The Evolution of Individuality

Add New Comment

An Evolutionary View of Individuality

Garry Jacobs

Humanity is in the process of evolving from collective uniformity to increasing individual variation and diversity. This movement has gained impetus from the growing recognition that the overall strength and sustainability of the collective is proportionate to the value it accords to each individual human being and the active support it lends for full development of each individual’s unique, creative potentials. 

The relationship between the individual and the social collective is a crucial determinant of social development. The two are microcosm and macrocosm of one integrated whole which we call Society. The collective initiates social change through the actions of pioneering individuals – thinkers, artists, inventors, explorers, entrepreneurs, innovators – who give expression to the collective’s unrealized aspirations, unformed conceptions and unexpressed initiatives. Formed individuals seek to fulfill higher aspirations, express new conceptions and initiate new actions which are eventually accepted, imitated, organized and assimilated into the subconscious of the collective.

As humanity evolved from its animal ancestors in pre-history, Society emerged as an amorphous mass struggling to consolidate itself into a single viable, integrated entity. Once it succeeded in molding itself into a unified entity, it refused to tolerate divergent behavior among its members which might jeopardize that integrity. Even harmless attempts at variation were prohibited. Thus, gradually the collective emerged with a unified identity. 

Beyond this stage of assured survival of the social collective, development of the society throughout history was subconscious, by which I mean it occurred by sporadic, spontaneous and uncontrolled variation rather than by the concerted and coordinated effort of the social collective. Survival being the main objective, once it was assured, other activities were allowed to emerge and spread within strict limits but without conscious direction by the collective. 

During this latter phase, the accumulated subconscious experience of society leads to the acquisition of collective knowledge, but it remains unnoticed or unformulated and is not made conscious or explicit by the collective until it becomes conscious knowledge and is given conscious expression by one or a few members of the collective, such as the visionary individuals who first conceived and gave expression to the idea of a United States of America or the CERN scientist who gave expression to the potentials for a global information system based on hypertext, i.e. the Internet. Neither of these events sprang out of nowhere. Both were being prepared for by the cumulative collective experience, but realization of their potential required them to be given expression by a conscious representative of that collective. 

When society reaches the requisite stage of maturity, it waits for a representative member to emerge as a pioneer. If the collective is sufficiently prepared, society supports the pioneer’s initiative. The military leader, entrepreneur, social innovator are some expressions of this principle. Should the individual emerge ahead of his time, society ignores, resists or crushes him. The emergence of several pioneers helps the society convert its subconscious knowledge into a conscious possession. 

The pioneer, leader, entrepreneur, genius and all its other versions are various expressions of a common principle, the Individual who consciously embodies in himself all that the society has developed subconsciously. Each does it in his own unique way, formulating his thoughts as a strategy for action, but carrying with it in its substratum the substantial strength of the social collective from which the original inspiration has emerged. Such a thought-strategy has the potential to express itself in terms relevant to each specific field. As a TV broadcast reaches a wide audience, the actions of a representative pioneering individual ripple outwards to reach the whole society. 

Europe rebelled against the stifling social structure of the Middle Ages to develop Mind and mental individuality of thought in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom, but it was not able to fully translate the mental freedom into action because of the pressure for social conformity to religious, class and political structures. The ideas born in Europe took root and sprouted in the New World where a vast unsettled territory, the absence of established tradition and formal social structures made it possible for new ideas to express freely in innovative activities. Thus, individuality of thought born of intellectual freedom in Europe evolved into individuality of action born of physical freedom in America.     

The evolution of individuality remains incomplete. At the level of society, convention and conformity stifle individual freedom and creativity. Scientists hesitate to express ideas that have been rejected by their peers. Political leaders eschew new ideas in catering to the unenlightened and misguided self-interest of the electorate. Detroit’s carmakers compete to produce the car of yesterday for the world of tomorrow. The need today is for individuality of social action with the creative capacity to fashion more positive human relationships. It can be aided by mental individuals who give voice to the ideas that will guide social development in the future, such as the abolition of nuclear weapons, the end of competitive security paradigms, democratization of the UN, global action on the environment, global financial management, and establishment of world government. 

Click Here to Download the Presentation

Excessive Individualism

This topic is important enough to demand a very thorough scholarly and scientific scrutiny.

