Life without the false God of Normality

If you are culturally well adjusted to modern society, your sense of “normality” is shaped by the things you don’t notice and by the things that you take for granted. “Normality” is like the air you breathe as a mammal, or the water that you’d be swimming in if you were a fish. The hump of the bell curve is the God of Normality.

Life under the hump of the bell curve

Culturally well adjusted people live their entire life under the bell curve, without noticing the complex constellation of data points that must be aligned to qualify for “normality”. If you live under the hump of the bell curve, the God of Normality has granted you:

  1. A relatively happy childhood that you possibly look back to with fond memories
  2. The ability to easily make friends within the culture you grew up in
  3. Relationships that conform to the powered-up social templates prescribed by the God of Normality
  4. The desire to seek, and the ability to find and maintain employment in a system that worships the religion of the bell curve
  5. The desire to be managed by a good “leader”
  6. The latent capacity to become addicted to the experience of wielding social power over others

The neurodiversity movement is a human rights struggle

The complex constellation of lived experiences of neurodivergent people does not conform to the God of Normality. If you are neurodivergent, your sense of “normality” is shaped by the things you can’t help notice on a daily basis, and by the many things that you can’t take for granted. “Normality” is experienced as a continuous energy drain, as all the many things that demand conscious attention, which actively need to be pushed and held in place to fit under the bell curve – ultimately a futile endeavour. Rather sooner than later, you crash and burn, under circumstances that are considered “normal” within the religion of the bell curve.

For of hypersensitive Autistic people, even for those who seem to be able to “hold it together” on the surface, with minimal externally visible support needs, having access to a safe space to retreat, and access to a community that does not believe in or pretend to believe in the God of Normality is a foundational prerequisite for human wellbeing. There are many ways of being human that do not fit under the bell curve, and many ways of collaborative niche construction that don’t require “leaders” or routine use of coercive techniques.

Our best chance of being heard is if we are recognised as a community and as a culture. Our struggle for human rights is made difficult in a healthcare system that only looks for sickness and disease at the level of individuals, and not within the institutions of our society. We need systemic change. We are all in this together. Our “civilisation” is not providing anyone with a healthy and nurturing environment. The institutionalised (“normal”) avenues for effecting change are fundamentally broken.

All powered-up “civilisations” have characteristics of a cult. This realisation is frightening for culturally well adjusted people. But neurodivergent, culturally maladapted people are in good company. The cultural incoherences, paradoxes, cognitive dissonance, and collective traumas of powered-up “civilisations” have been understood for over at least 2,000 years:

“The way most people nowadays go about governing their bodies and ordering their hearts and minds is like what the Border-guard described: they hide from what is Heavenly in them, separate themselves from their inborn natures, destroy their true dispositions, kill their own imponderable spirits. Because it is what everybody else does, they leave the clumps of their inborn natures unsmoothed, so that their desires and hatreds, those bastard children of the inborn nature, become its overgrowth of reeds and bushes. At their first sproutings these do provide support for our bodies, but eventually they tug at and finally uproot the inborn nature itself, until it leaks and oozes and spurts, its juices flowing indiscriminately out, erupting with scabs and sores and tumors, burning with fever and pissing out grease.”

– Zhuangzi – The Complete Writings

Normality is a socially constructed illusion. Autistic people are biologically incapable of maintaining the cognitive dissonance associated with culturally prescribed powered-up “normality”. Not only do powered-up “civilisations” suffer from the learning disabling characteristics of a cult, they also routinely spawn smaller cults and gangs that seem to defy and oppose the dominant cult[ure], which actually manifest equally or even more oppressive pyramidal social power structures, offering new recruits an “escape route” out of the frying pan into the fire.

The emergence of neurodivergent cultures

Understanding the emergence of Autistic and neurodivergent cultures requires leaving behind the God of Normality, and imagining the possibility of de-powered forms of creative collaboration.

The de-powered Open Space format was first explicitly described by Harrison Owen. He started to make use of Open Space in the mid 1970s in the healthcare sector, and observes that Open Space regularly catalyses paradigm shifting collective learning outcomes that are not achievable with other formats. If we replace the toxic language of busyness, think long-term, enjoy interdependence, clamp down on meritocracy, avoid distractions, and share knowledge, we can relax. No one is in control. Mistakes happen on this planet all the time.

The definition of normality in the industrial era is based on the metaphor of society as a factory and on the metaphor of people as machines. Our laws and social norms have been shaped by these metaphors, and the corresponding illusion of control to a far greater extent than most people realise.

Life denying industrialised monocultures are hell bent on replacing the beautiful diversity of life with the machine metaphor. In a recent interview on “The Brain, Determinism, and Cultural Implications” Robert Sapolsky takes aim at the illusion of “normality”, and comments on human biological diversity towards the end. A timely interview on one level, but in terms of framing, I just wish Robert Sapolsky would not use the anthropocentric metaphor of “biological machines”. Instead he could simply talk about biological organisms, to acknowledge the orders of magnitude in complexity differences that lie between biological entities and human constructed machines, and the corresponding complexity of emergent phenomena that lie far beyond human comprehensibility. This would steer away from the incorrect conclusion that lack of free will equates to complete predictability of human behaviour.

Lack of free will does not imply lack of imagination. In fact, in the absence of free will, the capacity for imagination is continuously put to use – this is cultural evolution – continuously working around attempts of control – continuously spawning diversity at the margins.

Once events obviously beyond human control force us to pay attention to the much richer metaphors of living systems, humans will rediscover that co-creating beautiful works of art is the ultimate antidote against the emergence of social power dynamics and the competitive logic of hate and violence. On this note, here is a good interview with Pat Kane, a writer, musician, activist, and futurist.

The machine metaphor is no match for the big cycle of life, for the love of life that resides in all living beings. The machine metaphor will fade away as the world de-powers, and as the era of fossil fuels comes to an end.

We are documenting Autistic culture in our articles, and we are centring Autistic lived experiences via participatory Autistic research, by actively supporting Autistic research projects, by coordinating Autistic peer support, by catalysing the co-creation of NeurodiVentures, and by curating useful tools developed by neurodivergent people for neurodivergent people.

Coherent theories of human ways of being

Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people have been comparing notes on the diversity of human ways of being via the internet for over twenty years. Lessons from the social model of disability and the disability rights movement apply. Neurodivergent people have come to realise that we live in hypernormative societies.


Neurodiversity is the diversity of human brains and embodied minds – the infinite variation in neurocognitive functioning within our species. Members of the neurodiversity movement adopt a position of diversity that encompasses a kaleidoscope of identities that intersects with the LGBTQIA+ kaleidoscope by recognising neurodivergent traits as natural variations of cognition, motivations, and patterns of behaviour within the human species.

Pathologising growing numbers of human ways of being is a social power game that removes agency from neurodivergent people. Social progress is overdue.

In the broadest sense, the social model of disability is about nothing more complicated than a clear focus on the economic, environmental and cultural barriers encountered by people who are viewed by others as having some form of impairment – whether physical, sensory or intellectual.

– Mike Oliver, 2004

The concept of neurodiversity can be traced to the discussions Autistic people were having in online forums in the 1990’s. It was elaborated into an inclusive paradigm in the early 2000’s by Kassiane Asasumasu, a multiply neurodivergent neurodiversity activist, who coined the terms neurodivergence and neurodivergent, to push back against the dehumanising aspects of hypernormative societies. Design justice rethinks design processes, centers people who are normally marginalized by design, and uses collaborative, creative practices to address the deepest challenges our communities face.

Principle 1 : We use design to sustain, heal, and empower our communities, as well as to seek liberation from exploitative and oppressive systems.

Principle 6 : We believe that everyone is an expert based on their own lived experience, and that we all have unique and brilliant contributions to bring to a design process.

Principle 9 : We work towards non-exploitative solutions that reconnect us to the earth and to each other.

Design Justice Network, 2018

Discrimination against Autistic people in particular is comparable to the level of discrimination against LGBTQIA+ people 50 years ago. Within such a highly discriminatory cultural environment, many services from the autism industry must be considered unethical, and obtaining a “diagnosis” can be an invitation for potential abuse and exploitation. The pathologisation of Autistic ways of being has led to what some critical researchers refer to as the Autism Industrial Complex.

The notion of disability in our society is underscored by a bizarre conception of “independence”. Autists depend on assistance from others in ways that differ from the cultural norm – and that is pathologised. However, the many ways in which non-autistic people depend on others is considered “normal”.

The cultural bias and stigmatising language in the DSM has long been identified as problematic far beyond the Autistic community. The inherently exploitative nature of our “civilised” cultures is top of mind for many neurodivergent people. Sadly, and from an Autistic perspective alarming, many culturally well adjusted people seem to deal with the trauma via denial, resulting in profound levels of cognitive dissonance.

Re-humanising theories of ways of being

In mainstream industrialised societies people don’t understand how Autistic people support each other, love each other, and care for each other in ways that go far beyond the culturally impaired neuronormative imagination.

It is time to remind the so-called “civilised” world about non-pathologising and coherent theories of human ways of being that are integrated into ecologies of care and the evolutionary flows of life in-formation that have been jointly developed within communities of Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people:


Monotropism offers an alternative to both medical and social models of disability, as it assumes that autistic differences have an embodied material basis that relates to resource allocation, and that those differences are not usually a medical matter. Like the social model, it sees the environment as often disabling. It locates both strengths and issues within an interest model of mind (and society) that amplifies the narrative about intense interests which threads through every set of diagnostic criteria that has ever been proposed.  It proposes that flow, force, direction and distribution of energy are essential features and that this directed force can be thought of as emotional.

Dr Dinah Murray, 2020

Related current research and introduction.


We’ve found monotropic theory to be a very helpful paradigm for a major swath of autistic experience, and the theory is supported by considering its own wellspring. Synthesising monotropic theory with deep ecology and holistic anatomy, we feel we have found a multi-dimensional, spacious, edgeless terrain under the monotropism map. We are calling it holotropism. This perspective may elucidate the high co-occurrences of synaesthesia, mirror-touch, dyspraxia, and hypermobility among us autistic people.

To be holotropic is to have wide open sensory gates. To participate in/as the immense world without becoming overwhelmed, we holotropes have two central methods: in, by hyperfocusing our attention on one sensory or cognitive path, and as, through synthesising our experience into coherence. A sense of wholeness occurs through both of these processes — less consciously in hyperfocus, more consciously in coherence.

Hendl Mirra, 2023

Related work and thoughts on the integration of holotropic minds into synthropic cultural organisms.

Macro Level Cultural Evolution

All human attempts of control at large scale are futile. We can build on this insight, co-creating small scale environments for nurturing collective human intelligence. We know how to let go of the illusion of control

If we want to find our way back to human scale and to the level of collective intelligence and cultural adaptive capability that is needed to navigate existential threats, we need to develop a language that enables us to imagine potential paths into a future that looks very different from the industrialised world that we were born into.

Collaborative niche construction, 2023

Cultural Immune Systems

The following quote nicely sums up the our globalised civilisation:

We do not deal properly with the issue of climate change. We do not deal properly with the issues of peace, war, immigration, food resources, water resources, public health, and all these important issues. We became incompetent because society as a whole began to focus on how to deceive and trick people.

– Jaron Lanier, 2019

Autistic people are best understood as the agents of a well functioning cultural immune system within human society:

The benefits of Autistic traits such as Autistic levels of hypersensitivity, hyperfocus, perseverance, lack of interest in social status, and inability to maintain hidden agendas mostly do not materialise at an individual level but at the level of the local social environment that an Autistic person is embedded in.

Within “civilisation” Autistic people tend to be highly concerned about social justice and tend to be the ones who point out toxic in-group competitive behaviours.

Autistic people – the cultural immune system of human societies, 2020

Micro Level Cultural Evolution

Collaborative niche construction at human scale:

We all thrive when being given the opportunity to live and work with our most trusted peers. In good company everyone is acutely aware of all the collective intelligence and capability that is available in the form of trusted colleagues, friends, and family.

Evolutionary design allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into a living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems. In evolutionary design the moniker of design is replaced by the concept of evolution. Cultural evolution entails not only the evolution of collaborative relationships and supporting tools within a group, but also the evolution of collaborative relationships between groups with many cultural commonalities and also between groups with few cultural commonalities.

Evolutionary Design, 2021


  1. The current collective human predicament
  2. Muddling through, from a synthropic perspective
  3. The entanglement between broken trust, trauma, and healing
  4. Co-creating centres of Autistic culture

None of this is new

  1. Daoist philosophy
  2. The life and ideas of David Bohm
  3. Towards replacing the DSM with a life affirming paradigm 

Weaving it all together

Hendl Mirra writes:

“The holotropic mind, when acting syntropically, tends to expect one thing to follow from another like fractals, or a jacob’s ladder toy: each thing is experienced like a step, whether forwards or backwards from, or sideways to, the last thing. Close, and shifting. This expectation rests on a somatic understanding that consciousness is cellular. When we are fully at ease, we can feel the synapses of our thoughts. When we experience cognitive-sensory dissonance it can feel like the whole infinite pattern, that we are a part of, gets erased.”

This gets to the core of lived Autistic experience. 

We live in an era of prescribed cognitive dissonance. This explains the link between holotropic ways of being and being traumatised, especially by what we observe and experience in the human social world. Our sensory experience of consciousness at all levels of scale and awareness of the interconnectedness of all life significantly reduce our capacity for maintaining cognitive dissonance.

Cultures in which it is a taboo to draw attention to culturally prescribed cognitive dissonance, or to withdraw from situations that contribute to cognitive dissonance, are life denying cultures. Literally sick cultures. In healthy cultures our capacity to detect cognitive dissonance catalyses collaborative niche construction, and contributes to the co-creation of ecologies of care.

When we attempt to express all the interconnections that we feel, see, and experience, we quickly notice that linear language is a poor medium. Metaphors are one way of expanding the sphere of discourse, but like all technology, in a powered-up society, i.e. a society that is learning disabled by institutionalised social and physical power gradients, metaphors can be weaponised. 

Collaborative niche construction is the evolutionary process of reducing cognitive dissonance, a process of omni-directional sensing and learning, which can only emerge in an adequately de-powered, non-overwhelming, and life affirming, i.e. holotropic and syntropic environment.

Cultural norms can either actively encourage collaborative niche construction – these would be syntropic cultural norms, or they can actively discourage collaborative niche construction by weaponising monotropism – the parasitic anthropocentric cultural norms that underpin the life denying monocultures known as “civilisations”. 

Institutionalised social power gradients between people are best understood as a form of parasitism. They emerge and thrive in environments where the cultural immune system is compromised. Norms can either actively power-up relationships or they can actively de-power relationships. A healthy culture is omni-directionally sensitive, not anthropocentric, it is adaptive, not hyper-normative, it is aware of human scale and limits, not scale blind.

To make ‘The Beauty of Collaboration at Human Scale’ widely available to members of the Autistic community, you can download a copy of the book free of charge. All our allies who visibly and openly support banning all forms of conversion therapies are also welcome to download a copy of the book free of charge.

Autistic survival tools – Daoist philosophy

Spoon conservation strategies within hypernormative societies

The Dao De Jing and Zhuangzi are the primary foundations of Daoist philosophy and religions based on this philosophy. The former book contains a timeless collection of critical thinking tools, and the latter book elaborates these tools in terms of concrete examples based on the experiences of living in powered-up societies, providing readers with a rich set of tools for exploring the predicament that plagues all attempts of empire building.

The writings of Zhuangzi can also be understood as an in-depth exploration of the social model of disability. This turns the book into a tool for understanding and articulating the human rights violations that arise from the pathologisation and marginalisation faced by Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.

Both books explicitly warn about the dangers of dogmatic principles or rules to follow. They teach readers how to ask questions instead of specific ways of going about life, and they do this in a humorous way that is largely lacking in Western philosophies, religions, and science.

The topics covered also make it obvious that the paradoxes, cognitive dissonance, and suffering thrown up by powered-up civilisations are as old as the oldest empires, and that people have always found ways of being that minimise the harm inflicted by rigid and oppressive structures, making the Dao De Jing relevant to our era of hypernormative industrialised and post-industrialised societies. Daoist analysis offers a refreshing contrast to the simplistic and polarising left/right debates that dominate WEIRD politics, which only serve to perpetuate fear, hate, violence, and paradigmatic inertia.

Please note that apart from limited exposure to elements that much later made it into Zen Buddhism, I am new to Daoist philosophy, and have not read any further books on the topic. Learning that there are around 1,500 related texts and non-exclusive religious sects is an encouraging sign of cultural diversity that seems to be lacking in many in many modern societies. Unsurprisingly, none of this is part of Western school education systems. 

Rather than rephrasing what more than 1,500 authors have thought and written about, I have compiled an extensive selection of quotes from the two foundational texts below, which illustrate, from my perspective – grouped into specific themes, how the texts relate to our times, and in particular to the lived experiences of Autistic people.

In case you prefer listening to a scholar who has studied Daoist philosophy for many years, I can recommend the following lecture and Q&A by Hans-Georg Moeller, who teaches in Macau.

The philosophical insight into genuine pretending i think allows us to understand and to practice Xiao Yao You and to understand and to practice some form of Ān Míng, being kind of okay with your fate. The two are complementary like the insight into genuine pretending which provides the basis for achieving this state of Xiao Yao You or this state of ease when you’re already in a state of civilization. Let me put it in a different way, when you’re a child and you do child play, you do not need philosophy. You are in – you can achieve – a state of Xiao Yao You or Ān just by luck, a lot of the time, simply when you’re playing. Now when we go through this civilization process, which everyone goes through, no matter in the West or in the East, they’re just different kinds of civilization process. I think again, that’s what the Zhuangzi reflects when we grow up.

This also in the Dao De Jing, right, the childishness, the childhood is always seen as a place where we’re kind of naturally in the state of Xiao Yao You. But through civilization we become more and more Bù Ān, because we always have to identify with these roles and so forth. So to understand this kind of childish condition is something that, at least momentarily, may allow us – now as as grown-ups we need the philosophy of genuine pretending, as children we don’t need it – but as as adults, we need – under the pressures of society – we need philosophy. Again, I think that’s the Daoist approach to philosophy. It’s a medicinal, a therapeutic approach. I think the core for Zhuangzi is that philosophy allows us to achieve this kind of childlike state of Ān under condition of the pressures of civilization, by understanding the existential condition of genuine pretending that we all exist under.

I am curious about how many have already read at least one of these books and how these texts relate to your lived experience. You can use the table of content below to navigate to specific theme(s). Please comment below!

Dao De Jing

Language and words

78. 1. There is nothing in the world more soft and weak than water, and yet for attacking things that are firm and strong there is nothing that can take precedence of it;—for there is nothing (so effectual) for which it can be changed.

2. Every one in the world knows that the soft overcomes the hard, and the weak the strong, but no one is able to carry it out in practice. 

3. Therefore a sage has said, ‘He who accepts his state’s reproach, Is hailed therefore its altars’ lord; To him who bears men’s direful woes They all the name of King accord.’ 

4. Words that are strictly true seem to be paradoxical.

81. 1. Sincere words are not fine; fine words are not sincere. Those who are skilled (in the Tao) do not dispute (about it); the disputatious are not skilled in it. Those who know (the Tao) are not extensively learned; the extensively learned do not know it. 

Knowledge and understanding

52. 1. (The Tao) which originated all under the sky is to be considered as the mother of them all. 

2. When the mother is found, we know what her children should be. When one knows that he is his mother’s child, and proceeds to guard (the qualities of) the mother that belong to him, to the end of his life he will be free from all peril. 

3. Let him keep his mouth closed, and shut up the portals (of his nostrils), and all his life he will be exempt from laborious exertion. Let him keep his mouth open, and (spend his breath) in the promotion of his affairs, and all his life there will be no safety for him. 

4. The perception of what is small is (the secret of) clear-sightedness; the guarding of what is soft and tender is (the secret of) strength.

71. 1. To know and yet (think) we do not know is the highest (attainment); not to know (and yet think) we do know is a disease. 

2. It is simply by being pained at (the thought of) having this disease that we are preserved from it. The sage has not the disease. He knows the pain that would be inseparable from it, and therefore he does not have it.

72. 1. When the people do not fear what they ought to fear, that which is their great dread will come on them. 

2. Let them not thoughtlessly indulge themselves in their ordinary life; let them not act as if weary of what that life depends on. 

