Tag Archives: Hierarchy

The Lucifer Principle by Howard Bloom


  1. Bloom argues that the individual is merely a “cell” within the larger group and that these groups are the primary units of selection no genes and human psychology. Hierarchy is front and center in Bloom’s understanding of the world. “This book is about the social body in which we are the unwitting cells. It is about the hidden ways in which that social group manipulates our psychology, and even our biology. It is about how a social organism scrambles for survival and works for mastery over other organisms of its kind. It is about how we, without the slightest sense of what the long-term results of our minuscule actions may be, contribute to the social organism’s ponderous and sometimes earth-shattering deeds. It is about how in our preoccupations with sex, our submission to gods and leaders, our sometimes suicidal commitment to ideas, religions, and trivial details of cultural style, we become the unconscious creators of the social organism’s exploits…Superorganism, ideas, and the pecking order—these are the primary forces behind much of human creativity and earthlc good. They are the holy trinity of the Lucifer Principle.”

Key Takeaways

  1. Overview
    1. If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart? Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
    2. We do strive as individuals, but we are also part of something larger than ourselves, with a complex physiology and mental life that we carry out but only dimly understand.
    3. At its heart, the Lucifer Principle looks something like this: The nature scientists uncover has crafted our viler impulses into us: in fact, these impulses are a part of the process she uses to create. Lucifer is the dark side of cosmic fecundity, the cutting blade of the sculptor’s knife. Nature does not abhor evil; she embraces it. She uses it to build. With it, she moves the human world to greater heights of organization, intricacy, and power.
    4. The Lucifer Principle contends that evil is woven into our most basic biological fabric.
    5. We must build a picture of the human soul that works. Not a romantic vision that Nature will take us in her arms and save us from ourselves, but a recognition that the enemy is within us and that Nature has placed it there. We need to stare directly into Nature’s bloody face and realize that she has saddled us with evil for a reason. And we must understand that reason to outwit her. For Lucifer is almost everything men like Milton imagined him to be. He is ambitious, an organizer, a force reaching out vigorously to master even the stars of heaven. But he is not a demon separate from Nature’s benevolence. He is a part of the creative force itself. Lucifer, in fact, is Mother Nature’s alter ego.
    6. Among humans, groups have all too often been the prime movers. It is their competition that has driven us on the inexorable track toward higher degrees of order. This is one key to the Lucifer Principle.
    7. Nature is like a sculptor continually improving upon her work, but to do it she chisels away at living flesh.
    8. Each of us is sewn by invisible threads into the superorganism. We are cells in the beast of family, company, and country. If those social ties are severed we begin to shrivel and die. There’s more. Hard work and the pursuit of challenge have seldom been demonstrated to hurt us, but we can be damaged powerfully by the lack of control. And without striving to achieve, we cannot control our lives. 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.
  2. Hierarchy, Groups, & Pecking Order
    1. Pecking orders exist among men, monkeys, wasps, and even nations. They help explain why the danger of barbarians is real and why the assumptions of our foreign policies are often wrong.
    2. Then, three years after Goodall’s book was printed, a series of incidents occurred that horrified her. The tribe of chimps Goodall had been watching became quite large. Food was harder to find. Quarrels broke out. To relieve the pressure, the unit finally split into two separate tribes. One band stayed in the old home territory. The other left to carve out a new life in the forest to the south. At first, the two groups lived in relative peace. Then the males from the larger band began to make trips south to the patch of land occupied by the splinter unit. The marauders’ purpose was simple: to harass and ultimately kill the separatists. They beat their former friends mercilessly, breaking bones, opening massive wounds, and leaving the resultant cripples to die a slow and lingering death.
    3. Japan is a society of groups, not individuals.
    4. Then, in 1962, the Scottish ecologist V. C. Wynne-Edwards, a careful observer of his country’s native red grouse, concluded that these birds sometimes sacrificed their reproductive privileges to keep their flock from starvation. The grouse, Wynne-Edwards contended, gauged the amount of food the moors could provide each year and adjusted their behavior accordingly, delaying breeding when supplies looked meager or even opting for total chastity.
    5. The simians raised without social contact frequently sat in a corner of their cage, curled into a ball, their eyes staring emptily into space, and chewed at their own skin, gouging themselves until they bled. That is intropunitive behavior.
    6. The individual is a cell in the social superorganism. When he feels he is no longer necessary to the larger group, he, too, begins to wither away.
    7. Durkheim seemed to sense that beneath the surface, the suicide was destroying himself to rid the wider social group of a burden.
    8. If our actions are geared to increasing the odds that our personal genes or those of our near relatives will make it into the next generation, what is the reason for suicide’s existence? And what about the other bits of death-in-life built into the human psyche? Why do humans get depressed? Why do they sometimes feel like crawling off into a corner and dying? There is an answer, but it doesn’t quite square with the notion of genes fighting for themselves no matter what. We are parts of a larger organism and occasionally find ourselves expendable in its interests.
    9. Remove the sponge cell from the sponge, prevent it from finding its way back to its brethren, and it dies. Scrape a liver cell from the liver, and in its isolation it too will shrivel and give up life. But what happens if you remove a human from his social bonds, wrenching him from the superorganism of which he is a part?
    10. A host of other studies have shown the same thing: babies can be given food, shelter, warmth, and hygiene, but if they are not held and stroked, they have an abnormal tendency to die.
    11. Flint’s mother died. Theoretically, Flint’s instincts should have urged him to survive. But three weeks later, he went back to the spot where his mother had breathed her last and curled up in a fetal ball. Within a few days, he, too, was dead. An autopsy revealed that there was nothing physically wrong with Flint: no infection, no disease, no handicap. In all probability, the youngster’s death had been caused by the simian equivalent of the voice that tells humans experiencing a similar loss that there’s nothing left to live for. Flint had been cut loose from his single bond to the superorganism, and that separation had killed him.
