FAQ Emergent

What does ‘emergent’ mean in context of Graves and SPIRAL DYNAMICS® programs?

This question has caused lots of head scratching among scholars of chaos and complexity theories, as well as Gravesians and serious students of our Spiral Dynamics® programs. The lack of a clear answer leads to protracted discussions and considerable frustration. In the SD world, that’s especially true for the analytical sorts who want – even demand – a single ‘true meaning’ and would like to impose one on Dr. Graves post mortem. Rather than that, we will look at how he employed the word and its relatives. While that will not satisfy those searching for a definitive answer, a brief discussion with some examples drawn from his writings might better clarify the usages of the term in a Gravesian context – at least some operational definitions for those prepared to accept a bit of semantic relativism.

In building his ’emergent, cyclical, double-helix theory of adult biopsychosocial systems development,’ Dr. Graves was concerned with human biopsychosocial systems at three levels – the individual, the culture, and the overall development of our species, Homo sapiens through time toward its potentials. Many people select one and propose that the model only applies at that level. In doing so, they misinterpret his work: he sought to find rules which applied across human nature. That said, when discussing ‘emergence,’ it is important to recognize to which sub-set he is applying the word since he used it within several contexts. And it is important to recognize that his discussion is of Homo sapiens as we have evolved and within the capacities of the human brain, not engineering super-beings or godlings. He offered no guesses about next evolutionary steps or stages beyond Homo sapiens – only the changing psychology of our kind as it can be observed to date with a sense of possible direction to better fitness as who we are. A key to this open-ended view is that the next existential problems are often ‘wild cards’ that break set with an established trajectory, thus awakening thinking which might not be predictable based upon pre-existing conditions.

The emergence of new levels of psychological existence for Homo sapiens is quite different from the appearance of new schematic forms in a person or group, or the importation of new schema into a culture. (see schema and thema for more) In the sub-sets, the ‘emergence’ might well be of a new schematic form, but one which falls within the existing overall thematic repertoire of a population quite nicely – novelty without a break of set like a new fashion season or model year change for the Ford F150. At the highest level, ‘emergence’ is of entirely new thema for existence through the interplay of neurology with problems of existence and necessary releasor conditions.

“Conceive, with me, that the human organism tends, psychologically, to move through a series of hierarchically ordered systems to some equifinal end, yet tends, under certain describable circumstances, to stabilize and live out his life at any one or a combination of the stages within the hierarchy. Human behavior, then, in all its forms is like any growth phenomenon. It tends to develop naturally through definable but overlapping stages by an orderly progression from a less complex, to a more complex stage and finally to its ultimate level of possible organization. Behavior is like a seed. It can, when certain releasor conditions occur, grow through all its natural stages to its ultimate form or, like the released seed, behavior can be fixated or even reorganize and take on a form not usually of its nature.” Graves, Clare W. “Value Systems and their Relation to Managerial Controls and Organizational Viability.” 1965.

Usage # I
Although ‘emergent’ is sometimes a noun representing a resultant of process – the emergent – Graves typically used versions of ‘to emerge’ as adjectives or verbs. First, he spoke of emergence in the way of the General Systems theorists, notably Ludwig von Bertalanffy and the more psychologically-oriented W. Ross Ashby and William Gray. Graves adopted ‘emergent’ as an attribute of his biopsychosocial systems and part of the title of his own theory of mature adult development. Two aspects of the construct – levels and sequence – were particularly good fits:

“I call it the Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence point of view. This premise holds that: 1. man’s nature is not a set thing: it is ever-emergent, an open system, not a closed system. 2. man’s nature evolves by saccadic, quantum-like jumps from one steady state system to another; and 3. man’s psychology changes as the system emerges in new form with each quantum-like jump to a new steady state of being.” The Never Ending Quest (NEQ), 29

As early as his 1959 paper, “An Emergent Theory of Ethical Behavior Based Upon an Epigenetic Model,” Dr. Graves had relied on General Systems Theory (GST) as a contributor to his own theory-building. He says, for example:

“…That as man moves from a lower to a higher level of ethical behavior some values by which man judges right from wrong are discarded as no longer appropriate to his changed status; that some of the earlier values are retained intact; that some previous values are modified; and that some new, not previously existing conceptions of right and wrong emerge as each subsequent dynamic system emerges.” CWG. 1959.