3. It is by avoiding such indulgence that such weariness does not arise. 

4. Therefore the sage knows (these things) of himself, but does not parade (his knowledge); loves, but does not (appear to set a) value on, himself. And thus he puts the latter alternative away and makes choice of the former.

Life and agency

3. Who can (make) the muddy water (clear)? Let it be still, and it will gradually become clear. Who can secure the condition of rest? Let movement go on, and the condition of rest will gradually arise.

16. 1. The (state of) vacancy should be brought to the utmost degree, and that of stillness guarded with unwearying vigour. All things alike go through their processes of activity, and (then) we see them return (to their original state). When things (in the vegetable world) have displayed their luxuriant growth, we see each of them return to its root. This returning to their root is what we call the state of stillness; and that stillness may be called a reporting that they have fulfilled their appointed end.

63. 1. (It is the way of the Tao) to act without (thinking of) acting; to conduct affairs without (feeling the) trouble of them; to taste without discerning any flavour; to consider what is small as great, and a few as many; and to recompense injury with kindness. 

2. (The master of it) anticipates things that are difficult while they are easy, and does things that would become great while they are small. All difficult things in the world are sure to arise from a previous state in which they were easy, and all great things from one in which they were small. Therefore the sage, while he never does what is great, is able on that account to accomplish the greatest things. 

3. He who lightly promises is sure to keep but little faith; he who is continually thinking things easy is sure to find them difficult. Therefore the sage sees difficulty even in what seems easy, and so never has any difficulties. 

64. 1. That which is at rest is easily kept hold of; before a thing has given indications of its presence, it is easy to take measures against it; that which is brittle is easily broken; that which is very small is easily dispersed. Action should be taken before a thing has made its appearance; order should be secured before disorder has begun. 

2. The tree which fills the arms grew from the tiniest sprout; the tower of nine storeys rose from a (small) heap of earth; the journey of a thousand li commenced with a single step. 

3. He who acts (with an ulterior purpose) does harm; he who takes hold of a thing (in the same way) loses his hold. The sage does not act (so), and therefore does no harm; he does not lay hold (so), and therefore does not lose his hold. (But) people in their conduct of affairs are constantly ruining them when they are on the eve of success. If they were careful at the end, as (they should be) at the beginning, they would not so ruin them. 

4. Therefore the sage desires what (other men) do not desire, and does not prize things difficult to get; he learns what (other men) do not learn, and turns back to what the multitude of men have passed by. Thus he helps the natural development of all things, and does not dare to act (with an ulterior purpose of his own).

67. 1. All the world says that, while my Tao is great, it yet appears to be inferior (to other systems of teaching). Now it is just its greatness that makes it seem to be inferior. If it were like any other (system), for long would its smallness have been known! 

2. But I have three precious things which I prize and hold fast. The first is gentleness; the second is economy; and the third is shrinking from taking precedence of others. 

3. With that gentleness I can be bold; with that economy I can be liberal; shrinking from taking precedence of others, I can become a vessel of the highest honour. Now-a-days they give up gentleness and are all for being bold; economy, and are all for being liberal; the hindmost place, and seek only to be foremost;—( of all which the end is) death. 

4. Gentleness is sure to be victorious even in battle, and firmly to maintain its ground. Heaven will save its possessor, by his (very) gentleness protecting him.

76. 1. Man at his birth is supple and weak; at his death, firm and strong. (So it is with) all things. Trees and plants, in their early growth, are soft and brittle; at their death, dry and withered. 

2. Thus it is that firmness and strength are the concomitants of death; softness and weakness, the concomitants of life. 

3. Hence he who (relies on) the strength of his forces does not conquer; and a tree which is strong will fill the out-stretched arms, (and thereby invites the feller.) 

4. Therefore the place of what is firm and strong is below, and that of what is soft and weak is above.

Powered-up empires

57. 1. A state may be ruled by (measures of) correction; weapons of war may be used with crafty dexterity; (but) the kingdom is made one’s own (only) by freedom from action and purpose.

2. How do I know that it is so? By these facts:—In the kingdom the multiplication of prohibitive enactments increases the poverty of the people; the more implements to add to their profit that the people have, the greater disorder is there in the state and clan; the more acts of crafty dexterity that men possess, the more do strange contrivances appear; the more display there is of legislation, the more thieves and robbers there are. 

3. Therefore a sage has said, ‘I will do nothing (of purpose), and the people will be transformed of themselves; I will be fond of keeping still, and the people will of themselves become correct. I will take no trouble about it, and the people will of themselves become rich; I will manifest no ambition, and the people will of themselves attain to the primitive simplicity.’

77. 1. May not the Way (or Tao) of Heaven be compared to the (method of) bending a bow? The (part of the bow) which was high is brought low, and what was low is raised up. (So Heaven) diminishes where there is superabundance, and supplements where there is deficiency. 

2. It is the Way of Heaven to diminish superabundance, and to supplement deficiency. It is not so with the way of man. He takes away from those who have not enough to add to his own superabundance. 

3. Who can take his own superabundance and therewith serve all under heaven? Only he who is in possession of the Tao! 

4. Therefore the (ruling) sage acts without claiming the results as his; he achieves his merit and does not rest (arrogantly) in it:—he does not wish to display his superiority.



Convergence of apparently contradictory identities that make Zhuangzi so fascinating: acerbic mystic, subtle rustic, bottom-dweller and high-flyer, unassuming rebel, abstruse jester, frivolous sage. Funny philosophers have always been hard {xxii} to come by; profound comedians perhaps even more so.these three heady torques seem to erupt in this work all at once: it is precisely Zhuangzi’s humor that is beautiful, his beauty that is profound, his profundity that is comical. This work defies the dreary but prevalent notion that the serious is the important, that the playful is the inconsequential, and above all that we are under some obligation to draw conclusions about ourselves and our world, and then stick to them. Zhuangzi refuses to let himself be completely known; indeed he seems to deny the possibility and even desirability of total understanding, of himself, or of anything else. But at the same time he shows himself to us, an unignorable and unforgettable presence that is all the more vivid and evocative for his staunch evasion of ultimate knowability or definitive identity. Encountering Zhuangzi opens a window into a world of enlivening confusions, taunting misdirections, surreal grotesqueries, cutting satire, virtuoso reasonings, insouciant despair, mischievous fallacies, morbid exuberances, impudent jokes, and jolting non-sequiturs, which nonetheless has the most profoundly consequential things to say about the gravest human problems of living, dying, and knowing.

Zhuang Zhou was born into a time of great political and philosophical upheaval and ferment, known as the Warring States Period (575–221 BCE).

The political situation emerging from the collapse of the Western Zhou empire (1122–770 BCE) and its aftermath, in which a number of de facto independent principalities cropped up, vying for supremacy, each attempting to unify the other states under its own aegis. This provided a kind of open marketplace of potential sponsors for a new class of intellectuals, as all of these rulers were looking for an ideology and set of policies that would both establish their legitimacy as heirs to the Zhou dynasty and allow them to accomplish political unification under their own hegemony.

The earliest of these private reformers and educators, putting forth a doctrine independent of any particular political power but marketed to various contenders, was Confucius(孔丘 Kong Qiu, ca. 551–479 BCE).

The work of Confucius was opposed by Mozi,(墨翟 Mo Di) (ca. 450–390 BCE?). Mozi rejected the primacy of the family, and the spontaneous but biased affections that come with it, as a model for social organization. Instead, he proposed a more abstract notion of moral obligation rooted in a utilitarian calculation of maximized material benefits for all, justified not by human fellow-feeling but by the will of an anthropomorphic deity, Heaven, to benefit all equally, and the punishments and rewards enforced by this deity and many lesser ghosts and spirits.

The development of Confucian thought was continued by Mencius(孟軻 Meng Ke, ca. 372–289 BCE), a contemporary of Zhuangzi’s (although neither explicitly mentions the other). Mencius defends the Confucian virtues against the Mohist attack by asserting that their seeds are in some sense built into the human person at birth,

The Mohists and the Confucians each have their own “Course”(道 dao). The term dao is cognate with the term for “to lead or guide”(導) and can also mean “to speak.”

The term dao (“ course,” “way,” “method,” “path,”) is thus initially used by both the Confucians and Mohists to denote their “way” of doing things, their particular tradition of values and behaviors, including the exemplary deeds of a teacher and the guiding discourse prescribing a course of study and emulation, and the resulting set of practices (e.g., the system of traditional ritual), which lead to the attainment of the preconceived {xxiv} value.

Developing a new and profoundly different, ironic meaning of the term dao. 3 In this context, Dao is precisely what is free of purpose and specific guidelines, the exact opposite of the traditional meaning of dao. Yet it is still called a dao. Why? Because it does in fact do what the traditional daos promised to do: generate the things we see, know, and want.

Indeed, central to the Daoist idea is a critique of conscious knowledge and moral ideals as such. Our attention is directed away from the foreground purposes of human activity and toward the background, that is, what normally escapes our awareness. This move reorients our focus toward the spontaneous and purposeless processes in nature and man that undergird and produce things, begin things, end things, compose the stuff of things, and guide things along their courses by not deliberately guiding them at all. This can be viewed as a new stress on Nature as opposed to Man, but only if “nature” is understood precisely as {xxv} “spontaneity,” that is, what is so without conscious planning or purpose, not nature understood as a product of a purposeful creator that abides by the laws He imposes upon it and reveals thereby the glory of His intelligence and goodness.

The questions Zhuangzi faces are indeed among the most fundamental human problems: How should I live my life? Which of the alternate courses should I take as my guide? And how is it that I come to choose one course over another? Given that there are alternate ways of seeing things, why do I, and why should I, see things the way I do rather than another way, and thus follow one path rather than another? Zhuangzi’s response to this problem, simply stated, is this: this question can never be answered in the terms in which it has been put, because our understanding consciousness can never know why it sees things one way rather than another, can never ultimately ground its own judgments, and is actually in no position to serve as a guide for living. To consciously weigh alternatives, apply your understanding to making a decision about what is best and then deliberately follow the course you have decided on—this is the fundamental structure of all purposive activity and conscious knowledge, the basis of all ethics, all philosophy, all politics, all human endeavors at improvement, and this is precisely what Zhuangzi seems to consider ridiculous and impossible. Knowledge is unreliable; Will is unreliable; Tradition is unreliable; Society is unreliable; Intuition is unreliable; Logic is unreliable; Faith is unreliable. But what else is there?

There are places where Zhuangzi speaks as if he were a mystic in the traditional sense, or a skeptic, or a monist, a dualist, an intuitionist, a theist, a deist, an agnostic, a relativist, and so on. The reader would do well to note as she proceeds through the text the passages that, taken on their own, might lead to these conclusions. Like a mystic, Zhuangzi often seems to speak of a state that transports one beyond ordinary reason and sensation and puts one in touch with an alternate, life-changing realm of experience. Like a skeptic, he has many cutting observations to make about the limits of all possible forms of knowledge and ridicules the dogmatism of anyone who claims to know anything conclusively. Like a monist, we find in his work the repeated assertion that “all things are one.” Like a spirit-matter dualist, we find him telling stories of the negligibility of the physical body, however deformed it may be, in favor of “what moves the body.” Like an intuitionist, his dismissal of rational knowledge sometimes seems to point to some alternate type of knowing which can escape the skeptical objections he presents. Like a theist, we find him presenting characters who speak piously of submitting to the will of an anthropomorphized “Creator of Things.” Like a deist, we find a softer version of this trope that severely limits what can be known of this creator, even its personal character and relationship to human beings. Like an agnostic, we finally find him questioning even his ability to know what the Heavenly is, whether the Heavenly is not really the Human or vice versa. Like a relativist, he asserts that all words are acceptable, all courses right, in relation to the perspective from which they are pronounced. Like a fatalist, he speaks of Fate as something about which nothing can be done, which is simply to be accepted as unavoidable. Like a nihilist, he denies the distinction between right and wrong, and even whether we can know whether knowing is knowing or not-knowing. Like a philosopher of language, he presents devastating insights into the character of discourse and its effect on our beliefs about the world and about values. Like an existentialist, he seems to conceive the range of human transformation to be unbounded, and the values that guide it to lie in the hands of each individual and to be renewed moment by moment. This list could be extended. But it is obvious that many of these positions seem to be starkly opposed or at least incompatible. Does Zhuangzi somehow really combine them all?

Conclusions are perhaps the least important thing to be gained from reading the Zhuangzi, and it is hoped that the delicious experience of grappling with and being jostled about by this text will allow readers to come to their own conclusions about it—and then perhaps to question those conclusions, and try out some others.


Language and words

For courses have never had any sealed boundaries between them, and words have never had any constant range. It is by establishing definitions of what is “this,” what is “right,” that boundaries are made. Let me explain what I mean by boundaries: there are right and left, then there are roles and duties, then there are divisions and disputes, then there are competitions and struggles. (And this is the kind of thing they call the Eight Virtues!) 25 As for the sage, he may admit that something exists beyond the six limits of the known world, but he does not make any further assessments26 about it. As for what is within the known world, he may assess it but will not express his own opinion. As for historical events, he will give an opinion but not debate it. For wherever a division is made, something is left undivided. Wherever debate shows one of two alternatives to be right, something remains undistinguished and unshown.U What is it? The sage hides it in his embrace, while the masses of people debate it, trying to demonstrate it to one another. Thus I say that demonstration by debate always leaves something unshown.

The greatest Course is thus always unproclaimed. Greatest argument is that which uses no words. Greatest humankindness is that which is neither human nor kind. Greatest integrity is that which declines nothing. Greatest courage is that {18} which is unaggressive. For when the guidance of a course becomes explicit, when it becomes clearly and manifestly a course, it ceases to be the Course. When words make an argument, they fail to reach everywhere. When humankindness is constant it cannot be all-encompassing. 27 When integrity is pure it cannot be trusted. When courage is aggressive it cannot reach completion. 28 These five are rounded on all sides, but people are always trying to make them square.

“What this age values and takes as its guide, its course, is written text. But written texts are no more than words. Words do have something valuable about them: their meanings and ideas. But those meanings and ideas come from something else, and what they come from cannot be transmitted in words. And yet the people of this age, due to the high value they put on words, transmit only the writings. Though this age so esteems them, I do not regard them as worthy of esteem. What these people value about them is not what is really valuable about them. For whatever we can see by looking is only shapes and forms. Whatever we can hear by listening is only names and sounds. Alas! This age takes shapes, forms, names, and sounds as sufficient to attain the reality of that something else. But shapes, forms, names and sounds are ultimately not sufficient to get at what is real there. Thus ‘those who know do not speak, and those who speak do not know.’ 7 But how could the present age understand this!”

For ‘he who knows does not speak, and he who speaks does not know. Hence the sage practices the teaching of no words.’ 3 The Course cannot be given, and its intrinsic powers cannot be received. But humankindness can be deliberately faked, responsible conduct can do harm, and ritual is just a mutual swindle. Hence it is said, {175} ‘When the Course is lost, there are the intrinsic powers; when the intrinsic powers are lost, there is humankindness; when the humankindness is lost, there is ritual. Ritual is the fruitless flower of the Course, and the beginning of disorder.’ 4 And also, ‘To practice the Course requires daily diminishment. Diminish again and yet again, until you reach non-doing, doing nothing and yet leaving nothing undone.’

Heaven and earth possess vast beauties but speak no words. The four seasons have their unconcealed regularities but offer no opinions. Each of the ten thousand things is perfectly coherent7 but gives no explanations. The sage traces back to the beauties of heaven and earth and thereby reaches through to the coherence of the ten thousand things.

“If words were completely adequate, one could speak all day and all of it would be the Course. If words were completely inadequate, one could speak all day and all of it would concern only particular beings. The ultimate reaches both of the Course and of beings cannot be conveyed by either speech or silence. Only where there is neither speech nor silence does discussion really come to its ultimate end.”

When nothing is said, everything is equal. But the saying and this original equality are then not equal to one another. Thus it is that I speak only nonspeech. When you speak nonspeech, you can talk all your life without ever having said a word, or never {226} utter a word without ever failing to say something. There is some place from which each saying is acceptable, and some place from which it is unacceptable. There is some place from which it is so, and some place from which it is not so. Whence so? From being affirmed as so. Whence not so? From being denied to be so. Whence acceptable? From someone’s accepting of it. Whence unacceptable? From someone’s nonacceptance of it. There is necessarily some perspective from which each thing is right and acceptable. Thus all things are right, all things are acceptable. 4 So what words other than spillover-goblet words, harmonizing through their Heavenly Transitions, could remain in force for very long?


In the great beginning, what there was was nothing—devoid of definite being, unnameable by any name. There arose from this continuity a unity but without yet any definite form. Accessing this, making it their own, things come to life; their appropriation of it is what is known as their intrinsic virtuosities. When definite shapes have not yet emerged, but in the undivided continuity certain tentatively distinct portions appear, this is called their individual allotments of life. As motion that also stays and maintains itself, distinct living beings emerge, and when these beings become complete, each producing its own distinct structural coherence, this is called their physical bodies. Those physical bodies become protective preservers of imponderable spirit, in each case with its own specific styles and laws, which we call their specific inborn natures. When the inborn nature is cultivated, it can be brought back to the intrinsic virtuosity until it becomes just as it was in the beginning. Being the same as it was, it is open like space, and being open like space, it is vast, joining in the chirpings of all beaks. When one joins in the chirpings of all beaks, it is with all of heaven and earth that one has joined. This joining is a merging into oblivion, as if stupid, as if swooning. This is called the Obscure Virtuosity, 10 none other than the Vast Accord.

Ordinary people of the world are always pleased when others agree with them and displeased when others differ with them. The reason they want people to agree with them and don’t want people to differ with them is because of their ambition to be someone, to go beyond the ordinary multitude. But precisely because they have this desire to go beyond the ordinary multitude, they fail to go beyond the ordinary multitude! They depend on the multitude to settle themselves into a position they have derived from it, but that is never a match for the real multitude of skills possessed by the multitudeH! And thus when these people try to manage a state for someone, they merely canvas what was profitable to the Three Dynasties, without seeing the havoc this brings. The chances of preserving the state are then not even one in ten thousand: it becomes more than ten thousand times more likely for them to lose the state than to save it.

There are five ways to thus lose one’s inborn nature. First, the five esteemed colors mess up the eyes so that they can no longer see well. Second, the five esteemed tones mess up the ears so that they can no longer hear well. Third, the five esteemed fragrances infiltrate the nose, besieging and irritating the brow. Fourth, the five esteemed flavors sully the mouth, diseasing and impairing it. Fifth, preferences and dislikes unsettle the heart and mind, making the inborn nature flighty and unstable. All these five things are harmful to the life in us.

Confucius said, “Yes, they are. Without humankindness the noble man cannot complete himself, and without responsible conduct he cannot live. Humankindness {114} and responsible conduct are thus the inborn nature of the Genuine Human. What further could he engage himself in?” Lao Dan said, “Tell me, what do you mean by humankindness and responsible conduct?” Confucius said, “To concern oneself about the happiness of all living things in the depths of one’s heart, to love and care for everyone all-inclusively and without bias, this is the true character of humankindness and responsible conduct.” Lao Dan said, “Ach! That’s pretty much what all you latter-day people say. 6 To love and care for everyone all-inclusively, isn’t that rather far-fetched? And to be without bias—that is itself a bias! You, sir, seem to desire that all in the world are never devoid of your shepherding! Well, heaven and earth have their own inherent regularity, just as the sun and moon have their own inherent brightness, the stars and constellations have their own inherent arrangement, the birds and beasts have their own inherent ways of flocking together, the trees and plants have their own inherent ways of standing themselves in place. You, sir, must release each to its own intrinsic powers and let them proceed accordingly, push each forward only on its own course, for that is already perfection, already a kind of arrival. What use is there then to go on with this militant advocacy of humankindness and responsible conduct, avidly pounding a drum for battle with the vehemence of a man ‘seeking his lost son’B? Ach! You, sir, are just disordering the inborn natures of human beings!

Similarly, the rituals and principles and standards and measures used by the Three Sovereigns and the Five Emperors are not esteemed because they were all the same, but because of the good governance they produced in each case. They are like hawthorns, pears, oranges, and grapefruits—their flavors are completely different and opposed to each other, but all of them are pleasing to the tongue. Thus rituals, principles, standards, and codes must change in response to the times. If you dress up a monkey in the robes of the Duke of Zhou, it will surely bite and gnaw and rip at them, not satisfied until it has torn them completely off of its body. If we really look at the difference between the past and the future, we see that it is as great as the difference between the monkey and the Duke of Zhou.

