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Spiral dynamics - the evolution of human cultures

Author: Maciamo Hay
Written in July/August 2020.

Spiral Dynamics is a concept in psychology that posits that human nature is not fixed and that humans are able, when forced by circumstances, to adapt to their environment by constructing new, more complex, conceptual models of the world that allow them to handle the new problems. The concept was developed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan by building on the emergent cyclical levels of existence theory of Clare W. Graves.

The Spiral Dynamics model conceptualises eight levels of increasingly complex human value systems (or vMemes) consisting of sets of world views, preferences, and purposes. Each level represents a new evolution in the way people interact within a society.

Level of consciousness (vMeme) Mindset & Values
1. Beige (Archaic/Instinctive) Basic survival needs: food, water, warmth, rest, sex, and safety.
2. Purple (Magical/Animistic) Tribes, spirits of nature, mysterious powers, magic, rites, rituals, taboos, curses, spells, voodoo.
Driven by sacredness, imagination, fear of the unknown, belonging, camaraderie.
3. Red (Domination/Egocentric) Asserting one's individual power and subduing others. Fulfil one's desires to the detriment of others. Cult of heroes. Powerful gods. Slavery.
Driven by instant gratification, impulse, adventure, bravery, honour, glory,
4. Blue (Order/Authoritarian) Conformity, obeying rules, respecting procedures and traditions. Absolute authority of religion and/or rulers. Code of conduct based on dogmatic principles of “right” and “wrong.”
Driven by duty, faith, discipline, restraint, virtue, guilt, after-life.
5. Orange (Achievement/Materialistic) Creativity, competition, technological progress, entrepreneurialism, capitalism, consumerism.
Driven by money, image status, fame, success, recognition.
6. Green (Relativistic/Communitarian) Egalitarianism, pluralism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, sharing community, sustainable economy.
Driven by tolerance, respect of others, altruism, consensus, cooperation, fairness.
7. Yellow (Systemic/Integrative) Self-development, continuous learning, flexibility, functionality, hierarchies based on knowledge and competency.
Driven by integrity, sincerity, humility, self-awareness.
8. Turquoise (Holistic/Interconnected) Global thinking culture, collective individualism, collective intelligence.
Driven by peace, harmony, tranquility.

The levels of the Spiral Dynamics through history

The archaic level (beige) represents instincts and basic needs of survival like food, water, warmth, sex, and safety. This level is shared with animals and was the default level of our hominid ancestors until Homo sapiens became behaviourally modern, roughly around 50,000 to 40,000 years ago.

From around 40,000 years ago, human tribes of hunter-gatherers moved into the second level (purple), that of magic, rituals and animism. The earliest evidence of spirituality, cult and worship came from Neanderthals. In my opinion as an paleogeneticist, anthropologist and historian, the transition to the second level of the spiral might very well have emerged from the interbreeding of Neanderthals and Homo sapiens, a fusion that not only modified our genomes (all modern Eurasians possess a few percents of Neanderthalian DNA), but also our brains and behaviour.

Ancient civilisations developed the third rung of the spiral (red), the cult of heroes, based on conquest, elite dominance and egocentric exploitation of others through slavery. This was the case of Bronze Age and Iron Age societies, including civilisations such as the Babylonians, Assyrians, Hittites, Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Celts...

As a reaction to the unfairness of this system, new moralistic religions emerged like Zoroastrianism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. This led to the development of the blue meme, the belief in rules imposed from a higher power for the good of society, absolute morals and a strict hierarchy based on divine power. This system emerged in the Late Antiquity and continued to mature until the Renaissance, culminating with Louis XIV's absolutism and the divine right of kings.

In reaction to that came the 18th-century Enlightenment, with its emphasis of critical thought, rationalism and the emergence of a new society based on science, industry, capitalism and individual achievements. Meritocracy replaced the old order of hereditary aristocracy, while science and progress overtook the dogma of religion. That's the orange meme.

