. Some of the criticisms have been adequately dealt with by Wilber and some have not. The main issues raised include:

  • The Integral model is an evolutionary one and therefore inherently biased towards western values and against those of indigenous societies (This criticism has been the one of most concern to Wilber and he has substantially dealt with it in his writings.)
  • The Integral model comes out of western philosophic/scientific traditions and as such favours western understandings of cultural and social health and well being and is less aware or ignorant of indigenous ones.
  • Because all evolutionary models necessarily rank cultures, they (evolutionary models) can all be adapted to the particular causes of aggressive neo-fascist and supremacy groups.
  • Although the Integral vision is partly based on an analysis of indigenous societies it provides no space for indigenous voices.
  • Integral studies has not dealt adequately with the immense oppression that indigenous cultures have suffered at the hands of modern ones.
  • Integral cultural studies confuses the tribal cultures of ancient peoples with contemporary indigenous peoples and their societies.
  • Integral sociocultural studies has not taken into account the evidence regarding the immense achievements and capacities of ancient and indigenous societies and the very advanced level of specialised development in many areas central to indigenous life.
  • All human cultures are of equal value and evolutionary importance and Integral studies has no right to assess and rank them by some arbitrary standard.

Some of these criticisms have been focused on more than others. Most critiques of Integral studies have centred on the proposition that evolutionary models are inherently eurocentric, culturally biased and therefore supportive of post-colonial power relationships between the developed world and the underdeveloped world. The argument basically goes as follows. Evolutionary models and analytical frameworks necessarily entail conceptions of progress or at least of development towards some ideal or telos. Kremer puts it this way,

"evolutionary thinking has always been problematic because of its (at least implicit) notion of progress towards some better, more complete, or more actualised way of being, some outopos (Greek: utopia) or nonexistent place to be realised in the future."
(Rothberg & Kelly, Eds., "Ken Wilber in Dialogue", 1998)

Kremer makes the very important point that Wilber does not consider in any detailed way the issues of cultural genocide, colonisation, imperialism and the oppression of indigenous societies in his analysis of the evolution of collectives. Cultural critics, such as Kremer, propose that Wilber's model is merely a eurocentric, utopian view that supports a type of social Darwinism where modern political and social structures are seen as more developed than the "weaker" indigenous cultures that they have subsumed or assimilated in their march towards higher developmental structures. Because of its evolutionary assumptions about stages and forms of development, these critics maintain that the Integral model can be used to support analyses and viewpoints that are ethnocentric or, at least, silent to the destruction of the world's precious diversity of cultures.

Take, for example, the process of indigenous cultures being subsumed into larger invading or colonising empires and nation states. Kremer understandably maintains that Wilber views on such things as the incorporation of smaller, indigenous societies (such as Hawaii) into larger modern nation states, lend themselves to the justification of oppression and even genocide in the service of the emergence of higher order holons. Kremer admits that, "Wilber may consider such use of his theories as abuse", but he goes on to say that Wilber's integral model nonetheless, "adds to the justificatory context that facilitates this kind of [culturally oppressive] thinking". Wilber would be shocked, I am sure, if any of his ideas would be used to support such views. The question remains though, where does Integral philosophy systematically argue for a more just and appreciative view of indigenous culture and marginalised societies? This should not be a peripheral issue for Integral scholars. The developmental analysis of indigenous cultures and tribal societies are central to the whole Integral vision of collective development. Its vision of our potential global future is founded on its analysis of our collective past. The way in which Integral studies deals with these criticisms is crucial for its standing as a philosophic and scientific discipline that is rigorous and forthright, as well as sensitive to the experiences of those who are marginalised and disenfranchised in today’s world.

As I said in the introduction, this essay does not attempt to systematically deal with the various difficulties that have been raised against the model. My main concern here is to suggest how the application of some Integral principles may overcome the more valid, and to this date unanswered, objections to the Wilber’s current treatment of collective development. Before doing that, however, let’s look at the key points in Wilber’s defence of his Integral theory of cultural evolution.

Wilber's defence

Wilber vehemently denies the criticisms put forward by his social critics and his defence against such charges has been repeated a number of times over more than twenty years. The defence is based on three key approaches. The first is the identification of various tenets or principles within Integral philosophy that counter its characterisation as a simply progressive, linear, or stage-like model of evolution. In simple terms, this is the "bad news of modernity" argument. Wilber points out that his critics don't acknowledge that the Integral model accounts for both the "good news" and the "bad news" of evolving systems. Regarding the need for tenets to explain the "bad news" of evolution Wilber says:

"What is therefore required is a set of tenets that can explain both advance and regression, good news and bad news, the ups and downs of an evolutionary thrust that is nonetheless as active in humans as it is in the rest of the Kosmos" (Up from Eden, 1996, pg. xi).

The tenets offered by Wilber to explain the downside of evolution include the following:

  1. The dialectic of progress: Evolution brings new problems as well as new capacities.
  2. The distinction between differentiation and dissociation: Instead of simply differentiating from and then including lower structures of consciousness, higher structures can dissociate and split from them.
  3. The capacity for higher structures to repress and dominate lower ones: When dissociation occurs repression and oppression often follow.
  4. The difference between healthy and pathological hierarchy: Hierarchy in itself is not problematic, but it can become so when natural holarchical processes become distorted and degenerative.
  5. Higher structures can be overtaken by lower ones: When pathological hierarchies are dominated by less integrative structures social pathologies can and usually will result.

All these "bad news of modernity" principles are derived from Wilber's key observation that the more holarchic evolution proceeds, the more things arise that can go wrong with it. Hence, social ills may be a sign of evolution rather than a denial of it. Using these tenets it is possible to differentiate simple progress theories from more sophisticated evolutionary theories of human development. Wilber makes the point that, while many of the critiques against simple progress theories are valid, Integral philosophy does not propose a progress theory but a synthesis of several models including evolutionary, static, decay and progress models. This more complex approach is not a simple progress model because it accounts for the "bad news" of modernity as well as the "good news".

Wilber's second line of defence is directed at his cultural relativist opponents who completely deny the possibility of deriving a hierarchy of cross-cultural and universal sociocultural structures, developmental dynamics, and social values. In retaliation, Wilber simply points to the inherent contradictory nature of this position. He shows how these cultural theorists unwittingly use a type of values hierarchy in the very act of denying the validity of such methods. This is the "performative contradiction" argument. It is the enthusiastic stating of a proposition which unknowingly contradicts the very basis on which it is made. It's like the old scientific positivist axiom that all knowledge is based on empirical data. The problem being that the poor old positivists had absolutely no way of knowing the truth of that statement through empirical means. While Wilber quite regularly berates his social critics for taking this hypocritical position, he is nonetheless fully aware of the problems of ranking and acknowledges some of the concerns of these critics. As he says,

"With very good and noble reasons (many of which I heartily support), they point out that value ranking is a hierarchical judgement that all too often translates into social oppression and inequality, and that in today's world the more compassionate and just response is a radically egalitarian or pluralistic system"
(SES, 1995, pg.25)

What Wilber objects to here is that these critics employ a hypocritical ranking system that values heterarchy over hierarchy. In so doing, they cut off all potential for transformational developmental as opposed to simply endless translational change. Quite understandably Wilber wants to rescue us all from that particular Flatland nightmare.

The third and final area of defence is Wilber’s distinction between the average mode of collective consciousness and the most advanced mode of consciousness. This distinction allows him to make two points. First, that most members of contemporaneous societies are not at the same level of consciousness as the "growing tip" level of consciousness of the most advanced members of that epoch. Hence the most profound cultural attainments of an epoch should not be used to classify the overall developmental level of that epoch. Second, Integral studies recognises that certain individuals or subgroups of cultures can attain very advanced levels of consciousness even though the average mode may be considerably lower down the evolutionary scale. Hence, by ranking a culture at a particular level it does not automatically follow that very high levels of insight and spiritual attainment are not available to some members of that culture.

The "bad news" argument, the performative contradiction arguments, and the "most advanced mode" versus the "average mode" distinction are the main methods of rebuttal offered by Wilber to defend his propositions on cultural evolution and the subsequent ranking of various sociocultural forms. All these arguments are concerned with Integral principles that explain the need for hierarchical ranking and the interpretation of social events that provide evidence for evolutionary ascent towards some collective telos. But, as Wilber himself has pointed out, the holarchical order of the Kosmos also includes healthy descending dynamics, involutionary movements, and forces that include as well as those that separate and rank. To date, Wilber has not systematically applied these more inclusive/relational Integral principles in his developmental analysis of the collective quadrants of the Integral model. In defending the evolutionary aspects of the model against those who would deny evolution, Wilber has stressed only those Integral principles which are teleological, hierarchical, and evolutionary ascending. In so doing, he has left out of the picture those Integral principles that are inclusionary, heterarchical, and involutionary descending. He has not systematically applied all those aspects of the Integral model that call for non-ranking, for inclusion and for a cultural egalitarianism. The result is that Integral philosophy is silent on a number of issues that are central to any full discussion of collective global development. These issues include the absence of an Integral indigenous studies, the need for a more sophisticated concept of collective evolution, the lack of a social justice perspective on world development, the need for an Integral perspective on the interaction between sacred writings and social and cultural justice, and the need for Integral philosophy to listen to and learn from indigenous approaches to collective growth and development.

