Convergent and divergent cultural evolution

With the concepts of ND / Autistic whānau and ND / Autistic communities we are exploring new terrain, in which the artificial and toxic distinction between the industrialised concepts of “work” and “family life” is completely dissolved, and is fully replaced by the concepts of human scale ecologies of authentic, non-competitive mutual care that extends beyond humans, and that includes all living creatures. This is a long-term Autistic collaboration initiative.

The supportive reactions from the Autistic community have been amazing and continue to amaze me. The distinction between the concepts of ‘friends’ and ‘colleagues’ has always been nonsensical to me, it is one and the same category for me. This is what pushed me away from the toxic competitive corporate world over twenty years ago, and into co-creating an employee owned company with my closest friends and co-workers.

Mental health can only be understood in a way that is meaningful for humans at the level of a biocultural organism at human scale, via the health of human relationships within and between biocultural organisms. The harm created by a toxic society and possible avenues for healing can only be fully understood if the analysis is not limited to the harm inflicted on individuals, but also focuses on the harm on the relationships between people and the relationships between biocultural organisms.

NeurodiVentures are based on the notion of lifetime friendships and long-term collaboration on initiatives that are close to the hearts of the people involved. Our small company has taught me how to co-create safe de-powered environments of mutual trust and interdependence, as opposed to toxic environments of social power games and co-dependence. By the way, this recent article by Terra Vance includes a really good explanation of the important difference between interdependence and co-dependence. 

Through an evolutionary lens we can understand the formation of neurodivergent whānau not only as the formation of biocultural organisms, but also as the emergence of a new cultural species. From the vantage point of a NeurodiVenture it is an order of magnitude easier to establish trusted collaborations with other NeurodiVentures than establishing collaborations with institutions with operating models that are steeped in the religion of the invisible hand of the market. The root cause of Autistic trauma in modern industrialised societies can be summed up in one sentence:

“Nature wants you to be yourself, more than it wants you to survive”.

– Dr. Gabor Maté

Autistic people are acutely aware of the basic human need to be authentic. For many of us this need is top of mind, at least from the point onwards when we realised that we feel much safer amongst Autistic people than with culturally well adjusted, i.e. neuronormative people. When we have to suppress our authenticity, i.e. when we mask, just to be perceived as “acceptable” and to avoid being discriminated against, we suffer, and over time this suffering impacts on our mental, physical, and relational health, and eventually becomes greater than the significant bullying and discrimination we face when being authentic. There is no escape route from this predicament within the confines of industrialised “civilisation”. For traumatised Autistic people joining the neurodiversity movement and finding a safe place within an Autistic / ND whānau is an imperative on the road to healing.

I am highly concerned about the toxic impact of the ‘Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders’ (DSM) and therapies that are based on the toxic assumptions encoded in the DSM, most of which are based on the European conception of ego in the industrialised world. Many Autistic people are diagnosed with additional pathologising labels that undermine the authentic Autistic sense of self.

The kind of education that is needed to enable human societies to overcome suicidal cultural inertia is not feel good edutainment – it is certainly not more pop psychology. Two examples of many: Our society allows entire careers to be built around the observation that our social operating system systematically generates and normalises narcissistic behaviours and is systematically traumatising a growing number of marginalised and disenfranchised people. Such ambulance at the bottom of the cliff approaches may be needed at this stage as survival tools to enable people to cope with trauma in the short term, but their focus is limited to individuals, and at best individual relationships. Especially commercial therapeutic services are on the slippery slope towards having an explicit interest not to address root causes, similar to what we see with the Medical Industrial Complex and the Autism Industrial Complex – i.e. an interest in continued supply of narcissistic abuse, and an interest in never addressing all aspects of complex PTSD and early childhood trauma. The entire discipline of psychology consistently fails to address the bigger picture of cultural diversity, of paradigmatic inertia, and toxic life destroying institutions.