    12. Eventually, Ike went to Camp David for five weeks of rest. It was the worst thing he could have done. Stripped of his sense of social purpose, he went into severe depression, the first setback Eisenhower had experienced since his heart attack. The ailing chief executive recovered only when he was allowed to go back to work.
    13. Like ants, each one of us is built with all the equipment necessary to be a master or a slave, a beggar or a king. Most of us, however, will be only one of these. We will dream of the higher fortunes that could have befallen us, but, for the most part, we will never taste those possibilities in real life. And, as we grow older, many of us will carry an increasing burden of resentment for the fates we failed to have. In some ways, it is the social organism and its needs that determine the role each of us will play and the many more roles that each of us will never be given the power to act out.
    14. Some of these Hymenoptera are lazy and sit around all day doing very little; others work their tails off in the interest of the community. But try separating the ne’er-do-wells from the industrious and setting them up as two new colonies—one composed exclusively of layabouts and the other made up entirely of nose-to-the-grindstone types. A strange thing happens. In the community of laggards, a large proportion of the lazy little beasts suddenly become imbued with a furious sense of industry. They turn into workers. On the other hand, in the community composed completely of workers, a small portion of the formerly zealous toilers seem overcome with boredom and settle down to spend their days doing nothing. They become the new leisure lovers. Each new colony takes on the shape of the old one.
    15. In a chick, you can take a cell that was about to develop into a wing feather and move it to the location that’s destined to be a foot. If you perform the maneuver in time, the former wing-feather cell will turn into a perfectly normal piece of claw. The process is called cellular differentiation. The same thing happens in the all-worker and all-drone ant colonies. They undergo differentiation. There seems an implicit sketch for the contours of the community. A lone ant, in some peculiar way, looks around and sees where it sits in the social matrix, then becomes what it has to be to make the community fit the master plan. Human groups go through a similar process.
    16. Schjelderup-Ebbe had discovered that in the world of chickens there is a social hierarchy, a division into aristocrats and commoners—a lower, middle, and upper class. The alert researcher called the phenomenon a “pecking-order.” It wasn’t long before naturalists were discovering similar social orders in a bewildering variety of species.556 Research on pecking orders (known technically as dominance hierarchies) has gone on now for roughly seventy years and has yielded some startling revelations. Position in the pecking order determines far more than just how many feathers you lose. It readjusts your life-style, your chances of survival, your sex life, and your physiology. The pecking order can determine whether you live or die…The barnyard chickens studied by naturalist Schjelderup-Ebbe had their periods of peace, but they never had equality.
    17. The new king of the castle goes through a biological transformation simply because he’s moved up on the hierarchical ladder. For a monkey’s physiology, position in the pecking order is everything.
    18. Position in the pecking order reshapes physiology. After a while, top or bottom position in the pecking order gets to be a habit. Numerous studies show that a creature who has won a fight is more likely to win the next one. An animal who has lost barely shuffles through his next contest. The odds are high he’ll lose again.
    19. A position at the top of the pecking order is not permanent. Far from it. Animals who make it to the peak know that simple fact. They see that yesterday’s adolescents have become today’s restless adults and watch warily as these youthful challengers size up the odds of knocking their elders off the top of the heap.
    20. Dominant beasts remain vigilant. But a strange thing happens to nations at the pecking order’s apogee. The dominant superorganism sometimes goes to sleep. It falls complacently into a fatal trap, assuming that its high position is God given, that its fortunate lot in life will last forever, that its lofty status is carved in stone. It forgets that any pecking order is a temporary thing and no longer remembers just how miserable life can be on the bottom. The results are often an unpleasant surprise.
    21. Behind the threat of barbarians is a simple fact. Social super organisms itch to move up on the hierarchical ladder, and many of those who want to ascend would like to do so at our expense. The legitimate wish for peace often blinds us to this fact. But there is another impulse that also distracts us from the danger of barbarians: the itch to battle our fellow citizens.
    22. The tendency to bicker internally had totally obliterated our ability to look carefully at outside threats. And we will never be able to overcome threats we refuse to see. No one stays on top of the pecking order forever. This is a difficult lesson to learn. Debate is a necessity, but if it becomes irrational, violent, and blind to the menaces beyond our borders, it can doom us as surely as it did the Byzantines.
    23. We assume that humans desire, food, clothing, and shelter, but we forget that people crave something far more vital: status and prestige. They yearn to move up in the pecking order!…Our relief agencies ship food and medicine to the poor of South America, but when allowed to buy what they prefer, women of South America’s underclass purchase something they consider more vital than penicillin or protein-rich nutrient: they spend their precious funds on lipstick. Lipstick brings the admiring glances of men and the envy of women. To the shanty-dwelling women of South America, that pecking order bonanza is worth more than a well-balanced meal. We should know better than to think that the citizens of underdeveloped countries are motivated by the simple desire to escape poverty. We have the evidence right here in the United States. In Harlem, a hotbed of deprivation, the driving desire of teenagers is not for something of practical merit; it’s for status symbols. According to Claude Brown, author of Manchild in the Promised Land, adolescent boys above Manhattan’s 125th Street feel compelled to wear a new pair of designer jeans twice a week, to “show fly” (to dress up), and to wear high-priced, status brands like Fila and Adidas. One teenager told Brown, “It’s embarrassing not to have a pair.” In Harlem, prestige frequently means more than food, shelter, and clothing.
    24. So powerful is the pecking order impulse that pride has frequently meant more than survival to human beings. Pilots in the First World War refused to wear parachutes because safety devices were not “manly.” The fliers chose going down in flames over slipping a notch in the pecking order.
