To WIT: Cultural Transformation

In keeping with the recent theme of long-term thinking and deep-time narratives, the cultural historian William Irwin Thompson (W.I.T.) sketches out a compelling mind-jazz mosaic in his article Natural Drift and the Evolution of Culture.

It provides a model for the Evolution of Consciousness over the past few million years. This is a notoriously tricky endeavor because, as Thompson writes:

“It is one thing to talk of the evolution of the small Ice Age horse shown on the walls of Lascaux to the modern long-legged race horse, but quite another to talk of the evolution of Renaissance perspectival painting into the abstract landscapes of Kandinksy and Pollack.”

He makes an important distinction between a historical event and a cultural transformation.

“An event is crisp and singular and occurs in historical time. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima was an instantaneous event; the French Revolution was a longer event, or collection of events, from the Storming of the Bastille to the Reign of Terror. A cultural transformation, such as the Hominization of the Primates, does not take place in historical time; it takes place in the imagination of the scientist or cultural historian and is expressed in narrative, indeed, often in quite unconsciously mythic narratives.”

Mythic in this context simply means that it deals with the Big Three — who are we? where do we come from? where are we going?  “Mythic thinking is macro thinking” Thompson concludes.

This type of macro-thinking can be a dangerous business though. Thompson is an independent scholar who chose a path outside academia, not because he “couldn’t make it” (he was a young professor at M.I.T. during the 60s) but, I imagine, because it was too narrowly focused for his wide-ranging intellect.

William Irwin Thompson

Instead he opened the Lindisfarne Association and brought together musicians (like Evan Chambers), architects (like Sim Van Der Ryn), scientists (like Lynn Margulis), spiritual teachers (like David Spangler) and many more in free-form dialogue. More recently, he developed the curriculum for the Ross School in New York.

Mixing academic rigor with the sensitivity of a poet and yogi who prefers “to take my mysticism neat”, he is uniquely situated to synthesize a model of Consciousness Evolution that extends far beyond other trendy New-Age narratives.

Many of those New-Age narratives take a hard-nosed approach to “hard-nosed” science and entirely discard it, but this quickly becomes ideological (akin to science becoming scientism). This narrow thinking is eschewed by Thompson, who seeks to create a “complex dynamical narrative” that fits into a larger “ecology of consciousness”.

A Model of Cultural Transformation

“Just as a flame requires an atmosphere,” Thompson writes “so does a fact require a theory” and his synthesis of facts led to a model of the Evolution of Consciousness and Cultural Transformation:

“Hominization, from primate to hominin, takes place over millions of years – from Proconsul to Archaic Homo sapiens. Symbolization takes place over hundreds of thousands of years, from roughly 200,000 BCE to 20,000 BCE. Agriculturalization occurs over thousands of years, from 10,000 BCE to 3500 BCE. Civilization takes place also over thousands of years, from 3500 BCE to the fifteenth century CE. Industrialization takes place over centuries from the fifteenth to the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but Planetization takes place over decades, sped up by electronics and genetic engineering — or from natural selection to cultural intrusion.”

To develop this narrative, he keys in to a few metrics: Victim, Spiritual Complex, Technology, Mode of Consciousness, Mode of Identity, Mathematical/Artistic Mentality, Jean Gebser’s Structure’s of Consciousness, and Archetypal Human Examples.

All the metrics don’t necessarily move in synchrony to become something new in each cultural transformation that Thompson defines. Some, like Gebser’s structures and modes of Identity, move slower than, says, technological changes. However, charting the progress of each gives a greater depth to the complex dynamical narrative.

Over time things have sped up – “there is a logarithmic progression in the rates of evolutionary change” Thompson writes. This is in part due to the fact that evolution is not the simplistic model of Nature “selecting” and an Organism “adapting”.

If we take “the feedback of culture on biology” into consideration, then we appreciate that “the use use of an organ – say, the brain or the hands – encourages its further development.”

“If grannies and aunties start helping their primate offspring to survive, for example, by showing them how to wash tubers in the sea, then the process of Natural Selection is impacted by the cultural behavior of Grannie and Auntie, and not just the genes of Mom and Dad.”

Cave Art at Chauvet (a replica)

Expanding the Model

We can expand the simple summary given above, pick up our cultural shovels and dig into the biological marrow of what occurred (or, perhaps a better metaphor —  you get the idea).


Waking Dream/Waking Consciousness is the predominant mode during Hominization. This “simultaneous presence of the dreaming mind in the waking state” is given expression in Homer’s Iliad.

“When Agamemnon ‘disses’ Achilles in front of the assembly of warriors, Achilles is enraged and reaches for his sword. (…) The goddess Athena appears and restrains Achilles. Only Achilles sees Athena; the others see only Achilles.”