Our capacity for culture

… This is a behavior we do which chimps could not possibly make any sense of. You’re in a foreign country you’re going to the airport you’re about to leave there, you are never going to set foot in that country again, no person you see there will ever see you again, and as you walk into the terminal you pause for a second and hold the door open for someone. Everything about the evolution of reciprocity and cooperation says there’s no way that could ever become commonplace, and that defines us, in other words evolution of behavior, until you look more closely.

Ok so what have we gotten to now. We’ve now officially seen one of our behaviors occur, and if you want to understand that behavior, you’ve got to incorporate everything, from one millisecond before, to millions of years of selection and evolutionary pressure. In other words, one can officially conclude at this point – it’s complicated. Let’s try to make that conclusion a little bit more useful. It’s complicated, so be real careful and real cautious, and real sure you really understand what’s going on if you decide you understand why some behaviors happens, especially if it’s a behavior that you’re judging harshly.

Now for my purposes the single most important thing about all of this is, all of these realms of factoids I’ve been downloading here, all of them have one thing in common, they change, they can change over time. They change in response to experience, they change in the most fundamental ways … Ecosystems change, cultures change. In the 18th century the most terrifying people in Europe were the Swedes. They spent the whole century rampaging through Europe and then something happened, something changed, … they haven’t had a war in more than a century. Cultures change, cultures change dramatically. Most importantly, brains change, new connections, lose old ones, expansion, contractions. Brains change, behaviors change, people change. Sometimes astounding magnitudes of change occur.

– Prof. Robert Sapolsky (2017)

Our biological roots

So what about humans? …

We’re the most confused primate species there is out there because we’re halfway in between by every measure you can come up with, and that’s why the majority of human cultures are polygamous, but the majority of men in polygamous cultures are monogamous, and in monogamous cultures there are an awful lot of the men who say they believe in monogamy who are actually polygamous. And that’s like half of what poetry is about, that we’re halfway in between these two categories. We’re this incredibly confused species. That’s how we can occupy so many different ecosystems and different forms of cultures and economic systems. You know, that accounts for half of human misery and half of human fiction, the fact that we’re not in either category. For any given individual one of us it’s a little bit more this way or a little bit or that way. Humans are halfway in between.

– Prof. Robert Sapolsky (2017)

It is so refreshing to see an honest acknowledgement of human diversity from a biological perspective.

There is no reason for pathologising hypersensitive and self-reflective Autistic people who completely reject the notion of life as a competitive game.

  • Autistic sensitivities and differences in sensory processing are part of the diversity of our species
  • The anthropological studies of Autistic children and teenagers and our observations about the culture we are embedded in are essential survival tools that catalyse Autistic creativity and that prompt us to carve out unique “atypical” artistic Autistic life paths
  • Autistic levels of critical thinking, and the amount of evidence needed before updating our core beliefs, shape Autistic culture
  • Acknowledging uncertainty, carrying around many open questions rather than strong opinions, corresponding levels of anxiety, as well as the strong Autistic sense of social justice are core ingredients of the cultural immune system of all human societies

The capacity for neurodivergent culture

If you add all the other many things we are discovering about human diversity as part of the neurodiversity movement, such the as Autistic level of discomfort with any form of social power imbalance, the Autistic inability to maintain hidden agendas, the entanglement of social construction and neurology in the context of gender identities, then it becomes obvious that the simplistic cookie cutter templates for social roles in society, in organisations, and in households offered by hypernormative industrialised are completely out of tune with the diversity of human biology.

The biggest difference between Autistic culture and neuronormative industrialised culture is the level to which human diversity is experienced as a genuine enrichment of human culture, and the level to which individuals are actively supported in collaborative niche construction within the context of human scale cultural organisms.

We can use this understanding to co-create de-powered ND whānau, to co-create cultural norms that enable households and whānau to consciously self organise around all the dimensions of variability amongst neurodivergent people. We can conceptualise this development as a form of conscious divergent cultural evolution or cultural schismogenesis.

