Thriving in the Crosscurrent:

Clarity and Hope in a Time of Cultural Sea Change




Why This Book, Why Now?

Chapter 1

Rhyming Hope and History

Chapter 2

Just Changing . . . or Evolving?

Chapter 3

Four Strong Winds

Chapter 4

Three Crossings

Chapter 5

Modernity: How Can a
Sea Change Go Wrong?

Chapter 6

Who Says It’s
Getting Better?

Chapter 7


Chapter 8

Life in the Renaissance

Chapter 9

The Second Axial Age

Chapter 10

Thriving in the Crosscurrent

Chapter 3

Cultural evolution doesn’t simply happen. Just as four forces—gravity, electromagnetism, and the strong and weak nuclear
forces—shape the physical universe, so four dynamics drive the evolution of culture. Just as strong currents and prevailing winds affect the play of the great oceans, the sea-change model identifies four convergent dynamics that infl uence every major cultural evolutionary transformation:

1. complexity: the evolution of consciousness;

2. chaos to order: how open systems advance;

3. creativity: bottom-up, self-organizing, emergent forms; and

4. cooperation: interdependence as evolutionary touchstone.

By understanding these dynamics, we can better understand why the world is changing for the better rather than for the worse. When we recognize that distinct drives underlie cultural evolution, we begin to discern the pattern behind the apparent chaos of a sea change. Despite the unpredictability of surface events, an evolutionary arrow starts to become apparent when we comprehend these four dynamic forces.


Human culture grows steadily more complex and, in the process, more evolved. In the context of cultural evolution, increasing complexity means simply that things become more intricate. More complex forms (values, societal roles, behaviors) interact in more complex ways with other complex forms. The system moves to the next level. Imagine a simple village evolving into a town. As the process unfolds, more people play more complex roles. The clerk takes on the responsibilities of the postmaster and now cooperates with the bailiff, who has also become the sheriff. The doctor interacts in a new way with the apothecary, and together they shape the new office of the coroner. The functions of storekeeper and bookkeeper become more synergistic, and . . . well, you get the picture. Cultural evolution urges each participant’s role in the direction of more multifaceted engagement with others. An evolutionary course of this sort will generate significant changes in basic value patterns (for example, with respect to gender roles, notions of justice, and patterns of cooperation). A dramatic increase in organized cultural complexity is one of the first discernible signs of a sea change.

Chaos to Order

In open systems (like organisms, ecosystems, brains, cities, and societies), a relatively sudden movement from apparent chaos to emerging order is possible and even likely. An open system is one that retains its essential identity while continually interacting with its environment through the exchange of energy, information, waste, etc. Input, throughput, output, and feedback mechanisms are all essential features of an open system. Still, even through apparently chaotic periods the open system retains its coherence.

Evolving cultures are open systems, vulnerable to chaotic perturbations that can lead to dramatic increases or decreases in organized complexity. The possibility of dramatic evolutionary shift in open systems affords yet another way of thinking about the process of sea change.

Every major cultural evolutionary transition must be attended by a period of transitional turbulence. During an earlier sea change, the Axial crossing, in which the major modern religious and philosophical traditions had their roots, perturbations of the great imperial orders gave rise to countless new cultic patterns. Each new religious community was capable of reaching the critical point at which it would either move to a higher order of creative complexity or regress to a simpler order and perish in the descent. Overall, the Axial period yielded a rich array of new and enduring forms of spiritual inquiry.


Evolution occurs bottom-up, through the astonishing process of emergence. The persistent myth of the ant queen dispensing orders from above conceals the far more astonishing phenomenon of ant colonies organizing themselves through the combination of dogged persistence and natural chemical signaling. This blind self-organization reveals the mystery of novelty. The development of insect colonies, cities, computer programs, epidemics, and the rapid spread of ideas whose “time” has come provides insight into the surprising creativity we observe in a wide range of complex phenomena.

It seems that such creativity proceeds not downward from some overarching (or “intelligent-designing”) system but upward, from the collective behaviors of relatively “stupid” networks. As we learn that evolution—and, particularly, cultural evolution—creates itself through self-organization, we should pause for refl ection. That religious antievolutionists stand in awe of complex, creative emergent systems and imagine that only the hand of God could have wrought such things is actually quite understandable.

In the rising wave of the twenty-first-century sea change, self-organization drives the formation of surprising new cultural dynamics. How do new concerns and causes arise? Clearly, they are not always orchestrated from above. It turns out that self-organization is to our age what imperial fi at was to the late Axial. While many vital structures are in fact initially designed from the top down (consider the World Wide Web), the evolutionary processes that shape their content and behaviors are increasingly likely to emerge from the bottom up.


Human social evolution reveals increasing interdependence. When the first bands joined together to hunt mammoth, deer, or even rabbits, they knew they functioned more effectively as groups than as individuals. Cooperation demanded information exchange. Circling and driving game was a rather complex operation; but it worked. That success was only one of many signposts across the millennia of cultural advance.

A steadily ascending level of interactive cooperation is evident. We can trace it in Neanderthal care for wounded members of the group. It is evident in the archaeological record of complex hunting and gamesharing behaviors among fully modern humans as early as forty to one hundred thousand years ago. Even in the warlike behaviors of more advanced humans, the interdependent inclination is clear. While war itself is anything but cooperative, preparation for and participation in combat is precisely that.

In fact, the steady advance of human societies toward increasing levels of complex cooperation may be the most powerful evidence of cultural evolution. The modern period, perhaps more than any other, exemplified cooperative interaction—in exploration, science, art, and even religion—although that cooperation was often intragroup and accompanied by hostility toward outsiders.

At the threshold of the twenty-first-century culture shift, we are increasingly aware that interdependence is crucial. We must approach not only our problems, but also their solutions with a thorough grasp of synergy.

Order Thriving in
the Crosscurrent

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