“The way most people nowadays go about governing their bodies and ordering their hearts and minds is like what the Border-guard described: they hide from what is Heavenly in them, separate themselves from their inborn natures, destroy their true dispositions, kill their own imponderable spirits. Because it is what everybody else does, they leave the clumps of their inborn natures unsmoothed, so that their desires and hatreds, those bastard children of the inborn nature, become its overgrowth of reeds and bushes. At their first sproutings these do provide support for our bodies, but eventually they tug at and finally uproot the inborn nature itself, until it leaks and oozes and spurts, its juices flowing indiscriminately out, erupting with scabs and sores and tumors, burning with fever and pissing out grease.”

Knowledge and understanding

Hence when understanding comes to stop at what it does not understand, when consciousness comes to rest there where it has no consciousness, it has arrived at the utmost. The demonstration that uses no words, the Course that gives no guidance, the Course that is not a course—who “understands” these things, what could know them?

Gnawgap asked Baby Sovereign “Do you know what all things agree in considering right?” Baby Sovereign said, “How could I know that?” Gnawgap said, “Do you know that you don’t know?” Baby Sovereign said, “How could I know that?” Gnawgap said, “Then are all things devoid of knowledge?” Baby Sovereign said, “How could I know that? Still, let me try to say something about this. How could I know that what I call ‘knowing’ is not really ‘not-knowing’? How could I know that what I call ‘not-knowing’ is not really ‘knowing’?

When everyone keeps his bright vision to himself, the world will no longer be light-blinded. When everyone keeps his keen hearing to himself, the world will no longer be fettered. When everyone keeps his wisdom to himself, the world will no longer be confused. When everyone keeps his intrinsic virtuosities to himself, the world will no longer go awry. Zeng Shen, Shi Yu, Yang Zhu, Mo Di, Master {87} Kuang, Carpenter Chui, and Li Zhu all put their virtuosities on display outside themselves, using their radiance to disorder the world—but these are things for which standards are of no use. Do you know how things were in the times when virtuosity was fully realized? In the olden days of the clans of Rongcheng, Da’ting, Bohuang, Zhongyang, Lilu, Lixu, Xuanyuan, Hexu, Zuntu, Zhurong, Fuxi, and Shennong, 9 the people knotted ropes as their only records, 10 delighting in their food and clothes and enjoying their own customs and dwellings. Neighboring countries could see each other in the distance, their dogbarks and cockcrows were audible to one another, but all their lives the people had no occasion to travel from one to the other. 11 This was the time of perfect order. But nowadays it has gotten to the point where they make the people crane their necks and stand on tiptoe, saying, “In such and such a place there is a worthy man!” They pack their provisions and head out to find him, abandoning their own parents and dropping their service to their own rulers, their footprints littering the territories of various feudal lords and their carriage tracks crisscrossing for thousands of miles. This is all because the people in high places have such a love of wisdom. It is precisely the sincerity of their love of wisdom, coupled with constant lack of the Course, that throws the world into such disorder.

Much wisdom in the use of crossbows and arrows, traps and nets, plots and schemes, throws the birds of the sky into disorder. Much wisdom in the use of hooks, bait, nets, poles, and lures throws the fish of the waters into disorder. Much wisdom in the use of traps, nets, snares, and lattices throws the beast of the woodlands into disorder. The wiles of wisdom become like a kind of gradual poisoning, rigidifying and unmooring “hard” and “white,” disjoining and muddying “sameness” and “difference,” and end up casting the people into a muddle of disputation. Thus it is that each and every great disorder of the world is caused by the love of wisdom. Everyone in the world knows enough to find out about what they don’t know, but none knows enough to find out about what they already know. 12 Everyone knows enough to disapprove of what they consider bad, but none knows enough to disapprove of what they have come to consider good. 13 This is the reason for the great disorder, which violates the brightness of the sun and moon above and melts away the kernel of vitality14 within the mountains and rivers below, toppling the ordered succession of the four seasons in between. All creatures, down to the {88} smallest wriggling and fluttering insects, have thus lost touch with their inborn natures—that is how profoundly the love of wisdom disrupts the world! Abandoning all the many types of generative impulse within them, 15 they instead insist on laborious subservience. Letting go of the peaceful blandness of non-doing, 16 they instead delight in ideas and plans full of tsk-tsk jibber-jabber. And it is this tsk-tsk jibber-jabber that has thrown the world into its present disorder!

The ancients who practiced the Course used their tranquility as nutriment for their conscious understanding. Conscious understanding did arise for them, but it was not employed in the service of any deliberate doings. Thus they can be said also to have used their conscious understanding as nutriment for their tranquility. When conscious understanding and tranquility can come together and nourish one another in this way, a harmonious coherence2 of the two emerges from the inborn nature. Inherent virtuosity is just this harmony, and the Course is just this coherence. Their inherent virtuosity came to contain everything in itself—and just this is real humankindness. Their Course came to arrange all things into mutual coherence one with another—and just this is truly responsible conduct. Their responsible conduct shone brightly so that other beings come to feel kinship with them—and just this is real loyalty. They were pure and genuine within and reverted to this even in their emotional dispositions—and just this is real music, real joy. The sincerity of their conduct showed even in their faces and bodies, and accorded with the elegant patterns of culture—and just this is real ritual. And yet, when practiced universally, 3 ritual and music disorder all the world. For when the correctness belonging to another is applied to oneself, it only beclouds one’s intrinsic virtuosities. These must not venture outward to impose upon {132} others, for whenever they are made to venture outward, imposing on other beings, the inborn natures of those other beings will be in every case lost. These ancients, in this state of undivided obliviousness, remained in communion with everything in the world and yet found a tranquil solitude there. At that time yin and yang were in harmonious stillness, the ghosts and spirits brought no disturbances, the four seasons found their right measures, the ten thousand things remained unharmed, so no living thing met with a premature death. Although people did have some conscious understanding, they had no use for it. This is what is called utmost unity. At this time no one did anything deliberately; whatever happened always happened spontaneously, not done by anyone. 4 But then such intrinsic virtuosities went into decline, and it was then that people like Suiren and Fuxi5 started to manage the world and do things with it. The people of the world complied but were no longer in unity.

Thereafter they dismissed their inborn natures and followed their minds instead. Minds then came to know and recognize only other minds, interacting only through their understandings, which can never be enough to bring stability to the world. Then they supplemented it with elegant patterns of culture, and augmented it with erudition. But the elegant cultural patterns ended up destroying the materials they embellished, and the erudition ended up drowning the mind. And then the people started to become really confused and disordered, with no means by which to restore their inborn natures and dispositions, no way to return to their initial state. Looking at it this way, the world has lost the Course and the Course has lost the world. The world and the Course, in their interaction, have lost each other.

The Course surely does not proceed through petty practices, nor is intrinsic virtuosity made manifest through petty knowledge. Petty knowledge harms intrinsic virtuosity, and petty practices harm the Course. Thus we may say that all they did was get their own selves into balanced alignment, nothing more. Delighting in completeness, in remaining intact, is what they called fulfilled aspiration. It meant simply that nothing could further augment their happiness. But nowadays when people speak of fulfilled aspiration, they just mean getting the carriages and the caps of rank and wealth.

When a sage is born, great robbers arise. So it is only when you destroy the sages and pardon all the thieves and robbers that the world can become well ordered! When the streams dry up, the valleys empty; when the hills are leveled, the reservoirs are filled; and once the sages die, great robbers will no longer arise. Then the world will be at peace and without trouble! But if the sages do not die, great robbers will never stop. To try to govern the world by doubling the number of sages would merely double the profits of the great robbers. If you create pounds and ounces to measure them with, they’ll steal the pounds and ounces and use them to rob you further. If you make scales and balances to regulate them with, they’ll steal the scales and balances and use them to rob you more. If you create tallies and seals to enforce their reliability, they’ll steal the tallies and seals and use them to rob you too. If you create ideals of humankindness and responsible conduct to regulate them {86} with, why, they’ll just steal humankindness and responsible conduct and use them to rob you all the more.

The sages are the sharpest of all the world’s weapons, and should not be displayed. Hence only when sagacity is destroyed and wisdom abandoned will the great robbers disappear.

If we consider something to be worthy because it achieves something, there is no thing that is not worthy. If we consider it to be unworthy because it fails to achieve something, there is no thing that is not unworthy. When you understand the sense in which east and west are opposed to each other and yet indispensable to one another, you have determined what divides the allotments of their achievements. From the point of view of the inclinations of various beings, if we judge something to be right because there is some way to view it as right, then no thing is not right. If we judge it to be wrong because there is some way to view it as wrong, then no thing is not wrong.

So if someone says, ‘Why don’t we make only rightness our master and eliminate wrongness, make only order our master and eliminate disorder?’ this is someone who has not yet understood the coherence of heaven and earth10 and the realities of the ten thousand things. That would be like taking heaven alone as your master and eliminating earth, or taking yin alone as your master and eliminating yang—an obvious impossibility.

What is right and what is wrong have never yet been stably determined in this world. But though this is so, non-doing can stably determinate what is right and what is wrong. The reaching of happiness, keeping the body alive—it is only nondoing that comes close to maintaining this. Let me try to explain what I mean. It is by non-doing that the sky is clear. It is by non-doing that the earth is tranquil. When these non-doings join together, there occur the transformations by which all things are generated. So oblivious, so unheeding, emerging from nowhere! So unheeding, so oblivious, devoid of any likeness! All things busily working their works emerge from the root of this non-doing! Thus it is said, “Heaven and earth do nothing, and yet there is nothing they do not do.” 3 But as for human beings, who among them can attain to this non-doing?

“Learning does not necessarily make one knowledgeable, 13 and skill in debate does not necessarily make one wise. This is why the sage eliminates them. What he keeps, what keeps him, 14 is only what is not increased or diminished however one tries to increase or diminish it. So deep and unfathomable—like the ocean! So lofty and towering—it ends and then begins again!

“If someone answers when asked about the Course, he does not know the Course. Though one may ask about the Course, this does not mean one has heard of the Course. The Course is not susceptible to questions, and any questions about it have no answers. To ask after it by asking no questions is to be through with all questions. To answer by giving no answers is to be free from harboring anything within. 23 And to confront the ending of all questions with nothing harbored within—such a one externally sees no time and space and internally is without knowledge of any primordial beginning.

“The Course is the full array of intrinsic powers.F The life in us is the radiance of these intrinsic powers shining forth. The inborn nature is a concrete form taken by the life in us. The motion of the inborn nature is a kind of activity, but when activity becomes deliberate and artificial, it can be called the loss [of that inborn nature]. Similarly, awareness25 is originally an interface with the world, but as understanding26 it comes to be a kind of scheming. What understanding does not know is like what is in one’s peripheral vision, seen out of the corner of the eye. For when all your actions are what you cannot help doing, outside of your deliberate control, it is called intrinsic virtuosity. Conversely, when all your actions come from yourself alone, we call that being completely in control. These two descriptions are directly opposed, but the facts they describe actually agree.

‘The Ten Thousand Things’—this is just to use one of the larger numbers as a nickname by which to pronounce a provisional designation for them due to their great quantity. So ‘Heaven and Earth’ just means the vastest among forms, ‘yin and yang’ just means the vastest among energies, 22 and ‘the Course’ just means what is most unbiased among all doings. 23 To use [the word “Course”] as a nickname for the vastness involved, as a way to bespeak it, is permissible; but once we have this word there is a tendency to take the Course as being comparable and contrastable to something. To dispute and distinguish on this basis is to compare the Course to a class outside itself, like we do with the species of dogs as opposed to horses. This misses it by a wide margin.”

But even if one person is lord and another is servant, this is only a matter of the times; in another age, neither would be lower than the other. Hence it is said that an Utmost Person does not remain walking on any one road, does not stick to any one practice. The scholarly types esteem antiquity and disparage the present—and to be sure—when you look at people of today against the {223} likes of old Mr. Hoghide, 9 who could fail to be swept away in the flow of such waves? But it is only the Utmost Person who can wander through this world without going awry, following along with others without losing himself, not imitating the teachings of others, receiving ideas from them without becoming one of them.

The seven-tenths or so that are presented as citations from weighty ancient authorities are meant to defuse garrulous fault-finding, eliciting agreement with the words of these “venerable elders” instead. But in fact some of those who come before us in years, if they have not gone through the warp and the woof of things in a way befitting their age, from the root to the tip, do not have any real priority over us. A man [of advanced years] with nothing to give him priority over others has not fulfilled the course of a human being, and a human being devoid of the course of human being should really just be a called a stale, obsolete oldster.

Zhuangzi said to Huizi, “Confucius went along for sixty years and transformed sixty times. What he first considered right he later considered wrong. He could never know if what he presently considered right were not fifty-nine times wrong.”

Master Liezi4 had fallen into extreme poverty, to the point where his hunger showed itself on his face. A visitor mentioned it to Ziyang of Zheng, saying, “Lie Yukou is what you might call a distinguished man who has the Course. Now what {232} is the reason that a distinguished man who has the Course dwells in your land, my lord, and yet has been allowed to fall into such extreme poverty? Can it be that my lord has no liking for distinguished men?” Ziyang then immediately ordered an officer to send a gift of grain to Liezi. Liezi welcomed the messenger, but then bowed twice and declined the gift. The messenger departed and Liezi went back into his house. His wife glared at him and pounded her breast with her fist, saying, “I was told that to be the wife of a man of the Course would be a life of ease and joy. But here we are, the starvation showing on our faces. The ruler was in error, but now he has sent food to you to correct it, and yet you refuse it. Alas, that such must be my fate!” Liezi laughed and said, “The ruler does not know me personally. He has sent this grain to me on the basis of what someone else has told him about me. So if someone else were to speak ill of me, he would perhaps also go by that person’s words. That’s why I didn’t accept the gift.” As it happens, the people later rebelled against Ziyang of Zheng and put him to death.

The knowledge of petty persons never amounts to more than gift wrapping and greeting cards, shredding the pure kernel of spirit in them by limping through the shallows. And yet they aspire to benefit all equally and guide all beings, to make a grand unity of form and void! But this is just getting lost and confused in the limitless continuum of spaces and times, becoming so bound to forms that they know nothing of the Great Beginning. Those others, the Utmost Persons, revert the pure kernel of spirit in them to the beginninglessness, vanishingly napping their way to the homeland of not-even-anything—fluidly flowing into the formlessness, expansively releasing into the vast clarity. How sad it is indeed to busy yourself with knowledge of trivialities, the tiny hairs at the end of things, knowing nothing of this Great Tranquility!

But the world is presently in great disorder. People no longer understand real sagehood and worthiness. The Course and its intrinsic powers are no longer unified. Many in the world congratulate themselves complacently for their insight into some single aspect of it. It is as if the ears, eyes, nose, and mouth each had their own understanding, without being able to interconnect. Thus do the skills of the various schools each excel in some part of it, each of which is useful at a certain time. But they are partial and incomplete, nook and corner scholars only. They may try to judge the beauties of heaven and earth, analyze the coherence5 of all things and investigate the comprehensiveness of the ancients. But how rarely can any of them fully encompass the beauty of heaven and earth or take the measure of the richness both of imponderable spirit and of clear illumination.

Each man in the world now fashions his own technique out of whatever part of it happens to suit his own desires. How sad! The various schools go off without returning, making it impossible for them ever to come together. If these latter-day scholars are unable to perceive the purity of heaven and earth, or the vast system of the ancients, the art of the {268} Course will be torn to pieces by the world—and this will be what ends up tearing the world to pieces.A

Life and agency

Thus it is said that in the dimmest antiquity, rulership of the world was accomplished simply through non-doing. 1 That means relying only on the Heavenly and on the intrinsic virtuosities, nothing more.
Hence the intrinsic virtuosities are what can bring unobstructed success everywhere between Heaven and Earth, and the Course is what proceeds through all the ten thousand things.
“Here is how the ancients tamed the world: having no desires, all in the world had all they needed. Non-doing, all in the world was transformed. Being still as an abyss, all the people settled into stability.” As the Record says, “Penetrating to the one continuity, all the myriad tasks are completed. Free of any intention for gain, attaining only freedom from any intention, A all the ghosts and spirits yield.”

The various expressions of non-doing: that is what is meant by the intrinsic virtuosities. Cherishing other people and creating benefit for all beings: that is what is meant by humankindness. Seeing commonalities in what is different: that is what is meant by vastness. Proceeding in one’s deeds without embanking oneself against what is different: that is what is meant by capaciousness. Possession of all the ten thousand differences: 2 that is what is meant by wealth. Thus, holding fast to one’s intrinsic virtuosities is called maintaining the strand, and bringing them to completion is called taking one’s place in the world. Following the Course is called lacking nothing, and not letting external things blunt one’s aspiration is called being undamaged.

“When noble people are clear on these ten things, how encompassing they are in their service to the vastness of their own minds! How fluid and fecund they are, being the passing on of all things! Such people leave the gold hidden in the mountains, leave the pearls hidden in the depths of the sea, see no profit in goods and riches, stay away from rank and wealth. Taking no joy in long life and finding no sorrow in early death, they feel no glory in success and no shame in failure. Forgetting both long life and early death, success and failure are to them not even worth mentioning. They do not try to snap up all the profits of the era as their private share, or to exert sovereignty over the world as a way to reach a position of shining prominence. What shines for them is rather to understand that all things comprise a single treasury, that life and death comprise a single shape.”

Someone who can maintain his body, fully develop the life in him, firmly establish his intrinsic virtuosities and make manifest the Course—is he not a person of kingly virtuosity? Vastly he gushes forth, and yet all things follow along with him in his every sudden emergence and surging action. Such is what is called a person of kingly virtuosity. He peers into the darkest dark, he listens where there is no sound. Within the darkest dark alone he sees daybreak. Within the soundless alone he hears harmony. Thus even in the depths below the deep, he can discern a something definitely present, and even in the more imponderable {100} than the imponderable, he can discern a certain subtle quintessence. Hence, in his contact with all things, though utterly lacking anything to give, he somehow provides what they seek, and though galloping forth on the instant, he somehow tracks where they are coming from, providing something for each and all—large or small, long or short, far or near.” B

But this man alone says no. One who holds to the Course keeps his intrinsic virtuosities whole, and when these are whole, the body is also whole, and thus the imponderable spirit is also whole. The wholeness of the spirit is the way of the sage. That means to throw your life in with the ordinary people, moving together with them and never knowing where you’re going. So complete in obliviousness, in purity! Accomplishment, profit, machinations, skill—all these are forgotten in this man’s mind. This man does not go where he has no will to go, does not do what he has no mind to do. Though all in the world may praise him, getting exactly what he means, he would disregard it without a second thought. Though all the world may blame him, not getting what he means, he would obliviously ignore it. Neither {105} praise nor blame can add to or subtract from him in the least. This is what is called a person whose intrinsic virtuosities are whole and intact! As for me, I am just someone tossed about on the wind and waves.”

To follow others, going along with their ideas of right and wrong, and yet claim not to be one of the crowd—that is the height of foolishness. But someone who knows he is a fool is not the biggest fool, just as someone who knows he is confused is not so greatly confused. The greatly confused are those who will never get free of confusion to the end of their days, and the biggest fools are those who never become aware of their foolishness. When three people are walking together and one of them is lost, they can still reach their destination. This is a small confusion. But if two of them are lost, they will just exhaust themselves without ever getting anywhere, because the majority are confused. At the present time, the whole world is confused, and though I may earnestly wish and pray otherwise, it would do no good. Is it not tragic?

Non-doing, one simply makes use of whatever the world offers and still always has more than enough. Doing, one is used by the world and never has enough. This is why the ancients esteemed non-doing above all.

Thus it is said that tranquility and placidity, silence and solitude, open space and non-doing, these comprise the even level of heaven and earth, the very stuff of the Course and its intrinsic powers. And thus is it said that what sages do is simply leave off everything and take their rest there.

It is when the heart and mind are without sorrow or happiness that their inherent powers reach perfection; it is when they are unified and unchanging that their stillness reaches perfection; it is when they oppose nothing that their openness reaches perfection, it is when they associate themselves with nothing that their placidity reaches perfection, it is when they are in conflict with nothing that their purity reaches perfection.

