June 2010 / Book Reviews

Michael Horace Barnes, Stages of Thought
Science and Religion through History As Seen through the Lens of Stage

by Lucas Alexander Haley Commons-Miller

Lucas Commons-Miller

barnes coverMichael Horace Barnes. Stages of Thought: The Co-Evolution of Religious Thought and Science. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

In Stages of Thought, Michael Horace Barnes explains how societies have evolved in what he calls “style of thought.” In Piagetian terms he is speaking of stage change. This stage change is not in an individual but in a whole culture, and it takes place in many cultures. More specifically, it is a change in the memes which members of a culture are taught and therefore can use to think and reason. This development follows the same schema of stages of development that would normally pertain to an individual in Inhelder and Piaget (1958).

He argues that in human history there have been three major stage changes in the memes that cultures around the world use to explain what we in modern times call “nature.” He also states that each time one of these shifts occur, it causes a conflict between truth seeking (Barnes uses the term “truth seeking” to mean science that went on before science explicitly existed under that name,) and spiritualism (called “religion” after the first two stages.) In other words, an increase in the complexity of explanatory thinking about nature results in, coincides with, or causes a shift in religious/spiritual explanations or doctrines.

In pre-historic human history, religion and science were indistinguishable; they were simply ways of explaining un-explainable happenings. As explanations became better and more complex, science and religion diverged. Eventually this led to science “explaining” things empirically that could be explained in that way, and religion attempted to explain what was left. For example, in the early nineteenth century scientists understood that heritability existed but did not know about DNA. Some religious thinkers took this as an opportunity to say that perhaps this was the way that god enacted on the real world; perhaps he controlled heritability. Throughout the book, Barnes gives many examples like this of how science improved, usually measurable by stage increase, and then religious thinkers would change doctrines appropriately to fit the science of their day. A modern example of this is intelligent design theory.

Barnes summarizes what changes develop during each shift of thought style. The account of history given in Stages of Thought provides an interesting and compelling explanation of cultural evolution. For the most part, it is compelling, except that it relies on older stage theories. Such stage theories include those of Inhelder and Piaget (1958) and Kegan (1982). The use of an older model limits Barnes in two main ways: first, with fewer stages to use as a basis to classify memes, the classification is less precise; and second, because of the absence of postformal stages in the theories he was using he could not classify modern scientific thought as requiring or resulting from use of postformal thought. Barnes’ conception lacks the ability to classify newer and more complex memes correctly. As will be shown, the Model of Hierarchical Complexity (MHC, Commons & Pekker, 2008), could solve these problems. See other articles inCommons and Ross (2008) World Futures Special Issue. See also the attached concordance table showing Piaget’s stages compared to MHC orders.

Commons and Goodheart (1999) came out before Stages of Thought and dealt with cultural evolution of experimentation and the process of this development mirroring the development that takes place in an individual according to the MHC. It is no surprise that this aforementioned work was not sighted in Stages of Thought, since it was not published in a journal but instead as part of a book entitled The Philosophical Legacy of Behaviorism. Although these issues may limit the level to which Barnes’ argument can be precise, it does not detract from the importance of theories about the complexity of memes for explaining, or at least understanding, cultural change.

Like most theorists, Barnes assumes that the general stage of functioning that any individual who lived in pre-history (or who is living in a “primitive” society that exists in modern times) would be capable of a complexity of thought no different from a modern person living in a first world nation. He argues that the stage of reasoning people use on a day-to-day basis in modern cultures (as well as in “primitive” cultures that exist today) are concrete operations. This is a little bit lower than is evident from the MHC (formal operations) research. The reason he mentions general stage functioning is that he wants to debunk critics who would call him a racist for saying that other cultures are lower stage. He is not saying the individuals are lower stage. The change he is speaking of is the complexity of the memes possessed by that society that explain happenings in the world. This is the main point of the book. In itself this claim is valid, and if it were examined using more modern stage theories this point would hold true. He states that this evidence of cultural evolution is not to imply that a culture is superior to any other culture, or even that modern culture is superior to ancient culture. He is merely stating that there is more “ammunition” available to the scientists living in modern societies for making more complex arguments and explanations, and that this increase in ammunition is a measurable change in the stage of complexity of the methods used.

In the begriming of the book, Barnes summarizes stage theory and the history of research in that field, though not including modern stage theory research dating from 1970 on such as Pascual-Leone (1970), Fischer (1980) and Commons & Richards (1984, a and b). He also postulates that in the evolution of culture from “primitive” hunter-gatherer societies, to classical empires, to modern states, these types of organization mirror the development that goes on in an individual. As mentioned above, this has been studied before by Commons and Goodheart (1999), as well as in the fields of government and economics. Barnes is only concerned with scientific and religious development. He would argue that development in these domains is consistent with the schema of stages of development suggested by his research in stage theory and cultural evolution.

He then addresses critiques on Piagetian stage theory and cultural evolution. For both theories, Barnes argues that the main criticisms of each pertain to the methods (in Inhelder & Piaget) and the applications (in cultural evolution), but that they say nothing of the usefulness of the ideas as a framework for studies of general cultural development. Even though his defense of cultural evolutionary theories is somewhat flawed, his defense of stage theory is generally correct. He lists the criticisms of several different authors, and the point he makes is that stages don’t tell you about underlying structure of the brain, nor do they specifically correspond to a person’s overall complexity at a certain age, but they do provide a good framework for complexity on a given task and the stages people go through on a given task, in this case scientific and religious thought. He states that opponents of cultural evolution argue that people who live in “primitive” cultures can do formal operational stage reasoning. He then argues that since they are unaware of it, they are therefore actually using concrete reasoning. However, this does not take into account that according to research using the MHC, in order to recognize reasoning at a certain stage one must be one stage higher. So if primitive people are using formal operational reasoning, it would follow logically that they would not be aware of this reasoning. Commons and Bresette (2006) mentioned this, and discussed memes and cultural evolution.