This is nothing new. Humans have engaged in such practices throughout our evolutionary history over the last 300,000 years. In their book ‘The Dawn of Everything’ David Graeber and David Wengrow (2021) elaborate how schismogenesis has shaped cultural developments in many geographies:

“One important factor would seem to be the gradual division of human societies into what are sometimes referred to as ‘culture areas’; that is, the process by which neighbouring groups began defining themselves against each other and, typically, exaggerating their differences. Identity came to be seen as a value in itself, setting in motion processes of cultural schismogenesis. … such acts of cultural refusal could also be self-conscious acts of political contestation, marking the boundary between societies where inter-group warfare, competitive feasting and household bondage were rejected – as in those parts of Aboriginal California closest to the Northwest Coast – and where they were accepted, even celebrated, as quintessential features of social life. Archaeologists, taking a longer view, see a proliferation of such regional culture areas, especially from the end of the last Ice Age on, but are often at a loss to explain why they emerged or what constitutes a boundary between them.”

Divergent cultural evolution

I recently visited Taiwan, and this prompted me to reflect on my preference for collaborating with people and organisations in/from the Pacific and SE Asia. While capitalism also rules in this part of the world, I can always sense the strong communitarian ethics that is still part of SE Asian cultures with a history of rice farming. Sure, in SE Asia capitalism has also led to intense inter-group competition, but it seems many individuals in SE Asia still think in terms of human scale rather than in individualistic terms, in other words human scale is the smallest social unit rather than the individual ego.

Strong communitarian ethics do not eliminate all the problems with the super-human scale capitalist super structures that are now global, and they also does not eliminate individual pressure to „perform“ as part of the capitalist machine, but „performance“ in SE Asia seems to be less coupled to individual egos and more to the human scale network that individuals are embedded in. The problem that I observe in SE Asian cultures is a problem that I think we are familiar with in Autistic culture, that we tend to be too hard on ourselves, because under no circumstances do we want to let down the people closest to us. The Autistic sense of community seems to be compatible with SE Asian cultures.

However in Autistic culture we actively try to support and remind each other not to be too hard on ourselves, at least this is what I encourage and what I see around me. In neuronormative society in SE Asia the topic of talking about burnout and the bigger problems of capitalism and gender inequalities is perhaps much more of a taboo than amongst Autists. So here there is something people can learn from Autistic culture. Conversely Autistic people in European cultures can learn something from the long communitarian tradition in SE Asian cultures – as this is something that we also long for, but have only recently started to experiment with in the last ten years. I would love to compare notes on these evolving thoughts to see whether others share my perception and observations. What I recently saw in Taiwan was pretty unique, and it could inform our approach to interfacing with the neuronormative world. I saw a culture of distributed direct participation that seems to have evolved in explicit opposition to the highly centralised approach to governance and enterprise in China.

The talk and interviews with Robert Sapolsky and David Wengrow embedded above provide a good backdrop for understanding the neurodiversity paradigm. Learning takes place at different levels of social, spatial, and temporal scales. Autistic and otherwise neurodivergent people with uncommon cognitive lenses depend on others in ways that differ from local cultural norms, and this has implications at all levels of scale.

Gaining a comprehensive understanding of human behaviour is not possible from within any single discipline. Not only is each discipline focused on specific aspects of human behaviour, but the different disciplines that examine human behaviour rest on mutually contradictory assumptions about human nature. Herbert Gintis, a transdisciplinary social scholar, outlines the limitations of established disciplines and provides the motivation for an interdisciplinary approach (Gintis 2014).

Those who cling the most to the use of specific models of human behaviour tend to be the ones who actually don’t have any understanding of the limitations of the models they are using. Especially when a model is non-trivial, most people confuse being able to “use” a model with understanding the model, all the underlying assumptions, and the limitations. Economists and psychologists work with implicit assumptions all the time without without worrying much about it.

The neurodiversity movement can not be understood within the confines of any single academic disciplines.

