Human Choice

Article Published in Futures Journal,
November 1999

TheGenetic Code for Social Development

Harlan Cleveland and Garry Jacobs

Looking back on the prodigious accomplishments of the 20th Century, we can see an enormous "development" of technological inventions, economic activities,political and social organizations, and material riches - accompanied by a whole new range of problems and challenges - emerging from the relatively less complex and accomplished centuries that preceded it. Looking forward to the century just ahead, we are bound to wonder what humanity may yet accomplish, what new challenges are in store, and especially what ultimate limits there may be to the creative processes that drive these changes.

Whether we look backward or forward, we face the same puzzling questions: What is the essential nature of human development? By what process does it occur? What factors speed it up and slow it down? What conditions are essential or detrimental to it? Through what stages or phases does it pass? What are the sources of its problems and its failures? And, probably most important, what is the role of the individual humanbeing in social development?

A Rough Parallel

We have come to believe that there are illuminating parallels between the development of life forms and the development of human societies. Exploring these parallels may put the puzzlement in a useful perspective, and perhaps provide a usable framework on which more satisfying social theory can be constructed.

The process of physical creation has given rise to a hierarchy of material and biological forms - from the infinitesimal atom and molecule to the living cell, differentiated organs and multi-cellular life forms of increasing complexity and capacity for adaptation. The process of social creation gives rise to a similar hierarchy of forms. But society is a field of life, not matter; of activity, not the sum of living organisms but their constantly changing interactions. The social forms it creates are not patterns and arrangements of material substance but patterns and arrangements of human activity - not "architecture" but something more like chemical reactions in a liquid solution.

"Human activity" arises from individual human acts that (like atoms that link into chains to form molecules) combine to form more complex chains of human activity. Combinations of human activities join together to constitute basic social systems capable of performing completed units of work (for example in production, trade, transport, communication, defense, or governance), analogous to the combinations of molecules that form living cells, the smallest complete units of what we call "life."

In society, groups of differentiated systems join to create organizations capable of performing specialized types of work - commercial, scientific, educational, artistic, social, political, and many others.
This may be seen as roughly parallel to the joining of differentiated cells in biology to form specialized organs that perform specialized functions in the human body.

At a higher level of complexity, a wide range of specialized organizations combine to form a society which can perform (never perfectly) the essential functions required to sustain a social order in which human beings can live and work and play together. In a similar way, a wide range of specialized organs in the body combine to form a living organism that can sustain (never perfectly) the interrelated and interdependent functions essential to biological existence.

There is thus a rough parallel between the development chain in biology that leads from atoms to molecules to cells to organs to the adaptive living organism, and the chain in social development that leads from individual acts to human activities to systems to organizations to the adaptive living society.

Productive social activities generate material wealth and its accompaniments. But the real product of social development is the organization of social forms out of the substance of human activities. Underlying that social process is brainwork-the mental development of individuals using their information to create knowledge and ideas, marrying their individual thinking to the individual thoughts of other individuals and thereby creating together a complex, functional, and therefore productive organization of human activities - which is social development.

"Development" is in its essence organization - the organization of material processes through the ideas we call "technology;" the organization of social processes we call systems, procedures, conventions, commerce, law, and governance; and the organization of mental phenomena - the data-with-context we call information, the rational processes called knowledge (sciences, technologies, practices, and professions), which combines with nonrational intuition to produce what we call "wisdom."

It is the thoughtful organization of social existence, the essence of "development," that makes possible progressively higher levels of efficiency, quality, productivity, complexity, comprehension, choice, creativity, mastery, enjoyment, and accomplishment.

Usable Human Energy

Energy, in various forms, is the force responsible for these physical and social processes. All creative, synthetic processes require an investment of energy. The physical energy for the development of biological processes is absorbed from the environment in the form of heat, light, and chemical compounds. Vast amounts of energy are stored in molecular and atomic bonds; it can be released and utilized to build larger organic structures. And this molecular energy pales into insignificance compared to the enormous reservoir of energy pent up in the bonds between subatomic particles.

The energy for social development is subjective human energy, physical, vital-emotional and mental energy produced by individual human beings taking thought and interacting with other human beings, producing in turn the collective energy of human aspirations in society.

The generation and accumulation of usable human energy is as necessary to social development as the storing of food energy is to the development of biological organisms. As the molecules of organic material are a storehouse of energy that is released for development of life forms by metabolic processes, so human beings are a vast storehouse of potential physical, psychological, mental, and spiritual energy that is released for the development of society by thought that leads to action. Society develops when some of the energy thus released is channeled into more complex and potentially productive forms of human activity.

