Symbolic Systems 205 - Systems: Theory, Science, Metaphor

Winter 2002-2003

Stanford University

Instructor: Todd Davies, Symbolic Systems


Conformity, Diversity, and the Global Brain

by Sara Wampler

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

by Howard Bloom

John Wiley & Sons, 370 pp., $16.95

 

 

I.

 

The influence of Darwinian thinking on the analysis of human development is nothing new. Discussions of Charles Darwin's theories have found their way into a variety of fields over the last century, but these analyses usually limit themselves to the role that natural selection plays on individuals. Even the term "social Darwinism" has little to do with the selection of societies--instead, it is typically used as a method of describing the ways in which individuals come to prevail in a culture or group through their own superiority. But, while the functioning of individual organisms (including humans) has been explored extensively in biology, sociology, psychology, and economics, these studies offer very little data about the relationships between societies.

 

Howard Bloom steps into this void with Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century. This book combines a discussion of group selection with a whirlwind tour of 3.5 billion years of organic history to advance Bloom's theory that each individual is merely a hypothesis, an idea formed by a "global brain." This view of human purpose departs from typical Darwinian thinking because it implies that biology is not driven solely by the individual's desire to propagate its own genes; rather, all of history has been shaped by an endless array of tests that determine which paths should next be explored by the mass mind. In another departure from traditional thought, Bloom argues that such tests are not merely a crucible for individuals--societies and cultures live or die based on their interactions with the groups around them. Successful groups pass their trends and norms on to others through conquest or other forms of dissemination, while less adept groups eventually fall away. Future groups shy away from such failures, and so destroyed tribes and cultures are essentially "experiments" that will never be resurrected.

 

Bloom’s theory of group selection relies on five key elements: conformity enforcers, diversity generators, inner-judges, resource shifters, and intergroup tournaments.  In Bloom’s words, this “pentagram of the learning machine” was in place at least 120 million years ago and comprised “some of the secrets of the nascent global brain.”  At first glance, these components are rather straightforward.  Conformity enforcers ensure that groups maintain enough similarities to actually function as a group.  These “enforcers” are group members who, like the bully on the playground or the informant in a police state, demand obedience to some behavioral norm in exchange for protection from harm.  In the best sense, conformity enforcers encourage unity and the pursuit of normalization; in the worst sense, enforcers stifle creativity and destroy deviants.  These enforcers are balanced by another element: the “diversity generators.”  These individuals each test a new hypothesis of the communal mind, exploring possibilities that conformity enforcers would ignore.  They “spawn variety” and open paths to new developments.  Generally, diversity generators seem overwhelmingly positive; however, they require some amount of balance, or the individuals lose their connection to the group.  When too many members fail to identify with and protect the group, the group dies, and is thus removed from the “global brain.”  So, some amount of conformity is required to ensure that the diversity generators do not diversify to the point of their group’s destruction.

 

While conformity enforcers and diversity generators are actually individuals within the system, the remaining three elements—inner-judges, resource shifters, and intergroup tournaments—are instead personal and group mechanisms for development and control.  Inner-judges are, according to Bloom, the equivalent of cellular mechanisms that encourage apoptosis (cell death).  These judges, through some (rather poorly explained) system of hormones and chemicals, create a sometimes overwhelming feeling of despair in individuals who have failed to contribute to the group.  Inner-judges are usually harsh, unforgiving critics who can encourage individuals to remove themselves from the progress of the group, either through suicide or through an inability to continue performing tasks.  One’s critic is often triggered by the work of a “resource shifter”—something that “shunt[s] riches, admiration, and influence to learning-machine members who cruise through challenges and give folks what they want.”  A resource shifter is not necessarily an individual; it can “range from social systems to mass emotions.”  It also works in both directions, since it can either heap rewards upon some members, or “cast...some into some equivalent of pennilessness and unpopularity.”  In some instances, the resource shifter acts based on the outcome of intergroup tournaments—friendly or serious competitions between groups that “force each collective intelligence, each group brain, to churn out innovations.”  Resource shifters reward the winners of intergroup tournaments, ensuring that their innovations are further explored.  But, the shifters also take away needed resources from the losers, fueling the self-destructive impulses of their inner-judges and starting a chain of negative reinforcement that, if left unchecked, can lead to the annihilation of the entire group.