In the view of GST (and the more recent work in complexity theory with Complex Adaptive Systems – CAS), properties of a complex system are said to be emergent if they are not properties of sub-parts of the system taken in isolation, and not explainable via compilation of characteristics of those isolated parts; order that arises is not predetermined. In other words, properties of the new system are not derivative of the behavior of those parts; something new appears. The whole is ‘smarter’ than the chunks that comprise it. That new whole cannot be understood from analysis of distinctions among the components, but as a process of self-organizing which includes both variation from what was and retention of some previous aspects. Thus, the whole of the emerged system is more than the sum of its parts or of their properties.

For example, all the characteristics of the first four levels of the spiral pulled together do not predict multiplistic thinking or an empowered sense of self. The emergent system is both more complex and less stable. The latter characteristic has meaning for Gravesians since more elaborated systems – higher levels – are both richer in options and more robust, as well as more volatile than lower levels. Concentrated pressure from lower levels can disrupt the system severely and produce regression, as we see in regional politics all over the world. An area not well understood is how open/arrested/closed states function at different levels, and how fragile openness might be when disruptions from closed systems interfere with the process.

If one applies the Spiral metaphor and views personality as systems with vMemes as agents (see schema), then change occurs both with the emergence of a new vMeme and when the existing sub-systems are connected and integrated in a new way, thereby making the entire system different. Possible means toward this, by degree, are accommodation to the existential problems at hand through observation, adaptation of the system and its contents to better fit altered existential problems, and vertical evolution of the system and the field in which it exists through movement along the spiral. It is this last track which fits the rise of new existential states in the Graves theory.

Critical to applications following Spiral Dynamics® training is that the complexity which is recognized is a function of the observer, not the system, itself. (A useful comparison from Ashby is to contrast the understanding of a brain by a butcher versus by a neurologist – or to contrast the localizing of neurons with exploring consciousness.) Recognizing the vMemes (levels) and transitional states accurately is essential, and very difficult for those who do not bother to inform themselves about the theory, much less those in arrested or closed states who try to create something linear, whereas being human is a non-linear event.

‘Emergence’ in systems theories includes the idea that higher level properties impact on lower levels since feedback connections remain, another key to understanding that Gravesian levels are far more than discrete color-coded lumps when applying the theory in living human systems. A characteristic of emergence which is often overlooked in analyses is the influence of the derived state on the precursor parts; things are still connected, and new system may change the character of the previous ones which are still operating in the same field. Recognition of this is vital for those concerned with spiral management since we always carry parts of the past forward. Recall the phrase ‘steady state of being’ from the quote above. It conveys the equilibration and homeostasis-seeking in the Gravesian model.

One can draw parallels between his change approach and Prigogine’s work with dissipative structures and bifurcation points in systems far from equilibrium which can lead to emergence. The imbalance arising when existential problems outstretch the coping means – an existential bifurcation – is a trigger for the Gravesian ‘emergence’ of a next system with new problems and neuronal equipment turning on. Yet there is risk to that. In Gravesian terms, balance is achieved when the coping means – thinking and behaving – match the existential problems in the milieu, leading to solutions which are at least adequate for sustainable living. If we accept emergence as a property of these systems and their subsets, then it is possible for a new way of thinking to emerge which is far beyond the mean – an individual or small group possessed of a new thematic form, not just schematic alterations. If fortunate, they eventually become prophets and their insights contribute to a shift of the system; just as likely, given the nature of most human systems to date, they are ignored, characterized as mad dreamers, or worse, depending on the system into which they arrive.

Graves often spoke of himself as a “mind out of its time” – a person asking questions which were not yet taken seriously but which would be deemed vital in a different time to come. Balance relates to timing. As in systems theories, the next Gravesian vertical level appears to be something new and unexpected – emergent – growing from the new problems created by solutions from the previous level. It offers both greater explanatory power and increased degrees of freedom to act when compared with previous states.

It is this element of surprise and uncertainty in succeeding levels which confounds many students of this theory, and why so many inaccurate extrapolations are imposed onto the colors by those looking for end-state sequential order rather than emergence, as well. The idea of something appearing that is beyond the resultant vector of changing elements is a notion going back at least to John Stuart Mill in the mid-1800’s. For Graves, each new system carries forth properties from the previous states, then adds some new and unexpected element(s) – an added dimension.

Thus arises the concept that new systems along the existential staircase cannot be deduced from or explained by the properties of the lower-level systems because they include higher-level properties; prediction is often guesswork, or projection of the present into a hypothetical tomorrow. To anticipate a butterfly through observation of a caterpillar is difficult in the absence of foreknowledge.

