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May 27, 2010

Staff Picks: The Genius of the Beast & Creation Stories

By: Dylan Schleicher @ 5:12 PM – Filed under: Management & Workplace Culture

Tell me a creation story, from the Sumerian Enuma Elish to Tolkien's Ainulindalë in the The Silmarillion, and you've probably got me hooked. So I am reading Howard Bloom'sThe Genius of the Beast: A Radical Re-Vision of Capitalism with considerable interest. As the author writes in the prologue:
Every Culture needs a creation myth, a vision of how it came to be. That creation myth defines a culture's values and its aspirations. The Genius of the Beast is an attempt to provide a radically new creation myth—a factual creation myth, a creation story based on history and science.
Now, I'm a bit dubious here, because I don't really believe in the what's usually referred to as the "science of the marketplace" anymore than I believe that the Ainur sang the world into existence or that Eru Ilúvatar created and awakened the lives of Elves and Men.

Dubious, but fascinated. Fascinated by the history he explores and stories he tells in this "creation myth," but also by the way Bloom looks at the "science" of the market. He does not, for instance, equate "science" with "absolute truth" or ascribe infallibility to the "invisible hand" of the marketplace. He does not use "science" as a metaphor for "perfection," or suggest that the free market is something we ought to have absolute faith in the perfection of (anymore than we faith that the weather will always be perfect, or that the forecasts meteorologists give us of it are). This is science in it's most literal form: the in-depth study and analysis of nature. In this case, the nature of "Western Civilization—and of its capitalist digestive machinery." And it goes in directions you may may not expect:
In a Darwinian world, only the fit live on. Only what works remains. ... Could it be that boom and crash contribute to the success of human beings? If that's true, what in the world do they achieve? Equally important, what can you and I do to turn crashes into opportunities? Not just opportunities for ourselves. Opportunities for all of humanity.

The superficial story of the Great Credit Collapse of 2008 is a tale of overpaid executives milking the system. It's a story of modern bandits conning money out of you and me. It's a story of idealism starting a chain of events that led to ruin. And it's a story of good turned into accidental evil. Or that's the way it seems. But that's just the mask, just the disguise. The real cause of the crash is best explained by tales of bacteria and mice—our relatives on the tree of life. ... They are relatives who, like us, go through boom and bust. And they do it without money. Why? Because the hidden roots of an economy go much deeper than they seem. ... the Great Credit Collapse of 2008 hid its real causes in an ocean of red herrings. Folks on the right think it was the caused by one set of bad guys—people trying to do good. And folks on the left are sure the collapse was caused by the "greed is good" mentality of thieves in hand-tailored business suits: upscale robbers going for twenty-million-dollar paydays ... Under the surface, there was something far more primal going on.
Bloom explores the primal roots of Western Civilization using a "tool kit of new concepts:"
  • the evolutionary search engine
  • the birds and bees of boom and crash
  • the cycle of insecurity
  • stored vision
  • microempowerment
  • tuned empathy
  • the hells and heavens created by your neurobiology seven times a day
  • the hungers in the fissures of your brain
  • novelty lust
  • identity tools
  • creative capitalism versus criminal capitalism
  • and management by walking outside
The The Genius of the Beast is a heavy book—in both physical weight and intellectual—but Bloom's playful writing style will pull you through. You will read about "Pigs, pies, pudding and wizards of finance," "The tale of the speech that saves Prince's Purple Rain," "How bats invented credit and commerce" and much, much more. It's a read as fascinating as Adam Smith and Karl Marx (minus the ideology), and as fun as George R.R. Martin (minus the dragons and valyrian steel).

About Dylan Schleicher


Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.