Both material and social forms consist of energy bond into fixed patterns. As the bonds that hold together molecules and atoms contain a reservoir (for practical purposes unlimited) of potential energy formed during the processes of their initial formation, so the learnings, opinions, attitudes, beliefs, convictions, motives, and values that direct individual and collective human activities constitute an immense reservoir of psychological energy.

Much energy has gone into the creation of social behavior patterns in the past. The release and utilization of that energy has been heavily constrained by systems of control and hierarchical power. The enormous magnitude of this potential energy is revealed both by the unyielding resistance to change and the explosive revolutionary forces that are sometimes released at the points where societies break with established traditions.

The human body seems to develop only when it absorbs more energy than is required to support the minimum needs for survival and activity measured by prior experience. This excess energy may spill over in random, even dysfunctional, physical activity; it may be stored as an increase in the physical mass of the body; or it may be channeled for the further healthy development of the body's structure.

So, too, human societies develop when they accumulate more energy than is needed for the maintenance of things as they are. The excess social energy may likewise spill over as unproductive or even destructive human activities; it may be directed at the horizontal expansion of productive activities at the existing level of development (a "more and more of the same" strategy to which the term "growth" has come to be applied); or it may be used to elevate the organization of society to a higher level of complexity, a more expansive release of the power of individual human choice, a larger and healthier productivity - to which we think it's useful to apply the term "development."

* * *

Excess social energy is an essential but not a sufficient condition for development. The onset and speed of physical and biological reaction depends on such factors as seed crystals, catalysts, essential nutrients, the frequency and intensity of interaction between elements, and conducive environmental conditions. In a roughly similar way, the onset and speed of social development depends on the seeding and spread of new ideas in society, the growing awareness of new opportunities, social aspirations and attitudes toward change, the catalytic role of individuals, the presence of essential resources and instruments, the frequency and intensity of social interactions at critical moments in time, and the social preparedness and support for new activities.

As light, heat, pressure, enzymes, and hormones serve as conducive conditions, catalysts, and reactants for biological processes, peace, democracy, education, markets, and freer access to technology and information act as conducive conditions, catalysts, and reactants for the social process.

Information, the Key Resource

The development process can thus be seen as the conversion of human energy into results. Potential human energy is given direction by society's awareness of opportunities and challenges and its knowledge of how to respond to them. It becomes a force for action in the same way that material energy becomes force when it acquires a direction. This directed force of human energy is converted into effective power by the evolving web of social organization which channels the energy into specific fields and coordinates complex chains of activities. This power is expressed through skilled individual acts to achieve effective results. Energy directed becomes force, force organized becomes power, power expressed through skilled action achieves results.

Information plays a critical role at every part of this process. Information determines the level and character of social awareness that releases potential human energy for action. It influences the ideas, knowledge, attitudes and values that give direction to that energy, converting it into a force for action. Information determines the quality, responsiveness and efficiency of the social organizations that converts that directed energy into different activities. It determines the skills and attitudes of individuals who express that energy in individual actions. In the absence of reliable information, ignorance, superstition and error thrive and get transmitted through society and from one generation to another. Each discovery has to be made again countless times by a slow, unconscious process of trial and error learning. The greater the quality and relevance of information at each of these stages of transformation, the greater the effectiveness of social actions and the higher the level of social accomplishment.

Though information has always played a central role in development, its importance grows fast as society evolves along the continuum from material through vital toward mental processes as the dominant factors in development. The increasingly mental society now emerging relies, to a much greater extent than its predecessors, on non-material resources, technologies and knowledge. In consequence, at the dawn of the Global Century we are witness to human power without precedent to
determine the direction and speed of social change.

The Role of Pioneers

The evolution of new biological characteristics in a species is believed to begin with minute favorable mutations in a single cell or organism. Transmitted to offspring of that individual through the reproductive process, these mutations provide a competitive advantage to subsequent generations. As the mutant gene is the instrument of biological evolution, the pioneering human initiative - doing what has not been done before - is the instrument for social development.

Development is induced by pioneering individuals who introduce new or improved forms of organized activity that provide an adaptive advantage over what has gone before. These initiatives are imitated
by other individuals and their neighbors and the organizations they influence; they spread by social
diffusion, multiplying through society until they become social institutions and part of the culture of the society.

The pioneering individual is often credited by society with fresh discoveries, inventions, and initiatives. But the knowledge, intuition, and ultimately wisdom that guides these fresh actions are drawn from the subconscious collective wisdom of the society of which the individual feels a part; it is expressive of the
society's will for progress in a particular direction. The individual is the conscious instrument for the expression of a subconscious will.


