by Elizabeth Dozois, February 25, 2022
This year, the Human Venture Associates were tasked with writing an introduction to Human Learning Ecology and the Human Venture Meta-Framework. In the tradition of publications like James Baldwin’s Letter to my Nephew, Elizabeth decided to frame her introduction as a letter to her children – one that could be shared publicly. Here’s what she wrote.
Dear Grady and Arden,
This week, Russia invaded Ukraine. Last month, the Freedom Convoy occupied our capital. Last year, the US capital was attacked by its own citizens. Social divisions are deepening; democratic institutions are under attack; conspiracy theories are rampant; people are asserting individual rights in ways that harm the collective; we are losing the ability to arrive at collectively agreed-upon facts; and the threat of nuclear war is more palpable now than it has been for decades. We live in frightening times.
I worry about the world your children will inherit; I know you do too. I am grateful for the many people around the world who are working to address the most significant problems we face as a species – social, political, economic, and environmental. Their efforts give me hope. At the same time, I worry that we’re not going far enough up the causal chain to actually make a difference. The biggest problems we face as a species are all of our own making, a product of the way we’ve oriented ourselves to life. Unless we develop a more adaptive way of structuring our priorities, responsibilities, relationships, beliefs, governance, and meaning-making systems, we’ll just be tinkering around the edges of our problems. At some point, we have to address the root cause: us.
You know that I’ve invested a great deal of time over the past 20 years in the Human Venture Framework – learning the principles and disciplines it outlines, and trying to build my capacity to apply, extend, and share it with others. Part of this was motivated by a personal need for higher-level meaning and a desire to understand what life required of me. As you know, I grew up in a Christian household. That upbringing initially provided me with a higher purpose and the ‘rules’ for being a good human being. When I lost my faith in my late teens, I was deeply shaken. Much of what I had taken as true had crumbled, and the experience was profoundly disorienting. But while my childhood beliefs were gone, my desire to transcend my own individual life and serve a bigger purpose remained strongly intact1 – so I began searching for approaches or philosophical frameworks that would help me to make sense of the world and my place within it. Most of what I encountered was just as problematic as the belief system I’d rejected – which is why I wept (I’m not kidding) when I finally encountered the Human Venture Framework. The framework (based on a new discipline called Human Learning Ecology) offered a disciplined approach to understanding myself and the world, one that more accurately corresponds to reality.
The search for a more adaptive approach to meaning-making was not just about filling some god-shaped hole in myself (although I’m sure that played a role). It was connected to a nascent sense that our behaviours are driven by the way we have been oriented to life – and that many of the stories that drive our worldviews (e.g., “life is about me/my tribe,” “he who dies with the most toys wins,” “economic growth trumps environmental concerns”) are creating enormous harm. Course correction will require more than information and persuasion. We need a new set of orienting stories, ones that are based on more adaptive ways of understanding life and our place within it.
This is one of the key insights in David C. Korten’s book Change the Story, Change the Future. He points out that “humans live by shared cultural stories. They are the lens through which we view reality. They shape what we most value as a society and the institutions by which we structure power. When we get our story wrong, we get our future wrong.”2 The defining stories of our age are deeply problematic because they are often constructed in self-serving ways that create significant distortions3 – and when we are misoriented to life, we lose our capacity to navigate safely, humanely, and effectively into the future. It’s like having a bad map – one that doesn’t correspond to the territory. Bad maps get you lost.
There are many opinions about how we should orient ourselves to the world – but if you want to move beyond opinions and ensure that your orientation actually maps onto reality, you need an empirical approach to understanding harm/benefit dynamics in human and life systems – across situations and over time. To do that, you need to draw on a huge range of examples. Looking at one culture, one aspect of human activity (e.g., economics or psychology), one species (us), or one time period is too constraining – the sample size is simply too small. If you want to develop an accurate orientation to life, you need to draw on patterns across cultures, time periods, species, and fields of endeavor. One of the reasons I have confidence in the Human Venture Framework is because this is the methodology on which it is based. Ken Low, who developed the framework4, has spent a lifetime overlaying examples of human intelligence and folly from a broad range of domains5 throughout history and across cultures. He also looked at adaptive processes and intelligence in nature. The patterns that emerged allowed him to identify principles and processes for constructing orienting stories that are less likely to be harmful, and more likely to map onto reality.
Einstein said that the most incomprehensible thing about the universe is that it is comprehensible – that there are recurring, reliable patterns in life that we can come to understand. And therein lies our greatest hope as humans. Patterns help us to manage complexity and navigate change – they help us to detect the most adaptively significant signals in the noise of human activity – and this understanding can and should inform our orientation as human beings.
