Sunday, February 1, 2015

The Lucifer Principle - Review

I suppose I should review The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom if for no other reason than the sheer coincidence that I happened to be reading it at the same time as the Charlie Hebdo massacre.

Why does one thing have to do with the other? I saw this book in a bookstore and browsed a few pages. It looked like an interesting as a book on popular science and evolution, so I got a copy from the library. The first few parts of the book were at least interesting, if a little harsh. But it ties in with the Hebdo massacre because the final third of the book is one of the most extremist right-wing reactionary screeds masquerading as science that you will ever read. It's as if Dick Cheney had taken over and ghostwritten the last third of the book. And a significant part of it takes on Bloom's  enemies list: Communists, the medical establishment (Bloom suffers from Chronic pain syndrome), rock music critics (Bloom worked as a rock music promoter), but most emphatically the Islamic religion, which he describes in vivid, elaborate detail as a "barbaric" creed of murderers, thugs and fanatics bent obsessively on eliminating basic human rights, slaughtering it's enemies, and taking over the entire world.

See why it's relevant? If you're wondering what that has to do with science, you're not alone. So was I. And that's only the beginning of Bloom's radical ideology.

First, let's describe what the Lucifer Principle is. It's actually a series of interlocking ideas that Bloom claims explains the presence of what we usually refer to as 'evil' in the world. Bloom himself provides a convenient summary in the introduction. I have added excerpts from other parts of the book after each of the relevant points:
    Five simple concepts help explain these human currents. Each section of this book concentrates on one of those ideas and its sometimes startling implications. Together, these concepts are the foundation underlying the Lucifer Principle:   
 Concept number one: the principle of self-organizing systems—replicators—bits of structure that function as minifactories, assembling raw materials, then churning out intricate products. These natural assembly units (genes are one example) crank out their goods so cheaply that the end results are appallingly expendable. Among those expendable products are you and me. 
       The waste of life that created the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the triumphs of the Vikings, and the conquests of the behind it lie the same primordial principles that drive the annual swarming of the ants—the superorganism's urge to expand. And Nature's addiction to playing dice with the bones of animals and men.  
    By gambling with its males, a primitive society learns. It is led by the men who win—those who seem best adapted to the challenges of the moment. These leaders spread their ideas and their ways of doing things—their memes. The not-so-primitive Alexander the Great planted the exalted philosophies of Greece from Persia and Egypt to Afghanistan by slaughtering vast hordes of enemy males on the field of battle. Alexander's massacres are fact.  
Concept number two: the superorganism. We are not the rugged individuals we would like to be. We are, instead, disposable parts of a being much larger than ourselves.  
     Another creature enlisted in a superorganism is the citizen of a society called the sponge. To you and me, a sponge is quite clearly a single clump of squeezable stuff. But that singularity is an illusion. Take a living sponge, run it through a sieve into a bucket, and the sponge breaks up into a muddy liquid that clouds the water into which it falls. That cloud is a mob of self-sufficient cells, wrenched from their comfortably settled life between familiar neighbors and set adrift in a chaotic world. Each of those cells has theoretically got everything it takes to handle life on its own; but something inside the newly liberated sponge cell tells it, "You either live    in a group or you cannot live at all." The microbeasts search frantically for their old companions, then labor to reconstruct the social system that bound them together. Within a few hours, the water in your bucket grows clear, and sitting at the bottom is a complete, reconstituted sponge.   
Like the sponge cells and the slime mold amoebas, you and I are parts of a vast population whose pooled efforts move some larger creature on its path through life. Like the sponge cells, we cannot live in total separation from the human clump. We are components of a superorganism. p. 59
Concept number three: the meme, a self-replicating cluster of ideas. Thanks to a handful of biological tricks, these visions become the glue that holds together civilizations, giving each culture its distinctive shape, making some intolerant of dissent and others open to diversity. They are the tools with which we unlock the forces of nature. Our visions bestow the dream of peace, but they also turn us into killers.    
 Concept number four: the neural net. The group mind whose eccentric mode of operation manipulates our emotions and turns us into components of a massive learning machine.      
   No individual confronts his environment alone. None of us wanders the woods in solitude, killing our food with weapons we alone have invented and made. When you're out of work because of an economic depression, the depression is something over which you have no personal control. Like the bee, the best you can do is rush from one fellow denizen of the society to another, swapping information and hoping for salvation from other human beings. You can curry favor with your former boss, or call all your contacts for another job. Your crisis is a reminder of your dependence on others. An economic depression is a paroxysm in a human network, a network that produces food 1,500 miles from you, the food that will someday sit on your table. Humans you have never met, tucked in a distant comer of a sprawling economic web, craft your furniture and build your house. You do only the small part a bee does in the corridors of her hive. It is the social system, the superorganism, that performs the task of facing down a hostile nature. 
Concept number five: the pecking order. The naturalist who discovered this dominance hierarchy in a Norwegian farmyard called it the key to despotism. Pecking orders exist among men, monkeys, wasps, and even nations. They help explain why the danger of barbarians is real and why the assumptions of our foreign policies are often wrong.
Bloom's conclusion is the first hint at the explicitly political screed that forms the final part of the book (emphasis mine):
Five simple ideas. Yet the insights they yield are amazingly rich. They reveal why doctors are not always as powerful as they seem, but  why we are compelled to believe in them nonetheless. They explain how Hinduism, the religion of ultimate peace, grew from the greed of a tribe of bloodthirsty killers and why nature disposes of men far more casually than women. They shed light on America's decline, and the dangers that lie ahead of us. Above all, they illuminate a mystery that has eternally eluded man: the root of the evil that haunts our lives. For within these five small ideas we will pursue, there lurks a force that rules us.
Much of Bloom's description in the book is made up of anecdotes and scientific studies, and his writing is compelling and his stories are often informative. He uses numerous examples from history, such as Livia's elimination of nearly everyone in between her son Tiberius and the emperorship vacated by Augustus, familiar to anyone who has seen I Claudius, which by another strange coincidence I happened to be watching at the same time I was reading the book. In Bloom's view, this proves that women are every bit as violent as men when it comes to propagating their genes.