Both material and non-material resources are essential for biological and social processes. In biology, the knowledge encoded in DNA molecules, genetic information, is a non-material resource. In social development, reliable information, scientific discoveries and technological innovations, economic theories, social systems, and wide ranges of skills, social attitudes, beliefs, and values are also non-material resources.

In both arenas, the relevance and the productivity of the material resources crucially depend on the quality and availability of the non-material resources. Bacteria and human beings are composed of the same atomic elements; but differences in the knowledge content in their respective genes bring about very different results. The rational use of information, the power of intuitive thinking, and the capacity to stir them together to produce practical wisdom-that is, complex ideas you can do something with-have a profound effect on the productivity of material resources in social development.

This human ability to think has already demonstrated that the productivity of basic material resources such as land, water, and fuel can be multiplied exponentially. Indeed, the very perception that a material substance is a resource is a function, not of the material itself, but of the human mind. Various forms of technology, which is organized and replicable thinking, enable us to convert sand into bricks, glass, fiber optic cables, and intelligent microprocessors, and to convert petroleum into lamp oil, plastics, clothing, and life-saving pharmaceuticals.

Natural resources are in some sense finite. But their use value and productivity are limited only by the limits to the capacity of human beings to think, to relate thoughts to each other, to build more useful
thoughts on the thinking of others, and to imagine what has never happened yet. The human capacity to learn bothfrom experience and from theorizing, by which people develop attitudes, opinions, and values and other mental resources, determines how creatively and effectively a society responds to challenges and opportunities - such as the environmental effects of human activity or the unprecedented potentials of the Internet. In this sense the human mind and spirit appear to be the ultimate resources that determine the usefulness and productivity of all other resources.

* * *

The evolution of larger, more complex material and biological forms depends on the prior formation of lower levels of organization - atomic, molecular, cellular. The evolution of larger, more complex social organizations likewise occurs on the foundation of more limited, less complex kinds of organization, which are indeed the necessary "infrastructure" for their emergence.

There are essentially three kinds of infrastructure, three levels of organized human activity, each heavily depending on the others for its own functionality. One can be illustrated by the physical organization of transportation and communication; another by the social organization of legal, financial, commercial, and educational institutions; yet another by the mental organization of information, technology, scientific knowledge, and spiritual insight. All these are needed for the achievement of progressively more complex forms of economic activity. As the evolution of higher-order species requires the development of increasingly complex and differentiated organs, each further stage of social advancement requires a quantitative expansion and qualitative improvement in the organization of the social infrastructures.

* * *

The evolution of biological forms has progressed from the most primitive physical organisms to vitally animate plants and animals to the emergence of mental and spiritual humans. The more primitive organisms, guided by the instructions in their genetic codes, use up most of their energy and adaptive capacities for physical survival. In more complex organisms, the physically acquired genetic capabilities are supplemented by instinctive and learned reactions to environmental stimuli. They consequently possess a greater range of adaptive and productive responses.

A similar evolution from predominantly physical to more vital to increasingly mental and spiritual occurs in societies. The movement across this spectrum should not be seen as linear, nor is it usefully described in well-marked "stages." In "primitive" societies, people are more bound to the land, quite limited in the range of human activities to those essential to self-defense and survival - agriculture, hunting, craft skills. Social structures are typically rigid, leadership is hierarchical, and behaviors tend to be rooted in the past and resistant to change, analogous to a genetic code that endlessly reproduces inherited instructions without alteration.

In what we like to think of as more highly-developed societies, there is certainly more room for vital activity, more animation and mobility, and higher productivity in more complex systems. Less of most
people's energy is required for survival. More is available for investment in a wider range of activities that result in trying new things, finding new places, meeting new people, inventing what didn't exist before.

In "developed" societies, social structures can become more flexible and adaptive. There can be greater social mobility, competition, and opportunity for individual initiative outside of established patterns. In such societies, some people display an increasing capacity for change, and an increasing speed of response to external opportunities and challenges and to the successes and failures of their own and other people's experience.

It is also typical of the more mentally developed societies to grant a higher social value to brainwork, and spread the opportunity for mental development much more widely. Scientific research and technological innovation come to be at a premium; formal education is more widely available, and encouraged for longer periods of time; laws, ideas, and ideals muscle their way into spaces earlier reserved for strong leaders and inherited traditions. Individuality of thought and action are more often accepted and encouraged, even when they contradict conventional habits and beliefs.