{111} But when those above are non-doing and those below are non-doing as well, those below exert the same intrinsic powers as those above. If those below exert the intrinsic powers of those above, they cannot be their subjects. And if those below engage in doing, but those above also engage in doing, those above share in the same course as those below, and if they are sharing in the same course as those below, they cannot be their lords. So those above must be non-doing, served by what the world offers, while those below must engage in doing, being of service to the world. This is their unchanging course, allowing no replacement. Thus those who ruled the world in ancient times did not make any plans for themselves, even when their understanding encompassed all of heaven and earth. They did not explain themselves, even when their rhetorical skill was capable of minutely carving out the ten thousand things. They did not do anything themselves, even when their abilities outstripped all within the four seas.

Having thus seen my own insignificance, what conceit could I have? For are not the four seas, calculated against the space between heaven and earth, like a swirling hollow on the surface of a vast lake? Are not the central states, calculated against all the known world, like grains of rice lost in a granary? We number the types of creatures at ten thousand, and man is but one of them. And even in the nine regions crowded with humans, where they are able to grow their crops and ride their boats and carriages, a single person is just one among the throng. Among the ten thousand things, is not the human realm like the tip of a hair on the body of a horse?

“No, I have no Course,” said the old man. “It all starts out in the given, grows through the inborn nature, and comes to perfection in the fated. I enter into the navels of the whirlpools and emerge with the surging eddies. I just follow the Course of the water itself, without making any private one of my own. This is how I tread the waters.” Confucius said, “What do you mean by starting out in the given, growing through the inborn nature, and coming to perfection in the fated?” “Born among the hills, I first came to feel safely at home there among the hills—that’s the given. Gravitating toward the water as I grew up, I then came to feel safely at home in the water—that was my inborn nature. And to be thus and so without knowing how or why I am thus and so—that’s the fated.”

For life is the follower of death, and death is the beginning of life; who understands the thread that connects them? The birth of man is just a convergence of energy. 6 When it converges, he lives. When it scatters, he dies. Since life and death follow one another, what is there to worry about? It is in this way that all things are one. People take what they consider beautiful to be sacred and wonderful, and take what they dislike to be odious and rotten. But the odious and rotten transform into the sacred and wonderful, and the sacred and wonderful transform into the odious and rotten. Hence it is said, ‘Just open yourself into the single energy that is the world.’ It is for the sake of this that the sage values oneness.”

Things die, are born, go round, go square, and no one knows the root of it all. But it is spread out everywhere, and through it the ten thousand things have maintained themselves since time out of mind.

Mr. Hoghide24 wandered this way in his park, the Yellow Emperor in his garden, Mr. Youyu25 in his palace, and the emperors Tang and Wu merely in their own chambers. If even noble men like these, once they took Confucians and Mohists for their teachers, were made to grind away at each other with right and wrong, how much worse will be the men of the present age! The sage dwells among things without harming them. Because he doesn’t harm them, they cannot harm him either. Because there is no harm either way, he can both welcome them in and usher them out. “The mountain forests, the great open plains! Shall they make me joyful, shall they fill me with happiness? But even before my joy is done, sorrow has come to take its place. When joy and sorrow come I cannot stop them from coming, and when they go I cannot keep them from going. How sad it is! The people of the world these days are nothing more than lodging houses for external things. {182} They know all about what they encounter but not about what is never encountered. They know how to deftly deploy their abilities, but they don’t know how to deftly deploy their non-abilities.

It is impossible to escape from non-knowing and non-ability! Is it not tragic to try to escape from what cannot be escaped? Perfect words eliminate all words. Perfect action eliminates all action. But merely to put what your knowing knows into some kind of order—that is just shallowness.”

“To go along with other beings all the way to the end is to accept them into yourself. Temporarily putting up with other beings for whatever advantage you can wrest from them, on the other hand, means that even your own body is something you do not accept and shelter—how then can you accept and shelter others? If you cannot accept and shelter others, you will have no intimates, and for one without intimates, everyone—including himself—is just ‘other people,’ complete strangers.

Vast Unbiased Harmony said, “Yin and yang shine on one another, injureM one another, heal one another. The four seasons replace one another, give birth to one another, slaughter one another. Bridged between them there arise all sorts of desires and aversions, rejections and attractions. The joining of male and female like paired fragments becomes a regular presence in their midst. Safety and danger replace one another, disaster and prosperity give birth to one another, leisure and hurry grind against one another, aggregation and dispersal complete one another. This is the realm of which names and objects can be recorded, of which even the finest subtlety can be registered. The mutual ordering of beings as they follow in succession, the bridgelike circulation of beings as they move each other around, reverting when they reach exhaustion, beginning again when they come to an end—this is what belongs to the realm of beings, what words can exhaust, what understanding24 can reach. It remains within the limit of the realm of beings and goes no further. He who sees the Course doesn’t follow after them when they perish nor trace them back to whence they arise. This is where speculation comes to an end.”

Yuan Xian said, “I have heard that to be without money is called poverty, but to be unable to put into practice what one has learned is called a malady. I am poor, but I have no malady.” Zigong stepped back, looking quite ashamed. Yuan Xian smiled and said, “What I really could not bear would be things like trying to please the present generation in all my actions, forming cliques by making friends on all sides, learning for the sake of others and teaching for the sake of myself, hiding in humankindness and responsible conduct, showing off with chariots and horses, that kind of thing!”

The ancients who had found the Course were happy whether they succeeded or failed, for what brought them happiness was not success or failure. As long as the Course and its intrinsic powers are there, failure and success are nothing more than a passing sequence of cold and heat and wind and rain.

Greed and incorruptibility are really not forced on one by external circumstances; the standards ruling these behaviors come from examining what’s really happening within oneself.

“Instead you should be looking into the eight typical flaws people are prone to and the four troublemakers in the handling of affairs. The first of the eight flaws is meddling: concerning yourself with what is none of your concern. The second is smooth-talking: advancing your own agenda when no one has shown any interest in it. The third is sycophancy: scanning the listener’s intentions and shaping your words accordingly. The fourth is flattery: not caring whether what you say is true or false. The fifth is tale-bearing: a liking for speaking of the faults of others. The sixth is maliciousness: to break up friendships and cause divisions among kinfolk. The seventh is scheming: to use deceitful praise in order to bring about the downfall of your enemies. 3 The eighth is slipperiness: facing in two directions to suit everyone, the good as well as the bad, sneakily excavating what would please them. These eight flaws externally wreak chaos among others and internally harm one’s own self. Noble people avoid friends who have these traits and wise rulers avoid such ministers.

“The four troublemakers are, first, pushiness: to have a taste for managing big projects and replacing accepted practices in order to win credit and fame for oneself. The second is greed: to insist that yours is the only way to understand things and your projects the only things to be done, raiding what others have for your own use. 4 The third is obstinacy: not correcting one’s errors even when clearly seeing them, doubling down when called out. The fourth is conceit: approving whoever is the same as oneself and disapproving whoever is different from oneself, disallowing any good in them. These are the four troublemakers. You are not even really teachable until after you get rid of these eight flaws and abandon these four troublemakers.”

“The genuine is whatever is most unmixed and unfaked. For nothing that is done when one is faking it or of two minds about it can be persuasively moving to others. Thus someone who forces himself to cry, however sad it may sound, inspires no sorrow; someone who forces himself to be angry, however severe he may seem, inspires no awe; someone who forces affection, however he may smile, fails to get along with others. But genuine sadness, even when silent, evokes sorrow in others; genuine anger, even if unexpressed, inspires awe; genuine affection, even without a smile, fosters harmony. Whatever is genuine within has an imponderable spiritlike power to move external things. That is why we value the genuine.

Confucius again bowed twice, and said after straightening, “I am very fortunate to have met you, sir; such good fortune is like a gift from Heaven. If you are not ashamed to receive me, may I beg to accompany you as a servant so that I can accept your personal instruction? May I ask where you stay, so that I may receive your teachings and complete my study of the Great Course?” The stranger said, “I have heard that if you meet someone you can really set off with, you can together reach all the way to the Wondrous Course; but as for those you cannot really set off with, not knowing their course, the only way to avoid serious error is by not joining up with them at all. Make your own efforts, sir! I must leave you, I must go!” He then pushed his boat from the shore and departed, threading his way into the green thickets of the marsh.

Whenever people believe that on the contrary it is they themselves who possess some power to change others, it becomes a pretext to disrespect the people closest to them.


Zigong had traveled south to Chu and was passing over the northern bank of the Han River on his way back to Jin when he saw an old man working on his vegetable garden. The man had dug tunnels that led into the well, and was bearing jars of water to pour into them, exerting himself mightily but accomplishing very little. Zigong said to him, “There is a machine for this, which can irrigate one hundred plots of earth in a single day. It produces enormous results with very little effort. Wouldn’t you like to have one, sir?” The gardener looked up at him and said, “How does it work?” {104} Zigong said, “A piece of wood is carved into a lever, heavy in the back and light in the front, which raises the water as if hand-pulled, as quick and abundant as if it were boiling over. It is called a well-sweep.” The gardener’s face showed some anger, but then he smiled and said, “I have heard my teacher say, ‘Where there are clever machines, there will necessarily be clever machinations, and where there are clever machinations, there will necessarily be mechanical hearts and minds.’ Once the mechanical heart is lodged in your breast, purity and simplicity are no longer complete in you. When purity and simplicity are no longer complete, the imponderable spirit and life in you will become unsettled. When the spirit and life in you are unsettled, the Course cannot carry or be carriedE by them.’ It’s not that I didn’t know about this thing: it’s that I would be ashamed to use it.” Zigong squinted at the man, then lowered his head in shame, making no reply.

For traveling on water, there is nothing better than a boat. But for traveling on land, there is nothing better than a carriage. If you tried your {122} whole life long to push a boat along on dry land because it’s a good vehicle for the water, you would not get it to budge even a few feet. Are not the past and the present as different as water and land? Are not the ways of Zhou and Lu like the boat and the carriage? Now he tries to practice the ways of Zhou in the state of Lu—that is like pushing a boat over dry land: a lot of toilsome labor with no result, which will surely bring calamitous harm to his own person. He has not learned the methodless tradition, which responds to all things without being thwarted by any of them.

Powered-up empires

“Something is allowed because some allowing of it has happened. Something is disallowed because some disallowing of it has happened. Courses are formed20 by walking them. Things are so by being called so. Whence ‘thus and so’? From thus and so being affirmed of them. Whence ‘not thus and so’? From thus and so being denied of them. Each thing necessarily has someplace from which it can be affirmed as thus and so, and someplace from which it can be affirmed as acceptable. So no thing is not right, no thing is not acceptable. For whatever we may define as a beam as opposed to a pillar, as a leper as opposed to the great beauty Xishi, or whatever might be from some perspective strange, grotesque, uncanny, or deceptive, there is a course that opens them into one another, connecting them to form a oneness. Their divisions are formations, their formations are destructions. 21 Thus all things are also free of formation and destruction, for these also open into one another, connecting to form a oneness.P It is only someone who really gets all the way through them who can see how the two sides open into one another, connecting them to form a oneness. Such a person would not deploy any one particular way of defining rightness, but would instead entrust it to the everyday function of each being. Their everyday function is what works for them, and ‘working’ just means this opening up into one another, their way of connecting. Opening to form a connection just means getting what you get: go as far as whatever you happen to get to, and leave it at that. It is all just a matter of going along with all that is entailed in thisness, going by the rightness of the present ‘this.’ The sense in which everything and everyone is always already doing precisely that, but without knowing it, and without knowing it to be right, is just what we mean by the Course. 22

Thus the Radiance of Drift and Doubt is the sage’s only map. He deploys no single definition of what is right, but instead entrusts it to the everyday function of each thing. This is what was meant by “using the Illumination of the Obvious.”

To protect your trunks, your sacks, your cabinets from thieves who would break into them, rifle through them, bust them open, no doubt you will bind them tightly with seals and ropes, secure them firmly with latches and locks. This is what common sense calls wisdom. 1 But when a great thief arrives, he will take the cabinet on his back, haul off the trunk, shoulder the sack, and make off with it—fearing nothing more than that the seals, ropes, latches, and locks are not secure enough. So this thing you’ve been calling “wisdom”—is it anything more than the piling up of loot for the really great thieves? Let me try to explain this further. Is there anything at all that the conventional world calls “wisdom” that is not really just piling up loot for the great thieves? Are there any so-called sages who are not just guards in the service of the great thieves?Once Robber Zhi’s disciple asked him, “Do robbers also have the Course?” Zhi said, “Where can one go without the Course? To guess where the treasure is hidden is sagacity. To be the first to go in is courage. To be the last to leave is responsible conduct. To judge whether a job can succeed or not is wisdom. To distribute the loot equally is humankindness. No one can become a great robber without these five virtues!” From this we can see that, while it is true that the good man cannot stand without the Course of the sage, Robber Zhi could not operate without it either.

Being there, letting the people be—I have heard of such things. Or releasing others from your custody, giving them some room. But I have never heard of anyone actually governing other people, ordering them. You just let them be for fear that otherwise their inborn natures will get flooded away. You just release them and give them room for fear that otherwise their intrinsic virtuosities1 will get displaced. And as long as their inborn natures are not flooded away and their intrinsic virtuosities are not displaced, what further order need there be? But when Yao2 “ordered” the world in ancient times, everyone got so jubilant about it, the propensities of their inborn naturesB were so pleased by it, that they lost their tranquility. When Jie3 “ordered” the world, on the other hand, everyone got so broken up about it, the propensities of their own natures4 so embittered by it, that they lost their contentment. But whatever is devoid of tranquility and contentment cannot be an intrinsic virtuosity, and whatever is not an intrinsic virtuosity can never be sustained for long. Are people overjoyed? That is an overdevelopment of yang. Are people outraged? That is an overdevelopment of yin.
And in the end this comes back to harm the people’s own bodies, knocking their joy and their anger out of their proper positions so they drift randomly here and there. Then they lose control of their own calculations and plans, with no middle course taking shape between the extremes. That’s when everyone gets caught up in high-handed self-discipline or nitpicking blame or ostentatious independence or fierce aggressions, C and from there you get things like the criminal behavior of a Robber Zhi or the moralistic conduct of a Zeng Shen or a Shi Yu. People get so good that even the whole world is insufficient to reward their goodness, or so bad that even the whole world is inadequate to punish {90} their evil. Even the vastness of the whole world is no longer enough for their punishment or their reward! And so, from the Three Dynasties on down, all anyone has really been doing is madly laboring to devise more and more punishments and rewards. How then could they have any leisure to rest content in the dispositions of their inborn natures and allotments of life?
Do you perchance delight in your keen vision? That just means you are flooding them5 away with sights. Do you delight in your keen hearing? You’re flooding them away with sounds. Do you delight in humankindness? You are thereby disordering the intrinsic virtuosities. 6 Do you delight in responsible conduct? You are contravening the unwrought structures. 7 Do you delight in ritual? You’re fostering contrivance. In music? You’re fostering debauchery. In sagacity? You’re fostering artifice. In wisdom? You’re fostering fault-finding. If everyone were to rest content in the dispositions of their own inborn nature and allotment of life, it would be quite all right to preserve all eight of these delights, or equally all right to let them go. But when no one rests content in the dispositions of his own inborn nature and allotment of life, people start getting all chopped up and bound down and backed up and tied in by them, D and it is thus that the world becomes disordered.
So if a noble man cannot escape having to oversee the world, there is no better option than non-doing. 8 For it is only by non-doing that one can rest content in the dispositions of one’s own inborn nature and allotment of life.

Towering Eagleye asked Lao Dan, “But if you don’t order the world, how can you improve the human heart?” {91} Lao Dan said, “Be careful not to meddle with the human heart! The human heart is something that springs up when pushed down, sometimes ascending and sometimes descending, sometimes the prisoner and sometimes the executioner. How soft and restrained and pliable it is, yet how firmly and roughly and sharply and severely it chisels and cuts. So hot it smolders to fire, so cold it freezes to ice, so swift that in the interval between glancing up and glancing down it has already twice touched points beyond the four seas. It dwells still like an abyss, it moves like the overhanging heavens—stampeding and haughty, allowing nothing to tie it down. Such is the human heart!

They worried their five internal organs trying to be humane and responsible, tasking their blood and breath to conform to laws and standards. But even with all their efforts, there was something there that could never be subdued. It was for this reason that Yao exiled Huan Dou to Chong Hill and cast the Three Miao Chiefs out to Sanwei, banished the Minister of Works to the City of Darkness9—that is how little they were able to subdue the world! And the same kind of thing went on all through the Three Dynasties, until the whole world was living in a constant state of terror. Below there were Jie and Robber Zhi, above there were Zeng Shen and Shi Yu, and from there finally arose the Confucians and Mohists. Thereafter the joyful and the angry doubted one another, the wise deceived the fools and the fools deceived the wise, the good and the bad condemned each other, the devious and the trustworthy ridiculed one another, and thus has the world gone further into decline. Discordant in the greatest of their intrinsic virtuosities, their inborn natures and allotments of life either rotted or overflowed. Everyone became eager for wisdom, until even the ordinary people of the world exhausted themselves in their search for it. And then saw and ax were applied to shape and control them, ropes and marking cords were used to lay waste to them, hammer and gouge were used to cut them into shape. Thus was everyone in the world forced to pile on and clamber over each other, in total chaos, and the crime that caused it all was this attempt to meddle with the human heart.
That is why worthy men keep themselves hidden in the caves and crags at the foot of great mountains, while lords of states commanding ten thousand chariots tremble with dread in their ancestral temples.

What are ignoble, and yet must be depended upon? Things. Who are of low status, and yet must be followed? The people. What are unseen, and yet must be dealt with? Tasks. What are coarse, and yet must be set forth? Laws. What is far from one’s heart, and yet must be taken on personally? Responsible conduct. What is most near to oneself, and yet must be widely extended? Humankindness. What is restrictive, and yet must be accumulated? Ritual. What is down in the very center of oneself but must be exalted? Intrinsic virtuosities. 24 What is a single continuity and yet must constantly change? The Course. What is imponderably spiritlike and yet always requires our actionI? The Heavenly. Thus the sages contemplate the Heavenly but do not try to assist it, find completion in intrinsic virtuosity but tie nothing to it, go forth along their Course but make no plans. They associate with others through humankindness but do not rely on it, cleave closely to responsible conduct but do not accumulate it, respond with ritual but observe no taboos. They take on tasks without declining them, equalize all before the law without disordering their relations, rely on the people without making light of them, follow the lead of all things without discarding them. For though things, all things, are precisely what are never worth doing anything about, one can nevertheless never avoid doing something about them. Those who do not understand the Heavenly cannot purify their intrinsic virtuosities. Those who are obstructed in their Course go wrong wherever they go. How sad it is not to understand one’s Course!

“Back when Yao ruled the world, the people were encouraged even without rewards, and stood in awe even without penalties. Now you employ penalties and rewards, and the people have become inhumane. From there the efficacy of their intrinsic virtuosity decays and even corporal punishments come {102} into use. The chaos to come in future times begins from this. Get out of here, why don’t you? Do not disturb my work!”

Whether governing by punishments or through the influence emanating from one’s intrinsic virtuosities, whether exuding humankindness or practicing responsible conduct, all are mere derivative branches of the imponderable spirit. So who but an Utmost Person can settle any of it in some definite place? The Utmost Person possesses all the world—is it not vast? And yet it is not enough to bind him. Though all the people of the world may be struggling over the handles of power, he does not join in; he discerns what alone is unborrowed, so he is not swept away by the hunt for profit. By developing to the utmost the genuineness of things, he is able to hold to their root. Thus he puts heaven and earth outside himself, casts off the ten thousand things, his imponderable spirit forever unconfined.

Those who consider wealth to be a definite good are unable to give up their salaries. Those who consider distinction to be a definite good are unable to give up their fame. Those who love power are unable to give control over to others; they are frightened while they hold onto it and grieved when they let it go. And yet they refuse to reflect even fleetingly on what it is that makes them so unable to give it up. These people are the casualties of Heaven.