The excesses of capitalism, with the huge disparities in wealth caused by unbridled individualism, but also the destruction of the Earth for the sake of profit brought about a reactionary current of egalitarianism and ecology, accompanied by relativism, pluralism and multiculturalism (green meme).

The extreme egalitarianism and pluralistic fairness of the green meme fails to recognise or accept the presence of other memes in the hierarchy. This leads to complacency and encourages people at lower levels of development to remain stuck where they are, rather than seeking to evolve. The green will assert 'I do my thing, you do yours', failing to integrate all people in society into a coherent whole. This is where the yellow meme comes in, with its systemic, integrative approach. It is the first to understand and accept all stages of development in human nature and to try to find a place for everyone in society and encourage development towards higher rungs of the spiral.

Unable to change the world by himself, the individual in the yellow meme moves to a transpersonal approach based on collective consciousness and collective intelligence in a vasr interconnected network of like-minded individuals. This is the turquoise meme. Very few people have reached that level at present, so not much can be said about the 8th level of consciousness.

Evolving toward the next level

In the concept of spiral dynamics, each level of existence transcends and includes the previous ones. When, depending on living conditions, a new level of existence is being put in place, it is built on the contributions of previous levels. Within an individual, a company or an organisation, several levels coexist at a given time.

Spiral dynamics is a holarchic system. A holon is an integral part of a whole. The typical analogy is a body cell, which is functional on its own, but contain molecules, which are themselves composed of atoms. The body is made of organs, each containing cells. So the body is a holon, but so are organs, cells, molecules and atoms. One of the consequences of the principle "transcends and includes" is that if a level of holarchy is destroyed, all the levels above it disappear, while those which are located below continue to operate. If the cells of the body were suddenly annihilated, there would be no more organs or bodies, but the chemical molecules constituting the cells could very well survive. To use another analogy, if the ability to make sentences disappeared, there would be no more book or library, but the words would still exist and keep the same meaning.

In terms of spiral dynamics, this means that it is impossible to eliminate or skip a level of existence (a meme). If a level has not been set up, the foundations necessary for the following levels are missing and these cannot function.

People belonging to different memes (levels of development) cannot understand or accept the ethos of people at other levels. This is one of the most common sources of conflicts within societies or between group of countries at very different levels (e.g. places like Yemen or Afghanistan are still dominated by the red meme, which would have made them easy to understand to our ancient ancestors 2000 years ago, but feels completely alien to us in the Western world today). It is only from the 7th stage of development, the yellow meme, that individuals start to recognise that all the previous levels of development exist and that they are essential to the development of societies and cultures. The 7th level is called Integral because it aims at integrating people from all levels and resolving conflicts between them. The 8th (turquoise) level is basically the same, but the approach is collectivist instead of individualistic - not just understanding the whole spiral, but acting to solve the conflicts as a network on the global level.

Spiral dynamics within a person's life

It is important to understand that, even though societies have evolved historically as I explained above, individuals evolve at their own independent pace. All babies are born in the first instinctive stage (beige). Small children then start to believe in the supernatural (anything from ghosts to Santa Claus), a world that appears magic and irrational to them (purple).

Then kids start to assert their dominance on others during power plays on the playground and choose leaders (red). They compete and want to be stronger, better than others, to be the first of their class, the best at sports or video games. It's an egocentric stage where the feelings and needs or others don't matter much.

Older children start to learn the rules of society and that they can't do everything they want and must respect others, obey teachers, moral rules and laws, and must conform to the expectations of society as a whole (blue).

Late teens and young adults typically reach the orange stage if they crave individual recognition and success in life. These are people who work hard to succeed and want to show it off with material goods, be it a big house, a nice car, expensive clothes or whatever.

It's only once people are better off that they start caring about the welfare of society as a whole and about the environment (green). Very few people today have reached the yellow or turquoise stage.

Not only do the various stages of development remain within us as adults, but we also feel the occasional urge to feed them.

