Spiral Dynamics: A foolish alternative theory about human evolution

Pixabay Gerd Altmann

In his book “A Skeptic’s HR Dictionary” Patrick Vermeren debunks numerous myths related to the field of Human Resources (HR). In over one thousand pages, he explains why HR managers so often stick to nonsense theories and models. In his guest contribution he writes about the concept of Spiral Dynamics.

I first heard of Spiral Dynamics and Integral Theory when I was on a business trip in Australia. I couldn’t believe my ears and sincerely hoped they would never become popular in Europe. To my surprise, however, a fellow Belgian, Frederic Laloux, brought the theory to Europe. His book Reinventing Organizations was picked up and even promoted by business schools (shame on them), the press, and many gullible people in the HR community.

You probably never heard of Clare W. Graves (1914–1986). He was an American psychologist who proposed a theory in 1966 and 1970. He speculated about the ‘new’ future of humans and 8 chronological ‘levels of human existence’ (Graves, 1970): automatic (physiological stability), tribalistic (relative safety), egocentric (self-awareness), saintly (everlasting peace of mind), materialistic (conquering the physical universe), sociocentric (living with the human element), cognitive (restoring viability to a disordered world), and experientialistic (accepting existential dichotomies). He thought moral and ethical decline was the result of clinging to ‘wrong existential values’ in times of ‘deep change.’ According to Graves, the human species would be liberated of its egoistical needs, and limits would be placed on population growth and energy consumption. Prejudice, superstition, religious rules, and fear of dying would entirely disappear.

According to his speculations, as a result of reaching the provisionally ultimate level, we will all abandon competition and our ego-motives. On the contrary, we will become very communal and loving and our organizations will become self-organizing. His theory was further developed by Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, two students of Graves. According to the theory, humans will soon reach a new stage (teal) in our evolution as a species.

Theoretically implausible

In my book, I used a theoretical-empirical grid to demarcate between the good, the bad, and the pseudo. I will briefly explain the criteria I described at length in my book. In this grid, the horizontal axis forms a gradual spectrum with bad theory at one end and ‘sound theory’ at the opposite end. I used a score ranging from -6 to +6. -6 is the ultimate proof that a theory ‘sucks’: Proponents employ a last-ditch defensive claim such as ‘the current scientific method fails’. Another example: -4 is the score given to a theory because it contradicts physics, chemistry or biology and is thus impossible. At the other end of the pole, +5 implies that there are many convergent findings from different areas of research. +6 is given to a theory on which the body of top experts agree: they regard the theory to be proven beyond reasonable doubt (this is the level of Darwinian evolution theory and plate tectonics).

Spiral Dynamics deserved the score of -6 because the theory contradicts physics and biology, and the proponents try to give the impression of it being science-based, and do not accept the scientific method. The claim that we will be the first species to let go of our competitive nature is as unsubstantiated as it is ridiculous. Only if you were to reject all knowledge about evolution collected since Charles Darwin, could you believe such utter nonsense.

I will now highlight the main problems with the theory. The biggest problem of course is its enormous deviation from the meta-theory of evolution of life on the planet and the many sub-theories. The dates for the different levels of existence or of consciousness as the proponents alternatively write, are totally off the mark. There are many trustworthy sources you can consult to give you an idea of the right periods in evolution, take evolutionary biology for example. Thanks to DNA analysis, scientists can trace back when traits evolved in a population. According to Grave’s theory, human consciousness levels (or maturity levels as some call it) evolve at an ever-increasing speed: it takes only 20 years to evolve from yellow to turquoise:

  • Beige is the “savanna grasslands” and they date it back to 100,000 years BC.
  • Purple is “the royal color of tribal chiefs and monarchs”; 50,000 years BC.
  • Red is “the hot blooded emotions and the ‘fire in your eyes’”; 7000 years BC.
  • Blue is “the sky, the heavens, and the True (blue) believer”; 3000 years BC.
  • Orange is “radiating energy of steel in an industrial furnace”; 1000 AD or 600 AD.
  • Green is “green politics, forests and ecological consciousness”;
  • Yellow is the “solar power and alternative technologies”;
  • Turquoise is “the color of oceans and Earth as viewed from space”;
  • Coral is the “life deep within the seas.” (all quotes from 1996, p. 67)

The original letter-coding that Graves used for the different levels of development was replaced by a color code. It was ‘invented’ in the mid-1970s by two students of Graves; Don Beck and Christopher (Chris) Cowan. Each color represents a “stage of consciousness” (p. 305) in human life. Beck and Cowan used a color “for simplicity (1996, p. 67) and as “memory aids,(p. 67) and added the evolutionary period. They made sure not to use colors from the rainbow (for whatever reason that might be). Later, Cowan wrote that he regretted ever having invented the color codes. He admitted it only took him fifteen minutes to think of them. He eventually also distanced himself from Ken Wilber and Don Beck. Don Beck had a different view of where the colors idea came from: “Graham, there is no „cult“ of any type; colors were first used in South Africa as a short hand code to replace skin pigmentation;  there aren’t types of people; these complex adaptive intelligences spring from the interaction of humans with Life Conditions rather than a Calvinistic, pre-determined flow” (Wilson, 2008). So these colors are neither mystical nor meaningful. They are just, well… random colors added to a foolish theory.