In fact, Bloom's view of nature is not only violent, but ultra-violent and dripping with blood in a vividness that would make even Steven Pinker queasy. Bloom heartily embraces the "killer ape" ideas of human sociability, as well as the "Nature, red in tooth and claw," model of the world. One of the chapters in the book is even entitled, I kid you not, "Nature, the Bloody Bitch." In Bloom's view, men and women (and children) are every bit as vicious as the most primitive beast, forever scheming to claw their way to the top of the hierarchy by any means necessary including--and especially--violence. He subscribes heavily to the ultra-Darwinian indifferent cold-heated brutality of nature depicted in Dawkin's The Selfish Gene:
    The generative power of the genetic process helps explain why we are so appallingly expendable in the eyes of an indifferent cosmos. Our prehistoric cousin the Neanderthal was a clever contraption. Numerous anthropologists believe the Neanderthal was capable of philosophy, religion, and language. Unfortunately, once Homo sapiens evolved, Neanderthals became an obsolete scrap on the garbage pile of history.  
    Women encourage killers. They do it by falling in love with warriors and heroes. Men know it and respond with enthusiasm. The Crusaders marched off to war with ladies' favors in their helmets. They were not setting out on some mission of gallant gentleness. On their way through Asia Minor, the Crusaders literally roasted Christian babies in cases of mistaken identity. Because the local folk did not speak a language they understood, the chivalrous knights assumed the panicky babblers were heathens. Heathens, of course, deserved no mercy. So the heroes sliced up the adults and baked the infants on spits, all the while thinking of how the damsels back home would admire their bravery.'
Once humans coalesce in large enough groups, they form a "superoganism" with the sum totality of minds crating a neural net to communicate. Borrowing again from Dawkins, he describes the meme as an idea that spreads through much like a genes, and that certain successful memes out-compete others and take over a society. Societies with powerful memes, in turn, outcompete other societies in the same process of unrelenting, eternal vicious remorseless competition. He uses examples such as Christianity and Communism to make his point:
    The new replicator, the meme, is a vast upward step on the ladder of creation. The old genetic system could take ten thousand years to effect a product improvement in a large and complex beast,  but memes can rearrange sprawling networks of outrageously intricate creatures in only a few centuries or less. The meme of Chiristianity restructured the Roman Empire a mere three hundred years after Jesus completed his Sermon on the Mount. Similarly, Marxism radically altered the shape of Russian society a startling sixty years after Karl the cantankerous ambled out of the British Museum's library with the final manuscript of Das Kapital tucked tightly under his arm. The meme has done its work by assembling massive social systems, the new rulers of this earth. Together, the meme and the human superorganism have become the universe's latest device for creating fresh forms of order. They are the newest innovation in a climb toward complexity that started with the big bang.
He points out that human groups often use an enemy to create internal cohesion, and that leaders are selected for the pressures of the moment using Fidel Castro and Oliver Cromwell as examples.
And finally, he rather clumsily introduces the idea of a pecking order, which we are all familiar with. In Bloom's mind however, it is not just individuals who are subject to the pecking order but entire nations, and it is this that leads him into the extreme politics of the last part of the book, in which he claims that any country not on the way up is on the way down and about to be overrun by barbarians at the gate. Barbarians, by the way, is Bloom's term not mine, and one of the later sections of the book is entitled "Who Are The New Barbarians?" As I mentioned above, his chief target (since Communism had collapsed by this time) is the entire Islamic world (emphasis mine):
    The lesson: Never forget the pecking order's surprises. Today's superpower is tomorrow's conquered state. Yesterday's overlooked mob is often the ruler of tomorrow. Never underestimate the third world.  Never be complacent about barbarians. 
    Some readers will be outraged by my presumption. How dare I categorize any group as barbaric. What appalling ethnocentrism! There are no barbarians. There are simply cultures we haven't taken the time to understand. Cultures to whom we haven't given sufficient aid. Cultures in need of development. Beneath the skin, all men and women are the same. They have the same needs, the same emotions, and the same ideals. If you simply took those folks you speak of so contemptuously out for a cup of coffee, you would discover that they are just like you and me.  
    But there are barbarians—people whose cultures glorify the act of murder and elevate violence to a holy deed. These cultures portray the extinction of other human beings as a validation of manliness, a heroic gesture in the name of truth, or simply a good way to get ahead in the world.  
    Certain Islamic societies tend to be high on this list...Hafez al-Assad, current leader of Syria, worked hard to solidify his position as the country's undisputed ruler. He didn't do it by selling Syria's citizens on the values of his political platform. Instead, he slaughtered twenty thousand Moslem fundamentalists who opposed him. Holiness, righteousness, and even day-to-day propriety in Islamic cultures are based on the example of Mohammed. Islamic literature praises Mohammed as a man of peace, he was also a military leader. In A.D. 624, the Prophet announced the concept of the jihad—the holy war. He said in the blessed book, the Koran, "I will instil terror into the hearts of the unbelievers: smite ye above their necks and smite all their finger-tips off them. . . . And slay them wherever ye catch them. ..." In the next nine years, the man of peace ordered a minimum of twenty seven military campaigns. He personally led nine of them. 
 It is not surprising that Moslem jurists would later declare that there are two worlds: the world of Islam, Dar al-Islam, and the non-Islamic world, Dar al-Harb. These two territorial spheres, explained the Moslem scholars, are in a state of perpetual war. According to some Koranic interpreters, any leader who fails to "make wide slaughter" in the land of the infidel is committing a sin. A statesman is allowed the temporary expedient of peace only if his forces are not yet strong enough to win.  This may explain why Elias Canetti, in his Nobel Prize-winning book Crowds and Power, calls Islam a killer religion, literally "a Religion of War."
