Tom Atlee: Democracy and the Evolution of Societal Intelligence


Richard Moore

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Democracy and the Evolution of Societal Intelligence
by Tom Atlee

Have you ever been in a stupid group made up of intelligent people? I 
mean, each person in the group is pretty smart and creative, but when 
they get together they seem to get in each other's way? They can't 
seem to make decisions, they fight, they can't get things done. Or 
maybe they make decisions that are unimaginative - or even 
destructive. Or they just go round and round as the world passes them 

Or maybe the groups you know have a strong leader. If the leader is 
good, maybe the group acts intelligently - makes good decisions, gets 
things done. But maybe the leader is bad... or maybe people are 
rebelling against a good or so-so leader... or maybe a good leader 
burns out and the group flounders.

Or maybe some group you know has a unifying ideology or belief that 
holds them all together - until someone tries to do something 
creative or different...

Have you experienced these things? Have you ever seen them among 
activists in social change movements?

I have. And I've also experienced a few rare groups where everyone's 
a peer, where leadership is shared, where a special kind of energy 
among them allows them to explore and solve problems together, 
successfully. I've watched people with very different ideas, 
backgrounds, aptitudes and knowledge using that diversity creatively. 
They come up with brilliant solutions and proposals - better than any 
of them could have come up with alone. The group seems more 
intelligent than its individual members.

Seeing these extremes, and observing what a large role these dynamics 
play in efforts to make a better world, I've chosen to study them, to 
see what I can learn.

I call these dynamics "collective intelligence" -- which manifests as 
"group intelligence" in groups and "societal intelligence" in whole 

Intelligence refers to our ability to sort out our experience in ways 
that help us respond appropriately to circumstances - especially when 
we're faced with new situations.

Societal intelligence, then, refers to the ability of a whole society 
to learn and cope creatively with its environment. Societal 
intelligence includes all the characteristics and institutions that 
help whole societies respond collectively and appropriately to their 

Although I first got interested in this subject by observing 
dysfunctional activist groups, I soon realized that these groups 
simply manifested the dynamics of our dysfunctional society. Our 
society as a whole doesn't know how to solve its problems 
intelligently, doesn't know how to use its diversity creatively, and 
is moving inexorably towards its own self-destruction. Was it any 
wonder that many activist groups displayed the same characteristics?

It seemed to me almost axiomatic that, if we don't improve collective 
intelligence - our collective problem-solving, responsive 
capabilities - none of our other social and environmental problems 
would get solved. And, if we could achieve some breakthrough in 
societal intelligence, all the other problems would, in a sense, 
solve themselves in the natural course of socially-intelligent 
living. You don't have to solve all a person's problems for them if 
you increase their ability to solve their own problems. The same 
goes, I suspect, for societies.

So I've been doing some research on this. And one of the first things 
I stumbled across was the possibility that democracy is a stage in 
the evolution of societal intelligence.

Let's suppose societies go through stages. In an early stage, a 
society might be run by the strongest warriors. Such a society would 
organize itself and survive through the use of physical force. Force 
has a black-and-white, win/lose logic to it which works in simple 
circumstances but doesn't work in the face of (and cannot support) 
greater complexity or subtlety. As the need for more complex 
relationships evolve, such a society would need to complexify its 
repertoire of responses.

They might, let's suppose, shift into a stage where traditions are 
the guiding principle. Every problem has a standardized solution, 
handed down from generation to generation. Almost like instincts get 
handed down genetically, traditions are handed down through 
instruction and example. Traditions (like instincts) usually evolve 
from experience, so they're appropriate and workable as long as the 
environment doesn't change. But a society may find tradition hampers 
their creative responsiveness when they're faced with novel 

In a sense, a society based on ideology may be similar to one based 
on tradition. Ideologies are usually powerfully useful within a 
specific zone of operation. But they have their limits and, when 
those limits are reached, the ideology prevents successful, 
intelligent responses from emerging.

