Cultural evolution towards human scale

Genuine non-superficial change is never easy. It takes effort. It takes time. There are no short cuts. Naive incrementalism can easily make things worse. This is why so many people have completely given up any hope of genuine change.

The neurodiversity movement is a human rights movement. No one and no organisation can genuinely claim to be supportive of the neurodiversity paradigm without committing to the political goals of the neurodiversity movement. Working towards the political goal of protecting the human rights of all disabled people, including the human rights of neurodivergent people amongst other things, requires confronting routine human rights violations carried out by institutions in the healthcare and education sectors in countries that pride themselves on their human rights track record.

Humanity’s biggest crisis is not climate chaos. It is not ecological collapse. And it is not economic collapse. Our biggest crisis we are facing is a crisis of a lack of imagination which at scale manifests as a crisis of institutions.

What is wrong with super-human scale social systems?

There are a number of parallels between the impact of the development of economic theories on human society and the social impact of the development of the Internet. Neither the Internet nor economics draw directly on an evidence based understanding of physics, biology, and human behaviour.

Both the Internet and economic theories are best understood as prescriptive rather than as observational tools – as language systems that are based on specific European/North American cultural conventions that are assumed as “sensible” (common sense) or “obvious” (self-evident).

The anthropocentric “civilised” desire to use technology as well as medication at scale, to control and predict the future of complex social systems, and thereby perpetuate and strengthen social power gradients has a long history. The following segment from Adam Curtis’ documentary HyperNormalisation (2016) is a good starting point.

For those who are unfamiliar with the history of “artificial intelligence”, this segment offers a good introduction. At the same time, it implicitly provides an explanation for the growth in disorders described in the Devil’s Sadistic Manual (the DSM).

In this time of existential planetary crises it is irresponsible and suicidal to get sucked into the vortex of the distorted logic of the invisible hand of the market. Hypersensitive Autistic people have been worried about the suicidal path of “civilisation” for decades, but so far this has not prevented magical beliefs in green growth, sustainable capitalism, and other “solutions” that all involve “out-smarting” the planetary ecosystem with human “intelligence”.

Letting go of the desire of super-human scale control

Human and non-human suffering on this planet can only be minimised by fully acknowledging human cognitive limits, i.e. the limits of our ability to understand the world, make sense of all the events around us, and our inability to predict the future.

This timeless wisdom is is a lesson that neurodivergent thinkers have always understood, going right back to the earliest days of our species; it is reflected in many older ways of knowing that have left traces in Buddhist philosophy and other spiritual traditions.

The problem with spiritual traditions is that they easily become corrupted and co-opted as soon as the limits of human scale are surpassed. The only way of preventing the perpetuation of endless cycles of co-opting and delusional super-human scale “civilisation building” initiatives is to reject all forms of super-human scale ambitions of “control”, and to (re)learn to trust the imaginative potential that can be unlocked in de-powered human scale groups.

A transition towards de-powered human scale social operating systems is possible even under the most oppressive circumstances, because de-powered ways of collaboration and mutual aid are very difficult to detect and comprehend by those who are only able to view the world through a lens of social power dynamics. Culturally well adjusted humans in a powered-up world fail to perceive genuine changes that are not reified in hierarchical structures of control.

New social operating systems can proliferate via self organisation at human scale as long as they remain immune to attempts by:

(a) groups to grow beyond human scale limits and

(b) individuals / small groups to establish permanent social power gradients.

Autistic people play a unique social role in this context. An Autistic presence is an essential ingredient of any health human scale de-powered group. Last week I had a wonderful conversation with Anne Borden King from Noncompliant on The power of international neurodivergent collaborations. Autistic people are not asking for power, they are simply asking to be taken seriously when pointing out toxic social power dynamics.

How to transition to human scale?

For our journey into the future we need appropriate tools for addressing challenges and needs over different time horizons.

