BENSOZIA/HISTORY

Thoughts, Ideas, Observations


Howard Bloom, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History. New York: Grove/Atlantic, 1995.

Reviewed by John Bedell

According to the back cover, The Lucifer Principle is “an act of astonishing intellectual courage.” Cynics always see themselves that way. They believe that by attacking our civil myths and polite conventions, they are doing something brave and bold, something that will earn them enemies and should therefore be praised by everyone who values the truth. Yawn. After Nietzsche, after Freud, after the World Wars and the atomic bomb, there is nothing easier than cynicism. In our world, attacking sacred cows is nothing but intellectual cow tipping.

The author of this particular cynical rant, Howard Bloom, is a sound engineer who has managed to teach himself a lot about science and history. His main title, The Lucifer Principle, clues you in that he thinks evil is an important part of things. The subtitle,  A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History, tells you his general approach. He will use science to show that what really happens in history is not what you, the unscientific, gullible stooge, think happens. The main science involved is evolutionary biology, although we are also treated to digressions on neural networks, entropy, the big bang, and other matters. In some ways The Lucifer Principle is an impressive book. Bloom is smart, he writes clearly, and he has a vast store of examples concerning everything from slime molds to Chinese emperors that illustrate his arguments. He is also completely wrong about a great many things.

As an evolutionary thinker, Bloom emphasizes group selection. Conventional evolutionary theory asserts that evolution works at the levels of the gene and the organism. According to this view, cooperation only evolves among related organisms that share a lot of genes, because there is no mechanism by which evolution can encourage unrelated organisms to sacrifice for each other. The most extreme forms of cooperation, such as ant colonies, evolve among groups in which all of the members are full siblings. Bloom is dismissive of these caveats, and his notes show that there are numerous academic biologists who share his interest in group competition. To Bloom, and those he cites, groups of organisms compete against other groups and the winners gain an evolutionary advantage. Therefore, genes which lead to group loyalty convey an advantage. He sees human history as an evolutionary struggle in which groups battle each other for supremacy. To drive home the point that human tribes have much in common with ant colonies, Bloom refers to them as “superorganisms.” “Superorganism” is a word used to describe animal colonies that behave like single organisms, such as ant or termite colonies and the Portuguese Man-O-War. To Bloom, tribes, nations, and even neighborhood gangs are superorganisms, and by their nature they struggle against each other.

Bloom is also fascinated by the notions of dominance and the pecking order, and he spends many pages explaining the social dynamics of chickens, Rhesus monkeys, chimpanzees, rats, and other social animals. It is one of the key discoveries of modern zoology that in the herds, flocks, prides, and troops of social mammals and birds a clear hierarchy develops. Some animals are dominant, others subordinate. The dominant animals routinely bully the others, who have a whole vocabulary of submissive gestures by which they try to deflect the wrath of their overlords. The dominant animals eat better and live longer. In some species you can tell just by looking which animals are dominant:

Where you end up on the pecking order can even change your physical makeup. A dominant male monkey has a higher sperm count, more visible testicles, and a far more regal posture. The monkeys who don’t make it to the top skulk around stoop-shouldered and less sexually potent. But if some meddling researcher kidnaps the ruling simian and leaves his kingly spot vacant, the round-shouldered subordinates will grab for the empty throne. The monkey who ends up on top will undergo a change. His testicles will drop, his sperm count will climb, and his hunched posture will melt away, replaced by an authoritative upright strut. The new king of the castle undergoes a biological transformation simply because he’s moved up the hierarchical ladder. For a monkey’s physiology, position in the pecking order is everything. (197)

The evolutionary point of dominance is the control of mating. Dominant male lions, horses, rhesus monkeys and rats monopolize the females, driving away any lesser males who try to get close. Dominant female wolves and hyenas prohibit lesser females from breeding, and if one does manage to get pregnant the dominant female may drive her out of the group, kill her, or kill her young. The winners in the struggle for power get the ultimate prize, reproductive success.

To Bloom, human history can be explained as the working out of these simple principles: people, like monkeys and lions, struggle for dominance within their groups, and groups struggle for dominance with other groups. Those individuals that become leaders, and those groups that conquer others, leave more offspring. So the genes that lead to success in these struggles become more and more widespread. Of course, people have big brains and spend a lot more time theorizing than other species. Bloom deals with our intellectual activity by assuming that most of it is just a cloak for other motives.

