The Lucifer Principle

by Howard Bloom

(reviewed by Ken Kittlitz (kittlitz at

In this book, Bloom sets out to explain human conflict, both individual and societal, as the result of genetic and memetic evolution. Each person, he argues, is not so much an autonomous actor as a small cell in one or more super-organisms, the societies of which that person is a part.

The Lucifer Principle draws from areas such as evolutionary theory, memetics, and the study of neural networks, so much so that a casual browser might dismiss it as being a hodge podge of trendy concepts. Happily this is not the case, and the picture Bloom paints of the forces that drive us is both compelling and frightening. Though we in the Western world like to view ourselves as the masters of our own destinies, he argues that most of the time we are pawns, disposable components of our societies. This dubious stature arose from our making a living as social animals: even though our genes are concerned with their own welfare, it was often in their ultimate best interest to sacrifice individuals so that the larger group, possessing much of the "right" DNA, could survive.

The rise of memes only worsened this situation. Originally working mostly for the benefit of their hosts' DNAs, memes soon began their own evolutionary journey, driving us to their own ends, regardless of the benefit or cost to ourselves. Bloom gives chilling examples of in-groups forming into memetic super-organisms and continuing the struggle for dominance began by our far ancestors. People are the synapses in these virtual neural nets, and like synapses, are expendable, be it on the point of an enemy's sword or in a compound in Waco, Texas.

Many of Bloom's arguments rest on the assumption that groups, be they composed of organisms or ideas, will form into hierarchies in which there is competition for the upper slots. The inevitability of such "pecking orders" may not be entirely true, however, John Livingston's Rogue Primate offers another interpretation of some of the relevant data. Likewise, it's difficult to know offhand if Bloom's intriguing historical examples are truly representative of how societies behave, or if they were chosen carefully to buttress his arguments. These points aside, The Lucifer Principle is an important book, one that helps us better understand the forces that control us and how we might challenge them.

    The Lucifer Principle
    Howard Bloom
    The Atlantic Monthly Press
    New York, NY
    ISBN 0-87113-532-9