The 1st level (beige) is easy to satisfy: just eat and sleep (sex is also probably part of that level).

The 2nd level (purple) involves magic and superstitions. This is when we like watching Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings, but also when some people are interested in astrology, horoscopes, paranormal phenomena, get superstitious about the number 13 (or 4 in East Asia), think they have a real chance to win the lottery or that homeopathy works... The need of recognition from the inner group (family, tribe, company) is rooted in the purple meme. It is what makes us feel good about receiving medals or prizes.

We re-awaken the 3rd level (red) in us when we watch movies or series about the Vikings, Spartan warriors, samurai or any other cult of the warrior unperturbed by death and more willing to die than to feel the shame of losing or being seen as weak. The red meme makes us play violent video games or fantasise about being a Roman emperor. Red is not always violent. It is rooted in immediate gratification and enjoying the now without thinking of the consequences (for ourselves or others). Being in the red meme is also wild partying, dancing, getting drunk, smoking, taking drugs...

The 4th level (blue) is all about self-control, obedience and respect for rules. Historically this has often been enforced by moralistic religions. But at work living the blue meme often just means being in a hierarchy, following orders and enforcing the rules. That can be a government bureaucracy, being a regular employee in a big company, working in a hospital, or being in the police or in the army. A big part of the population in developed countries won't go further than this level. For those higher up, fantasising back about the blue level could just be watching police procedural and legal dramas.

The 5th level (orange) is about personal success and progress. We activate it by learning about science, trying to develop new businesses and technologies, investing in the capitalist economy, getting rich and buying the material goods that these markets offer. Even people in higher levels of the spiral still feel those needs.

The 6th level (green) seeks harmony with Nature and within human societies. It is relativistic, fair and egalitarian. We activate it when we start working less to improve our quality of life and the time spent with family and friends, when we are interested in other cultures and points of views, when we recycle and try to reduce our carbon footprint, when we encourage cooperatives, give our time/knowledge for the public good through peer production (e.g. Wikipedia), developing free software (e.g. Linux), or working on mass collaboration projects, when we encourage sustainable investments, buy Fairtrade products...

Wikipedia is an interesting example of how people behave according to their meme. The whole free, collaborative approach is rooted in the green meme. But that does not prevent people belonging to other memes to edit the content to satisfy their own ethos. People dominated by the red meme are the trolls who have fun deleting articles or writing nonsense. Those centred in the blue meme try to impose their beliefs by modifying articles that challenge it. People in the orange meme rewrite articles to advertise their own businesses or to give themselves a competitive advantage.

The 7th level (yellow) is defined by perpetual learning and self-improvement. But unlike the orange stage, it does not do it in order to gain financial profit from it. The aim is to share their knowledge with the world and make the world a better place. The individuals of the yellow meme have a flexible mind and use the tools of all the previous levels when they are appropriate. They share the idealism of the green, but with the more down-to-earth, decisive and efficient approach of the orange. Their quest for truth may remind of the blue meme, but they are conscient of their limit and that of others. A yellow-meme individual will admit that he/she doesn't know everything and will refrain from expressing opinions on topics where that knowledge is deficient. The world is humanocentric instead of ethnocentric or egocentric.

Spiral dynamics within modern countries

Even in developed countries, many people are stuck in the red, blue or orange stage. The red is more common in disadvantaged communities, poor people with low education and marginalised from mainstream society. They are found in street gangs and mafias, but also in people wishing to become 'sports heroes' (usually football/soccer, but could be basketball, baseball or any other major sport where top players are adulated).

One of the main difference between red states and blue states in the US is that red/Republican states have (ironically) far more people stuck in the blue meme (religion, law & order), while blue/Democrat states have a higher proportion of people in the orange (capitalism, individualism) and green (multicultural, egalitarian, ecological) stages.

