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book review: Integral Consciousnes and the future of evolution by Steve McIntosh

For quite some time I have been interested in theories that discuss the balancing between right and left brain thinking, and the translation of ideas from one field to another.

Ken Wilber’s book [my review] opened up a new domain of philosophical thinking. Through this interest I have heard a great deal mentioned recently about Steve McIntosh’s model of cultural evolution – so I ordered a copy and sat down for a good read.

For quite some time I have been interested in theories that discuss the balancing between right and left brain thinking, and the translation of ideas from one field to another.

Ken Wilber’s book [my review] opened up a new domain of philosophical thinking. Through this interest I have heard a great deal mentioned recently about Steve McIntosh’s model of cultural evolution – so I ordered a copy and sat down for a good read.

Overall the content to page ration in this book is low, and I have a lot of criticism regarding the presentation and content of the material.

All is not lost however, because with some filtering, these good topics emerge:

1. Stages of cultural consciousness
2. Global governance
3. Structures of the human mind
4. Directions of evolution
5. Artifacts as extensions of the mind

1. Stages of cultural consciousness

In a fashion similar to K. Wilber, Mr. McIntosh divides human cultural evolution into layers:

A) Tribal
B) Warrior
C) Traditional
D) Modern
E) Postmodern
F) Integral

Steve Argues that each developmental stage coincides with external pressures and internal development. In his model, cultures evolve in reaction to the negative aspects [the pathologies] of the previous stage’s development. Furthermore, according to McIntosh each stage oscillates between a focus on the collective, or on the individual.

Steve illustrates this visually using a spiral, where items on the left of the spiral are collective-focussed, and items on the right are individual-focussed:

The properties and historical events he links between each of these stages is best illustrated in a table*:

stage Tribal Warrior Traditional Modern Postmodern
positive values Family, community Freedom, personal autonomy Decency, honesty, morality, respect for traditions Progress, prosperity, economic development multiculturalism, environmentalism, egalitarian
negative values Limitation Egocentric Dogmatic, intolerance, fundamentalism Materialism, greed, selfishness Regression, denial of relative worth, excessive plurality
technological / economic level Foraging Horticultural Agrarian Industrial Informational
guiding ideology Mysticism Power Religion Science Plurality
organizational level tribes villages empires nation powers global powers
current percentage of world population 5% 20% 55% 15% <5%

According to S. McIntosh, as each stage of cultural consciousness develops, it is in reaction to the preceding stage’s negative values [pathologies]. As the new stage unfolds, it eventually creates its own negative which in turn implies a need for a new cultural consciousness, and the cycle perpetuates:

-> positive: Family -> negative: Limitation -> positive: Personal autonomy -> negative: egocentric -> positive: respect -> negative: intolerance -> positive: prosperity -> negative: greed -> positive: egalitarian -> negative: excessive pluraility -> …

Steve McIntosh also makes the parallel between human psychology and cultural-conscious levels, stating that an individual may relate more closely to one or more levels than another. Countries also have general weights at one or more levels of consciousness and he refers to an extensive test done on the American population some time in the late last century which showed that 50% of the American people fit the Traditional, 25% the Modernist and 25% fit the Postmodernist archetype descriptions above.

One of the main purposes of this book is to present Steve McIntosh’s idea for ‘The next cultural-consciousness level’. From the get-go Steve is certain it is what he coins: ‘Integral Consciousness’. Which he defines as a [cultural] consciousness which does not deny but rather includes the ‘best of’ of all previous levels of cultural consciousness:

Values of: family/community, autonomy/freedom, tradition/respect, prosperity/wealth and equality/relative value.

My feelings on this are divided.

One the one hand, I believe that wisdom is the synthesis of all positive aspects from different life-perspectives. It is this drive to understand and then include as many diverse perspectives of life/the world which assists the increase in individual [and thus collective] consciousness. This is a drive which has been present for at least as long as humans have been able to contemplate consciousness itself, and is thus in no way a new ideal of the 21st century.

