Howard Bloom:
"Global Brain" (Wiley, 2000)

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This book is a continuation of sorts of Bloom's excellent "The Lucifer Principle" (Norton, 1995)

Viewing the Earth as a complex adaptive system is not new (see Lovelock's Gaia of the 1960s, Peter Russell's "The Global Brain" of 1983, Joel de Rosnay's "The Planetary Brain" of 1986, and Stuart Kauffman's "At Home in the Universe" of 1995) but Bloom imagines the story step by step. Bloom's "global brain" has nothing to do with the Internet (well, until the current state): it is the brain of all living beings networked together. Bloom sees evolution and life in general as a process of collective thinking and a learning machine. The delicate balance of competition and cooperation turns a society into a powerful learning machine. Most of this has been said before, but Bloom emphasizes that animals live in groups not just to defend themselves from predators but also to engage in knowledge sharing: a pack, a herd, a colony or a flock is a "network of information exchange". Bloom argues that even roosts are "data collection centers". That's the complex adaptive system that behaves like a learning machine. Bloom's favorite example is the colony of bacteria. Each member is incredibly simple but the colony as a whole is incredibly good at adapting at new environments. That's a global brain at work. Bloom quotes Eshel Ben-Jacob's claim that evolutionary progress in bacteria is due to "designed creative processes" (i am not sure how that "design" differs from "trial and error"). Every book on evolution has to delve into the Cambrian Explosion of 535 million years ago. Bloom thinks that this "explosion" is responsible for the birth of the nervous system and memory, and for the related revision in the "global brain" model of bacteria: the rapid-fire exchange of information that is the norm among bacteria became an internalized knowledge organization "stuck inside the body". But these memory-equipped beings were now able to do something new: individual learning, which created the phenomenon known as "memes". Bloom thinks that memes spread not only among human minds but also among other animals. In fact, they spread first among animals, as behavioral memes. Behavioral memes (learning by imitation) is still present in humans, and implemented in the reptilian brain (the brain that we share with lower animals). This is the most tedious part of the book. It spans a few chapters and it ends with the confident assertion that Broca's area is the addition to the brain that enabled the propagation of verbal memes. Memes created another sort of global brain.

Bloom then takes a detour to explain that what we see is not what is out there, that our brain creates the "reality" that we perceive, and makes the point that we are greatly influenced by "memes" or, better, by the people around us: "reality is a shared hallucination". A particular case of meme is the meme of conformity: group cohesion (or "reality") is driven by conformity enforcers, who ridicule, bully, reject and even torture those who don't conform. The same group may contain diversity generators. Diversity and conformity work in tandem to assure sustained innovation. For example, when abundant food is available, the network signals to both kin and friends to assemble and join in the feast. When food is scarce, the network encourages members to fan out and scout for new opportunities. Then the city created a new global brain via trade.

Our universe exists thanks to a delicate balance (so far) of attraction and repulsion. These two forces balance themselves from the atomic scale to the galactic scale. Bloom points out that society too depends on the balance between the force of repulsion (competition) and attraction (cooperation). In particular, Bloom believes that trade has become a genetic trait of the human race thanks to the Baldwin effect, that at some point hominids became social animals. Even wars can be seen as forms of cooperation, because it is often the case that the conqueror absorbs the culture of the conquered.

There is little of interest after the tenth chapter because Bloom tries (unsuccessfully) to prove his points looking at the history of Greek civilization and then linking them to contemporary events.

I have three problems with this book. First and foremost, i did not agree with the premise, that we are genetically programmed to enjoy socializing. I hear this repeated over and over again, but it just doesn't match my observation of the human race, which chooses privacy and solitude whenever it came, to the point that young people in big modern cities tend to drive in their cars, live in small studios, play videogames alone, work in cubicles that separates from the other workers, and exercise alone in gyms. We choose to distance ourselves from other humans whenever our finances make it affordable. I also happen to be one of them: i often prefer hiking alone than hiking with others because i enjoy nature a lot more when i am alone. Other people spoil the experience. They may add something important (like safety) but generally speaking i cannot say that hiking with my best friend makes the hike more enjoyable than hiking alone.

That said, i also find Bloom's prose a bit annoying. I feel sorry for the translators who had to translate this book in foreign languages. It is full of idiomatic expressions and all sorts of slang. I know he (or his ghost writer) is trying to sound witty and entertaining, but for me the result was the opposite. Of course, my personal taste in style should not influence my judgment about the content, but frequently the style seems to mask a lack of proof, such as "would kindle flares of fire in the furnace of the nascent global brain".