When traditions or ideologies are made obsolete by changing 
circumstances, a society needs to find a more flexible form of 
intelligence. It needs to be able to observe changes, create new 
appropriate responses, and then implement those responses.

Societies seem to have different strategies for this. The wise leader 
(Plato's philosopher king) is one strategy. The wise leader says what 
to do and everyone does it. While this has, on occasion, worked for 
decades at a time, leaders are subject to change without notice (by 
dying, being overthrown, suffering breakdowns of various sorts, or 
losing their perspective or integrity in the giddy heights of power). 
So philosopher kings present a problem: they change, and not always 
appropriately for the society. Maybe it would help to depend on more 
than one person.

The idea behind the Soviet Communist Party was that it, as a 
collective entity, would be the wise leader, the vanguard of the 
proletariat. Its Central Committee would come up with what to do, 
then everyone would do it. The main weakness of this approach proved 
to be Lord Acton's infamous saying: "All power tends to corrupt. 
Absolute power corrupts absolutely." Once the Party and its 
individual members based their calculations on their own - rather 
than the society's - best interests, the "vanguard approach" became 
very questionable as a strategy for social intelligence. Also, as 
Soviet society grew more complex, it became harder to manage from a 
central point.

Which brings us to democracy. The basic principle of democracy is 
that those affected by a decision will make it. This inherently 
decentrist, creative, responsive strategy has one main problem: It 
assumes that people are able and willing to make intelligent 
decisions in groups.

Since this is not always the case, we've evolved what we call 
"representative democracy" where we choose philospher kings (e.g., 
presidents) and vanguard committees (e.g., Congresses) to make our 
decisions for us, throwing them out when we don't like what they do. 
This has a rough sort of workability. In election years everyone 
takes a bit of time to review the society's problems and possible 
solutions and, at least in theory, chooses the best solutions and 
wisest persons to empower for the next few years.

Unfortunately, this strategy is also undone by Lord Acton's prophecy. 
Representation centralizes power, and that centralized power attracts 
corrupting influences to itself (especially from other centralized 
powers in the society like corporations). So we balance it with all 
sorts of interest groups, grassroots movements, unions, legal checks 
and balances, etc. American history is a beautiful tale of democracy 
progressing and regressing at the same time in the most remarkable 
ways, evolving as it goes. Unfortunately we can't afford too many 
more democratic regressions (concentrations of power): our social 
problems are so great, change is happening so fast and human power is 
growing so rapidly that we are confronted with a daunting choice: 
make our next quantum leap in societal intelligence or collapse as a 

Our challenge is, simply, to learn how to become not only democratic 
but wisely democratic as individuals, as groups and as a society. We 
need to learn how to generate a spirit of partnership 
(non-domination) among ourselves; to increase our individual 
responsibility and co-leadership abilities; to master consensual 
group dynamics and communication skills; to creatively utilize our 
diversity (including our differences of opinion and style); to 
increase the accessibility of information and other resources; and to 
nurture our own and each other's deep realization of our needs, our 
stories, our values and our capabilities. There are many ways to do 
each of these, and there are probably other things we need to do, as 

This is a new field of investigation and activism. We need to clarify 
what we need to do - and how to do it - to enable our societal 
intelligence. Then we need to spread these understandings and 
practices into the society. To the extent we succeed, I suspect our 
groups and our society will start behaving intelligently, quite 

But there's a significance to all this that goes beyond democracy and 
saving our hides from extinction. To the extent we achieve societal 
intelligence, it seems to me that we will shift to a different kind 
of society entirely. The evolutionary leap may be equivalent to the 
evolution of individual intelligence. We may reach a state in which 
societies become intelligent entities - neither a monolith unified by 
conformity nor a machine made of fragmented individuals, but a 
thinking organism made of discrete participants, each contributing 
their unique and essential creativity into the dynamic wisdom and 
power of the whole.

Or maybe not. Maybe it will just be a good society to live in. Either 
way, it seems to me worth working for.

July 1992, revised September 2002

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