THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT Copyright (c) 1995, Landmark Communications, Inc. DATE: Sunday, February 12, 1995 TAG: 9502080525 SECTION: COMMENTARY PAGE: J2 EDITION: FINAL TYPE: Book Review SOURCE: BY JAMES SCHULTZ LENGTH: Medium: 93 lines
THE LUCIFER PRINCIPLE
A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History
The Atlantic Monthly Press. 466 pp. $24.
SAY YOU'VE invited one of your old college chums for a visit. He arrives, stretches out on the sofa with his shoes on, drinks your best liquor and carries on about this subject and that. He's witty, knowledgeable, engaging - for the first hour, at least. Time passes, and he drones on and on, and your liquor bottles empty at an alarming rate.
By the third or fourth hour, you're ready either to strangle him or drop-kick him out the back door. That is, if you in your dazed state can roll him off the sofa.
Author Howard Bloom, retired publicity guru and clinical psychologist, is not about to visit your home any time soon. But invite his book to your bedside table, and you'll probably want to keep the visit brief. Read the first 215 pages, and the conclusion/epilogue, and you've done your job as a hospitable reader.
The problem with The Lucifer Principle lies not in its main premise, that of biological and evolutionary reasons for the existence of what human beings call evil. Bloom is altogether right to suggest that destructive, abusive and murderous tendencies are part of the blueprints of nearly all living beings.
And it is provocative and persuasive to take the argument further, as Bloom does, and suggest that such tendencies become part of and are amplified by what he calls ``superorganisms'' like religions, social groups or nation-states. Like any animal, asserts Bloom, superorganisms will claw and slash their way to control and dominance.
The problem is that Bloom's hypotheses are lashed together with too little science and too much history. He floats his assertions on a thin raft of scientific studies, some better than others. Several of those studies are older than the researchers making news with current findings.
Five concepts anchor Bloom's contentions. The first is that nature is a massive, self-replicating system with huge numbers of expendable parts, such as you and me. The second is that these parts comprise a greater being, a superorganism. Third, that clusters of self-replicating ideas called ``memes'' piggyback on humans and human cultures, competing with one another for survival.
The fourth tenet holds that all human beings are part of a group mind that ``manipulates our emotions and turns us into components of a massive learning machine.'' And finally, says Bloom, from cubicle office-dweller to head of state, we're embedded in a pecking order that biologically and otherwise rewards grabs for power.
Much of what Bloom collects in his book has been written about elsewhere, and more elegantly. There is, in fact, a tentative, if fragile, interdisciplinary consensus emerging among the scientific community that holds that human behavior is far more controlled, unconsciously, by biology than we are prepared to admit.
That doesn't doom individuals to a dronelike existence; people, once aware of external forces, can fight against and overcome them. It does mean that human beings can't necessarily ``think'' a way out of crime or war. We may have to be treated for them, like we are for disease, with medication.
Much of the history in The Lucifer Principle comes in its second half, filtered by bombastic, end-of-century, end-of-millennium angst that agonizes over the collapse of mighty empires and the threat to the world from emerging, would-be imperial upstarts. Imperiled by these lean and mean adolescents, Bloom warns darkly, is none other than an increasingly complacent and pudgy U.S. of A.
A turbocharged, breathless writing style and forays into misogyny hobble Bloom's discussions. One chapter, for example, is titled ``Mother Nature, the Bloody Bitch''; elsewhere, Bloom puts female sexuality on trial for contributing to murder and mayhem. Bloom is also given to such phrases as ``squirming like insects under the Iranian heel'' and ``the footpaths wet with babies' blood.''
Bloom can be optimistic, and is, about the ability of human beings to counter their innate programming. But buried in the last few pages of his epilogue and therefore receiving scant attention or elaboration is a most startling assertion: The more civilized the world becomes, the more the planet and the human animal move away from mass violence.
Out in the hinterlands, where field scientists get their fingernails dirty, a more complex picture of human behavior, interactions and society-building is being collected than the grand portrait presented by Bloom.
Read this book. It is important. But it is not the last word on our animal heritage. MEMO: James Schultz is a staff reporter who writes about science and