Integral philosophy’s silence on such issues to date does not mean that it is not capable of providing an interpretive framework to study these concerns. In the following sections I intend to show that Integral philosophy contains several core principles that will, i) warn against the indiscriminate developmental ranking of cultures, societies, worldviews and other collective structures, ii) provide a more sophisticated analytical framework for studying collective development, and iii) be a positive voice for the advancement of social and cultural justice. In dealing with these topics I hope to show how Integral philosophy can provide a powerful transpersonal basis for considering issues of sociocultural justice and particularly where indigenous cultures are concerned. With these principles, Integral philosophy can begin to include the voices and viewpoints of indigenous peoples and other marginalised cultures and groups in a more balanced way. It is hoped that these suggestions will lead to a more comprehensive and culturally sensitive Integral vision of sociocultural development.

Before looking more closely at these issues, I will very briefly consider some of the basic issues that lie behind all questions of developmental assessment, cultural ranking and labelling. Integral philosophy's capacity to provide unique perspectives on these issues is one of its great advantages over other overarching models. But here to, there is the "bad news" of assessment to be considered.

The "good news" and the "bad news" of developmental assessment

Any single assessment or ranking procedure, Integral or otherwise, can be used to further growth and healing or can be misused to result in harm and injustice. The good news of assessing, rating, and evaluating growth is that, when it is done properly, it can tell you where you have come from, where you are in relation to some other standard, where you might be going in the future, as well as how you might get there. Extremely worthy and much needed information, insights, and, indeed, guiding visions come from such analyses. And no one, but no one, has done more to provide such an integrative vision of development in the contemporary world, for both individual and collective realms of human experience, than Ken Wilber and his Integral vision of reality.

The bad news of developmental assessment is that, in many circumstances, it is just not valid, possible or necessary to measure, rate, or rank individuals or collectives when evaluating long term growth or development. Any undergraduate student of psychometrics know this only too well. Even when the tools of assessment are eminently valid and reliable, it is still, in some cases, totally inappropriate to use them. More than this, very real harm can follow even when the assessment is appropriate. Badly reported assessment results, simplistic labelling and poorly informed clients can take the outcomes of any assessment and use them in unintended ways. At a more structural level, sociological studies of assessment also show that testing procedures can be used as agents for reproducing the dominant power relationships that currently exist in a society. Where groups are marginalised, that testing will serve to maintain that marginalisation. In some instances the outcomes of assessment can be so disastrous and the possible benefits so meagre in comparison, that the ranking/rating process should not be carried out at all. At such times, listening and providing a space for powerless voices to be heard are much more appropriate activities to be pursued, and this applies to the collective sphere as much as it does to the individual.

In some instances it is a valid and justifiable endeavour to assess and rank cultural and social development against some meaningful and reliable set of standards (I will speculate on when this might be appropriate in a later section). In many situations it will not be. Because Integral philosophy is involved in the former, it should be particularly vigilant in seeing when the latter is the case. In my opinion, this vigilance should come to the fore whenever the relative cultural development of contemporary indigenous cultures is raised. In the following discussion I intend to show that there are several core principles in Integral Philosophy which call for a very cautious view towards sociocultural ranking and assessment. This view would sometimes require an Integral perspective to point out the need for social justice and Kosmic egalitarianism rather than ranking. This view would point to the unique capacities and values of every culture before it makes any pronouncement on relative developmental value. Hopefully, this view will also allow Integral philosophy to represent in a more prominent way some of the great spiritual revelations concerning social judgements and the spiritual value of individuals and groups.

Epochs or cultures: What exactly is being ranked?

In his seminal publication in the area of human evolution, "Up from Eden", Wilber advances the idea that, just as there are identifiable developmental stages within the lifespan of a human person, so there are evolutionary epochs unfolding through human social history. Through synthesising and expanding on the works of many different authors and philosophical schools, Wilber identifies these evolutionary epochs and their associated developmental worldviews, cognitive perspectives, and moral orientations. He then describes the various surface structure forms and evolutionary signposts that are generated by these basic developmental potentials. This is all part of the Integral endeavour of showing where we have come from so that we might better understand where we are and where we might collectively be heading. In arriving at his structural descriptions of general epochs and sociocultural types, Wilber draws on huge amounts of evidence from a wide range of areas (he continues to update his views as, for example, in the historical dating of the emergence of each new epoch).

Here is the key point. Throughout the presentation of these ideas, Wilber's analysis is not aimed at the level of particular cultures but more at collective qualities that identify an epoch or some immensely broad historical period that cuts across many different cultures . His basic collective worldview categories of archaic, magic, mythic, rational, centauric, and so on, describe the collective worldviews that define these various epochs. As he points out in SES (1995, pg. 172), "these various `epochs`, such the magical or mythical, refer only to the average mode of consciousness achieved in that particular time in evolution". Wilber's analytical method has enabled the development of a nested stage theory or holarchical model of collective evolution. This is an immense achievement. However, this identification of evolutionary epochs has all too often slipped into a superficial developmental labelling of contemporary sociocultural forms. For example, epochs that are defined by a "magic" or "archaic" worldview are unjustly and quite erroneously equated with contemporary indigenous cultures, resulting in the understandable impression that Wilber regards such contemporary cultures as underdeveloped precursors of more advanced social forms. Figure 1 attempts to graphically point out this error of equating contemporary indigenous cultures with some epoch in prehistory. If the modern epoch is to be defined in the same way as ancient ones then all cultures, including indigenous ones should be included in the analytical process. This may result in a very messy range of developmental outcomes but this is the nature of evolutionary complexity. 

Although Wilber is clearly aware of the plight of contemporary indigenous cultures, it is easy to gain the impression from his writings on sociocultural evolution (and perhaps just as much from his silence on these matters) that he regards these societies as less evolved than modern cultures. He is also aware of the difference between prehistoric tribal cultures and indigenous cultures of today. However, his awareness of these issues does not seemed to have qualified any of his propositions on the developmental value of indigenous cultures, be they ancient or contemporary.

Fig. 1: The difference between the developmental analysis of sociocultural epochs & the study of contemporary cultures

Because of the significance of indigenous cultures to the Integral analysis of collective evolution, and because of the abuse suffered by such groups through inappropriate application of evolutionary theories, Integral scholars have a responsibility to carefully consider how indigenous cultures may have evolved over time in ways that modern industrialised societies simply do not see or understand. To give but one example, Wilber at times draws the conclusion from his sources that indigenous cultures were "benign" cultures that "lacked the capacity to devastate the environment on a large scale". This conclusion completely ignores the evidence on Australian Aboriginal societies which clearly shows that, since their arrival more than 50,000 years ago, they have dramatically changed the whole landscape of the entire continent of Australia. Through very advanced fire technologies and cooperative hunting techniques the indigenous peoples of Australia have totally altered the vegetation, wildlife, and natural environment of this continent of more than 8,000,000 square kilometres. More to the point, they brought about this astonishing change in such a way as to preserve their social and cultural viability and the sustainability of the land, its forests and bushlands, its oceans and rivers for a period of more than 50,000 years. In contrast to this, at the current rate of land degradation, the current dominant industrial society of Australia may very well render the great majority of the arable land mass of Australia unusable for agricultural production within the next 200 years.

So we have a situation where an indigenous culture(s) uses and adapts a very powerful technology that dramatically shapes the natural environment for period so long in human terms that we can't really comprehend it. The end result of this activity is not environmental degradation but the creation of sustainable and diverse human communities, natural environments, thriving and rich animal and plant ecosystems across the entire land mass of the oldest and driest inhabited continent on earth. The evidence from this one example questions virtually every statement that Integral philosophy has made on indigenous cultures to this point. The example gives some idea of the power that indigenous societies have to dramatically change environments over time without devastating them or rendering them incapable of productive capacity. This points to anything but an environmentally "benign" and "evolutionary dead end" set of cultures when compared to modern industrialised ones.

I am sure that there are many examples like this from other parts of the world. I emphasise that I am not a scholar of indigenous studies, but surely such examples lay down a challenge to Integral philosophy to re-examine its methods of cultural ranking and its analysis of the developmental standing of contemporary indigenous cultures. Modern western societies simply don't know enough about the dynamics of indigenous cultures to judge their evolutionary standing or value. What we do know is that indigenous cultures are incredibly diverse with an astonishing range of languages systems, belief patterns, knowledge bases, and artistic sensitivities. Which may well include many cultural qualities which have more developmental value that their modern western counterparts.

In any event, modern contemporary indigenous cultures should not be equated with some generalised concept of a basic evolutionary stage that defines earlier human cultural epochs. While it may be possible to analyse and order universal changes that identify various global epochs, the labelling and developmental assessment of individual cultures is an entirely different matter and, as I intend to show, may simply not be possible in the form that Wilber currently employs. The issue of the true evolutionary capacity of contemporary indigenous societies is one that needs much more consideration from Integral scholars.


In the preceding section I have drawn attention to a number of basic matters that give cause for thought when assessing a cultural form against some universal evolutionary standard. In particular, it needs to be clearly stated that there is a vast difference between the valid activity of identifying collective evolutionary epochs and the inappropriate categorisation and ranking of contemporary cultural forms, particularly indigenous ones. Integral studies has much work to do in elaborating on these distinctions and on the issue of sociocultural assessment in general. In the following section I will identify several principles of developmental logic which have direct relevance and application to exploring these issues. These principles, all of which Wilber has identified as being central to Integral philosophy, have not been consistently applied to the topic of collective development or indigenous studies. I hope that my novel application of these well known principles may provide a more balanced framework for an Integral sociocultural science to investigate the immensely important and sensitive field of collective evolution. Each section begins with a quote from Wilber’s writings outlining the particular principle.