If that doesn't give you the flavor of his opinions, than this might:
'Islam will . . . take over the world," said an Egyptian in Cairo in     the late eighties to a crew from Britain's Granada TV. No isolated, gray-haired zealot, he was one of a new breed of young university graduates,  members of the middle class, and professionals, often among the highest     achievers in their region. These religious devotees do not have a happy fate in store for those of us in the West. Explained the young Egyptian, 'Islam is a tree that feeds on blood and grows on severed limbs. (p. 229) 
[...]
    Allah is rapidly providing Khomeini s followers with a sword to     carry out their master's wishes. He has offered Islam the fire in which the  Koran says those who follow false faiths are destined to burn: nuclear  weaponry. He has also provided the long-range missiles needed to use  it.' According to the late imam's logic, there may be only one just and righteous thing to do: employ this technology to wipe out recalcitrant     heathens like you and me. The modern growth of Islam is the coalescence of a superorganism  drawn together by the magnetic attraction of a meme. But this meme has an advantage: The social body it is trying to pull together has existed as a  unified social beast in the past. The old reflexes of solidarity are still there, waiting to be aroused. The meme of the new Islam is not laboring to generate a small and fragile embryo. It is simply attempting to awaken a sleeping giant.  
    The Islamic world today does not see us as respecting human life. It views Westerners—and Americans in particular—as the ultimate destructive force, the civilization that indulged in two world wars and  capped that carnage with the creation of the atomic bomb. In the minds of  Moslems, only believers in Islam are true champions of peace and justice.  To Moslems, we are the people whose hands are perpetually stained with blood. Like most of us, Moslems see only their better side. And like us, they imagine that their darker impulses do not really exist. Instead, they feel that the urge to destroy and conquer belongs only to their enemy. That's how the Moslem world justifies our imminent conquest and how the Moslem superorganism excuses its hunger.
This goes on for pages and pages and pages of this ostensibly "scientific book" In Bloom's fevered view this "Clash of Civilizations" is just a bitter and brutal as the Darwinian struggle for existence, and there is only one rule - kill or be killed:
    It is important that the societies which cherish pluralism survive. It is critical that they spread their values. It is vital that they not mistakenly imagine all other societies to be equal and their own to be inferior. It is imperative that they not allow their position in the pecking order of nations to slip and that they not cave in to the onrush of barbarians. (p. 238)
And if you hold to liberal notions of peace or justice, well in Bloom's view your are just begging to be selected against on the slaughter bench of history by a more ruthless foe:
    But what about freedom, justice, and equality? Isn't the goal to put all nations on an equal footing? Isn't that what peace should be about? An equality of nations will never exist in our lifetime. Why? Because peace, freedom, and justice are deceptive concepts. Hidden beneath their surface are the instincts of the pecking order.  
    The barnyard chickens studied by naturalist Schjelderup-Ebbe had     heir periods of peace, but they never had equality. No matter how quiet  things were, there was always a dominant bird, and there was always  some unfortunate chicken trampled to the bottom of the social ladder. This state of things is not restricted to fowl down on the farm. Chimpanzees, baboons, and apes—the animal relatives with whom we share the greatest number of social instincts—are all prisoners of deep-rooted hierarchical drives. Apparently, so are we. When we preach the ideals of freedom, peace, and justice, our intentions are less than honest.   
     Peace is another word abused by those with hidden pecking order  goals. It usually means, "Since I'm on top, let's keep the status quo"; or, "Now that I've managed to climb on your back, would you please be kind  enough to sit still."  Justice is the term used by those on the bottom of the heap who  are itching to move up. When these folks refer to "the struggle for justice," they generally mean, "Let's keep fighting until I come out on top.'' Once the devotees of justice have seated themselves on the uppermost rung of  the ladder, they too almost invariably become staunch defenders of peace.  Stripped of their moral disguises, the slogans of freedom, peace, and justice are often weapons that those attempting to achieve hierarchical superiority use to stuff the rest of us into the lower ranks of the pecking order.
Oh, and you want to withdraw from the world and think the peace dividend will somehow bring peace and prosperity, Bloom has some harsh words for you, too:
    There's yet another flaw behind our belief that by eliminating hunger and  elevating the income of the third world, peace will descend upon the  earth, and that by eradicating starvation and poverty at home, we will cause muggings and murders to melt away. History indicates a rising standard of living and a bigger plate of food may be the very catalysts that  unleash a storm of violence!   [...]
    Like the spadefoot toad, human cultures in periods of hopelessness  go into dormant passivity. The untouchables in India seldom attempted to overthrow the system that held them in miserable subjugation. They were resigned to their lot.  
    But give a social group a jolt of resources, and suddenly it is infused with energy, optimism, and restlessness. Servants may feel ready to grab the knife with which they have been cutting the meat for the master and put it to the master's throat. Nations that have been wallowing passively in the slough of despond look for an opponent to bash in the hope of gaining fresh territory. The Arabs, for example, stayed dormant until oil wealth hit them in the early seventies; then their terrorists assaulted the West. Their murderous exuberance was the product of a chemical cocktail, a biological potion dosed with testosterone.  
    The lesson is simple. Defeat makes superorganisms sleepy. So does poverty. But a military win or a shower of new wealth rouses social energies, inspiring the pecking order instincts to lift their contentious heads. And when a society is aroused, watch out.
That's right, he uses the spadefoot toad to back up his argument that prosperity makes societies more violent. And societies exhibit the exact same behavior as individuals. These types of bizarre cherry-picking analogies and specious reasoning are used generously throughout the book.

