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Global Brain

June 29, 2001

Why does everyone pick on biology? Why should biology fill the vacuum left by Marx and Freud, supposedly supplying the desired "universal principles" governing human self-awareness and behaviour? What other discipline would allow its territory to be invaded by systems-builders who could not recognise one end of a microtubule from the other?

Philosophers, psychologists (of the self-styled "evolutionary" kind), mathematicians, linguists, historians and some novelists all appeal to the "universalism" of biological principles of evolution and development without so much as a nod to the little that is known in such matters. Biologists are just scratching the surface of the beast generated by the combined activities of the three major evolutionary processes - natural selection, neutral drift and molecular drive - and, if there is a dim message to date, it is that there are no fixed laws of biology. As with history and the economy, evolution and development are one-off, time-dependent and contingent series of events. As much as the broad brush of Marxist dynamics failed to explain the significant details of human history, and certainly failed to prescribe a set of centralised rules on how society could produce a fair quality of life for every participant, so the erratic forces of evolution cannot explain anything of real interest in the diversity of individual behaviour, other than through the blandest of truisms.

Howard Bloom, non-biologist, founder of the discipline of "palaeopsychology" (fossil minds?) and hailed by some as next on a very short list that includes Darwin, Freud and Einstein, has produced a book on the thesis of the global brain, which, in its strange outpourings, has more in common with Tom Wolfe's Bonfire of the Vanities and Zadie Smith's White Teeth than with any academic product known to me. But, whereas the last two fictional accounts are profound and hugely enjoyable for what they say about human diversity and the societies we create, (including, ironically, a much more accurate understanding of the sexual shuffling of genes and the creation of a hilarious genetically engineered mouse by Smith), Bloom's book is unacceptable as an academic treatise into the biological wherewithal of his imagined global brain.

Bloom describes his credentials for writing the book as someone who "has roamed around the world, notepad in hand, among the stars, backstage crews and crowds at stadiums"; who has "spent thousands of hours in the private homes of celebrities and media executives"; and who has had "an inside view during the birth of many a cultural movement, including conference rooms, arenas, power restaurants and bedrooms where teenage groups hang out, the Samoas and Galapagos Islands of modern mass behaviours". Bloom proudly takes his place with the Forrest Gumps and Zeligs of this world.

But what has Bloom observed at the shoulders of the movers and shakers? It turns out that everything is wired into a "collective learning machine"; that is, a complex, global group adaptation, in contrast to the more accepted notion that it is the individual that is the unit of evolution. "Individualism runs against the very grain of cosmic history ever since the first quarks joined to form neutrons and protons". With this flourish, Bloom accounts for the first 12 billion years of the universe. The next three and a half billion, up to the origins of multicellular and sexual organisms, is taken up with the not unexpected observations that atoms and molecules and cells and tissues and individuals and species also interact one with another, and so on and so forth, right up to our modern human societies. No quark or individual is an island unto itself.

The more serious problem is Bloom's much larger claim that all such interactions, whether of quarks, or signalling and receptor molecules on the surface of bacterial cells and so on, are part of some "primitive IQ" - the "mass mind" to which we are all inescapably enmeshed. This being decreed, every thought in an individual's consciousness is a "mere ghost held in memory" (presumably the memory of those free-loving quarks), and "reality is a shared hallucination".

If this were not enough, Bloom creates five bracing principles governing life and the universe, and proceeds to decompose every biological and historical event into this quintet of essentials. They are: conformity enforcers, diversity generators, inner judges, resource shifters and intergroup tournaments (an unintentional mix of natural selection and dialectical materialism). I do not know why Bloom bothers with the last three, because the strikingly opposite effects of the first two can explain anything that one cares to. Child development is one of Bloom's examples, any aspect of which, as the child relates to the world around it, can be squeezed into the eternal dilemma: should I stay or should I go?

It could be that I am doing Bloom a gross disservice; but if so, some of the blame has to lie with Bloom's lusty use of the English language. Take the historical process by which the Judeo-Christian belief in one god swept away the multi-god beliefs of the Greeks. In Bloom's word-world, this was due to the Christian use of a "boundary-breaking subculture glue". Hence, "the users of the new mucilage epoxied together transcontinental circuits of genetically mixed humanity" - seemingly a case of the memes (a favourite concept for Bloom) driving the genes.

At the very least, Bloom writes with enormous panache. How else could he claim that "each of us is an hypothesis in a larger mind"? Always prepared to accept Bob Dylan's invitation to be in his dream if he could be in mine, I am not so sure I like the idea of being a hypothesis in Bloom's expansive mind.

The summary chapter on "The reality of the mass mind's dreams" has the saving grace of the old joke; why do Jews like to see a porn movie in reverse? Because they like the bit where the hooker gives the money back. As both Jew and hooker, I have thoroughly enjoyed Bloom's chutzpah .

Gabriel Dover is professor of evolutionary genetics, University of Leicester.

Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century

Author - Howard Bloom
ISBN - 0 471 29584 1
Publisher - Wiley
Price - £20.50
Pages - 370

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