The "problem of evil" more often than not mystifies me. On levels of scale where personal interest and empathy are possible—murder and rape, for instance—we can easily draw the lines. So easily that the use of such a broad and loaded word as "evil" becomes a dangerous game. On levels of scale where personal investment is dwarfed or made irrelevant—the fate of the species, or the evolution of life, for instance—I’m equally suspicious of the word "evil", as I am of any value-judgement. Who can judge such things? Evil seems to be too general to personalise, too personal to generalise—a right mess of semantics, in fact.
Undaunted, Howard Bloom adopts the common pop-science penchant for attaching religious concepts to science, in a quest to probe the least appetising, but possibly the most crucial aspects of evolution, genetics and human behaviour. The central thesis here is part of Bloom’s grand, scientifically heretical, and hugely important vision. In opposition to neo-Darwinist orthodoxy, which centres on the idea that natural selection operates solely on the level of the individual, and which expresses group dynamics as the sum of competition between individuals, Bloom favours the view that quantity changes quality, or "the whole is more than the sum of its parts". In other words, there exists such a thing as group selection, or evolutionary competition between masses of individuals that affects both biology (genes) and culture (memes).
Most evolutionary thinkers subscribe to the idea that any instances of individuals apparently acting against their own genetic interests—e.g. suicides—are actually acting in the interests of close relatives, thus stressing those "selfish genes" (this theory is known as "kin selection"). Bloom argues that something less obvious is at work. A simple example should get the gist across:
Tropical wasps live together in cooperative colonies and function as a social unit. Most of the females become workers and give up on having offspring of their own, working not in their own interests or that of their kin, but in the interests of the group. Yet they do not show the high degree of family relationship—i.e. genetic similarity—predicted by Hamilton [one of the pioneers of kin selection theory]. (p. 52)
Sociality between organisms, then, leads to the formation of superorganisms, each individual contributing to the "greater good" as all your cells contribute to your body’s upkeep. Above and beyond the nastiness that results from competition between individuals, Bloom argues that much of what we would call "evil" is bound up with the clashes that occur for the sake of superorganisms, both within them and between them.
The "evil" slant of this book is for me, though, a bit of a red herring—despite this being the mother of all time-honoured themes. Effectively, evil ends up being the dynamics of a certain level of scale having a severely negative consequence on a much smaller scale. Just as I’m sure you’re not really bothered about a whole load of your body’s cells being sacrificed in some horrible way so that you can get on in life, the social superorganism wouldn’t stress too much about you going to your death to defend its integrity and position in the global pecking order. (Of course, this is a simplification, and giving personal qualities to things like cells and societies has all sorts of complications, as Richard Dawkins has discovered over the years with his choice of book title, The Selfish Gene).
But running closely alongside this thesis is something more urgent and present for Bloom: the status of the American superorganism. Published in 1995, this book seems quite prescient in its discussions of Islamic fundamentalist threats to American power. But Bloom’s position in this is very strange. True to his theories, he’s pro-American (in the sense of being for democracy and pluralism). But one of the strongest themes in the book is something he calls "The Barbarian Principle". Over and over, he cites historical examples of dominant superorganisms that allow themselves to rest on their laurels, and become complacent about the threat of less organised, apparently less powerful rivals. The lesson? According to Bloom, the lesson is to not be complacent. America should be especially on its guard against outside, seemingly minor threats, precisely when it’s feeling comfortable and self-contained. (Ooops.) Bloom thinks that America should be the superorganism to buck the historical trend, and retain its dominance—despite all the evidence which tells us that empires never last.
There are some fair arguments in this, none of which can be rationally considered with such an obviously anti-democratic and anti-pluralist administration in the White House. But Bloom, even back in ’95, still seems lazy and oddly biased in his thinking. He details the atrocities of intolerance and persecution that occur within and between third world nations, massacres and injustices that simply don’t happen in America. But he entirely fails to deal with indirect brutality—most glaringly, there’s no attention paid to the untold suffering caused by America and the World Bank’s financial policies in the third world. There is a brief and interesting examination of the negative side of foreign aid, in light of the belittling connotations of gift-giving in traditional cultures. But there is no regard for the overwhelmingly negative effects of multinational corporations, drug and gene patenting, and so on. I’d rather live in the States than Syria, but if we’re talking about the effects of superorganisms on each other, let’s not get hoodwinked by the tabloid-friendly horrors of hands-on slaughter.
The Luciferic aspect that arises in Bloom’s thinking seems to have less to do with the "evil" woven into our biological inheritance of competition and individual expendability—"Our task is to outwit the Lucifer Principle"—than it has to do with this very act of opposition, trying to outwit Nature (not to mention Bloom’s valiantly heretical stance within evolutionary thought). There’s something very Gnostic about this vision, wherein the suffering we strive to be free of is part of the fabric of Nature, and our task is to stand against the cosmos—not to win the game, or change the rules, but to fling the board aside and walk away. Much of what we regard as a human departure from the natural state turns out to be—when viewed through the lens of evolutionary theory and group selection—a continuation of the natural traditions, only complexified to the point where we as individuals can no longer see the "good" involved.
So although group selection offers the small comfort of knowing that we’re in the same boat as a whole load of other people, all working for each other, it leaves the larger picture as bleak for our human hearts as neo-Darwinist individual selection. If you’re after a happy ending, Bloom’s best offer is the formation of a species-wide superorganism that transcends cultural and social boundaries. The negative impetus to this is our capacity to destroy everything fighting each other, and the positive impetus is the challenge of space travel, a new frontier to face together.
Despite my reservations, I recommend this book to anyone who thrives on engaging ideas. Bloom’s evidence is presented with a strong, sometimes almost lurid desire for vividness, as befits the man who decided to study mass psychology by becoming Michael Jackson’s PR. Everything about Bloom’s work is shot through with this kind of wholehearted commitment and personal involvement, which in the end is merely honest science. His prejudices shine through, it is true; but at least this means you can instantly grapple with them, and learn from him.