Third and not last, the innumerable citations certainly prove that Bloom is an erudite man (we knew that already) but end up reducing the force of his arguments. He cites one study after the other (and the sheer number of citations is mindboggling) but for each of those cited studies you can easily find other studies that refute them. Bloom handpicks the studies/experiments that serve his mission and ignores all the literature to which they belong. While i tend to agree with most of what Bloom writes, i cannot quote any of his conclusions because they are all based on a set of experiments and studies taken at face value, without mentioning how much consensus there is around them. If one had enough time, one could spend a lifetime dissecting each of the studies and experiments that he takes for granted and write a whole chapter about who agrees and who disagrees and what later studies proved or disproved. The book is full of sentences such as "The details of this process are somewhat speculative..." or "may have been the spark for..." (note the "may") that are followed by confident conclusions. He confidently states that "one out of three rooms in the Anatolian city of Catal Huyuk was a shrine" when in fact nobody knows much about those rooms; but then draws confident conclusions from that dubious premise (or that it had "no trees in its vicinity": sure?) The book is also full of sentences that begin with "Legendary anthropologist..." and "Legendary psychoanalyst...": the fact that they are legendary (if they truly are) does not mean that they were always right (in fact, in the latter case Bloom is referring to a psychologist, Erikson, whom i wouldn't recommend to my worst enemy).

Just for the first chapter: I am not sure that Hans Kummer's "In Quest of the Sacred Baboon" conclusively (the word used by Bloom) proves what Bloom thinks it proves (that primates are more likely to fight kin than strangers) and in any case it would be interesting to find out what other primatologists think; Bloom quotes David Sloan Wilson's claim that groups make better decisions than individuals (go tell Einstein, Edison, Leonardo, etc) and Rene Spitz's theory that loners tend to be psychologically unstable (neither me nor any of my loner friends seems to be particularly unstable compared with some of my wildly social friends, and, in fact, anecdotal evidence would point in the opposite direction). Bloom implies that to live a long and healthy life you should be surrounded by friends and relatives, but Emma Morano, the oldest woman as of 2016, has lived a single and child-less life for most of her 117 years (genes do matter: everybody in her family lived a long and healthy life, whether they were surrounded by friends or not). Bloom does not mention the opposition to these ideas, for example that Dawkins called Wilson's group selectionism a "sheer, wanton, head-in-bag perversity."

Bloom tries a bit too hard to fit this theory on ancient Greece and mostly uses stereotypes rather than scholarly studies. For example, he blindly adopts the view that the Spartans were monomaniacs fixated with uniformity and physical fitness, when in fact Spartan schools taught more logic and philosophy than most civilizations of the time (Athens taught more, but everything is relative). Then again who knows what Bloom means by a sentence such as "Sparta was a heartless breeder killing off diversity". Bloom quotes the legend that the Spartan poet Tyrtaeus was actually from Athens, but both Athenaeus and Strabo state that Tyrtaeus was a Spartan general, who also happened to write good poetry, and Herodotus mentions only two foreigners who ever received Spartan citizenship, neither called Tyrtaeus (most likely Athens created the legend that Tyrtaeus was Athenian as political propaganda, because it was humiliating to admit that one of the most famous poets of that ancient age was a Spartan). If this odd detour wasn't enough, Bloom then launches into a discussion of Faustian (adventurous) introverts, as apparently defined by Hans Eysenck, in order to introduce Pythagoras, with detours to emphasize that Socrates preferred the left brain whereas Pythagoras preferred the right brain. It sounds like this lengthy preamble was meant to prove that Pythagoras invented the role of the independent eccentric. No idea why this is relevant, even if it were true. Bloom then introduces the notions of "intergroup tournaments" and "resource shifters". Most of this is trivial. At the end of the chapter he simply concludes that the best of Aristotle will be seen in science and the worst of Plato will be seen in "intolerance and bigotry". Sure? The history of the Catholic church seems to prove the exact opposite. Gilbert Ling becomes the hero of a confusing chapter on modern science that concludes: Through the interplay of hypotheses the mass mind grows and learns even when it does so by taking a mistaken turn". It gets worse when Bloom delves into contemporary events, from the fall of the Soviet Union to religious extremism. We learn that, according to Reuters, "rapid change and upheaval have driven vast hordes of Chinese into cults". My Chinese friends rolled their eyes when they read this. Even if Reuters really wrote that (and i found no evidence of it), it is ridiculous to take it as true without a speck of investigation and to exaggerate it into "vast hordes of Chinese" (how many? China is a country of 1.2 billion people). He quotes ABC-TV Weekend News to claim that almost half of the murders in the USA occur in the southern states: he couldn't find any better source? How about the yearly FBI statistics? or the CDC? There are countless passages like this one that make no sense, are unfounded and simply irritate the reader who is looking for ideas, not TV gossip.

Personally, i think that Bloom is using a dirty trick: list hundreds of references and organize them by chapter (which makes it very difficult to consult them) so that the reader will feel reassured that proper due diligence has been made by the author. But sometimes it simply hides sloppy research.

And, by the way, Rome did not fall in 410 (as confidently mentioned in chapter 18), but in 476. TV shows are not the best way to learn history.

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