Competition tends to mature into cooperation. (A report by the "Group of Lisbon" calls this "the limits to competition.") Productivity soars, surpluses abound - partly because information, unlike natural resources, expands as it's used and gives rise not to exchange transactions but to sharing arrangements in a new kind of commons. The excess energy pours into the development of ever newer, more complex forms of organization - technological organization of material processes, social organization of life processes, mental organization of information, knowledge, even intuition and wisdom.

The predominantly mental society thus displays a far wider range of adaptive responses and creative

We are not describing a new reality; we're suggesting a way of thinking about "development" that finds in the biological analogy not only tested patterns but possibilities for which we still lack clarity of doctrine or real-world role-models. What this way of thinking does suggest, however, is a sense of direction in social development, which in the 1990s has been
conspicuous by its absence.

Dangers of Imbalance

One troubling aspect of social process is the evident tendency of social development to generate unanticipated and unwanted excesses, side effects, and untoward reactions: environmental damage,
overpopulation, destructive applications of technology, economic crises, and social conflicts. Comparable backlash - debilitating mutations, overpopulation and even extinction of species, devastation of natural habitats, cycles of scarcity and plenty - arise in biological systems as well. So we need to consider whether these problems in biology and society have a common source - and whether at least part of the difference is that biological systems have been better than human systems at self-correcting.

We have already mentioned that, in both biology and society, an essential condition for development is the presence of more energy than is required for repetition and survival. The "surplus" creates an imbalance in the existing system that can have one of three results. It can lead to an increase in activity at the present level, it can stimulate development to a higher level, or it can produce overload and breakdown.

Development problems arise when more energy accumulates than the existing level of organization can absorb or support. In biology, the exposure of genes to excessive radiation may result in fatal defects, since the excess energy damages the organization of genetic information. An excessive intake of food energy, beyond what the body needs for its normal activity and development, can overload physiological systems and lead to a wide range of health problems.

The incursion of energy in society that is beyond the carrying capacity of the social organization can have a similar effect.

The East Asian financial crisis resulted from a very rapid expansion of domestic financial activity coupled with a rapid expansion of international financial markets, without the requisite development of effective organizations for monitoring and regulating, at either the national or the global level, what is mostly a confidence game.

The modification of one element in a biological system can generate imbalances in the total organization of the system that lead to breakdown and disintegration. As an example, the excessive or insufficient development of one organ in the body can lead to disease. Eliminating an animal predator can result in a chain reaction of overpopulation and depletion among lower-level organisms in
the food chain and degradation of their natural habitat.

Something like this occurs in social development when progress in one field is not supported by proportionate progress in related fields. In the 1950s the introduction of advanced medical technology led to reduced mortality rates, rapid population growth, and food shortages in many developing countries. This occurred because advances in the organization of public health were not balanced by proportionate advances in general education and rising affluence, which have everywhere led to reduction in the numbers of children per family, or by proportionate increases in food production needed to feed a larger population.

Both biological and social systems are thus vulnerable to the dangers of imbalance. The real difference between them seems to be in their response to the problems when they arise.

Within modest parameters, biological processes are extremely effective in responding to temporary imbalances - by rapid "early warning" (automatic feedback of information about a growing imbalance) and "self-correction" - and restoring order to the system. But when the imbalance exceeds the adaptive capacity of the existing level of organization, the response tends to be
inadequate - because it is self-directed by a body of genetic knowledge that responds and adapts, at best, slowly and incrementally to environmental opportunities and challenges.

In contrast, a human society has at least the potential of taking thought and doing something about a disaster before it gets on what engineers call a runaway to maximum - by acquiring conscious knowledge and starting timely action to minimize or even design ways around the excesses and negative fallout of development plans and projects. The recent reductions in pollution and environmental degradation are examples both current and choice.

The conscious capacity to foresee danger and take adaptive measures seems to increase as societies evolve from largely "physical" toward more "mental" forms of civilization. In societies preoccupied with physical resources and their possible scarcity, the social tendency is to respond to an incursion of "surplus" energy by struggling to preserve its inflexible, tradition-bound organizations, maintain things the way they were. As the mix changes and "vital" and "mental" elements become more prominent, a society is more likely to respond first by adapting existing organizations to do more-of-the-same better, and then to think up new workways and forms of organization that bring into consultation many more people and improve the odds of absorbing all the energy in coping with needed change.

Self-Conscious Choices

One lesson from this analysis has profound meaning for the future of "development" in every society, and in that larger unit, global civilization, which is becoming relevant for more and more purposes.

As physical science has discovered a virtually unlimited reservoir of energy within the molecule and the atom, the phenomenal social creativity of the past century seems to point to a source of energy, for practical purposes unlimited, in human society as well. The source of that energy is the individual human being. Under conducive circumstances, the human individual demonstrates an astonishing capacity for imagination and new creation - of new and improved material inventions, of communication networks, of social organizations and ideas, and of ways to interact with forces beyond reason and knowledge.