Principle 1: Evolution is a universal and Kosmic process
"Now we are part and parcel of a single and all-encompassing evolutionary current that is itself Spirit-in-action ."
"an evolutionary thrust that is nonetheless as active in humans as it is in the rest of the Kosmos"
"to deny evolution in the human and cultural domain is to deny that learning occurs or can occur in collective consciousness"
Foreword to the new 1996 edition of "Up from Eden"
"The same [evolutionary] currents that run through human blood run through swirling galaxies and colossal solar systems ... move the mightiest of mountains as well as our own moral aspirations - one and the same current moves throughout the All, and drives the entire Kosmos in its every last gesture"
Sociocultural Evolution, 1999

Integral philosophy is chiefly concerned with exploring issues of developmental change. In ensuring that the Integral approach applies to collective development as much as it does to personal development, Wilber argues strongly for including the concept of cultural development into the grand picture of an evolving Kosmos. One of his chief motivations in defending the Integral approach to collective evolution is so that he can, in his words, "rehabilitate cultural evolution in a sophisticated form, and thus reunite humanity with the rest of the [evolving] Kosmos."

And so it is axiomatic from the Integral viewpoint that all cultures and societies have evolved in the past, are still evolving in the present, and will continue to evolve into the future. If, as Wilber cogently argues, we should not cut off humanity from the rest of an evolving Kosmos, then we should ensure that indigenous and native cultures are not represented as evolutionary dead ends that are cut off from the rest of an evolving humanity. If European and other western industrialised nations respond to this developmental imperative, we should assume that other cultures always do so as well. If it is anthropocentric arrogance to assume that the rest of the universe evolves while humanity stands still, it is cultural arrogance to assume that western eurocultures have evolved during that past several thousand years while indigenous cultures have not. I propose that it is against the basic Integral principle of a Kosmic and universal evolution to assume that some Western or Asian cultures have been in a process of ongoing development for the last two, ten or thirty thousand years while indigenous, nomadic and tribal cultures have not. Surely, the universal power that has been at play in opening up individuals, societies and cultures to the forces of Kosmic evolution has been active within all such "holons".

This Integral principle of ubiquitous evolutionary growth says nothing about the exterior form, or the interior experience, or the developmental pathways that such collective cultural and social evolution might take. As always, the particular cultural and individual translations of basic structural change and their transformational patterns are infinite in variety and often highly invisible to uneducated and foreign eyes. Integral scholars, in consistently applying this idea of Kosmic evolution (ie. evolution in all quadrants, for all levels, at all times, in all places) should assume that all cultures are subject to this principle.

The following may help to clarify this rather simple idea a little further. The evolution of animal species is commonly pictured as a tree with earlier simpler animal species represented on the lower thicker branches situated closer to the main trunk of the tree. The more evolved species are represented on the higher newer branches of the tree. To find a common ancestor between any two points on the tree one simply traces the branches back to the first common point of branching. Hence, the point that humans are not evolved from chimpanzees, but rather that we are both descendants of a single common primate ancestor. The same principle holds with cultural evolution. Modern western societies are not culturally or socially descended from contemporary indigenous or tribal societies. We both certainly share a common cultural and societal ancestor, but all contemporary world cultures, western, asian, indigenous or otherwise, should be regarded as evolutionary equals and as the growing tips of the sociocultural tree of evolution rather than as representatives of previous evolutionary stages. Figure 1 shows how the Integral principle of Kosmic evolution means that contemporary indigenous societies are more accurately portrayed as partners in a world of cultural diversity rather than as evolutionary dinosaurs that are lingering on before final extinction.

FIGURE 2: Cultural development and the Integral principle of universal evolution

Referring to this concept of a tree of continuos sociocultural heritage, Wilber says that,

"Today’s existent tribes, and today’s nations, and today’s cultures, and today’s accomplishments - all would trace their lineage in an unbroken fashion to the primal tribal holons upon which a human family tree was about to be built. And looking back on our ancestors in that light, I am struck with awe and admiration for the astonishing creativity ... that allowed humans to rise above a given nature and begin building a noosphere ... the very process of which would eventually bind all peoples of the world together in, if you will, one global tribe." SES, 1990, pg.170
Evolution, above all, means complexity and this pertains more to the cultural domain than to perhaps any other quadrant of study. In applying the principle of universal evolution to all cultures we can recognise the incredible complexity of the Integral endeavour to map the collective growth towards Spirit. The use of the uni-dimensional labels of the basic collective structures is just too simplistic to capture this process at the level of individual cultures and societies

Principle 2: The 4-Quadrants and their Homologous Structures
"The individual and the cultural holons evidence the same basic structures of consciousness, and the same basic structures of consciousness show up in development or evolution of both the individual and the species."
It is the same basic structures of consciousness underlying both the micro and the macro branch in both their ontogenetic and phylogenetic evolution, and it is the same developmental logic ... that governs their evolution"
Sex, Ecology, Spirituality, 1995, Chap.4

One of the central planks of Wilber's writings is the finding that there is a concordance of stages and forms between the ontogenetic and the phylogenetic dimensions of development, ie. between the individual and the collective quadrants. The idea, at least in a restricted form, is not a new one, as Wilber has noted. Many evolutionists have noted the parity between particular features of biological development in, for example, the human foetus and their corresponding evolutionary phases in the animal kingdom. In his analysis the spectrum of developmental interiors, Wilber has also found strong evidence for this idea of "homologous structures". Subsequently, Wilber has applied this principle to all stages of evolution at both the individual/collective dimension and the consciousness/behaviour dimension. These concordances exist because the basic evolutionary structures are reflected in each of the quadrants. As a consequence, the transitional lines of development that pass through these basic structures will also display this homologous pattern. In other words, for both individual and collective evolution, homologous relationships exist between both basic and transitional structures so that the stages of growth in both domains reflect the qualities and emergent properties that characterise those stages.

The point that I want to stress here is that the concept of homologous structures throughout the holarchy is a core component of the Integral vision. These structures and their correlations exist between all quadrants in that all quadrants contain pre-normative, normative and post-normative stages of development. Hence all quadrants will contain basic structures and, more importantly for the current discussion, transitional structures (or developmental lines) that are correlated in important ways. The following diagram is a graphical representation of this idea of homologous structures within the 4-quadrants framework.

FIGURE 2: The Integral principle of homologous structures applied to the 4-quadrants

FIGURE 3: The Integral principle of homologous structures applied to the 4-quadrants

The concept of homologous structures has important implications for the issue of developmental assessment and the ranking of structures. It follows from Figure 2 that fundamental developmental structures that pertain to one quadrant should also have some parallel form in the others. If development in the interior individual quadrant is characterised by the elements of basic structures, transitional structures and some locus of identity, then those elements should be present in each of the other quadrants. More to the point, it is a principle of Integral developmental logic that the complexity involved in the interaction of basic and transitional structures and the self system means that individual development follows no set linear or unidimensional path. As Wilber has pointed out many times, a person's overall development follows no set order of stages "whatsoever". On the basis of the core concept of homologous structures, I propose that such a principle must also apply in the collective domains. It follows from this that development in the collective domains will also follow no simple path. What this means for the rating, ranking and assessment of sociocultural forms will be explored n the next section.

Principle 3: The Collective Lines of Development
"overall development, or the "sum total" of the various lines, follows no set sequence whatsoever"
Integral Psychology, Chapter 2
"Individuals can be at various waves [basic structures] in different circumstances; ... aspects of consciousness can be at many different waves."
(Recent Shambhala interview)
"A person can be at a very high level in one line ..., at a medium level of development in others ..., and at a low level in still others. Thus, a person's overall development follows no linear sequence whatsoever. Development is far from a sequential ladder-like, clunk and grind series of steps, but rather involves a fluid flowing of many waves and streams in the great River of Life."
Introduction to Volume Six of the Collected Works
"These lines develop relatively independently through the spectrum, so that a person can be at, say, a very high level of cognitive development, a medium level of interpersonal development, and a low level of emotional development. This underscores just how uneven and non-linear overall development can be. Although the individual developmental or evolutionary lines themselves almost always follow specific sequence of unfolding ... nonetheless overall development, or the "sum total" of the various lines, follows no set sequence whatsoever".
Sociocultural Evolution, pg. 295, CW Vol4

In his recent essay titled, "A Summary of My Psychological Model", Wilber says of individual development that it is a "wildly individual and idiosyncratic affair" because the many lines of development progress "relatively independently". If we are consistent and apply the concept of lines of development in the collective as well as the individual quadrants, it can be seen that specific types of contemporary societies or cultures, be they indigenous, industrialised, eastern or western, cannot accurately be represented by a simple one dimensional structural label such as "mythic" or "archaic" or "rational" or whatever. Wilber warns that this cannot be done with individuals and, invoking the principle of homologous structures, I am simply extending that same developmental logic to the collective domains. If the developmental principle of transitional structures or lines is applied to the collective quadrants we end up with the proposition that, a society's or culture's overall development follows no set sequence whatsoever. Consequently, Integral sociocultural studies would see it as impossible to summarise, in any valid or reliable way, the developmental stage of individual contemporary cultures through a single sequential ranking procedure. Indeed, as we saw above, in some instances it may be even morally reprehensible to attempt to do so. (This does not mean that cultural epochs in evolutionary attainment cannot be identified through holarchic principles. See the section in Part 3 on Integral methods of analysing sociocultural development).

The variation in the developmental level of separate transitional lines, even within a single and homogenous culture, will be so great that a single developmental labelling of that culture will have no substantial meaning or accuracy "whatsoever". Some collective developmental lines within a culture are likely to be very advanced and some are likely to be very underdeveloped. Some lines may be consciously recognised and valued in a culture and others will not. If Integral studies fails to point out the developmental complexities that exist in the collective domains and ranks cultures and societies using unidimensional worldview labels, it will continue to be a very valid target of criticism from social critics such as labelling theorists. Figure 3 represents the application of this Integral principle of developmental lines to the collective quadrants. These stylised "socio-graphs' (in contrast to the psychograph of the individual domain) are meant to show just how invalid and misleading it is to conceive of a simple developmental categorisation of a particular culture.

