Tag Archives: howard bloom

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.

Incompetent, Bloody Thief Mossadeq

Poverty with Prestige is Better than Affluent Disgrace,” by Howard Bloom, The Lucifer Principal, 253-255, http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/tg/detail/-/0871136643, 1 February 1997.

It’s spreading. Juan Cole writes that the U.S. overthrew the democratic government of Iran. If murdering political opponents is part of democracy, sure. The book the quote is from is quite good, so I am including context as well:

Humiliation and the insidious force of the giveaway can trigger superorganismic cataclysm. Take the example of Iran. From the late-nineteenth century until the Second World War, the Iranians felt the disgrace of living in the shadow of the superpowers. Iran was addicted to superpower help, ashamed of its dependency and resentful of the resulting influence the major nations achieved over its affairs. In 1879, for exampl, the shah asked the Russians to raise and train a police force in the north. The resulting “Cossack Brigade” had Russian officers and Iranian non-commissioned officers. In 1907, the shah grew impatient with the newly convened parliament — the Majlis. His solution was to call in the Russian-led police brigades, bombard hte parliamentary building, and reestablish autocratic rule.
Supporters of a constitutional democracy turned for help to Britain. Ten thousand of them took refuse on the grounds of the English embassy. That same year, the British and Russians put their heads together and carved Iran into three spheres of influence — a Russian sector in the north, a smaller British zone in the south, and a neutral territory in the middle.

Playing politics with the great powers made the Iranians feel like a small dog running between the legs of giants, a dog in danger of being trampled. One Iranian-born writer said bluntly that Britain and Russia were quarreling over Iran’s dead body. Then, during the Second World War, a new white knight, the United States, arrived to save the Iranians from the dishonor of superpower domination.

Americans opened new oil fields, and trained and equipped the Iranian military. American corporations started subsidiary operations in Tehran. The American government gave the Iranians money, helped place the country on the road to development, and propped up the Iranian ruler, the shah, counseling him on every nuance of policy from internal security to the management of his image in the Iranian newspapers. Then Americans executives and advisers moved into luxury villas in the walled-off Iranian suburbs, hired Iranian servants, and lived like kings.

Some American actions were Machiavellian. Others were generous. Both were destined to incur resentment. It wasn’t long before the Iranians felt their old sense of humiliation and realized that they were still int he peckin order’s lower depths. Even the shah felt the Americans despised him. According to his occasional confidence, the Soviet ambassador, the shah picked quarrels with the United States on minor isues to release his frustration — the frustration of a chicken who feels how low on the pecking order he has slid.

In the fifties, one Iranian leader, Muhammed Mossedeq, championed a move that would shame the Americans and restore Iranian pride. As premier, he planned to snatch the oil fields from the British and Americans, and to make the Iranian national property.

When Mossadeq spoke of Islamic pride, he literally brought tears to the eyes of this fellow Iranians. Islamic extremists were willing to kill in Mossadeq’s name, and kill they did. Among others, they assassinated the incorruptible Prime Minister Ali Razmara. Fear of Mossadeq’s fanatical supporters was so great that no imam could be found to say prayers at Razmara’s funeral. When one holy man was offered three thousand pounds to perform the services, he answered that “he valued his life at a higher rate than this.” Terrified by Mossadeq’s growing power, the shah fled the country.

In 1951, the fiery premier began his nationalization of oil. The result was a disaster. At least, it would have been a disaster if all the Iranians cared about was food, shelter, and clothing. Britain closed down the refineries, and vast numbers of British Iranian Petroleum Company employees were thrown out of work. Tribal chiefs accustomed to living off of oil royalties went empty-handed. Mossadeq’s administration was starved for lack of cash, and government employees went from week to week without pay. The Iranian economy became a basket case. But the Iranians did not complain. Why? The feeling of power was worth the price. Pecking-order pleasure centers reveled in bringing down those on high.

The Iranian euophoria was not to last. Both the United States and Britain were worried about the loss of this valuable piece of real estate. The shah returned, more beholden to America than ever, and the oil fields went back to the foreigners. The Iranians, however, never forgot their moment of pecking order triumph.
Iran did very well under American tutelage. Poverty plunged, education and health care spread through the land, women gained new freedoms, and the standard of living skyrocketed. American policymakers were proud of their accomplishments. By the measure of food, clothing, and shelter, the U.S. had helped Iran accomplish miracles. But both our State Department and the shah had forgotten that pride, dignity, and dominance — the needs of the pecking order impulse — can be far more pressing than the demands of the body.

Update: Mark at Zen Pundit links to a history of the Overthrow

There are competing analyses. In May of 2000 Ardeshir Zahedi, son of the general who led the coup, bitterly denied the CIA claims in an article published in the New York Times. In his view the pro-Shah forces stepped into the vacuum created by the collapsing Mossadegh government and that such involvement as the American CIA and British MI6 had was largely ineffectual. There’s evidence to support this view, too in the form of the reports of Roy Henderson, ambassador to Iran at the time.

I do believe that the CIA and MI6 had some role in the coup but I doubt the image of the omnipotent, malevolent CIA that I think is required to accept the first analysis completely. If there’s one thing we’ve learned about the CIA over the last 20 years, it’s that it has a culture of resume-padding (exaggerating the threat, exaggerating their successes, minimizing their failures) so I’m not surprised that agents might be attempting to grab credit (if that’s the right word for it) to which they are not completely entitled. Especially if book sales are involved.

Unfortunately, doing things that are deeply regrettable to prevent things that are even more regrettable is the difference between a great power and a Ladies Aid Society.


But oil wasn’t the primary interest of the United States in Iran. The United States was concerned about a possible Soviet takeover of Iran. The concern was not entirely without basis. In the 1920’s one of Iran’s provinces had briefly been carved off as the Persian Soviet Socialist Republic (also known as the Soviet Socialist Republic of Gilan). And the Soviet Union’s interests were not entirely based on oil, either.

We tend to forget that one of the most persistent Russian ambitions has been a warm water port. Without such a port Russia simply can’t be a naval power. And Iran had such ports not only on the Caspian but, more importantly, on the Gulf as well. Kermit Roosevelt, grandson of President Theodore Roosevelt and one of those most involved on the U. S. side in the Iranian coup, remained convinced to his dying day that only U. S. involvement with Iran prevented a Soviet takeover there.

As Mark says, read the whole thing