When he first envisioned the leap: how the late Clare Graves saw sense where so many before had seen only nonsense

On a fall day in 1961, in his classroom at Union College in Schenectady, New York, the late Dr. Clare W. Graves hurried to a blackboard. Writing as fast as he could, he jotted down the rudiments of an explanation both for conundrums that had been plaguing his own research and for the fundamental confusions and contradictions that had so long flummoxed psychology—the inability of psychology’s greatest theorists to come to agreement on the ideal human mind. As Graves described it years later, his basic realization was this:

The psychology of the mature human being is an unfolding, emergent, oscillating, spiraling process marked by progressive subordination of older, lower-order behavior systems to newer, higher-order systems as man’s existential problems change….Each successive stage, wave, or level of existence is a state through which people pass on their way to other states of being. When the human is centralized in one state of existence, he or she has a psychology which is particular to that state. His or her feelings, motivations, ethics and values, biochemistry, degree of neurological activation, learning system, belief system, conception of mental health, ideas as to what mental illness is and how it should be treated, conceptions of and preferences for management, education, economics, and political theory and practice are all appropriate to that state.

Translation: there is no single way to describe a mature human because, in the truest sense, there is no such thing as a mature human. Maturity is as maturity does. And what the psychologically healthy person does best is to change with the times. The change always involves substituting new ways to think and behave for old ways. And the substitution may occur—needs to occur—again and again. Human maturation, Graves concluded, is an ever-ongoing process!

For most of our lives, the healthy psychological journey is calibrated to aim forward. According to Dr. Graves’ research data, along this journey, our mind veers—oscillates—first toward one philosophical extreme, then reverses itself and moves toward the opposite. That is to say, from a worldview with expressive, individualistic values, we subsequently migrate to a worldview witsawh sacrificial, group-oriented values, and then we reverse the process. And we do it again and again, back and forth, climbing a spiral staircase of psychological and mental development, for as long as circumstances permit.

Following such a pattern, a healthy person’s psychology tends always to be moving toward increasing complexity and more openness to nuance as it takes its cues from its environmental and technological surroundings, which are themselves growing ever more tangled and demanding over time. Bottom line: there is no single correct description of the mature human. Already, there are several, with hopefully many more to come.

DR. CLARE W. GRAVES<BR>(Photo courtesy of <br>Chris Cowan, NVC Consulting)

(Photo courtesy of
Chris Cowan, NVC Consulting)

For psychology, this realization was a badly needed curative mega-dose of Vitamin C for a chronic head cold of confusion and self-contradiction. For the world-at-large, it was a eureka moment that forever changed how we understand our human nature.

Now Dr. Graves could explain to his students and anyone else who was listening why the greatest names in psychology had not been able to agree on a universal definition for a psychologically mature human. They were like the blind men describing the elephant (the one with the trunk said the beast was like a rope, the one touching a leg said it was like a tree, the one fingering a tusk, like a sword, etc.). For whatever reasons, each of psychology’s great savants had chosen to describe what it is like to be psychologically mature at a different stage of human mental development! Each of their elephants was a badly misconstrued caricature of the whole, and a grossly oversimplified view of a very complex pachyderm.

Even today, using the full complement of advances and discoveries in the sciences in the past forty-plus years, it is not easy to describe the research problem that Dr. Graves laid out for himself after his first breakthrough discoveries. I can show you what I mean by updating how he posed it.

Start with the DNA equivalent of 715 megabytes of information contained in everyone of the body’s estimated 50 million million cells.

Move on to a person with a brain more complex than anything else organic in the known universe.

From there proceed to a mind that, indubitably, is utterly dependent on that brain, but, in ways we still haven’t managed to explain, is indisputably more than “just a brain.”

Assemble a world of 7-plus-billion of these minds and organized them into 6,000 separate cultures.

After that, factor in the reality that we are swimming in the wake of, and sometimes mid-stream of, the 100,000 distinct systems of belief and meaning-formation conjured by the mind since the beginning of consciousness.

Now Graves was ready to ask his question: Is it possible to develop a coherent theory and explanation of how we scale up our thinking biologically, psychologically and sociologically from such improbably variegated beginnings to encompass such hopelessly complex outcomes?

BTC'S GRAVES-THEORY-BASED<BR>ASSESSMENT TOOL<BR>(See more at www.braintechnologies.com)

(See more at www.braintechnologies.com)

Graves wanted to be able to explain how the mind changes and when it does, what is happening to us biologically. He wanted to be able to predict psychologically what new characteristics a changed mind will exhibit and how to anticipate them. Sociologically, he wanted to know—in substantial detail—what kind of world each new kind of mind is likely to build for itself and how the various “worlds” that humans construct for themselves could both conflict and cooperate. He wanted to be able to talk about all this not in bits and pieces as most scientists tend to do, tightly focused as they are on their own chosen part of the problem, but in an inclusive, coherent framework. And he still wasn’t finished. He wanted a system that would equip him to make defensible projections about where the mind might be heading next. In summary, he wanted a single scholarly model with a humongous outreach. He wanted, as one Canadian magazine writer who interviewed him opined, A Theory of Everything. (All of our dolphin-thinking-themed books at BTC discuss Dr. Graves’ theory and its applications in detail.)

In assembling such a model, Graves catalogued and explained the first great mind of the species, the one whose hegemony now appears to be coming to an end. He nailed it. Brilliantly. And he spotted and scouted out the first clear signs of an altogether different cognitive arrangement.

He did so at a time when most serious thinkers, including those in psychology and the rest of the social sciences, still considered the brain to be a “blank slate”—a tabula rosa, an empty page. One that “has no inherent structure of its own.” One that can, therefore, “be inscribed at will by society or ourselves.”

In fact, to this very day, as Steven Pinker, professor of psychology in MIT’s department of brain and cognitive science, has explained in The Blank Slate, most intellectuals still fail to appreciate the extent to which innate qualities of the brain influence the specific content and the colors on the pages of the storybook we call Our Very Own Personal World. This is of supreme importance because the brain arbitrates everything we know, do, believe. In the words of Dr. Edward O. Wilson, the two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, longtime Harvard University biology professor and pioneering synthesizer of the sciences, “Everything that we know and can ever know about existence is created there.”

Evidence against the brain/mind being a blank slate is now coming from many directions. For example, evolutionary psychology and anthropology are on the trail of a lengthy slate of universal traits that people in all of the world’s cultures have in common. Dr. Pinker and others have assembled lists of more than 300 such shared traits. Typically, traits range from childbirth rites to incest taboos to beliefs about death to a hypnotic fear of snakes to repertories of facial expression for a few basic emotions to the way mothers and infants bond. When every infant arrives on this planet, its head is already filled with scribblings that Mother Nature has been laboriously assembling for eon upon eons. Clare Graves was correct: the brain/mind is no blank slate. In the clever phraseology of renowned zoologist W.D. Hamilton, “The tabula of human nature was never rasa.” And no one, before or since, has offered us a better theory for explaining the consequence of this than Dr. Graves.

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