The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism
By Howard K. Bloom
Prometheus Books (November 24, 2009)
Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind
By Howard K. Bloom
Wiley (September 2001)
The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History
By Howard K. Bloom
Atlantic Monthly Press (March 13, 1997)
On June 22 the great scholar and classicist Victor Davis Hanson spoke at the Wednesday Morning Club in Los Angeles to promote his new book The Father of Us All.
Among the numerous points he made that day at the Four Seasons two in particular leapt out, as they cut to the core of our political and cultural conflicts today:
The operative word in both of these critical formulations – philosophical pivots that divide us so deeply and illicit such ferocious debate – is nature. We disagree about the nature of humanity. And it’s from this question that all of our political disagreements emerge. Those who acknowledge that war is the natural order and that humans are flawed will fall on the Right. And those with the opposite understandings will find themselves on the Left.
But how can this be? Why is there seemingly so much debate on these questions of nature yet none over the fact that a dropped pen will fall to earth, that a sperm and egg create a zygote, and that liquid water lowered to 32 degrees Fahrenheit will freeze?
Why do we not consider our own human nature and behavior as just one more scientific question?
Enter Howard K. Bloom, author of the new mindblower The Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism and the previous addictive, paradigm-smashers Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind (2001) and The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (1997.)
The central thesis that runs across Bloom’s work is this: we humans are to be understood as just one more component – the most advanced so far – in the evolutionary process. And just as dissecting a fetal pig in biology class can teach us about our own anatomy, considering the behaviors of organisms going back to the origin of life (and even back further to when we were originally just space dust) can provide critical insights into who we are as people, why we do what we do, and what’s in store for us as our evolution continues.
In his first book Bloom lays out the first of his key arguments:
“The Lucifer Principle contends that ‘evil’ is a by-product of nature’s strategies for creation and is woven into our most basic biological fabric. This argument echoes a very old one. St. Paul proposed it when he put forth the doctrine of original sin. Thomas Hobbes resurrected it when he called the lot of man brutish and nasty. Anthropologist Raymond Dart brought it to the fore again when he interpreted fossil remains in Africa as evidence that man is a killer ape. Old as it is, the concept has often had revolutionary implications.”
Bloom presents evidence from throughout the animal kingdom that humans are not the only species to make war:
“Organized battle is not restricted to humans. Ants make war and either massacre or enslave a rival swarm. Cichlid fish gang up and attack outsiders. Myxobacteria form “wolf packs” that corner and dismember prey. Groups of lizards pick on a formerly regal member of the clan who has become disfigured by the loss of his tail. Female bees chase an overaged queen through the corridors of the hive and lunge, biting over and over until she is dead. And even rival ‘super coalitions’ of a half-dozen male dolphins fight like street gangs, often inflicting serious injuries. Ants do not watch television. Fish seldom go to the movies. Myxobacteria, lizards, dolphins and bees have not been ‘programmed’ by Western culture.”
But why has Mother Nature built us this way? Why are we built for violence and conflict instead of peace and coexistence? In his second book, Global Brain, Bloom argues that evolution is not just an individual process. Throughout nature we can find organisms that are more concerned with the survival of their respective group or tribe than just merely passing along their own genes. These self-sacrificing individuals of course manifest in Mother Nature’s methods of creation:
“Pit one socially networked, problem-solving web against another – a constant occurrence in nature and the one which most successfully takes advantage of complex adaptive system rules, that which is the most powerful cooperative learning contraption, will almost always win.”
In Global Brain Bloom explains the different elements that nature utilizes to evolve groups:
“The five elements of the complex adaptive system are conformity enforcers, diversity generators, inner-judges, resource shifters, and intergroup tournaments.”
Within groups (and even within cells and individual organisms) you find all these elements which work to evolve. You have those who maintain adaptations that work (conformity enforcers,) those who experiment and come up with new techniques to adapt to new situations (diversity generators,) you have those who analyze our contributions and reward us when we produce value and punish us when are a detriment (inner-judges,) those who move resources where they’re most needed for survival (resource shifters) and finally inter-group tournaments which range from “baseball games and corporate competition to terrorist raids and nuclear confrontation, face-offs which force each collective intelligence, each group brain to churn out innovations for the fun of winning or for sheer survival’s sake.”
Competition and conflict force our advancement more than anything else. And so Genius of the Beast is a logical next step. In his most recent book Bloom takes his science-centric perspective to new ends: defending Western civilization and the “beast” that fuels us, capitalism. (For Bloom’s analysis of the force most threatening us check out this excerpt about Islam from Lucifer Principle.)
Bloom has the single most compelling, original explanation I’ve encountered for the great economic crash of 2008. Tweaking the economists who thought the crash could be contained, Bloom writes,
“Why did economics prove so useless? Why was monetary policy so helpless to stop the downslide?