The virtue of individuality as a philosophy of human value is something few of us would question. That is one thing.

        However, there is another aspect to cultivating individuality: the need for balance and responsibility. For the smooth functioning of a democratic society, extreme individuality has clear disadvantages. One consequence of extreme individuality that we have seen recently is the spread of rampant narcissism and selfishness, which are antithetical to democracy, freedom of communication, and fiscal sanity.

        Another serious danger of carrying a philosophy of individuality to extremes, which has been evident in Western society in recent years, is the promotion of corporations to the status of persons, making collective organizations into virtual individuals that provide a firewall protecting directors and shareholders from liability for their own actions and decisions; this is inherently and dangerously anti-democratic and subversive of personal rights and freedoms, and of "individuality" in its best sense. This is one area where a really clear definition would help: where are the boundaries that describe the theoretical limits of "individuality?"

        Rights go with responsibilities, and surely education must balance these to be effective. I have seen very little balance in our educational system during the last 20 years in this regard. We have drifted way to the libertarian right, far from the more balanced attitudes that led to the UN Declaration, among other things. The Zuckerbergs of the world are not something to emulate; on the contrary, they are pathological cases driven by an absolutely crazy level of selfish ambition. They may serve the corporate agenda very well, but they do not capture the ideals they were talking about in the UN Declaration.

        I would like to see the WAAS emphasize the need to balance rights and responsibilities in both education and governing, and especially in re-examining the definition of corporations as individual persons. It could do us a great service if it could do so effectively.

Merlin Donald
Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario

Re: Excessive Individualism

I fully concur with your concern regarding the dangers and damage done by the blind pursuit of egoistic self-interest widely prevalent as a philosophy and practice. Nothing said during the seminar was intended to impart virtue to the pursuit of egoistic self-interest as endorsed by libertarian philosophies. Not all development of individuality is of this type. For the sake of clarity, I tried to distinguish this form of rugged individualism from the process of individuation which gives rise to socially responsible, creative members of society. The contradiction is not between conformity and non-conformity but between egoistic self-interest and the rightful development of the individual in a manner that is supportive of the development of society at large.

It may well be that this issue becomes clearer if we conceive of these as different stages in the process by which people develop and evolve as human beings. Then egoism would appear as a deviation from healthy growth of individuality, perhaps an inevitable stage that immature societies must pass through in their effort to discover the enormous potential of the human being. For millennia the collective emphasized the overall welfare of the group and suppressed non-conformity and originality. Today it still does so, but to a far lesser extent. Certainly the achievements of society over the past few centuries are related to the greater freedom given for individual development and self-expression. No doubt also the problems and excesses we witness today are equally a result of freedom taken to an extreme. I fully concur that we need to understand the right balance between individual freedom and restraint. At one stage that restraint must necessarily be imposed from outside. But at further stages of individuation, it may become increasingly internalized in the value systems of the person. Law, governance and education are important stages and contributing factors. The question is whether and to what extent we can move beyond individualism to become an individuated society. Many people feel that they already qualify for that nomenclature as self-directed, value-driven individuals, but doubt that others are capable of the same maturity, values and idealism. Then the real challenge would be to find a way to promote development of self-actualized individuality. Another good question to explore.

Garry Jacobs

Indiv: Definition, Measurement & its role in Social Evolution

I am a field biologist and tend to have a somewhat different perspective, and therefore the meeting raised a lot of questions. I would like to share some of them with you:

  1. What is the phenomenon? How can it be measured? How can we say there is more of it now than before? In some countries more than in others? Would it be dependent on how we measure it (cultural bias)? Would it have to be corrected for population size?
  2. Has human evolution favored (or suppressed) the development of people that do not conform to the group? It may well be argued that during most of human history having groups with few dissenters was selected for. A group of 100 people hunting in the savanna with 80 independent creative, non-conforming people may not have been viable. Have outliers always been a difficulty societies had to deal with and exceptionally they would have brought net benefits to the collective?
  3. Is it possible that this praise for individuality is only a phenomenon of modern western market economy societies with strong governance?
  4. Would current societies be better-off with higher percentages of “individuals”? More governance?

I will be looking forwards to the outcomes of the Montenegro meeting and perhaps to some of the questions you raised in my mind.

