12/21 – Clare W. Graves Revisited: Beyond Value Systems: Biocultural Co-evolution and the Double Helix Nature of Existence

December 2020 / Feature Articles

Said E. Dawlabani

Those who are familiar with Clare W. Graves’ work, know him as the academic behind a more popular conception known as Spiral Dynamics. The theory and the book with the same name were introduced to the world by Don E. Beck, PhD and Christopher C. Cowan in 1996.  While their model preserves much of Graves’ lifelong work on values and change, it’s subsequent interpretations over the decades has watered down the science behind the original conception and silenced its philosophical and anthropological leanings in order to contain it within a narrow field of academic discipline. 

In the late 1970s in what is considered one of his last academic lectures, Graves gave a summation of his lifelong work in the area of human development. At the invitation of Don Beck, who was a tenured professor at North Texas State University at the time, Graves disclosed his still-evolving model of adult human development. It was done away from the scrutiny of the media and the relentless assault of the traditional publish-or-perish ivory towers of academia. In a recording of that lecture that took place on April 17, 1978, which was published partially in his book The Never Ending Quest, (Graves, 2005) he expressed his regrets about what had been published under his name up until that point and called it misleading and outlined the following three reasons for his conclusion:

  1. What has been published from his work on values was a derivative of a much larger framework.
  2. That errors were made in his earlier conceptions as they were still in their developmental phase.
  3. That editors for the publications that requested his work, did not faithfully publish it in the way it was submitted.[1]

At that lecture, Graves proclaimed his readiness to disclose his full model which by then had evolved and renamed The Emergent, Cyclical, Phenomenological, Existential, Double-Helix Levels of Existence Conception of Adult Human Behavior. [2] Graves himself laughed at the lengthy name even when it was known in earlier publications just as the Emergent, Cyclical, Levels of Existence Theory, or ECLET for short. In many of his recorded appearances at academic conferences, after stating the name of his model, Graves paused halfway through it for dramatic effect. At the end, he would wait for the audience’s laughter to dissipate then say “I’m sorry I have to call it that because it is all that.”

In defending his latest theoretical conception, Graves offered his views on competing developmental models he studied throughout his career. From the psychoanalysts, the behavioralists and humanists to the hierarchical model of his friend and colleague Abraham Maslow. In that lecture and the corresponding transcription in The Never Ending Quest (NEQ), Graves, for the first time, compares his work to two additional academics who helped him differentiate his model, but did not come from the field of developmental psychology in the classical sense. The first was John Stambaugh, a professor of early Christianity and Greco-Roman religions. Graves summarized Stambaugh’s views on the arc of human history as pessimistic due to their non-evolutionary, cyclical nature that ebbs and flows but always ends up where it started from; in dependency and bondage. [3] The second academic that Graves compared his work to was philosopher Radoslav Tsanoff. Graves associated his lifelong findings with a summary statement from Tsanoff’s earlier work. Here’s the quote that captured his intuitive and philosophical side which has since been pacified in much of what has been published about his work: 

“The Twilight in which we seem to be moving today is the twilight not before night, but before dawn: that we are reaching the end of the dark ages of materialism, that the modern mind without surrendering the tools by which it has achieved its mastery of material nature, will now more fully vindicate its own self-recognition and achieve self-mastery and a more human life individual and social.” [4]

Graves, who believed in the sciences, often sought solace in the humanities when academics were critical of the developmental nature of his work and when new data rendered some of his old findings incomplete. While his research subjects helped him develop the hierarchical nature of human development, he theorized that societies and their institutions will eventually become organized in accordance with the predominant psychosocial systems of their citizens. [5] That assertion required the departure from developmental models that rely strictly on sterile science and the embrace of the humanities. 

Graves extracted Tsanoff’s saying from a 1942 book by him entitled The Moral Ideals of Our Civilization, which according to a review by Paul Stanley of the Princeton Theological Seminary is “a complete history of ethics that explores the moral ideals of humanity from Greco-Roman times all the way to contemporary issues on pragmatism and values theory.” [6] Tsanoff was a prolific author and professor emeritus of philosophy at Rice University. In a biographical sketch from that institution, one can tell how Graves might have drawn inspiration from Tsanoff’s lifelong work and his historic views on the evolution of Western civilization, its culture and academic institutions. In one prominent sketch, Tsanoff contrasts the church’s role in medieval universities with modern non-religious institutions of higher education that were explicitly ordered under the sciences and the humanities where the study of facts provided undogmatic knowledge of the world around us and of ourselves. [7] To Graves, this was a confirmation that societies organize around the psychosocial system he identified in his research. More specific to Tsanoff’s observation, it represented the parallels between an adult’s transition from the dogmatic, 4th level of biopsychosocial systems development designated as DQ-Blue in figure 1 below which thought in absolutistic terms, to the 5th level system designated ER-Orange that thought in scientific, multiplistic and pragmatic terms. 