The countries with the highest proportion of people in the green wave are, IMO, Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Scandinavians combine an egalitarian society with pluralism and a deep care for ecology and humanitarian aid. Shortly behind are the Netherlands and Finland. They are followed by Germany, Belgium, Switzerland and Austria. These countries perform well for the ecology, but have problems either with egalitarianism and multiculturalism. Britain and France come next. In the USA California is among the greenest states.

The most orange countries are the USA, Canada, Britain, Australia, Japan, South Korea, China... Overall though, the USA, Japan and China are more a combination of orange + blue, while the UK is more orange + green (like most of western and northern Europe, although in varying proportions of green to orange).

In East Asia, the blue meme is represented almost exclusively by the government (law & order, paternalistic state, rigid and absolute rules) and the rules of the collectivist culture, rather than by religion (although it could be argued that it is the heritage of Confucianism that infuses the collectivist code of conduct).

Latin America is also a blend of blue + orange (with substantial red zones in places like northwest Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras, Venezuela and Brazilian slums).

The Muslim world is still overwhelmingly in the blue meme (like the Bible Belt in the USA).

Any person, organisation or company is deeply involved in his/her/its dominant meme. They think it's a valid solution for the problems of existence and are convinced of the correctness of their values and worldview. As long as this belief is absolute, there is no possibility of change from one level to the next. In fact, each meme is adapted to specific living conditions of a society. The purple meme is perfect for tribes of hunter-gatherers or Neolithic farmers. Trying to impose a modern orange meme on such societies is doomed to failure. There have been many attempts by Western countries (especially the United States) to impose an orange system on countries that simply weren't ready for it. The US was lucky that Japan was already in the blue and started transitioning toward the orange during the early 20th century, so that it could impose its own system on Japan during the postwar occupation period (1945-1952). This success led American politicians to believe that they could reproduce the same scenario in other countries like Iraq or Afghanistan. Unfortunately these countries were still mostly in the red and early stages of blue and were not mature enough to adopt an orange set of values.

The same thing happened in Turkey when Mustafa Kemal imposed a secular system, forced the Westernisation of society (clothes, alphabet, calendar, measuring units), and reformed the country's institutions under the French, German, Swiss and Italian models. Turkish society was still deeply anchored in the blue meme, and in more rural areas even in the red. Some educated Turks in big cities adopted the new system, but the majority of the population was not ready for the changes and the state remained a centralised and authoritarian blue. Secular values reverted to more traditional religious values in accordance with the development stage of the mainstream population.

Historical examples of the evolution of the spiral dynamics in societies

One thing I really like about the concept of spiral dynamics is that people and societies evolve along the spiral, and because of this, a society can also be transitioning in an intermediary stage between two levels. A spiral is a continuous line, even if seen from a fixed angle it appears to have levels.

There are two countries that I have studied a lot as a historian and know very well: ancient Rome and Japan. I am going to review when these societies moved from one level of the spiral to the next and what caused the change.

Ancient Rome

During the Republic, the ancient Romans were in a segment ranging from the 2nd (purple) to the 3rd (red) levels. They were very superstitious and close to nature, reading omens in the flight of birds, practising divination from the entrails of sacrificed animals, carrying amulets (like the famous phallic symbol representing life force that wards off evil spirits). They were also very traditional, with strong gender roles and a council of elders (the Senate) ruling over the city. All this is typical of the purple meme. Yet they were also brave warriors with a sense of honour for which they felt it was worth fighting to death to maintain or avenge. Toward the end of the Republic and the early Principate, the red meme became dominant over the purple one. Male patricians in particular became the epitome of the red meme, seeking honour, glory, wealth and instant gratification without worrying about the consequences.

Augustus attempted to change Roman society by creating an administration based on loyalty to the emperor. He established a new cult of personality and a new set of values with clearer and fairer laws and rules to prevent the abuses of the upper classes toward the rest of society. There would be more power to the people, just like Julius Caesar's party of the Populares had wanted. That was the first step toward the blue meme (well, actually the Gracchi brothers could be seen as the first step, but that led to civil war, and its uncontested implementation was under Augustus). The Five Goof Emperors (Nerva, Trajan, Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius) all worked to strengthen the blue meme. They brought morality and humanity to Roman society. Antoninus made it illegal to kill or mistreat domestic slaves and introduced the notion of presumption of innocence. He and Marcus Aurelius both made it easier to affranchise slaves.

