The Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything


About 60 years ago, one of the great thinkers of the last century, Clare W. Graves, a psychologist at Union College, developed a theory of adult human development that he called “The Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory” (ECLET).  This theory, which states that humans, and societies made up of these individuals, pass through a self-similar transformation on the way up, in an open-ended format. The chart above shows eight levels, but Graves wanted it to be open-ended because he believed that there was no ‘uber human’ that could be perfectly realized.  Don Beck, who was Grave’s lifelong student, further advanced the theory, and named it Spiral Dynamics (SD).  His chart is above, and if I could pick one thing to put on a plate very similar to the one on the Voyager spacecraft, it would be Beck’s chart.  Don Beck worked with Chris Cowan to further develop the theory, and was followed by one of the great philosophers of our time, Ken Wilber, and his own variant of the theory, Spiral Dynamics Integral, and Integral Theory in general.

One of the big ideas that Graves had was that human beings, and the societies they inhabited, would traverse the different levels as the needs of the people and the culture demanded.  There was to be no static assessment — just a fluid interpretation moving up and down.  The way I like to understand this is that Graves, while talking about human values, wanted that conversation to be mostly perceptual — free of moral judgment.  That’s the spirit that I follow when I use his theory.  And a simple example might be in order.

Let’s say you’re this incredibly evolved person, from top to bottom. One of the key elements in SD is that once you evolve to, or past a certain level, you have not just the mode you have evolved to. You also have access to the lower levels, or ‘Value Memes’ (v-Memes for short) of the other levels.  In a simple example, you might be invited to a sharing dinner for a retirement of a dear colleague.  There might be several independent relationships (or friends!) that matter to you at the dinner, and you also might have brought something special as a gift for the person or the group.  All very communitarian.

But if the building caught on fire, and you didn’t know the exit, you’d be pretty happy to hear some authoritarian yell ‘Get out over there!’

I’ve spent the better part of the last six years thinking about Integral Theory and Spiral Dynamics.  There are some elegant thoughts in the chart above, and they’ve really helped guide my own thinking.  But I’m not prone to much mysticism.  Mysticism generally exists to explain big stuff that we can’t wrap our minds around in cause-and-effect.

Much is made in the SD literature (as much as there is out there) regarding the Tier 1 – Tier 2 transition.  The idea is that upon gaining self-awareness, there is much that can be gained as far as insight goes.  I pretty much agree with that.

But my contributions to SD mostly focus around understanding how the Spiral got put together in the first place.  What drives the thread that moves societies and people along up the Spiral?  How do we create the conditions so that people will naturally become more balanced, data-driven thinkers, while reflecting on past lessons?  What ties it all together?  That’s where empathy comes in.  When you add that key ingredient of understanding, then things start falling out and getting simpler.

If you want to follow along, it really helps to memorize the titles of the v-Memes, as well as the dominant social structures at the bottom of the chart.  I’ll go through a v-Meme description of my own devising for the various modes as well.

But the real secret is you have to read, and think about this stuff.  Empathy is about connections, and if there is a key to understanding, certainly some of the most important connections are the ones in your head.  They’re your own gift to yourself.

Takeaways:  Spiral Dynamics is cool.  It explains both the development of human communities, as well as the development of human beings themselves, back and forth in a never-ending climb.  Well, for some of us.  The other big thing is you have to think about it.  SD is a true meta-structure for sentience, and tied together by empathetic development.  That’s the real story of this blog.

Further Reading:  I kinda seized up thinking about this, because the reality is that the reading out there on SD is mostly not-so-hot.  But then I remembered one of my favorite books from my young adulthood — The Foundation Trilogy — that profiles the fall and rise of the Galactic Empire.  If you want to be Hari Seldon, you gotta start with Spiral Dynamics.

4 thoughts on “The Answer to Life, the Universe and Everything

  1. I like the Spiral Dynamic metaphor. I think many of us (me at least) are not just manifest at our “leading edge.” We may slip back and forth along the spectrum.

    The spiral is a natural form, both for growth and collapse.


  2. SD is a very useful tool indeed, and as someone who’s structured their thinking around Maslow’s Hierarchy, you may be aware that it was an outgrowth of Grave’s inability to map everything to the pyramid. One thing about SD that is important is to remember its nested nature — once you’ve evolved to a point, you’ve got everything at whatever level you’re at, plus everything down below to draw on. Thanks for the comment!


  3. I’ve been noting the occurance of the use of the word ‘spiral’ in things I come across. (I tend to think of that when seeing water things go down a drain, the patterns of chimney swallows (birds) going down a chimney as night comes, and many other ‘natural’ phenomena—eg Fibonacci sequence in pine cone swirls.)

    a sociologist uses the concept to describe academic politics. (see on his page his paper on ‘the neoliberal university: ascent of the spiralists’. Some ‘spiritual’ type people into permaculture and ecology also use the term. uses term in context of cultural evolution (eg Peter Turchin) and has math that looks related to your technical papers.


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