Much of Graves’ lifelong research is chronicled in his book The Never Ending Quest, which was edited and published posthumously by Christopher Cowan and Natasha Todorovic in 2005. Graves was a scientist and a polymath and in much of his later work, he disclosed his leaning towards other diverse disciplines as a way to capture the limitation of most developmental models. His theory remains, as the title of his book suggests, a continuously evolving set of works that always asked the general existential question: “What is adult human development all about?” In justifying its last comparison to Tsanoff’s, Graves vindicated his conclusion with the following statement:

“The answer from my data is quite clear. Tsanoff’s hope is much closer to the facts of human development than all the others are. His hope, according to my data is not a futile hope. It is an overwhelming probability… I say this because the data from my studies has forced me to this conclusion.” [8]

Tsanoff and the field of philosophy represent one academic area among a handful of others outside the field of developmental psychology from which Graves drew inspiration in order to augment his views. In addition to his philosophical leanings into ethics and values, Graves’ last addition of phenomenology to the title of his theory is worthy of further inquiry.  Phenomenology is primarily concerned with the systematic study of the structures of experience and consciousness. According to some critics the discipline lacks a thematic focus since it’s a style of thought that is open, ever-renewing and continuously produces different results that defy an undeviating definition. [9] In examining Graves’ research, his writings and transcripts of his lectures, there seems to be little evidence indicating his specific embrace of this field of study, especially the subjective observation of consciousness. In conversations with Beck on this matter, he had told me that Graves’ only connection to the field of phenomenology was in his observation of evolutionary patterns, i.e., experience in his research that repeated in other observable fields. In drawing phenomenological comparisons, Graves pointed to human development being an ever-renewing and evolving occurrence similar to experiences observed in the natural world. According to Beck, Graves was searching for one word to describe the open-ended patterns that capture the never-ending nature of psychosocial development he observed over the years and found phenomenology to be the most befitting.

The Double Helix Revolution

The one area that is commonly overlooked in Graves’ work is the double helix conception of the model, which keeps it on the cutting edge of evolutionary thinking. For the community of ECLET and Spiral Dynamics practitioners the understanding of this aspect of the model is at the heart of providing solutions to the challenges that face individuals, organizations and entire societies. It is the field of genetics which is grounded in scientific research that Graves drew most phenomenological comparison to in order to augment his model. At the height of his career the world was abuzz with the discovery by scientists Francis Crick and James Watson of the double helix structure of DNA and the protein couplings that form the basic building blocks of life that determine the genetic code of a living cell, and therefore all living organisms and possibly our entire biosphere. Graves wasn’t the only researcher who saw the double helix nature of the evolutionary process as a phenomenological pattern. This scientific breakthrough gave impetus to many areas of study in both the sciences and the humanities that sought to compare coupling patterns in genetics to those observed in culture and human interactions. For the first time in over a century, research into the double-helix nature of most evolutionary processes began to render Darwin’s view on evolution and natural selection only partially true. The new science formed a foundation from which evolutionary biologists, sociologists and anthropologists began to put forth new theories on how culture shapes biology and how biology in turn shapes culture in a dynamic interaction.  

Biocultural Anthropology and Dual Inheritance Theory

One of the most prominent non-genetic double helix conceptions to gain popularity in the twentieth century was the Dual Inheritance Theory (DIT), which was developed in the late 1960s through the early 1980s. This was the timeframe during which Graves developed much of his model. DIT is a derivative of a far wider and older area of study called biocultural anthropology, which is primarily defined by the scientific exploration of the relationships between human biology and culture. Instead of looking for the underlying biological roots of human behavior, biocultural anthropology attempts to understand how culture affects our biological capacities and limitations. [10] According to critics, the field failed to gain much academic traction due to the imposition of the wider field of anthropology and its subspecialties on the biological and cultural subfields without adding value, and in some cases being destructive to the advancement of each subfield. 

