Social Development

If human beings have an intrinsic urge to develop (as argued in the chapter on individual development), it should not come as surprise that this urge is also reflected in the development of human societies. Of course, societies are motivated by self-preservation and adaptation, but this cannot explain everything. For example, practices such as art, spirituality, philosophy and science (in its pre-application form) cannot simply be reduced to utilitarian purposes. They play an important part in human life and yet they largely do not contribute to – or at least are not primarily motivated by – such ends.

However, the very term social development is out of favour nowadays due to its association with progress, and there is a widespread opinion (in line with the dominant views at present such as Neo-Darwinism) that there is no such thing as progress. The reasons for this are not only ideological. It is hard to agree on the criteria of progress (e.g. science taking over religion is progress for many, but not for everybody). There are also other grounds to doubt progress: the destruction of fellow human beings and the environment occurred on an unprecedented scale in the 20th century. Fascism, Stalinism and the Khmer Rouge, the butcheries in Vietnam, the Balkans, or Rwanda, the damage to the ozone layer and climate change are only some prominent examples. We should not, though, throw out the baby with the bathwater. Arguably, it was new freedom accompanied with reckless arrogance on the one hand, or the fear of freedom (to use Fromm’s term) on the other, that led to these outcomes. To make an analogy, although many engage in destructive or self-destructive activities in the period of adolescence, this is still recognised as a step of individual development.

Indeed, the signs of maturation seem to be present in every aspect of life. Technology and science are self-evident. Developments in other areas of life may be less so, but they are still discernible – granted, not in every part of the world, but further than ever in some. Their indicators (relative to previous periods) are a greater egalitarianism, equality of genders and the protection of children; more widespread education and a decrease in superstition; greater freedom of speech and artistic expression; increased sophistication in spiritual awareness and philosophy (it is unlikely that Plato would be granted a PhD for his writings these days). These achievements cannot be simply ignored. Of course, there are still many problems and serious mistakes are made, but they should not undermine the whole idea of social development. More complex societies are expected to have more problems. Integral thinker Ken Wilber points out that, ‘as society adds levels of depth, there are more things that can go wrong at every stage’ (in Horgan, 2003, p.63). It is undeniable that regressive and destructive actions are far from being eradicated. However, in the past, some of them, including ownership of other human beings, killing for entertainment, torture of ‘heretics’, pillage and rape in wars, or subjugation of women were institutionalised throughout the world. Legitimised slavery, gladiator games, or the Inquisition are unthinkable nowadays more or less anywhere[1].

[1] Some telling examples related to this point can be found in the chapter ‘The moral Zeitgeist’ (Dawkins, 2006, p.262-272).

What is remarkable about social development is that it is far more efficient than biological evolution. Evolutionary biologist and philosopher from the University of California, Francisco Ayala, writes that:

with the advent of humankind, biological evolution transcended itself and ushered in cultural evolution, a more rapid and effective mode of evolution than the biological mode. (2007, p.236).

According to him, cultural evolution is more effective for three reasons:

(1) its innovations are directed, rather than random mutations; (2) it can be transmitted “horizontally”, rather than only “vertically”, to descendants; and (3) because cultural heredity is Lamarckian, rather than Mendelian, acquired characteristics can be inherited’. (ibid., p.234)

The last point refers to the fact that knowledge, experience, skills and constructive actions tend to accumulate. A cross-disciplinary scholar, Joe Brewer, summarises the argument made by professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard, Joe Henrich:

Henrich explains how humans are able to achieve their spectacular success as a species because of the ways that we build upon what we learned before. Refining and extending our technologies is one way to go from slightly misshaped stones with sharper edges to eventually building rocket ships that place one of our own on the moon. This is called cumulative culture and there is little evidence that any other species is able to create it. We humans have been shaping our own evolutionary process by building on what came before to achieve desired goals for quite literally millions of years.

However, as in the case of biological evolution and individual development, social development is not linear. Many past advocates of social development made a mistake assuming that it goes in a straight line (and, in many cases, reaches the pinnacle in their time). In fact, not only can societies stagnate, regress and perish, but they can also develop in two different directions (one contributes to cultural diversity, and the other to leaps in complexity). These directions are reflected in two already familiar types of development: quantitative and qualitative. We will now discuss these two in more detail, and argue that we have reached a point of great responsibility, with a potential to move to the next step of social development.


Social Development Chapters

Quantitative Social Development

Quantitative social development refers to an increase or improvement of similar competences and capacities that typify this kind of personal development, although different examples naturally apply.

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Qualitative Social Development

We propose that societies develop through stages akin to those of individual development. After all, any society consists of individuals (although, of course, it cannot be reduced to them), so some parallels can be expected.

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In dialectical terms, social development can be described first as the move away from the general direction of the Intent and then back towards it. The thesis (an unconscious alignment) would correspond to the physical stage; the antithesis (separation – the process of individuation and increasing independence) includes the move from the physical stage and, via the conventional stage, reaches its peak at the individual stage; the synthesis (a conscious re-alignment with the direction of the Intent) is represented by the transcendent stage.

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