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
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 different...
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 learn.
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
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
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 those responses.
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 one person.
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 central point.
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 and possible 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
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