Things began to change after World War II as the world turned its attention to understanding the role culture plays in shaping human biology, which eventually lead to the development of Dual Inheritance Theory. DIT explains how human behavior is a product of two different and interacting evolutionary processes: genetic evolution and cultural evolution. The theory puts forth the idea that genes and culture continually interact in a feedback loop, and that changes in genes can lead to changes in culture which can then influence genetic selection, and vice versa. [11] The model further recognizes that genetic evolution has endowed the human species with a parallel evolutionary process of cultural evolution, which supports Graves’ underpinnings for his model being an interactive bio-psycho-social model. A 2007 paper by anthropologists Joseph Henrich and Richard McElreath further augments Graves’ claims by outlining DIT’s three main characteristics that emerged from their research: 

  1. Cultural adaptations arise from genetically evolved psychological adaptations for acquiring ideas, beliefs, values, practices, and mental models from other individuals by observation and inference.
  2. Our cultural learning mechanisms give rise to a robust second system of inheritance (cultural evolution) that operates by different transmission rules than genetic inheritance.
  3. The second system of inheritance created by cultural evolution can alter both the social and physical environments faced by evolving genes, leading to a process termed culture-gene coevolution. [12]

One of the most popular areas of study today that brought forth DIT into the mainstream is the area of memetics. The term was originally coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins introduced the term meme as a unit of human cultural evolution similar to the gene, suggesting that such “selfish” replication may also model human culture. It is from Dawkins’ work that Beck & Cowan refined Graves’ eight known levels of existence into value memes and made use of Dawkins’ assertions to further classify the eight levels into meta-memes giving Spiral Dynamics the global popularity it enjoys. In 2017, on the 30th anniversary of the publication of Dawkins’ book, a British Royal Society poll chose it as the most influential science book of all time. [13] Today, research using co-evolutionary processes such as epigenetics and social psychology continue to verify the coevolutionary nature of human development and the bio-psycho-social conception that Graves began to uncover over five decades ago.

Building Blocks and the DNA Sequencing of Cells and Cultures

While the study of DNA is not the focus of this piece, it is essential to point out the similarities between the basic structure of life at the microscopic-genetic level and the basic structure of the human evolutionary process at the meso and macro levels as seen by Graves. Essential to the evolutionary mechanisms of his framework are the details inherent in the double helix properties of his research, which he frequently referred to as the underlying neurostructural, biochemical, life problem

The Two Helical Structures
Here are the essential comparisons between Graves’ model and the Watson-Crick model: Just as a DNA strand is made up of two helical RNA strands that bond certain proteins to each other, so does Graves’ double helix conception. Think of how important the proper coupling of the A-T and the G-C proteins in DNA sequencing is to overall health. It is in that natural chemical coupling that the more important base pair is formed. It is also in the sequence in which it appears on the DNA Ladder (labeled as the two backbones in Figure 2) that determines healthy cells, and healthy life forms. The A-T G-C coupling is called the base pair rule. A mispairing of these proteins is often responsible for disease and mutation. In Graves’ model the two helices or backbones have different names, but serve the same purpose in their coming together to form the essential base pairs and the sequences that define the overall psychosocial health of a person, an organization or a culture. Just like mispairing in real DNA and improper sequencing along the ladder points to possible problems in the health of a living organism, Graves’ tells us that when the same happens in his model, it results in misalignment that is responsible for much of the problems we see in the psychosocial health of individuals, organizations and cultures.

Graves labeled the different bases (as in single proteins, A, T, G, and C) on the first strand with the first half of the Alphabet. The bases on the second strand were labeled with the second half of the Alphabet (Figure 3). The first strand in Graves’ double helix model is called Existential Problems, which represents the different challenges arising from the multitude of habitats in which we reside. Beck & Cowan called it Life Conditions, or LCs for short. They range from situational, social, political and environmental concerns and whatever else lies in the milieu that needs to be solved. One must not confuse Existential Problems with difficulties, troubles and other negative connotations. Instead, one should think of them as life equations, in the form of mathematical problems that need to be solved. If the world is thus, then appropriate behavior is so. These problems can be positive, negative, or neutral; what they represent are new factors and combinatorials in the equation of living. In this sense, problems are growth-producing; they are not necessarily negative. [14]