The way that chess players use patterns provides a helpful analogy. Studies show that master chess players don’t think any further ahead than novice ones. Nor do they consider any more possibilities. In fact, they tend to consider fewer moves because they quickly home in on the good ones, without ever considering the vast constellation of bad ones6. They can do this because they have trained themselves to recognize adaptively significant patterns – that is, patterns that are “related in a strategically significant way.”7 This gives them the power to play ‘smarter’ than the rest of us – to look at an ever-changing game board and quickly figure out which lines of development are likely to be promising and which ones will get them into trouble.
We need this kind of pattern recognition for life. As we navigate through change and complexity, we need ways to more effectively discern between promising and destructive lines of development. Built on patterns of adaptive power and intelligence across the human and life stories, the Human Venture Framework offers this. It’s a navigational aid that is more powerful than any I’ve encountered and provides the processes and disciplines required to identify ignorance and error in the ways that we develop our orientation to life (i.e., the way we structure our worldview, life purpose, priorities, and responsibilities8). This orientation then informs our sense of ethics or conduct standards.
Traditionally, we have relied on our own communities and cultures to orient us to life and provide the ‘rules for living’.9 But the most significant problems we face today are not culturally or geographically bound; they are species-wide, interrelated, and systemic in nature – which is why a parochial approach to ethics is not sufficient to help us navigate safely into the future. We need a disciplined, species-wide, meta-cultural approach to developing ethics.10
To think about how we could develop a species-wide approach to ethics, it might be helpful to think about how conduct standards11 are developed on a smaller scale. Grady, as an engineer, you have been trained in engineering ‘doctrine’, a word I’ll use to describe any set of guiding principles, standards, and procedures/‘recipes’ for what does and doesn’t work that becomes institutionalized and passed on to subsequent generations. The quality of the doctrine that guides professional fields like yours is based on empirical and disciplined processes – over time, people in your profession paid attention to engineering failures and achievements and based the profession’s doctrine on the learnings associated with both. If we can enhance engineering doctrine by paying attention to mechanical or structural failures and successes, why can’t we develop doctrine for how to conduct ourselves as humans by paying attention to significant human/societal failures and achievements?
In one of my favourite video clips, Ray Anderson draws on the analogy of early attempts to fly to describe the danger we face as a species. As he speaks, we see old footage of people strapping on flying machines, jumping off cliffs, and trying to stay aloft. Initially, they look like they’re flying, but they’re actually in free fall and eventually crash. Anderson compares the design of those crafts to the way we have designed our civilization (e.g., our governing philosophies, priorities, responsibilities, institutions, sociocultural norms, etc.), explaining that while it may feel like we’re flying, we too are in free fall: the flying machines crashed because they weren’t built “according to the laws of aerodynamics and [are] subject to the law of gravity,” he says. “Our civilization is not flying because it’s not built according to the laws of aerodynamics for civilizations that would fly.”12
So how would we learn the “laws of aerodynamics for civilizations that would fly?” Well, a starting point would certainly be to look at civilizations that have crashed to understand the patterns associated with failure. A big difference between the commercial airline industry and human civilization is that people actually investigate airplane accidents, actively try to learn from them, and then build those learnings into every dimension of the industry (culture, training, responsibilities, protocols, etc.) We’ve seen a lot of civilizations crash and burn but, as Ronald Wright points out in A Short History of Progress, we haven’t done much to learn from those failures – which is why we keep repeating the same mistakes over and over again:
Many of the great ruins that grace the deserts and jungles of the earth are monuments to progress traps, the headstones of civilizations which fell victim to their own success. In the fates of such societies – once mighty, complex, and brilliant – lie the most instructive lessons for our own. … [T]hey are fallen airliners whose black boxes can tell us what went wrong.13
Why aren’t we looking at the ‘black boxes’ of civilizations that have crashed to identify issues in the way our individual and societal capacities have been structured? Why aren’t we actively learning about the actions or lines of development that consistently create harm and integrating these lessons into the doctrines and learning systems that guide us?14 Identifying patterns in social systems can be challenging because feedback loops can be delayed by many years and social issues are messy, emergent, and complex, with many influencing factors and interdependencies. However, humans have figured out patterns in complex/emergent natural systems – and we can do it with social systems and behaviours as well. The trick is to work with a big enough data set. Ethics are often developed by groups (professions, cultures, societies) based on what they’ve learned about what works and what doesn’t. If you want to develop species-level ethics, you have to look at patterns across cultures, time periods, and fields of endeavor so that you’re able to discern the signal from the noise – which is exactly what the Human Venture Framework does.
Humanity is now facing major existential threats. We desperately need adaptive, reality-based stories and conduct standards to guide our collective development. I believe the Human Venture Framework provides a foundation for the development of both and want to do everything I can to help take it out into the world. Creating this kind of revolution in the way we think, care and act is a daunting task and might seem impossible in a post-truth world where we can’t even agree on basic facts. But human nature is not fixed; we are a work in progress. And we have experienced remarkable transformations in the course of our relatively short history – so while it’s challenging(!), it’s not impossible.