And the barbarians at the gates are forever just waiting for the chance to sink their razor-sharp teeth into our soft, weak, quivering, vulnerable flesh and slake their unquenchable thirst for the blood of us and our children. We dare not be disunited. We dare not criticize our leaders. We dare not be complacent or let our guard down, not even for an instant!:
    Like the citizens of Constantine's capital, we would rather fight each other than acknowledge a simple reality: that there are people in the outside world who relish the opportunity to destroy us. Our 1980s antinuclear movements were not directed at makers of atomic bombs in Pakistan, Iran, Iraq, or North Korea, just at those in Washington. Our protesters against American meddling in El Salvador or Nicaragua didn't care about the deaths of millions in Cambodia, the murder of twenty thousand in Syria, or genocide in black Africa. They focused their attention solely on American misdeeds.
Not only is America complacent, but it is "weak" and "soft" giving our numerous enemies encouragement and strength just like the chimpanzee who sees an opening to tear apart the alpha male and propagate his genes. Not only that, but harder-working and competitive Asians are eating our lunch! (the book was written in 1995):
       The ennui that struck the writer of Ecclesiastes can erode and defeat  entire civilizations. It is doing that to ours. In 1921, British author G. K. Chesterton traveled the United States by train. He noted that Americans   were obsessed with discussing their work while Englishmen talked only about their leisure." That may be one reason America was thriving while  England was on the wane. Today, thanks to the popular misunderstanding  of stress, it is we who chatter for hours about sports, fishing, or meditation. It is we who are slipping.
    The Japanese know what we have forgotten: that work and challenge are the keys to a vigorous life. They have kept have the essence of  two American buzzwords that disappeared from our vocabulary in early sixties: American ingenuity and American workmanship. The Japanese out-study and out-work us. Midlevel Japanese executives start the business day at nine a.m. and are frequently still at their desks by eight at     night, usually putting in six days a week. Many of them even volunteer to  work straight through their annual vacations." Contrary to a spate of  news stories about "working to death" that appeared in the newspapers  of Tokyo and the U.S. in 1993, the "salary man's" dedication seldom  maims him with 'stress.'' Far from it. The Japanese spend a staggering 66  percent less on medical care per unit of population than we do, yet they     consistently outlive us!
If I seem to be exaggerating Bloom's rhetoric, I sure I am not even coming close the mouth-frothing, spittle-flecked, wattle-quivering reactionary tirade that spews forth from page after page after page of this right-wing screed dressed up as some sort of "scientific" work. The above should give you some example of Bloom's commitment to "science" - his claim that Japanese longevity and low medical expenditures are somehow caused by brutal overwork (and not diet or genetics or socialized medicine). Embarrassingly for Bloom's hypothesis, the Japanese now have a shrinking birth rate, a stagnant economy for over twenty years, their men are disparaged as 'herbivores' (what would Bloom make of that? ) and yet still live longer than anyone else!