The second strand appears as we set out to solve our Existential Problems. That’s when we activate what Graves called the Neuropsychological Systems within us. Beck & Cowan called it the Complex Adaptive Intelligence, AI, for short. It is in the coming together of the two strands that follow the base pair rule that we solve most of our problems and attain higher levels of psychosocial health. Graves’ use of neuropsychological systems could be further broken down to neurobiology and psychology. The simplest way to understand Graves’ conceptualization today is to think of neurobiology as the operating system in a computer (hardware/brain), which contains a hierarchically-ordered set of circuit boards representing all the known stages of development which remain dormant until triggered by the quest to solve the corresponding Existential Problems that lie in the milieu. Each circuit board on the hierarchy, is the motherboard for all the lower circuit boards below it. Sometimes, due to neurological diseases that are either environmental or hereditary, the operating system/neurobiology itself may not have the circuitry that allows an individual to emerge to higher levels of psychosocial health in the hierarchy. 

The psychology in this example represents the different programs (software/mind) that become activated by the circuits in response to environmental stimuli. These hieratically ordered programs, once activated, spend an undetermined amount of time solving problems that are proprietary to that particular circuit design or level of existence. As life presents us with more complex problems, and the mind exhausts the existing circuitry and runs out of tools to solve problems of higher order, it recalibrates to the next level in the hierarchy integrating all the previously activated circuit boards/programs or psychosocial levels attained. This is the normal coevolutionary process along the spiral and the proper coupling of LCs to AIs is at the heart of healthy emergence. Base pair coupling results in what Beck & Cowan call the “brightening” or the healthy expression of that specific stage of development and its sequential order on the spiral. It is also in the failure of that coupling that many psychosocial problems arise, what Beck & Cowan referred to as the “dulling”, or “dimming”, which is also referred to as the unhealthy expression of a certain level that could affect the entire sequence in the developmental chain. 

Graves often referred to the neurobiology as “the lottery of the brain,” that an individual has little control over. It is a determining factor on how far up the hierarchy an individual can move. But the movement to higher levels even in a person with a healthy brain can still be limited by psychological and social factors whether they’re imposed externally or adopted voluntarily. In the hardware-software, neurobiology-mind example, think of a person or a culture that has the full wiring to activate all of Graves’ eight levels, but finds happiness and balance at a certain level that is wired for a certain circuitry and there is no environmental pressure for him/her to recalibrate at a higher level. People and cultures under these circumstances live entire lives in such fashion. Think of a religious person who thinks in the fourth level way, dogmatic and absolutistic who still leads a somewhat normal life. Or a more common cultural example, think of a person with healthy neurobiology living in a repressive culture or in a dictatorship where the environment remains in a repressed form of the BO-Purple and CP-Red stages that prevent him or her from ascending to higher levels on the hierarchy.   

According to Graves, it is in our fuller knowledge, and in the depth and the breadth of the understanding of our Existential Problems, or LCs that a broader spectrum of our dormant Neuropsychological Systems, or AI is awakened. As that particular level of psychological development evolves it becomes more resilient through trial and error as it interacts with LCs and imbeds itself in our collective knowledge and our institutions which form the psychosocial foundation for that specific level of development and in theory, all the levels that came before it at the personal, organizational and cultural levels. This is the complexity that lies within all evolutionary systems that are made more complex when viewed from the co-evolutionary nature of the double helix. It is a psychosocial petri dish that is a continuous hot mess of ideas with viruses, diseases, genes, memes, and meta-memes that are constantly doing battle that defy linearity. In most cases only the fittest of these mutations, ideas and values survive, and movement to higher levels of existence is not always guaranteed. 

The Sequential Order and the Base Pair Rule

It is in the all-important A-T, G-C base pairing and their respective sequence on the DNA ladder that genetic material is processed and biological health is defined. Except the DNA of Graves’ psychosocial development has a total of eight known couplings along the two strands of the ladder that determine healthy levels of development (see Fig. 3). They are as follows: A-N, B-O, C-P, D-Q, E-R, F-S, G-T and H-U.  Under ideal circumstances, the leading-edge AI of a certain person, regardless of how high it is strand, must be able to tap into the appropriate lower bases that are no more than one to one-half stage above where LCs are in order to provide effective solutions. Anything coming from a higher AI base constitutes a mismatch, or violation of this base pair rule that results in less favorable psychosocial outcomes. According to Graves’ model, most of our problems today are a product of AI-LC mismatches. An effective leader or powerbroker in the world today is someone who on his or her developmental journey includes a healthy version of their previous stages of development and uses them as a source for real solutions. As a general rule development must be sequential and people and cultures cannot skip a developmental stage. Those that do, will develop incomplete or unhealthy views of the skipped stages resulting in less than optimum overall psychosocial health. 