Insisting on sharp boundaries between disciplines is unhelpful and leads to weak models, but the established boundaries are not entirely arbitrary. This is easily seen when visualising the scope of the various disciplines in terms of spacial and temporal scale. Psychology for example focuses on the behaviour of individuals across a human lifetime, sociology focuses on the behaviour of groups at various levels of scale over the course of recent history and anthropology focuses on both individual and group behaviour over the entire course of human evolution.

For most of the last 300,000 years humans lived in small groups of between 20 and 100 people and human cultures served the needs of such groups. Life was focused on the well-being of the group, on the well-being of future generations, and on the maintenance of appropriate relationships with other groups. Group size and the number of relationships with members of other groups was bounded by human cognitive limits.

Today up to 80% of people globally are disengaged at work. Important insights about human behaviour, which only become apparent when studying human history and human evolution over the last 2 million years, are regularly ignored by policy makers and busyness decision makers.

We live in a time of exponential changes in communication technology. Just a few decades ago humans only needed to learn one or two languages and perhaps the jargon of a particular profession to be equipped for a successful life. Today thousands of new apps (little languages) become available every month, far more than anyone can ever learn to use, appreciate, and trust. More and more people are realising that quantity does not equal quality when it comes to digital technologies.

The disciplines of design and engineering play an increasingly important role in a world where communication between people and all forms of economic activity are by default being mediated via digital technologies.

To understand the full implications of the new technologies that we are churning out every month, is it enough for designers to be familiar with the latest in pop-psychology and for engineers to be familiar with the latest economic fads and monetisation models? What if some important considerations about human nature have fallen between the cracks, and if the rate of technological change has outpaced the rate at which human cultures can evolve?

Being able to design, build, and use technology does not equate to understanding all the implications.

Feedback loops of information flows between people are the atoms of collective learning. The SECI (socialisation, externalisation, combination, internalisation) model (Takeuchi and Nonaka 1986; Nonaka et al. 2008) is a useful conceptual tool for understanding learning and creative collaboration amongst humans.

A new observation about the world, the perception of a particular problem, or an idea for designing a tool or for simplifying a task always starts in one person’s head, as tacit knowledge. In order to be turned into something of value for society, the new knowledge needs to be made explicit, it needs to be described by communication in a suitable medium such as spoken or written language or in a suitable visual representation, such as the human lens. Explicit knowledge is easily combined with other pre-existing explicit knowledge, and in this form knowledge can easily be reasoned about by individuals and groups.

A simple tool like a whiteboard can act as a catalyst for combining and validating multiple elements of explicit knowledge. Once the resulting new insights about the world, a particular problem, or a design idea are internalised, they are available in the form of tacit knowledge that can be applied in daily life. In order for new experiences to become available to a group, they must be socialised with other people, and this always involves making tacit knowledge explicit via acts of communication.

The SECI activities result in a knowledge spiral that incrementally allows the collective intelligence of a group to grow. The learning potential of particular group is defined by:

  1. the tacit knowledge of the people that are part of the group,
  2. the understandability and adaptability of the means of communication and collaboration (language, social norms, and available technologies),
  3. the extent to which the emergence of social power gradients is effectively suppressed by suitable social norms,
  4. external constraints that are imposed by the environment (in particular access to resources).

The SECI model was conceived in Japan, in a communitarian culture that emphasises the connection between the individual and the community, where a person’s social identity is shaped by community relationships. Communitarian cultures put the spotlight on the effect of social power gradients on collective learning. The extent to which a community is capable of learning depends on the level of social friction induced by social power hierarchies.

Unsurprisingly all effective approaches for continuous improvement (Deming 1982) such as Kaizen (Imai 1997), the Toyota Production System, Waigaya, etc. and approaches for innovation such as Open Space (Owen 2008), the Manifesto for Agile Software Development, collaborative design, etc. share one noteworthy common principle:

The belief in the existence and relevance of social hierarchies must be suspended.

