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Joe CorbettJoe Corbett has been living in Shanghai and Beijing since 2001. He has taught at American and Chinese universities using the AQAL model as an analytical tool in Western Literature, Sociology and Anthropology, Environmental Science, and Communications. He has a BA in Philosophy and Religion as well as an MA in Interdisciplinary Social Science, and did his PhD work on modern and postmodern discourses of self-development, all at public universities in San Francisco and Los Angeles, California. He can be reached at


Why Second Tier is Fourth Tier, and Why Third Tier is Pointless

Joe Corbett

It would be better if we concentrated on realizing our full human potential in the here and now instead of imagining a super-human species.

The archaeological and historical record suggests that human beings have evolved through four major levels of consciousness and civilization, not the two tiers suggested by Spiral Dynamics and Integral Theory. Although the developmental levels of these theories are correct, they fundamentally mis-label the tiers of development.

As Ken Wilber himself says in Excerpt A,

“In humans, the infrared structure has remained essentially unchanged for 500,000 years; the magenta structure, for 30,000 years; red, for 10,000 years; amber, for 4,000; orange, for 300; green, for 30 (and we are now on the frothy, creative edge of human evolution where new and higher potentials—holistic and integral—although explored, co-created, and enacted in idiosyncratic forms by relatively rare pioneers, are just starting to emerge and crystallize on a widespread or cultural basis)”.

Spiral Dynamics gives a slightly more accurate timeline of 250k, 50k, 15k, 5k, 300, 150, and 50 year timeline, respectively, for the emergence of levels of human development. But either way, the essential point is that we begin at infrared or beige in a prelinguistic sensorimotor survival mode, and that is the first tier of homosapien development, distinguished clearly and markedly from all the others. This level of development can scarcely be distinguished from neanderthal or homoerectus, and it is square-one from which our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived for hundreds of thousands of years most probably without the capacity or the development and use of language, so it makes no sense whatsoever to lump it together in the same tier or class of any of the developmental stages that come after. It is completely distinct, and stands on its own as a separate tier altogether, in the UR.

Then at about 40-70k years ago we see the emergence of the first artwork and possibly ceremonial rituals indicating burial beliefs and astronomical observations, all of which probably indicate the emergence of the language function. Here we enter the preoperational or preconventional stage of magic and symbolic representation, the first inkling of a world outside operating from forces separate from the self that can be acted upon. And then at 10-15k years, around the end of the last ice age and the emergence of semi-permanent agricultural settlements whose surpluses needed defending from nomadic raiders, there emerged the second preoperational stage of self-assertion beyond mere preservation, wonderment, and curious enchantment. The conceptual idea of becoming independent of roaming herds of animals as the main source of sustenance by domesticating animals and by planting seeds that could later be harvested as a food source, were nearly as radical and life-changing as the acquisition of language itself. These two together (purple and red) are the second tier of consciousness in the emergence of self, the terrible twos of human development, in the UL.

Obviously, there is a vast gulch between our prelinguistic and fully linguistic forebears, and it makes about as much sense to put them both in the same class or tier of development as it does to put the next tier, the third tier, in the same class as the preoperational/preconventional stages. The traditional or concrete operational stage of humanity begins 4-5k years ago with the emergence of the first great civilizations built on planning and organizing around achieving a collective goal according to well-established rules beyond the individual interests of the planners and builders themselves. The use of elaborate myths backed by powerful authority to bind people to common goals was the norm, and would remain the norm at least until the formal operational stage emerged 3-400 years ago, when it became normal to question authoritative explanations by applying reasoned argument and demonstration of factual rather than mythical reality.

Of course, myths persisted even under the formal operational/conventional stage of the modern enlightenment, among them being nationalism, racial supremacy, the idea of science as the sole authority of truth, and capitalism as the best and only possible form of society for organizing economic activity. But with the persistent questioning of authority, about 150 years ago beginning with people like Marx and Nietzsche, came the post-formal deconstruction of the basis of power around which the old authority was organized for 5k years. For the past 50-60 years, following from the critiques of Marx and Nietzsche, inequality and conformist morality have become the hot points for social change, and represent the final phase of what began as the conventional building of human civilization, all part of the third tier cycle of human-civilizational development, spanning concrete operational (or conventional) thinking to formal and post-conventional thinking in the LL.