As we have said, this projection of present goals into future states is one of the great dilemmas for current applications, especially the derivative approaches which often fail to recognize their own aspirations couched as theory but offer grand statements of what is to be. A horizontal change, on the other hand, is an extrapolation of the present, a first-order move to accommodate the status quo. An oblique change is second order adaptation and produces some new behaviors and a reframe of the context. To recognize higher-level functioning and implement third-order, vertical change, a broader view is required – from microscopic study to macroscopic analysis. Sometimes this shift in perspective alone is enough to reveal an emergent property. The more thorough the data gathered in this process, the more likely to rationalize the unexplained or disclose the previously unobserved. This is why good ongoing research is so essential for understanding human behavior and expanding Gravesian theory, in addition to philosophizing.

For differentiating emergent Gravesian systems – levels of existence – from the more content-oriented vMemes of the Spiral model, another of Ashby’s constructs is useful: to differentiate a system from an object and to recognize that a system is not a thing but a list of variables (agents and schema). To some extent, the superficial  ‘meme’ language included in Spiral Dynamics has clouded this and led quite a few people to miss the theory for its artifacts, though the field of memetics and CAS theory have a great deal of overlap. The confusion of contents with containers is pervasive and somewhat alleviated if one thinks of Gravesian systems in terms of process rather than relics, or becomes bogged down in ‘values’ as was he in his earliest work. Anthony Wilden’s  properties of emergent systems (System and Structure, 1972) compare very well with later Gravesian principles for EC theory, even more reasons for his comfort with the word ‘emergent’ as a descriptor of process come clear:

· increased adaptive range
· increased variability
· increased variety / complexity
· structural innovations
· new organizational order
· shaping of modified sub-systems (later on)
· enhanced selectivity
· changes in adaptive order and learning
· increased mnemonic capacity
· more varied simulations possibilities
· increased opportunities for changing goals
· increase of the system’s sensibility to noise

As those familiar with the Spiral model and Graves’ work will recognize, most of these are also characteristics of vertical movement through Graves’s levels – travels on the existential staircase or along the spiral. Finally, General Systems theory served Graves in understanding the interaction between inner and outer factors, as well. A system is a complex of agents which interact with their environments. They can acquire qualitatively new properties through this interplay, thus they are in a continual evolution – emergence. In addition, they produce reframes of the components and the precursors, and perhaps a reconsideration of our very nature:

“And, I say that what our definition of psychological maturity is will change with each and every newly emergent form of psychological existence.” NEQ, 2

Perhaps we should close this section with a quick mention of epigenesis, ala the term “epigenetic model” which Graves used in the title of his 1959 paper. For one thing, developmental psychologists had been using epigenesis to suggest steps or stages, a core element built into the Gravesian point of view. Perhaps more significantly, though, epigenesis also refers to the interplay between an organism’s genetics and non-genetic factors in its environment which can impact and alter them.  That interaction between the structural organism and its experiential field is the double-helix at work, and why Graves rejected both genetic determinism and the more extreme behaviorist positions as missing the critical interactivity. Recently, this epigenetic principle has been re-emphasized recently in cognitive psychology, by popularizers of neurobiology like Dr. Bruce Lipton, and in the many variations of conscious evolution.

Usage # II
In a slightly softer definition, Graves spoke of the process of emerging as movement from one level to a next, from lower to higher properties. With levels and sequence in hand, a new thing could emerge from the combination of precursor elements. Human nature emerges in unpredictable – though not entirely unforeseeable – steps and stages along our evolutionary time line with succeeding levels having surprising and unpredicted characteristics based on their precursors or parts.

Whether the sequence is inevitably “locked” as requisite stages through which an individual must pass, or whether it is possible for new states to emerge in the individual human without prerequisite passages is still debated. From the historical perspective, the leading-edge systems seem to arise in order, though along varying time-lines in different societies. But from the individual standpoint, many argue that double-helix forces produce systems congruent with the circumstances at hand. From this perspective they can ‘pop’ as well as arise from precursor problem-solution stages. Many argue that this is the case with children who appear to think in high-order ways far beyond their years, yet who might not have developed coping strategies that are formed with life experience in lower levels.

The following Graves quote summarizes a great deal of this point of view, and illustrates this application of ‘emergent:’

“The psychology of the adult human being is an unfolding, ever-emergent process marked by subordination of older behavior systems to newer, higher order systems. The mature person tends to change his psychology continuously as the conditions of his existence change. Each successive stage or level of existence is a state through which people may pass on the way to other states of equilibrium.” 

When a person is centralized in one of the states of equilibrium, he has a psychology which is particular to that state. His emotions, ethics and values, biochemistry, state of neurological activation, learning systems, preference for education, management and psychotherapy are all appropriate to that state. If he were centralized in some other state he would think, feel and be motivated in manners appropriate to that state. He would have biochemical characteristics and a state of neurological activation  particular to it.