To think and collaborate creatively around transitioning to human scale, requires a combination of

  1. short-range tools for survival (here and now),
  2. mid-range tools for healthier lives (during the transition), and
  3. long range tools for multi-generational de-powered cultural evolution.

Some people refer to this approach to intentional paradigmatic change as the three horizons model, only that in the classical context of industrialised busyness “long range” usually refers to a few years at best, symptomatic of the disabling short attention span within industrialised societies. The three horizons model also has limits, it does not equate to a simple recipe for “success”. Often you only gain a clearer picture of the long-range target someway along the way as new designs and insights emerge and evolve.

In the book “The beauty of collaboration at human scale” I highlight the invaluable role that marginalised minorities and neurodivergent people have always played in human cultural evolution, in particular in times of crisis. Below is an overview of regional, local, and online community-oriented work that may assist us to unW.E.I.R.D. some of the perverse institutions of Western culture and to develop new institutions that are attuned to human scale. Please get in touch in case you would like to contribute to any of these initiatives or if you have related questions.

Short-range tools for survival

  1. Communal definition of Autistic ways of being
  2. Education in the ND paradigm, the ND movement, and autistic culture
  3. Autistic trauma peer support
  4. Employer psychological safety rating service
  5. Bullying alert service for employees

Mid-range tools for healthier lives

  1. Intersectional cultural and psychological safety across all aspects of life
  2. Ban of conversion therapies
  3. Creative Collaboration
  4. Appreciation of neurodiversity in the education sector
  5. Appreciation of neurodiversity in the healthcare sector
  6. Autistic communities in public libraries
  7. Global Autistic Task Force on Autism Research
  8. The Design Justice Network
  9. Co-creating a Centre of Autistic Culture in Auckland, Aotearoa
  10. Translation of content

Long-range tools for multi-generational cultural evolution

  1. The NeurodiVenture operating model for worker cooperatives
  2. Filtering, collaboration, thinking, and learning tools for the next 200 years
  3. Co-creating Autistic / ND communities

Reducing toxic cultural complexity

Powered-up societies are characterised by a continuous tendency to add more and more mechanisms of control to perpetuate established social power gradients. Any transition towards a genuinely de-powered social operating model includes phasing out the spurious cultural complexity of super-human scale institutions of control that exert coercive powers.

Such a great simplification of social operating systems can occur in two basic ways:

  1. Voluntarily and consciously, by realising that emergent human scale collaborations have made some institutions of power obsolete, and by providing viable exit paths for the inmates of these institutions.
  2. Involuntarily, by forces beyond human control, such as increasingly severe extreme weather events, ecological collapse, and breakdown of brittle energy intensive and under resourced systems that implode under their own bureaucratic weight.

As Joseph Tainter’s analysis of complex societies shows, collapse of hierarchical complexity “is not a fall to some primordial chaos, but a return to the normal human condition of lower complexity”. Declining marginal returns on investments in established administrative structures ultimately result in an imperative to establish less energy intensive forms of collaborations that are more inclusive in terms of the diversity of stakeholders involved in shaping the path forward.

A shift from a W.E.I.R.D. monoculture to ecosystems of human scale groups reduces the spurious complexity needed to support a monoculture, and it retains and even grows adaptive cultural complexity, i.e. the diversity that emerges when the human ecological footprint is aligned with bioregional ecosystem functions. Spurious complexity wastes energy – is the result of humans working against biological evolution, whereas adaptive complexity saves energy – it is the result of humans engaging in collaborative niche construction as a part of biological ecosystems.

In this context the non-human ecological environment is the greatest ally of Autistic people and all others who appreciate the beauty of what biological life and de-powered ecologies of care have to offer.

Evolutionary design allows organisations and people to participate in the evolution of a living system and to integrate their knowledge into a living system that includes humans, non-humans, and human designed systems.

Phasing out the Devil’s Sadistic Manual

An obvious mid-range goal of de-powering involves phasing out the Devil’s Sadistic Manual (DSM).