A simple real-world example of the double helix mismatch will be a Vice President of a Fortune 500 company attempting to perform data entry tasks. Unless he/she had previously developed and retained those skills and can tap into them, the pairing of AI to LC will be less than optimum. The retention of previous stages of development is a Gravesian concept called the healthy subordination of lower systems, and what Beck calls transcendence and inclusion. This is the healthy expression of all the activated systems along the Spiral. When we don’t observe the base pair rule and absent the inclusion of lower systems, problems will continue to exist along the entire double helix. As an example, if solutions to a problem are being offered exclusively from the R or S bases on the AI strand to solve B or C problems on the LC strand, they will fall short of providing healthy long-term results. If a person has included his or her previous stages of development, his/her own B-O and C-P stages will brighten to more fully understand the problems and offer lasting solutions. 

Individuals who subordinate the healthy version of several earlier stages and can tap into them as needed are called Integral Design Architects. In the real world, less than 5% of leaders have this spectrum of awareness. However, effective leadership can still come from those who have outgrown a specific stage of development and have remained within close proximity to it. They are the ones who are most equipped to help those who are fully immersed in it. Beck and Cowan call them Spiral Wizards, who through trial and error, know which tools work and which don’t. More importantly they know where, when, why and how the dysfunction in the current system occurred and, since they are seeking entry into the next stage of development, they know which tools are the right fit and need to be developed by the next system and which to use from previous systems in order for the healthy evolution along the spiral to continue. 

Think of a reformed gang member who turns his attention to help others leave the gang life behind. He or she is what is called a Red Wizard who has exited the C-P Red system and is at the entry stages of the DQ Blue system. Unlike the traditional law enforcement in the Blue system such as the police and the courts, the gang member entering Blue has the Red experience fresh in his/her mind and knows what motivates gang members and how to diffuse and redirect that motivation through a healthy expression of the CP-Red system. He/she also knows the language that speaks effectively to them without appearing as a threat from the traditional law enforcement community. The importance of Spiral Wizardry at systems transition stages is often overlooked, but remains a crucial element in sequential change and overall healthy design in organizations and culture. 

The problem of high intelligence. If the position on the AI strand in the model is several bases higher than where the LC position is, (out of sequence due to overqualification) it serves only as an inspiration for future generations and remains in the philosophical and theoretical realms that inform a small segment of society and maybe a few academics and think tanks. Many scientists, philosophers and poets past and present are examples of individuals who possess high intelligence on the AI strand. Most of their teachings however, remain on the margins of the petri dish of co-evolution waiting for the LC position to rise and meet the base pair rule. In many cases the teachings either fail to reflect in wider evolutionary change, or emerge in mutated forms due to the evolutionary battles that are still taking place in the lower systems that meet the base pair rule. A good example of a healthy mutation in this scenario comes from the Sufi poet Rumi who exhibited U levels of intelligence in the thirteenth century. However, the base pair that defined the culture at the time was BO-Purple. The net effect of his teachings on society during his time were a small enlightened tribe contained within Konya, Turkey and other small communities to which he traveled. Today, Rumi’s wisdom has grown to influence many around the world who are seeking the spiritual enlightenment that comes with the quest towards the U base on the AI strand as the gap between his teachings and the world’s stages of development keep getting narrower. Still, there is no society today that is organized in a H-U fashion nor would there be any time soon.  

The Age of Enlightenment also ushered is a new set of problems for cultures in the lower systems on Graves’ double helix. The era produced influential thinkers who possessed high AI in modern sociology, economics, politics and the sciences from the R and the S bases on the AI strand respectively. The best real-life examples of this phenomenon from history is the ideology of Capitalism that comes from the R base on the AI strand with Western content. When used in cultures that are a mix of B-O Purple, C-P Red and doctrinaire D-Q Blue such as the Middle East & China, the misalignment creates pathologies that affect the normal evolutionary trajectory of people organizations and cultures. While the Middle East today has some of the world’s wealthiest people in it, it’s widest measure of productive output, places it in the bottom fifth of the world’s poorest regions. [15] Our research at the Center for Human Emergence Middle East revealed this to be primarily due to the absence of a region-wide culture organized under the modern D-Q Blue system that is responsible for creating modern institutions vested in equality, human rights and the rule of law. More importantly, the region lacks ER-Orange capacities for science and research and development, the core ingredients that ensure a future of innovation and a diverse economy beyond the age of oil.  

