Select Page

The Lucifer Principle

The Lucifer Principle

The Lucifer Principle is one of the most important and powerful books on world history, war, human nature, and progress. In it, author Howard Bloom details how nature creates complex lifeforms from the competition between less complex ones. To Mother Nature, it’s a numbers game. Each gene, each replicator, is expendable. If a gene must die to serve the purposes of creating a more complex lifeform, so be it. It’s That Bloody Bitch’s way. Like genes, humans want to reproduce. To gain reproduction rights, typically men have had to fight each other for them. Out of fights come winners and losers, creating a hierarchy. Hierarchies exist not only between small groups of individuals, but between nations. Why? Because memes–ideas–bind very large and often diverse groups of people together into superorganisms. Those superorganisms also fit into a hierarchy. Memes appear to have a will of their own. They, like genes, want to spread. They do so through the often brutal competition between nations. To justify our brutality, our memes tell us that what we’re doing is just, that we’re fighting the bad guys. The horrible reality is that battles are not fight between good and evil, but between good and good, two sides that believe that they are honestly the good guys. And tragically, it appears that the often detestable, bloody battles for dominance in hierarchies between superorganisms, bound together and egged on by our memes, seems to actually create good results for those that are alive to see them. Blood and acts of evil are the price of progress. That is the Lucifer Principle.

The Lucifer Principle and Sapiens

The Lucifer Principle, like Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, is a history book with an agenda. Bloom believes that humanity is progressing. As proof, he says that there are far more humans living peacefully now than they could have ever lived under less complex societies, such as African tribes. Simple societies are brutal, savage, and small. We are much better off in our complex modern societies. Our comfort, however, came at the cost of someone else’s life and comfort. Harari, like Bloom, believes that humanity appears better off due to empire building. After all, citizens within large empires are free to travel and participate in larger societies (although those societies often put restrictions on the level of participation). Empires appear to unify diverse groups of people much larger than simple societies can. Harari believes, however, that people aren’t actually happier thanks to our supposed progress. We simply have a lot more dissatisfied and unhappy people. Bloom says no. We, the ones united behind the meme of pluristic Democracy, have something good, but we are in danger of losing it. Throughout history, empires have fallen because they underestimated the power and ambition of barbarians. Who are the barbarians preparing to knock us from the top of the international hierarchy? Bloom says it is the superorganisms that are united behind two memes: Communism and Islam. (Bloom published this book in 1995!)


While The Lucifer Principle is largely a book about superorganisms and memes, Bloom also has some things to say about individual behavior. He talks about how control over our circumstances, or even just the appearance of control, can improve our mental and physical well-being. He gives the example of two laboratory rats. Both are in cages with electrified floors. One rat has a switch to turn it off (in both cages), the other rat doesn’t. The rat with the switch stays mentally well, because it has the ability to turn off the electricity. On the other hand, the rat without the switch ends up shriveling up in the corner of his cage, accepting that he has not control over his life of torture. Even when the cage is opened, the rat doesn’t try to flee. It is numb to the pain, but also numb to the opportunity of escape. For humans, it’s important to have control, too. Spirituality is often a means to feeling like we have control over invisible forces. Ancient tribes would sacrifice humans to quiet the wrath of the gods. Catholics paid money to the Church to have their sins wiped clean. Often the gatekeepers between us and higher powers are the most well paid and respected groups in our societies because they give us a feeling of control. The illusion of control that they give is part of the reason why doctors have such high status. A lack of control can also contribute to feelings of frustration, which turn to anger and violence. That’s why it’s important that everyone feel like they have some non-violent control over their future.

The secret to eliminating stress? Ambition.

Unfortunately, the sources of “stress” have been misunderstood and taught in our schools. To avoid giving children stressful environments, schools don’t ask students to be ambitious. In fact, ambition is taught to be the source of stress. Overworked students, they say, are stressed out. In fact, the source of stress is not overwork, but lack of ambition and striving for excellence. Humans that aren’t useful to the superorganism of society, like all cells within a larger lifeform, will shrivel up and die if they don’t serve the superorganism. “Excessive relaxation”, writes Bloom, “is a slow form of suicide.” Furthermore, our perceived position in the hierarchy contributes to stress. Bloom writes:
Position in the pecking order makes an additional contribution to many of the symptoms we blame on stress. With our dream of eliminating competition, we try to wish the pecking order away. But the fact is that we will continue to live in pecking order structures whether we like it or not.   Bloom, Howard. The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (p.311). Grove Atlantic. Kindle.
Perhaps you think you can avoid the rat race by simply opting out. Bloom says, however, that the brutal truth is that our position in the hierarchy of the superorganism will only weaken if we opt out. If we want to rid ourselves of stress, the answer isn’t to opt out, he says, but to be ambitious, take control of our lives, and strive to be useful to the superorganism.

War and Evil

Yet, isn’t ambition also a source of war? Ambitious people striving to be useful to the superorganism seek to conquer their superorganism’s competitors and move them up the hierarchy.
We have found no method for shaking the consequences of our biological curse, our animal brain’s addiction to violence. We cannot free ourselves from our nature as cells in a superorganismic beast constantly driven to pecking order tournaments with its neighbors. We have found no technique for evading the fact that those competitions are all too often deadly.   Bloom, Howard. The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (p.318). Grove Atlantic. Kindle.
In other words, what we call “evil” appears to be a part of our biology. How do we avoid war while also, as individuals and parts of a superorganism, strive to rise in the hierarchy and be useful to each other? Is peace achievable or a pipe dream? It is possible, Bloom says, but in order to do that, we need to aspire to something big. He writes,
We need a new horizon, a new sense of purpose, a new set of goals, a new frontier to move once again with might and majesty, with a sense of zest that makes life worth living, through the world in which we live.   Bloom, Howard. The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (p.320). Grove Atlantic. Kindle.
We need to find a way to cooperate and compete in non-violent ways. The scientific process is a political one, but is non-violent. The geopolitical equivalent of science is pluristic democracy. That’s why it’s worth protecting from the barbarians until we can figure out how to eliminate war. Bloom says that we have one great task ahead of us:
We’ve found ways to halt illnesses, we’ve invented means to leapfrog continents in hours, and someday we will find a way to stop war—but only if we survive long enough. Until then our task is to outlast our own impulses. Our task is to outwit the Lucifer Principle.   Bloom, Howard. The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (p.320). Grove Atlantic. Kindle.

More from Howard Bloom