Book review: Guided Evolution of Society - Bela Banathy

Aug 23
2009

I tackled Banathy’s “Guided Evolution of Society” - a scholarly, forbidding 400-page tome - just after having completed an (at first sight) more accomodating read: in “Do Good Lives Have to Cost the Earth?” twenty (British) opinion leaders ruminate on the question that is provocatively encapsulated by the title of that book. By linking up the environmental challenge posed by climate change with the insights from the newest science on personal wellbeing (in a nutshell: beyond a certain point more money and stuff doesn’t make us happier) it raised a number of tough questions: how will we in our postindustrial society downshift towards a more thrifty, simple lifestyle? What is the relative contribution of personal commitment and macro-level policies? What capabilities do we need to make the transition and what institutions will embody them?

Against the background of these questions, Banathy’s “Guided Evolution” is a very useful, thought provoking read. Indeed, Banathy confirms, we have entered the anthropocene: man has become the most influential force shaping the long-term future of the planet. This endows us with a historical responsibility: for the very first time in seven million years of our evolutionary saga it is within our power, indeed it is our moral duty to become the designers of our future, the guides of our own evolution and the evolution of life on earth and possibly beyond (p. 204).

It is a huge task for which, at present, we are ill equipped. Banathy evokes a fable of an imaginary visitor from space: “The visitor, looking at the `landscape’ of our current state of evolution, most likely would tell us that we have an enormous task ahead (...) The task is enormous, he would say, because - on the one hand - we are at a crossroads between two generations of our species and we are faced with great uncertainties. On the other hand - having `eaten from the tree of knowledge’ by knowing how we evolved - we have the gift and the burden of this knowledge, and we have to make crucial and risky choices that will guide our evolution in the next millennia.” (p. 191).

With his book Banathy has the ambition to provide us with a disciplined methodology to help us intervene more effectively in our own evolutionary design space. A key underlying assumption is that this is a skill that should not be the prerogative of specialist `social engineers’ and politicians. According to Banathy (and he gets it from Kant) it ought to be a fundamental right of every human being to ” to guide their own destiny, to create authentic, nurturing, sustainable communities, to control their resources, to govern themselves and guide their own evolution (...). If people learn how to exercise this right, then they shall have the power to create a truly democratic civil society: a society that is motivated by voluntary commitment, in which people can design and organise their lives for the development of their full potential, and individually and collectively serve the common good.”

Hence Banathy’s book aims to be a basic manual for evolutionary learning. It is organised in 12 chapters, formally grouped into three parts. However, I feel it is more helpful to think of the book as being laid out in two equally sized parts. The first halve (Chapter 1-6) provides a basis for evolutionary consciousness by retracing the evolutionary history of humankind through three leaps (or “generations”: the emergence of Cro-Magnon, the agricultural revolution and the scientific-industrial revolution). The conceptual backbone for this discussion is provided by an expanding series of evolutionary markers (e.g. economy, relationship with nature, goverance), arranged in three clusters (`consciousness’, `intellect’, `way of life’). As evolution proceeds, the number and complexity of markers increases, as well as the intricacy of their relationships, leading to ever more complex cultural models. Banathy condenses the learnings from our evolutionary story into nine organising principles of evolutionary consciousness. An example is the `principle of a sudden evolutionary leap’ which holds that a new evolutionary generation does not come about from gradual improvement or reconfiguration of evolutionary markers but through sudden leaps, a sudden unfolding of a new generative order. Knowledge of these principles is a prerequisite to develop an evolutionary epistemology which can be applied to intervene into evolutionary design space.

The first part of the book closes with a survey of the current evolutionary landscape. Our species finds itself on a bifurcation point, with one sociocultural system degrading and another generation tentatively emerging. Our evolutionary journey has brought us to a point - the disintegration of the Third Generation of Homo Sapiens Sapiens - where our civilisation has “immense drive but virtually no sense of direction beyond sheer accumulation. It is a dynamic with no moral anchor or guiding ethic - an economic engine with no idea where it is going beyond the drive to acquire material things and material power.” This obviously constitutes a negative value judgment that is foundational for Banathy’s project. It also very much chimes with the assessments and warnings of contemporary `downshifting’ proponents.

