by Tom Atlee, July 2015
"Co-intelligence" is actually a manifestation of
a more vast and
ubiquitous phenomenon referred to as "holistic intelligence."
When I first coined the term "co-intelligence" in the
early 1990s, I wondered if it might be more accurately called "holistic
intelligence" since it embraced phenomena at the intersection
of intelligence and wholeness. But I found that that term was not
as publicly understandable or appealing, so I stuck with "co-intelligence".
Then in 2015, while working on how to more concisely and usefully
talk about co-intelligence, I realized that the implicit holistic
nature and bias of co-intelligence could fruitfully be viewed as
a manifestation of a more general and universal holistic dynamic
which deserved its own name and exploration. So I have summoned
the term "holistic intelligence" back into service to
embrace that more fundamental phenomenon.
Holistic intelligence can be viewed in many ways. You can think
of it as:
(a) the intelligence of The Whole of Reality (associated with ideas
like "the wisdom of Nature"),
(b) a transcendent Intelligence that shapes reality (associated
with ideas like "Intelligent Design")
- or - in my view most functionally - as
(c) the evolutionary impulses and dynamics used by any and all wholes
to sustain and transform their states of wholeness.
Any or all of these frames can usefully describe what holistic intelligence
is all about.
Holistic intelligence arises from the holistic, interconnected,
and co-creative nature of reality itself, such that events in one
part of reality impact other parts of reality, driving the evolution
of both the parts and the whole. My studies of holistic intelligence
have especially focused on the dynamics that occur as various forms
of wholeness are disrupted by various forms of
disturbance and then return to the former state of wholeness
(e.g., "healing") or progress to a new form of wholeness
I've tried many ways to explain all this, but have not yet settled
on one description. So for the time being I offer you the three
descriptions below to stimulate your own sensibilities about this
phenomenon. Even the occasional repetitions you'll notice in them
may help familiarize you with the subject.
Holistic intelligence involves the evolutionary dynamism that we
find in all domains and at all levels, thanks to the holistic, interrelated
nature of reality.
Co-intelligence - a subset of holistic intelligence - focuses on
the human manifestations of that dynamic, and our conscious
use of it.
An example of this dynamic is the tendency of any living or life-like
system, when disturbed, to seek to reestablish or renew its former
state or to transform itself into something new that has more integrity
or utility under the circumstances. We can observe this tendency
in how forces involved with a disturbed forest, species, person,
mechanism or idea act to reestablish its prior order or to stimulate
a new form to emerge (including the entity's breakdown into components
When we're facing this dynamic in human groups, organizations,
communities, or societies, we find problems, conflicts and dysfunctions
calling forth energies seeking solutions, resolution, organizational
or social change, and so on. In other words, we find some degree
of co-intelligence at work.
In both cases, we are observing impulses for more healthy integrity,
functionality and/or contextual "fitness" - which are
all manifestations of life's wholeness-seeking impulse trying to
regain some variety of wholesomeness after a disturbance.
So holistic intelligence can be considered the intelligence that
characterizes the evolution of any whole, driven by the dynamics
of evolving wholeness.
Studying the general principles of holistic intelligence brings
to light metaphysical and subtle dynamics that underlie many manifestations
of co-intelligence and thus can increase one's mastery of that latter
subject. On the other hand - luckily - you don't have to know anything
at all about holistic intelligence to study and work competently
Wholes move from one state of wholeness, through dissonance, dynamic
tensions and interactive, co-creative processes to other states
of wholeness. This dynamic unfolds at every scale, in every facet
of reality, generating ever-new forms of health and integrity within
things and fit-ness (harmony and balance) among things, which we
experience as the evolving world. This process of iteratively arriving
at new forms of fit-ness and integrity can be viewed as a form of
intelligence at work - albeit all too often functioning without
any individual personal intelligence making it happen.
How is that?
Well, everyone, everything, and the whole of life are constantly
interacting, going through changes and evolving, even when we don't
notice that that's happening.
At any given time, some of those things will be whole, healthy,
or orderly and others will be broken, sick, or chaotic. And all
of them are going through changing phases in which they move from
a more whole state to a less whole state and then to a new (or renewed)
whole state. This happens in healing, in transformation, in learning,
in revitalization, in conflicts and their resolution, and in many
other familiar phenomena - even death and dissolution.