The idea that our entire culture may be moving towards an integral view is very heart warming, but it is to me not as predestined as it is presented. First of all, human development is as much an internal process of will as it is an external process of adaption. Rapidly changing factors, most of which are unpredictable, will result in a totally different set of conditions which require a different set of cultural-ethics for survival. Steve’s model for cultural evolution may indeed be correct in the sand-box, but it is only correct because it is a model of the path that our culture has taken – not because it is the path that all culture must follow.

Our future may be the gradual shift from post modern views to integrated world-thinking, but it could also involve a momentary anarchic period where known cultural systems collapse/revert to previous stages before re-organizing themselves into new [a] model[s] which no one had previously anticipated [or which had laid dormant/suppressed in the present].

Post modernism may coalesce and converge into one world view, a new ‘belief’ system may sweep across the world, or a new technological advance/discovery may usher in new thinking which seeds new philosophy and beliefs. Conversely, energy shortage could lead to further polarities in modernism… the potential divergences are staggering.

Drawing conclusions from the observation of patterns is what humans love to do, we are good at that. but in this case I think the focus should be on spreading the values of integration in and of itself, not the advocacy of integration being the next phase of human development; it is too early for that. Integral thinking is just another fancy word for being ‘wise’. Knowing that every story has two sides to it, realizing the intrinsic value of all things. Respecting one’s self, others and the earth and so forth. These are values that are present in all levels of cultural consciousness: tribal, traditional and beyond – and these are not unique features of a as-yet-unprecedented-age.

Personally, integral psychology/consciousness is a fascinating field because it expands my understanding of universal patterns/laws. This greater understanding assists my rational capacity to grasp paradoxical/fundamental concepts.

2. Global government

To my surprise S. McIntosh expands the discussion further to include his ideas for a global government, an entity which would help to uphold laws that restrict/monitor/control the negative aspects of our modernist culture by providing a structure for executing the values of the postmodernist.

Unfortunately not many details are covered here except for arguments on why this would be a good thing.

While I myself am for the idea of the globalization of human rights [a subject I’ve been wanting to blog/document properly for at least 2 years], my preference is to do this in concert with a bill of international rights which would extend far further than we currently afford an individual their basic rights of self and responsibility.

3. Structures of the human mind

Various studies of the mind are discussed which support the idea of distinct separate lines of intelligence, and McIntosh’s proposition that the individual is divided into three main domains: Will, Thought and Feeling. Where these 3 intercept, he calls this the ‘self’:

This model to me makes sense if I interpret it to be that thought is ‘left’ brain functioning and ’emotion’ is ‘right’ side functioning since in evolutionary terms ’emotional’ functions were present before ‘cognitive’ functions arose in the neocortex:

Left brain functions Right brain functions
sequential simultaneous
analytical holistic
verbal imagistic
logical intuitive
linear algorithmic processing holistic algorithmic processing
mathematics: perception of counting/measurement mathematics: perception of shapes/motions
present and past present and future
language: grammar/vocabulary, literal language: intonation/accentuation, prosody, pragmatic, contextual

{ref: WikiPedia}

In evolutionary terms ‘intellect’ [neocortex] came after ’emotional’ [lymbic-system]:

4. Directions of evolution

In and of itself, this evolution of cultural layering is only "interesting" until S. McIntosh adds material relating the evolution’s perpetual pattern.

If one analyzes the lineage of evolution we see three forces at play:

* the drive to diversify = increased complexity
* the drive to unify = increased unity
* increasing consciousness

We can see this pattern in all forms of life, the more complex an organism, the more unity it also expresses, and the more conscious faculty it possess.

A multi-celled organism is more complex than a single one, because it involves a cooperation of cells that each become specialists in a different domain [some cells become propellers to move the group, others become sensors to see etc.], but it also creates unity because the entire group functions as a whole. A rat is even more complex because it involves staggering quantities of these multi-celled cooperations which are themselves also grouped into even larger units and eventually into the mouse itself. Each part of the mouse, each organ, has one specific unified purpose which sums up to the mouse itself as its own individual self. A mouse is also more ‘aware’ than a multi celled organism as it expresses a greater degree of consciousness.