    25. The spadefoot toad is following a basic biological law. That same principle makes the rapid rise in good fortune among humans a dangerous thing indeed. Nature shuts down the expenditure of energy when resources disappear, but she unleashes energy when fresh resources arrive. She makes those who are deprived sit still and endure their fate, but when good fortune lifts the curtain of hopelessness, biology gives the lucky souls who’ve landed on an upward track a burst of manic zeal…But give a social group a jolt of resources, and suddenly it is infused with energy, optimism, and restlessness. Servants may feel ready to grab the knife with which they have been cutting the meat for the master and put it to the master’s throat…The lesson is simple. Defeat makes superorganisms sleepy. So does poverty. But a military win or a shower of new wealth rouses social energies, inspiring the pecking order instincts to lift their contentious heads. And when a society is aroused, watch out.
    26. Peace is another word abused by those with hidden pecking order goals. It usually means, “Since I’m on top, let’s keep the status quo” or, “Now that I’ve managed to climb on your back, would you please be kind enough to sit still. ‘’ Justice is the term used by those on the bottom of the heap who are itching to move up. When these folks refer to “the struggle for justice,” they generally mean, “Let’s keep fighting until I come out on top.” Once the devotees of justice have seated themselves on the uppermost rung of the ladder, they too almost invariably become staunch defenders of “peace.”
    27. In Queen Victoria’s day (1837–1901), productivity per person in Britain rose 2.5 times!…But as they grew fat with prosperity, British industrialists overlooked three simple facts: (a) every technological breakthrough eventually grows old; (b) new inventions arrive to replace it; and (c) the country that dominates these new technologies often rules the world.
    28. The British may have invented the new synthetic dyes, but in the long run, they were not the ones to profit from them. Despite Perkin’s rapid rise to millionaire status, most British industrialists turned up their noses at his discovery. The Germans, however, did not. They worked like maniacs to find out what else they could extract from the grunge produced by coal. In 1863, one German researcher came up with a rich shade of green. When the Empress Eugenie wore it to the Paris Opera, it became the fashion rage. The most impressive theoretical chemical research was still going on in English laboratories. So German industrial firms offered huge amounts of money to German chemists working in Britain. Then they put the British-trained recruits to work making useful new substances in the fatherland. Among those the Germans lured back was the professor whose suggestion had stimulated young Perkin to attempt the synthesis of quinine to begin with. Perkin himself had made his fortune. At thirty-six, he retired to pursue a life in “pure science.” The British dye industry shriveled in his absence, but the German dye business became the first step in a technology that would revolutionize the future. It was the foundation of the chemical industry.
    29. Until 1870, Britain had been without question the strongest nation on the earth, yet she had spent the least on military hardware. From 1815 to 1865, a minuscule 3 percent of her GNP had gone into military budgets. Her strength had come from the spinning jenny, the steam-driven loom, the Cunard steamship, and the railroad. But Britain forgot that industrial innovation was the key to her power. Floundering British industrial titans dreamed of holding on to their old position by force.
    30. Meanwhile, Germany was moving up the hierarchical ladder, and the German leaders were gripped by the testosterone high that makes a nation belligerent. Friedrich Naumann was typical of those who gloated over Teutonic good fortune. He said, “The German race brings it. It brings army, navy, money and power. . . . Modern, gigantic instruments of power are possible only when an active people feels the spring-time juices in its organs.”
    31. Like the English under Victoria, we were trying to fool ourselves with the notion that weapons are the real source of strength. In the 1800s, the British lost their preeminence. They did it by forgetting what counts the most in the pecking order of nations. To stay in place, you have to run. To get anywhere, you have to run even harder!
    32. When the pecking order status of a national superorganism slides, a frustrated populace looks for someone to blame, preferably a character located conveniently close to home.
    33. We humans, alas, are built with the same pusillanimous circuitry. When we are battered by forces beyond our control, we look around for someone smaller to punch.
    34. But chimpanzee leaders, like human power brokers, eventually grow old and weak. In their younger days when a potential rival showed up to challenge them, they reared back on their hind legs and made a dramatic show of brawn and agility. But when strength and swiftness fade, the aging leaders use another tactic. Like my dog, they pretend they do not see. A rival may swagger toward the reigning monarch determined to assert his claims. The muscular youngster jumps up and down. He makes terrifying noises by pounding on any resonant object in sight. He swings huge branches intimidating!y through the air. But the weakened elder deals with this pecking order challenge in a strange way. He turns his head and pretends to be utterly absorbed in examining a banana peel. For a time, the aging leader who refuses to see his rivals retains his top position. His old system of alliances props him up. But if the youngster has played his cards right, he has quietly built up coalitions of his own and gained the favor of the populace. Then the challenger’s public humiliations of his elder may one day prove decisive. Eventually, the older statesman will be forced to yield his position, and the young turk will become the new head chimp…The nation slipping downward averts its eyes, but the country on the rise is often vigorously alert, looking for the tiniest opportunity to lunge toward the top. Instead of turning their backs and hoping for peace, superorganisms on the move often manufacture confrontations.
    35. Once Bismarck was confident that his military buildup was complete, he did not flinch from confrontation. Far from it. He sought it out.
    36. A rise or fall in the hierarchy of superorganisms has other profound effects on a society’s collective psyche. It transforms the emotions and shared values of the human herd. The nation moving up embraces adventure. The country moving down abandons the strange and buries its head in the familiar. It tries to march backward in time. These shifts in attitude are the result of prewired natural strategies.
    37. The brutal fact is that the more we opt out of competition, the lower our position is likely to be. That holds true in our lives as individuals, and it holds even more true in our life as a nation.
    38. Stress is not a product of the desire to achieve the extraordinary…The Japanese know what we have forgotten: that work and challenge are the keys to a vigorous life.
  3. Experts & Ideas
    1. A moment of defeat is a great time for an ambitious idea to seize minds that are fleeing from the precepts of a luckless leader. The result was a revolution.
    2. The measure of the success of a web of memes—a myth, a hypothesis, or a dogma—is not its truth but how well it serves as social glue. If a belief system performs that function well enough, it can trigger the growth of a superorganism of massive size, even if its most basic tenets prove dead wrong.