Peace, freedom and justice are deceptive concepts. Hidden beneath their surface are the instincts of the pecking order.... 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.” (265)

Fidel Castro makes several appearances, with the observation that although he espoused the doctrine of socialist equality during his revolution, he ended up living like a king. 

Other ideas spread because they help maintain group solidarity. This explains the success of religions such as Judaism and Islam. These beliefs gave their followers courage, and their dietary regulations and other rituals helped them maintain their distinctiveness. Marxism likewise thrived because Lenin was able to use it to bind together his followers in their struggle for power in Russia:

Humans grab at ideas because ideas knit them together in groups of people who agree with them. They provide the comfort of companionship and mutual aid. (178)

To Bloom, what is most widely condemned in human nature is most natural. We naturally lie, cheat, steal, maim and kill in pursuit of dominance for ourselves and our tribes. Philosophical protestations about peace and justice are just clever smokescreens for violent struggle. The world is a tough place, and we are tough customers:

At its heart, the Lucifer Principle looks something like this: The nature scientists uncover has crafted our viler impulses into us: in fact, these impulses are a part of the process she used to create. Lucifer is the dark side of cosmic fecundity, the cutting lade of the sculptor’s knife. Nature does not abhor evil; she embraces it. She uses it to build. With it, she moves the human world to greater heights of organization, intricacy, and power. (2)

I bought this book because I have also considered writing about how evolutionary biology plays out in human history. For me the interesting and frustrating thing about The Lucifer Principle is that in considering some of the same questions that interest me, and starting from some of the same assumptions, Bloom manages to be so thoroughly and completely wrong about so much. Like him, I believe that violence is fundamental to the creativity of the universe. I believe that both war and murder are parts of our evolutionary heritage. I am quite certain that protestations of higher purpose sometimes cloak base motives. I agree that much of human history comes down to a struggle for dominance, and that tyranny is as natural to us as freedom.

To me, though, the most important thing about human history is not how much of it can be explained as evolutionary struggle, but how little of it can be. Are you, at this moment, struggling for dominance within our society, or fighting to help us dominate our neighbors? No? Neither am I. But if those are the most important things, the only things that really matter, why aren’t we? Could it be that they really aren’t the most important things at all? Or, at least, that they have to compete for attention with other goals that we sometimes find more compelling? One question I have about all cynics of this ilk concerns the power of the ideas they think are merely window dressing for power struggles. If notions like peace and justice are merely tools that the ambitious use to manipulate their followers, why do the tools work? Why, in other words, do people find these ideas compelling? Nor, as Bloom would have it, are revolutionaries always people excluded from power by the system they seek to overthrow. The aristocratic revolutionary is almost a cliché. Any serious approach to history has to recognize that sometimes ideas matter very much, and that sometimes people do things greatly against their own interests and of no obvious benefit to their tribes.

Not only is Bloom wrong, as I will explain, he is wrong in ways that I think are deeply pernicious. First, he confirms the stereotype of evolutionary thought that makes so many religious believers fulminate against Darwinism. Ask an American young earther why he or she rejects evolution, and you will probably be told that evolution is immoral. Actually it is not, but when people like Bloom say it is, they feed the anti-intellectualism that is such a cancer in our society. Second, Bloom uses his evolutionary analysis to support a militaristic approach to foreign policy. As far as he is concerned, nations are superorganisms that by their nature struggle for dominance, and the worst mistake we can make is to forget that our rivals want to destroy us. He spends several chapters mocking disarmament, foreign aid, diplomacy, and any other instrument of policy other than a big stick. If we are at peace, he says, it is only because those who hate us lack the power to challenge us, and as soon as they do they will make war on us. Arabs and Muslim fundamentalists come in for particular abuse here, as people whose societies encourage violence and who will never be satisfied until we are defeated:

In a world where some cultures elevate violence to a virtue, the dream of peace can be fatal. It can make us forget that our enemies are real and can blind us to the dark imperatives of the superorganismic pecking order. (244)