Similarly, pathologies due to double helix misalignment are very prevalent in places like China. The country which is home to 1.4 Billion people became the world’s second largest economy in a short period of time however it remains home to the worst violations of human rights, from mass executions and repression of free speech to incarcerations and religious persecution. [16] A recent assessment of Chinese culture by a Spiral Dynamics colleague revealed that its primary presence is in the B-O Purple and C-P Red systems, and while it engages in trade, commerce and development, which are the hallmark of a the ER-Orange system, its core motivation is CP-Red in a culture that remains predominantly in BO-Purple, with an incompatible or false DQ-Blue ideology based in communism.   

Socialism is equally responsible for repression and bloodshed due to double helix misalignment in some parts of the world. The philosophy comes from the F base of Western AI, and some of its end goals align with the Marxist-Leninist ideology that seeks the social ownership of the means of production and a world that is free of religious dogma, has no borders and no class hierarchy. [17] When those ideals are applied in countries that have remained primarily in BO-Purple and CP-Red, the outcome is chaos, conflict and civil war. This double helix misalignment is a major factor in the collapse of the Soviet Union. It remains a driving force today in South America where the ideology was spread by the followers of Che Guevara several decades ago in order to free the region from its colonial past. What the South American revolutionaries underestimated is their countries’ own capacities to develop resilient DQ institutions beyond the church and a diverse ER-Orange system that together pave the way towards a culture organized under the FS-Green system. 

The downfall of the Soviet Union and the descent of many South American countries into dictatorships is what we call Spiral collapse due to severe misalignment that can set back a region for decades, if not centuries. As stated earlier, under Graves’ model a person or a culture cannot skip a developmental stage. The ones that do will have that stage become part of a repressed shadow individually or collectively and likely to reappear as fate once Spiral realignment is done properly. Today, the leader of the Marxist-style Sandinista Revolution, Daniel Ortega is the president of Nicaragua who had to learn the lesson of Spiral misalignment the hard way. After a successful revolution and seeing his country go through decades of poverty, bloodshed and social unrest, he has turned to the very institutions he and his revolutionaries fought against to save his country. After more than a decade in office he reluctantly re-embraced the return of the Catholic church and the reinstitution of pro-business policies. The former being entry stages into the DQ-Blue system, the latter the entry stages into the ER Orange system. 

A Future Full of Double Helix Misalignments

Today we face two of the biggest existential problems that will determine the fate of humanity and the future of our planet. They both need solutions that come from the T and the U bases on the AI strand. Both bases remain greatly dormant as the world’s leading edge psychosocial capacities are spent on solving the problem somewhere between our exit stages of ER-Orange and the maturity stages of the FS Green system (See figure 4). The biggest challenge we face is how do we expedite the evolutionary process to free up the AI strand when we live in a world where less than 7% of people on the planet think from the T base and less than 1 % from the U base. The first challenge that requires T intelligence is the worldwide disruption being caused by the digital age. The second, requiring U intelligence is the issue of climate change. These challenges are easier understood when they are defined from a double helix misalignment perspective. 

  1. The Global Digital Dilemma. The digital age was envisioned primarily from the S base on the AI strand on the double helix. I argue in my book MEMEnomics that its initial purpose, according to the engineers who pioneered the world wide web protocols was to democratize information and resources. [18] This was a noble goal that was intended to disrupt the ER Orange system and the corrosive toll it had taken on society and economic equality. As an unintended consequence, what it has done, is it removed the physical barriers needed for hierarchical stage development. As the digital age becomes an increasingly indispensable part of our lives, we continue to ignore the fact that the physical world moves at a considerably slower pace than the digital world. While Graves argues that our brain has remained somewhat the same throughout human history, according to Moore’s Law the disruption and the removal of physical barriers coming from the digital age, moves at warp speed that doubles every 18-24 months and restructures everything in its path. Since we cannot slow down technology, the challenge going forward is how do we accelerate psychosocial capacities on the AI strand in individuals, institutions and societies and make them adaptable to the continuous change that comes from this exogenous phenomenon that is disrupting the totality of life at every level of development. 

