[permaculture] Co-intelligence (long)
keithdj at mindspring.com
Mon Oct 28 17:47:12 EST 2002
DEMOCRACY AND THE EVOLUTION OF SOCIETAL INTELLIGENCE
by Tom Atlee
Have you ever been in a stupid group made up of intelligent people? I mean,
each person in the group is pretty smart and creative, but when they get
together they seem to get in each other's way? They can't seem to make
decisions, they fight, they can't get things done. Or maybe they make
decisions that are unimaginative - or even
destructive. Or they just go round and round as the world passes them by.
Or maybe the groups you know have a strong leader. If the leader is good,
maybe the group acts intelligently - makes good decisions, gets things done.
But maybe the leader is bad... or maybe people are rebelling against a good
or so-so leader... or maybe a good leader burns out and the group flounders.
Or maybe some group you know has a unifying ideology or belief that holds
them all together - until someone tries to do something creative or
Have you experienced these things? Have you ever seen them among activists
in social change movements?
I have. And I've also experienced a few rare groups where everyone's a peer,
where leadership is shared, where a special kind of energy among them allows
them to explore and solve problems together, successfully. I've watched
people with very different ideas, backgrounds, aptitudes and knowledge using
that diversity creatively.
They come up with brilliant solutions and proposals - better than any of them
could have come up with alone. The group seems more intelligent than its
Seeing these extremes, and observing what a large role these dynamics play in
efforts to make a better world, I've chosen to study them, to see what I can
I call these dynamics "collective intelligence" -- which manifests as "group
intelligence" in groups and "societal intelligence" in whole societies.
Intelligence refers to our ability to sort out our experience in ways that
help us respond appropriately to circumstances - especially when we're faced
with new situations.
Societal intelligence, then, refers to the ability of a whole society to
learn and cope creatively with its environment. Societal intelligence
includes all the characteristics and institutions that help whole societies
respond collectively and appropriately to their circumstances.
Although I first got interested in this subject by observing dysfunctional
activist groups, I soon realized that these groups simply manifested the
dynamics of our dysfunctional society. Our society as a whole doesn't know
how to solve its problems
intelligently, doesn't know how to use its diversity creatively, and is
moving inexorably towards its own self-destruction. Was it any wonder that
many activist groups displayed the same characteristics?
It seemed to me almost axiomatic that, if we don't improve collective
intelligence - our collective problem-solving, responsive capabilities - none
of our other social and environmental problems would get solved. And, if we
could achieve some breakthrough in societal intelligence, all the other
problems would, in a sense,
solve themselves in the natural course of socially-intelligent living. You
don't have to solve all a person's problems for them if you increase their
ability to solve their own problems. The same goes, I suspect, for societies.
So I've been doing some research on this. And one of the first things I
stumbled across was the possibility that democracy is a stage in the
evolution of societal intelligence.
Let's suppose societies go through stages. In an early stage, a society
might be run by the strongest warriors. Such a society would organize itself
and survive through the use of physical force. Force has a black-and-white,
win/lose logic to it which works in simple circumstances but doesn't work in
the face of (and cannot support)
greater complexity or subtlety. As the need for more complex relationships
evolve, such a society would need to complexify its repertoire of responses.
They might, let's suppose, shift into a stage where traditions are the
guiding principle. Every problem has a standardized solution, handed down
from generation to generation. Almost like instincts get handed down
genetically, traditions are handed down through instruction and example.
Traditions (like instincts) usually evolve
from experience, so they're appropriate and workable as long as the
environment doesn't change. But a society may find tradition hampers their
creative responsiveness when they're faced with novel circumstances.
In a sense, a society based on ideology may be similar to one based on
tradition. Ideologies are usually powerfully useful within a specific zone
of operation. But they have their limits and, when those limits are reached,
the ideology prevents successful, intelligent responses from emerging.