During the Principate phase of the Roman Empire, society was on a segment between red and blue. Blue only became dominant around the late 3rd century, with the establishment of the Dominate and when Romans adopted more centralised, absolutist deities like Mithra and Sol Invictus (especially from the reign Aurelian), followed by the adoption of Christianity under Constantine. The new religions brought absolute rules imposed by God himself. The blue meme was to last throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, until the Enlightenment started moving toward the orange meme. Countries lie France, Britain, Germany and the USA were the first to transition from blue to orange. Even though the process started in the 18th century, it isn't completed yet. Nevertheless it can be said that orange became dominant over blue in the 1960's in these countries, except perhaps in the American Deep South (Bible Belt) where blue is more resistant.


Japan is a particularly interesting example of a country working on different segments of the spiral at the same time. In my article The Six Faces of Japanese Religion, I explained how various religions deal with different aspects of spirituality.

The oldest in Shintoism, a typical form of animism showing a deep reverence to the mystical "spirits of nature", where animals, trees and even things (rocks, waterfalls, dolls and other objects) have a spirit. This a pure form of the purple meme.

Taoism was imported from China as part of the "Chinese cultural package", along with Confucianism, Buddhism and Chinese characters, during the late Yamato period (250-710). Although Japan does not have any Taoist temples, its culture is deeply influenced by its philosophy and can still be seen in many anime. Taoism, with its superstitious or supernatural beliefs, is also an expression of the purple meme.

In medieval times, the cult of the warrior emerged with the development of samurai ethos later enshrined in the Bushid?. The samurai moved away from the purple meme toward the red meme, in which life is dedicated to heroism and glorious death in war. Surprisingly, the religion of choice of the samurai was Buddhism, and above all Zen Buddhism - one of the most individual and ascetic schools of Japanese Buddhism. Some writers have classified Buddhism as part of the blue meme, while others see it as green, yellow or even turquoise. It simply cannot be blue because Buddhism is individualistic and lacks dogmatic moral rules. It's all the opposite of blue. It also cannot be green or above as society had not reached even the orange level in ancient times. There was no concept of science, progress and capitalism, let alone the green values of ecology, social fairness and pluralism. Buddhism is not even pacific (there were terrifying warrior monks in medieval Japan and China). The core teaching of Buddhism is how to escape the numerous sufferings of the world through some sort of heroic individual salvation. Those values fit very well within the red meme.

Buddhism even influenced Shintoism and brought human-like deities into it, like the Sun Goddess Amaterasu and Inari, the Goddess of Fertility and Agriculture. The cult of heroes brought deification of some emperors, such as Emperor ?jin who became the God of War Hachiman. That's the red meme trying to convert a purple religion to its values.

Japan is a collectivist society and its social interactions are still deeply rooted in Confucianism. It provides the moral rules, the system that holds the society together and regulates the place of every individual. It is the blue meme.

In 1868, during the Meiji Restoration, the government changed again the status of Shintoism with the creation of State Shinto, in which the emperor became a living god, a supreme being to be revered by the whole population. Shintoism was effectively converted to the blue meme, a centralised, authoritarian state in which obedience and conformity are required from the population. Buddhism was cast aside as red gave way to blue, and as the selfish, honour-seeking regional daimyos were replaced by a cohesive, orderly and hierarchical national military dedicated to the cult of the emperor. Patriotism was born. With it came the Japanese expansion into East Asia and WWII.

Upon their defeat in 1945 and the dissolution of the cult of the emperor, Japanese society moved further up the spiral. Orange now became dominant over blue, although Confucian values held firm in the new liberalised democratic system. Japanese society is therefore still transitioning from blue to orange, but closer to orange.


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