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Spiral Dynamics argues that human nature is not fixed: humans are able, when forced by life conditions, to adapt to their environment by constructing new, more complex, conceptual models of the world that allow them to handle the new problems. Each new model transcends and includes all previous models. According to Beck and Cowan, these conceptual models are organized around so-called vMemes: systems of core values or collective intelligences, applicable to both individuals and entire cultures.
In spiral dynamics, the term vMeme refers to a core value system, acting as an organizing principle, which expresses itself through memes (self-propagating ideas, habits, or cultural practices). The prepended and superscripted letter v indicates these are not basic memes but value systems which include them. The colors act as reminders for the Life Conditions and Mind Capacities of each system and alternate between cool and warm colors as a part of the model. Within the model, individuals and cultures do not fall clearly in any single category (color). Each person/culture embodies a mixture of the value patterns, with varying degrees of intensity in each. Spiral Dynamics claims not to be a linear or hierarchical model, although this assertion has been contested.
According to Spiral Dynamics, there are infinite stages of progress and regression over time dependent upon the life circumstances of the person/culture, which are constantly in flux. Attaining higher stages of development is not synonymous with attaining a 'better' or 'more correct' values system. All stages co-exist in both healthy and unhealthy states, whereby any stage of development can lead to undesirable outcomes with respect to the health of the human and social environment.
First tier Meme levels are focused on different themes for existence, and include almost all of the worldviews, cultures, and mental attitudes up to today. New systems build on adaptations of previous levels and seek to solve problems created by living in those earlier ways. (Attaching concrete examples to these levels of psychological existence is difficult and often misleading because (a) there can be multiple reasons for the same behavior and (b) centralization in a single level regarding all aspects of living is rare. Some advocates of Spiral Dynamics argue that these are ways of thinking about things, not types of people. However, Spiral Dynamics does explicitly define a category of people labeled "Spiral Wizards" who have attained equilibrium around "higher level" Memes.
- Summary: Archaic-instinctive—survivalistic/automatic/reflexological
- Time of origin: c. 100,000 BC
- Description: "Express self to meet imperative physiological needs through instincts of Homo sapiens."
- Summary: Animistic-tribalistic magical-animistic Tribal order
- Time of origin: 50,000 BC
- Description: "Sacrifice to the ways of the elders and customs as one subsumed in group." This is the level of traditional cultures.
- Summary: Egocentric-exploitive power gods/dominionist
- Time of origin: 7000 BC
- Description: "Express self (impulsively) for what self desires without guilt and to avoid shame." Expressed by the mentality of street gangs, Vikings, etc.
- Summary: Absolutistic-obedience mythic order—purposeful/authoritarian
- Time of origin: c. 3000 BC
- Description: "Sacrifice self for reward to come through obedience to rightful authority in purposeful Way." Embodied by fundamentalist religions.
- Summary: Multiplistic-achievist scientific/strategic
- Time of origin: c. 1000 AD on (as early as 600 AD according to Graves and Calhoun)
- Description: "Express self (calculatedly) to reach goals and objectives without rousing the ire of important others." Expressed in the Scientific Revolution and the Industrial Revolution.
- Summary: Relativistic-personalistic—communitarian/egalitarian
- Time of origin: From 1850 on (surged in early 20th century)
- Description: "Sacrifice self-interest now in order to gain acceptance and group harmony." Expressed in 1960s pluralism and systems theory.
Spiral Dynamics theory sees second tier vmemes as emerging levels that gradually move away from a focus on subsistence-level concerns of the First Tier, and towards a being-level existence. The existence of two different tiers of psychological development was introduced by the founder Graves. Cowan claims it is possible Graves introduced the tier system as a marketing instrument. Up to today there is no research evidence the two tiers exist. Cowan no longer supports the existence of two tiers but claims the only thing now known about the Yellow and Turquoise systems is that they are more complex versions of Orange and Green. The open-ended theory suggests that the levels Coral and beyond are not yet substantially formed and will solidify as a greater portion of society develops towards those memes.
- Summary: Systemic-integrative
- Time of origin: 1950s
- Description: "Express self not for what self desires, but to avoid harm to others so that all life, not just own life, will benefit."
- Summary: Holistic
- Time of origin: 1970s
- Description: An integrative system which combines an organism's necessary self-interest with the interests of the communities in which it participates. The theory is still forming.
Further development 
The colour system was added in the 1970s as a graphic element to decorate training materials used by Cowan and Beck. The term vMeme was introduced by Beck and Cowan in Spiral Dynamics where the color language replaced original Graves terminology. Graves had used letter pairs to refer to each level and had not considered any connection with memetics. Beck and Cowan emphasized 'change states' which are part of the Graves theory. They identify landmarks on the transformational path between the levels. Graves' original theory uses a double helix model to show the interrelatedness of an individual's perception of life conditions with their inner neuronal systems, producing a level of psychological existence. This double helix of two interacting forces is referred to as a spiral in 'Spiral Dynamics.
Following the release of their book, Beck and Cowan taught this theory in two courses, SDI and SDII. They ceased their formal working relationship in 1999. Since this break both have continued to offer training courses of various types as well as carrying out consultancy work. Beck spent several years applying the theory of Spiral Dynamics while working with individuals and groups in South Africa involved in the transition from Apartheid for which he received a legislative honor from the state of Texas. Beck has continued to facilitate sessions using the model in both business and politics. Loraine Laubscher has continued the work in South Africa.