Lao Dan said, “Come a little closer, child! I will tell you how the Three Emperors and Five Sovereigns ‘ordered the world.’ The Yellow Emperor ordered the world by making the hearts and minds of the people focus on unity, so that when someone didn’t cry at the death of his parents, nobody blamed him. Yao ordered the world by making the people’s hearts and minds all focus on kinship affection, so that when someone killed the killer of his parents, no one blamed him. Shun ordered the world by making the people’s minds focus on competition, {125} so that the women would give birth after ten months, but five months later each one of those babies could already speak and before the age of three each had already become a full-on somebody. It was then that people began to die young. Yu ordered the world by causing the people’s hearts and minds to focus on making changes, so that leaders had definite intentions and armies obeyed whatever orders they were given, saying that ‘to kill a thief is not really murdering a person.’ 18 People divided themselves into different types, and each considered his own type the whole world. Thus the world was gripped in great terror, and the Confucians and Mohists arose. It was with their rise that there first came to be the whole idea of ethical roles and relationships, the result being that now men have to take daughters as their wives. 19 What can I say? I tell you, the Three Emperors and Five Sovereigns sure did ‘order the world’—well, that is what people call it, but in reality there is no greater disorder than what they brought about.

The so-called wisdom20 of the Three Emperors violated the brightness of the sun and moon above and clashed with the pure energy of the mountains and streams below, and brought everything presented by the four seasons crashing down in between. Their wisdom is crueler than a scorpion’s tail. Even rarely-sighted beasts in the field have thus become unable to find rest in their own inborn natures and allotments of life. And yet these people regarded themselves as sages. Such shamelessness—is it not shameful?” Zigong just stood there, unsteady on his feet as if jolted by a kick.

There is a folk saying about this: “The multitude care about profit, the incorruptible men of distinction value fame, the worthy men esteem their aspirations—but the sages value only the pure kernel of vitality.” “Plainness” means mixing nothing extraneous in, and “purity” means keeping the imponderable, the spirit, undiminished. It is those who can embody such purity and plainness that are called the Genuine-Human.

Zhuangzi was once fishing beside the Pu River when two emissaries brought him a message from the King of Chu: “The king would like to trouble you with the control of his realm.” Zhuangzi, holding fast to his fishing pole, without so much as turning his head, said, “I have heard there is a sacred turtle in Chu, already dead for three thousand years, which the king keeps in a bamboo chest high in his shrine. Do you think this turtle would prefer to be dead and having his carcass exalted, or alive and dragging his tail through the mud?” The emissaries said, “Alive and dragging his tail through the mud.” Zhuangzi said, “Away with you then! I too will drag my tail through the mud!”

What everyone in the world honors is wealth, high rank, long life, and others thinking well of them. What they delight in is physical security and comfort, rich flavors, lovely clothes, alluring forms, fine tones, and music. What they despise are poverty, low status, early death, and others thinking ill of them. What they suffer from are a body unable to obtain ease and comfort, a mouth unable to obtain rich flavors, a figure unadorned by lovely clothes, eyes unable to see alluring forms, ears unable to hear fine tones and music. If they cannot obtain these things, how worried and terrified they become! But this is a really foolish way to treat one’s own body. The wealthy torture their bodies, frenzied by work, accumulating so much wealth that they are unable to use it all. This is treating one’s own body as an outsider. The people of high status worry all day and then into the night about how well or poorly they are doing. This is treating one’s own body as a stranger. Anxiety is born the moment a human being is born, and when the long-lived become stupid and benighted, this anxiety lasting on and on and refusing to die—what suffering this is! This is treating one’s own body as a distant outsider.

Yan He11 encountered the carriages on the road, and then entered the palace to see the duke, saying, “Ji’s horses are going to collapse.” The duke remained silent. After a while more, the horses did indeed collapse. The duke asked, “How did you know?” Yan He said, “His horses had {155} come to the end of their strength but he kept making demands on them. That is why I said they would collapse.”

Zhuangzi was wearing a patched garment of coarse cloth, with his shoes tied together by strings, when he traveled past the King of Wei. The king asked, “Why are you so worn out, sir?” Zhuangzi said, “I am not worn out; I am just poor! When a scholar has coursing in him the intrinsic powers of the Course but cannot put them into practice, that really wears him out. The fact that I am dressed in tattered clothes and crumbling shoes is due to poverty, not weariness! It is just a case of what is called ‘not meeting the right time.’ Can you have never seen one of those bounding monkeys? When they can find catalpas and camphor trees or towering cedars, they pull and swing themselves off the branches, dominating the area like a sovereign, and even the eyes of archers like Yi or Peng Meng would be unable to track them. But if they always find themselves only among thorny aspens and brambly bushes, they {162} move cautiously, constantly glancing over their shoulders, shaking with apprehension and trembling with fear. This is not because their bones and tendons have suddenly become stiff and no longer supple; it’s just that they are in a situation that is unsuitable to them, and thus have no opportunity to display their abilities. Now to live in the midst of benighted rulers and unruly prime ministers, is there any way not to be worn out, however dearly one might want not to be? Wasn’t this clear enough when Bi Gan9 had his heart cut out?”

Duke Ai said, “Everyone in the whole country is going around dressed in Confucian garb! How can you say there are very few of them?” Zhuangzi said, “I have heard that Confucians wear a round cap to show their understanding of the seasons of heaven, and walk in square shoes to show their awareness of the shape of the earth, that they dangle jade blades at their waists to show that they are decisive in rendering judgments and cutting off alternatives when tasks come to them. A noble man may practice this course without wearing its uniform, and not everyone who wears a certain uniform necessarily knows its corresponding course. If you are so certain that this is not so, why not issue an edict throughout the state saying, ‘Anyone who wears this garb without practicing this course will be held guilty of a capital offense and summarily executed”? The duke thereupon issued such an edict, and after five days there was no one in all the state of Lu who dared wear the Confucian garments, with the exception of one old fellow who stood in his full Confucian outfit at the duke’s gate. The duke called him in and questioned him about the affairs of state; he was able to turn it a thousand ways, transform it ten thousand times, and still he was never stumped. Zhuangzi said, “So in all the state of Lu there is only this one Confucian—can you call that a great many?”

What benefit does all this meticulous scheming really bring to the world? Elevating the worthy only makes the people compete with each other. Putting the understanding4 in charge just makes the people loot one another. Such things can do nothing to enhance the lives of the people. Once they become diligent about their own advantage, the sons will end up killing their fathers and the ministers their rulers, burrowing through walls to rob each other in broad daylight. Mark my words, the root of the truly great disorder lies in people like Yao and Shun, and its branches reach down for a thousand generations. A thousand generations of this and I guarantee it will end up with human beings eating one another for dinner!” Nanrong ChuC straightened up on his mat with a jolt, saying, “What then can someone like me, advanced in age, do to live up to what you are saying?” Gengsang Chu said, “Keep your body whole, hold fast to the life in you, don’t let your thoughts get lost in busy calculations, and in three years you will have lived up to it.”

Intellectual people are unhappy when deprived of the constant transmutation of ideas; debaters are unhappy when deprived of the orderly progression of arguments; critics are unhappy when deprived of the task of berating and nitpicking. These are people who pen themselves in with mere things. Men who can solicit the attention of the age become rising stars at court; those who can satisfy the populace are honored with official positions; those with physical strength are proud of difficult feats. Those who are brave and daring are spurred on by calamity. Those skilled in handling weaponry delight in combat; the dried-out and depleted rest on their reputations; the wielders of law and statute make much of expanding governance; the masters of ritual instruction revere proper demeanor; the men of humankindness and responsible conduct cherish the interfaces of human relationships. When farmers have no work to do with their crops and weeds, they fall to pieces, B as do merchants deprived of their markets; when the common people are given work to do morning and night, they become diligent; when craftsmen are skilled in handling their tools and machines, they become vigorous. Without an accumulation of wealth, the greedy get anxious; without expanding power and influence, the ambitious get depressed. This is the only way these slaves to circumstances and external things delight in the process of transformation: when they meet with a time that can make use {199} of something about them, they are unable to resist doing their thing, unable to practice non-doing. 10 Thus do they comply and align themselves with whatever is brought by every passing year, instead of letting change be their very thinghoodC! Thus do they drive their bodies and inborn natures about, sinking beneath the ten thousand things, never turning back for their entire lives. How sad!

But those who freely dispense humankindness and responsible conduct are few, while those who see profit to be gained from practicing humankindness and responsible conduct are many. If there is even the slightest moment of faking21 in one’s humankindness and responsible conduct, they instantly become weapons in the hands of brutish greed. Thus for any one man to benefit the world with his decisions and institutions22 can be likened to trying to carve out the shapes of all things with a single slash of the knife. 23 Yao understands how worthy people profit the world, but he doesn’t understand how they plunder {204} the world. For only those who have ousted all worthiness from themselves can understand this!”

People say, ‘Don’t rob, don’t kill!’ But then they set up ideas of glory and disgrace, and right away people start seeing certain things as defective. They accumulate wealth and property, and right away people start seeing certain things as worth fighting over. Now if you set up something for people to shun as defective and accumulate something for people to fight over, trapping and impoverishing people so that they have not a moment’s respite, and yet you don’t want to arrive at this kind of a result, is that possible? The rulers of olden times credited success to the people and blamed failure on themselves, attributed the right to the {213} people and the wrong to themselves, so that if even a single body lost any of its own shape, G they would resign and blame themselves. These days it is totally different: they mask the way things are and then call whoever cannot see it a fool, they enlarge difficulties and then condemn whoever dare not take them on, they load up duties and then punish whoever cannot fulfill them, they lengthen the roads to be traveled and then execute whoever cannot complete the journey. In response, knowing their powers will be insufficient, the people can only have recourse to fraud. With these new frauds coming at them every day, how could the people of either high or low rank do without some fraudulence of their own? Those with insufficient power fake it, those with insufficient knowledge cheat, those with insufficient wealth steal. If they take up banditry and thievery, where should we put the blame?”

Confucius bowed and was on his way out when suddenly his expression changed with a jolt, and he asked, “Can some progress then be made in my work?” Lao Laizi said, “Because you are unable to endure the suffering of this single present era, you drive ten thousand eras into disaster.B Are you deliberately trying to put them in such straits, or have you just failed to think it throughC? That you take such pride in pleasing others with your kindnesses is in fact your lifelong disgrace. For what you thus promote is no more than the typical activity of mediocrities, leading each other along with promises of fame and tying each other down with threats of obscurity. But praising Yao and condemning Jie is not as good as forgetting both and shutting off entirely all that praises or is praised. 6 For praise is something that never fails both to harm the praiser and to corrupt the praised.D When sages take up any endeavor they dawdle and hesitate, and that is why they always succeed. What can be done with someone who carries himself like you do? In the end you are just showing off.”

“The genuineness of the Course applies only to the management of the person himself, to taking care of one’s own body. Only whatever is left over after that may be used for the local community and the family, while whatever dust and chaff are further left after that may be used to govern the empire.” From this it can be seen that the accomplishments of emperors and kings are just the leftover deeds of the sages, not that by which they keep their bodies undamaged and nourish the life in them. But most of the conventional “noble men” of the present day just endanger their bodies and abandon the life in them, martyring themselves to external things. Is it not sad?

“Wow! Outrageous! This is not what we call the Course! Long ago when Shennong16 possessed the empire, he did the sacrifices at the proper times and with the utmost reverence, but he prayed for no blessings in return. With respect to human beings, he was loyal and trustworthy, making sure all their affairs were put into good order, but sought nothing from them in return. Those who enjoyed partaking in governance did the governing with him, those who enjoyed partaking in orderliness did the ordering with him. 17 {237} He did not build his own success on the ruin of others nor elevate himself by lowering others. He did not take advantage of the times he happened to have found himself in to reap personal gain. But now the house of Zhou sees the disorder of the Shang and suddenly decides to manage the governance of the world, strategizing with those above and bribing those below, relying on an army to guard their authority, using the blood of sacrificial victims for covenants as a proof of good faith, advertising their lofty conduct to appease the masses, engaging in murderous ‘punitive’ military expeditions for their own profit—all this is just overthrowing disorder and replacing it with violence.

Co-creating comprehensible ecologies of care beyond the human

Nurturing bioregional and planetary health

The moon is greeting the Matariki sunrise

Today is Matariki, the start of the Māori new year. The days are getting longer again in the Southern Hemisphere.

Traditionally, Matariki was a time to acknowledge the dead and to release their spirits to become stars. It was also a time to reflect, to be thankful to the gods for the harvest, to feast and to share the bounty of the harvest with family and friends.


This is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of how an understanding of human scale is an integral part of the social fabric in Māori societies, and how this maps to the concepts of scale in evolutionary design.

Understanding culture as a dynamic evolutionary process

Evolutionary design allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into a living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems.

Cultural organisms (whānau) act as the primary economic units for equitable resource sharing.

Before Māori came into contact with Europeans, whānau comprised the elders, the pākeke (senior adults such as parents, uncles and aunts), and the sons and daughters together with their spouses and children. A whānau generally numbered between 20 and 30 people. Depending on size, they could occupy one or more sleeping houses, known as wharepuni. Large whānau had their own clearly defined compound in the papakāinga (village settlement) or fortified . Whānau also had their own plot in the kūmara field, and their own fishing and hunting places, eel weirs and berry trees. The small size of the whānau and the close nature of its internal ties made it an efficient group for subsistence activities. The whānau was self-sufficient in most matters except defence, when it usually depended on the iwi (tribe) or hapū (sub-tribe).


Cultural species (hapū) act as the primary political units, upholding and evolving the shared social operating model of the species. 

Iwi and hapū descended from the same canoe would sometimes act in opposition to each other. But if tribes from another waka region invaded their domain, the waka bond would be used to form an alliance against the intruders.

Reasons why new iwi and hapū formed

New groups also continuously split off as populations increased. Pressure on such resources as crops, forests, rivers, lakes and sea fisheries was an especially important factor causing larger hapū to break into smaller ones. New groups could also form through forced migration, defeat in war or other disagreements such as breaches of custom, loss of mana (status) or land, and family infighting.

Sometimes separate groups merged with each other to form new groups. Alternatively, very large and strong whānau (extended families) might develop into hapū in their own right. Recognition by other groups as a separate and new hapū was important. New sub-tribes were recognised if, for example, they had a leader with mana and skill in diplomacy, if they were able to strengthen the identity of the hapū by political marriages, or if they were known for their fighting prowess.


The use of Māori terminology illustrates that we can draw on many centuries of lived experience with human scale, which we can understand in terms of cultural species and cultural organisms from an evolutionary perspective. The following diagram shows the ingredients for cultural evolution in terms of sets of human and non-human relationships:

  • Households include the relationships between 5 +/-3 people (11 +/-9 people in traditional wharepuni)
  • Cultural organisms include the relationships between 50 +/-30 people (25 +/-5 people in traditional whānau)
  • Cultural species (hapū) include the relationships between larger numbers of people and whānau
  • The global knowledge commons is abstract, it belongs to all humans

The global knowledge commons is a shared repository of collective wisdom and scientific knowledge that evolves organically via contributions from across all cultures.

All of the above can be related to the way human biological diversity manifests, and to the specific roles played by Autistic ways of being within cultural evolution. As agents of the cultural immune system, and as part of the relational nervous system of open knowledge flows between human societies, collectively, holotropic people play an essential role in de-powering relationships, creating a counter-balance against all attempts of “controlling” or “managing” cultural evolution at super-human scales, i.e. at the level of Iwi or states. De-powering, as still practiced by some egalitarian hunter gatherer societies, is needed to minimise the suffering on a finite planet that has been subjected to increasing levels of powered-up anthropocentric hubris for the last 10,000 years.

Note that the scale of a Māori whānau is such that all whānau include multiple people who we tend to label as neurodivergent in WEIRD societies, who amongst other things, are available as mentors for neurodivergent children. Also note that with the whānau acting as the primary economic unit, no household needs to worry about survival. Survival and collaborative niche construction are collective concerns at the level of whānau and hapū, where social contracts are consciously shaped and updated as needed. Similarly collaborative social dynamics are achievable in other contexts with the help of de-powered creative collaboration

In de-powered mode, conscious collective intelligence is constrained to and optimised at the scale of cultural organisms. We now know that all attempts to scale up collective intelligence by powering-up relationships are doomed attempts of wishful thinking by power drunk aspiring “leaders” that consistently and predictably reduce collective intelligence far below human scale. That’s why today, often individual intelligence surpases institutional collective intelligence.

The average person often has a good handle on knowing when our super-human scale institutions can’t be trusted, when they have become dysfunctional. But knowing that something no longer works is not enough for driving cultural evolution towards de-powered ecologies of care. This is where we need to distill wisdom from the global knowledge commons, to identify principles that optimise for cultural adaptiveness, and I would argue, exactly those are the principles that minimise overall suffering.

At human scale, we nurture good company one trusted relationship at a time.

Super-human collective intelligence evolves organically, beyond human control, in terms of the evolution, growth and decline of cultural species, over multiple generations. By definition, it is beyond human comprehension. No one is “in power” at the steering wheel. In fact a powered-up steering wheel compromises cultural adaptability and collective intelligence.

Social construction

Philosopher Hans-Georg Moeller has written an excellent book on the predicament that plaques all super-human scale societies, You and Your Profile: Identity After Authenticity, in which he describes the evolution and limitations of identity technologies. Specifically Hans-Georg Moeller elaborates the notions of sincerity – which was dominant in pre-industrialised societies, authenticity – which was dominant during the era of mass media, and profilicity – now dominant, catalysed by the emergence of social media. 

The book offers an astute analysis of the “civilised”, i.e. neuronormative human social realm. It accurately describes the paradoxes that affect all identity technologies when society is constructed from an anthropocentric perspective, i.e. as independent of the bigger ecological context of the non-human world, and in ignorance of the limits of human scale cognition and human biological diversity.

It turns out that the factors that make the neuronormative world so confusing for Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people can be effectively conceptualised in terms of the paradoxes thrown up by the identity technologies of sincerity, authenticity, and profilicity, and it becomes clear why, from the perspective of the institutions of a hypernormative society, Autistic people ought to be pathologised. 

Interestingly, the paradoxes thrown up by sincerityauthenticity, and profilicity – which are very real in the modern world – can’t take hold in the same way in de-powered human scale societies, in which people relate to each other based on joint experiences over extended stretches of time and mutual trust. I can recommend Hans-Georg Moeller’s book to anyone who is struggling with unmasking. The topic relates to the motivation that led to the AutCollab website, which is summarised in the first AutCollab blog post: Social – The big misunderstanding.

Our hypernormative civilisation has become fully decoupled from the non-human world, everything that matters in our super human scale civilisation is social construction, from all perspectives, from top to bottom and from the very bottom to to the top. There is no more room for non-socially-constructed sensory experiences in the physical realm, or for the biological needs that we share with other forms of life. 

The two things missing from the above roundtable, which is otherwise excellent, is awareness of how human scale and human biological and cultural diversity at human scale determine the parameters that define and shape healthy human cultures, diverse and small scale indigenous cultures.

In the case of the Australian continent indigenous cultures have allowed humans to carve out ecological niches that avoided the trappings of super human scale and the complete destruction of local ecosystems for 70,000 years – until WEIRD people turned up, who were not only dismissive of diversity but also scale blind.

Unmasked human life

Unmasked human life is an impossibility at super human scale. 

I would also add that unmasked human life is not about discovering your true WEIRD “self”, which is a modern social construction, but about understanding our lived experience, agency, and purpose in terms of an ecology of care. Our life is best understood in terms of the life-long relationships with humans, non-humans, mountains, oceans, and other super human ecological sources of life, that we co-create and nurture throughout our lives – yet all of these are compromised within hypernormative cultures. The anthropocentric hubris of powered-up civilisations is immediately and intuitively obvious from a holotropic or indigenous perspective.

Human wellbeing can only be understood in terms of the health of comprehensible (i.e. human scale) ecologies of care. It can neither be understood in terms of “self”, which is what most Western medicine and psychology is about, nor in terms of what Hans-Gerog Moeller describes as the abstract super human scale public peer, which is what the modern digital sphere of corporations, social media, and governments is all about.

Ecological blindness

Destruction of the oceans

What is out of sight, is largely out of mind. Sadly, during my lifetime I have witnessed the impoverishment of marine ecosystems in multiple geographies. The Pacific Ocean is my home. The oceans are the source of all life, and they connect all the ecosystems on this planet. The talk on Ocean Apocalypse by Jeremy Jackson about the state of the world’s oceans from 10 years ago offers an accurate introduction that remains valid. The Last Ocean documentary about the Southern Ocean shows where we are today, and how the socially constructed logic of profit trumps everything else.