A few days a go Dr Robert Chapman, an Autistic philosopher, pointed me to the Power Threat and Meaning (PTM) framework that has been developed by the British Psychological Association. The PTM framework is a potentially interesting tool for incrementally moving away from the DSM to a more holistic and less pathologising approach to human well being.

The framework stops short of being pro-active, and still assumes an ambulance at bottom of the cliff approach. It also assumes that social power dynamics are the main source of problems people encounter, which is true in powered-up societies, but not necessarily in healthy de-powered societies and groups, where amongst other things peer support may replace the need for professional therapists. By not demanding any changes to social norms that would make society less toxic, the focus remains on individuals and problems related to individual relationships. Hence I see the PRM framework as pertaining to a mid-range time horizon on the path towards de-powered social operating systems.

Extracts of interesting parts of the PTM

So far I have only skimmed over the 400 page text, and and have tucked into sections that seemed interesting from the perspective of undoing some of the damage caused by the pathologising language found in the DSM.

If you are familiar with this framework and have seen it in use, I would be love to learn more and hear about your experiences.

… This is despite the fact that national (Read et al., 2013) and international (Lasalvia et al., 2015; Seeman et al., 2016) research confirms that ‘the notion that mental disorders are simply “brain diseases”…that exist as such in nature… is responsible for unwanted and destructive pessimism about recovery…(It) results in stigmatisation and rejection from the outside, and self-attribution and self-blame from the inside’ (Lasalvia et al., 2015, p.512).

We literally embody things people fear at a profound level – unreason, challenge to social contract, highlighting issues people can’t tolerate such as the futility of living, familial abuse, vulnerability to violence and mortality. What better way to wipe away these fears than by locating them in a “broken” person rather than by acknowledging them as consistent, frightening features of society?’ (service user quoted in Beresford et al., 2016, p.19).

we are active agents in our lives at the same time as facing many very real limits and barriers to the changes we can bring about. Those limitations may be material (money, food, transport) biological (physical disability) psychological (fear, anxiety, self-doubt) and/or social (gender expectations, isolation, discrimination.) More subtly but perhaps most damagingly, they may take the form of the meanings, beliefs, expectations, norms and values that we absorb, often unconsciously, from wider society.

Our framework offers a way of constructing a non-diagnostic, non-blaming, de-mystifying story about strength and survival, with the potential to re-integrate many behaviours and experiences which would currently be diagnosed as symptoms of mental disorder back into the range of universal human experience. The overall message is: ‘You are experiencing a normal reaction to abnormal circumstances. Anyone else who had been through the same events might well have ended up reacting in the same way. However, these survival strategies may no longer be needed or useful. With the right kind of support, you may be able to leave them behind.’ This position offers a way out of the conceptual trap by recognising and making sense of the very real struggles people have faced and continue to face, while also conveying the message that within some unavoidable limitations, they can be supported to reclaim a greater degree of responsibility and control over their lives.

In the short and medium term, psychiatric diagnoses will still be required for people to access services, benefits and so on. These rights must be protected. Equally, we all have a right to describe our experiences in the way that makes most sense to us. This right has not always been accorded to service users, who may be seen as ‘lacking in insight’ if they query their diagnosis. However, it is our hope that the framework offered here will, in the longer term, encourage and allow all of us to let go of diagnostic thinking.