This brings us to the emerging integral, post-postconventional, or metamodern stage of human development, the fourth tier of consciousness, which has emerged within the post-formal critiques of the past 50-60 years. This integrally post-conventional meta-consciousness is no more or less distinct from the conventional stage as the conventional stage is from the preconventional, hence my re-evaluation of the tier classification within SD and IT. However the preconventional stage was a more radical departure from the sensorimotor than any of the other transitions, and this suggests that what is currently called the third tier in integral theory is actually a fifth tier, for reasons I will explain shortly.

The fourth tier stage of development is where humanity begins to heal the split between self and other, humans and nature, that began with the emergence of self-awareness that our species started with, having eaten from the tree of knowledge called language as a way of processing our thought and creating beautiful things. But with this capacity for beauty comes the ugliness of manipulating and deceiving ourselves and others for selfish motives, and then devising elaborate schemes for forcing others to do what might not be in their best interests, or anyone's best interest but a select few. And once all this becomes the basis of our behavior, we can deploy powerful reasoning methods to distract with bread and circuses, and to plausibly deny that the entire system has been set-up as a death-machine to fulfill our deepest instinct to hunt and kill prey, including all of nature, and humans too. This is game A; we need a game B, a new operating system based on new rules and principles of how the game is to be played, in the LR domain of Justice and the ordering of our thought processes in generative syntax. But can we do it without a new genome?

Integral rules involve transcending and including what has come before, in all its glory and horror, integrating shadow into our higher selves and hence transforming it first by owning it and then by dialoguing with the devil, invigorating ourselves with energy while taming its destructive energy. But beyond healing the rifts in human evolution that threaten the extinction of our species, fourth tier development, or what is currently called second tier development, also envisions a living cosmos aware of itself and embodies a striving to realize its greatest evolutionary potentials, individually and collectively. Fourth tier is both scientific and spiritual. In a word, it's “creed” is some version of panpsychism, while recognizing human needs for diversity, personal achievement, reverence for heritage, self-esteem, enchantment, and biological sustenance. Failure to honor any and all of these aspects of the human nature/nuture complex would be a failure to heal the rift that has occurred as a consequence of the on-going historical dialectics and differentiations of human development.

As for any human development beyond the fourth tier, what would be called third tier in integral theory but which is usually denied in SD, I do not believe that it's in the seed-potential or genome of humans, as such a third tier (or what I'm calling here a fifth tier level) would involve “superhuman” abilities such as psychic powers and telepathy, and a capacity for universal and unconditional love and compassion. Of course, saints and sages have been reported to have such abilities, so if such reports are true it stands to reason that almost any human would be capable of such feats, right? Alas, as in the case of our prelinguistic forebearers, there were some who had the capacity for language and others who simply did not, and the genomes of those who did not have the capacity for language eventually died off, leaving only the linguistically capable homosapiens as the survivors. I suspect if there really is anything like what is claimed to exist in third tier humans, they represent another stage in the evolution of our species, with a different sensorimotor system as its starting point that would include an enhanced sixth-sense, which may or may not survive along with the rest of us as we approach the abyss.

In that case, imagining anything beyond fourth tier, i.e. fifth tier or what is currently imagined to be third tier, is like imagining what it would be like to be another species, without actually being capable of collectively becoming that species, and therefore it would be a fruitless if not a pointless exercise. It seems to me that it would be better if we concentrated on realizing our full human potential in the here and now instead of imagining a super-human species that most of us can never become. If we do not save ourselves first as we actually are, there will be no conditions left in which any future species can thrive to realize its potentials.

Third Tier Fifth Tier?
Second Tier Fourth Tier
First Tier Third Tier
Second Tier
First Tier
A re-evaluation of the tier classification within SD and IT.

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