    By removing the physical structures that defined each developmental stage the digital revolution has allowed human groupings and entire societies to bypass the necessary stages of development without necessarily having the prerequisite psychosocial capacities to move up the hierarchy. While this democratization can be seen as a positive improvement in many ways, the absence of structures that existed in the physical world can have a drastic negative effect on our developmental process. The nature of technology today has very few mechanisms that prevent unhealthy activities along the entire hierarchy. It disproportionally empowers the unhealthy expression of the lower systems like CP-Red, ideological and theocratic DQ-Blue and the unhealthy expression of ER-Orange, while falsely giving those in the FS stage a sense of humanitarian harmony. It enables all the unhealthy expressions to use the existing technological infrastructure to further destabilize the world. It is too early to tell if engineers who think from the T base on the AI strand can recreate, in the digital world, the structures that can pacify and deflect the unhealthy expressions that have run amuck due to the digital disruption and make digital intelligence subordinate to human wisdom.  
  2. Climate Change. In July 2019, at a gathering of global leaders and change agents looking to define the next economic and financial system, I made my first public case for why we need to expedite our psychosocial capacities and evolve our institutions to meet the daunting challenge of climate change. If we are to view human history from the T and U bases on the AI strand, we come face to face with the damage we have caused our planet and the challenges we must overcome in addressing them. In our misguided economic activities that sought the ER-Orange lifestyle of endless consumption to the exclusion of everything else, we have triggered the last known base on the LCs strand of the double helix, the H problems of existence. To effectively resolve issues of climate change, we need global cooperation and calls for the awakening of the highest base on the AI strand, the U base that informs world leaders and institutions that are capable of designing a sustainable world organized under the values of the HU stage of development.

The graph in figure 4 above demonstrates in no uncertain terms what Graves calls the gap and the chasm we face in taking on the challenges of the future. What he called the momentous leap into the G-T and H-U levels of development will be our greatest challenge that expands our psychosocial capacities in exponential ways which are needed to effectively address a future full of existential issues. 


In characterizing his life-long work as a never-ending quest, Graves cast forth an open-ended model defined by our resilient abilities to solve our existential problems. The co-evolutionary, double helix nature of existence is one the best examples of the use of phenomenology that keeps his model current and helps us understand the complexity of what human nature is all about. It asks the continuously evolving existential questions that come from different realms and areas of studies. It taps into many fields in the sciences and the humanities to give us a whole systems perspective on the challenges we face. 

Today, fields of studies that are built on the double helix conception and coevolutionary theories are no longer limited to bio-cultural evolution and the structure of DNA. Two of these models that are on the cutting edge of research come to mind. The first is from the field of epigenetics which shows yet another double helix coevolutionary phenomenon that proves how environmental factors affect the evolution of cells at the molecular level. The second model addresses the biggest existential problem we face today, climate change and it points to an entirely different coevolutionary process. It’s Gaia Theory, one of the largest coevolutionary models that proposes how our biosphere evolves and adapts. The framework goes beyond biocultural coevolution and suggests that all life forms on our planet interact with their inorganic surroundings in a synergistic, self-regulating way to form one of the largest complex systems we will ever be tasked to understand. 

If Graves were alive today, he would continue to augment his model with current content that defines the increasing complexity on the LC strand and to classify the widening psychosocial space on the AI strand, depicting the coevolutionary nature of existence. The Gravesian simplicity the lies beyond today’s complexity is this: Our problems are triggering the dormant neuropsychological systems that Graves identified decades ago. His own awareness from the T and U bases on the AI strand shine through in his writings and his lectures. It enabled him to sound the alarm back in the 1970s on the ecological degradation we were inflicting on our planet. Still, as his own research shows, he remained the eternal optimist who believed that the twilight in which we are moving today is the twilight not before darkness, but before dawn.