The limits of comprehensibility

Anthropocentric hubris is not limited to the subordination or dismissal of all other forms of life. When we attempt to apply the scientific method in complex domains and transdisciplinary contexts, we run into the limits of science and into cultural paradigmatic bias within science.

Becoming conscious of human cognitive limits and recognising that these limits are just as real, immutable, and relevant for our survival as the laws of physics may allow us to avoid the fate of earlier civilisations, and to embark on a path of radical energy descent.

Being able to design, build, and use technology does not equate to understanding all the implications. The language systems that we create with the help of software can either amplify the unique human capacity for compassion and creative collaboration or they can amplify social competition and the brutal power politics that characterise primate dominance hierarchies, resulting in a powered-up collective learning disability.

We live in a techno-cult in which technology corporations have taken on the role of sacred places of worship, and CEOs are the high priests, praising the divine qualities of artificially intelligent technologies. In the emerging technoverse, biological life is perceived as becoming irrelevant.

Social movements

The levels of success of social movements can be illustrated in terms of the abolition of slavery, women rights, and gay rights. All these movements have granted additional powers to previously marginalised groups, but within a framework of established powered-up institutions. The effect is similar to the effect of an arms race where the focus lies on ensuring everyone is armed / powered-up to comparable levels. We are already aware of the dangers of such an approach from the Cold War, and current armed conflicts between some of the most powered-up nations on Earth illustrate that the dangers have remained and if anything, they have increased.

Instead of further social movements based on powering up or empowerment, all those who are seriously committed to non-violence are well advised to frame their goals in terms of de-powering the many established super human scale institutions that are wrecking the rapidly dwindling remains of the Earth’s biosphere.

Eventually all powered-up relationships corrupt

Yes, change from the bottom up is possible. But as long as we are framing our goals in terms of powering-up further parties, instead of de-powering massively over-powered parties, all gains will be short-lived, and will ultimately be absorbed into the death cult of industrialised busyness. This week the American Medical Association announced the withdrawal of explicit support for Applied Behaviour Analysis

This is a big positive development for the Autistic human rights movement, but it does not protect Autistic people from abuse and exploitation going forward.

Instead of explicit slavery, industrialised countries and global corporations continue to stoke deadly economic wars internationally, and locally, many societies have become highly stratified by the abstract logic of the invisible hand, rolling back the improvements achieved by various civil rights movements for large parts of the population. All social operating models that tolerate institutions that cult-ivate – i.e. “normalise” permanent social power gradients, by design endorse and generate social stratification.

The differences between powered-up cultures are best understood as differences in the social dimensions that drive stratification. De-powering is the only path out of the death spiral of structural violence that all powered-up civilisations inflict on the less-powered-up majority of the living planet.

Continued belief in empowerment is only possible by ignoring an entire century of neocolonialism, the growth in stratified societies over the last 10,000 years, and now the amplification of socially constructed identity technologies with the help of artificially powered-up digital tools.

Nurturing shared understanding

At this stage in human cultural evolution, we have reached the limits of the linear format of human spoken and written language.

The human lens is a small non-linear modelling language for human social behaviour that allows us to understand living systems and to reason about such systems in terms of evolutionary processes. It consists of thirteen categories that are invariant across cultures, space, and time. The human lens allows us to make sense of the world from a human perspective, to evolve our value systems, and to structure and adapt human endeavours accordingly.

Ecologies of care beyond the human

Collaborative niche construction

The main difference between modern emergent human scale cultural species and prehistoric human scale cultural species lies in the language systems and communication technologies that are being used to coordinate activities and to record and transmit knowledge within cultural organisms, between cultural organisms, and between cultural species.

Colllaborative niche construction at human scale primarily relies on a critical lens and on environmental (re)engineering practices that result in new adaptive paradigmatic frameworks that are tailored around the unique needs of the members of a specific ecology of care and that are embedded in the local non-human ecology. 

Holistic bioregional ecosystems

In his excellent book How Forests Think – Toward an Anthropology Beyond the Human Eduardo Kohn elaborates how humans are not only part of an ecology of care, and capable of nurturing relationships that extend far beyond humans, but he also reveals the fundamental patterns of semiosis and thought that are inherent to all forms of life, at all levels of scale.

The European conceptualisation of the individual human ego is a product of the misguided metaphor of society as a profit generating machine. A shift to ecosystems of human scale groups reduces the spurious complexity needed to support a monoculture, and it retains and even grows adaptive cultural complexity, i.e. the diversity that emerges when the human ecological footprint is aligned with bioregional ecosystem functions. Adaptive complexity saves energy – it is the result of humans engaging in collaborative niche construction as a part of biological ecosystems.

Faith in the diversity of human natures

Prof Agustín Fuentes uses the concepts of creative and collaborative niche construction to push back against the naive and misleading concept of “human nature” and presents a compelling case for a diversity of human natures, without resorting to any pathologising medical model.

Distinctively human characteristics that develop, in combination with one another, over the course of the Pleistocene history of the genus Homo that are of interest in assessing human (not primate or hominin) natures …

While components of many of these patterns can be seen in other organisms, their combination, interconnections and the ratcheting-up in complexity of their ecological impacts across the Pleistocene represents the development of a particular human niche. This niche is the context in which we can glean distinctively human patterns that might be considered components of human natures.

Fuentes Agustin. 2017. Human niche, human behaviour, human nature. Interface Focus. 7: 20160136.

Between 2.5 and 3 million years ago, the first evidence of members of our own genus, Homo, show up in the fossil record. At this point we know they inherited not only our primate capacities for complex and interconnected social lives, and possibly for an aesthetic sense and the experience of awe, but also the hominin patterns of bipedality and a greater use of their hands. In the hominins, the relations between morphology, behavior, and intense group cohesion were greater than in most other primates. In addition, shortly before we see the first sign of the distinctive human lineage, evidence suggests that our deep ancestors developed the ability to see stones as potential tools and to actively reshape rocks into new forms.

To this day, stone toolmaking is a feat that no other lineage on the planet has ever mastered. Today, after an 8- to 10-million-year run, we have emerged from great diversity as the only hominin left standing. We are the strangest primate and the strangest hominin. Just looking around ourselves (wherever on the planet we might be) and taking in all that surrounds us—thinking about the amazing buildings and histories, our diverse lives, wondrous discoveries, theoretical contributions, and marvelous prose and scholarly insight that has been and is being produced, it is absolutely clear we are more than simply a clever and complex bipedal primate.

From the book Why We Believe by Agustín Fuentes

Awe – falling in love with the diversity of life

Many others have arrived at a similar conclusion regarding the relevance of the experience of awe in the context of human lives and human wellbeing.

If we allow our capacity for awe to extend beyond the human social sphere, which is the default amongst holotropic people, we to relate to all of life across space and time. Pathologising the non-social interests of Autistic people is a really bad idea.

To be holotropic is to have naturally wide open sensory gates. To participate in/as the immense world without becoming overwhelmed, we holotropes have two central methods: in, by hyperfocusing our attention on one sensory or cognitive path, and as, through synthesising our experience into coherence. A sense of wholeness occurs through both of these processes – less consciously in hyperfocus, more consciously in coherence. 

To be syntropic is to be immersed and perhaps inventive. While autistic people are not the only ones capable of absorption, it is the signature of a holotropic life. Embodied coherence is arguably our true gift, that we can both receive and give. When we are able to abide in receptive open awareness, we find we are wholeness itself.

Helen Mirra (2023)

De-powered dialogue

The physical, relational, and internal dimensions of our existence are not disconnected, they exist within the context of the ecology that we are part of. De-powered dialogue with other living creatures connects our relational and internal presence, it allows for the unfiltered flows of lived experiences, thoughts, and feelings; it constitutes the foundation for lifetime relationships, including dialogues beyond species boundaries.

In Autistic dialogues we also need each other as co-pilots, to remind each other of the need to attend to essential routines and potential sensory overload.


1 in 5 people are considered neurodivergent from the hypernormative perspective of our industrialised society! Neurodivergent people and teams:

  • Adhere to idiosyncratic moral value systems rather than social norms
  • Are okay with exploring ideas that upset the “social order”
  • Spend much more time experimenting and implementing ideas that others would consider crazy or a waste of time
  • Have untypical life goals: new forms of understanding, making a positive impact, translating ideas into artistic expression
  • Autists in particular have unusually developed pattern recognition abilities and an unusual ability to persevere

Once more and more events far beyond human control force us to pay attention to the much richer metaphors of living systems, humans will rediscover the beauty of collaborating at human scale, and that co-creating beautiful works of art is the ultimate antidote against the emergence of social power dynamics and the competitive logic of hate and violence.

How then, given the current human predicament, do we engage with all the many super human scale institutions that are paralysed by paradigmatic inertia, stuck on a life destroying path, without further amplifying human and non-human suffering? A bit of neurodivergent human imagination allows us to reframe and creatively restrict the mode of engagement to one that is compatible with the dual commitment of de-powering and collaborative niche construction.

We can all contribute to de-powering and engage in collaborative niche construction by offering palliative care to abstract super human scale institutions, whilst at the same time working towards viable non-profit oriented human scale exit paths for the human and non-human inmates.

Marginalised populations have decades of lived experience with mutual aid, and are well equipped to offer both palliative care to institutions as well as non-profit oriented human scale exit paths for traumatised humans.

Life has learned to create conditions conducive to life

– Janine Benyus

Simple linguistic tools

Useful small tools developed by neurodivergent people for neurodivergent people.

A language for mutual aid in the small

Ecology of care – the journey towards a healthier relationship with the ecosystems which we are part of starts with the most powerful tool at our disposal, the introduction and consistent use of new language and new semantics.

Interfacing with a hypernormative world at large is a collection of small, simple, single-task tools, mostly designed to help neurodivergent people with tasks they find overwhelming or difficult. Most tools will use AI technologies in the back-end to achieve their goals. Currently this includes OpenAI’s models. As the tools and backend improve, the intent is to move to an open source alternative. The AI models used are general purpose models, and so the accuracy of their output can vary. Nothing returned by any of the tools should be taken as a statement of truth, only guesswork. Please use your own knowledge and experience to judge whether the result you get is valid.

Life is, at bottom, diversity

All living systems, from the smallest forms of life to the planetary ecosystem are best understood as complex systems of feedback loops.

Metaphors we live by

Attempting to articulate “solutions” to the current human predicament within the simplistic religious frame of the invisible hand helps so-called leaders maintain the illusion of contributing towards a better world in a meaningful way. All the good words would make sense if the invisible hand actually worked according to the religious dogma of financial economics. 

Unfortunately, the invisible hand does not have any of the magical powers attributed to it, and any reliance on financial economics is an illusionary attempt at self-soothing – wishful thinking.

We live in a toxic WEIRD world where exposing the truth about what goes on behind the veil of the invisible hand is still considered a criminal offence. Hint: lies, violence, and systemic injustices are not a sustainable foundation for healthy societies. The discipline of WEIRD psychology does not provide any further insights either, as it only describes the psychology of WEIRD cults, rather than a psychological foundation that applies to all forms of human societies.

Studying the evolution of primates over the last 6 million years gives us a better starting point for understanding humans, human societies, and the role of cultural evolution over the course of the history of the human species. Importantly, it highlights the roles of the human capacities for symbolic thought and language, and the relevance of shared mental models in the context of creative collaboration and cultural evolution.

Over the last 50 years we have learned a lot about the neuroscience of language and thought. Prof George Lakoff offers a good introduction to this topic. Please note that some of the linguistic examples of frames and metaphors provided apply to Western cultures and to the English language – they are part of WEIRD psychology and do not translate one to one to other cultures and languages. However, the abstract categories of frames and metaphors are foundational for understanding symbolic thought

Some frames are foundational, but many metaphors and frames are culture specific, and are closely tied to specific languages or language families. For example there are cultures and languages where the past is conceptualised as what can be seen, i.e. in the direction we are facing, and where the future is conceptualised as what can’t be seen, i.e. in the opposite direction that lies behind us. 

Humans evolved to make sense of the world at human scale, in terms of symbolic frames and metaphors, which our minds use to reason about the world and imagine new possibilities within the constraints afforded by the metaphors we live by. We can not expect to be able to expand our repertoire of metaphors by looking at culturally “well adjusted” people. 

The so-called window of opportunity has long closed. The carefully curated Overton window of industrialised society is a neoliberal tool for social control, it is also a symptom of terminally diseased institutions. I wonder how many people know or remember the following:

Overton was an ardent libertarian, and while associated with the Mackinaw Center in Midland, he promoted and studied free-market principles for over ten years while travelling to more than a dozen countries in Europe, Asia, Africa and South America

The term [Overton window] is named after American policy analyst Joseph Overton, who stated that an idea’s political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within this range, rather than on politicians’ individual preferences. According to Overton, the window frames the range of policies that a politician can recommend without appearing too extreme to gain or keep public office given the climate of public opinion at that time...

From and

The effectiveness of neoliberal social engineering can be seen by the way in which the 3-dimensional metaphor sphere of discourse, which can shrink or expand, has increasingly been replaced with the metaphor of a small 2-dimensional window for “allowable discourse”, which can only be shifted or nudged a little. This profound shift in the way society thinks about political possibilities is best illustrated with data from Google Books Ngram Viewer, i.e. the use of these two competing abstract metaphors in published books.

Neuronormative people primarily learn by imitation, adopting the metaphors of the dominant culture, and only much less frequently do they invent entirely new metaphors based on patterns of first hand non-linguistic sensory input. In contrast, Autistic people learn more from conscious processing of raw sensory information, creating a space for imagining new possibilities.

To expand our horizons of symbolic thought, we are well advised to look at other cultures and at Autistic or otherwise socially “less well adjusted” people. 

The concept of an Overton window gained relevance on the heels of the exponential rise of [digital] social media and algorithmic social control. This becomes obvious if you reflect on the timing of the rise of social media and related discussions, and overlay references to social media onto the graph that shows how the Overton window is cannibalising and squashing the sphere of discourse.

Note: The use of the term social media is orders of magnitude greater than the use of the other two more technical terms, so the social media graph has been rescaled to show how the Overton window has become a relevant metaphor in the era of social media.

Once we understand the foundational role of metaphors in human thought, we can understand how propaganda works, and beyond that, how hypernormative cultures / cults are able to generate a level of paradigmatic inertia from which it is very hard to break free, especially for “well adjusted” people.

Just as our sensory capabilities limit the fidelity of what we can perceive in the here and now, our culturally informed cognitive capabilities limit what we actually do perceive, can understand (make sense of), and are driven to act on in the world – all of which is mediated and constrained by the frames and metaphors we have internalised.

Human cognitive limits are adaptive if we live in a human scale society, and if the frames and metaphors of our mental models are in tune with the ecosystems that we are part of. At human scale our abilities are enhanced by shared metaphors that act as powerful thinking tools, allowing us to engage with the living world around us in intuitive ways – to act and make decisions in ways that are easily recognised and understood by others.

However, internalised frames and metaphors create massive problems in large, i.e. super human scale societies, misleading us to believe that we understand more about the world than we actually do. Complex industrialised societies overload us with social information from more people than we are capable of understanding, and incrementally alienate us from the non-human environment that we depend on for our basic needs and wellbeing.

By the end of the century, both the overall human population and the overall economy will be smaller, perhaps significantly smaller, and humanity will inhabit a world of damaged but rapidly adapting ecosystems and largely depleted resources. That’s not a future that many of us as individuals would willingly choose, but it is the one that we have collectively determined through decades of fossil-fueled overpopulation and over- consumption. The point to remember is that it is a future in which we will still have agency. We can optimize the Great Unraveling with cooperation and foresight, or we can ensure a worse outcome through denial and conflict…

…Our immediate goal should be to prevent harm to people and the more-than- human world while fostering resilient, diverse, ecological, nonviolent, compassionate, and more self-reliant communities. Our ultimate goal must be a way of life that offers security, fairness, and wellbeing while using energy and resources at sustainable rates and restoring natural systems rather than further degrading them.

As we work toward long-term goals, we must maximize certain short-term benefits and rewards along the way in order to maintain collective emotional health and social cohesion. By reducing inequality, by prioritizing the contributions of the creative arts, and by encouraging participatory cultural events, communities can increase their members’ quality of life even when average consumption levels decline.

Welcome to the Great Unraveling, 2023, Post Carbon Institute


Framing cultural organisms as sets of relationships, not even limited to species barriers, allows for evolution and nuance, creating a boundary layer of relationships that connect a cultural organism to the outside world, like the semi-permeable membrane of a biological cell. In this frame, just like a cell, a cultural organism has many critical interdependencies with the outside world; the state of environmental health is deeply entangled with the internal state of health of the cultural organism.

Autistic life is incompatible within a society that lives within an Overton window. To understand why, look no further than the way in which Helen Mirra is conceptualizing autistic experience as holotropic:


Neurology is often a trap that reifies a misleading narrative that our brains determine “who we are”, and this is reified by the compound word “neurodiversity”.  It concerns the brain, and neglects the heart. It doesn’t recognize that the mind is not separable from the body. We prefer the term neurosomatic diversity. Our brains have evolved to support our lives, which can only be fulfilling in feeling.

We’ve found monotropic theory to be a very helpful paradigm for a major swath of autistic experience, and the theory is supported by considering its own wellspring. Synthesising monotropic theory with deep ecology and holistic anatomy, we have found a multi-dimensional, spacious, edgeless terrain under the monotropism map. We are calling it holotropism. This perspective may elucidate the high co-occurrences of synaesthesia, mirror-touch, dyspraxia, and hypermobility among us autistic people.

To be holotropic is to have naturally wide open sensory gates. To participate in/as the immense world without becoming overwhelmed, we holotropes have two central methods: in, by hyperfocusing our attention on one sensory or cognitive path, and as, through synthesising our experience into coherence. A sense of wholeness occurs through both of these processes – less consciously in hyperfocus, more consciously in coherence. 

Hyperfocus may occur within singular (monotropic) or connective (syntropic) attention paths (tunnels and rhizomes). Both types of paths create flow states wherein one is deeply engaged. Hyperfocus is a kind of flooding of certain pathways which therein quiets dissonance from conflicting inputs. To be monotropic is to be focused with fidelity. To be syntropic is to be immersed and perhaps inventive. While autistic people are not the only ones capable of absorption, it is the signature of a holotropic life.

If hyperfocus is flow, coherence is profound rest. It is effortless integration. While it has been given little consideration in autism studies, embodied coherence is arguably our true gift, that we can both receive and give. When we are able to abide in receptive open awareness, we find we are wholeness itself.

(the above is an edit specially made for the Autistic Collaboration Trust of a longer essay titled Holotropism.)

The evolution of cultural organisms

The evolution of human cultural organisms can be understood in terms of the axioms of collaborative niche construction. The concepts of cultural organisms, cultural species, and collaborative niche construction are abstract, but they relate to more than ten years of lived experience with the NeurodiVenture operating model, an emergent cultural species that is able to survive and even thrive in the dynamic social and ecological context in which we find ourselves.

If we want to avoid repeating the mistakes of human “civilisations”, the rules for coordinating at super-human scale will have to allow for and encourage a rich diversity of human scale organisations. The resulting dynamic web of interdependencies can simply be thought of as the web of life rather than “civilisation 2.0”.

We must not to again make the anthropocentric mistake of putting humans at the centre of the universe.

Cultural evolution and creative niche construction

The current human predicament is the result of the way in which the current mainstream human social operating system acts as a collective learning disability. The opportunity that presents itself today is to reflect critically on human hubris and human cognitive limitations, and on all the irreversible damage we have already inflicted on the Earth’s ecosystems and the biosphere. 

There is a case to be made that collectively, Autistic people are shaping the transition from the information age to the second knowledge age. Autistic collaborations constitute the relational nervous system between societies that allows tacit knowledge to flow freely to where it can be put to good use.

Don’t simply believe everything that I am writing about cultural evolution and human niche construction. I would like to encourage everyone to independently reflect on their own lived experience, and to read as much as possible from a broad range of perspectives on the human capacity for cultural evolution.

