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Culture Evolves Toward Wholeness

A thread runs throughout psychology shedding light on a direction to evolution.

Robert Atkinson
Culture grows from a simple state to a complex system.
Source: Robert Atkinson

Culture is like an organism that grows from a simple state to a complex system. A holistic view shows that the evolution of culture has gone through three major phases of growth. First, Indigenous peoples revered the land, lived life in harmony with nature, and saw the entire creation as sacred. Their inherent consciousness of oneness was maintained through rituals and ceremonies that celebrated this wholeness.

Second, as communities expanded, spread out, and global migration became the norm, societies became more complex, cultures experienced conflict with each other, and our thinking was transformed into a pervasive consciousness of duality to reflect the introduction of greater chaos and struggle in daily life.

This shift in consciousness led to a long and painful process over many centuries, even millennia, of diverse communities seeing differences first, which escalated into systemic practices of segregation, prejudice, oppression, racism, conquest, genocide, and war. Duality became the lens through which we have viewed everything since mass migration began. This extended period of differentiation, however, saw circles of unity continue to expand, from unity in the family, to the clan, to the city, and to the nation, all the while with an “us” and a “them” to account for.

Third, out of necessity for our collective survival, humanity is now faced with a challenge as never before, to establish unity on the global level. This phase of our cultural evolution will require us to reclaim our intended consciousness of oneness, characterized by a focus on “we” not “me.”

A thread running through psychology fleshes out this big-picture view of cultural evolution and sheds much light upon how, as both science and spirituality now agree, there is a direction to evolution.

Darwin and social evolution

Even before psychology, Charles Darwin not only brought biological evolution into popular discourse but also opened the door to understanding that all things evolve, even socially, as greater and greater levels of cooperation come into being. In The Descent of Man, he wrote:

“As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point being reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.”

Darwin shows here that social evolution is directed toward a familiar and long-desired outcome, extending not only the natural law of cooperation but also the Golden Rule from the individual level to the global level.

Wundt and the psychological and cultural development of humanity

Less than a half-century later, Wilhelm Wundt, founder of both experimental psychology and cultural psychology, outlined in his 1912 book, Elements of Folk Psychology, the psychological and cultural development of humanity as a four-stage progression from Primitive Man, humanity’s childhood, to The Totemic Age, the era of the symbolic world, to The Heroic Age, when community concerns give way to national concerns, to The Development to Humanity, when national affiliations give way to world-wide humanistic concerns.

This fourth step leading toward a global consciousness takes in the rise of world empires, a world culture, world religions laying claim to being universal, and the concept of world history with “the consciousness of...the idea of mankind as a unity.” A few years after Wundt wrote about these stages, the League of Nations came into being, and then after the Second World War, the United Nations was formed.

Jung and the collective unconscious

After Wundt, Carl Jung added to our understanding of cultural evolution with his concept of the collective unconscious. This, he said, contains the whole spiritual heritage of humanity’s evolution born anew in the mind of every individual in the form of human universals, or archetypes, which move upward from an inner core of unconscious energy, through human ancestors to ethnic groups to national groups, and finally to the individual human psyche at a conscious level.

Both Wundt and Jung see the same goal, the psychic unity of mankind, yet have different ways of getting there. For Wundt, it is an external, social process, while for Jung it is an internal, personal process. Describing two different parts to the same process, they show how we are both born with the awareness of our oneness, and we gradually move toward a consciousness of this through the stages of our personal and collective evolution. Each type of awareness recognizes that inherent unity (collective unconscious) and intended unity (social consciousness) are both essential in achieving the goal of our collective evolution.

Erikson and identity development in adolescence

This thread in psychology leads next to Erik Erikson’s core concept of identity development in adolescence. He, too, expanded this from the personal to the social level when he wrote that mankind’s task now is to move beyond an identity built upon exclusivity and superiority, representative of its collective adolescence, to one more fitting of its approaching maturity, by creating a “wider, more inclusive identity,” or “a new, all-human identity.”

This thread of the evolution of consciousness goes back to psychology’s origin, affirms that evolution on the collective level is purposeful, directional, and progressive, and gives us hope for the future.


Atkinson, R. (2017). The Story of Our Time: From Duality to Interconnectedness to Oneness. Delray Beach, FL: Sacred Stories Publishing.

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