Wilber is understandably irritated by accusations that his model is linear. But the reason why so many of his cultural critics continue to make this accusation in the collective domains of development is that Wilber has not systematically applied the multidimensional focus of his modular framework of development (his lines or streams of development) to the collective domains. He has applied the idea of homologous structures only in the area of basic structures and not in the area of transitional structures. He has simply never pointed to the possibility that societies and cultures can contain, not only individuals at various levels of ontological development, but significant cultural streams that are highly advanced and others that are highly underdeveloped.

Figure 3: Sociocultural lines of development for western and indigenous cultures.

Figure 4: Sociocultural lines of development for western and indigenous cultures

There are many examples where societies have simultaneously exhibited very developed and very immature social streams within their national identity. For the purposes of our current discussion, let's consider the Germany of the first half of the twentieth century. Here was a very homogenous society that could boast of many of the greatest scientific, philosophic, and artistic achievements known to humanity. Yet, at the same time, it could carry out some of the most systematic violations of human rights ever perpetrated. The view that Germany's behaviour through this period was the result of a tribe of Nazis dominating the silent majority is simplistic in the extreme. The point is simply that societies and cultures are multidimensional and immensely complex and that, if it is impossible to describe the developmental path of an individual's life course in simple linear terms, how much more unlikely will it be to developmentally categorise single cultures and societies from any region and of any type, indigenous or otherwise.

Some collective lines of development

From his prodigious knowledge of the various models of psychological maturation, Wilber has identified a large number of lines of development that proceed through the various stages of the lifespan. These include moral development, interpersonal relations, affect development, cognitive development, ego development, object relations, faith development, psychosexual development, motivation/drive theories, self-concept, spiritual lines of growth, and various specific areas such as artistic development, sporting development, and body sense. Now these lines all refer to the individual in either its interior or behavioural capacities. But, as we have seen, a consistent application of Integral principles would see that there are developmental lines that also exist in the collective domains. Wilber has only very recently referred to these collective lines within the context of his 4-quadrants model (see his on-line essay, "A Summary of My Psychological Model", 2000).

The following table suggests some collective counterparts to the individual developmental lines that Wilber and others have previously identified. Even at first glance it seems that there are many times more lines in the collective quadrants than there are in the individual ones. This, once again, points to the complexity of collective developmental processes. The central point about listing these collective lines is that we would expect that some of them will be more developed in western industrialised cultures and that some of them will be more developed in indigenous cultures. Referring back to Figure 3, it is clear that a culture cannot simply be situated on one summary developmental dimension and then ranked against other cultures.

Table 1: Important Developmental Lines of the Collective Quadrants

Individual Lines of Development

Some Corresponding

Collective Lines of Development

Moral development Ethical development, types of legal process, legislative codes, constitutions
Language development Patterns of collective communication, communications networks and processes
Patterns of health Social and cultural sustainability, public health, communal viability
Lifespan stages Historical periods and cultural development
Interpersonal relations Stages of political development, international relations, development of multicultural relations, community relations, stages of kinship development
Affect development Cultural milieux, communal spirit, Zeitgeist, feeling of the times, national mood
Cognitive development Cultural knowledge base, scientific development, level of collective education, environmental knowledge store
Ego development Collective/communal/national/global identity, civic identity, development in types of national stories/literature and mythologies
Object relations Developmental stages of culture-nature relations, Foreign relations and policy development, Stages in social aggression, Comparative politics
Faith/spirituality development Religious cultural history, level of authenticity and functioning of socio-religious groups, maturity in collective social concerns
Psychosexual development Collective gender relations, maturity of social relations, laws and social codes
Motivation/drive theories Cultural and social imperatives, socio-historical development
Self-concept Meta-identity, stage cohesiveness of social groups
Environmental relations Stages in relationship with environment, land and the earth

The collective lines of development are probably even more complex and difficult to assess than their individual counterparts. This adds considerably to the complexity involved in scientifically investigating the developmental characteristics of a particular culture. It probably renders the task of evaluating the overall developmental state of a society impossible on practical terms, even if there was any value in attempting to do so in the first place.

The actual number of lines of development is very much open to debate and will probably be determined by the number of researchers dedicated enough to pursue certain developmental categories. It is also likely that some lines may go unrecognised or at least undervalued in some cultures while they are critically important in others. Consequently, some streams that are important to indigenous peoples will be undervalued and poorly understood in western cultures. I have included some possible examples of this in the above table. Environmental relations, cultural sustainability, systems of community networking, and other developmental lines that focus on culture-environment relations, may all be candidates for crucial streams that are highly evolved in indigenous societies while at the same time being regarded as largely unimportant in modern societies.

It follows from these considerations that Integral sociocultural science should not support or encourage assumptions that contemporary indigenous societies are lower down the scale of basic development than other societies. Such assumptions are, in fact, anathema to the Integral approach because they are run counter to its basic explanatory principles of developmental complexity, heterogeneous growth, multi-dimensional analysis, and individual and collective variation in developmental patterns. While an Integral sociocultural science has a great deal to contribute to the investigation of change in the collective domains, it must see that the arbitrary evolutionary labelling of specific cultures is, by its own principles of developmental logic, a biased and inaccurate methodology that ignores many developmental and cultural complexities.

Apart from these more academic concerns, cultural questions which include issues of ranking and hierarchical assessment, cannot be addressed without also considering the power relationships between cultures. After all, just how accurately can you assess the specific values of a culture when many of their cultural streams and resources - their relationship to the land, their language, their children, their pedagogic methods, their spiritual practices - have been attacked and abused if not stolen from them. In spite of that abuse, contemporary indigenous cultures may have many highly developed cultural lines that western societies would do well to acknowledge and humbly learn from. Indeed, I have a suspicion that some of these lines, like cultural sustainability and relationship to land, of which we are just so ignorant, may be crucially important for the survival of all cultures and societies in these pivotal times.

Principle 4: The movement of Kosmic involution.
"the movement from the higher to the lower is involution"
"in no case should involution be confused with any movement or sequence of movements in evolution"
"The Eye of Spirit", Chap.2

The principle of Kosmic involution recognises that there is a complementary process to the ascending thrust towards higher and more transcendent structures. This descending involutionary drive is that aspect of the Kosmos that empties itself into creation. Wilber describes the involutionary movement as both a falling away from the Godhead and as the manifestation of the Godhead through ever more fundamental levels. This Kosmic movement can be see as a universal movement of compassion and of spirit-being-with and spirit-being-in the beauty of the earth and life’s more material manifestations. The incarnation of Christ (God with us) and the Bodhisattva’s vow (eschewing final immersion for rebirth) are pre-eminent examples of the involutionary movement within the individual quadrants. To my mind, there may be an element of this movement within the spiritualities of indigenous people. I don't wish to deny the relevance of the pre-trans fallacy here. It is very easy to elevate primordial beliefs into being sublime expression of Nondual revelations. But there seems to be a much more conscious reading of nature as a part of Spirit in contemporary indigenous spiritualities and much less of an animist confusion of "natural thing" with Godhead. At least, I am not convinced that contemporary indigenous spirituality is as representative of archaic and magic forms of religion as seems to have been the case with prehistoric archaic and magic societies in earlier epochs.

The principle of involution is different from simple regression. In its primal impetus the motivation for Spirit to become "involved" in creation was and is a conscious one. Whereas regression is often (though not always) an unconscious and defensive process that is more reactive and instinctual than intentional. It is this conscious element that distinguishes these descending movements. The principle of Kosmic involution when operating in the individual domain results in a very simple and direct beauty of Spirit being with nature and with the earth. In this involutionary space lie the images of Christ with the children, of Krishna with his goats, of Ramana with his monkeys, of John Cassian in the wilderness, and of Dogen with the bushes and grasses. Might it not be possible that in the cultural domain, indigenous societies have a greater consciousness of this involutionary reality than their fellow modern cultures, who perhaps are more conscious of the evolutionary nature of the Kosmos. This whole field of involutionary movements and their expression in each of the four quadrants is an immensely rich area for further investigation from an Integral studies perspective. To this point it has not had the attention it deserves and the representation of indigenous cultures has, I believe, suffered as a result.

Principle 5: The Descending Movement of the Kosmos
"with the great Nondual systems ... we see an emphasis on balancing and integrating these two movements. The Ascending or transcendental current of wisdom or Eros or prajna is to be balanced with the Descending or immanent current of compassion or Agape or karuna; and the union of these two ... is the source and goal of all genuine spirituality."
"The God of the descenders ... was fascinated with diversity, and found its glory in the fascination of this diversity. Not greater oneness but greater variety was the goal of this God. It celebrated the senses, and sexuality, and the body, and earth. And delighted in a creation centred spirituality that saw each sunrise, each moonrise as the visible blessing of the Divine."
"Sex, Ecology Spirituality" Chap.8

The Kosmic drive of Involution is manifested in the dynamics of the Descending movement to embrace and include creation’s diversity. This Descending movement is the manifestation of the Involutionary drive towards universal compassion in the body, the senses, the earth, nature, and in fundamental social relations. Integral philosophy recognises that developmental systems and theories that describe issues of transcendence and "other worldly" attainment must also be offset by a immanent and "this worldly" focus. In a similar vein, the ascending, ranking, teleological focus of Integral philosophy’s analytical methods, need to be balanced with a framework for assessing the descending, inclusive, and grounded focus of development. To this point, Integral philosophy has not developed an interpretive methodology for assessing the Descending movement of the Kosmos in the same way that it has for the Ascent through the basic structures of individual and collective ontologies. Hopefully the various principles outlined here will go some way to providing this perspective.