Dr. Eduardo Fuentes Q

Consultor Biodiversidad & Desarrollo

Reply to Eduardo

Thanks to Eduardo for raising very relevant and interesting questions regarding Individuality from the perspective of biology. Many of these issues merit in depth exploration in Montenegro, but I would like to give a preliminary response here to stimulate further discussion. First, I would like to summarize basic concepts for those who may have missed the web-seminar:


  1. What is Individuality? This challenging question addresses the fact that there are multiple related, overlapping, distinct and ambiguous conceptions of individuality which need to be considered in formulating answers to Eduardo’s questions.


a. Individual: First, we may take Individual to refer to all single human beings as distinct, particular people. Promoting individuality, here, means trying to enhance the underlying basis of fundamental first and second generation human rights relating to peace, freedom, political participation, economic opportunity, social equality and cultural self-affirmation, which Winston Nagan addressed in his presentation. This is to approach the individual generically as a member of a group and to emphasize access and protection to those rights by all members of the group. It raises the question: To what extent does society recognize the fundamental rights of each citizen, person, or subgroup regardless of  merit or achievements?

 b. Individualism: Second, we may regard the term individual as referring to the social philosophy that arose during and after the Italian Renaissance in reaction to the oppressive constrictions imposed by feudalism and religion. This view emphasizes the right of each person to pursue their own self-interest unobstructed by interference from others, except in the measure their actions tread on the freedom of others to do the same. This conception focuses on the objective rights of each person to act freely for his own self-interest. This is the form of the issue which raises greatest concern, since it seems to justify extreme forms of egoistic, selfish pursuit that may be at the expense of the collective and detrimental to society as a whole. It is also the usual justification for libertarian philosophies that condemn all interference in the affairs of the individual or in regulation of the market. Assuming each person must rely on his own capacity for survival and advancement, then human capital formation becomes of central importance here as a means to equip all persons with the knowledge and skills needed for independence and self-reliance, as Ivo Šlaus stressed in his presentation.

 c. Individuation: Finally, the term Individuality may be used to refer to advanced stages of personality development in which originality, creativity and uniqueness become dominate personality traits, rather than mere conformity to social pressure. This conception emphasizes the subjective development of human personality more than objective rights, freedoms, and opportunities. Individuation may be defined as the stage in which the person acquires both the capacity for individual high achievement and the propensity to contribute to the growth and development of society. The principle characteristics of individuated person were summarized in my web presentation. This tendency has been variously referred by psychologists in terms such as self-actualized, self-realized individuals. Jung, Maslow, Rogers and others distinguish and contrast this state of individuation with the state of egoistic self-interest associated with individualism. It represents an ideal toward which individuals mature and humanity may be very gradually evolving.

The topic of this project encompasses the entire spectrum of these concepts and the resultant issues, including fundamental human rights, development of human capital, and factors conducive to the subjective development of psychological maturity. It also raises the question as to whether these three very different concepts are independent or whether they may represent stages in the natural development of humanity from an undifferentiated collective through a stage of egoistic self-assertiveness to a stage of mature individuation in which balance is achieved by the internalization of high values rather than the external compulsions of the social collective.

 2.       How to measure Individuality? This is an excellent question. Obviously first we must agree on which aspect or conception we are referring to. The rights based conception might be best measured in terms of prevalence of human rights in a society, for which numerous measures already exist. A conception stressing human capital might emphasize levels of education. An emphasis on individuation is more problematic because it is the most subjective of the three. It might be indirectly measured by the propensity to artistic creativity, invention, scientific discovery, entrepreneurship, social innovation. In an article in Sustainability which Ivo referred to, we cited efforts of the World Values Survey to measure the prevalence of individualistic values in different societies, which could relate to the presence of both individualism and individuation. Obviously these are crude measures and there is need for much greater research.