Steve then makes the parallel between individual sphere’s, and those of the collective. Pointing out that the same evolutionary drives of unity, complexity and consciousness are also present on the cultural level:

(col-self = "collective identity")

This parallel implies that more recent cultural expressions, which are unarguably more complex and more unified, also embody greater ‘consciousness’, since the three are linked at the hip. McIntosh backs this idea by giving cognitive difference examples between people from Tribal and other cultural back grounds to modern groups.

The taboo topic of talking about some people as being ‘more evolved than others’ is open for discussion here, and Steve is quick to refer to the need for all levels of consciousness to exist because all individuals go through all phases of consciousness development as they reach their potentials.

New born humans go through all previous phases of life that have occurred in order to ‘catch up’ to current human levels of evolution. This is true for all life forms [that don’t employ cloning]. As a new human, we go from embryo to single celled to multi-celled, to simple organism, to reptilian, to mammal to baby human. And then as a child we develop in clearly definable stages of consciousness which Ken Wilber identified as:

Level Undifferentiated Sensiophysical Phantasmic Representational mind Cognitive operational Formal reflectivisim
Age 0 months 4 months 15-24 months 7 months – 7 years 7 – 11 years 11 – 15 years
Facility Fused physical, unexpressed identity Differentiated physical Differentiated emotions conceptual self Concrete operations Thought on thought

Ken Wilber then discusses higher levels of psychological development which move from Centauric [existential] on up to more and more spiritual levels.

What S. McIntosh’s does, is he places his cultural levels next to K. Wilber’s by stating that as an individual progresses psychologically internally, they also develop cultural psychological levels externally and move through phases of tribal [mom is my world] to warrior [rejection of family], to traditional [disciplined structure] up to modern [career focussed] and post modern [philosophical] and beyond.

5. Artifacts as extensions of the mind

One of the last appendixes discusses human artifacts. Human artifacts are all the objects we make, or use. Real one’s and abstract ones like words, tools, trains, books and computers.

Steve argues that human artifacts are literally extensions of the mind, external manifestations of cultural-consciousness evolution that fulfill what traditionally was done in life in biological terms. New words in a language capture new ideas. New blueprints for a durable construction replace previous biological durability adaptation. These external evolutionary extensions thus allow the human race to evolve at a rate which is no longer limited by biological evolutionary terms. S. McIntosh also goes one step further by stating that these external extensions of culture actually function directly to facilitate our individual evolution of consciousness. Take away our artifacts, and you remove a significant advancement of our faculties! A daring conclusion to draw, but I share his views and think he is right.

All in all I’d recommend someone skip S. McIntosh’s book unless they already are familiar with much of K. Wilber’s work, and are looking for further depth to K. Wilber’s ideas. There are great passages here, and parts really worth reading, its just that too much of S. McIntosh’s book reads like a memo intended for K. Wilber or a tedious history lesson, a book written to himself, and too little of it discusses new or varied concepts – it literally feels like half the book is just empty space. The writing style is also to be desired… I prefer it when authors stick to valuable content and limit their enthusiasm of their own opinions to their conclusions [or better yet, their reader’s own conclusions].

These short comings aside though, I benefited from my reading, a good book is also one that triggers one to extend an authors ideas or to ingrain your own. I hope this synopsis has been interesting. If I do keep reading up on integral theories, I feel that it will either be a pick from S. McIntosh’s bibliography, or another one of K. Wilber’s books; but at the moment my focus in on proto-biology.

With kindness,


* some terms added, removed and/or modified by Sebastian Chedal to fit space and/or concepts above as written.

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One Comment

  1. comment
    as an individual progresses psychologically internally, they also develop cultural psychological levels externally and move through phases of tribal [mom is my world] to warrior [rejection of family], to traditional [disciplined structure] up to modern [career focussed] and post modern [philosophical] and beyond.

    This seems to map also onto Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which similarly to McIntosh I theorized at one time had emergent solutions at the next level based on the flaws in the solution of the previous.

    [mom is my world]= physiological
    [rejection of family] = safety/personal solidity
    [disciplined structure]= belonging
    [career focussed] = esteem/achievement
    [philosophical] = self actualization

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