Co-Intelligence Logo The Co-Intelligence Institute

What's New
Our Work
Contact RESOURCES Don't Miss (Features)
Links JOIN US Subscribe
Take Action
Donate Legal Notices


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 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 individual members.

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 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 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



Home || What's New || Search || Who We Are || Co-Intelligence || Our Work || Projects || Contact || Don't Miss || Articles || Topics || Books || Links || Subscribe || Take Action || Donate || Legal Notices

If you have comments about this site, email
Contents copyright © 2003, all rights reserved, with generous permissions policy (see Legal Notices)