Wilber has very perceptively and eloquently written on the fundamental drives of Eros and Agape, Wisdom and Compassion, Ascent and Descent through the evolutionary movement to transcend and the evolutionary movement to integrate (particularly the middle chapters of Sex, Ecology, Spirituality). Neither of these forces is more important than the other. They are the breathing in and the breathing out of the Kosmos and to see one as being more valued than the other is not consistent with the Integral vision and runs counter to its developmental logic. When we raise the importance of the ascending movement to a position of priority over the descending movement we end up with pathological teleologies that focus on ranking to the detriment of inclusion, that value the higher to the exclusion of the lower, and that justify harm to the less developed as unfortunate side effects of the thirst for growth in the more developed. Wilber's Integral philosophy says a definite "No" to all this.

Wilber, more than any other writer of the evolutionary genre, gives a very balanced description of both the good and the bad news, the dignity and the disaster of evolutionary processes in the human domain. The types of pathologies in the ascending movement include dissociation, pathological hierarchy, oppression, suppression, and incomplete integration. He also describes the bad news of involution and the pathologies that can result when the descending movements develops manifest pathologies. The types of pathologies in the descending movement includes regression, fixation, delayed development, and incomplete differentiation. This is the bad news of evolution and involution.

However, Wilber does not treat with equal balance the good news of descending drives within the collective streams of growth. He does not look at the good news of how those cultures which embrace a life of connection with nature have survived and prospered for countless millennia (until their meeting with modern cultures) and have developed spiritual, technical and social practices that may be central to the survival of all human societies over the coming years. World cultures from both the East and the West, often share worldviews that have an ascending, evolutionary focus with a corresponding advancing sense of historical time. In indigenous cultures the situation is somewhat reversed with the focus much more on a descending embrace of the natural world that has a corresponding cyclical time sense. Where the ascending focus promotes social advancement and rapid cultural change, the descending focus promotes sustainability and a respect for the natural world that forms the basis of all human advancement. Integral philosophy has much work to do to investigate the good news of this descending movement.

The following table shows that there exist both "good news" and "bad news" elements to the Ascending drive and the Descending drive. Each of these four areas need to be taken into account when assessing the health or otherwise of an evolving/involving system. The types of good and bad news presented here should be taken as examples only.

Table 2: The "good news" and the "bad news" of the Ascending and Descending movements



The Ascending Drive The Descending Drive

  The Good News


Growth and maturation to a more integrative and complex level of identity or collective consciousness.

The higher becomes manifest which permits integration and embodiment of preceding levels.


The Bad News


The higher splits from the lower, resulting in increasing pathologies the higher the evolutionary level.

The higher becomes identified with the lower and reverses growth and halts developmental potential.

The twin movements of Ascent and Descent drive evolutionary and involutionary forms for all developmental lines through all ontological levels within all quadrants. They are not necessarily attached to particular higher or lower basic structures or to more or less integrative cultural worldviews. In fact, the more developed the collective basic structure becomes, the more difficult yet more important it will be for that social form to have a healthy descending perspective in its sociocultural make up. From this perspective the indigenous cultures of today manifest integrative involutionary qualities that we in modern cultures must learn from and try to incorporate. They are cultural reservoirs of both technical (sustainable farming techniques, and renewable materials techniques, plant and herbal medicines) and cultural forms (spiritualities, worldviews, forms of communal consultation) which may be crucial for the sustainable development and evolution of all societies including modern ones.

Wilber has very rightly used his ascending principles of differentiation/dissociation, transcendence/repression, and pathological hierarchy to defend the need to identify and describe evolutionary stages and dynamics in the collective domains. He has not, however, applied the descending principles to the same issue. In doing the former, he has mounted a concerted set of arguments to quieten the multitude of Flatland theorists who deny transformative growth in any domain. In neglecting to do the latter, he has dismissed those descending theorists who focus on integrative development and the need for cultural healing.

This is evident in Wilber's dialogue with Jurgen Kremer which has been referred to previously. Kremer's initial comments bring up several points related to the descending movement of development. His piece is full of calls for the recognition of the processes of nurturing and being nurtured, listening, loving, showing, tenderness, being patient, allowing regeneration to take place. He makes the very pertinent point that systems of thought that value relatedness, integrated consciousness (with nature and other subjects) and sharing (all descending characteristics) will generate supports for equity and global connection. Kremer's critique is based on the vision of inclusion through a community in search of harmony and relatedness (a descending vision) as opposed to (what he sees as) Wilber's vision of inclusion through the search for transcendence (an ascending vision). Wilber's response to this is to refer Kremer to his detailed presentation of evolutionary principles that explain the bad news of sociocultural evolution. He also chastises Kremer for not being more balanced in detailing the shadow side of indigenous cultures (ie. the bad news of the descending movement). Both these points are entirely valid. But neither of them addresses the central concern for Kremer - How does Integral philosophy see "Indigenous mind processes", and the indigenous voice in general, as friend, companion, and valued other. In other words, Kremer wants to see how Integral philosophy calls for the recognition of the value and "good news" of the descending movement in human evolution. On this critical point Wilber says not a word in his response.

The romantics are wrong to focus only on the bad news of evolution but they are right to emphasise the good news of involution. Integral scholars and evolutionists are right to explore the good news of evolution, but they are being very partial when they only see the bad news of involution. It is one of the main tasks of Integral philosophy to distinguish between the integrative, healing, descending movement of involution and the degenerative, regressive and eminently unhealthy drive to satisfy earlier stages of development. Both movements are directed towards the natural world, the body, and concern the basic characteristics of relations between self and other. But they are poles apart in their resulting impact on developmental health. The omission of the good news of Descent from the Integral approach to collective development once again places indigenous cultures in a position of powerlessness and subordination. A more balanced integral perspective has the potential to redress this situation and recognise the extraordinary and unique evolutionary and involutionary value of indigenous qualities.

It is the judgement of many repudiable scholars of the social world (including Ken Wilber) that modern culture is, to a very considerable extent, a dissociated culture. Our inherent drive for transcendence and growth results in a measure of dignity for some, but for many it results in political powerlessness, economic and social poverty, and degraded natural environments. Some of these shadows sides of modernity are so severe that they threaten our continued global viability. Indigenous cultures are characterised by qualities that seem to be precisely those that modern western societies need to emulate to continue to prosper. The descending indigenous culture of communal, familial and kinship support, technological simplicity, and environmental and social sustainability may, in some ways, be seen as a model for future development rather than as a evolutionary backwater. Evolution, naturally, will take its course no matter what happens. But there is no principle in Integral Philosophy which says that it cannot proceed, at least for very long periods, in a less than healthy ascending form (or even in a valueless Flatland form) which is dissociated from the natural world. Modern, industrialised society has been enthusiastically running down such a course now for more than a century with, as Wilber says, "grotesque, repressions, oppressions and brutalities", as well as the wonderful benefits and freedoms that western societies allow. Far from being rather benign and irrelevant to our future existence, global development may actually depend on our ability to listen to and learn from the descending cultural insights of our indigenous companions.

Wilber makes it clear that he thinks that the Descenders are in the position of dominance at the moment. While this may be the case in university anthropology and social science departments, therapy schools, and some spirituality centres, it is absolutely not the case in the rest of society. The drive to ascend, even if misdirected towards some consumerist heaven, is alive and well and dominant throughout western culture and it is literally destroying our planet. The earth and the marginalised people who live close to it, both moderns (family farmers for example) and indigenous peoples, are regarded as irrelevant underachievers in the mad rush to get "up there". With the ever greater presence of the Integral approach in the social mainstream of business and political thought, I feel that it is critical for Integral philosophers to make a very strong call, not only for a transformative social Ascent, but also for an integrative social Descent, a Descent that will heal, integrate, and encourage a sustaining nurturance of the earth, our cultural heritage, and of the Other. And where better to learn this than from the experts in the science of the descending God - our indigenous brother and sisters.

Principle 6: Developmental Integration in the Collective Domains
"A higher order structure emerges ... and becomes capable of operating on [the] lower structure ... such that all preceding stages can be integrated in consciousness"
The Atman Project, Chapter 10

Every stage of collective development has its own integrative capabilities. Integration occurs when the needs and dynamics of previous developmental identities are consciously recognised and respected in a healthy and productive way. Saints still need to eat and interact with the world and the people around them. Complex societies still need to support small community life and families and social networks in a conscious and supportive way (as exemplified through the political policies that are aimed at family values and needs). In the cultural spheres, integration involves the continued experience in communal life of those previous structures of basic collective existence that promote the wellbeing of any higher order society.

When a latter collective structure ignores a more basic one, all hell is likely to break loose. Governments will be toppled, wars will be waged, social patterns will degenerate into chaos. When modern societies ignore core communal/tribal forms of life and do not include these more basic social structures in their policies on urban planning, family support, infrastructure development, welfare, and law and order, then those societies will experience intense and ongoing social ills that will block further development and may ultimately lead to the social collapse. The Integral model shows that earlier collective basic stages such as families and tribal communities will be present in later collective forms such as nation states. Consequently, the defining features of the earlier structures will always be available and observable by the capacities of the later. Because tribal identity is a basic structure of development, it will remain directly accessible to later stages of collective identity and, unlike transitional structures, will not be rendered obsolete by progressive phases of growth. Therefore tribal and communal forms of collective life need to be continuously recreated and supported so that they can play a fundamental role in the life of the greater social structure.