Because economic crashes are not the fault of bad guys. They are not the result of obscure things like credit instruments and subprime mortgages gone hog wild. They are built into our biology. They are driven by a mass emotional engine. A mass perceptual engine. A search engine with which the cosmos feels out her possibilities. Booms and crashes are driven by a breakthrough generator-a transcendence engine.
What is a transcendence engine? It’s a mechanism that takes the ephemeral and turns it into hard and fast reality. In the inanimate universe a transcendence engine takes what’s imminent from nothingness into the realm of being. Among humans, a transcendence engine turns the whisperings of the spirit-visions and imaginings into everyday things, into commodities. A transcendence engine is a secular mechanism that does the job often credited to a divinity.
Booms and crashes make you and me the agents of an evolutionary engine-a thoroughly secular engine-that does something only gods were once thought to do. The act of creation.”
Then, much as he put war in the context of biology, Bloom does the same for capitalism and the boom and bust cycle that we seem damned to forever repeat:
“Boom and bust cycles are not unique to human beings. They arose when life itself began 3.85 billion years ago. They showed themselves among our first ancestors, bacteria. Then they reappeared in every other beast that lived in flocks, swarms, colonies, crowds, and herds. Why? Because boom and bust-the cycle of good times and depressions-performs a vital function for a society. That purpose? Exploration, consolidation, and repurposing-using something old in a very new way. Learning, thinking, and creating. Functioning as an evolutionary search engine that does something only the gods were once thought to do. Functioning as an evolutionary search engine that brings new creations into being.”
Yes, capitalism too is natural. Love it or hate it, it’s as innate to us as our need to reproduce. And we can either condemn it – and thus reject ourselves (which is what leftism is at its heart) – or embrace it and thrive. Throughout further chapters in Genius of the Beast Bloom lays out the case for how capitalism and Western Civilization has advanced the quality of human life more than any other force we’ve known: “Every religion promises to raise the poor and the oppressed. Every religion-including Marxism-promises to feed the hungry and to uplift the downtrodden. No religion that I know of has ever paid off on its promise. But a nonreligion, a pluralist system-the Western system-has.” (A point echoed by Walter Williams last week in these pages when he explained how the poor in our society today have luxuries surpassing what the wealthy a hundred years ago could imagine.)
But all this is really only scratching the surface with Bloom’s books. I’ve isolated but a single strand in an intricately woven blanket for the brain. Bloom’s mind goes all over the place in his three tomes. He incorporates biology, anthropology, physics, history, economics, religion and philosophy, popular culture, and also personal memoir. And each read allows for new connections to be made. Bloom’s background is a whole other bizarre tale unlike any other science or nonfiction author:
“After graduating magna cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from New York University, Bloom turned down four graduate fellowships and embarked on a 20-year-long urban anthropology expedition to penetrate what he calls “society’s myth-making machinery”–the inner sanctums of politics and the media. During his foray into “the dark underbelly of mass emotion” he edited a magazine which won two National Academy of Poets prizes, founded the leading avant-garde art studio on the East Coast, was featured on the cover of Art Direction Magazine, then gave up listening to Beethoven, Bartok, and Mozart to become editor of a rock magazine. Using correlational studies, focus groups, empirical surveys, ethnographic expeditions into suburban teen subcultures, and other scientific techniques, Bloom more than doubled the publication’s sales, and was credited by Rolling Stones’ Chet Flippo with having founded a new genre–the heavy metal magazine. Seeking still further ways to infiltrate modernity’s mass mind, Bloom formed a public relations firm in the music and film industry and won the confidence of those whose territory he’d invaded. The payoff in knowledge proved invaluable.
Bloom worked with Michael Jackson, Prince, John Cougar Mellencamp, Kiss, Queen, Bette Midler, Billy Joel, Joan Jett, Diana Ross, Simon & Garfunkel, The Talking Heads, AC/DC, Billy Idol, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Run D.M.C., Simply Red, and the heads of many a media conglomerate. He was adept at spotting new subcultures, entering them, and helping their members achieve their goals…a skill which gave him an inside role in the rise of rap, disco, and punk rock.”
This entertainment-oriented background manifests in Bloom’s vibrant prose style. He writes more like my most exciting bloggers at NewsReal Blog – interweaving colorful language, metaphors, a sometimes casual voice, and artistic references – rather than a dry science author. With this combination of lively writing and groundbreaking ideas his books become addictive. As soon as I finished Beast my initial impulse was to just start at the beginning and read it again. The only reason I didn’t is because Lucifer Principle and Global Brain awaited. (But once I finished Global Brain I returned to the beginning of Beast again.)
Hanson’s dictums about war and human nature are entirely correct – but they are tragic and cannot win over America to defend itself. If we embrace them but dig deeper to their true root then we can unmask the natural forces that truly drive us. And in revealing them – and celebrating them – we can electrify a people to understand themselves and their potential for evolution. The path to a greater world lies not in the delusions of “progressive” utopianism but in the mandates of messianic capitalism. When a people can understand themselves and their civilization as the highest point of evolution then they can be energized to action.
Picking up Bloom’s map is the first step in that vital project.