I am grateful to have the support of the framework as I figure out how to contribute to the Human Venture, a transgenerational effort to develop wisdom and reduce harm. For you, for my grandchildren and all children, I am committed to doing all I can to support the development of more adaptive stories and standards – ones that will help us navigate safely into the future. I hope you’ll do the same.
1While I think there are many ways that religion can be constraining, I am deeply appreciative of my upbringing – not only because I had very loving parents, but because the faith they raised me with instilled a desire for higher level purpose – something bigger than ‘follow your passion; find a partner; make money, friends, and babies; don’t be an asshole; practice self-care’– or however you would frame the way that most westerners understand the purpose of life and what it means to be a good human.
2David C. Korten. Change the Story, Change the Future. (Emphasis added). I really like Korten’s articulation of this idea, but the insight itself is not new. It is a central argument in Roy Scranton’s book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: Reflections on the End of a Civilization, for example, where he points out that adapting to our biggest threat – climate change – will require more than “scientific reports and military policy….We’re going to need new ideas. We’re going to need new myths and new stories, a new conceptual understanding of reality […]. Over and against capitalism, we need a new way of thinking [about] our collective existence. We need a new vision of who we are. We need a new humanism….” Writing during the second World War, Lin Yutang, called for a similar approach to ending war, saying: “Ultimately, the problems of peace and war are determined by the character of the effective faiths of an age. The problem of peace are problems of man and the nature of man. I believe they are strictly philosophical problems, problems of the things that men believe in and live by. […] What we need above all is a theory of the rhythm of life and the unity and interrelatedness of all things. Without that faith, the doctrine of force cannot be destroyed. The dichotomy between ideals and action must be resolved, and an all-inclusive, comprehensive philosophy must be produced whereby ideals may be brought down from the clouds again to activate the affairs of men on earth. High flown idealism and pedestrian realism must be joined together, so that idealists are no longer regarded by businessmen as impractical, and ‘realism’ is no longer an excuse for dispensing with ideals in men’s plans for action. The rhythm of life and the unity and interrelatedness of all things must be shown and shown conclusively, so that they become a part of our faith for daily action.” (Between Tears & Laughter, 1943.)
3Humans tend to look for explanations that fit our hopes, fears, allegiances, habits, and prejudices – which is one of the reasons we need processes or disciplines for checking for error and ignorance in the way we’re putting our understanding of ourselves and the world together. Without those disciplines, our representation of reality will be grossly distorted.
4The development of the framework is an open-ended endeavor, one that will require the collective efforts of generations to come – so what we have to this point is (I hope!) only the beginning.
5E.g., engineering, military strategy, navigation, science, forensics, epidemiology, food production, economics, ethics, education, politics, technology, community development, and much, much more.
6Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry into the Nature and Implications of Expertise. (Chicago, Illinois: Open Court,1993), 26.
7Carl Bereiter and Marlene Scardamalia Surpassing Ourselves: An Inquiry into the Nature and Implications of Expertise. (Chicago, Illinois: Open Court,1993), 27.
8This is a lifelong process – we are all in a state of becoming, and my actions often fall short of my ideals. However, the framework has given me a way to learn from the broader life and human stories, and provides me with both a lens and a mirror – a way to see the world and myself more clearly – so that I am increasingly able to navigate the world in ways that are more adaptive.
9When you think about it, culture is really just a transgenerational process of passing on the rules for living (i.e., what a particular group of people has learned about how to navigate the challenges and opportunities of life).
10Here’s the definition of ethics that appears in the Human Venture Framework: “Ethics is a continuous flow of disciplined inquiry into the function, development and application of conduct standards across many different specific social/cultural settings, groups, individuals and fields of endeavor, all building on, revising and extending the accumulated knowledge, methods of previous generations and passing them on to the next.” It is very similar to the definition of science because the processes are similar (i.e., both science and ethics “extend beyond individual and local paths of inquiry. They are something cultures and civilizations do.”)In the framework, science is defined as the “continuous flow of disciplined inquiry paths across many different specific social/cultural settings, groups, individuals and fields of endeavor, all building on, revising and extending the accumulated knowledge, methods of previous generations and passing them on to the next.” (Map 81.2)
11By conduct standards, I just mean the ‘rules’ that guide behaviour – all behaviour, not just the behaviour that we often associate with ethics.
12Ray Anderson is drawing on a metaphor developed by Daniel Quinn. The clip is from the film The Corporation.
13Ronald Wright, A Short History of Progress, p. 8
14Jared Diamond and others have attempted to do this very thing and the patterns are fairly clear. Unfortunately, we haven’t done much to build that intelligence into our culture and conduct systems.
Elizabeth Dozois has been engaged with the Human Venture Institute since 2004. She works as a consultant in Calgary and other regions, and has a particular interest in supporting adaptive learning in complex and emergent initiatives.