    3. If you can convince enough people of your worldview, no matter how wrong you are, you’re right! The real significance of a meme is its power to pull together a superorganism.
    4. Why are humans drawn to ideas like filings to a magnet?
    5. Ritual, Malinowski concluded, was a means of creating a false sense of control when reality was intolerably slippery. In his 1927 The Future of an Illusion, Sigmund Freud went a step further and declared that man will cling to religion’s fantasy of control as long as science fails to give him actual power over his destiny.
    6. Why would a man selling his ability to deal with disease pretend that your affliction is a whim? After all, the symptoms one generation swears are “in your head” are often shown by research to be real a few decades later. But a doctor does not generally confess ignorance. He is selling the illusion of omnipotence: the illusion that through consulting him you gain control over your body, the same illusion sold by the sorcerers of India. Occasionally, your physician changes tactics. He gives you a name for your problem but no cure. The name alone—like a magic talisman—makes you feel you have a problem your doctor can control. Or the doctor gives you a prescription.
    7. When we are pathetically attempting to deal with the invisible, when we have the least evidence of reality, that is when we are most vulnerable to the power of the experts.
    8. Pictures of the invisible world can have wild inaccuracies, but every view that flourishes does so because it solves at least one major problem.
    9. The secret behind the problem-solving abilities of worldviews is the same as that behind the success of superorganisms. It lies in the power of networks.
    10. A conventional computer also stores a sizable batch of information in a kind of holding pen but has to shoot it, one small bit at a time, through a processor where the real work of computation and comparison is accomplished. This is called serial processing. Neural nets function in a radically different way. They don’t use the narrow, railroad-track approach to information processing. Instead, they are shaped like spiderwebs that process information in parallel. The lines of the webs are electrical channels whose conductivity can be raised or lowered. The junctions where the lines meet are switches that can be turned on or off. Neural nets can solve problems by making rough models of the real world as they learn from data we give them.
    11. Worldviews share the neural network’s fuzziness. They are not precise, but they’re frequently close enough. They can be wildly inaccurate. It isn’t accuracy that counts, however; it’s utility. They may be sloppy, but they render solutions to real world problems fast. As neural-net builder Hopfield says, “Biology, by and large, is not interested in finding the best things, just things that are pretty good that can be found quickly.”
    12. The brain of a bee is an insubstantial thing—a slender thread of neural fiber scarcely capable of anything we would call intelligence. But the strength of a neural net does not lie in the limited abilities of any one node in the web. The strength of the connectionist intelligence—its problem-solving ability—is in the web itself: the constant feeling, touching, and communicating between the bees that pool their brains into one. The problem is solved not by a single bee but by the interconnected mass. 
    13. Humans rally around ideas because they solve some of our problems, because they offer the biological blessings of the illusion of control, and because they are the threads that hold us together in the vast network of a superorganismic mind, weaving scattered individuals into a cooperative entity of awesome power and size.
    14. The appeal of prophets often lies in their ability to paint a picture of an irresistible Utopia and to convince us that this better world is almost within our grasp.
    15. Humans grab at ideas because ideas knit them together in groups of people who agree with them. They provide the comfort of companionship and mutual aid. That’s one way memes seduce humans into their power.
    16. An ideology is usually a high-minded mask for a group’s itch to take power and resources from other social groups.
    17. Hans Morgenthau, the political theorist, has said that men don’t willingly accept the truth about human nature and especially about political nature. The aim of politics, Morgenthau says, is not to make people better or to alleviate their misery: it is to increase the power of one man or group of men against the power of another man or group of men. Morgenthau says our enemies are never as bad as we make them out to be, and we are never as good as we think.
    18. Ideas do more than merely bond a group together. They justify that group’s expansion. Like the hungry amoeba, the superorganism is anxious to grow. It is anxious to feast on the flesh of its neighbors.
    19. A strange thing happens to the memes of the superorganism that mounts the pecking order’s peak. They spread as rapidly as the germs of plague, exultantly leaping from mind to conquered mind. Today, most of the populations of Europe, South America, and North America speak languages rich in Roman words. They do their public business in buildings adorned with the flourishes of Roman architecture. They read and write the Roman alphabet.
  4. Other
    1. If you occasionally feel that you are of several minds on one subject, you are probably right. In reality, you have several brains. And those brains don’t always agree.
    2. The female runs out to the edge of her husband’s territory and tries to provoke another duck, then runs back to her male, stands next to him, and looks behind her at the enraged rival in the hope that her mate will jump into the fray. Many are the human females who have tried to stir up a similar fight.
    3. Women encourage killers. They do it by falling in love with warriors and heroes. Men know it and respond with enthusiasm.
    4. It is useless for women to blame violence on men, and it would be futile for men to blame violence on women. Violence is built into both of us.
    5. Research shows that predators almost invariably go for a herd animal that is acting differently from the rest.
    6. But the gazelle who has just spotted the clawed creature does not quietly blend into the bunch. She breaks into a strange run punctuated by abrupt jumps into the air. Her behavior alerts her herd-mates to the prowling cat. One after another, they join the running and jumping. The leopard, thrown off by the commotion, eventually gives up and walks away.
    7. Two means have been discovered to produce depression in laboratory animals: uncontrollable punishment and isolation.
    8. Hitler used to go through something similar at the height of his power. He would bully an opposing head of state, shouting, fuming, seemingly invulnerable to the inhibitions that weaken other men. Then, when he was alone in his room, the indomitable leader would collapse into a screaming nervous wreck.
    9. Margaret Mead says every human group makes a simple rule: thou shalt not kill members of our gang, but everyone else is fair game. According to Mead, each group says that all humans are brothers and declares that murdering humans is out of the question. Most groups, however, have very strange means of defining who is human.