A healthy and active expression of familial, tribal and communal patterns of interaction provides a base for individuals to live a fulfilled and productive life within the context of larger national and global structures. Massive social structures only survive and prosper when they nurture a sense of local community and shared public ownership of resource, interests and values. Even the social patterns of contemplative collective groups like Buddhist sanghas and Christian monastic communities can be seen as nurturing these basic "tribal" forms of social existence. I am not falling into the trap of a collective pre/trans fallacy here. I am not equating prerational forms of social experience with transpersonal ones simply because of superficial similarities in group size or form of food production. The point I am attempting to make here is that, no matter how developmentally advanced a society of social form is, is must contain, support, and give expression to the basic social structures that developmentally preceded it. Citizens do not function continuously at a global level of action just because their nation is a member of the United Nations. In contrast, they are at all times functioning agents within families, kinship and social networks, peer groups, and communities. Honouring the tribal mind within the integrative context of a healthy modern society means supporting and recognising the crucial importance of family, extended kinships, and community groups. Anyone who has been involved in rearing children knows that such collective structures are fundamental to the health of the society. The plague of reactive depression that is hitting families in modern societies is in no small part the result of the absence of these "tribal" forms of social networks from modern communal life.

In the individual domains we see it as healthy and conducive to development to get "in touch" with the body and the emotions so that persons experience a more integrated and more balanced sense of identity. In the same way in the collective domains, it is healthy to be involved in, and give expression to, simpler social forms that are the building blocks of more complex and more integrative collective structures. To be "tribal" here means to be involved in local communities, to have strong and supportive family and kinship systems, and to be active agents in community rituals and gatherings. This is not the romantic "regress express" view of tribal life that some misguided moderns advocate, but an integrated understanding of tribal life as present in modern community and familial forms.

To this point, I believe that Integral philosophy has not dealt well, if at all, with this crucial benefit of tribal forms of social being within the more complex structure of democratic nation states. In Wilber's writings the terms "tribal" and "tribalism" are mostly used in the pejorative sense of a lower social holon usurping and dominating a higher one with the end result of extreme social pathology. His statement that the holocaust was the end point of tribalism and not of rational democratic society is a case in point. He even regards the main problem of modernity to be its weakness in controlling tribal consciousness. In his words, "The main problem with modernity is that it allowed tribal consciousness to hijack modern technology, and that it resulted in Auschwitz." (From his recent "On Critics ..." interview with Shambhala). But Wilber has also identified tribal consciousness and tribal life as basic stages in the development of collective identity. As such, tribal life must be seen primarily as healthy and pivotal stages of social development that are fundamental to more integrative collective forms. Integral psychology does not portray the mental/egoic locus of self identity in a mature person as a pathological system that continually attempts to usurp and abort transpersonal growth. We don't see the problems of adult life as simply the result of our childhood rising up and hijacking adult life. Wilber's viewpoint on tribal consciousness runs completely against just about all of the principle tenets of the Integral model. The basic structure of tribal consciousness and its contemporary communal forms is not a pathological social mode that will hijack higher social development. It must be seen in its own right as a very important and healthy form of collective identity. In its integrated communal form in modern western culture it must be seen as a core pillar of collective well being and support for ongoing social development. However, the dissociating and isolating dynamics of our ascendant western culture have severely disrupted local communal life in modern societies.

Indigenous societies, with their inherent focus on and loyalty to tribal and community life, have much to teach us in this regard. In some countries indigenous peoples have actually led the democratic move to integrate community life into the wider life of the nation and even the global community. They have been at the forefront of the integrative endeavour to bring modern western nations, particularly in the Americas and Australasia, to acknowledge their often less than heroic, and sometimes very violent, histories. Indigenous peoples throughout the world have enriched the cultural life of their nations at both the national and international through political, academic, spiritual, artistic and social justice forums and they have done so with the support of their tribal identity in spite of the direct and indirect oppression of modern democratic nation states.

What I have pointed out here is simply the collective form of the basic Integral principle that earlier developmental basic structures are included in, integrated by, and are expressed through later developmental structures. I am not saying that contemporary indigenous cultures should be identified with this basic tribal collective structure or tribal consciousness. It is true that indigenous cultures are very closely associated with tribal patterns of social being, but contemporary indigenous life is also informed by participation in the modern world of democratic systems, technological advances, international trade, and global orders of legal and social justice. As I have pointed out in the introductory section, to equate contemporary indigenous tribal culture with the tribal basic structure of some preceding epoch is erroneous and completely inappropriate. So, I do not mean that contemporary indigenous communities need to be seen as representing basic tribal structures that are to be subsumed in modern societies, even if in a healthy way. What I am pointing out is that indigenous peoples are more in touch with and have better integrated this structure of collective being than other groups within modern society. Because of the developmental advantages and experiential value of this and other important qualities, western society in general, and Integral studies in particular, stands to gain much by listening to indigenous cultures and learning from them rather than seeing them as developmentally irrelevant or even as "the main problem" of modernity.

Principle 7: The Kosmic Egalitarianism of the Nondual Ground
"there is no 'up' or 'down'. Each individual being is, fully and completely, just as it is, precisely just as it is, the One and the All"
SES, Chapter 7

The Nondual Ground of Being is fully present in all individuals and in all cultures at all times. The ultimate truth of the Integral vision is that the full Beauty and Presence of the Kosmos is fully recreated in each moment, each event, each person, and in each culture in that Kosmos. The place of the Ground of Being has often been situated within the collective heart of a people. Integral philosophy itself owes its existence to the diverse cultural perspectives that have enabled it to coalesce and integrate so many different visions of reality. Without that collective diversity this integrated overview would not be possible. The presence of the Spirit in the collective has always been a fundamental element of the spiritual revelation of the great sages. The Christian text, "Wherever two or three are gathered in my name" comes to mind here. This presence is unqualified and in full measure. This revelation tell us that the arbitrary ranking of peoples and societies is ultimately untrue. It may even be an activity that leads us away from being open to the deep truths of the Kosmos. This Kosmic egalitarian principle of Integral philosophy has, at least at first glance, a similar appearance to the radical relativism of the cultural relativists that so infuriate Wilber. The great scriptures call for ultimate equality in a way that is inclusive of the most rejected, ignored, and poorest members of our world. In contrast, to my mind, the radical call of the relativist is often an excluding and nihilistic announcement of the ultimate valuelessness of life. But sometimes I also feel that there is more to it than this. There is also a deeper motivational source for the relativist view, particularly when they come from a practical background of commitment to human rights, social justice, and local communal development. The next section explores this a little further.

Integral egalitarianism and the performative contradiction

"Down with all hierarchies", "Suspend all social judgements", "All values are relative" - These are the battle cries of the cultural relativists and social justice intellectuals who advocate for the laudable goal of global improvement in human rights. Unfortunately, and as Wilber astutely points out, their call is based on a values hierarchy that many social relativists are completely unconscious of. I have already referred to this problem of the "performative contradiction". But there is a deeper problem with the relativist's position. In denying the existence of a holarchy of values, the relativist actually makes it impossible to announce a coherent explanatory framework or practical plan of social action that might result in a truly just and equitable solution to the world's social and cultural problems. The blatant reality is that there are good values and there are bad values. There are values that promote the evolving of a just world and values that halt that development. Wilber has pointed all this out before ad nauseam, and I am quite sure that he is tired of making this point.

But there is another group who also call us to move beyond ranking, value judgement, and the assessment of hierarchy. And Wilber has never referred to this other group in this context. This group is fully conscious of the contradictory nature of that call, but they make this call nonetheless because they speak directly from the world of coincidentia oppositorum. This group is made up of the great sages, seers and saints who call for an equality of all forms of existence in the Kosmos. This is the equality of the One and the Many, the Summit and the Source, of Wisdom and Compassion, of Ascent and Descent. In Chapters 9 and 10 of his book, "Sex , Ecology and Spirituality", Wilber perceptively points out that the Ascending movement in evolution can be seen as the climb to "the One Good to which all things aspire". The Descending movement can be seen as the embrace of "the One Goodness from which all things flow". And there is the Ground that underpins these two movements. The Absolute Suchness that provides the context for both these movements. This Nondual Ground is equally both the One and the Many, and is both Ascent through Wisdom and Descent through Compassion. In this space, as Wilber writes,

"there is no 'up' or 'down'. Each individual being is, fully and completely, just as it is, precisely just as it is, the One and the All ... each individual holon is the One Spirit in its entirety - the Infinite, being radically dimensionless, is fully present at each and every point of spacetime".

This Nondual world is not just some theoretical utopia. It is an absolutely fundamental principle of Integral philosophy that the territory of the Nondual is the most authentic of realities. And so, here, in this most real of worlds, the most profound of truths is that there can be no hierarchy, no ranking, and no differential assessment of developmental value. The point is that in instances where issues of social justice are intimately involved, ranging from those concerning indigenous cultures to mental illness, the first duty of Integral philosophy is surely to bring to our attention to the actuality of the full presence of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful in all types of being. Concerns about the relative positions of various collective forms of existence come a very poor second in such cases.

Now it seems to me, that some very perceptive critics of the whole evolutionary agenda of identifying stages and appraising status of growth (collective or individual) are, in their often poorly expressed way, attempting to make this very point. They are not simply relativists unconsciously denying the very basis on which they speak. These critics often speak from a genuine and committed social justice standpoint that comes out of years of active involvement with communities that have been used, abused and discarded by the ascending mainstream. I see their call for a halt to the assessment, rating and ranking of indigenous societies, abused tribal cultures, and those on the periphery of the ascending plutocracy (such as those with mental illness), as a call from the Spirit, that is present in Each, to wise up to the reality of our deeply egalitarian nature. This is a call from the Nondual Ground that is present in every call for justice. And perhaps it is even present in the unconscious performative contradictions of a raving relativist.

