Sunday, October 16, 2005

Which Version of Spiral Dynamics Is Correct?

If you've ever done any research into Spiral Dynamics on the web, you likely have noticed that the original authors of the book have competing websites and don't seem to like each other very much. Chris Cowan believes he has stayed true to Clare Graves's original work and therefore is the rightful heir to the Spiral Dynamics lineage. Don Beck has become more well known than Cowan, having joined forces with Ken Wilber and others to become one of the founding members of the Integral Institute. Beck has adopted Wilber's AQAL (all quadrants, all levels) integral model and has rechristened the original SD approach as SDi (Spiral Dynamics Integral). Beck also has aligned himself with Andrew Cohen, founder of What Is Enlightenment? magazine, which has greatly increased his exposure.

So which version is correct?

If you do much reading on Cowan's site, you'll find he is very contemptuous of Beck and Wilber. Cowan feels they have misrepresented the work and vulgarized it to fit into Wilber's integral framework. He believes that SD was already an integral approach and did not need to fit into anyone else's model.
Despite suggestions otherwise, nobody denies that Dr. Graves' emergent-cyclical biopsychosocial systems theory is integrative since that suggests inclusive and connective. However, the so-called integral wing of SD represents the fusion of Ken Wilber's four quadrant model - internal/external, individual/social - with the emergent levels of SD, plus a lot of big talk about geopolitics, as something quite new. We find little to support many of the grand claims. While the metamorphic Mr. Wilber periodically expands, elaborates, and rewrites his opinions, the quadrants seem to be a central tenet of his perspective. In our view, most of this is implicit in the 'emergent, cyclical, double-helix model of adult biopsychosocial systems development;' Wilber and his acolytes offer a simplification and compilation of some aspects and elaboration of others, but leave out some of the real meat of the Gravesian theory.
For his part, Beck tends to act as though Cowan does not exist. There is nothing on his site that explains the schism between Cowan and himself, nor is there any reference to Cowan's work being misguided or wrong. There used to be a link to Cowan's site, but I notice that it has been removed in the last year or so.

From my point of view, Cowan has a point. The original Gravesian work is more complex than what Wilber and Beck are generally presenting. My guess is that Beck reserves the more complex aspects of the work for the higher-order certifications. Wilber's use of SD and Graves in his books can only be thought of as a summary and not a detailed explanation of the model. While the SD original book is faithful to Graves's research, the writing isn't crisp and the message sometimes is lost within the textual manipulations.

For those who want to learn more about SD in either of its forms, I would encourage an exploration of both versions (Beck's page is limited in its presentation, so I would recommend the What Is Enlightenment? site, which has a fairly in-depth presentation).

The most profound difference that I can see between the two versions is that Beck has dropped most references to the transitional states between the values systems, or memes. For each of the memes, there are two transitional states before the next meme is fully emergent. For example, one does not simply move from Blue to Orange (about the colors), but instead from BLUE to BLUE-orange, then to blue-ORANGE, and finally to ORANGE. So rather than a simple series of eight value memes, the Graves/Cowan version discusses 24 possible states, depending on the biopsychosocial status of the individual or culture in question.

This is where integral theory becomes a valuable addition to the mix. Wilber has identified around 24 different developmental lines, each of which may be represented by a different mix of value memes depending on its development. This is assumed by Graves/Cowan, but is not explicit and therefore can't be worked with in any direct way. Wilber also introduces a spiritual component to the SD model, which Cowan admits was not of much interest to Graves.

One mistake many of us make (which infuriates Cowan) is that we shorthand the colors as descriptors of individuals. This habit is largely confined to readers of Wilber's work, so Cowan justifiably blames Wilber for this misuse of SD. No individual can be classified as purely one color -- different developmental lines may represent an assortment of value memes and transitional states. At best, and Wilber does make this distinction, a person can be describes as having a "center of gravity" in one meme or another.

Returning to the idea of transitional states in SD, Cowan is critical of the integral model for not acknowledging these important elements of the SD model. However, Wilber's integral theory does acknowledge transitional states between developmental levels, so I think it is assumed (since value memes have some affinity with developmental levels, though they are not identical) that these transitional states exist between value memes as well. Wilber's model (which is based on the work of many other theorists) uses the terminology of moving from fusion (embeddedness in one level) to differentiation (disidentifying with the previous level) to integration (fusion into the next level, while still retaining the capabilities of the previous level -- "transcend and include"). These steps aren't as precise as Graves' intermediary stages, but they approach the idea in a useful way for the general public.

And that may be the final difference. Beck and Wilber are trying to reach a wider audience, one not likely to have the education and discernment to fully grasp the Gravesian model of SD. Cowan offers a more advanced and intricate version of SD than does Beck, one more suited to academics and intellectuals. Each has a niche to fill.

I have read that Beck and Wilber have both approached Cowan about partnerships, but that Cowan has refused. Too bad. Each version of the SD framework has its merits. There are many people, myself included, who would like to be educated in both versions without spending our life savings to attend expensive and competing trainings.


Anonymous said...

Ken Wilber, to his credit, has always said that his theories provide a framework, the details of which need to be filled in. So I see no problem with SDi describing a broader framework and Cowan's SD providing the more specific details for the Internal/Individual & Internal/Community quadrants.

Any other conflicts stem from personal rivalries imho.

william harryman said...


It sounds as though you, like many of Wilber's readers, think he was involved in the genesis of Spiral Dynamics. Beck and Cowan wrote the original book, which was based on the work of Clare Graves. Wilber has popularized the theory through his work and has collaborated with Beck in the development of SDi.

Cowan's work stays closer to the original Graves' research -- and in fact he has co-edited a new book that Graves was working on at the time of his death. Cowan objects to the perceived "dumbing down" of Spiral Dynamics by Beck and Wilber. A position I do not share, as much as I do admire Cowan's efforts to promote Graves' original intent.

Anonymous said...

What I hate about Don Beck is that he has commercialized a sound theory for his personal benefit. Although I admire both Ken Wilber and Andrew Cohen, I do not forgive them for supporting Beck to make tons of money by packaging the same stuff several ways. The only country he ever lived outside US is South Africa, but he makes claims about global application of his theories which are highly misleading.
Thanks for mentioning Cowan's work. I would like to explore it further.

~C4Chaos said...

another difference is that SDi has a "prime directive". yet even Beck and Wilber have their differences. also note that in Wilber's borg-like metatheory, SD is only one line of development (e.g. value line).

bifurcation points on any TOE is just natural. both are relatively healthy expressions of a very useful metatheory. both have their applications depending on what levels you apply them or what version one feels affinity with. but yeah, like Holon mentioned, some conflicts stem from personal rivalries, aka war of the mean memes :)

Anonymous said...

Your post is full of half truths and statements that pretend to know what is going on when you don't. You've missed the theory, correct terminology, and core issues from the academic side; you've also missed the interpersonal conflict, political dimensions, and postions of both parties. Do your homework before opining and editorializing about something you know little about.

Anonymous said...

BTW Beck has a "Prime Directive" whereas Graves (the source) had a "prime good" - a Beck distortion of the original meaning of the phrase. Why don't you check this link out?

FYI the way to piss off Cowan is to distort, misrepresent, falsify, and spread disinformation - some experts have more expertise than others.

william harryman said...

Thanks for your comments, anoymous. Perhaps you'd be willing to be less anonymous and contribute a guest post clarifying the issue?

I've read Cowan's pages, but thanks for the link.

If you'd like to share your views rather than make vague accusations, drop me a note with some way to contact you, or email me at

Anonymous said...