I’ve long been fascinated by power and its diverse manifestations. As a kid in the late-1970s, I read Here’s Power for You, a bodybuilding manual from which I learned various exercises and what muscles they work. Around the same time, there was a bestseller titled Power!: How to Get It, How to Use It, which I understood was about power as control of organizations and getting people to do what you want. A few years later, I took high school physics, where power was energy per unit of time, measured in watts.
An absorbing new book, The Evolution of Power: A New Understanding of the History of Life, by biologist Geerat J. Vermeij, describes power as central to life’s nature and evolution, tying together different senses of the word “power.” Power is fundamentally the capacity to do work, and as such is a pervasive characteristic of life as organisms seek to survive and reproduce. Vermeij makes a convincing case that power’s central to understanding evolution, providing insights that are less evident from a focus on other concepts such as energy or complexity; and that there’s been a long-term trend in life’s history toward greater power, individual and collective, with human capacities representing a culmination so far.
“Many readers may find my emphasis on power as a unifying principle depressing,” Vermeij writes. “Is there really nothing more to life than power? What about beauty, morality, love, and the other sentiments that give life meaning? Are they all to be stripped of their magic in favor of a concept that we often associate with the opposite of these sentiments?” Disputing that response, he argues that such sentiments wouldn’t exist without the pursuit of power, and that studying power offers a way to connect diverse phenomena. Seashells, with marvelous patterns arising from danger and struggle, have long been a focus of Vermeij’s work, though he’s been blind since age three. “I glory in nature’s richness despite the fact that the visual dimensions of beauty are inaccessible to me,” he writes.
There’s also a connection between power and freedom, as Vermeij notes: “Freedom—the availability of choice of action and, in the case of humans, belief—is a manifestation of enhanced power acquired and wielded by living beings. Constraints on power, whether they are imposed by physical limitations such as temperature and the lack of oxygen or by interference from living enemies, place bounds on what individuals or groups can do and when they can do it.” This puts him at odds—though he doesn’t make this point—with much libertarian thinking, where power and freedom are a direct trade-off, with freedom seen only negatively: an absence of coercion, rather than a range of choices.
Lately, my family’s been watching Game of Thrones, another work suffused with a focus on power. We’d avoided the series for some years until it was (somewhat) age-appropriate for our son, and as of this writing are near the end of season three. Though sex and power are intertwined in the story, even more than in real life, the series’ popularity, it seems to me, has less to do with its sex scenes, many of which have the same thudding quality as Napoleon charging behind Josephine in the dismal Ridley Scott movie, than with the ebb and flow of power among the contending houses, and with the unlocking of mysterious powers, such as those of magic or dragons. Which characters or forces are ultimately more powerful holds a fascination.
I’m reminded of my long-ago reviews of The X-Files and Star Trek: Voyager at Space.com. Regarding The X-Files, I had a desire, never fulfilled, for aliens and demons to battle each other, to see which powerful forces of seemingly separate realms would prevail head-to-head. In Voyager, I was never more engrossed than when the Borg was losing a war against Species 8472, powerful aliens that the tech-based collective had identified as “the apex of biological evolution,” and sought to assimilate, with catastrophic results. In Napoleon, in which the emperor often seems medicated, takes on a vivid immediacy in the scenes of Austerlitz, as cannon fire breaking through a lake’s frozen surface rapidly alters the balance of power among the contending armies.
The news, to an even greater extent than usual, is currently filled with struggles for power, at national and international levels. Though power is integral to our evolution, humans aren’t necessarily good at assessing which nations or movements currently or prospectively hold the most power. I’ve long been among those raising alarms about Donald Trump as a threat to democracy, and recently I argued that a second Trump presidency would generate international calamities. However, I worry that such warnings attribute to this con artist greater powers than he’d actually be able to hold, and that investing him with this mystique inspires dimwitted people to admire him precisely because they yearn for a dictator.
—Follow Kenneth Silber on Threads: @kennethsilber