The Long View: The Lucifer Principle

Oath of the Horatii

Oath of the Horatii

This is a rare book I read before John recommended it. I think this is a worthy summary.

The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History

by Howard Bloom

The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995
466 pp., $24.00
ISBN 0-87113-532-9

If, like the present reviewer, you are a sucker for theories of history, you could do worse than this Social Darwinist theory-of-everything by Howard Bloom, a writer of popular science and noted PR man. The basic idea is reasonable enough: ideas are subject to much the same kind of survival pressures that genes are. Richard Dawkins, who popularized the notion that living organisms are simply carrying-cases that genes use to preserve and multiply themselves, also suggested that clusters of ideas, which he called "memes," similarly use human brains to survive. Bloom has taken this notion for a spin around the block. Just as genes care little for the fate of individuals and frequently promote behaviors that result in short, violent lives for individuals, so ideas drive people to war, revolution and communal strife in such a way as to promote the ideas' own distribution. The "Lucifer Principle" of the title is the thesis that history has been so bloody because ruthless "natural selection" applies to all levels of life, both the biological and the social.

Theory-of-history buffs know, of course, that one of the charms of this type of literature is the opportunity to watch reasonable-sounding universal principles turn into parodies of themselves as their implications are developed. "The Lucifer Principle" does not disappoint on this score. The book has especially wonderful chapter titles, such as "Oliver Cromwell--The Rodent Instincts Don a Disguise," "Righteous Indignation = Greed for Real Estate," and "Are There Killer Cultures?" It is, of course, perfectly true that ideas often prosper because of their success as social glue rather than because of any intrinsic merit they may have. Still, the fact of the matter is that the chief "survival" tests that ideas must pass are their own internal consistency and their conformance with the empirical world. Bloom sometimes seems to suggest that any idea which is not a matter of immediate sense experience is fictitious, a denizen of "the Invisible World," and so can be judged only with regard to its ability to survive. However, it is perverse to simply assume that abstractions which have spread widely through the world, from the theology of the Trinity to the idea of the number "zero," owe no part of their success to their intrinsic aesthetic properties or to practical utility. To return to the biological analogy, there are indeed genes that survive simply as genes, as biochemical tricks that are played on living organisms. We call such genes "viruses," and we recognize that they are parasitic on real life. Much the same is probably true of ideas.

An interesting feature of the book is the way that memes and their deterministic control over everything seem to have less and less explanatory power as you get to social questions that interest the author. Thus, for instance, the answer to the question "Are There Killer Cultures?" is "yes," and the chief example is Islam. This religion is, it seems, a particularly bloody-minded "meme." It is far more aggressive and cruel than today's Western civilization. Although social interactions are governed by the inhuman struggle of memes to survive, still we are told, with no preamble, that these things are "a matter of degree." The final chapters of the book simply restate the arguments of the "declinists," such as those found in Paul Kennedy's "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers," augmented by a metaphorical interpretation of international relations as a barnyard pecking order. Bloom's policy recommendations sound less like those of a Social Darwinist than of a back-to-basics education reformer.

The author's metaphysical system (which is what his "theory" is) really leaves no perspective from which to criticize nature, "red in tooth and claw." It is therefore not clear why he expresses the hope we might channel our violent tendencies into peaceful pursuits. It would be more logical to argue, like Nietzsche, that the most natural thing to do is overcome our inherited humanitarian prejudices. The fundamental incoherence of the book is not because of some particular flaw in the author's logic, however, but because of the impossibility of what he is trying to do. Historical reductionism simply does not work, whether the universal principle you propose is class conflict, or a Masonic conspiracy, or a covert extraterrestrial breeding program. In the final analysis, the best such theories of history can be is entertaining.

Copyright © 1996 by John J. Reilly

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  The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History By Howard K. Bloom