3.       Is the concept of Individuality Culturally Biased? Here again, the answer may vary depending on which of the three conceptions listed above we are talking about. Most people will agree that human rights are applicable universally regardless of culture, though the precise interpretation and application may differ widely from country to country. Cultures do differ in the relative importance they give to basic human rights, freedom of expression and action, and encouragement to originality of thought and creative innovation in action. It is not clear to what extent these variations are fundamental or to what extent they reflect stages in the linear development of society or periods in cyclic social processes which pass through periods of greater and lesser emphasis on freedom vs. conformity, individualism vs. conventionality. There is no doubt that the concept of individualism as freedom for rampant self-pursuit rose and gained supremacy in the West as a reaction to the extreme conformity constraints on freedom of thought and beliefs imposed by the Church during the early Middle Ages, but that may only represent a stage in transition of the younger Occident to a more mature form of social system. The stereotyped notion that individuality is an invention of the West and foreign to Asia may be true of a particular period or to a particular extent in any given period, but seems less valid today than it may have 30 years ago before democracy, higher education and prosperity became more universally prevalent. In any case this issue certainly merits further exploration. It may be more useful to examine different societies during periods in which they underwent the greatest positive development, such as Greece during the Hellenic Age, and Renaissance Italy to see the extent to which that advancement was the produce of greater freedom or active encouragement for the flowering of individuality.

4.       Conformity and Dissent: As a biologist, Eduardo is fully aware of the important role played by genetic diversity and mutant genes in the survival and evolution of species. The same principle is true of society and social evolution. Biologically, genetic changes occur incrementally and impact only a tiny portion of the genome at a time. Massive sudden changes in the genome would likely result in death of the organism or severely reduce its capacity to survive and compete. Individuality in society  may function in a similar manner. The creative individual acts like a mutant gene testing out new possibilities – new ideas, inventions, attitudes, values, social organizations, ways of life. Often the innovation fails or is violently rejected or suppressed by the collective, occasionally it leads to a strong adaptive advantage and spreads rapidly through the wider population. Deviations that are too extreme may endanger the authority, cohesiveness, and integrity of the social collective and are either rejected or may lead to the collapse of the collective. Creative deviations that enhance the capacity for survival, creativity, production, etc. strengthen the society and add to its robustness.

An increasing number of creative individuals would increase the likelihood of rapid social evolution, just as increasing number of engineers and scientists supported by higher investment in scientific research increase the likelihood of new discoveries and technological advances. Just now societies all over the world are mostly composed of conforming individuals.  Those that refuse to conform represent a very tiny minority – but a minority that has always been essential for the development of the collective. Both Steve Jobs and Bill Gates were college drop outs! The parallels and differences between biological and social evolution also merit further exploration. What would be the impact of substantially increasing the size and capacity of this creative minority? Is there a way to do it? 

Evolution of Individuality

The differences between individuality and conformity in social organization may not be all that clearcut. While these may appear mutually exclusive issues, a mix of both has contributed to human survival and evolution under very differing conditions. Understanding the conditions requiring more of individuality or conformity / cohesion, or the appropriate mix of both,  may be important for future evolutionary success since humans are extremely adaptable.

Any form of governance / leadership needs to carefully balance the demands for individuality against conformity / cohesion for the common good. What are ther trade-offs under what selection pressures between the two? While it may be quite easy to superficially identify instances where one or other has succeeded, the reality is often more complex, even when we look at cases of personalities like Galileo and Darwin whose discoveries had immediate social consequences. We will always have individuals like Ramanuja whose theoretical insights / discoveries are far ahead of their time. The process of science and technology for enterprise and development seems to demand a social 'environment' promoting individuality at the founding phase to capture creative discoveries and innovations, but the successive phase of uptake / 'mainstreaming' of new discoveries and innovations seems to require a different kind of dynamics and individuality since only a very small fraction of doscoveries / innovations are normally successfull and applied.

The emergence of creativity / individuality is a complex psycho-social dynamic / tension field between the individual and society that is not fully understood.Arthur Koestler tried to capture some elements of it.  How does one create a productive dynamic tension field / social 'setting' for the emergence of individuality based on -

a) Leadership styles, empowerment and administrative systems

b) Group size and composition at different levels and scales,

c) Communications and learning dynamics,

d) Capablity and socio-economic opportunity,

e) Peer recognition and participation, representation and accountability,

f) Group cohesion vs  proximity,

g) Division / Complementarity vs uniformity / similarity of endowments and labour,

h) Permeability in relation to other entities and syntality / integration of the immediate group  and partnerships in terms of 'security' / 'survival' concerns?

Author : JFurtado