There are three major stage changes as seen by Barnes. First, with the advent of agriculture came larger tribes, which had specific leaders rather than egalitarian bands. To Barnes, this meant that the methods people used to explain happenings in the natural world went from primary operational stage to concrete operational stage. It is somewhat conjectural to state that by MHC standards this would probably turn out to be a shift from Concrete Stage 8 to Abstract Stage 9, because there has yet to be a detailed study on tribal organization and philosophy using the MHC. Second, with the advent of literacy, classical culture developed, which Barnes notes is a shift from Concrete to Formal. Using the MHC, classical thinkers would probably top out at Formal, Stage 10, but this is where Barnes begins to lose accuracy because of his use of an old stage model which does not include Abstract Stage 9 (Early Formal IIIa in Piaget.) Third, in modern times the scientific method brought about the modern way of life, and as far as Barnes is concerned, the shift is from Formal to Late Formal, which is an understatement at best, as explained below.

table 1

He is correct that there is an increase in the stage of the methods that scientists use in the modern age versus the classical period. However, modern science is aware that it can not validly claim to know the whole, immutable, all encompassing truth, so instead it makes valid testable truth claims that function as though they were perfectly true. Since Barnes is using Piagetian stages, this does not allow him to conceive of the fact that the methods that modern scientific inquiry uses (the aforementioned testable truth claims)would be scored as Metasystematic by a researcher using the model of hierarchical complexity. In the MHC, Formal Operations is Stage 10, and Metasystematic is Stage 12. This is a difference of two standard deviations in practice. It is not that Barnes was incorrect; he was just using an old model and is therefore imprecise. He is right in saying that classical period thought was formal operational in its methods, but he did not have the correct tools to be able to accurately judge the stage of the methods of modern science.

The overall point of the book is not lost simply because some of Barnes’ theories are based on outdated models. To anyone who has knowledge of stages of development of any kind this book would be easily intelligible and valid. At times it can be a little daunting to read about all of the theories of all of the philosophers of antiquity that Barnes goes over in the early chapters. This material is important, however, because each ancient philosopher is like a subject to be stage scored. Each one stands as an example of how a certain stage of thought dominated among thinkers of their time. Overall the book is a good read, and presents a valuable theory. It is right about the import things but it is out of date, so somewhat inaccurate.


  • Commons, M. L., & Richards, F. A. (1984a). A general model of stage theory. In M. L. Commons, F. A. Richards, & C. Armon (Eds.),Beyond formal operations: Vol. 1. Late adolescent and adult cognitive development (pp. 120-140). NY: Praeger. 1981 Harvard
  • Commons, M. L., & Richards, F. A. (1984b). Applying the general stage model. In M. L. Commons, F. A. Richards, & C. Armon (Eds.),Beyond formal operations: Vol. 1. Late adolescent and adult cognitive development (pp. 141-157). NY: Praeger. 1981, Harvard
  • Commons, M. L., & Ross, S. N. (2008). World Futures: Journal of General Evolution 65(1-3),
  • Commons, M. L., & Pekker, A. (2008). Presenting the formal theory of hierarchical complexity. World Futures: Journal of General Evolution 65(1-3), 375-382.
  • Fischer, K. W. (1980). A theory of cognitive development: The control and construction of hierarchies of skills. Psychological Review, 87, 477-531.
  • Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence: an essay on the development of formal operational structures. (A. Parsons & S. Milgram, Trans.). New York: Basic Books (originally published, 1955).
  • Inhelder, B., & Piaget, J. (1958). The growth of logical thinking from childhood to adolescence: an essay on the development of formal operational structures. (A. Parsons & S. Seagrim, Trans.). New York: Basic Books (originally published, 1955).
  • Kegan, R. (1982). The evolving self. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  • Pascual-Leone J. (1970). A mathematical model for the decision rule in Piaget’s developmental stages. Acta Psychologica, 1979, 32, 301-345.
  • Commons M. L., & Bresette, L. M. 2006. Illuminating major creative scientific innovators with postformal stages. In C. Hoare (Ed.),The handbook of adult development and learning (pp. 255-280). New York: Oxford University Press

About the Author

Lucas Commons-Miller obtained his B.A. in Psychology and Anthropology from the University of California at Irvine in 2008. He is currently a researcher at the Dare Institute in Cambridge, where he specializes in applications of the Model of Hierarchical Complexity in domains such as religion, economic behavior and reasoning, comparative cognition, and others. He has presented numerous papers, including a recent study called Development of Atheism, Religiosity, Superstition and Beliefs, presented at the Society for Research in Adult Development. His publications include: Recognizing Specialized Terminology Presented Through Different Modes, Published in the Journal of Psychologyin 2003, Speciation of Superions From Humans: Is Species Cleansing The Ultimate Form of Terror and Genocide? Published in the Journal of Adult Development in 2007, and Genetic Engineering and The Speciation of Superions From Humans, published in the Journal of World Futures: Journal of General Evolution in 2008. The last two are about the possibility of the evolution of a new human species, called Superions.

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