Now, really; the superorganismic pecking order? Memo to Howard Bloom: ant colonies do not form dominance hierarchies. When they fight each other, they fight to the death. The losing colony is exterminated. So far as I know, neither sponges nor Portuguese Man-O-War nor anything else that biologists recognize as a superorganism forms pecking orders. While I’m at it, I would like to make another point which ought to be unnecessary but somehow needs to be said anyway: humans are not ants. Here’s a little thought experiment for you: name two animal species that are less alike than humans and ants. It isn’t easy. We are, for starters, about a million times bigger than they are. Ants are arthropods, we are vertebrates, and our last common ancestor was some Precambrian worm. Ants are members of the peculiar order Hymenoptera, in which the males have only half a set of chromosomes. And so on. Nonetheless, people who ought to know better seem fascinated by the alleged points of comparison, all of which dissolve on close examination. Take, say, slavemaking. We take slaves, ants take slaves, so we’re the same right? No. Certain ant species take slaves from certain other species, both masters and slaves having evolved over hundreds of thousands of years for precisely these roles. Once captured, the slave ants all do the same chores in the same way. The whole process is genetically controlled to a very high degree, modulated through chemical signals. It is nothing like human slavery, or any other human institution.

The folly of calling human groups superorganisms shows up pretty clearly in Bloom’s own analysis of contemporary politics. Who is our enemy in the Middle East? Is it Arabs, fundamentalists, or some other group? Is Osama bin Laden’s superorganism Saudi Arabia, al Qaeda, Muslim fundamentalists, or whatever tribe is sheltering him in Waziristan? Sometimes a particular group of people will form a strong solidarity and fight with great determination against another group, the way the Germans fought the Russians in World War II. Much more often, though, human conflicts are partial, parti-time, and motivated as much by personal quests for glory as by tribal rivalries. Bloom also makes much of economic rivalries, using the same language of rival superorganisms. He goes through the standard routine about how Japan is displacing us at the top of the pecking order (this was 1995) because the Japanese work harder, study harder, and so on, which I think is a ludicrous way to view the world economy. Countries don’t compete economically, companies do. At the moment the Toyota superorganism is kicking the superorganismic butts of the American car companies, but on the other hand Microsoft and Google are cleaning the superorganismic clocks of their Japanese competitors, and what this has to do with my well being is a mystery to me.

One reason our group loyalties are weaker than those of ants is that people belong simultaneously to many different groups, and they feel different degrees of loyalty to all of them. I am white, an American, a Westerner, a Democrat, a nerd, a scientific rationalist, a historian, a Marylander, and an employee of the Louis Berger Group. In some of those roles I compete against the members of other groups – al Qaeda, Republicans, fundamentalists, other engineering firms. I suppose Bloom would say that the American identity is fundamental, since it is the only one I might end up going to war over, but honestly it doesn’t feel that way to me. I have much more invested in being a part of my family, and a practitioner of the western intellectual tradition. Any serious analysis of our group behavior must take account of our divided loyalties, which Bloom completely ignores. While I’m on the subject of the groups I belong to, I should point out that I am not doing much to rise to the top of the pecking order in any of them. If someone tried to make me the CEO of my company, I would resign on the spot. I am actually a little anxious that my boss might one day make good on one of his periodic threats to retire, forcing me to take a step up the pecking order into a job I would find a lot less fun than the one I have now. And although I occasionally fantasize about being a Congressman or Senator, I know that I would actually hate it, so it is just as well that I have no chance of getting elected to anything. I do, I suppose, make regular efforts to become a bit more successful as an intellectual, but as much because I enjoy it as because I want to climb up the heap.

We should not, though, repeat Bloom’s mistakes of paying too much attention to conflict in history and not enough attention to other factors. We actually have an amazing ability to cooperate, even across lines of tribe and nation. Think how many people all over the world contribute to building a jetliner, from tungsten miners in Zaire to Wall Street financiers. And if we are such conniving, calculating creatures, why is it that we regularly things to help those who have no way of helping us in return? Greed may be universal, but so is charity.