This gives you some idea of how much respect Bloom has for science. He cherry-picks stories and anecdotes and weaves them into a grand overarching narrative of good versus evil. Bloom's concept of superoganism means that all Muslims are everywhere are a unified undifferentiated mass intent on taking over the world and destroying us. Every action is either a tactic to move up the pecking order or keep other people down. Because we are part of a superorganism, we are all collectively guilty of whatever the organism does. His anthropomorphism leads him to see entire societies as merely chickens in a barnyard. And his right-wing ideas ironically feed into an almost overwhelming totalitarian collectivism where individual life is cheap and each of us are as expendable as a single cell in a stomach lining that is shed by the millions every single day. It is our duty to sacrifice for the collective.

The last section of the book (after "Who Are The New Barbarians") is entitled "The Rise and Fall of the American Empire." Bloom's prescription is pure Project For A New American Century - forget wooly-eyed notions of peace, justice, disarmament, accommodation appeasement, prosperity, leisure, and so on, and embrace vigorous competition at every level - long, brutal hours at the office, economic growth, and military expansionism to make sure our life-affirming values are not destroyed by the dark, barbarous hordes of heathen Islamists braying for our blood.We may end up suffering the same fate as the spadefoot toad or the barnyard chicken. In his view, Rome did not fall to the barbarians because of military expansionism, out-of-touch, greedy elites, civil wars, natural resource depletion and so forth, but because it became weak and complacent when attacked by barbarians - it's citizens preferred comfort and leisure to unremitting war and competition, unlike the tough, hard barbarians.