Beck and Ken Wilber (with his integral theory) became interested in each other's work, resulting in Beck developing a branch of spiral dynamics that he calls Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi). This version of the theory uses integral concepts such as the four quadrants. Beck is also associated with the spiritual teacher, Andrew Cohen. This approach continues to be applied and further developed in organisational and societal contexts.
Cowan does not subscribe to these developments and promotes a version of the theory which he describes as remaining more faithful to the original research of Clare Graves and extending from it. He continues to use the term 'Spiral Dynamics' to describe his work since he co-created it. With his partner, Natasha Todorovic, he has undertaken work in integrating Spiral Dynamics with NLP and other models, and in developing corporate strategy and practical applications. He has also suggested an additional second tier vmeme Coral which deals with the development of neurological capacities
Each of the external websites listed below promotes the organization of one of the two co-authors.
According to Don Beck and Ken Wilber, each vMeme has both healthy and unhealthy versions. The pathologies are sometimes referred to as being "mean" as in "Mean Green vMeme" (MGM) or "Mean Orange vMeme" (MOM) . As examples, the MOM includes the extremes of capitalism like exploitation, environmental devastation and a general lack of ethics and sensitivity, while the MGM includes performative contradictions like anti-hierarchy, anti-competition, etc.
Cowan disputes that any credible evidence exists for the existence of the "Mean Green vMeme" and that it is a misrepresentation of the theory. While he recognizes the problems mentioned above, Cowan argues that they exist in other value systems as well, such that attaching them only to the Green vMeme is too simplistic. He considers the term "mean" to be inappropriate and a theoretical distortion when questions of adaptation or maladaptation, congruence or ineffectiveness are more to the point. Psychopathology potentially exists at all levels and is a different dimension.
Todorovic offers data and analysis leading to the conclusion that the "Mean Green Meme" conjecture is contradicted by the data. Todorovic further concludes that MGM is a "failure of analysis" based on a variety of misconceptions about spiral dynamics and constitutes an "alarming misdiagnosis" and brands MGM a harmful "form of spiral fundamentalism."
Criticisms of Spiral Dynamics 
Critics point out that the model's implications are political as well as developmental and that while the terminology of the theory is self-consciously inclusive, the practical implications of the model can be seen as socially elitist and authoritarian. In his work on the subject, Beck emphasizes that one of the characteristics of "tier two" individuals, also called "Spiral Wizards", is their ability to make superior decisions for all parties concerned and to manufacture consent for their approaches at lower levels using resonant terms and ideas. In addition to outlining an underlying developmental theory, Spiral Dynamics gives explicit suggestions to these "Wizards" for both consensual and non-consensual management of "lower-tier" individuals. One critic of Spiral Dynamics, Michel Bauwens, has argued that some conceptions of what it means to be "second tier" have come to resemble Nietzsche's idea of the Übermensch. Co author Cowan has publicly dissociated himself from the ideas that are currently being promoted by his ex-partner Beck in conjunction with Ken Wilber.
See also 
- Van Marrewijk, Marcel. "Strategic Orientations: Multiple Ways for Implementing Sustainable Performance." Technology and Investment, 2010, 1, 85-96. PDF, doi:10.4236/ti.2010.12010 (pdf)
- Straatsma, M., et al. "Impact of value-driven scenarios on the geomorphology and ecology of lower Rhine floodplains under a changing climate." Landscape and Urban Planning 92 (2009) 160–174. pdf
- Beck, Don and Cowan, Chris (1996). Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership and Change. Blackwell Business. ISBN 1-55786-940-5..
- DC Wahl, S Baxter, The Designer’s Role in Facilitating Sustainable Solutions, MIT Press Journals 2008. online
- The story behind ‘Invictus’: Man aided team now onscreen. Denton Record-Chronicle, December 24, 2009, found on Invictus: Reflections on Power and Love, Don Beck and Rugby in South Africa. Integral Leadership Review Volume X, No. 1 - January 2010
- Don Beck and Graham Linscott, The Crucible: Forging South Africa’s Future, Denton 1991, ISBN 0-620-16241-4
- Changing the World and Work. ABC Radio National (Australia), March 7, 2004
- The eight-stage spiral to peace in the Mideast. Haaretz, February 12, 2006
- Leap Into the Future: Leadership for the 21st Century
- Don Beck & Andrew Cohen - A Perspective That Changes Everything
- Chris Cowan, Wilber's misrepresentations of Spiral Dynamics, Part I - Part II
- Natasha Todorovic, "Mean Green Meme: Fact or Fiction"
- Jeff Meyerhoff. "Social Evolution", Integral World
- Spiral Dynamics, p. 110
- Michel Bauwens, “A Critique of Wilber and Beck’s SD-Integral”, P/I: Pluralities/Integration, no. 61: March 23, 2005
- Spiral Dynamics: Mastering Values, Leadership, and Change, Don Beck and Christopher Cowan, 1996, ISBN 1-55786-940-5
- Robinson, DA, Goleby, M, & Hosgood, N 2006 Entrepreneurship as a Values and Leadership Paradigm Paper presented to Fourth AGSE International Entrepreneurship RESEARCH Exchange 7–9 February 2007 BGSB, QUT, Brisbane
- The Never Ending Quest, Christopher Cowan and Natasha Todorovic, 2005, ISBN 978-0-9724742-1-4
- The spiral dynamics homepage
- Clare W. Graves homepage
- Chris Cowan & Natasha Todorovic National Values Center Consulting
- Don Beck, Spiral Dynamics Integral
- The Center for Human Emergence, led by Beck, Wilber and others, uses Spiral Dynamics among other technologies
- Stratified Democracy: The Cultural Dynamics of Nation Building in Afghanistan Video with Don Beck on the World Bank website