In the second part of the book (Chapters 7-12) Banathy comes to the heart of the matter: how can we equip ourselves to make that fourth, self-designed leap in human evolution? The author’s aim is emphatically not to sketch out a particular future perspective (that would be tantamount to persisting with the ideological excesses of the scientific-industrial paradigm) but to provide us with a disciplined, enabling methodology to intervene in human evolution.

The discussion starts with a survey of the fragmented knowledge base on conscious evolution (including ideas from D. Elgin, Barbara Hubbard, Jared Diamond, Francis Fukuyama and, perhaps surprisingly, `flow’ psychologist Mikail Czikszentmihailyi; thinkers such as Ken Wilber and Don Beck (`spiral dynamics’) have been omitted). The epistemological survey expands into Chapters 8 and 9 with discussions of the contribution of (hard, soft and critical) systems thinking and complexity science.

A familiarity with systems thinking is beneficial in working through the final chapters in which Banathy develops a practical, generic approach to supporting self-guided evolution. I found myself more particularly making sense of his approach by overlaying it with a soft systems framework. Banathy clearly acknowledges his debt to the core ideas developed by West Churchman, but it was the “soft systems methodology” pioneered by Peter Checkland that provides to my mind an elegant way to frame Banathy’s take on shaping Evolutionary Guidance Systems.

In Chapter 10 (titled “An Epistemology of Conscious, Self-Guided Evolution”, to my mind more appropriate to refer to the substance of the preceding three chapters) Banathy lays out an approach to design a generic Evolutionary Guidance System (EGS) that has a core purpose of guiding the work of people in the various human activity systems who are engaged in creating their own evolutionary future. It is important to appreciate that this EGS is generic and can be adapted to different functional and cultural contexts. An EGS basically has to do three different things: a) transcending the existing evolutionary state, b) envisioning an image of a desired future state, and c) transforming our system by bringing the image to life by design (in Checkland’s parlance we would say that we have an activity model consisting of three key activities). For the former two activities some practical - but still very general - guidelines are discussed. Banathy also suggests an overview of possible underlying “dimensions” that constitute an EGS: a moral, scientific, aesthetic, socio-political dimension and six more. I would frame these dimensions in a soft systems framework as the constitutive elements of the system’s underlying worldview (the W in the CATWOE mnemonic that formalises a system’s root definition). The chapter closes with an example: what if we would engage in purposeful evolution in the context of the most basic human activity system, the family. Banathy answers that question by briefly sketching a representation of family EGSs in terms of these ten dimensions.

Chapter 11 focuses on the third of the three basic EGS functionalities: the design of alternative representations of the future system, which includes devising criteria by which to evaluate those alternatives, selecting and describing the most promising alternative and preparing a plan for the development of the selected design as subactivities. In fact, these activities taken together constitute the Design Inquiry System (DIS) - a submodule of the generic EGS that iterates between five component spaces - the definition space, the knowledge space, the design solution space, the evaluation and experimenation space and the modeling space. The design philosophy encapsulated by the DIS is applicable at different recursive levels, i.e. at the levels of the EGS as well as at the level of individual Evolutionary Systems (ES), which are unique embodiments of an EGS within the scope of a given community.

The final chapter then asks: “how would an evolutionary community work in the 21st century?” and in formulating an answer grasps back to a themes, dimensions and values that have been largely discussed in previous chapters.

Banathy’s “Guided Evolution of Society” is a valuable contribution. Its basic message is of utmost importance and throws a very large shadow ahead into humanity’s future.

But it is a pity that the book is such a forbidding read. I am convinced that the argument could have been presented more elegantly and accessibly. The basic ideas are not that difficult to grasp but there is, in my opinion, a lot of excess baggage and jargon in the book. The structure is labyrinthine and asks patient note taking and cross-referencing to keep track of the unfolding argument. Finally, there is a dearth of practical examples and cases that could give the conceptual backbone a little more grounding in our day-to-day reality.

In addition to the outrageous price for this book, this may well keep the book from exposure to a wide readership beyond systems thinking afficionados. Hence, it remains to be seen when Banathy’s prophetic message will be fully internalised by our species. Given our current predicament, at the cusp of a fundamental and large scale transition to a hopefully more sustainable future, this is indeed a pity.

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