William Irwin Thompson’s Five Stages of Human Evolution

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This summary of William Irwin Thompson’s Five Stages of Human Evolution is taken from Chapter 1 of Coming Into Being, and is based on a synthesis of the insights of Marshall McLuhan and Jean Gebser.

Summary of Phases

Thompson starts off with the media phases as outlined by Marshall McLuhan.

“At each stage of the cultural evolution of humanity, a new medium of communication comes forth and that medium effects a shift to a new form of polity.” (p. 3)

Stages of Communication Media

  • Oral

“Oral culture was roughly from 200,000 BCE to 10,000 BCE (“or basically the glacial epoch”) (p.4)

  • Script

“Script developed from the Old Europe of 6,000 BCE to the Sumer of 3,000 BCE. Priestcraft and writing reinforced one another to give us city-states.”

  • Alphabetic

  • Print

“With the rise of printed books .. and printed money, empires became replaced by industrial nation-states in a new global formation called the world economy.

  • Electronic

Stages of World Culture

  • Culture (200,000 to 10,000 BCE)
  • Society (10,000 to 3,500 BCE)
  • Civilization (3500 BCE to 1500 CE)
  • Industrialization (1500 to 1945)
  • Planetization (1945 to present)

Forms of Polity

  • Band
  • Tribe
  • City-state or Empire
  • Nation-State
  • Noetic Polity

Stages of Cohesive Association

  • Dominance

“The band was based on dominance.” (p. 5)

  • Authority

“The characteristic form .. is one of authority in the figure of the matriarch or the patriarch.”

  • Justice

“Literacy becomes critical, and a group of palace high priests works to create a canonical sared text that can hold the warring tribes together within a literate and urban civilization.” (p.5)

  • Representation

“An expanding trade class .. and literacy becomes democratized through printed books ..; Discourse becomes the political instrument.” (p. 5)

  • Participation

“Reasoned discourse could no longer hold together in the supersaturated solution of the global media.” (p. 5)

Gebser’s Five Structural Mutations of Consciousness and the role of Dark Ages

William Irwing Thompson:

“It is a paradox of complex dynamical systems that every shift to a higher level of organization, also energizes the lower level to return in compressed and novel variations of the older form. … (p. 6) … Thus the representational government of the traditional literate nation-state undergoes an electronic meltdown in which archaic forms surface in new formations.” (p. 7)

“In any transition to a new level of organization, there is loss … ‘Entities that were capable of independent replication before the transition can only replicate as parts of a larger unit after it.’ (John Maynard Smith , cited p. 12 … “Evolution is no longer taking place at the level of the singular organism.” (p. 12)

  • Archaic (Mesolithic Dark Age, 9500 BCE
  • Magical (Kurgan Invasions, 4500 BCE
  • Mythical (Aegean Dark Age, 1400-800 BCE)
  • Mental (European Dark Age, 476-800 BCE)
  • Integral (Contemporary Dark Age)

“A dark age is characteristic of the transition from one structure of consciousness to another.

  • “Before agriculture, there was a loss of culture in the Mesolithic; gone was the high culture of the Paleolithic Lascaux, but not yet come was the high culture of the Neolithic
  • Agricultural society stabilized itself from 9500 to 4500 BCE, and then came the Kurgan invasions and the destruction of the undefended agricultural villages of the great goddess
  • By 2500 BCE, civilization had stabilized .. in the new forms found along the Nile, Tigris and Euphrates
  • There is an Aegean dark age of 1400 to 800 BCE, which expresses Gebser’s mythical to mental epoch
  • Before Western European Civilization there was the dark age of 476 to 800 CE
  • And now, before the shift to integral, we seem be be experiencing our own dark age in which our civilization is disintegrating.” (p. 14-15)

“In our transition from industrialization to planetization, it is the accumulation of noise that is pulling our civilization apart. The new phase-space .. is the catastrophe that brings us together in a condition that now defines all our human transactions.”