So the wholeness of reality and everything in it is always evolving,
always in process. There's a certain rhythm to that and certain
dynamics involved that can be viewed as creatively intelligent,
in the sense of an ongoing redesign of the way things fit together.
This motion from wholeness to unwholeness to wholeness, etc. -
this intelligence of evolving wholeness that I call "holistic
intelligence" - is governed by factors that can be studied
From this novel perspective, co-intelligence can be seen as humanity's
way of participating more effectively in the ongoing, intrinsic
holistic intelligence of the universe. So the dynamics of co-intelligence
naturally manifest the dynamics of holistic intelligence.
Perhaps a couple of analogies can help clarify this relationship
between co-intelligence and holistic intelligence.
One analogy: Human music can be viewed as a way humanity has of
participating in the ongoing vibrational "symphony" of
the universe. This way of looking at music can be a very inspiring
vision for some people. On the other hand, someone doesn't need
to buy into this vision in order to learn and create music.
Another analogy: Underlying most principles and rules of ethics
and morality is an understanding that our lives are interconnected
and that certain behaviors help or harm our relationships with each
other, with ourselves, and with the larger Life we are part of and
upon which we depend. We can function quite ethically simply by
following ethical principles and moral rules. On the other hand,
the more we understand the nuances of our interconnectedness and
the consequences of our actions, the more intelligently and flexibly
we can apply moral principles and rules, and even behave ethically
where there are no rules or principles to guide us.
Co-intelligence and holistic intelligence are like that. Holistic
intelligence is the metaphysics behind co-intelligence and the dynamics
that underlie its many manifestations. But you don't need to understand
that metaphysics to function in the everyday world. Recognizing,
using and enhancing co-intelligence does not require knowing anything
at all about holistic intelligence and "evolving wholeness".
However, really understanding the dynamics of evolving wholeness
can help you master the dynamics of co-intelligence, see their interplay
more clearly, engage with co-intelligence in novel situations and
apply it more flexibly.
Practical people will tend to want to focus on co-intelligence
and get to work applying its specific principles and methods. More
philosophical people may prefer to explore holistic intelligence
and develop a more intuitive sensibility about its workings and
how they apply to co-intelligence. These two subjects can be studied
and used quite well separately or together.
For more about the varieties of, perspectives on, and dynamics
of wholeness that constitute the "field" of holistic intelligence,
see our main webpage on wholeness
. You can also explore holistic intelligence in the form of "grace"
in Chapter 14 of my book REFECTIONS
ON EVOLUTIONARY ACTIVISM, "Goodness Gracious: Evolutionary
integrity and our engagement with life" and the subsequent
poem "A Powerful Grace". In the first paragraph of Chapter
14 I say "Grace is the impulse of Life and Reality to move
from one state of wholeness to its next state of wholeness."
I also talk about "our participation in Grace - our active,
blessed, and challenging role in the ever-emerging Goodness of Life."
The book is available in free pdf form (as well as a paperback you
can buy) at the book's
Eight principles of holistic intelligence
1. Holistic intelligence is not a characteristic of a person or
group, per se, but of reality itself. However, it shows up naturally
in the web of life as well as within, among, and around all entities,
including people and social units.
2. In specific dissonant situations, holistic intelligence manifests
as the urge or tendency to generate congruence, coherence, fit-ness,
healing, balance, and/or harmony within, among, around, and/or beyond
the entities involved. Wherever we find circumstances becoming more
whole in ways like these, we know that holistic intelligence is
3. The creation of congruence, coherence, fitness, harmony, healing,
balance and other forms of wholeness in one part of reality usually
generates some form of disturbance in another part of reality, whereupon
holistic intelligence is evoked in that realm as well. This process
is ongoing and drives evolution. (Note: Co-intelligence
involves, in part, an effort to understand this aspect of situations
and to play a conscious role in minimizing and/or
using well any disturbances that might be created. Thus its close
kinship with conscious evolution.)