Culture shapes what people attend to, perceive, remember, and how they think, feel, and reason

WEIRD intellectuals have long argued that olfaction is the least important of the five senses, and this has been the standard view in psychology and even in anthropology. Yet, this may be a WEIRD bias… Recent work among both forager-horticulturalists in Bolivia and hunter-gatherers in Malaysia suggests that these populations are superior at identifying scents and possess a richer vocabulary that includes an array of basic (abstract) scent terms (Majid & Kruspe, 2018; Sorokowska et al., 2013)… While philosophers have recognized some of this important work on olfaction (Barwich, 2020), it’s less clear that the field has fully digested the implications of relying on WEIRD neuroscience (Han et al., 2013; Kitayama et al., 2017, 2019)…

… sex differences in navigational cognition don’t always emerge. In East Africa, sex differences in navigational abilities were not found among participants still living a traditional foraging lifestyle; instead, they only arose among participants from communities located closer to the market towns, where people tended to be less mobile and had smaller range sizes (Cashdan et al., 2012). Likewise, among Tsimane adults, where men and women both travel far for food, sex differences in navigational ability were not observed (Trumble et al., 2015).

growing evidence suggests that social norms and institutions can shape theory of mind, giving rise to cross-cultural variation in mentalizing inclinations. WEIRD people appear to be “hyper-mentalizers”, lying at the extreme end of the global spectrum (Barrett et al., 2016; Curtin et al., 2020). Although children everywhere reliably develop theory of mind, the trajectory of this development varies across societies. Notably, there is cross-cultural variation in the order of acquisition of theory of mind concepts: while WEIRD children tend to understand that others can have different beliefs before they understand that others can have different knowledge, Chinese and Turkish children show the opposite pattern, potentially reflecting cultural differences related to individualism versus collectivism (Selcuk et al., 2018; Wellman et al., 2006)...

… most Western intellectuals implicitly assume that their intuitions, motivations, preferences, emotions and ways of thinking generalize across all of humanity. But, while this is sometimes the case, we don’t yet have reliable theories that tell us when and where such generalizations are safe. Philosophers should proceed with caution. What if many aspects of our reasoning abilities and judgments are influenced by cultural evolution?

Epistemic norms shape what people (1) attend to when seeking out information, (2) count as evidence and (3) consider as a persuasive argument (Henderson, 2020; Kauppinen, 2018; Littlejohn & Turri, 2014; Tomasello, 2020). Epistemic norms are so-called because they govern not actions or decisions, but the identification of relevant information, the weighting of different kinds of evidence, and the evaluation of various forms of argument. This influences the formation and updating of beliefs. Some norms apply to particular epistemic activities, such as how one ought to make inferences. For example, epistemic norms regulate how one should deal with inconsistencies, interrogate the entailments of, and conflict among, one’s own beliefs, and update one’s beliefs in light of new observations. Other epistemic norms govern more social aspects of information handling (Brady & Fricker, 2016; Goldman & O’Connor, 2019), such as how much confidence to have in the testimony of different individuals or in different kinds of people based on their social identity and group membership (“respect the wisdom of your elders,” “believe women,” or “distrust strangers”). Others prescribe how much to trust the claims made by different institutions and their leaders, and how much authority or deference should be given to experts of different kinds…

In the emerging interdisciplinary field of Cultural Evolution, a rising tide of theoretical and empirical work that has emerged over the last four decades makes a strong case that humans are a cultural species, that both our minds and bodies arose as products of the interaction between genes and culture over hundreds of thousands or even millions of years. Cultural evolutionists have argued that our capacities for cumulative cultural evolution, the hallmark of our species, produces many of the tools, techniques and heuristics that we think and reason with—ready examples include number systems, fractions, physical concepts (e.g., elastically stored energy and wheels) and perceptual categories (abstract color and scent terms). Social norms and daily demands mean that people habitualize the use of these in ways that recede into the background and become part of how we automatically perceive and process the world. Specifically, humans have evolved genetically to mold our minds and brains to culturally-constructed worlds—adapting to their diverse incentives, affordances, and constraints…

It’s now clear that much of what we find in social and developmental psychology textbooks is simply the “cultural psychology” of WEIRD people and represents a quantitative ethnographic description of how a particular population thinks, remembers, feels and reasons rather than a systematic study of human nature or our species’ evolved psychology. Philosophers, by confronting the WEIRD people problem and harnessing the tools found in Cultural Evolution, can avoid perpetuating a peculiar brand of “culturalphilosophy,” rooted in WEIRD intuitions, and instead begin to construct a philosophy for Homo sapiens.

Henrich, J., Blasi, D.E., Curtin, C.M. et al. A Cultural Species and its Cognitive Phenotypes: Implications for Philosophy. Rev.Phil.Psych. (2022).

Below is a compilation of four complementary perspectives that transcend the tiny Overton window of W.E.I.R.D. cultures:

The revolution will not be nudged

The economic perspective

We keep finding that humans are often honest, kind fair, cooperative. Humans often invest costly resources to help others, to reduce inequality, to sustain social norms. And yet, at the macro level we are finding that deforestation and carbon emissions, in the aggregate continue.

S-frame: the system of rules, norms and institutions by which we live. S-frame changes have created the most important transformations, not I-frame changes.

I-frame: the neural and cognitive machinery that underpins thoughts and behaviours. I-frame policies change behaviour without changing the rules of the game, they are cheap, quick, and politically less contentious. I-frame interventions might delay or even erode the possibilities of S-frame changes.

C-frame: communities, cooperations, collective actions that build institutions (social norms and structures), constrain and align individuals towards group oriented goals, and aggregate processes to elevate their political clout. The C-frame is the the bridge between the I-frame and the S-frame, it is where formal institutions meet individual actions, and where informal institutions emerge, are sustained, or die – it is also where badly or naively designed S-frame policies may fail (social norms and power distribution).

Prof Juan Camilo Cardenas presents examples from Colombia and other countries of changes that become possible when the existence of the C-frame is acknowledged, and when the C-frame receives adequate attention.

Evolution and the human ways of being 

A synthesis of the anthropological and biological perspectives

Agustín Fuentes is a primatologist and biological anthropologist at Princeton University whose research focuses on the biosocial, delving into the entanglement of biological systems with the social and cultural lives of humans, our ancestors, and a few of the other animals with whom humanity shares close relations. From chasing monkeys in jungles and cities, to exploring the lives of our evolutionary ancestors, to examining human health, behavior, and diversity across the globe, Agustín is interested in both the big questions and the small details of what makes humans and our close relations tick.

Importantly, and consistent with everything that the neurodiversity movement stands for, Prof Agustín Fuentes uses the concepts of creative and collaborative niche construction to push back against the naive and misleading concept of “human nature” and presents a compelling case for a diversity of “human natures”, without resorting to any pathologising medical model.


Agustín Fuentes, Biological science rejects the sex binary, and that’s good for humanity, 2022 (article)

Agustín Fuentes, Considering all humans and other organisms in the Anthropocene: learning to listen, 2021 (article)

Agustín Fuentes, Why We Believe: Evolution and the Human Way of Being, 2019, (book)

Agustín Fuentes, Why we believe : Evolution, making meaning, and development of human natures, 2017, (lectures)

How to change a system

The political perspective

We need to change the system. But if the system is made up of individuals, should we start there? Colombian changemaker Isabel Cavalier negates the binary of systems vs individuals, explaining that while cultural change starts from within, its impact and progress can be non-linear—much like climate change. Isabel effortlessly weaves political strategy with spiritual knowledge to explain how culture is the solution to the polycrisis, emphasising that we must re-embed individuals within communities to embody a politics of a better world.

Isabel is a former diplomat who held advisory roles on environmental issues at the Colombian Mission to the United Nations in New York and at the Colombian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Bogotá. After leaving international politics, Isabel co-founded Transforma, a prominent Bogota-based environmental think tank. She is a writer, story-teller and potter, who trained as a lawyer and in socio-cultural studies at the University of Los Andes. She has a Master of Laws from the University of Cambridge. She has worked and published in diverse fields including human rights, racial and gender discrimination, and climate change.

Isabel advocates for a shift in political focus on local collaboration and decision making, to what I refer to as human scale, and for a diversity of local cultures.

Towards stronger localised low-stress economic structures

The mental health perspective

Gabor Mate speaks with Helena Norberg-Hodge about the economy, happiness, community, and healing. They explore the systemic roots of physical and mental health epidemics, and how these could be remedied through moving away from a disconnecting, stress-inducing global economy, towards stronger localized economic structures.

Helena Norberg Hodge’s work is informed by engaging with human scale traditions in Ladakh over decades, observing how local communities have been affected by the industrialised notion of “progress”. The traditional culture in Ladakh was based entirely on trusted relationships at human scale instead of abstract group identities. The focus on trusted relationships mirrors the way in which Autistic people collaborate and develop Autistic culture – if given the opportunity. In the traditional culture in Ladakh, where every person is appreciated for their unique strengths and weaknesses, it would seem very unlikely for Autistic people to be pathologised.

Repeating patterns of cultural adaptations

From the perspective of the rituals of daily life, culture may not seem to change much from year to year, but if we look closely in the right places, major changes take place every 5 to 10 years. The toxicity of the industrialised paradigm is not the absence of cultural dynamism, but the systematic channeling of all cultural change into frantic busyness within an established and fundamentally misguided paradigm:

Human beings have evolved complex and adaptive strategies for social cohesion. Our neurology is primed to establish rapport with other humans, to utilize reciprocal altruism, and to work toward common goals. Such social relationships require real-world, organic calibration to take effect. The establishment of rapport, for example, depends on eye contact, synchronized respiration, and recognition of subtle changes in vocal timbre.

In virtual spaces, these mechanisms cease to function. In fact, when human beings fail to establish “social resonance” through digital media, they tend to blame not the low fidelity of the medium, but the trustworthiness of the other party. We repeat: the inability to establish organic social bonds through digital media increases our suspicion of one another, not the medium through which we are failing to connect.

This creates the perfect preconditions for memetic attack. The people, newscasters, friends, and experts we encounter through digital media are not trusted. The bots, algorithms, images and ideas to which we are exposed, on the other hand, are accepted at face value.

The only surefire safeguard against this state of vulnerability is to reaffirm the live, local, social, organic relationships between the people in the target population. This means challenging the value of time spent socializing and entertaining themselves on digital platforms, and giving people enough minutes of non-connected, social experiences each day to anchor live human-to-human connection as the primary form of social engagement.

People with some live experience of local politics, mutual aid, and environmental maintenance will be more resistant to the memetic constructions of the synthetic ideological landscape. They will be more likely to blame low fidelity on technology than one another, and less likely to accept the false, anti-social premises of angry, sensationalist memes. The less alienated a population
is from one another, the harder it is to turn them against one another through polarizing memetics.

The Biology of Disinformation : memes, media viruses, and cultural inoculation
by D Rushkoff, D Pescovitz, J Dunagan, 2018

The ubiquitous crisis of a lack of imagination generated by the cult of busyness has been with us at least since the 1970s. Erik Torenberg for example comments on Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, by Robert Pirsig (1991) as follows:

Where are values? … Objects are value-free, … science claims to be objective, … indifferent to values. This attitude is everywhere. It has permeated science and all disciplines that aspire to emulate science.

“This is called the ‘fact-value’ dichotomy, and it has been basically unchallenged in Western philosophy for several hundred years.  The question quality – values – morals – basically has been banished. They are not part of the object, so they just become part of the subject, and thus subjective.”

Artists, visionaries, sometimes even religious figures see reality in a different way that compels people so thoroughly that they shift society. These people were dynamic — if they saw the world in static ways they would have never made those breakthroughs. They weren’t seeing the world from intellect, limited by the subject-object duality, but from “Quality”. As the book says, “if it were not mysterious and unexplainable, it would not be quality”.

The difficulty, though, … for every Christ or Buddha that changes civilization, there are thousands of crackpots who claim to be doing the same thing but are just distractions. Or in other words, all good new ideas come from dynamic patterns, but all new bad ideas come from those dynamic patterns as well.

Similarly both David Graeber and Peter Thiel lament “Where Did the Future Go?” in 2014, looking back over previous decades from two quite different perspectives, and yet both retaining a level of technological optimism that seems naive from today’s perspective. It has become clear that we not not only need to replace the misleading belief in the ability to control super-human scale phenomena with trustworthy relationships at human scale, but we also need to replace the misleading belief in the our ability to maintain W.E.I.R.D. energy hungry ways of life with radically less energy intensive ways of living, informed amongst other things by the timeless wisdom still found in some indigenous societies.

The futility of within-paradigm incrementalism only becomes fully visible from a transdisciplinary viewpoint. For the Neurodiversity Movement this means that engaging exclusively with the pathologising silos of W.E.I.R.D. psychiatry and psychology is a dead end.

Not only do we find that the Homo economicus predictions fail in every society (24 societies, multiple communities per society), but instructively, we find that it fails in different ways in different societies. Nevertheless, after our paper “In search of Homo economicus” in 2001 in the American Economic Review, we continued to search for him. Eventually, we did find him. He turned out to be a chimpanzee. The canonical predictions of the Homo economicus model have proved remarkably successful in predicting chimpanzee behavior in simple experiments. So, all theoretical work was not wasted, it was just applied to the wrong species.

Scientists Discover What Economists Haven’t Found: Humans
by D S Wilson and J Henrich, 2016

Juan Camilo Cardenas’ work illustrates the counterproductive effects of the individualistic and competitive W.E.I.R.D. conception of “self”. At the risk of over-simplification, psychiatry tells us what is “wrong” with individuals from within a broken hypernormative frame and through a medical lens, and then psychology offers “help”, by telling people what they want to hear to feel better about themselves, to better cope within a fundamentally broken social operating model.

Designing filtering, collaboration, thinking, and learning tools for the next 200 years

If we want to find our way back to human scale and to the level of collective intelligence and cultural adaptive capability that is needed to navigate existential threats, we need to develop a language that enables us to imagine paths into a future that looks very different from the industrialised world that we were born into.

The language of evolutionary design encapsulates and formalises the timeless principles that can be traced back to the earliest rock paintings and diagrammatic representations, which enabled important knowledge to be transmitted reliably in otherwise largely oral human scale cultures over tens of thousands of years. Evolutionary design allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into a living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems.

As events beyond human control force us to pay attention to the much richer metaphors of living systems, Autistic people are rediscovering the beauty of collaborating at human scale, and co-creating beautiful works of art as an antidote against the emergence of social power dynamics and the competitive logic of hate and violence.

The relational nervous system of open knowledge flows between human societies

The relatively sparse local distribution of Autistic people and the diversity amongst Autistic people, i.e. sometimes very different sensory profiles – and needs, and different areas of core interests, conspire to make it difficult for Autistic people to form thriving local communities in any given location.

That said, even though the Autistic interest profile tends to be noticeably narrower and deeper than considered typical, whatever an Autist is interested in beyond their core areas of expertise, the interest is driven by genuine curiosity.

Neuronormative knowledge and skill profile

Example of an Autistic knowledge and skill profile

This opens great opportunities for friendships between Autists on the basis of complementary areas of deep expertise, and this is how over time areas of deep expertise may even shift. The caveat is, speaking from experience, that the limited number of Autists in any geographic location, in combination with the often precarious life situation of Autistic people, reduces the available opportunities for forming long term local Autistic collaborations.

Established collaborations and friendships tend to persist, but are often pulled apart again geographically due to economic constraints. This fact of Autistic life won’t change until local communities are are prepared to much better support Autistic community formation, for example by investing in a centre of Autistic culture that is designed and operated by and for local Autistic people. Traumatised people tend to be isolated, and the same is true for most Autistic people, even for the minority that is not significantly traumatised.

This raises the question of how local Autistic community formation can be nurtured within the current absence of Autistic centres of culture. There are many examples of multi-generational Autistic families, if fact, this is probably the default scenario. It just so happens that our parents may not be the people or the only people we want to spend the rest of our lives with.

In many cases the Internet has enabled Autistic people to find their way to each other. This may work fine, catalysing a few friendships within a wider geographic region, and it can even work for forming life partnerships. But without local community co-investment, it is difficult to impossible to nurture a thriving local human scale Autistic community into existence, and to catalyse the formation of local companies owned and operated by Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people.

In the pre-industrialised past, only a few hundred years ago, life was more collaborative and relational, and less hyper-competitive and transactional, and local communities would have been less alienating for Autistic people. The above problem has only become acute in an increasingly toxic hypernormative society. I have already written in some detail about the role that Autistic people have always played and will always play in all human groups in the context of multi-generational cultural evolution.

Agents of the cultural immune system within groups

Autistic people – agents of the cultural immune system within groups – this makes for interesting reading in the abstract, but it looks very different from the perspective of Autistic people who repeatedly find themselves in hostile and impossible situations, and who continuously push back against toxic social expectations and toxic social power gradients in hypernormative societies.

In an effort to “be the change”, in the industrial era, many Autists end up being sand in the gears of busyness as usual.

Luckily, thanks to the Internet, this is not the end of Autistic people. Whilst in isolation, in our role as agents of the cultural immune system, we can easily get crushed, we are also the ones who have co-created the Internet and the digital tools that mediate much of human communication and collaboration today. This is not quite accidental.

A human cultural immune system engages with cultural expectations and norms that are harmful – ultimately for all humans and for most of our non-human contemporaries.

To operate in this space requires access to human communication and collaboration channels, and this is something we have achieved at scale, together with all other humans, as part of the evolutionary process that gave us the Internet. It is not accidental that the rich modalities of communication and collaboration we have co-created on top of the digital substrate include many that are more suited for Autistic needs than linear spoken human language.

Autistic collaborations constitute the relational nervous system between groups

The relationships between people and all the information flows between people constitute a network that serves a role comparable to a nervous system, and this has become much more obvious since humans have started using digital communication tools.

Such relational nervous systems exit within within each cultural organism, and also between cultural organisms.

Culturally well adjusted people maintain many relationships within their local context, i.e. within a local cultural organism. This obvious truth has significant implications for the design of digital technologies. This was first noticed in 1967 by Mel Conway, when he submitted a paper called “How Do Committees Invent?” to the Harvard Business Review. Here is one form of the paper’s thesis:

Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.

Mel Conway, 1967

Many Autistic people, as discussed above, only have few local relationships. Instead, Autistic communities and collaborations have evolved primarily between compatible neurodivergent people with shared interests and complementary talents and skills, via the Internet, and across the boundaries of cultural organisms.

Connected via the Internet and Open Source software for around thirty years, Autistic people have collaborated on the development of new digital user experiences, trustworthy domain specific interoperability standards, and better language systems for knowledge archaeology and knowledge sharing amongst humans, and throughout, Conway’s law has remained relevant. The birth of Autistic communities is deeply entangled with the birth of the Internet.

To sum up, Autistic people play two important roles in human societies at large:

  1. Autists are agents of the human cultural immune system within all societies.
  2. Autistic collaborations constitute the relational nervous system between societies that allows tacit knowledge to flow freely to where it can be put to good use.

For most Autists, digital technologies are essential tools for navigating daily life. In the domain of healthcare, where the stigma of being Autistic remains high, I regularly collaborate with undercover Autistic educators, Autistic scientists from a broad range of disciplines, Autistic clinicians of all stripes, Autistic nurses, and of course, Autistic health informaticians.

Being Autistic in a hypernormative society

The Web may have commercialised the Internet, and as we know, much of it has deteriorated into Big Junk Data that is worshipped as the “new Oil” by corporations, which is now exponentially multiplied for further commercial gains by artificially intelligent systems.

But none of these commercialised digital information flows have prevented valuable tacit knowledge from being passed between Autistic people, feeding into the Autistic SECI (socialisation, externalisation, combination, internalisation) knowledge co-creation spirals, which are at the heart of many Autistic communities and many Open Source software communities. 1 in 5 people are considered neurodivergent from the hypernormative perspective of our industrialised society.

Neurodivergent people and teams:

  • Adhere to idiosyncratic moral value systems rather than social norms
  • Are okay with exploring ideas that upset the “social order”
  • Spend much more time experimenting and implementing ideas that others would consider crazy or a waste of time
  • Have untypical life goals: new forms of understanding, making a positive impact, translating ideas into artistic expression
  • Autists in particular have unusually developed pattern recognition abilities and an unusual ability to persevere

There is a case to be made that collectively, Autistic people are shaping the transition from the Information Age to the second Knowledge Age. We’ve been at a similar cultural inflection point before, at the dawn of humanity, when we first combined the human capacity for cultural transmission with the human capacity for imagination and creative collaboration, which allowed us to survive and thrive in nearly all ecosystems on the planet.