    10. Perception is a highly selective process. We see and vividly remember some things that pass before our eyes. We ignore many others. And still others we work to actively deny.
    11. Men were designed for short, nasty, brutal lives. Women are designed for long, miserable ones. Dr. Estelle Ramey
    12. In northern areas, it also takes more than one human to raise an infant. No wonder monogamy tends to be a practice of the north, while polygamy is a custom of the prodigal south.
    13. William H. Calvin hypothesizes that the art of throwing was responsible for the rapid increase in size and complexity of the early human brain.
    14. The cursus honororum was a splendid motivator. It impelled Rome’s best and brightest to dedicate nearly all their energies to the betterment of their society.
    15. Nature’s way of testing any self-replicating device is competition. For over three and a half billion years, she has set the products of the genetic system in a race to see who can corner the good things of this life.
    16. Roman military engineers pored over the battered vessel, examining every detail. They took it apart and noted each trick of the boat’s construction, then built a copy of their own. When the Roman technicians tested their warship, it worked as well as the original. So the Romans rapidly hammered together an entire fleet, turning out 220 ships in only three months. These traditional landlubbers were now the proud possessors of a navy.
    17. This pious self-aggrandizement of a conquering barbarian tribe led to the Indian caste system.
    18. Why does the Hindu religion tell its adherents to go with the flow, to abhor the things of this world, to set aside earthly desires, to hope only for an improvement of their lot after this life is over? Because Hinduism was designed to keep the conquered Shudras in their place.
    19. They forgot that the real danger often comes from a people everyone has totally dismissed. So the great Persian leader Darius didn’t bother with the scarcely civilized yokels who squabbled interminably on a bunch of islands and rocky coasts to the west and who called themselves the Greeks.
    20. “Physical affection—touching, holding, and carrying.” The societies that hugged their kids were relatively peaceful. The cultures that treated their children coldly produced brutal adults.
    21. In the eleventh century, once again convinced that: she could use her great strength to usher in an era of peace, China turned to diplomacy and did so brilliantly. She discovered that it cost far less to pacify her enemies with tribute than it did to maintain an elephantine army, so she paid her enemies off. To keep these hulking powers from her throat, she worked insidiously behind the scenes to stir up trouble. Not trouble that would threaten her own security , but that would create squabbles among her enemies. After all, the more they quarreled with each other, the less they’d bother the Chinese. The whole scheme worked like a charm. It worked so well that both the Chinese and their enemies were able to dismantle their military complexes and pour the savings into the domestic economy. That diverted treasure produced a burst of prosperity.
    22. Poverty with prestige is better than affluent disgrace
    23. In many cultures, however, giving things to people is a way of humiliating them. It is a sneaky technique for drawing attention to the recipient’s lowliness on the hierarchical ladder…The ritual drove home the fact that the noble was on top and the peasants on the bottom. The Anglo-Saxon word for someone on the crest of a social heap—lord—was a testament to the put-down power of the handout. The word’s literal meaning: “loaf giver.”
    24. Compassionate gestures have a purpose we seldom admit: they confirm our feeling of superiority, gratifying us with the certainty that those who receive our “help” are, indeed, below us. This makes the recipients loathe us. They’d gladly exchange the food and blankets we send for the opportunity to look down upon their “benefactors.”
    25. You can see a similar biological conservation device at work in yourself. You sit down to a meal. A half-hour or less after you’ve started eating, you begin to feel warm. The food you’re chewing hasn’t reached your bloodstream yet—in fact, it will take hours before it is digested. So where does the sudden spurt of fuel that warms you come from? The body has held energy in reserve, just as it does in the case of the spadefoot toad. Those stored calories are designed to tide you over in case you skip lunch or find yourself in the middle of a famine. Once the first bite of a new meal passes your lips, however, your metabolic regulators conclude that there’s new food at hand and release some of the hoarded nutrients into your bloodstream.
    26. The phenomenon of the well-fed, adventurous bird showed up in even more subtle ways. To succeed, a rock ‘n’ roller had to be a young man on his own, totally free of parents and family, a rebel who had bailed out of his childhood home and become a vagabond, roaming the countryside in the company of other young men like himself—his band. The ideal rocker was a hero who had cut himself loose from the old, smothering ways. There was one cardinal rule for rock interviews: never mention the existence of your father and mother. Admitting that you had once been tied to apron strings could instantly kill your appeal.
    27. Progress is possible only when people believe in the possibilities of growth and change. Races or tribes die out not just when they are conquered and suppressed but when they accept their defeated condition, become despairing, and lose their excitement about the future. Norman Cousins
    28. But the Chinese were more interested in the opiate of illusion than the bitter draught of reality. Like the rat who cannot control his fate, they huddled in their corner of the world, indulging in the endorphin strategy, with its dulling of the senses and crippling of the intellect.
    29. For the athlete under high stimulation, there is more time. His world is richer, and far more data is processed by his brain. One difference between a society on the rise and a society in decline may be that the rising society is on the fast clock. It sees each impediment as a challenge, absorbs information quickly, and finds new ways to overcome its obstacles. It operates on tennis time. But the society that has peaked has moved to the slow clock. It has ceased to absorb data rapidly. It is on beach time.
    30. For a brilliant evocation of this aspect of life, see “Shedding Life: On the Mysteries of Dying, Cell by Cell,” by Czechoslovakian research immunologist and poet Miroslav Holub, Science 86, April 1986, 51–53. See also Wicken, “Thermodynamics, Evolution and Emergence,” in Weber, Depew, and J. D. Smith, Entropy, Information, and Evolution, 166.

What I got out of it

  1. Quite a dark book, and I’m sure many consider it “dangerous”, but it forces you to ask some fundamental questions and confront some of the less pleasant sides of nature and human nature. 

V > Λ: The Inverted Hierarchy

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The Gervais Principle by Venkatesh Rao

  1. That, ultimately is what this book is about: organizational literacy, the reading and writing of organizational forms. But there is a cost to getting organizationally literate. This ability, once acquired, cannot be un-acquired. Just as learning a foreign language makes you deaf to the raw, unintelligible sound of that language you could once experience, learning to read organizations means you can never see them the way you used to, before. Literacy of any sort gives you the power to recognize and unambiguously label things that the illiterate can easily ignore as noise, fads and bullshit. This power can have very unpredictable effects. You may find yourself wishing, if you choose to acquire it, that you hadn’t. So acquiring organizational literacy is what some like to call a memetic hazard: dangerous knowledge that may harm you. A case of “where ignorance is bliss, ‘tis folly to be wise.”
Key Takeaways
  1. Idealized organizations are not perfect. They are perfectly pathological. So while most management literature is about striving relentlessly towards an ideal by executing organization theories completely, this school, which I’ll call the Whyte school, would recommend that you do the bare minimum organizing to prevent chaos, and then stop. Let a natural, if declawed, individualist Darwinism operate beyond that point. The result is the MacLeod hierarchy. It may be horrible, but like democracy, it is the best you can do.
  2. A Sociopath with an idea recruits just enough Losers to kick off the cycle. As it grows, it requires a Clueless layer to turn it into a controlled reaction, rather than a runaway explosion. Eventually, as value hits diminishing returns, both the Sociopaths and Losers make their exits, and the Clueless start to dominate. Finally, the hollow brittle shell collapses on itself, and anything of value is recycled by the Sociopaths, according to meta-firm logic.
  3. The Losers like to feel good about their lives. They are the happiness seekers, rather than will-to-power players, and enter and exit reactively, in response to the meta-Darwinian trends in the economy. But they have no more loyalty to the firm than the Sociopaths. They do have a loyalty to individual people, and a commitment to finding fulfillment through work when they can, and coasting when they cannot. The Clueless are the ones who lack the competence to circulate freely through the economy (unlike Sociopaths and Losers), and build up a perverse sense of loyalty to the firm, even when events make it abundantly clear that the firm is not loyal to them. To sustain themselves, they must be capable of fashioning elaborate delusions based on idealized notions of the firm – the perfectly pathological entities we mentioned. Unless squeezed out by forces they cannot resist, they hang on as long as possible, long after both Sociopaths and Losers have left
  4. Which brings us to our main idea – how both the pyramid and its lifecycle are animated. The dynamics are governed by the Newton’s Law of organizations: The Gervais Principle. The Gervais Principle is this: Sociopaths, in their own best interests, knowingly promote over-performing Losers into middle-management, groom under-performing Losers into Sociopaths, and leave the average bare-minimum-effort Losers to fend for themselves. The Gervais Principle differs from The Peter Principle, which it superficially resembles. The Peter Principle states that all people are promoted to the level of their incompetence. It is based on the assumption that future promotions are based on past performance. The Peter Principle is wrong for the simple reason that executives aren’t that stupid, and because there isn’t that much room in an upward-narrowing pyramid. They know what it takes for a promotion candidate to perform at the top level. So if they are promoting people beyond their competence anyway, under conditions of opportunity scarcity, there must be a good reason. Scott Adams, seeing a different flaw in The Peter Principle, proposed The Dilbert Principle: that companies tend to systematically promote their least-competent employees to middle management to limit the damage they can do. This again is untrue. The Gervais principle predicts the exact opposite: that the most competent ones will be promoted to middle management. Michael Scott was a star salesman before he become a Clueless middle manager. The least competent employees (but not all of them – only certain enlightened incompetents) will be promoted not to middle management, but fast-tracked through to senior management. To the Sociopath level.
  5. The minimum-effort Loser Stanley tells him coldly, “this here is a run-out-the-clock situation.” The line could apply to Stanley’s entire life. Stanley’s response shows both his intelligence and clear-eyed self-awareness of his Loser bargain with the company.
  6. The future Sociopath must be an under-performer at the bottom. Like the average Loser, he recognizes that the bargain is a really bad one. Unlike the risk-averse loser though, he does not try to make the best of a bad situation by doing enough to get by. He has no intention of just getting by. He very quickly figures out – through experiments and fast failures – that the Loser game is not worth becoming good at. He then severely under-performs in order to free up energy to concentrate on maneuvering towards an upward exit. He knows his under-performance is not sustainable, but he has no intention of becoming a lifetime-Loser employee anyway. He takes the calculated risk that he’ll find a way up before he is fired for incompetence.
  7. So let me introduce you to the main skill required here: mastery over the four major languages spoken in organizations. I’ll call the four languages Posturetalk, Powertalk, Babytalk and Gametalk.
    1. What distinguishes Powertalk is that with every word uttered, the power equation between the two speakers shifts just a little. Sometimes both gain slightly, at the expense of some poor schmuck. Sometimes one yields ground to the other. Powertalk in other words, is a consequential language.
    2. Another way to understand the difference between Powertalk and the other languages is with a card-playing analogy. In Powertalk, you play with valuable currency, usually reality-information. In the other languages, you are playing with no stakes. The most important enabling factor in being able to speak Powertalk is simply the possession of table stakes. Without it, whatever you say is Posturetalk. The only Powertalk you can speak without any table stakes is “silence.”
  8. Treacle is a vocabulary drawn from apparently win-win/play nice frameworks, but deployed with adversarial intent.
  9. So what is going wrong here? Why can’t you learn Sociopath tactics from a book or Wikipedia? It is not that the tactics themselves are misguided, but that their application by non-Sociopaths is usually useless, for three reasons. The first is that you have to decide what tactics to use and when, based on a real sense of the relative power and alignment of interests with the other party, which the Losers and Clueless typically lack. This real-world information is what makes for tactical surprise. Otherwise your application of even the most subtle textbook tactics can be predicted and easily countered by any Sociopath who has also read the same book. Null information advantage. The second reason is that tactics make sense only in the context of an entire narrative (including mutual assessments of personality, strengths, weaknesses and history) of a given interpersonal relationship. The Clueless have no sense of narrative rationality, and the Losers are too trapped in their own stories to play to other scripts. Both the Clueless and Losers are too self-absorbed to put in much work developing accurate and usable mental models of others. The result is one-size-fits-all-situations tactical choices which are easily anticipated and deflected. And the third and most important reason of course, is that your moves have to be backed up by appropriate bets using your table stakes, exposing you to real risks and rewards. A good way to remember this is to think of Powertalk as decisions about what verbal tactics to use when, and with what. The answer to with what is usually a part of your table-stakes. The stuff you are revealing and risking. If you cannot answer “with what?” you are posturing. You are not speaking Powertalk. In the Jim-Wallace example, Jim’s table stakes were his superior knowledge of the Michael-Jan story.
  10. You learn through real Powertalk conversations with other Sociopaths. Betting real stakes, like information, credibility, labor and literal dollars. You get played for a sucker a few times along the way before you wise up. Even if you are a kind Sociopath, you learn to swallow your distaste and occasionally play hardball when you have to.
  11. But if you do have the table stakes to join important conversations, and the mental toughness to play risk-and-reward games with every conversational move, there are a couple of skills worth practicing. The second skill is low-level utterance-by-utterance control, which is much harder. You cannot consciously engineer 7-8 meanings and calibrated amounts of power and leverage into every line you utter, through careful word choice.
  12. the depth of any transaction is limited by the depth of the shallower party.
  13. If the situational developmental gap between two people is sufficiently small, the more evolved person will systematically lose more often than they win. This is the Curse of Development. When you develop psychologically, and leave somebody behind, your odds of winning get worse before they get better.
  14. Well-adjustedness is a measure of the degree to which your worldview is socially acceptable and appropriate in a given environment. Since a messed-up personality can be well-adjusted with respect to a messed-up environment, well-adjustedness has very little to do with sanity and actual mental health. Environments and worldviews really come down to a series of situations and situational reactions. If your situational reactions are generally appropriate but against your best interests, you are a well-adjusted Loser. If they are both appropriate and in your best interests, you are a Sociopath. If your reactions are inappropriate (whether or not they are in your best interests – sometimes they are), you are Clueless.
  15. Here is the non-trivial stuff, compressed into three handy laws: Your development is arrested by your strengths, not your weaknesses. Arrested-development behavior is caused by a strength-based addiction. The mediocre develop faster than either the talented or the untalented. An alternative way of looking at these three laws is to note that defense mechanisms emerge to sustain addictions even when the developmental environment that originally nourished it vanishes. These then are the developmental psychology roots of the Gervais Principle. Recall that Cluelessness goes with overperformance. That overperformance is caused by arrested development around a strength, which has been hooked by an addictive environment of social rewards. Mediocrity is your best defense against addiction, and guarantor of further open-ended psychological development.
  16. Each pattern is based on a preferred, dominant variety of delusion: The Clueless distort reality. The Losers distort rewards and penalties. The Sociopaths distort the metaphysics of human life.
  17. To be an effective teacher at a given level, you need to have studied five years beyond that level. This has nothing to do with subject-matter expertise, and everything to do with trying to exit the Curse of Development zone.
  18. Status illegibility is necessary to keep a group of Losers stable. It is a deep form of uncertainty. I am not saying that there is a ranking that is just not known or knowable. I am saying there is no clear ranking to be known.
  19. Social groups grow from the illegible but stable center of the status spectrum, and leak at the legible but unstable edges.
  20. Remember, you are unique, just like everybody else. And everybody is uniquely above average. This is why, paradoxically, collectivist philosophies that value equality must necessarily value diversity. Nobody wants to be equally average. Everybody must be given a chance to be equally above average. Sociopaths detect and get wary of this dynamic very quickly:
  21. For the alpha, keeping contenders guessing through unpredictable signs of favor is the best idea. Exits work the same way. If an alpha or omega leaves, the new alpha or omega is plucked out of the illegible middle at that time. Not before. Succession planning may be a good idea in formal hierarchies, but it is a bad idea in social groups.
  22. Groups must remain socially fluid to work. Fluidity is the other side of illegibility.
  23. social skill, such as joke-telling ability, is a behavior whose effectiveness is determined by the reaction of a group. A joke is funny if the audience laughs. A proven mathematical theorem remains true even if a billion people scream that it isn’t. Theorem-proving is not a social skill in that sense. Like theorem-proving, social skills are information skills, since nothing tangible is produced besides an effect on others’ minds. Unlike theorem-proving though, the value of the product is based on social proof rather than objective proof. Social skills produce information; a social truth hypothesis (such as a joke). If it passes a social proof test, it becomes a piece of social capital, the grand narrative of the group. In other words: Social skills → Social truth hypotheses → Social proof → Social capital
  24. Most forms of humor attempt to raise or lower status of individuals via game-like structures, with defined roles and a structurally predictable script (the surprise comes from the content). There is always a jokester, a victim (which can be the same person by design or accident) and crucially, an audience. The victim may or may not be present. So there are at least three roles in a piece of humor, of which the role of audience may be played by a group. Sociopath jokes usually involve straight-faced delivery and private laughter, with no hint of mockery.
  25. Among the Sociopaths, status is irrelevant. Table stakes and skill at using them is what matters. Sociopaths pay attention to what you have, and how well you bargain with it. Not who you are.
  26. Clueless jokes are zero-sum, but Loser jokes are actually non-zero-sum. This does not mean they are win-win. This is a variety of non-zero-sum called mutual exploitation, that is sadly under-studied by game theorists. It simply means you can create net positive value by taking turns beating each other up competitively (aside for game-theory geeks: in the iterated prisoner’s dilemma, you get mutual exploitation by breaking the constraint that the cooperation payoff must be higher than the average of the defection and sucker payoffs). You can also create net-negative toxic non-zero-sum outcomes.