The idea of backward causal chains, though often very useful, may also be inadequate where there are complex interacting processes. All clusters, however, are provisional, and developments in theory and technology over the next decades are likely to result in new clusters being proposed and existing ones rearranged or abandoned although this does not detract from the fact that many existing medical clusters may have very good evidence for their validity. But this constant process of change can be hidden not just because unsuccessful clusters may be remembered only by historians, but because everyday language tends to reify the abstract names given to the clusters (or, more correctly, the concepts inferred from them), that is, we talk as if these abstract names were descriptions of things, for example ‘He has cystic fibrosis’. This can give diagnostic concepts – both medical and psychiatric – an impression of solidity and permanence quite inappropriate to their abstract status.

clinicians have to rely almost entirely on subjective judgements and social norms both in devising diagnostic criteria and in trying to match people’s feelings and behaviour to them. For example, assessments of criteria such as ‘excessive guilt’, ‘irritable mood’, ‘deficient sexual fantasies’, ‘inappropriate affect’, ‘unusual perceptual experiences’ or ‘marked impairment in role functioning’ are not only very subjective, they also depend on social judgements about how people ought to feel or behave in certain circumstances. In fact, nearly every DSM/ICD criterion is ultimately based on this kind of subjective judgement.

Emphasising its reliance on social judgement, the DSM requires that people’s feelings
or actions should not be counted as symptoms of a mental disorder if they are normal, expected and culturally sanctioned responses to a particular event, hence the frequent use in manuals of terms such as usual, appropriate or excessive. In other words, to count as a symptom, what people feel or do should not be intelligible or understandable in their particular personal, social and cultural context; their feelings or behaviour might instead be described by those around them as extreme, irrational or bizarre. It is this claimed lack of intelligibility which is said to justify treating these feelings or behaviour as qualitatively different from ‘normal’ actions or feelings and to justify applying a medical framework.

statistical studies which apply various clustering techniques to the problems people present to psychiatric services, have found that the resulting clusters do not match DSM categories. In other words, people’s own reports of their problems do not follow the kinds of ‘patterns’ set out in the DSM.

there is also little evidence that DSM diagnoses predict which treatments will work in spite of the use of disorder-specific names such as antidepressants, antipsychotics, mood stabilisers or anxiolytics (Bentall, 2003, 2010; Deacon, 2013; Kirk et al., 2013; Moncrieff, 2008).

By presenting emotional and behavioural problems as symptoms of mental disorder, by locating problems primarily in people’s brains and bodies, medicalisation and diagnosis help obscure the well-evidenced causal role of social and interpersonal factors in distress and make it much more difficult to understand people’s problems in the context of their lives and relationships.

Psychiatric diagnosis inevitably involves subjective social judgements, influenced by dominant cultural norms and values – in this case often those held by higher class white Western men – about how people ought to think, feel and behave.

The fact that Western society is highly individualised can also make it seem natural to turn to a medical and biological discourse which locates explanations for problematic feelings or behaviour in the individual’s brain or mind. All of this creates powerful obstacles to understanding the problems these explanations present.

Those who fall outside the dominant discourses are most likely to be seen as, and to experience themselves as, ‘bad’ or ‘mad’. All of this is reflected in psychiatric diagnosis’ inevitable dependence on social judgements, as we discussed in Chapter 1, and many critics have traced particular diagnoses back to the social norms they challenge: ‘borderline personality disorder’ for women who are too angry; ‘depression’ for women who are exhausted by domestic demands; ‘anorexia nervosa’ as a reaction to the unrealistic role and appearance standards faced by modern women; alcohol misuse and suicide for men whose socialisation does not permit the expression of despair in other ways; ‘ADHD’ for children who are not suited to educational regimentation, and so on (Bordo, 1996; Lafrance, 2009; Proctor, 2007; Timimi, 2010 and see Chapter 4, on gender). These rule transgressions can involve over-adaption to the ideal image, as well as failing to live up to it; thus Paul Verhaeghe (2012/2014) sees ‘psychopathy’, ‘narcissistic personality disorder’ and ‘sex addiction’ as extreme examples of taking cultural messages on board.

Similarly, it has been suggested that the enormous rise in diagnoses of ‘autism spectrum disorders’ and ‘Asperger’s’ may partly reflect demands made by highly industrialised and service-oriented economies for successful employees to display emotional behaviours such as (faked) sociability, warmth, gratitude, passion and so on – skills which do not come easily to everyone (Roberts, 2015).

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