Tim and I have had an on-going dialogue about the nature of Evil. He feels that the world is Evil, entirely and in all aspects. I have held that Evil is a human construct and is only about what is good or bad from a human point of view. Death by smallpox is not evil for the smallpox germ. For me, motive comes into it, though the “law of unintended consequences” messes that up quite a lot. I mean, what if smallpox killed a person who was oppressing and torturing a whole country?
Now I’m reading “The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History,” by Howard Bloom, which proposes a new line of reasoning that is economical and vivid enough that we might both buy into it. It is anchored in the concept of SURVIVAL. The idea, in spite of using the humanoid figure of Lucifer the Fallen Angel, as a tag, is drawn from the theory of evolution, that things unfold by themselves because of competition that gives one alternative an “edge” over the others. He begins in the primordial mud with the ideas of how DNA/RNA came into being through crystallization and chemical reactions, drawing in resources and replicating themselves until there were so many that certain variations, like those who could capture the resources of the next glob over for themselves, become predominate. From then on it was a race to the top, which only possibly might be us. We like to think so.
After a brief tour of evolution, Bloom turns to the human brain it produced: the reptile brain, the mammal brain on top of it, and the primate brain as a thin veneer over that. I have a colleague who is love with the idea of animal altruism, esp. in the primates, but Bloom does not pull back from the murderous territoriality and systematic murder of competing babies. Over and over he returns to “nature as a bloody bitch” who creates far too many of everything and watches while they tear each other apart because the alternative is no survival. Of course, sometimes it is altruism which enables survival.
The next step after the primate brain is the creation of “memes” which are like “genes” except that they don’t exist except as a phenomenon of the human (and few other species) brains grouping and structuring convictions about the world that are helpful in the drive to survive. Now we’re talking about religion, but Bloom pauses to look at the tension between individual and group, because one way that the group survives is by identifying nonconformists and eliminating them in the name of perpetuating the group. The group is not just distinguished from other groups by maintaining a boundary, but also keeps itself “pure” by destroying heresies and anomalies inside.
Bloom, who fears nothing, now tackles religion as a meme: both the Evil of a meme trying to destroy all other memes and a meme that does what will destroy individuals who might damage the group. I’ve seen this myself in congregations. We all see it in the morning newspaper when a religious meme is being used to assure the territory of a nation, even if it means the slaughter of many many innocents, even people who have helped the nation compete, like cheap foreign labor. We have always framed these events in terms of Evil, caused by Luciferan individuals with malignant minds, but this Principle shows that the evil practices are natural evolution in the fight for survival. If it hadn’t been bin Laden, it would have been someone else. He’s an effect, not a cause. The Egyptian Spring is a meme phenomenon, a shift in thinking. (You could get a thesis out of distiguishing a meme from a paradigm.)
I’m only halfway through the book, so I’ll let you know when I get to Bloom’s solutions. This book is 1995 and a lot has happened since then. The main thing is that he does not address what we are facing on the planet now: that there are too many people, not more than can be fed but more than can be accommodated on safe territory (if there is such a thing) so that the natural phenomena of the planet -- earthquakes, volcanos, and floods are constantly killing people in a way that doesn’t necessarily select for improvement, because no one is safe. One of those hazards is diseases like AIDS coming out of the jungle in the bodies of people who can only survive by hunting bush meat. In one of the great ironic circlings of history, the bit of pattern that made life possible, is now a great threat to survival, both to individuals with their immune systems stripped away and to nations with pandemics sweeping everything into chaos.
It begins to appear that a very small proportion of humans have a mutation that protects them from this code glitch. They DO have a survival edge. Otherwise the group identified and assigned to find solutions (scientists) must be funded sufficiently to do so or behavior memes (safe sex, needle exchanges) or individuals forming supportive groups are the only salvations we have. All are dependent on people absorbed in their own battles for survival, even at the highest levels of privilege and abundance. A new meme, probably religious, must begin wealth redistribution to break up the hoarding that is already destabilizing the world. The first step might be funding AIDS research and delivery systems.
But while war and disease address overpopulation, the planet itself is shifting the environment away from the parameters that allow our survival. Partly because of the industrial revolution and partly because of mysterious forces beyond our present science, the poles are melting, the deserts are expanding, whole ecological patterns and coastlines are changing in ways we didn’t expect. This is not Evil in itself, but the humans involved will become very Evil indeed as they struggle to survive. One of those Evils is the subtle and gradual contamination and diversion of resources, including water.
The water tower construction crew just finishing up in Valier was talking about the newest end-of-the-world ideas that are circulating. These are recurrent memes (one gave rise to Christianity, after all) with the potential for either Good -- if our response is to help one another as individuals and as groups the way Jesus recommended -- or for Evil -- if our response is to build walls and attack competing outsiders or internal nonconformists. Evil’s most tricky seduction is to masquerade as Good. The universe has no such concepts or preference. It will survive regardless of what we do or think. We can save ourselves, but only up to a point, which may indeed be coming closer.