This observation is backed up by evidence from thousands of organisations that strive to improve or establish a culture of innovation. By definition, hierarchies confer power on specific groups and individuals, with immediate effects on the ability of a group to learn and adapt to a changing environment (Deming 1984a & 1984b). Any form of hierarchy or power indicates dampened feedback loops.

Regardless of the social norms in wider society, a group or team can always agree on non-conventional social norms that penalise all attempts of individuals wielding power over others.

Collaborative groups share knowledge, resources, opportunities and success. Removing all forms of in-group competition and hierarchical structures shift the odds for an entire group of people. Given the level of unproductive in-group competition in hierarchical teams (Graeber 2018), non-hierarchical teams have a clear collaborative edge and are well positioned to thrive (Laloux 2014).

In recent years even the mainstream “management” literature has been catching up with the fact that teams benefit not only from psychological safety but also from cognitive diversity.

Diversity is inclusion. Up to 1 in 5 people are considered neurodivergent from the hypernormative perspective of our industrialised society! Neurodivergent people:

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

Neurodiverse teams are capable of achieving things that seem out of reach for others.

Given that human children learn to use spoken language to attach labels to mental representations very early on, and given that much of human communication is based on spoken and written language, it is tempting to perceive human language as our main thinking and reasoning tool.

The more we learn about the reasoning abilities of non-human animals, the more doubt is cast on the position of human language as the ultimate thinking tool. Mental models have been around for much longer than human language (Savage-Rumbaugh and Dubreul 2019; Slobodochikoff 2012).

Our education system teaches us very little about the role of metaphors in human societies (Fauconnier and Turner 2002). Instead the education systems that produce neuronormative human resources emphasise the importance of narratives – linear stories. “Civilised” humans have developed a preference for communication in linear language (Bettin 2017), especially since the invention of “modern” (linear) written languages, roughly 6,000 years ago, but humans have been using symbolic thought and symbol systems for much longer.

Collective learning is contingent on a cultural environment that appreciates honest communication, critical reflection on the limits of the achievable level of shared understanding, and the value of a diversity of perspectives and experiences.

In the same way that biodiversity is essential for ecosystem health, appreciation of the value of neurodiversity results in a healthy cultural environment that nurtures a diversity of life paths and creative forms of collaboration, which in turn are fine tuned to the many unique combinations of cognitive lenses and experiences within a group.

The suicidal inertia of convergent cultural evolution

The education people in industrialised societies desperately need involves unlearning deeply entrenched beliefs, unlearning many of the “obvious truths” that that are promoted by our hypernormative “education” systems, and it must involve development of a basic understanding of ecological context, individual cognitive biases, sensitivities, limits and strengths, and the limits of human scale.

Ali Alkhatib has written an interesting paper that elaborates how digital algorithms are acting as amplifiers for the sanctified institutional bullshit that increasingly shapes life in digitally networked industrialised societies.

The implications are no joke, they are increasingly dead serious, manifesting in terms of existential risks and in the self-fulfilling dystopian vision of liquidating the living planet in the name of technological “progress” and the delusion of economic “growth”.

Simon Michaux’s work offers an in-depth perspective on the current reality of material constraints. The following interview is an excellent introduction for those who have not yet had the opportunity to think deeply about material constraints.

I am even less optimistic than Simon Michaux regarding our ability to maintain industrialised systems going forward. My perspective is closer to the vision of agroecology outlined by Vandana Shiva. The only viable future is one of extensive de-industrialisation, including order of magnitude reductions in energy and resource consumption. It is impossible to co-create largely self-sustaining communities based on unrealistic Eurocentric / American techno-optimism.

For our journey into the future we need appropriate tools for addressing challenges and needs over different time horizons. Supporting the neurodiversity movement and repairing the human cultural immune system is no longer a luxury, it has become a matter of survival, not only for neurodivergent people, but for everyone who is alive today and for all future generations.

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