Review of "Global Brain" by Howard Bloom

This spring break I had the pleasure to read Global Brain by . Biz highly rated this book, and as I have blogged on Mr. Bloom’s previous book and enjoyed his appearances on Coast to Coast AM, when I say this tome at Barnes & Noble I couldn’t resist.


How to summarize Global Brain? I could say it’s about neural networks, or emergence, or even Matthew 13:12, but that captures only a trillionth of the work. Instead I’ll use the subtitle, The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century.

On the back cover, the book quotes Douglas Rushkoff as saying “I am awestruck.” That’s an accurate assessment. Global Brain becomes breathtaking after you finish it, because then you realize well it is written.

Howard Bloom argues that life is best viewed as a complex adaptive system. That is, all life in, on, and over the world form a dynamic, parallel, learning network. The network operates by rewarding success and punishing failure, or in the oft-quoted words of Jesus

For whosoever hath, to him shall be given, and he shall have more abundance: but whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken away even that he hath.

Bloom gives many examples of this. The neurons in a baby born in America that could recognize the different clicks of African bush-people rapidly die, while those adept to our alphabet are connected to. Healthy, active male guerrillas live in amorous harems, while subordinate males show signs of stress and social ostracization. And in our history, the military prowess of Sparta over Athens saw a flow of wealth and adulation (including Plato’s) to Sparta, while the democratic ideals of Athens were scorned, along with her former might.

Bloom transitioning from cell life to animals to human societies is amazing. By viewing life as a complex adaptive system groups that are typically referred to quite differently are seen as analogs in this book. Applying memetics to baboonery, for example, had not occurred to me before. The story of prokaryote networks and Greek trade networks just flow into each other — the effect is indescribable.

Along the way, Howard tells a lot of fascinating stories. The sad tale of Gilbert Ling, a victim of an obscure paradigm, critiques the supposed rationality of science. Bloom’s warnings (the book was published in 2000) that bin Laden and the Taliban are up to something, including the line are prescient. His description of early civilization is a welcome kick-in-the-face to followers of Daniel Quinn. And his discussion of rapid evolution of new species is especially interesting to me, given UNL’s unique focus on genetics in politics.

The most controversial parts of the book are Bloom’s rejection of Selfish Competition or its modern form, Richard Dawkin’s Selfish Gene Competition. Instead Bloom focuses on group competition, placing himself with Darwin. To quote from the prologue

… add in the evidence from “learned helplessness experiments,” and toss in the discoveries of complex adaptive systems researches, an interesting pattern emerges…

Social animals are linked in networks of information exchange. Meanwhile, self-destruct mechanisms turn a creature on and off depending on his or her ability to get a handle on the tricks and traps of circumstance…

It is time for evolutionists to open their minds and abandon individual selectionism as a rigid creed which cannot coexist with its supposed opposite, group selection. For when one joins the two, one can see that the networked intelligence forecast by computer scientists and physicists as a product of emerging technology has been around a very long time.

Here, though, a feature of the book gets in the way. Despite all the talks on networks, there’s no math in the book. But that means that Blooms criticism of strict individual selectionism are frustratingly vague. Bloom says that real genetic diversity in bee hives are far greater than rational choice-style models would predict. But no numbers are given.

Still, with 65 pages of footnotes 62 pages of bibliography in a book with 223 pages of chapters, the answers to all these questions can be found by going back to the source documents.

Global Brain by Howard Bloom is very, very good. Buy it.

Howard Bloom can be found online at his personal web page or at Big Bang Tango Media Lab.

8 thoughts on “Review of "Global Brain" by Howard Bloom”

  1. “Howard Bloom argues that life is best viewed as a complex adaptive system. That is, all life in, on, and over the world form a dynamic, parallel, learning network”

    Very Buddhist. Looks like a winner for my next run to

    Throw another book on the pile !

  2. He he! I read that as “Harold” Bloom originally 🙂

    Well, I'm all for serious evaluation of group-selection … but does he recognise the difference between selfish *gene* theory and the idea of a selfish individual animal? The bit you quote doesn't make that clear.

  3. Phil,

    He describes Richard Dawkin's selfish gene theory and uses it as a theme. He believes it to be the natural successor to individual selection. For instance, he mentions studies of bees, and that it makes sense for some individuals to remain celibate (contra old individual selectionism) if they were closely related to the queen (selfish gene selectionism). But then he mentions (but doesn't go into detail) that in real bee hives the relationship isn't close enough to fit with selfish gene selectionism.

  4. This is in reply to your post on The Coming Anarchy about this book.

    I've forgotten much of what I studied in schoool, so forgive me if I leave out a few references here and there. In short, choice- the act of making a decision- is one that is normally considered to require consciousness. Some “body” or thing- some thinking thing- has to exist in order to make a choice. Choice implies volition, and volition is (df) will. Will is something that we normally attribute to consciousness.

    You might hold an unorthodox theory of choice, but because much of our notions about morality center around our ideas about choice (fault has a lot to do with choice), this could get you in some tangles.

    Regarding metaphysics, it is usually considered a metaphysical issue whether or not certain things are thinking (conscious) types of things, or not. What is consciousness? What is a person? Is personhood or consciousness required for choice to exist? These are metaphysical questions.

    So while your comment on The Coming Anarchy did bring something new and interesting to the table, I think that accepting your proposition would bring most people way beyond where they thought they were in terms of metaphysical and moral philosophical assumptions.

    Going offline now, but look forward to hearing more on this tomorrow.

  5. Elizabeth,

    Over at CA, you were skeptical of bringing the “metaphysics of identity” in the discussion [1]. I agree with the sentiment. Obscurantism should be avoided.

    So why then this discussion of consciousness, this undefinable and unobservable state of being? Attempts to operationalize consciousness tend to focus on its effects (linguistic capacity, electroencephalographic recordings, etc.) and thus obscure the issue. And if, in your definition, choice requires consciousness — then isn't the concept of “choice” itself occulted?

    As you say “it is usually considered a metaphysical issue whether or not certain things are thinking (conscious) types of things, or not. What is consciousness? What is a person?” So if you insist on a conscious-based definition of “choice,” then you your bring up the metaphysics of identity.

    A better, more scientific, approach would be to throw out the “consciousness” requirement of choosing. Call it “selecting,” if that would make it easier on you. After all, choosing /is/ selecting[2], and Darwin was hardly being metaphysical when he referred to natural selection.

    So, swapping the metaphysically-laden term “choose” for the scientific term “select,” let's go back to our original comments [3]

    Elizabeth: “But groups don’t make selections, which means that the fate of a group is often beyond the control of the individuals in that group, and the group as a whole.”

    tdaxp: “Of course societies make selections.”


  6. Elizabeth,

    Thank you very much for your thought-provoking comment.

    We can measure behavior by focusing on selecting. However, as you point out, we can focus on consciousness by focusing on awareness. However, “Will” is subsumed neither by selecting or awareness. Recent research on the “automated” or subconscious will [1] bring questions of consciousness, subconsciousness, and will out from the metaphysical wilderness, and safely into the realm of scientific inquiry.

    I apologize for the 2+ year delay between your comment and mine. I guess that’s what you get for being too thought provoking! 🙂

    [1] Bargh J.A., Gollwitzer P.M., Lee-Chai A., Barndollar K., Trotschel R. (2001). The automated will: Nonconscious activation and pursuit of behavioral goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(6), 1014-27

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