  1. Clare W. Graves, “Levels of Complexity by Clare W. Graves,” April 17th 1978, track 1, The Spiral Dynamics Group, Inc. 1978, compact disc.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Clare W. Graves, The Never Ending Quest, eds. Christopher Cowan and Natasha Todorovic (Santa Barbara, CA: ECLET Publishing, 2005), 53. 
  4. Ibid.
  5.  Clare W. Graves, “Up the Existential Ladder,” video interview conducted by Don E. Beck and Christopher C. Cowan, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tt3Uk1f3y_U&t=301s Retrieved November 5, 2020.
  6.  SAGE journals Online. Theology Today, https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/004057364600200416     Retrieved November 5, 2020.
  7.  The Cornerstone, The Newsletter of the Rice Historical Society Online.  http://ricehistoricalsociety.org/images/cornerstones/RiceCornerstoneSummer2006.pdf   Retrieved November 5, 2020.
  8.  Graves. Levels of Complexity. 
  9.  Farina, Gabriella (2014) Some reflections on the phenomenological method. Dialogues in Philosophy, Mental and Neuro Sciences, 7(2):50-62.http://www.crossingdialogues.com/Ms-A14-07.htm Retrieved November 5, 2020. 
  10.  “Principles of Biocultural Anthropology”spot.colorado.edu. Archived from the original on 2018-07-02. Retrieved 2016-10-13.
  11.  Goodman, Alan H.; Thomas L. Leatherman, eds. (1998). Building A New Biocultural Synthesis.  University of Michigan Press.
  12.  McElreath, R.; Henrich, J. (2007). “Dual inheritance theory: the evolution of human cultural capacities and cultural evolution” (PDF). In R. Dunbar and L. Barrett (ed.). Oxford Handbook of Evolutionary Psychology. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Retrieved November 26, 2020. 
  13.   Armistead, Claire. (2017, July 20). The Guardian. Retrieved November 28, 2020.  https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2017/jul/20/dawkins-sees-off-darwin-in-vote-for-most-influential-science-book 
  14.  Christopher Cowan and Natasha Todorovic, “Frequently Asked Questions.” Spiral Dynamics Online. Retrieved October 23, 2020; http://www.spiral-dynamics.com/faq_overall.htm#02 
  15.  The World Bank, Current GDP Middle East and North Africa, https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD?locations=ZQ Retrieved November 30, 2020. 
  16.  Amnesty International, China 2019, https://www.amnesty.org/en/countries/asia-and-the-pacific/china/report-china/ Retrieved November 30, 2020. 
  17.  Socialism, Wikipedia,  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Socialism  Retrieved November 30,2020. 
  18.  Said E. Dawlabani, Memenomics: The Next Generation Economic System (New York: Select Books 2013), 158-164.
  19.  Dawlabani, Said “Economic Systems and the Emerging Values of Humanity.” YouTube video, 33:36. April 9, 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1MBqclbdZvk&t=279s 

About the Author

Said E. Dawlabani is a leading authority on the application of value systems to large scale change. A writer and public speaker specializing in the Gravesian approach to psychosocial development and evolutionary systems. He was named one of the world’s boldest thought leaders in 2019. The author of MEMEnomics, The Next-Generation Economic System. His writings in the field of finance have been compared to those of Warren Buffet and Ray Dalio. His work has been translated to Korean, Mandarin, German, Spanish, Portuguese and Russian. He has given keynote speeches on sustainable and regenerative economics in many parts of the world. Since 2018 he has turned his attention to the application of the Gravesian model to climate change and the economics of the Anthropocene.

Dawlabani is the founder of The Memenomics Group. Since 2004, he has worked closely with renowned geopolitical adviser Dr. Don E. Beck, Graves’ successor and one of the architects behind South Africa’s transition from Apartheid and co-author of Spiral Dynamics, the most authoritative theory on value systems and change. Before teaming up with Beck, Dawlabani had a prominent career in the real estate industry.

He is a prolific blogger and a contributor to The Huffington Post, Medium, the Integral Leadership Review, Kosmos Journal and other publications. His work is featured in the Leader to Leader Journal, Newsweek and The Christian Science Monitor and on NPR, PRN, and Voice of America.
Dawlabani is the cofounder, COO and past member of the Board of Directors of The Center for Human Emergence Middle East, a think tank that frames political and economic issues facing the region through the prism of value systems. His past activities include being a guest speaker on the topic of transformational leadership at the Adizes Graduate School in Santa Barbara, and the University of Virginia.

2 thoughts on “12/21 – Clare W. Graves Revisited: Beyond Value Systems: Biocultural Co-evolution and the Double Helix Nature of Existence

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *