The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom

The Lucifer Principle is a term invented by the author of this volume for a complex theory that pulls together a wealth of information from anthropology, biology, psychology, history, and other fields of study. In summary, it is the idea that what we often call “evil” is actually nature in competition with itself, as a means toward greater complexity and betterment. In the theory of evolution, it is understood that organisms which are better adapted to survive will survive, and part of this survival incorporates conflict with other organisms. Evolution weeds out that which loses the battle. So, conflict (or evil) is the driving force of betterment.

This principle applies not only to such tiny elements as genes, but also, Bloom believes, to memes (or ideas). As genes replicate, so do memes. Take the Islamic or Christian belief systems, for instance. They spread in the minds of the populace by each follower serving the meme and propagating it to others. Bloom takes a long look at the intricaties of the mind, carefully examining what makes us tick, and he comes up with the idea that each person can be thought of as a single cell in a giant invisible organism: the social superorganism. Wars are more than just men versus men; they are superorganisms in conflict. And the outcome of such conflicts? The better meme lives on while the poorer dies (or at least retreats to insignificance).

The concept of the superorganism is the cornerstone of the book, which is unfortunate because I personally don’t see it as anything more than a fanciful metaphor. Bloom gives the impression that superorganisms are real in a very physical sense, just as concrete as biological life. Maybe I’m picking the author up wrong, but if a human being is a cell in a larger organism, it doesn’t make sense to say I’m a cell in a metaphor. Humans have always had a tendency to compose myths for what they struggle to understand, such as ancient pagans inventing Thor to account for lightning. Perhaps Bloom is doing the same with his superorganism theory, but I think “organism” is a poor choice of word for a relevant myth because in all other contexts organism refers to something that is actually alive.

Even though I’m not really on board with the backbone of this book, this is still an engrossing and informative read. The Lucifer Principle is a treasure-trove of anecdotes from the natural world and from history. Even if you disagree with the entirety of Bloom’s theory, it is possible to gain a great deal by simply reading these examples and pitting their implicatations against your own beliefs. For instance, I’ve often heard it argued in religious circles that man is different from the rest of the animal kingdom by virtue of his inhumanity to his own species, hence he needs “saved from sin.” The fallacy of this argument is glaringly shown in The Lucifer Principle with numerous examples of how one animal species goes to war against its own kind, from rats to chimpanzees. And mankind’s own brutality is painted in vivid colours, with numerous examples from history. Bloom is courageous enough to simply describe us as we are, without censorship or apology, and he doesn’t suggest any pretentious answers as to how we might overcome the appalling things about own natures that we strive to transcend.

The Lucifer Principle was written over a period of some twelve years. It’s about 450 pages long, and uniquely the final quarter of the volume is taken up by chapter notes, with the book itself truly ending on page 331. Recommended reading for anyone who wishes to rattle their illusions about life. Not for those who wish to cling to religious pipedreams (or should I say failing memes?).

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