When the call for equality and the ending of value judgements comes from this Nondual Ground, however indirectly and poorly expressed, the performative contradiction becomes more of a spiritual or moral injunction that is reflective of the essentially paradoxical nature of existence. We are all enlightened and all ignorant of that enlightenment. We are all sinners and we are all saints. We are all heirs to the divine nature and we are all prodigal sons and daughters forever leaving home. From this perspective the contradiction contained in the call to, "End all value judgements", springs not from the unconscious cultural values of the heterarchical elite, but from the unreasonable and paradoxical nature of the Nondual Ground itself. A Ground that must be lived, walked upon, and tasted to become known. A Ground that our indigenous companions know that they share with us and with all parts of the Kosmos perhaps more than we do.

Integral Philosophy includes the valid revelations of the world's great spiritual traditions

Among other philosophies or systems of thought, Integral philosophy has very special access to that body of knowledge that derives from spiritual literature and sacred scripture. One of the most common themes of these texts is the call for a descent into the world and into the reality of the intensely humble nature of human life in both its personal and collective manifestations. Christ's statement, (I feel like calling it an admonition against the Ascenders) that "The first shall be last and the last shall be first," is essentially a call to prove your value(s) (and your level of attainment) through a descent into the basically human, and into the world of simple poverty in all its forms. This is in many ways the same focus and spirit of the Bodhisattva's vow to remain with the world of desire, illusion and ignorance and to be part of that world until all suffering has done its work. These great spiritual messages call us to balance the drive to ascend and climb the ranks to some telos with the need to be with, to share, and to participate in the common life of a humanity that cannot be ranked according to any criteria.

The Integral perspective must include these insights of the worlds great spiritual visionaries, particularly as they refer to issues of cultural and social justice, in a more rigorous and up front manner. Many of these insights relate to how we should regard the poor, the dispossessed, and the oppressed. Here are some very well known statements on this from the Christian tradition (Matthew’s Gospel) (many similar and just as confronting statements can be found in other traditions). All of them point to the pitfalls of ranking others and of judging the spiritual (developmental) worth of others. But more than that, they point to the ultimate paradox of Truth being fully present in the lowest on the hierarchy of maturity (such as children) and, therefore, beyond any rational consideration of social value or stage of attainment.

"How happy are the poor in spirit for their is the kingdom of heaven."
"At this time the disciples came to Jesus and said, "Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?" So he called a little child to him and he set the child in front of them. Then he said, "I tell you solemnly, unless you change and become like little children you will never enter the Kingdom of heaven. And so, the one who makes himself as little as this little child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven."
"Let the little children, and do not stop them from coming to me, for it to such as these that the Kingdom of heaven belongs."
"Many who are first will be last, and the last, first."
"Anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave."
"Anyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and anyone who humbles himself will be exalted."

It is interesting to note that these sacred tests also give a clear pointer to when one should invoke this principle of Kosmic egalitarianism. Whenever you encounter the poor, the marginalised, the oppressed, the devalued and the disregarded (children, women, and indigenous groups have always been highly represented in all of these categories) look first to how you can serve them rather than judge them. As a wholistic academic discipline, Integral philosophy would do well to consider this principle more closely. This principle extends not only to individuals but also to collectives. To marginalised and oppressed groups, tribes, cultures, communities, and nations. This equality extends everywhere, at all times, and it is not just a way of being nice to those who are obviously inferior to you in some way. This is a radical call to non-ranking, to non-judgement, and to participation in the ordinary and to appreciation of the reality of the Christ/Buddha Nature in all things.

Principle 8: Every holon includes a relational as well as an agentic orientation.
All holons display some capacity to preserve their individuality, to preserve their own particular wholeness and autonomy.
A holon functions as part of a greater whole …[this] communion-its participatory, bonding, joining tendencies- expresses its partness, its relationship to something larger.
SES Chapter 2

The holonic qualities of agentic self-preservation and relational self-adaptation exist for every holon, including social and collective holons, at every developmental level. So there are evolutionary forces at work in every worldview in every collective stage of growth that are about communion, membership, collective identification, self-other relational qualities, and adaptive integration. It is accepted that western modern cultures exhibit a more individualistic and agentic nature in its social affairs and that indigenous cultures exhibit a more relational and communal type of existence. But it should also be noted that the lower stages of both collective and individual development seemed to be defined much more by characteristics that have more of a relational and communitive flavour and the higher stages have much more of an individualist and agentic flavour. For example, compare the membership self of earlier personal development with the centauric individualism of later development. Or the tribal/communal descriptives of earlier social development with the more abstract descriptives applied to later forms of cultural life. Could it be that the communal forms which are dominant in indigenous cultures and which would exist for them in every stage of their collective evolution are being superficially confused with those qualities that are characteristic of archaic/magic worldviews. If you like this is a form of pre/trans confusion except that it is related, not to the confusion in appearance of stages of development, but to the confusion of appearance in holonic capacities. For want of a better term this is the evolutionary stage versus holonic capacity fallacy. This is the fallacy of equating earlier forms of collective evolution with the holonic qualities communion and relation that operate within all ontological levels.

Perhaps indigenous cultures have been too readily identified with early stages of collective development because they have this greater propensity to relational communion with environment and with each other. The Integral analysis of collectives must take notice of this tendency to confuse particular evolutionary stages which have similar descriptive qualities to holonic qualities that can be adaptive for any developmental structure in the cultural or social worlds.


How can an Integral analysis of cultures and societies proceed

"With the deep structures we may speak of higher and lower more evolved and less evolved, according to the dictates of developmental logic."
(Sociocultural Evolution, pg. 297, CW Vol.4).

I have attempted to identify in the foregoing some additional perspectives on the complexity of collective growth to those that Wilber has already spoken of. All these perspectives come from existing developmental logics that are well known components of his Integral approach. To this point the Integral analysis of collective human evolution has not taken these additional factors into account in a systematic way. If it does so, the question becomes, is the task just too complex and too ambitious to attempt in any rigorous and meaningful way? I don’t believe that it will be. The implications of the Integral vision are just too important to abort work this critical area. But I do feel that these inherent complexities will require a greater effort from Integral social scholars to be aware of the limits of developmental assessment, to develop more sensitive methodologies, and to take on a more cautious and sensitive reading of the evidence on cultural evolution than has been the case to date.

As a developmentalist, Wilber wants to safeguard his Integral theory's capacity to analyse the incremental stages of growth according to that theory's internal logics. But what if that same developmental logic dictates that we can only speak of higher and lower, more evolved and less evolved, under certain circumstances. We know from personality theory that all traits are situationally specific and that genetic and developmental factors only give general indications of some predisposition. The same holds true in the collective domain. In some circumstances societies act in completely pre-rational and morally degenerate ways and yet at the same time that nation can initiate some very progressive social policies. If, then, individual societies can simultaneously operate at very different levels along the developmental spectrum what validity is there in attaching a global label to a society culture and ranking it relative to some other one. I suggest that there is no validity in such simple assessment practices. There is every reason to assess a society's or a culture's particular actions against multi-factorial universal standards but extensive political, social, and historical qualifications must also inform any such assessment. Simply ranking some collective structure on a scale of sociocultural evolution does not do justice to this complexity and the information that is provided by such simplistic processes should be very critically examined. A more complex analysis of this sort would arrive at a very fifferent understanding of, say (to use an example that Wilber has sometimes referred to), the actions of Serbia in the Balkan conflicts, the inclusion of Hawaii into the United States, and the "tribal" nature of the 1930's Germany.  These more complex analyses would be no less condemning of dictatorship, social violence, and ethnocentrism but they would be much less hasty in jumping to conclusions about the relative developmental value of Serbian, American, or German culture as a whole.

However, while calling for greater caution in the uni-dimensional labelling of a society's evolutionary position, I want to make it clear that I do believe that the developmental analysis of cultures is entirely possible or very worthwhile. To compare the relative experiences and functions of cultures and cultural groups in such areas as the development of values, knowledge endeavours, artistic or spiritual culture is very much part of an Integral studies program. The point is that, when such cultural and social characteristics are truly studied by Integral methodologies, its findings will be developmentally complex, multi-factorial in description, and sensitive to individual and collective heterogeneities. The end result of such investigations will never be some ethnocentric ranking of cultures on a one-dimensional scale of basic development. For example, the evidence that some lines may be highly developed in some cultures and underdeveloped in others needs to be sought after and tested. I feel that this evidence is much more likely to found in the area of mature rational, logic and knowledge base areas than in spiritual areas where the pre/trans fallacy becomes operative.

In general, there seem to be two main ways in which developmental analysis of collective evolution can proceed. The first is where clear global patterns of some evolutionary epoch are evident. The developmental labelling of such broad historical periods does seem to be possible, as Wilber has amply demonstrated. These global stages can be identified when, i) a universal set of emergent qualities develops and is definitive of a huge period or epoch of human history or, ii) where there is massive and detailed historical evidence of the new form of collective structure even when that structure has existed for a relatively short period. At this global level of analysis statements about individual cultures are not possible or necessary because we are dealing with periods of universal change that cut across cultural, social, ethnic and political boundaries. The knowledge that can be gained from this level of analysis is extremely important, as all the works on collective evolution by Wilber have shown. The global level of investigation allows an Integral approach to human evolution to identify the past and current phases of human evolution and opens the possibility for mapping a future pattern of evolutionary potential. What does this mean with respect to marginalised and indigenous cultures? It means that they must be part of the analytical "sample" for the definition and description of particular and especially recent and contemporary evolutionary epochs. As I pointed out previously in the section relating to Figure 1, the analysis of the evolutionary significance of a period should include all cultures and societies contemporary to those times. The emergence of indigenous cultural forces of global importance such as national reconciliation movements, indigenous rights movements, BASE communities, indigenous sciences, novel perspectives on bio-diversity, cultural heritage, indigenous spiritualities, environment economics, all these important evolutionary emergents will be missed if Integral studies leaves out contemporary indigenous cultures from the development analysis of human societies. Including all cultures in the analysis of epochs also means that Integral studies needs to listen with greater attention to indigenous peoples and indigenous scholars because, to date, their views have been too quickly pigeon-holed as evolutionary dead ends or as the ravings of rabid relativists.  The rather unfortunate series of discussions between Ken Wilber and indigenous scholar Jurgen Kramer in the recent book, "Dialogues with Ken Wilber", gives some idea of how valid concerns about Integral philosophy's current treatment of indigenous issues can be too quickly written of under the cultural relativist or "performative contradiction" tag. 

