Conditions for evolutionary expansion

Our impulse to work to improve our world is an impulse to evolve.

I suspect that you recognize a deep impulse to survive and thrive in you, in other individuals, your family, your community, your nation and in the whole of us as a species. When faced with hardships and challenges, we do what it takes to protect ourselves and our clan, to survive.  We don’t often think of this, but it is ever present in our actions.  What is also present is our impulse as a species to thrive –to learn how to grow and change and adapt constantly.  Survival alone is not good enough.  We are always seeking more of what is possible in the world.  This is an impulse that even drives the creation of cities.

The last two posts, A primer on the emerging spiral and 7 principles that frame the Spiral, lay out one way of seeing how new value systems emerge within us as we evolve:  Spiral Dynamics.  As we move up the Spiral, our awareness and understanding expands as we meet ever more complex challenges in life.  Clare Graves called this movement up the Spiral a never ending quest.  Our evolutionary expansion, however, is not a given.

Potential for expansion – six conditions

Beck and Cowan outline six conditions that need to be in place for upward change on the Spiral to be possible.  Keep in mind that this is not a recipe – it is possible that most conditions are met and change does not occur.  It is also possible that only some conditions are met and change occurs anyway.  This is a pattern that offers some insight into how change happens, but more specifically, about the conditions in place as we move upward along the Spiral, at various scales – individuals, families, groups, organizations, nations, species.

1.  Openness to the potential for change.  Beck and Cowan are very clear that not all people are equally open to, or even capable or prepared for change.  Normally, humans are in a potentially open system of need, values and aspirations, but “we tend, however, to settle into what appears to be a closed state wherein we operate in a consistent, enduring steady way.  Once reached, we tend to stay in these zones of comfort… unless powerful forces induce turbulence.”[1]  So the potential for change revolves around three elements: thinking that is open, or at least arrested; having the appropriate intelligences, ie the ability to operate under more complex life conditions; and being free from restrictive patterns, ‘sink-holes’ and ‘baggage’.

Beck and Cowan distinguish three states in which we may find ourselves relative to potential for change[2] that I have organized as follows:

Openness to the potential for change

2.  Solutions.  Change will not occur if ‘serious, unresolved problems or threats still exist within the present state’.  Satisfying this condition involves: adequately managing the problems at their vMEME level creating comfort and balance; and direct excess energy to exploration of the next, more complex system.[3]

3.  Dissonance.  “Change does not occur unless the boat rocks.”[4]  The sensation of dissonance is stirred when the waves of some kind of impact jostle the steady-state system.  The factors that create dissonance are (verbatim)[5]:

  • Awareness of the growing gap between life conditions and current means for handling those problems.
  • Enough turbulence to create a sense that ‘something is wrong’ without so much chaos that the whole world seems to be falling apart.
  • Abject failure of old solutions to solve the problems of the new life conditions may stimulate fresh thinking, release energy, and liberate the next vMEMES along the Spiral

4.  Barriers[6].  Beck and Cowan discern two steps in this process. The first is recognizing the barriers, which typically are external.  ‘It’s their fault.’  ‘The bloody establishment holds us down.’  The second step invites exploration into why the barriers are effective obstacles, which reveals both internal and external obstacles. In the end, we have to clean up both the world outside and inside.

So barriers need to be eliminated, bypassed, neutralized or reframed into something else to provide the needed solid foundation on which to build change.  But all this is to be done conscious of risks, consequences and the pain of barrier removal, as well as exposure of the excuses and rationalizations for not implementing change.

5.  Insight.  When leading change, it is critical to understand the thinking systems in play, and discern the different patterns, models and structure that come with those ways of thinking.  Further, “alternative scenarios must be active in the collective consciousness before they can be considered.  Too often they are guarded in the minds of an elite few ‘planners’ or ‘decision-makers’.  People need mental pictures of what things might be like for them in their own real Life Conditions, not for some distant Hollywood start or textbook case-studies.”[7]

Change is ultimately about changing patterns, and Beck and Cowan offer the following ways to initiate change in patterns[8]:

  • Greater insight into how systems form, decline, and reform – particularly one’s own.  People must accept the possibility of change as well as the means.
  • Put a stop to wasteful regressive searches into out-moded answers from the past which simply cannot address greater complexity in the present.
  • Consider optional scenarios, fresh models, and experiences from applicable sources.  Scout the competition and demonstrate concretely what alternatives look like.
  • Quickly recognize the appearance of new life conditions and the vMEMES required to shift into congruence. Custom tailor for best fit.

6.  Consolidation.  Beck and Cowan say this best: “When significant change occurs, you can expect a period of confusion, false starts, long learning curves, and awkward assimilation.  Those who change – either as individuals or as organizations – may be punished by those who do not understand what is happening and now find themselves left out, misaligned and threatened.  Old barriers may be rebuilt in the form of punitive rules, turf battles and power tests.  New obstacles might be set up.  Sometimes, you will have to go around, let the bridge burn and not look back.”[9]


There is a gap that sits between how we experience the world and how we see the world could be that propels us forward.  This is not a gap that we all see in the same way at the same time.  It is not a gap that we are all even able to see, nor are we all required to see a gap before making attempts to cross it.  But there is always a gap, should we choose to notice it, examine it, explore it and cross it.  We are always at a threshold.

My next post will explore the word “change” from a Spiral perspective, and the difference between changeability and adjustability.  When at a threshold, when is it appropriate to change or adjust?


[1]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 76

[2]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 76-82.  The text.

[3]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 82

[4]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 82

[5]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 83

[6]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 83

[7]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 84

[8]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 84

[9]   Beck and Cowan, Spiral Dynamics, p. 85


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