There is also a metaphysical level in this theory. In the FAQ section of the Spiral Dynamics website (The FAQ section now seems to have been replaced by an “Advanced Resources Library” for which you must sign up to access. I made a copy of the FAQ section and have saved a PDF file) we read the following:

“Some users also feel it is appropriate to add spiritual to make the term bio-psycho-socio-spiritual systems since they view the metaphysical as another distinct aspect of human nature rather than being integrated among the others. It is an almost Cartesian separation that promotes a distinction between material and spiritual, whereas Graves’s view was that the spiritual is wrapped within the systems and their worldviews and expressed through them as biopsychosocial systems. In fact, his view was that the need to name a higher power or find a directive design would fade as compassion and comprehending the whole living system as an interactive mind/brain field emerges” (November 15, 2015).

Other ‘theories’ drawing heavily on Graves’ model

In my book, I referred to other theories drawing on Graves’ ideas. Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory draws heavily on Graves’ work, but goes a step further with the addition of its own ‘flavor.’ Wilber repeatedly wrote that the scientific method did not suffice, and he rejected some of the central tenets of the theorem of evolution. His theory is close to creationism and he also relied heavily on Hindu mystics such as Ramana Maharshi. In my book I described this as ancient bullshit.

Frederic Laloux’s book Reinventing Organizations is entirely based on Integral Theory and the theories of Clare Graves. He also claims we really have three brains. I kid you not. He also uses the colors to ‘typecast’ organizations: the mafia, street gangs, and tribal militias are RED organizations, the Catholic Church and public school systems are AMBER (only one stage beyond the mafia!), multinationals are ORANGE, and Southwest Airlines is GREEN. We’ll just have to believe him. What’s more, he writes we are now headed towards “evolutionary-teal, the next stage in human consciousness” (2014, p. 37). He says this is the stage Maslow identified as self-actualizing. He must have never read Maslow’s own comments on his hierarchy of needs, or he might have read how Maslow distanced himself from this hypothesis for the first time in this book.

Data entirely missing

The second axis of the theoretical-empirical grid I used for my evaluation, is the empirical evidence. After one has come up with a theory (consisting of one or more hypotheses), one of course has to carefully investigate whether the theory is wrong or correct. This is preferably done by running an experiment with enough power that it has the potential to confirm or disconfirm/falsify your hypothesis. The strongest evidence of course comes from “Systematic knowledge syntheses ideally combining high internal and external validity” (e.g. Dozois et al., 2014). The empirical evaluation is the vertical axis on my grid. I used a gradual score ranging from -4 to +4. -4 is the ultimate proof that a theory ‘sucks’: Systematic reviews of the empirical evidence refute the theory OR the theory has meanwhile been withdrawn. +4 is deserved when the positive findings have been confirmed through the process of systematic review(s) by the collectivity of international collaboration efforts of researchers. Some theories in my book seem to fare relatively well, but this is because… no research has been conducted at all.

What about the evidence for Spiral Dyniamics? Well, Graves’ research database is nowhere to be found, and according to Cowan, Graves threw away a large part of his research data by accident upon cleaning out his… barn. A barn to store your precious research data? You must be kidding. Either way, it is very convenient to refer to lost data if you want to avoid its independent investigation. There is no possibly way to know if the research actually took place or whether it was entirely confabulated (this is plausible if you see how many scientific papers have been retracted due to data fabrication—just have a look at the website retractionwatch.com).

Contrast this lack of data and lack of peer-reviewed academic publications to the vast amount of support for the ‘competing’ theory of evolution, first formulated by Charles Darwin, and backed up by an enormous amount of evidence from various fields including the fossil record, uranium-238 or Carbon-14 dating methods, the existence of vestigial traits like the tiny hand bones and pelvic bones in whales, or atavisms—the reappearance of an ancestral trait, such as human babies born with tails—as well as DNA research that can trace lineages of species, biogeography, or the study of species distribution on Earth, etc. It should thus not surprise you that the empirical score is -3, as the theory has been refuted by an overwhelming amount of evidence from numerous fields that offer confirmation of evolutionary theory.

No wonder none of the academics takes this model seriously. Most academics in the field don’t know Clare Graves nor Ken Wilber.


The theory entirely contradicts the theorem of evolution and evolutionary biology. It can be classified as an ideology, not a sound model.

Figure: the theoretical/empirical grid for Spiral Dynamics

As in other instances, an older (1960s), humanistic, New-Age like ideology has been adopted as a new, revamped, and presented as cutting-edge science. This ideology is so blatantly naïve and in contradiction with established sciences such as physics, fossil record findings, the teachings of evolutionary biology and evolutionary psychology… that it is a shame anyone would allow these ‘theories’ to take hold or would spend precious company or government money on them. It doesn’t pass the theoretical nor the empirical test, so I can only advice everyone to refrain from adhering to it. You are better off closing your door in the face of its commercial representatives.

Disclaimer: This article is a summary of an extensive chapter, so it does not contain all the references included in the chapter of the book „A skeptic’s HR dictionary: The ultimate self-defense guide for CEOs, HR professionals, I/O students and employees.

Patrick Vermeren has been in the business of human resources since 1997. Since 2001 he has worked as a practitioner-consultant for a Belgian provider of training and coaching. He is a writer, journalist and board member of SKEPP, the Belgian Skeptics organization and is widely recognized as an expert in HR matters.

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