A book by Howard Bloom< read all 1 reviews
This is a selective but often chillingly familiar guided tour through human history. Bloom cleverly and casually crosses fields of study, sometimes metaphorically and sometimes making literal comparisons, and often being unclear as to which he intends. The result is an intriguing mixture of science, historical interpretation, and science fiction. The flavor is distinctly Darwinian, but with a twist.
"The Lucifer Principle" itself is a simple acknowledgement that in the natural world we take the bad with the good, often as the flip side of the good. The same forces that promote cooperation also promote barbarity.
Bloom starts out with a vivid presentation of the Darwinian vision emphasizing the competition of vehicles for the benefit of their replicators, the "selfish gene" theme at its most lurid. "Survival of the fittest" has its way. At that point, Bloom introduces the twist. He proposes something that sociologists latched on to, but which most evolutionary theorists of recent years have avoided like the plague. He raises the spectre of the "superorganism."
The superorganism was once a popular theme of old structuralist anthropologists like Claude Levi-Strauss, who saw society as a complex machine driven with the help of a common cognitive structure of individuals in terms of certain themes. Bloom's superorganism is a much more ambiguous blob, held together by "memes" which hook into our primitive drives.
The structuralists mostly saw the superorganism from the top-down, attempting to find patterns in culture that revealed its nature. Bloom instead derives the superorganism from the bottom-up by showing how people who share culture tend to form alliances. The alliances take on the direction given by the "memes" which exploit biological drives.
The idea that groups of organisms can share a fate so closely that they live or die as a unit is something that evolutionary theorists backed off from because it seemed that the genetic self-interest of organisms would nearly always tend to overpower any tendency for traits to arise "for the good of the group." We might end up with traits that help us exploit living in groups, which Matt Ridley calls "groupishness" in contrast to
"selfishness," but it is still genetic self-interest.
Bloom departs from this mainstream view by making the argument that mechanisms for suicide have evolved for both cells (apoptosis, programmed cell death) and individual self-destruction. These same things are explained in very different terms in mainstream evolutionary biology, as either artifacts of adaptations, or adaptations for one set of conditions that become maladaptive in other circumstances.
Evolutionary theorists tend to avoid seeing self-destruction as adaptive. The common theme, Bloom points out, is loss of connectivity with the group. When neurons can't hook up during the wiring of a nervous system, they commit hara-kiri. When humans can't hook up with each other, Bloom theorizes, they also tend to go off and remove themselves from the gene pool. An intriguing possibility that make a new interpretation of "learned helplessness" and "stress" research. This is perhaps Bloom's most interesting and potentially fruitful idea. Bloom builds much better technically on the group selection aspects of his thinking in "The Global Brain."
In "The Lucifer Principle," he just introduces the idea of the superorganism and applies it to various selected historical events.
It is in explaining how individuals can be wired to self-destruct, that the concept of group selection is raised, entirely without fanfare. The diseases we attribute to "stress" Bloom says are nothing of the kind, but diseases of disconnection from the superorganism.
The adaptive benefit would have to be to the superorganism rather than to the genes of the individual in order for Bloom's argument to work. He doesn't mention how controversial this idea is in the book, probably avoided for rhetorical purposes.
Bloom is an entertaining writer who uses the most dramatic examples he can find to make his points well. If there is a general weakness in his writing, it is that he often avoids confronting how exceptional some of his ideas are.
The Lucifer Principle uses alternating chapters cleverly to introduce fundamental biological themes like dominance hierarchies and recent extensions like memes, and at the same time bring in Bloom's "superorganism" and apply those themes in a novel way to groups rather than individuals. So we frequently end up with huge groups of human beings compared dramatically in their behavior to individual animals. We have superorganisms vying for their place in the pecking order, having a collective shift in perception, becoming bullies when they are frustrated. All illustrated with selective and sometimes idiosyncratic historical accounts.
All in all, it works very well as narrative, and introduces some novel ideas that could have profound implications. If Bloom is right about "superorganisms" leveraging human primitive drives through bits of culture, the result doesn't look good for our species. There is certainly a lot of food for thought here, especially if Blooms sometimes radical caricatures are taken for their larger lessons rather than as gospel.
Bloom is particularly hard on Islam, not as people but as a culture, both for the success of its spread and the historical brutality of its adherents. He makes the distinction
between extremists and the rest of us, to avoid stereotyping Muslims as violent fanatics, but also points out that it is the extremists than often end up driving the bus. Bloom also uses the "meme" concept very casually, and sometimes in conflicting ways, in order to simplify his explanation of culture and build on his main theme of superorganisms climbing the pecking order.
An anxiety-provoking and well-narrated book that I hope gets a lot of things wrong, but I fear might be all too accurate. He certainly pulls together and makes sense of an amazing diversity of ideas.
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