The opportunity that presents itself today is to reflect critically on human hubris and human cognitive limitations, and on all the irreversible damage we have already inflicted on the Earth’s ecosystems and the biosphere. We can only do so if we see past the many shiny new digital toys and nauseating competitive social games powered by the “new Oil”, which in turn rely on burning more and more fossils.

We are literally putting fire to the tree we are sitting on. Our primate cousins may differ from our opinions on which primates are more “intelligent”.

The W.E.I.R.D. scientific approach to knowing

These developments go hand in hand with the limits we are encountering in the W.E.I.R.D. scientific approach to knowing, as if the only things that count are the ones that can be quantified and measured, and as if there is little to nothing to learn from indigenous people, who still know how to train their senses on taking in all the many diverse signals from the local ecosystem directly, and who are able to perceive important changes and trends, without the help of digital tools.

This is not to say that our modern instruments can’t give us complementary of insights, but it is a reminder that humans have survived without digital tools for hundreds of thousands of years, and that dismissing all associated insights may well the fastest route towards the end of our species and countless other species.

To reiterate this point, we should always remain cognisant of the limits of human science, which is subject to human cognitive limits and not immune to human mistakes and weaknesses. When systems get complex, then the science gets complex, and with complexity, as any good scientist knows, certainty goes out the window, and then all we are left with is statistics – and sadly, very often bad statistics.

Without an intimate understanding of the limits of quantification and of the models we are creating, science deteriorates into scientism. After writing this article I came across the following excellent diversity affirming 5 minute introduction to the difference between science and scientism.

Good science is a never ending routine of reviewing what we seem to “know”, asking critical and creative questions, and then discovering how much we don’t know and will never get to know.

In the meantime, we do know that our buses are heading towards a rapidly approaching cliff, and it is time to think about whether remaining seated in a “civilised” armchair in a “civilised” bus, whilst billions of others are already struggling to survive from day to day, forced to remain seated in a burning bus, is the most enjoyable and ethically justifiable use of the limited time that we have been afforded on this planet.

Population exposed outside of the human temperature niche:

Climate change has already put ~9% of people (>600 million) outside this niche. By end-of-century (2080–2100), current policies leading to around 2.7 °C global warming could leave one-third (22–39%) of people outside the niche.

Lenton, T.M., Xu, C., Abrams, J.F. et al. Quantifying the human cost of global warming. Nat Sustain (2023).

Relevant science in our times: The revolution will not be nudged.

The Open Encyclopedia of Anthropology (OEA) is a good starting point for culturally well adjusted people to start learning about cultural bias and human diversity. Here are a few interesting entries:

Beyond science

The ethical question doesn’t go away by doing more science.

The notion of disability in our society is underscored by a bizarre conception of “independence”. 

Autists depend on assistance from others in ways that differ from the cultural norm – and that is pathologised. However, the many ways in which non-autistic people depend on others is considered “normal”, or rather it is brushed under the carpet.

Humans have evolved to live in highly collaborative groups, with strong interdependencies between individuals and in many cases between groups.

The open question is how humans will treat each other and our non-human contemporaries on the journey towards being composted and recycled. Experiences may vary depending on the human scale cultures we co-create on the margins.

Autistic mutual aid – a factor of cultural evolution

The diagnostic criteria for autism cover a broad and diverse umbrella of people, and they obscure the Autistic lived experience of toxic cultural norms that are ultimately detrimental for all people. The inappropriate pathologisation that results from the hypernormative medical lens gets in the way of providing Autistic people with optimal support throughout the lifespan.

In my experience Autistic people of all stripes seem to share two broad characteristics:

  1. Divergent sensory profiles – unique profiles of hyper- and hypo-sensitivity across various senses, and corresponding differences in cognitive processing.
  2. A reduced capacity for cognitive dissonance, resulting in an inability to successfully maintain hidden agendas in the social domain over any significant periods. In a competitive environment some may try, but this is not an Autistic strength. When an Autistic person disagrees with you or is angry with you, you will either be told so immediately or soon find out one way or another.

These neurological characteristics describe the set of Autistic people, many of whom identify with the communal definition of Autistic ways of being and with being socially disabled by our hypernormative society. It does not make any sense to pathologise or medicalise these highly variable characteristics. Attempting to trace these characteristics to specific genes is also futile.

There are dedicated medical labels for speech and language disabilities that make speech difficult and unreliable (apraxia), which are studied by neurologists who specialise such disabilities, and these can be used independently or alongside the label Autistic. This leads to the set of people with speech and language disabilities.

Non-speaking Autistic people are a subset within the set of people with speech and language disabilities. Non-speakers can be understood as having further difficulties with motor control, to the extent that speech becomes impossible – attempting to teach non-speakers to speak is at best a waste of time, and experienced as highly frustrating and nonsensical by non-speakers.

Autistic communities include speaking and non-speaking Autists with varying communication preferences. For some the ability to speak varies from day to day. Mutual aid and respect for individual communication preferences are essential aspects of Autistic culture and multi-generational Autistic whānau.

Finally there are Autistic people who are considered intellectually disabled, based on W.E.I.R.D. definitions of intelligence and bizarre expectations of independence. This set of people is simply the intersection of Autistic people and intellectually disabled people.

We do not deal properly with the issue of climate change. We do not deal properly with the issues of peace, war, immigration, food resources, water resources, public health, and all these important issues. We became incompetent because society as a whole began to focus on how to deceive and trick people.Jaron Lanier, VR technology pioneer, 2019

The notion of life as a competitive game found its way into the science of biology by interpreting Darwin’s theory of evolution through the cultural lens of capitalism. The complementary perspective of life and evolution as a cooperative game as described by Pyotr Alexeyevich Kropotkin in Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution (1902) was largely ignored in so-called “developed” capitalist societies throughout most of the 20th century.

The diagnostic process often assumes that speech disabled and non-speaking Autistic people are also intellectually disabled, and in many cases this assumption is invalid, in exactly the same way that Deaf people are not necessarily intellectually disabled, resulting in a failure to provide appropriate communication support.

In summary, the majority of Autistic people identify as disabled, and all Autistic people have divergent sensory profiles and a reduced capacity for cognitive dissonance. For the most part, the social model of disability offers an appropriate frame for understanding the way in which Autistic people are disabled by society. Like wheelchair users need access to ramps, Autistic people need access to means of communication and non-discriminatory social environments.

Since the vast majority of Autistic people experience their neurological characteristics as part of their core identity, and would never wish to be cured of their Autistic way of being, the pathologisation of Autistic people is entirely inappropriate. Instead, the social model of disability and the strong sense of solidarity, shared lived experiences, and shared cultural practices in terms of appreciation of individually unique sensory profiles and diversity of communication preferences, point to human rights based and design justice based approaches as the most promising avenues for improving the lives of all Autistic people.

Depathologisation of Autistic people as demanded by Autistic rights activists does not negate being socially disabled, and need not prevent anyone from gaining access to appropriate means of communication and other forms of social support. On the contrary, such support would be much more straightforward to provide via established disability and need specific diagnostic labels that exist independently of Autistic ways of being.

Finally, given the extent to which most Autistic people are systematically disabled by social norms and expectations, as well as by the sensory overload in contemporary social environments, Autistic people have an elevated risk of being traumatised, often from a very young age, within their families, within educational settings, within healthcare settings, and later within workplace settings.

The extent to which most Autistic people are traumatised is reflected in the overlap in the diagnostic criteria for autism, ADHD, BPD, and autism, PTSD, and trauma related mental illnesses within the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders (DSM).

Untold harm is being caused by not identifying sensitive Autistic children before they are heavily traumatised by their social environments, and later, by not identifying trauma as the root cause of mental distress and mental illness that requires therapy and appropriate treatment. The most alarming aspect in the way our society mistreats Autistic people is the Autism Industrial Complex, which actively traumatises Autistic children by subjecting them to conversion / normalisation “therapies”.

Because in our society it is so difficult to find non-traumatised Autistic people, it is difficult to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of the role that Autistic people have always and will always play in human societies, which can only be properly understood by applying an evolutionary lens to the development of human societies and human cultures over the last 300,000 years.

The current human predicament is a result of the cultural disease of super-human scale powered-up civilisation building endeavours, the origins of which can be traced back to the beginnings of “modern” human history and the social power dynamics resulting from the invention of interest bearing debt around 5,000 years ago.

Becoming conscious of human cognitive limits, and recognising that these limits are just as real, immutable, and relevant for our survival as the laws of physics, is essential for neurodivergent people to navigate sensory and emotional overload, and for (re)creating safe environments for ourselves and our human and non-human contemporaries.

The biosphere of this planet is our only home. A shift from a brittle W.E.I.R.D. monoculture to ecosystems of resilient human scale ecologies of care eliminates the spurious technological complexity needed to support a monoculture, and it retains and even grows adaptive cultural complexity, i.e. the diversity and the mutual aid that emerges when we reduce cognitive dissonance by (re)aligning the human ecological footprint with bioregional ecosystem functions.

We know from indigenous cultures that humans have the capacity to think up seven generations ahead when making decisions. Alarmingly, in the cult of busyness of industrialised societies, we have lost this collective capacity.

Spurious technological complexity wastes energy – it is the result of humans working against biological evolution, whereas adaptive cultural complexity saves energy – it is the result of humans engaging in collaborative niche construction as a part of biological ecosystems.

The embedded links and videos in this article provide more in-depth explanations and refer to relevant transdisciplinary research.

The possibilities and limitations of human agency

We are part of the web of life, including our imagination. An important commonality that many Autistic people share with members of other marginalised groups is a deep desire for social justice and a corresponding preference for genuinely egalitarian social operating models.

This week the Irish president Michael D Higgins condemned neoliberalism and urged the country to ‘rebalance economy, ecology and ethics’. People and governments should take note. Corporations should be served notice, and be given palliative care, including exit paths for the inmates.

This article includes many references. It can serve as a table of content and resource list for an education course on human cultural evolution, with a focus on the current human predicament.

The role of food in the context of living systems

The role of understanding as a prerequisite for intentionality

The role of imagination in the evolution of culture and technology

The roles of trust, safety, and diversity

Life creates conditions conducive to life

We are part of the web of life, including our imagination. As agents of the human cultural immune system we can expand the language of life and (re)imagine cultures that reconnect us to biological life and local biological ecosystems. The evolution of human cultural organisms is best understood in terms of the axioms of collaborative niche construction:

  1. Human scale cultural organisms are the primary reproducing and adaptive units of human life
  2. The life expectancy for healthy cultural organisms is upwards of 200 years
  3. Most interactions between healthy cultural organisms are relational feedback loops grounded in depowered dialogue
  4. Each cultural organism consists of cultural organs (households) and cultural cells (relationships) that perform specific functions within the cultural organism
  5. Most interactions with and within healthy cultural organs are relational feedback loops grounded in depowered dialogue
  6. The self selection of cultural cells that function as cultural organs are one primary factor of collaborative niche construction, in this case within the context of a cultural organism
  7. The limits of human scale are another primary factor of collaborative niche construction, resulting in the spawning of self selected human scale organisms, in this case within the context of a cultural species
  8. The set of cultural organisms that share common patterns of core functions (relational patterns within and between cultural organs) constitute a cultural species
  9. In the same way that biological species engage in collaborative niche construction across multiple generations, within the context of a bioregional ecosystem, cultural species engage in collaborative niche construction across multiple generations within a bioregional cultural ecosystem
  10. Healthy cultural cells (depowered relationships) connect cultural niche construction (one evolutionary factor) with genetic niche construction (another evolutionary factor)

This framework of concepts can be used to constrain the values and principles we live by to those that are conducive to life and de-powered human relationships. The axioms of collaborative niche construction also provide a scaffold for mapping our understanding of microbiological immune systems onto the domain of culture and cultural evolution. Given the fractal nature of living systems, it is not at all surprising to see patterns from the cellular and molecular scale reappear with additional nuances at the scales of cultural cells (relationships) and cultural organs (households). Amongst other things the axioms of collaborative niche construction help explain why:

  1. The strongest social norms in healthy cultural species (those whose life expectancy is not severely compromised by cultural disease) are norms that clamp down on the emergence of social power gradients
  2. Within a healthy cultural organism humans experience their life in terms of nurturing lifetime depowered relationships (life creates conditions conducive to life)
  3. The Western cultural notion of self is one of the symptoms of a cultural disease that shifts the focus from cultural cells (de-powered relationships, i.e. the atomic unit of cultural learning) to self-centred individuals (powered-up relationships, i.e. learning disabled units of cultural learning)
  4. Cultural health can be measured in terms of the extent to which explicit cultural operating principles and systems of social norms as found in religions prioritise (or not) (a) human scale cultural organisms vs (b) other levels of scale and/or powered-up relationships (examples of how aspects of this play out in terms of capitalism, religions, and the cult of the self)
  5. All super human scale “civilisations” inevitably end in collapse
  6. Collapse is a liberating experience for most, it is only a perceived disaster from the viewpoint of powered-up elites

The possibilities and limitations of human agency

“Understand there are actions that are bringing the Earth to the brink. But you can be part of other actions. Don’t underestimate your contributions. I work with seeds. The seed is so small… The smallness is what allows it to multiply, on its own…  So appreciate your smallness, because it gives you new flexibility, … And keep good company, and hang out with people you love, and give them energy, and take their energy … The more people join in this solidarity, the more we will be able to create wellbeing by using less…” – Vandana Shiva.

Small groups of 20 to 100 people are the primary organisms within human society – in contrast to individuals, corporations, and nation states. The implications for our civilisation are profound. Humanity is experiencing a phase transition that is catalysed by a combination of new communication technologies, toxic levels of social inequalities, and existential crises. It is time to curate and share the lessons from marginalised perspectives, and to reflect critically on the human evolutionary journey and on the possibilities and limitations of human agency.

In my experience, beyond focusing on human scale, the biggest factor that influences human wellbeing and human health is the way we deal with cognitive dissonance.

In industrialised societies, culturally well adjusted people are unable to speak about their many fears, and their health suffers accordingly. Trauma is a major cause of ill health amongst Autistic people. What I have found is that purging cognitive dissonance from my life has by far been the most beneficial thing I have done for my wellbeing and health. This is not something that culturally well adjusted clinicians and mental health professionals tend to encourage, they very rarely if ever encourage changes in the way we live our lives that deviate from accepted – yet toxic – mainstream culture. I acknowledge the oppressive culture around us with open eyes, depressing, but at the same time providing a clear focus for my agency. I avoid cognitive dissonance like the plague, by refusing to conform to norms and expectations that I am uncomfortable with.

Attempting to conform to toxic expectations in the past had major negative health effects, and I am no longer up for that.

A few observations based on lived experience

The two major challenges that make it difficult for Autistic people to form thriving local Autistic communities:

  1. The level of social stigma of openly identifying as Autistic, which in many contexts is comparable to the stigma faced by people with suicidal ideation and other forms of mental illness and distress. Furthermore, due to traumatic experiences many Autistic people are part of both stigmatised groups.
  2. The relatively small number of Autistic people in any given location. Even if we assume that one in 25 people is Autistic, in the absence of safe and easily accessible Autistic centres of culture, it remains a challenge to establish and nurture local Autistic collaboration and community building activities.

Additionally, amongst people who have only recently discovered Autistic community, based on initial positive experiences online, I sometimes come across the misconception that all Autists are effortlessly able to get along with each other. Even though Autistic people are much more likely to get along well with other Autistic people than with culturally well-adjusted people, this does not mean that everyone in a random group of Autistic people will immediately get along with everyone else in the group. In fact, due to the narrower and deeper interests of Autistic people, the diversity of personalities between Autistic people tend to be greater than amongst culturally well adjusted people.

But don’t let negative experiences put you off Autistic community building efforts. Overall the positive experiences outweigh the negatives, and active community building definitely beats being on the wrong bus.

Autistic unwillingness or inability to maintain hidden agendas tends to make communication between Autistic people more straightforward and less confusing than communication with non-Autistic people, even if there are disagreements. Higher levels of baseline sensitivities result in above average levels of traumatic life experiences within the hypernormative cultures we are embedded in. These commonalities constitute the substrate from which Autistic cultures emerge in the context of Autistic relationships and small groups of Autistic people.

Noteworthy commonalities between Autistic people have been distilled into the Communal Definition of Autistic Ways Of Being.

One important commonality that many Autistic people share with members of other marginalised groups is a deep desire for social justice and a corresponding preference for genuinely egalitarian social operating models. This observation holds the key to understanding the cultures that emerge within Autistic communities.


Hypernormative Culture Awareness Month

The definition of normality in the industrial era is based on the metaphor of society as a factory and on the metaphor of people as machines. Our laws and social norms have been shaped by these metaphors to a far greater extent than most people are able to comprehend without an in-depth explanation.

Diagnostic criteria for hypernormative societies

  1. A culture based on the an industrial factory model of society that wrongly assumes that all human children develop along a path of universally applicable milestones
  2. A culture that indoctrinates children in cultural techniques and tools via an “education” system based on age cohorts that actively encourages individual competition and obedience within a hierarchical structure of social power differentials
  3. A culture that pathologises the neurological diversity of humans and any interests, capabilities, sensitivities, and limitations that diverge from a culturally predefined set of quantifiable “norms”
  4. A culture that elevates pseudo-scientific techniques of psychological child abuse to the status of remedial “therapy to maximise conformance with social “norms”
  5. A culture that is built on anthropocentric myths of human superiority and technological “progress”
  6. A culture that insists that people need to “earn” a living instead of appreciating the diversity of possible human life paths
  7. A culture with a social operating system that denies innate collaborative capacities that differentiate the human species from other primate species, wrongly assuming that individual social competition is the main driver of human cultural evolution
  8. A culture that allows an Autism Industrial Complex to emerge and become a profitable multi-billion dollar busyness opportunity
  9. A culture that has led to a growing number of existential threats and that is incapable of dealing effectively with any of these threats
  10. A culture that elevates the religious belief in continuous abstract “economic growth” to a law of nature

From the perspective of any human scale culture that has any level of appreciation for biological life, a hypernormative culture with the above characteristics is denying the wonder of life, the complexity of living systems, and the endless possibilities for developing de-powered human cultures.

Industrialised functioning

The three tools of the trade for “success” at the competitive social game are:

  1. persuasive story telling,
  2. the strategic use of plausibly deniable lies – which some autism researchers celebrate as the “valuable” capacity for flexible deception,
  3. and the art of bullying to the limits of what is deemed socially acceptable in specific contexts.

Our current globalised industrialised society is best understood as a cult. All people who are unable to or hesitate to play the competitive social game are systematically disadvantaged and pathologised.

The pathology paradigm ensures that all defective people are identified, and to the greatest possible extent, are corrected by suitable therapies and medical interventions, to get as close to normal “functioning” as possible. The diagnostic criteria for hypernormative societies can be traced back to the implicit assumptions of the pathology paradigm. It is impossible to take most “autism research” seriously, because it brims with circular reasoning and cultural bias. The pseudo-science used to justify pathologisation is a reflection of the exploitative nature of “civilised” industrialised society.

Industrialised society has become increasingly normative in many ways. The term “hypernormalisation”, coined in the Soviet era, and transposed into the Western context in an extended documentary by Adam Curtis (2016), is quite appropriate.

April is Hypernormative Culture Awareness Month. Please spare a moment for all culturally well adjusted people, who are unable to speak about their many fears and the many sources of cognitive dissonance in their lives. We can support them by nurturing shared understanding in a deceptive world.

Ban of conversion therapies

I can not imagine the horrors that some Autistic children must go through today, when exposed to intensive “early intervention” autistic “conversion therapy”, i.e. 20 to 40 hours of what is known as Applied Behaviour Analysis or Positive Behaviour Support. Autistic children are systematically taught that their needs and feelings don’t matter at all. All that matters are the demands of “therapists” (maybe better “the rapists”), and ambitious parents and teachers who are concerned about “functioning levels” according to a fictitious and irresponsibly simplistic model of “human development” that simply ignores the diversity of human neurocognitive functioning and lived experience.

Please join us. Now is the time to act and ban all forms of “conversion therapy”, including conversion therapies that target Autistic children, which are often branded as Applied Behaviour Analysis (ABA) or Positive Behaviour Support (PBS). The time for change is now.