4. Holistic intelligence - as well as its human manifestation,
co-intelligence - deals with any disturbance by seeking new or renewed
wholeness. This can manifest within the situation or system being
considered - e.g., through healing or transformation. It also operates
at higher and/or lower scales, such as when an entity dies and its
components are distributed at a lower scale of the system it occupied,
to be utilized by other entities in ways that sustain their health
and the health of the system that includes all such entities.
5. Holistic intelligence intrinsically involves everything and
everyone connected to a situation to the extent they are related
to that situation. Since all such entities are involved in the co-creation
and co-evolution of the situation in the first place, they almost
always continue to participate (albeit seldom very consciously)
in the unfolding dynamics of holistic intelligence in that situation.
(This is the principle underlying the effort in co-intelligence
work to take into account all possibly relevant factors and to consciously
and productively engage a full spectrum of the people and perspectives
involved in the whole situation or collective activity - moderated
by a humble, alert, and continuing awareness that "there's
more to this than we have yet understood"....)
6. The wholeness of reality is characterized by all the ways everything
fits into a coherent whole. The wholeness-seeking dynamics that
are evoked in the presence of disturbance make even disturbances
part of the overall wholesome (wholeness-serving) dynamics that
characterize holistic intelligence. Through the dynamics of disturbance
and renewed wholeness in and among entities, the structure of the
"fit" that characterizes the whole of reality (or any
of its parts) evolves. This quality of whole systems can properly
be described as "evolving wholeness".
7. The different kinds of wholeness vary independently. For example,
completeness, health, environmental fit, wisdom, coherence, etc.,
can each be present when some of the others are not, or at least
not be present to the same extent or in the same way. In any case,
per Principle 4 above, any sub-optimum aspects of wholeness in a
situation will generate disturbances that evoke energies to recover
or produce wholeness in that dimension of that situation. Reality
continually tells us what we need to pay attention to in order to
participate in the wholeness-generating enterprise of holistic intelligence.
8. Holistic intelligence can be viewed - in a way that includes
and transcends all these dynamics - as the intelligence of The Whole
of Reality or as a transcendent Intelligence that shapes reality.
However, within the field of co-intelligence, holistic
intelligence is most usefully viewed through the dynamics given
above - the way dissonance evokes wholeness-nurturing impulses
that operate within, through, and among the particular entities
or systems involved. In this way these evolving entities and
systems manifest the intelligence of The Whole of Reality, whether
anyone is aware of it or not
 "A WHOLE",
in this context, can be a whole community, ecosystem, idea,
situation, world, or any other complex living or life-like thing
that goes through disturbances, changes and challenges whereby it
then heals, transforms, or usefully dissolves into another whole
at a comparable or different level or scale (e.g., when it dies).
 When we speak of "WHOLENESS",
we are referring to factors that make a whole a whole - or qualities
through which we can understand and engage productively with the
holistic nature of reality. Usually the term wholeness is used to
indicate one or more of the following:
- qualities used to define the nature of a whole (e.g., completeness,
integrity, health, harmony, unity/diversity...);
- qualities, dynamics, or phenomena that manifest some aspect
of the holistic nature of reality (e.g., interconnectedness,
cybernetic feedback, the butterfly effect, emergence...);
- resources - often available by investing more attention than
energy - that exist because of the holistic nature of reality
(e.g., resonance, life energy, synergy [the whole is
greater than the sum of its parts] and holergy [a "part"
is greater than its role in any whole]...) and thus can be tapped
by evocation, facilitation and/or wise design;
- factors which need to be taken into account or engaged when
seeking to create a new whole or to make an existing situation
more complete and harmonious (e.g., inclusion, co-creative
participation, context, tolerance of uncertainty...);
- characteristics of natural/naturally evolved whole systems (e.g.,
self-organization, fractals, evolving "fit", aliveness,
- qualities associated with holistic physics, metaphysics and
spirituality (e.g., interiority, non-duality, non-locality,
field effects, holographics [the whole contained within the
- characteristics associated with people who deal well with these
other factors (e.g., wise, humble, trusting, catalytic, broad-minded...).
can be dissent, dissonance, problems, damage, issues, illness,
crisis, conflict, trouble, pain, interference, harm, degradation,
suffering, upset, chaos, irritation, and any other type of unsettledness.
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