THE GENIUS OF THE BEAST: A RADICAL RE-VISION OF CAPITALISM
By Howard Bloom
Prometheus Books, $29, 607 pages
Reviewed by Benjamin P. Tyree
"The Genius of the Beast" is a tour de force - a realistic but sympathetic examination of the expansions and contractions of the capitalist system, all the more remarkable because its author is both a science writer and former music-industry publicist.
Howard Bloom looks at capitalism as a reflection not only in Darwinian terms of the natural order but in cosmic terms, comparing its boom-and-bust cycles to the grand drama of the universe. Capitalism at first begins tentatively exploring new opportunities for profit, like a search engine, and, finding them, embarks on an exuberant period of growth that can expand into a bubble.
The inevitable limits of the opportunity then produce disappointment, often resulting in a shocked retreat and a collapse of the bubble as capitalism enters a depressed state, only to begin "repurposing" and then searching for more opportunities to expand.
And the cycle inevitably repeats, time after time, as it does in the cosmological expansion of the universe, the repeated birth and death and birth of stars, the varied stages of the life of a man and so forth. Expansions and contractions may be inherent, inescapable and natural parts of creation.
Mr. Bloom, also author of "The Lucifer Principle" and "Global Brain," examines the lives of other social species, such as honeybees, and finds a similar and instructive pattern. Scouting bees go far and wide looking for new opportunities to feed the hive, while foraging bees work established sources of pollen and nectar closer to home to the point of diminishing return.
Finding new fields of flowers, the scouts return to the hive and communicate via an excited but precise ritualistic dance the direction of the new find and difficulty of reaching it. The nature of the find is communicated by oral exchange of samples. Other bees then follow and also return to confirm the new find. Soon the range of the foraging bees is expanded, to the jubilation and benefit of all.
When the bees' sources of food are diminished by exhaustion or adverse weather conditions, the hive falls back on its honey reserves, which are depleted rapidly. Depressed, the hive population begins to fall off. Finally, if fortunate, the bees are rescued by returning scouts bringing news of a discovered fresh source of nourishment. And the cycle repeats. This vignette, alone, though familiar to many naturalists, is worth the price of the book for its logical tie-in to the vagaries of capitalistic experimentation and exhilarating expansion.
Mr. Bloom examines the sturdy Neanderthal to show why mere physical adaptation has not always sufficed for human survival. The decline of the Neanderthals, he argues, may have been linked to their lack of interest in physical decoration and makeup as practiced by Homo sapiens.
He posits that although the shorter, more powerful Neanderthal superficially may have seemed better suited to survive the multiple ice ages, Homo sapiens came through because the habit of self-ornamentation and the imaginative mind of the species enabled them, our ancestors, to address the environmental challenges by constructing protective clothing and shelter out of animal skins in new and adaptive ways.
Driving his point home in modern terms, he says, in one telling paragraph: "In the name of just the basics and no frivolity - no makeup, no trinkets, no luxuries, and no religion - the socialist revolutionaries of Lenin, Mao and Stalin killed more than 80 million human beings. This was the world's biggest experiment in creating a society on the basis of sheer reason. And it failed miserably."
In another chapter, he boldly asserts: "We didn't invent trading, Mother Nature did." Again, among other examples, he cites the relationship of bees to the pollination of flowers. "For proof consult your nearest flower - a flashy billboard for a humble dust of pollen.
One of the most powerful messages from a blossom is this: If you want to be all natural, then trade, seduce, display, broadcast, recruit and spread your billboards left and right around the land." And again, "That's what masses of fireflies do when they flash on cue like pixels on a downtown Tokyo video display." It's all self-promotion in the market of reproduction and survival of the species.
This book displays an astonishing breadth of knowledge and few missteps, but there is at least one that stands out. In a reference to Henry VIII's break with Rome, he speaks of the monarch having "applied for divorce number eight." Actually, Henry VIII married but six times, and the divorce issue with Rome arose with wife No. 1.
Mr. Bloom also suggests that Henry only fathered daughters. Henry did ultimately sire two sons who survived until their middle teens, one of them an honored but titled illegitimate son and the other his first Tudor successor as Edward VI. However, this is an easily correctable set of errors.
Other sections of the book deal with the rise of symbols such as money and their role in altering the nature and the expectations involved in trade; the promotion of soap as an outgrowth of the revolution in clothing brought on by the change to cotton; the early Roman invention of concrete that made massive public works affordable; and how 19th-century urban plumbing helped curb fire and disease. These are only a few examples.
Among the personal aspects of the book that are most entertaining is a section relating the author's role in the career of musical phenomenon Prince and the rescue of Prince's movie "Purple Rain" from corporate opposition.
This book includes 80 pages of endnotes, a testimony to the breadth of the author's research on his topic.
Benjamin P. Tyree is a veteran journalist, a media fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a former editor at The Washington Times.