The second valid method of analysing sociocultural forms is not at the macro level of large global stages but at the micro level of small groups and well defined subcultures. At this micro level it may be possible to gather enough accurate data to arrive at a valid judgement of the developmental state of a particular collective for some well defined set of environmental conditions. Some examples of this are Wilber's writings on microlevel subgroups such as spiritual communities, fundamentalist groups, cults, regressive subcultures. In these groups there may be enough homogeneity in important developmental structures like worldviews, individual developmental attainment, moral stage, aspects of the cultural environment and there may be strong enough identifying group boundaries to allow a valid collective analysis to take place.

Integral philosophy is eminently suited to carrying out both of these tasks of developmental analysis. But notice that neither of these subject areas allow for analysis of such varied and complex collectives as particular cultures or broad social forms like nations or tribal societies. For example, a single indigenous culture will, like modern industrialised cultures, incorporate numerous subcultures and identifiable peer groupings. These will include subgroups like shamans, medicine men, women elders, warrior groups, leadership groups, educational and child rearing groups, healers, peacemakers, rebels and conformists, story tellers and producers of cultural artefact, different language groups, artists and visionaries. Such a culture will evolve and change dramatically over the millennia and, while it may be possible to make some assessment of particular subgroups at a particular point in time and within specified social and environmental contexts, it will not be possible or valid to pursue that assessment objective for the culture as a whole while ignoring its diverse subgroups, its social history and the social, economic, and environmental contexts that it moves through. So, not only will such cultures contain numerous and relatively independent lines of cultural development, but each subgroup will probably be at a different level of basic structure for each line. The complexity and the interpretive difficulty of the results of such an assessment process would be extreme and Integral studies, and cultural studies in general, are nowhere near this point of sophistication in research methodology or analytical capability. 

Phases and Updates

At this point I would like to ask why is it that Wilber seems to accept the methodological implications of complexity in the individual domains but not in the collective domains of evolution.  From my perspective these ommisions follow a regular pattern that can be seen throught the development of his ideas.  I have noticed that earlier phases of Wilber's evolutionary model are often not updated to meet the refinements and theoretical expansions of his later phases. This often follows the pattern of an original concept being applied to the individual domains but not being applied to the collective domains because his collective structural tenets came later than his writings on individual consciousness. And this still seems to be the case. For example, Wilber's focus on individual, interior contemplative pathways of spiritual development, which has been part of his conceptual framework from his very first writings (Phases I and II), has still not been updated to incorporate behavioural and collective forms of spiritual transformation that his quadrants model would demand (Phase IV). Although he has written much about the topic, his epistemological model (developed during Phases II and III) has still not included the postmodern critique on interpretive dynamics that would be situated within the cultural, worldview quadrant (phase IV). And the same applies in the present case where the Phase III framework of developmental lines has not been updated into the collective domains of the Phase IV all-quadrant's model. The issue which marked the development of the third major phase in Wilber's wirings was the recognition of the existence and importance of the lines of development. Previous to this time Wilber had only included the stages/levels of development in his analysis of growth. Wilber has still not systematically applied this concept of developmental lines to the collective quadrants nor, consequently, been able to draw the same conclusions about the messiness of evolution in the sociocultural domains as he has done for the individual domains.

Although he is certainly attempting to develop cross-cultural and global interpretations of our shared history, Wilber is, of course, writing as an American and within an American culture that is highly individualistic. This fact may have some bearing on his reading of the intensely collective nature of indigenous societies. I am not sure. At any rate it seems to affect his interpretive application of the Integral model to the various topics that he writes about. In general, there is a lack of a collective perspective in Wilber's writings (acknowledging, of course that this "lack" is only identified through the immense breadth of vision that Wilber has opened up) that sometimes leads to statements that do not consider the implications for the social and cultural domains of the Integral model. I believe that Wilber and other Integral scholars need to do a lot more work on explicating the collective forms of interior and exterior development and the relations betweens these and the more individual expressions of Kosmic evolution.


So, in summary, if we consider the question of the ranking or developmental ordering of cultures, "according to the dictates of developmental logic", then we must include those common Integral principles of developmental logic which suggest that:

  1. development is universal and does not stop for some cultures and proceed for others;
  2. there are relatively independent collective lines of development that make the analysis of individual cultures a very complex process that does not support simplistic labelling or ranking on unidimensional scales;
  3. there are involutional as well as evolutional forces to take into consideration when considering the development of collectives;
  4. ascending evolutionary drives are complemented by descending, integrative ones and both are needed for a healthy unfolding of the basic structures along the variety of developmental lines in each of the evolutionary quadrants;
  5. the perspective of the Nondual Ground regards all such attempts to assess an individuals or a society's developmental attainment as misguided and ultimately illusory;
  6. the communal and relational aspect of all holons should not be confused with the earlier aspects of evolutionary stages that are often described in similar terms.

All these Integral principles of developmental logic call into question the manner in which marginalised and indigenous cultures have been represented and studied in the past. It is important that Integral sociocultural studies balance the evolutionary explanatory approach, that has been the main analytical focus to date, with this more sophisticated and balanced framework. In the following table are presented the developmental logics for that have been dominant to date and those that are needing to be added to achieve this more balanced methodology.

Table 4. Current and complementary developmental logics for an Integral sociocultural studies

Integral developmental logics that have been dominant to date Integral developmental logics that need to be included in the process
Evolutionary forces are present in the human world as well as the material and biological. Evolutionary forces are present in all cultures at all times, so all have "pre-", "normative", and "post-" elements
Basic structures of development (horizontal stages) enables descriptive comparisons and assessment of growth Transitional structures of development (vertical lines) results in sociocultural complexity and multidimensionality
The Ascending movement transcends, transforms, and develops through identifiable stages The Descending movement integrates, heals and envelops a culture in identifiable environmental patterns
The need for cultural analysis and the critique of social values Complex multicultural nature of societies - There are no pure cultures
Teleological focus of growth through the description of incremental stages of reality The "Nondual Ground" focus of reality that forms the context of Ascent & Descent

Wilber has identified and described each of the principles in this table as being essential components of the Integral model. Specifically, he has written of the ubiquitous nature of the evolution/involution dynamic; he has identified the Ascending/Descending principle and looked at their cultural applications; and he has expanded his structural model of growth to include developmental streams in all-lines, all levels, all-quadrants model. However, to this point, he has applied only those principles in the left hand column to argue for a model of evolution that supports the ranking of societies, worldviews, and the assessment of cultural values. He has used these principles to defend evolutionary approaches to cultural development in general, and to the Integral model of sociocultural evolution in particular. The principles on the right hand of the table need now be included in the bag of Integral developmental principles to enable a more sophisticated and sensitive set of methodologies and analytical frameworks for considering these issues.

Those elements of an Integral developmental logic that emphasise evolution, ascendance, and transcendence will enable and assist in such areas of study as the ranking of holons, the developmental assessment of transitional structures, and the identification of evolutionary trends that are universal, cross cultural and epoch-making. But, as we have seen there are Integral principles like involution, descendance, and integration that give a very different perspective to the study of cultural evolution. These principles will argue for the radical egalitarian nature of all holons, the wisdom in being at the bottom of the pile, the need for descent and integration, and the possibility of the mergence of new and incredibly relevant lines of cultural development that are essential for the continued prosperity of all societies.   

Integral philosophy needs to critically examine such views and vigorously show why such unidimensional cultural ranking is such a scientifically naive and extremely simplistic method of modelling

I stress here that I am not romantisising the obvious limitations and inequalities that exist in indigenous cultures (many of which are shared by all cultures). What I am trying to point out here is that a consistent application of the principles of Integral philosophy results in the propositions that cultural evolution is a ubiquitous and multifactorial process with descending and ascending movements operating through a complex of numerous sociocultural streams. This view rules out the simplistic and culturally biased notion that modern industrialised societies are the growing tip of an evolutionary tree that is founded on the dead wood of indigenous societies. Integral philosophy needs to critically examine such views and vigorously show why such unidimensional cultural ranking is such a scientifically naive and extremely simplistic method of modelling for a comprehensive and integrated view of collective human development. Integral studies has begun the very difficult but important task of bringing an all-quadrant, all-level, all-lines approach to the study of human evolution. It has made a substantial beginning in deriving developmental principles that permit the analysis of cultural growth and social change, but there is still much further to go in reflecting in these explanations the complexity of the evolutionary and involutionary movements in the collective domains of human reality. It will remain a permanent and primary task for Integral sociocultural studies to also live up to its highest ideals of pointing to the deep mystery of human growth and place these explanations within a context that recognises the ultimate equality of all holons, all beings, all cultures and all peoples.

© Mark Edwards, January 2001

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