Julian Jaynes’s theory of Bicameral Consciousness is instructive when trying to grasp this state of consciousness. Identity here is sanguinal (blood-based) and the spiritual complex (observable in chimps and bonobos) is that of Sacred Moods and Felt Presences.

During this time Simple Tools and Markings were the main source of technology and, in the transition from Hominid to Hominin, the Animal became the victim. In the cave art of Chauvet, Laussel and Lascaux one can get an inkling as to what it might have been like.

Symbolization to Agriculturalization

Dismemberment, Sacrifice, and Incarnation becomes the mode of consciousness as we drift toward the settled life of Agriculturalization. Identity is based on territory and the spiritual complex becomes Matristic and Shamanistic.

“transformation of the Sense of Presence of the chimps and bonobos to the personification of Presences in the spiritual culture of Animism. This is the world’s first universal religion, the religion of the Great Mother, and its artifacts are wide-spread from Iberia to Siberia.”

Technological expression comes through the fibre skirts and baskets used for food-gathering and in this matrist (not matriarchal) time, Man becomes the victim. The sites of Dolne Vestonice and Catal Huyuk are instructive for deeper appreciation.


The transformation from small settlements to large Civilizations shifts the mode of consciousness into Belief in Doctrine, Faith, and the Individuated Ego.  Identity becomes linguistic and the spiritual complex is Religion. This complex is, well, complex and tends to polarize folks into dogmatic-fundamentalism or dogmatic-atheism.

Although many “have outgrown the historical forms of religion that held sway from 3500 BCE to 1945 CE” Thompson writes “we have to recognize that religion is basic to the evolution of consciousness and the development of the brain.”

“A large brain provided the hominids with the capacity for facial recognition and pattern recognition in ranking hierarchies. It also provided them with the evolutionary surplus that could be directed to systems of explanation, and religion is nothing if not a system of explanation.”

Writing, Irrigation, and Militarism are the forms that technology takes and in patriarchal civilization, Woman becomes the victim. The Oresteia by Aeschylus and Enuma Elish of Babylon are the vital texts to explore. (which Thompson does in his book Coming Into Being.)

The Crystal Palace


As Civilization drifts into Industrialization, the mode of consciousness becomes focused on Collective knowledge, Knowing, and The Genius. Identity is still linguistic but the backlash against religion has made the spiritual complex based on Art and Science.

“Religion just couldn’t keep up with Art and Science. The new prophets of the age were Blake, Wordsworth, Goethe, and Beethoven and not the Pope or the Archibishop of Canterbury.”

Print and Mechanization become the major technological innovations and in this new automated world, Religion becomes the victim. Rene Descartes is the prime human expression of this shift.


Noise, Participation, and Rapture become the central mode of consciousness as our identity shifts towards Sub-national Noetic Polities. The new spiritual complex is expressed through Global Music and Personal Meditation.

Electronics becomes the focal point of technology as we drift into a highly-networked world where The Mind becomes the victim. Thompson doesn’t give an archetypal human expression, although he hints that late 19th century Paris was “the world’s first noetic polity.”

“With many minds thinking about related ideas in an open and non-ideological fashion within a quite novel ecology of mind, Paris became an example of the parallel-processing of art and science that produced, not a religious ceremonial centre like ancient Hellenic Alexandria, but a noetic polity — one based not upon tribe, territory, or trade, but participation in shared states of consciousness.”

The Lindisfarne Chapel

Why It Matters

Thompson’s narrative-web is cast over a vast scale of time and the strands can be incredibly complex. Sometimes this can make it seem like it has no relevance.

However, this model for understanding the past can situate us in deeper awareness of the present moment, i.e. Planetization. The form it will take is unsure, but the kindling used to spark the fire is known: the crises on Industrial Civilization within the context of Climate Collapse.

Thompson discerns a pattern in previous consciousness shifts and sums it up in his oft-repeated line “we slay with technology and save the victim with art.”

For example, in the era of Industrialization with its mass influx of new, disruptive technologies we also get “Queen Victoria and the neo-medievalism of Pugin (…) and the Arthurianism of Tennyson” because it helped to “camouflage the structure of Industrialization with the content of the Middle Ages.”

This pattern will most likely repeat in “the emergence of noetic polities” and we’ll find them “characterized by a new dumbing-down in the mass-media.” The technology of global electronics will be “camouflaged with the mindlessness of comic book movies, rock music and pseudo ‘Country Music’, Clear Channel opinion radio, Creationism, and a general anti-scientific attitude.”

However, and this is where the uncomfortable paradox comes in:

“But just as the fire of the rocket and the navigation systems of the nose cone both serve to move the rocket away from Earth, so do the noetic polity and the new mass stupidity serve to take us away from the stability of the territorial nation-state into the chaos dynamics of a new planetary culture.”

So the question, the challenge, becomes: what will technology of electronics slay and how will victim of The Mind be saved through art?