Sunday, July 22, 2007

Review: "Global Brain," by Howard Bloom

Long time no post. See: on beach in SC for a week. Much eating, swimming, reading, sleeping. Not much else.

While there, I read four books, one of which being "Global Brain" by Howard Bloom (Amazon, WorldCat). I read Bloom's earlier, "The Lucifer Principle" (Amazon, WorldCat), and enjoyed it. I bought "Global Brain" more than a year ago (for the 2006 beach trip), but didn't get around to it. Bloom's work, though entertaining, interesting and conversational, is not light. Last year was a year for light beach reading.

Anyway... "Global Brain" has, as its main crux, the idea that although many scientists and technologists are predicting a worldwide, (semi-?)intelligent mind of a cybernetic variety, there have, in fact, been global brains around for a couple-a-few million years. He starts with bacteria, moves up through various animal examples, spends a good bit of time on the Spartans vs. Athenians, and ends up with modern media and politics. In short, to prove his points, he gives us really interesting and fun examples of systems that improve their lot through group evolution that seems (in many cases) like learning.

It is a theory related to and built upon memetics. Richard Dawkins came up with the term "meme" to describe a "unit of cultural evolution." Basically, a meme is any idea or group behavior that can be summed up as self-contained trait that lives in a society rather than an individual. Though individuals express memes, they aren't biologial. Though, as Bloom points out several times, biology has established learning systems within other systems that encourage (usually) learning on larger scales.

Bloom identifies five elements necessary for group selection:

  • Conformity enforcers
  • Diversity generators
  • Inner-judges
  • Resource shifters
  • Intergroup tournaments

He provides lots of examples of how these elements work alone, and together, to promote the evolution of learning groups, be they prehistoric shrimp or fundamentalist religious groups.

It was a neat read and very thought-provoking. Some of what Bloom is trying to do is to get people to think about evolution outside the "selfish gene" paradigm of individual selection. And I've got no problem with the idea that nature favors the advancement of complex systems that work well together. Nor do I have any disagreement with the basic idea that groups of people, as well as many animal species, rely on the evolution of inter-member memes, as well as genetic evolution.

What kind of made me go, "Hmmm...." though was that Bloom's five elements can basically describe any kind of group interaction. He discusses ways in which conformity generators can help strengthen a positive meme... but also ways in which too much conformity can strangle growth. He clearly favors diversity generators, long-term, as a key to developing new memes for survival... but also acknowledges that diversity without some kind of stabalizing system is too chaotic for growth.

The other elements fare similarly. So my issue with this is that it's a way for describing systems... but not really categorizing them or making, shall we say, objective qualifications of the elements of group evolution.

We know, for example, that physical traits obtained through genetic, individual evolution will always favor survival, over the long-term, and barring sudden, catastrohpic events. Nature does not select for dumb-ass, weak, brittle or slow survival strategies. Individual creatures with those negative sparks of creative biology will die (on average) more often before reproducing, thus reducing the population of weaklings in a particular niche, and increasing the chances that competing creatures will flourish.

The same can't be true of Bloom's five elements, because he points out contradictory examples of how they work in groups. Which isn't necessarily bad/wrong... a complex system often requires balance. A bit of conformity after diversity... then some reshuffling of resources... then more diversity after a time of complacency, when opportunity presents itself. A description, however, that allows for so much flexibility in interpretation of positive effects leaves me a bit... well... puzzled.

In nature, faster is better than slower, all other things being equal. Stronger is better than weaker. You can't put "conformity" and "diversity" on the same kind of binary scale, though. There's too much mud in that water. If I conform to a self-reflective meme that pushes me to be different than my social group... am I being influenced by a conformity enforcer? or a diversity generator? Diversity in small things can be a mark of conformity overall, and vice versa. I almost wish Bloom had come up with a term/idea that captured, on one scale, the concept of the tension that exists between the two, and how the tension is what generates learning.

It made me think, and still is doing so. And that's a good thing. Lots of good anecdotes, too. But I've still not made up my mind about certain key elements. Which is OK, too.

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