The Power of Evolutionary Perspective

The idea of a needed new human maturity—especially when filled out with Cultural Maturity’s more detailed observations—is unusual as much for the specifically developmental kind of concept it represents as for its particular conclusions. This difference is key to how the concept of Cultural Maturity is able to offer useful guidance and also to its ability to provide hope. The needed new species maturity is not just about making changes we think might be beneficial. It is about stepping forward in ways that we can only now begin to imagine, but that in the end expresses potential built into the fact of being human. It is about turning the first pages in a next chapter in humanity’s story.

The concept of Cultural Maturity is appropriately controversial. Certainly its conclusions can be debated. But it is controversial as much for its evolutionary interpretation. That we can usefully think of cultural as having developmental stages is to me obvious. As I see things, without evolutionary perspective it becomes nearly impossible to understand world events or to make ultimately useful policy decisions.

Yet there are good reasons for suspicion. Indeed academia often rejects evolutionary perspective out of hand. In part this reflects hard-learned lessons. Such views in the past have most often been products of philosophical idealism, views that see history as reaching for some final purity of outcome. Most often cited as a reason for being wary, if not for outright dismissal, is academic history’s experience with Hegel’s formulations, which ended up translating into advocacy for an idealized Prussian state.

I very much agree that philosophical idealism results in highly distorted and extremely dangerous thinking. But it is just as naïve, and ultimately dangerous, to assume all evolutionary perspective falls for such traps and to thus throw the conceptual baby out with the bathwater. The concept of Cultural Maturity, with its roots in Creative Systems Theory, is based on wholly different conceptual assumptions.

At some level, most people get that a developmental interpretation makes sense. We look to events today in the Middle East with the overthrow on long-entrenched authoritarian regimes. We appreciate that government that draws on more democratic principles is today, to use Victor Hugo’s wonderful phrase, “an ideas whose time has come.” These changes are not what the concept of Cultural Maturity is about. That kind of change began for the modern West 250 years ago—in the U.S., with out original emancipation from colonial rule and the first forging of constitutional documents. The concept of Cultural Maturity is about a next essential chapter in our human story. But if the concept of Cultural Maturity is accurate, the challenges we have today in the modern industrialized world are similarly of a developmental/evolutionary sort.

As I see things, such interpretation is essential to any hopeful picture of the future. The new capacities that a healthy, and perhaps even survivable, human future will require can seem really not human possible. When I speak, people who make this assertion often justify it with an evolutionary argument. They might say, for example, “We’ve evolved to be warlike and that will never change.” In making this argument, people miss that evolution has two meanings. There is biological evolution, and from that we are unlikely to see anything that could help us. But there is also cultural evolution: the way social systems grow and evolve over time.

The concept of Cultural Maturity describes cultural evolution and from a particular perspective. It is particular, first, in where it gives its attention. Conventionally, if people have thought of culture evolving at all, they’ve mapped human progress in ways that related specifically to invention—a time of hunter-gatherers, an age of agriculture, a modern industrial age. With the concept of Cultural Maturity, our interest lies more specifically with changes in how we humans think and behave. This includes changes throughout our history, and in particular, further changes we see today.

And even within views that give primary attention to changes at the level of understanding, Cultural Maturity’s perspective is particular. It is unique with regard to how it frames the mechanisms of change over time. It is also new in how it frames current changes, the particular way it sees them not just as a next chapter in culture’s story but one of specific and pivotal significance. If the concept of Cultural Maturity its accurate, cultural evolution should produce significant change in times ahead, much with real and important promise.

We glimpse some of how Cultural Maturity’s developmental/evolutionary perspective is different from usual ways of thinking in the simplified but useful recognition that most of our stories about what the future will be like fall into one of two broad categories. On one side we find views that basically affirm where we have come to, and which, for the future, assume the continued viability of the trajectory that got us here. These views acknowledge that there will be bumps in the road ahead, at times big ones, but hold that our institutions and our ways of understanding are basically sound. Given time, according to these views, we can count on our amazing capacities for insight and invention to pull us through whatever difficulties we might face.

Contrasting this we find an array of views that see our present condition to be in some way broken. Extreme examples regard it as irretrievably so, perceiving, if not a looming Armageddon, at least a world “going to hell in a hand-basket.” Most present milder critical interpretations, but such views share that in some basic way we have gone astray. Either explicitly or by implication, most call for major kinds of human transformation.

