The Five Scourges


I’m re-reading Howard Bloom’s brilliant The Lucifer Principle. Bloomis a biologist who’s interested in how neural networks (like the Internet) function, and how they are working at every level in nature, from slime mold through rats, toads, chimps and humans. The Lucifer Principle describes the biological mechanisms behind Bloom’s quote from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn:

If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were  necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

or, as some sage said,

Behind every person, the saint and the sinner are comparing notes.

The point of neural networks is that they reflect the architecture of the Internet – lots of relatively low-power processors cooperating to exert an intelligence greater than the sum of its parts.

In The Lucifer Principle, Bloom describes 5 concepts which dominate biology, including humans. Together, they explain why we cannot keep from doing stupid, evil things:

  1. The principle of self-organizing systems Replicators – bits of structure that function as minifactories, assembling raw materials, then churning out intricate products. These natural assembly units (genes are one example) crank out their goods so cheaply that the end results are appallingly expendable. Among those expendable products are you and me.
  2. The superorganism We are not the rugged individuals we would like to be. We are, instead, disposable parts of a being much larger than ourselves.
  3. The meme A self-replicating cluser of ideas. Thanks to a handful of biological tricks, these visions become the glue that holds together civilizations, giving each culture its distinctive shape, making some intolerant of dissent and others open to diversity. They are the tools with which we unlock the forces of nature. Our visions bestow the dream of peace, but they also turn us into killers.
  4. The neural net The group mind whose eccentric mode of operartion manipulates our emotions and turns us into components of a massive learning machine.
  5. The pecking order The naturalist who discovered this dominance hierarchy in a Norwegian farmyard called it the key to despotism. Pecking orders exist among men, monkeys, wasps, and even nations. They explain why the danger of barbarians is real and why the assumptions of our foreign policies are often wrong.

Five simple ideas. Yet the insights they yield are amazingly rich. They reveal why doctors are not always as powerful as they seem, but why we are compelled to believe in them nonetheless. They explain how Hinduism, the religion of ultimate piece, grew from the greed of a tribe of bloodthirsty killers and why nature disposes of men far more casually than women. They shed light on America’s decline, and the dangers that lie ahead of us.

Above all, they illuminate a mystery that has eternally eluded man: the root of all evil that haunts our lives. For within these five small ideas we will pursue, there lurks a force that rules us.
                                           – quoted from The Lucifer Principle, pp. 10-11

Go buy the $13 paperback version through Bloom’s Amazon Link. If you’d like one reader’s reaction, read on. My thinking is so influenced by this book that it colors most of my perceptions. For one thing, it causes one to stop bitching about one’s circumstances. You don’t have much control over your circumstances, nor do your tormentors. Once you get over feeling sorry for yourself, you get it that your job here is to be profoundly excited about your petty, inconsequential endeavor and to get as much support for it as you possibly can. If you don’t get enthusiastic support of others for your efforts, change your efforts because, without human support, you will literally make yourself ill and you’ll wither and die early. Your and my immune system will rebel if our peers and loved ones don’t literally embrace us and our work.

This book is a tour de force and should be required reading for anyone who is part of the neural network called web logging, whether as a writer or reader. The blogging world seems to generate as many words about it as we bloggers write about our other interests. This must be a powerful meme that is probably building its own neural network. Notice that many astute bloggers are already calling for mechanisms to consolidate our burgeoning collective so its collective archive is as searchable as one of our RSS feeds.

Did you catch that line about America’s decline? In this 1995 book, Bloom described the real dangers that fundamental Islam poses to the withering American civilization. The chapter is so prescient that it’s now available online, along with photos from Bloom’s apartment of the burning twin towers.

American Decline?!! Can he say that in Public?

Bloom did say it, in 1995, and his case is airtight. He demonstrates that we’ve been in decline since 1973 and any honest reader will be forced to agree with him. The reason one is forced to agree with him is that he uses real metrics – not vague impressions – to show that we’re behaving just like the Chinese empire when confronted by the Europeans, the Aztecs facing the Spaniards and the English upon the rise of the Germans and Americans.

It also answers Larry Lessig’s important question – why aren’t we Netizens up in arms over the travesties being perpetrated in Washington by corporate toadies and religious zealots? The reason is that thinking people have given up hope and are suffering from a collective depression. The best and brightest who may be the only ones who might lead us out of this dark political era are asleep at the switch, presumably watching The West Wing, imagining how we might also act like Toby and Sam and Bartlett, if we could only muster the energy.

Interestingly, Bloom implies that he would wholeheartedly support war on Islam, since our diverse culture is intrinsically superior to Islam’s autocratic despots and the people they mis-lead; that small bands of passionate, technically inferior fundamentalists routinely conquer advanced, sophisticated cultures which are distracted by inward-focused debates like whether or not to profile airline passengers.

While warning against characterizing evil, Bloom suggests that only people as self-righteous as the Bushies might have the will to colonize Iraq and divide to conquer the dead-end evolutionary branch called fundamental Islam.

The sad part is that they might never do it if it weren’t the biggest oil play they’ve ever seen, boy howdy!

If you’ve not been seduced by howardbloom.net or the book itself, I’ll give you my Cliff’s Notes version of his five concepts, starting tomorrow.

6:00:43 PM    comment [commentCounter (29)]

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