When in a certain state, he would have opened only certain systems for coping and learning. Thus, he would respond most positively to education, management, and therapy which is congruent with that state. And he would have to respond negatively to forms of education, management and therapy not appropriate to the state of his centralization.

An individual person may not be equipped genetically or constitutionally to change in the normal upward direction if the conditions of his existence become more favorable. Or, he may be genetically or constitutionally, even morphologically, prone to settle into or stay in a particular state unless extraordinary measures can be instituted to change the genetic, constitutional or morphologic disposition. He may move, given certain conditions (I see six of them) through a hierarchically ordered series of behavior systems infinitely on so long as his life exists, or he may stabilize and live out his lifetime at any one or a combination of the levels in the hierarchy. He may even regress to a position lower in the hierarchy. He may show the behavior of a level in a predominantly positive or predominantly negative fashion.” NEQ, 29-30

Part of his quest was certainly for the underlying rules and principles which might explain the interplay of forces, information, and energy – the biopsychosocial context – which produce the emergent phenomena. His studies of change were efforts to add to the understanding of these basics. To some extent, the work remains more retrodictive than predictive of the next new system since a Gravesian premise is that the ‘real’ systems which lie ahead are usually surprises and out-of-the-blue, not anticipated through extensions of the present state. To stretch beyond the present eight identified systems without data in support is a philosopher’s stretch, not a behavioral scientist’s.

Far more detailed rules for component parts have been laid out by Stephen Wolfram for cellular automata and emergence as self-organization described for ants, brains, and cities by the likes of Stephen Johnson than can yet be specified for human societies or individual personalities. Graves wanted to understand how human systems organize, and the rules whereby human minds form and change and would surely have appreciated the explorations in systems which have followed him. That is a work very much in progress.

Integration of fields and knowledge is also an ongoing process which Graves found essential. Just as General Systems Theory was to be a science of wholeness, Graves imagined the same in psychology. Systems thinking is both part-to-whole and whole-to-part thinking about making connections between the various elements so that they fit together in a more integrative whole. In this sense, emergence and holism were near-equivalents – a holistic structure is also an emergent one.

It is apparent that Dr. Graves found aspects of General Systems theory intriguing because of his frustration with compartmentalization of psychological knowledge and the narrow views which seemed to preoccupy many of his colleagues, whether Freudian, Rogerian, cognitive, or behaviorist. He was particularly frustrated by his behaviorist colleagues who he felt refused to recognize the value of systems theory.

“The data seemed to suggest that eight central ways of being have emerged from within the nature of man in his time on earth, and that eight basic conceptions of mature personality are related thereto.” NEQ, 128

“Therefore many of the adult behaviors which so often trouble people would be classified as immature by the humanists when it is indeed possible there are mature ways of behaving for an adult human who has emerged only to a less differentiated psychological state.”
NEQ, 28

“To learn that adults believe in several types of mature personality is not particularly surprising. But to come upon a hint that the types emerge one out of the other in an ordered hierarchical way is quite a revelation. In addition, the apparent fact that these hierarchi­cally ordered concepts of mature personality alternate with one another so that every other conception is like, yet not like, its alternating partners provided some most intriguing data.” NEQ, 91

Usage # III
A third meaning Graves conveyed with ‘to emerge’ is more commonplace: to come into view, to rise to the surface, to appear; a first occurrence. In the following quote, Graves uses ‘emerge’ and ‘emergent’ together:

“Blithely, the reinforcement behaviorists cast aside any suggestion that new forms of consciousness emerge over time and changing conditions of existence. They do not see emergence as a worthy explanation of any of the things which keep happening to people. Such statements, typical of behaviorists, suggest they are filtering out, rejecting, or oblivious to the reams of information suggesting emergent stages in the development of both individual and cultural man.” NEQ, 19-20

“From this torment and from the peculiar kind of information now before me (similarity and dissimilarity both between major types and within sub-types and across type categories), the idea emerged that the conceptions represented something more than what some people thought was the psychologically mature person.” NEQ, 97

So, an answer to “what does Graves mean by emergent?” is not so easy. For him it was both a central construct of his biopsychosocial systems theory and a word he felt comfortable using with great degrees of freedom. He saw both emergent properties and linear properties in human nature and, as a ‘mind out of his time,’ was quite at home with some ‘and’ logic in his theory. Systems theory contributes greatly to understanding human nature, and a recognition that the human spirit is ’emergent’ as each new level comes into being says it is not enough.