Both positions, certainly in their extremes, but also in more tempered interpretations, have problems. With regard to the first set of views, there is no reason to assume that new cultural forms—educational, economic, governmental, scientific, and more—do not lie ahead, and every reason to assume that they do. It is also the case that few if any of the major challenges ahead can be solved by technological, economic, or policy means alone. Going forward will require not just striving onward, but changes in how we think, and more deeply, in who we are.

With regard to the second set of views, we see that most of the conundrums we face today are less the result of going astray than the need to confront challenges that are products of our success. This is the case equally with more external challenges such as climate change and challenges that are more obviously about ourselves such as the need to address moral questions without past one-size-fits-all cultural guideposts. A close look reveals, too, how views that argue for radical transformation tend to miss critical pieces of the puzzle. They advocate idealized answers that would result in outcomes that we could not achieve, and more, would not want to achieve. In fact, most calls for radical transformation are really not about change at all. More accurately they reflect a flipping of polar conclusions within the same basic worldview—very old wine in new bottles.

The notion of a needed and newly possible collective “growing up” presents a third sort of narrative, different not just in its conclusions, but also in the kind of idea it represents. Its more developmental interpretation argues that change—fundamental change—is indeed required; needed changes involve not just a significant stretch, but a leap, beyond familiar assumptions. But, at the same time, the idea of a new human maturity makes clear that the needed going forward is not about the correcting of past error (which is not to say the human enterprise has not involved error). And certainly the answers it proposes look very different from idealized or magical solutions. Cultural Maturity’s new narrative presents an at once a more “ordinary” picture than the preceding two, and a picture that is more audacious. It is about engaging a now-critical—developmentally predicted but only now within our capabilities—next step in the human endeavor.

This developmental/evolutionary picture has important implications for the question of hope. The simple fact that the idea of a collective “growing up” articulates a practical story of possibility at least offers encouragement. More specifically, this interpretation suggests that the needed new capacities may be inherent to who we are.

If the changes the concept of Cultural Maturity describes needed to be created from whole cloth, the argument that optimism is warranted would be hard to make. If the seeds of the needed new capacities lie in our makeup, the implications become very different. What our times ask of us comes to have less to do with radical invention than with garnering the insight and courage needed to make our inherent potential manifest. If, too, we are not just potentially capable of what the needed new human maturity asks, but are already beginning to make it manifest, there is more reason to hope. This developmental explanation does not guarantees our safety or even our survival, but it does paint a very different sort of picture, both more ultimately hopeful and more realistic.

Developmental/evolutionary perspective is needed not just to understand our times and effectively conceive of the future, but also to understand our world more generally. Certainly it is essential to making effective global policy. Effectively addressing terrorism becomes impossible without it. So does in any useful way understanding conflict that involves countries and ethnic groups that reside in difference cultural stages.

The conflicts in Iran and Afghanistan provide important current examples. In each case, evolutionary perspective would have supported more intelligent policy. The larger portion of people in modern Iraq reside in the equivalent of a late medieval reality. (There is diversity in the population—some people embody more modern sensibilities, and some reflect earlier, more tribal sensibilities—but drawing analogy to the 14th or 15th centuries in the West makes a useful analogy for policy.) The belief that the people of Iraq would celebrate the presence of U.S. soldiers—certainly for any length of time—would be naïve enough were Iraq a modern nation. Given the cultural stage, polar intolerance for occupying forces was totally predictable and protracted antagonism and struggles for power between ethnic factions following the end of Sadan Hussein’s rule similarly inescapable. U.S. military actions in Afghanistan were more justified, but seen from a developmental perspective, that task becomes even more daunting. Bing West, who spent 10 years fighting in Afghanistan, describes in his book The Wrong War how he reluctantly came to the conclusion that modern Afghanistan resides in the equivalent of about 9th century Europe. Much if it may represent even earlier sensibilities, but early medieval makes a pretty good approximation. Note that this observation not only effects the prognosis for success, it also means that lessons learned in Iraq may be much less applicable than we might assume.

A concept like Cultural Maturity makes no real sense without developmental perspective. That this is so has its curses along with its gifts. Precisely because Cultural Maturity is a developmental notion, we can only make beginning sense of what it will require of us. But it is the only formulation I know that seems ultimately consistent with sane and healthy future.