  27. Among Losers, in specific situations, status may go up or down, but overall, it just goes round and round. There is no grand status hierarchy. Only a top, a bottom, and an illegible middle. Newcomers attempt to successfully lose themselves in the middle. Situational wins and losses create a turbulent churn that maintains the illegibility without creating any decisive movement within the group.
  28. We’ve been drilling deep into social dynamics, and we finally get to that one deeply human quality that makes all this possible. It’s called empathy. The ability to feel what another human being is feeling. All this complicated social psychology does not need to be explicitly understood. For high-empathy people, all this is natural. By participating in collective feeling in groups of any size, and reacting to basic attraction/aversion drives, you can actually safely navigate all the complexity by instinct. Not only can you do this, you will actually feel good doing this. This feeling is called happiness. I don’t have time to go into this, but happiness is entirely a social phenomenon, and there’s plenty of evidence that the best way (and from my reading, the only way) to get happy is to get sociable. Non-social feelings that seem like happiness turn out, upon further examination, to be distinct emotions like contentment, equanimity or hedonistic pleasure. This isn’t particularly surprising. Our brains are designed like our bodies: just as we possess backs that others can scratch more easily than ourselves, our brains contain “backs,” so to speak. That’s where happiness lives, and is brought alive by empathic scratching.
  29. Why do we use the word “cringe” to describe the peculiar brand of humor in The Office? Think about the word. You cringe when you anticipate pain. Physical cringing, such as the cowering reaction you instinctively produce when you realize your car is going to hit another car, or when you realize somebody is going to hit you, serves to mitigate the anticipated damage. You also cringe via empathic anticipation of someone else’s impending pain.
  30. In this episode, Ryan is still not a Sociopath, so he cringes. Jan and David Wallace on the other hand, maintain an effortless poise no matter what Michael or Dwight get up to. To get there, they have to sequester empathy through detachment, and give up on happiness. We’ll see how and why that pact with the devil happens next chapter. In summary, seasoned Sociopaths maintain a permanent facade of strategic incompetence and ignorance in key areas, rather than just making up situational incompetence arguments. This is coupled with indirection and abstraction in requests given to reports. The result is HIWTYL (heads I win, tails you lose) judo.
  31. Loser group successes are effectively inflated, and blame discounted. So as Loser groups accumulate a history, internal valuations of earned credit are steadily inflated, and assessments of culpability run a deficit. A successful group systematically overvalues its capabilities and develops a blindness to its weaknesses. Sociopaths design the system this way because they are only interested in building an organization that lasts long enough to extract the easy value from whatever market opportunity motivated its formation. Expensive investments that will not pay off before the organization hits diminishing returns are not made. (It is revealing that the longest-lived businesses are family-owned – Sociopaths have an incentive to think long term if they intend to pass the business on to their progeny.)
  32. There are only three ways to get a bureaucracy to do anything it wasn’t designed to do: by stealth, with secret and deniable support from allies in the staff hierarchy; by getting air-cover from a sufficiently high-up Sociopath who can play poker with whichever oversubscribed Sociopath is in charge of exception-handling for the specific process (i.e. jumping the appeals queue and calling in favors to ensure the required ruling); and through corruption and bribery.
  33. That is what Sociopaths ultimately do with their lives if they survive long enough: generate amoral power from increasing inner emptiness, transforming themselves into forces of nature. As a side-effect, they also manufacture transient meanings to fuel the theaters of religiosity (including various secular religions) that lend meaning to lives of Losers and the Clueless. This meaning is achieved via subtraction, through withdrawal of complexities that the latter are predisposed to ignore, leaving behind simpler, more satisfying and more tractable realities for them to inhabit.
  34. Small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, great minds discuss ideas. And in Jamesian solitude, Sociopaths find ideas contending in their minds. The creative destruction they script in the world of Losers and Clueless is mirrored by a creative destruction in their minds. This process creates power, but destroys meaning, especially the meanings of social realities. The result is increasing inner emptiness and external power. It is this very emptiness that allows the Sociopath to play hero for the Clueless and priest for Losers. Recall that Sociopaths create meaning for others through the things they subtract, rather than the things they add. This is something conspiracy theorists typically don’t get: manufacturing fake realities is very hard. But subtractive simplification of reality is much easier, and yields just as much power.
  35. Sociopathy is not about ripping off a specific mask from the face of social reality. It is about recognizing that there are no social realities. There are only masks. Social realities exist as a hierarchy of increasingly sophisticated and specialized fictions for those predisposed to believe that there is something special about the human condition, which sets our realities apart from the rest of the universe. There is, to the Sociopath, only one reality governing everything from quarks to galaxies. Humans have no special place within it. Any idea predicated on the special status of the human – such as justice, fairness, equality, talent – is raw material for a theater of mediated realities that can be created via subtraction of conflicting evidence, polishing and masking.
  36. To turn status-seeking into a control mechanism is to devalue status. To devalue something is to judge any meaning it carries as inconsequential. In terms of our metaphor of masks of gods, the moment you rip off a mask and wear it yourself, whatever that mask represents becomes worth much less. So the Sociopath’s journey is fundamentally a nihilistic one.
  37. The major theme of Office Space, unlike The Office, is not deciphering and navigating the gridlock on the road to power, but exiting the rat-race altogether, to a state held up as an ideal of freedom: exile.
  38. The only true exit is to a freer mind. The only true state of happy exile is one which allows you to penetrate the social fictions that surround you, whether you remain within a cubicle or build a life around Burning Man.
What I got out of it
  1. Fun read showing why and how The Office is so funny and cringe-worthy. Organizational literacy is a great filter to have in your arsenal – Sociopaths, Clueless, Losers make up the typical hierarchy