Another thing that bothers me about Bloom’s book is that although he claims to be interested in human evolution, he ignores the ways in which we continue to evolve. Bloom devotes a lot of attention to war but none to disease, and over the past 10,000 years disease has killed far more people than war. Disease and our resistance to it play huge parts in history. Europeans conquered both North America and central Africa, but the demographic results were very different. In North America, where the natives were devastated by European diseases, the invaders now form the vast majority. In central Africa, where the Europeans fell victim to native diseases, they have left hardly any descendants. In South America and South Africa, where the balance in disease resistance was more even, the invaders left many descendants but the native are still the majority. In the Caribbean, the natives succumbed to invasive disease but their place was not taken by the conquerors. It was the conquerors’ African slaves, better adapted to tropical conditions than their masters, whose descendants now dominate. A historical model like Bloom’s, which sees only violent competition, actually misses the main influence of human genetic variation on the course of events. Demography, the science most relevant to understanding human history, makes no appearance in the book at all.

When he is criticizing individual selection as the sole motor of evolution, Bloom asks a very interesting series of questions about humanity:

If our actions are geared to increasing the odds that our personal genes or those of our near relatives will make it into the next generation, what is the reason for suicide’s existence? And what about the other bits of death-in-life built into the human psyche? Why do humans get depressed? Why do they sometimes feel like crawling off into a corner and dying? There is an answer, but it doesn’t quite square with the notion of genes fighting for themselves no matter what. We are parts of a larger organism and occasionally find ourselves expendable in its interests. (p. 49)

Bloom never explains how his superorganism hypothesis accounts for depression and suicide. I, however, am happy to offer an answer to all of his questions: because not everything about human nature has an evolutionary role. There is nothing anti-scientific about this explanation. Human beings are astonishingly complex machines, and given the random, noisy, junk-ridden process that is natural selection, all sorts of things pop up that don’t contribute to fitness. When we consider human societies, we increase the complexity by several orders of magnitude, to something far beyond our ability to control or predict. One of the most interesting questions in history is how much the vast societies of the modern world are different from the small tribes within which we evolved, and how that changes us. A city of a million people is something that evolutionary analysis of individual humans cannot predict. Bloom mentions entelechy, a whole that is more than the sum of its parts, but fails to follow up on this insight. He dwells instead on simple experiments like the one in which three male rats and one female are placed in a cage. The biggest male rat becomes dominant, intimidates the other males, and fathers 92% of the  young. (197) Bloom seems to think that this experiment has some relevance to life in a human community, but I think it is relevant precisely and exactly to what happens when you put four rats in a cage. Even wild rat communities are very different from this minimalistic world.

Because Bloom is so completely focused on competition and the pecking order, he fails to deal seriously with the fundamental question: what does this all mean for us in the 21st century? “Keep defense spending high” is a rather pathetic lesson to draw from considering our history in the light of science. I think the scientific underpinnings of history are to be found in demography and psychology. Demography, it seems to me, drives a huge amount of what happens, so a study of the rise and fall of populations is essential. This leads us to birth and death rates, infectious disease and our resistance to it, climate change, food supply and our adaptation to things like a grain based diet and adult milk consumption, and to the question of whether and to what extent conquerors genetically replace those they conquer. These are very complex matters, and at the moment we still have only a very limited understanding of why populations rise and fall.

The second, psychological key is to recognize that what motivates people is not a struggle to dominate our neighbors and leave the most offspring. What we want is to feel good. In mammals, anyway, we feel the pressure of evolution emotionally. We breed to feel the warmth of a family, or the passionate release of sex. We fight to feel the thrill of victory; we compete against others to feel better about ourselves. Bloom spends considerable time on the psychological importance of the pecking order, showing how victory and power feed the confidence of the dominant, and defeat humiliates and debilitates the weak. It is hard to deny that raising our hands in triumph and bowing our heads in defeat are central to human psychology. I certainly think they area. But it is a mistake to assume that this means human happiness is a zero sum game.

Consider money. In our capitalist world, money is one of the most important measures of success, and some people certainly compete hard to get more of it than others have. And there is some value to the quest, since rich people are happier than poor people. However, if you look closely at the studies that document a relationship between happiness and money, you see that most of the effect is at the bottom. Poverty makes people miserable. Once you rise out of bottom fifth or tenth of the population – studies differ here – the relationship between money and happiness is actually rather weak. More money makes you a little happier, but not as much as a lot of other things. A good marriage, for example, counts more than all the money in the world.

