Depth, Span and Demographics
by John Stoner
Wilber's theory of development is exciting. It points up farther reaches of human development, both individual and social, that are quite inspiring. But there's a place in his thesis where some go astray, where the full possibility of social development can get obscured. It's not anything Wilber has specifically said, but a subtle and critical step that's easy to miss. Here goes:
In Tenet 8 of Wilber's Twenty Tenets, Wilber says, "The greater the depth, the less span."(1) So, as we ascend the holarchy, we see fewer instances of a particular type of holon.
And here's where the potential misunderstanding occurs. Sometimes, Wilber's readers map this simply to demographics: the higher the stage of development, the fewer people you find. There are fewer sages than rational beings, yes?
And if we look at the implications of this idea, we get a little disheartened. Essentially, it means we are doomed to live in a world where social Ascent is impossible. Advanced mystics and non-dual sages will always be terribly rare.
Or will they?
Let's revisit Tenet 8: the greater the depth, the less span. So, cognitively, for example, there might be more symbols than concepts, or more concepts than contexts, the same way there are more atoms than molecules than cells than multicell organisms.
But that doesn't map out demographically. The population (span) of symbols, concepts and contexts maps to Wilber's rule of greater depth, less span. But those who can cognitively address symbols or concepts or contexts are not limited in precisely that way.
For example, look at preconventional, preoperational toddlers. Some percentage of them never make it to get to be conventional, concrete operational people. But *most* of them do. Some people never make it past pre-conventional. If "the higher the stage of development, the fewer people you find" were true, most adults would never attain conventional moral reasoning. In fact, most humans would remain infantile.
A casual examination of one's environment indicates that this does not occur. Most adult humans seem to develop some capacity beyond the infantile.
So what is Tenet 8 really saying about the demography of development? Let's look at the specific holarchic structure: individual human development. as we develop new capacities, and climb the holarchic structure, we preserve previous capacities, and build on them. Sometimes we get to the next level, sometimes we don't. At any given moment, there are individuals all along the spectrum.
Therefore, there will always be more people with lower developed capacity than people with higher developed capacity. The set of people with a higher capacity is a subset of those with lower capacity (transcend and include). That is, those people with higher capacity also have lower capacity. Rational people have mythic and magic capacities.
This does not imply that the number of people who have reached some high stage will necessarily be less than those who haven't. If the previous stages are mostly transitional, then the age groups that predominate in them will be relatively small (short term), and the age group at that stage would be large (longer term). Without violating Tenet 8.
In fact, this is what we mean when we say, "A social holon has reached level of development x." Modifying Wilber's wedding-cake diagram:
So, there are people passing through or stagnating at x-2 and x-1. But mostly, people attain level x. A few pass on to x+1 or x+2, but in this social holon, we're socially set up to get you as far as x. You want to go farther, you're on your own.
And really, the higher cylinders in the diagram penetrate all the way down--those that have attained x or x+1 have also attained x-1. They've just gone farther. They're a subset, not a separate set.
So what are the implications?
This is all very interesting, but what does it mean? Ultimately, it means the development of social holons is unbounded. Social holons can attain arbitrarily high levels of development. Of course, the higher they go, the longer the path to "normal adulthood" in the given holon, and the more the likelihood individuals will go astray along the way. But yes, it's theoretically possible to have a centauric or psychic or even nondual level-developed social holon. And it might even be possible that such a holon could embrace most of the human population, in some far-off future.
Now, there's another possible mistake to make at this point. We could say, "Well, hey, let's take over the world! Higher development for everyone!" and go off and try to ram insight down everyone's throat. "You will be one with the All!" Highly destructive political movements have started with much less.
No, such a program would be correlated to a rational or lower stage of development. Rationally-developed people trying to spread non-dual development in the world would be at best comical. Advocacy of any "movement" for higher human development must come from those at that level of development, operating at that level, and relating to others at that level.
And here again the importance of distinguishing the social from the individual in development becomes clear. For example, rational social development cannot be reduced to individual rational capacity. Democracy cannot be reduced to abstract thought.
So, as we ascend together, we will have to invent again and again how to relate to each other. And if at that point it seems appropriate to advocate further ascent for others, we should do so. But we should only do so from a level-appropriate place, and for level-appropriate reasons, if we do so at all.
(1) Ken Wilber, Sex, Ecology, Spirituality: the Spirit of Evolution, p 56-61. Shambhala Press.
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