Books: The Lucifer Principle

July 2, 2010 |  by

by Howard Bloom, 1995.

This book is a good starting point. Bloom draws on a wealth of examples – from the rise of Oliver Cromwell to the fall of imperial China to Hannibal’s invasion of Rome – to build his case for memes as a driving force in human behavior. Bloom’s success is in driving home his main message: that memes use the animal (unconscious) instincts of humanity to gain power and influence.

It’s one of the earlier books on memetics, so it’s hard to fault Bloom for its shortcomings. But in terms of moving forward, it’s important to point them out.

First, Bloom’s definition of memes is debatable at best. According to Bloom (and others), memes are replicating “units of culture” located in the brain which pass from one human being to another. The goal of a meme, says Bloom, is to expand its sphere of influence as much as possible (think of the Bolshevik Revolution, hula hoops in the ’50s, the Twilight saga..).

Let’s look at this definition in parts:

  1. Memes are located in the brain: No memes have ever been discovered in the brain and Bloom’s references to how memes enter “the cerebral substance” or get “lodged” in the mind are pure supposition.
  2. Memes are replicators: The question of how memes spread is important, but linking the growth of memes to the model of replication in genes simply opens the door for more supposition.
  3. A meme’s main ambition is to expand its influence: Bloom tends to oversimplify memes, lumping them all together as ruthless forces whose only goal is expansion and through which Nature achieves her evolutionary aims.

A science needs to be exact. We can’t just “suppose” our way to truth. Bloom doesn’t differentiate, categorize or systematize the world of memes. Instead he offers more of a one-size-fits-all perspective, in which a kind of tribal power meme is shown to dominate both the worlds of animals and humans. But we need to do more than say “a meme is responsible.” For something to be useful – what any science is striving for – it has to be well-defined, mapped and understood in all its shades.

To his credit, Bloom begins this process. He shows us the many faces of his one-sized meme, the interplay between rival groups and nations, how one dominates another and the psychological reactions of groups to each other. It’s an admirable beginning.

Where Bloom is surprisingly old fashioned is his view of humanity as tied to savage Nature. Humanity’s only hope, for Bloom in The Lucifer Principle, is to “invent a way in which memes…can compete without carnage.” He cites the scientific forum, where by persuasion and politics (instead of violence), one meme wins over another. But this completely misses the point – the entire challenge of memes for humanity. I don’t need to make my meme victorious over your meme. That’s the Old Way. The challenge now is to overcome the meme, to achieve freedom from the meme. To live as an expression of ourselves…not just some meme.

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