When traditions or ideologies are made obsolete by changing circumstances, a
society needs to find a more flexible form of intelligence. It needs to be
able to observe changes, create new appropriate responses, and then implement
Societies seem to have different strategies for this. The wise leader
(Plato's philosopher king) is one strategy. The wise leader says what to do
and everyone does it. While this has, on occasion, worked for decades at a
time, leaders are subject to change without notice (by dying, being
overthrown, suffering breakdowns of various
sorts, or losing their perspective or integrity in the giddy heights of
power). So philosopher kings present a problem: they change, and not always
appropriately for the society. Maybe it would help to depend on more than
The idea behind the Soviet Communist Party was that it, as a collective
entity, would be the wise leader, the vanguard of the proletariat. Its
Central Committee would come up with what to do, then everyone would do it.
The main weakness of this approach proved to be Lord Acton's infamous saying:
"All power tends to corrupt.
Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Once the Party and its individual
members based their calculations on their own - rather than the society's -
best interests, the "vanguard approach" became very questionable as a
strategy for social intelligence. Also, as Soviet society grew more complex,
it became harder to manage from a
Which brings us to democracy. The basic principle of democracy is that those
affected by a decision will make it. This inherently decentrist, creative,
responsive strategy has one main problem: It assumes that people are able
and willing to make intelligent decisions in groups.
Since this is not always the case, we've evolved what we call "representative
democracy" where we choose philospher kings (e.g., presidents) and vanguard
committees (e.g., Congresses) to make our decisions for us, throwing them out
when we don't like what they do. This has a rough sort of workability. In
election years everyone takes a bit of time to review the society's problems
solutions and, at least in theory, chooses the best solutions and wisest
persons to empower for the next few years.
Unfortunately, this strategy is also undone by Lord Acton's prophecy.
Representation centralizes power, and that centralized power attracts
corrupting influences to itself (especially from other centralized powers in
the society like corporations). So we balance it with all sorts of interest
groups, grassroots movements, unions, legal checks and balances, etc.
American history is a beautiful tale of democracy
progressing and regressing at the same time in the most remarkable ways,
evolving as it goes. Unfortunately we can't afford too many more democratic
regressions (concentrations of power): our social problems are so great,
change is happening so fast and human power is growing so rapidly that we are
confronted with a daunting choice: make our next quantum leap in societal
intelligence or collapse as a culture.
Our challenge is, simply, to learn how to become not only democratic but
wisely democratic as individuals, as groups and as a society. We need to
learn how to generate a spirit of partnership (non-domination) among
ourselves; to increase our individual responsibility and co-leadership
abilities; to master consensual group dynamics and communication skills; to
creatively utilize our diversity (including our differences of opinion and
style); to increase the accessibility of information and other resources; and
to nurture our own and each other's deep realization of our needs, our
stories, our values and our capabilities. There are many ways to do each of
these, and there are probably other things we need to do, as well.
This is a new field of investigation and activism. We need to clarify what
we need to do - and how to do it - to enable our societal intelligence. Then
we need to spread these understandings and practices into the society. To
the extent we succeed, I suspect our groups and our society will start
behaving intelligently, quite naturally.
But there's a significance to all this that goes beyond democracy and saving
our hides from extinction. To the extent we achieve societal intelligence,
it seems to me that we will shift to a different kind of society entirely.
The evolutionary leap may be equivalent to the evolution of individual
intelligence. We may reach a state in which
societies become intelligent entities - neither a monolith unified by
conformity nor a machine made of fragmented individuals, but a thinking
organism made of discrete participants, each contributing their unique and
essential creativity into the dynamic wisdom and power of the whole.
Or maybe not. Maybe it will just be a good society to live in. Either way,
it seems to me worth working for.
July 1992, revised September 2002
Tom Atlee * The Co-Intelligence Institute * PO Box 493 * Eugene, OR 97440
http://www.co-intelligence.org * http://www.democracyinnovations.org
More information about the permaculture