It seems obvious to say it, but Bloom is most likely insane. His beliefs are indistinguishable from those of Adolf Hitler in the 1930's--Lebensraum, the "superoganism" called the Volk, corporate collectivism, industrial expansion, a clash of civilizations rhetoric, an almost mystical anthroporphism of nations as individuals subject to lethargy and weakness (after Spengler), robust militarism, Stakhanovite work ethics, portrayal of outgroups (Muslims vs. Jews) as shadowy inhumans threatening our way of life, etc., etc.

 The Lucifer Principle has some interesting science in it's concepts of the gene, meme, superoganism and pecking order (none of which are original). These do tend to explain a lot of what we call evil - clawing your way up the ladder, murder, jealousy, fighting for resources, hatred of out-groups, etc. But it's up to you if you want to stomach the reactionary politics that permeates the book. Bloom argues that he wants to change the way you look at the world, and TLP is a good example how right-wing pseudoscience can leads to the kind of extreme radicalism and warmongering we see on a good portion of the right-wing today (Neoreactionaries, et al..).

2 comments:

  1. Yikes. Another propaganda screed for the psychopath-memes. Fraid Bloom is just a convenient monkey for these memes to ride...

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  2. Wow! Bloom does sound like a "crazy right wing" zealot! Only one one problem with your review and analysis....he was right. In the 20 years since this book was published, pretty much every concept he wrote about and every social concept he discussed, has played out exactly as his theories would have predicted. Your politics are clear and your inability to recognize the shortcomings in liberalism (and the concept of social justice born in the failed idealisms of communism and socialism) prevent you and others from objectively looking at the best dataset ever created....history. I could understand your review if you wrote it 20 years ago, but now, in 2015? With the hindsight of 20 years of data that has confirmed his theories? Maybe you should not call this author crazy and take a hard look at your objectivity.

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