Evolutionary psychologists are forever comparing human societies to wolf packs and baboon troops. Even though evolution is, in its essence, about variation and change, they seem to assume that all wolf packs, baboon troops, and human societies are the same and always will be. Actually both wolf packs and baboon troops vary a great deal, and the variety of human societies is enormous. What’s more, over the past few millennia human societies have been changing at an astonishing rate. The point of studying evolution and history together is, it seems to me, to ponder the relationship between the slow change in our genetic make-up and the rapid change in our cultures. What is human nature? How much does it vary between very different societies? And how much does it limit how different the future can be from the past? By assuming that human nature is pretty much the same everywhere, and that, therefore, human societies will always be hierarchical and violent to pretty much the same degree, Howard Bloom and all the other practitioners of we-are-just-monkeys evolutionary reductionism miss that point, and many other points besides.

Does our psychology condemn us to an unending contest in which a few winners get all the glory and happiness and everyone else ends up miserable? I don’t think so. I think that we can design systems in which most people get the respect and resources they need to be reasonably happy. There is nothing particularly remarkable or new about this. Many human tribes have rules designed to make sure that most people get what feels like a fair deal. For example, in many groups things are arranged so that every man gets a wife and every woman gets husband. Many other tribes have systems like our own, in which most of the real deprivation is heaped onto a minority at the bottom. We have tried many different approaches to these problems, and in the past few centuries we have tried a few that seem to me to be radical and new.

In every large human group there are leaders and followers, those with more and those with less. The wisdom of our ancestors was that this had always been and always would be, so there was no point in complaining about it. Even so radical a thinker as Jesus could not imagine a world without the poor. Yet now, in Japan and some parts of Europe, there is almost nothing that Jesus would have recognized as poverty. In Iron Age terms we have a society made up of the somewhat rich, the very rich, and the unimaginably rich. We still have leaders and followers, but the marvelous system we call representative democracy requires that the leaders periodically seek the approval of those they govern. In these systems, the trappings of dominance are reversed, and it is politicians who must act deferentially toward voters. Any display of excessive arrogance is quickly punished. Perhaps it is true, as cynics say, that in reality the people decide very little and the elite still dominates, but I think Bloom is right to emphasize the psychological and symbolic side of dominance. It is the feeling of humiliation and the constant anxiety about bullying that turns low-ranking animals into stoop-shouldered, short-lived wrecks. In representative democracy we have managed to create a system in which the ritual humiliation of ordinary people is dramatically reduced. I don’t want to sound like a crazed optimist. I do believe, as I already wrote, that murder, war, and tyranny are natural to us. But so are peace, friendship, and equality. At different times, among different peoples, one or the other prevails. If we put our big brains to work on these problems, we may, over the course of time, actually find solutions to them.

If my critique of Howard Bloom seems to careen back and forth from science to morality to half-baked comparisons between primitive and modern peoples, I offer the excuse that I am only mirroring his own structure. He also careens around, from monkeys to slime molds to defense spending to revolutionary propaganda. Some of this is inherent in trying to combine data from disparate fields and take up topics usually treated by different disciplines. But much of it stems from the incoherence of Bloom’s position. He is an evolutionist who doesn’t believe in change, and his brain is clotted with nonsense like superorganismic pecking orders. Worse, he has tried to write about history without understanding it. He notices societies that practice polygamy and thinks this means we are like elephant seals or wildebeests. How monogamous societies fit in, he fails to explain. He discovers Fidel Castro and thinks the career of one megalomaniacal revolutionary proves that nobody really believes anything. The richness of human life, with its saints and serial killers, tycoons and beggars, philosophers and drunks, escapes him. He believes he has seen past the surface phenomena of human life and grasped the underlying mechanisms of history. But he has not seen past anything, except in that sense that he has ignored it. Simple theoretical constructs like Bloom’s don’t explain life, they merely misconstrue it. What matters is human life as it is actually lived and experienced, in all its glorious variety, and a theory that ignores most of what we are is not of much use in understanding history.

August 6, 2009

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