This spring break I had the pleasure to read Global Brain by Howard Bloom. 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.
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.