As physicists are trying to find appropriate material technologies to harness safely the energy within the atom, the challenge to social science is to invent the appropriate technology of social organization to release and constructively channel the near-infinite potential energy and resourcefulness of the human being, and of human beings cooperating with each other.

The genetic code in DNA molecules governs the release and utilization of energy for biological development. Human choice is the basic mechanism for liberating and productively harnessing the potential energy in society. It is the mind's decisions that release human energy and propel it into action, for purposes and toward ends preselected by the human mind.

As long as social organization is predominantly "physical" in character, choices about social
development can and usually are made by a comparatively few people, acting for the collective through centralized organizations. As development moves along the continuum from the more vital, mental society, the power of the collective is more than counterbalanced by greater freedom and rights for the
individual. Because more and more people are able to be better informed about the needs of the collective and about the complexity of social forces in play, it is natural for them to expect and demand a greater role in decision-making. Acting on that cue, it's natural for the leaders of social organizations
to decentralize authority in order to delegate more widely more and more of the work - while trying to retain ultimate control in one way or another.

But as the mix of people and functions shades over more and more toward the "mental" part of the continuum, and there is a growing premium on the brainwork, imagination, and creativity of
individuals, new ways of getting things done come into vogue: uncentralized organizations to cope with tasks so complex that no sensible individual could even pretend to be in charge, organizations in which authority is institutionalized as impersonal standards and systems that depend on initiative and creative imagination by many different kinds and levels of people who are able to be different, yet together. Under these conditions freedom and responsibility necessarily shift from the collective to many individuals, expanding exponentially the range of individual choices.

This process seems to culminate in the development of a new kind of social organization, the nobody-in-charge system where every citizen is in some measure partly in charge, each specialist no longer just responsible for being right about his/her own specialty but partly responsible also for the general sense of direction, the outcome as a whole.

The greater the value that society accords to the individual human being, the greater the freedom of choice it offers to each individual. As tradition was the technology for development of the physical society, individual human choice is the technology for the development of the mentally self-conscious society.

In post-modern societies, where information (analyzed as knowledge, integrated as wisdom) is the dominant resource, the individual will enjoy unprecedented freedom of choice. That's no guarantee of wisdom. The quality of multiple individual choices is a complex function of the quality of information, education, knowledge, ideals, opinions, attitudes, and values in the society.

Modern democratic societies rely on the power of education and the media to get the word around about what problems we collectively face, what opportunities are there if we pursue them together. And, since unanimity is not to be expected on anything complicated or important, democratic societies rely also on the free airing of alternative viewpoints to help us collectively to make up our individual minds. Those societies whose citizens are encouraged to engage in the fullest and most enlightened exercise of choice will have the greatest potential for development.

A Single Creative Process?

The emergence of mental self-consciousness, its wide spread around the world spurred by the development of global information technologies, has for the first time made it possible for a species to influence the speed and direction of its own evolution.

We are already the liveliest and most conscious actors in modifying our physical environment, sometimes inadvertently (the ozone layer, the "greenhouse effect") and sometimes on purpose (weather modification, air conditioning).

Now we human beings, the mental animals, are beginning to acquire the understanding to unravel biological processes, decipher and consciously alter the genetic code of life forms, and thus potentially decide, to some limited degree at least, who we want to be.

In similar fashion we are edging toward acquiring a conscious knowledge of the social processes that could vastly increase the pace and quality of social development, and spread its benefits much more fairly to the majority of humankind who are still disappointed spectators at the drama of development. Certainly a deeper understanding of the process of social development, more widely spread to more educated peoples on every continent, will enable individuals to exercise their human choices with more sense of their meaning for their own futures and for the wider communities - including the widest, the global commons - of which they will be increasingly conscious (and therefore increasingly responsible)

The parallels between biological and social development are intellectually intriguing and may be analytically useful. But they are something more as well. There is now considerable evidence that these processes are actually various expressions of a single creative process, which applies not only to biological and social forms but also to artistic and other nonrational human creativity. Doesn't this point toward a truly unifying theory of creative processes relevant to all branches of human endeavor, to both science and art, to both practical and spiritual experience?

Authors' Note

Bob Macfarlane of the International Center for Peace and Development in Napa, California; Robert
van Harten of Mira International in The Netherlands; and N. Asokan of the Mother's Service Society in Pondicherry, India, worked closely with us to develop and formulate the arguments presented in this paper, which are based on more than two decades of work on development theory by the Mother's Service Society.