 

Group formation, then, is not simply the random result of individual selection; rather, individuals and groups are selected together, with the needs of the group shaping the destinies of its members.  An individual success or failure is important to the group only because it confirms or destroys a hypothesis, not because the genetic success of each individual is encouraged.  In a colony of bees, for example, the workers do not have the opportunity to pass on their own individual bits of genetic code.  However, they do have the opportunity to ensure the success of the group, and encourage the survival of the queen’s DNA by finding food sources and protecting the hive.  Individual bees may die if they fail in their tasks, but the group as a whole survives, and so is considered a success.  The hives that find and exploit new food sources survive; those that do not soon perish, and their group endeavors are lost forever.

 

Thus, group selection is just as brutal and demanding as notions of individual selection, but the scale is greatly expanded.  It is perhaps easier to see groups at work in human societies, since we can better understand human collectives.  Partly for this reason, and perhaps partly as a foundation for his later conclusions about the trajectory of humanity, Bloom spends an extensive amount of time focusing on human groups.  Specifically, Bloom introduces a comparison of Athens and Sparta that explicates the five tenets of group development discussed above.  Athens and Sparta were archetypal historic groups that represented diversity generation and conformity enforcement, respectively, in their most elemental forms.  Sparta was arguably the first totalitarian regime; individuals’ lives and livelihoods were planned and structured by the government from the moment of birth.  This is an example of conformity enforcement at its most intense, replete with indoctrination, discipline, and repression that ensures that each individual remains a part of the collective will and has no opportunity to deviate from the group-prescribed path.  Athens, by contrast, was apparently a diversity generator unmatched in its time; smaller groups and guilds were allowed to form uninhibited, innovations in the arts and sciences were encouraged, and cultural development flourished throughout the Golden Age.  Granted, Bloom spends little time discussing the large number of peoples within the Athenian realm who had little or no opportunity for such development, but for its time Athens was perhaps the most “enlightened” city in the West.  Thus, the wars between Athens and Sparta were, according to Bloom, humanity’s first major conflicts between conformity and diversity.

 

Unfortunately for Athens, Sparta and the conformity enforcers won the “intergroup tournament” of the Peloponnesian Wars.  Thus, the Spartan model of a harsh, repressive regime attracted the attention of others, gaining influence because of its successes.  Of course, Sparta was also destroyed eventually (by Thebes), but not before her authoritarian customs had embedded themselves in the imagination of the collective mind.

 

II.

 

If the only concern of humanity’s global brain was the interplay between the ideological descendants of the Athenians and the Spartans, then perhaps Bloom’s book would have been a hundred pages shorter and significantly less provocative.  However, according to Bloom, there is not one global brain operating on this planet, but two: humans and bacteria.  While our mass mind only achieved a truly global reach in the last five centuries, bacteria have had this capability for billions of years.  These simple organisms have the ability to morph based on their immediate needs, and their asexual reproductive cycles are so fast that they can outpace any competition in mere days.  Thus, the comparatively simple intergroup tournaments in which human groups take part are merely models of a much more vast, and potentially more deadly, competition between humans and bacteria.  We stand a serious risk of being killed off by this other group; the very globality that makes innovations spread and laces our development together also allows for the quick, intercontinental spread of pandemics that could wipe out billions of people in mere months.  As a chilling example, Bloom points to the avian flu virus found in Hong Kong in 1997; some experts say that three billion people could have died from this disease alone if it had not been successfully contained.

 

Thus, Bloom’s theory of group selection leads to an obvious conclusion: while we are currently concerned with intergroup tournaments like war and politics, we face a far more deadly threat from the only other global brain that has the power to utterly destroy us.  All of humanity is merely a hypothesis, a test-run of organic development.  If we are wiped out, then we will share the fate of numerous other species, and our developments and experiments will never be replicated.  We will simply be a marker within the world’s mass consciousness, warning that destruction comes from following our path and encouraging future experiments to avoid our mistakes and misfortunes.

 

Bloom suggests that we can overcome this rather bleak prognosis by embracing the Athenian model of development and diversity generation.  While Athens did not win her intergroup tournament with Sparta, her ideas were not discounted; rather, democracy and philosophy have been passed to the present day even though the society that bore them died centuries ago.  Bloom feels that we must take a lesson from the twentieth century, when the totalitarian descendants of Sparta were allowed to flourish.  He thinks that if we do not encourage sufficient diversity of development and innovation, then we will lose the race against bacteria.  Our communication, intelligence, and especially our technology can help us to overcome our serious genetic weaknesses, making up for our inability to quickly generate new genetic experiments.  Recent scientific advances can help us to use bacteria for our own ends, perhaps cultivating bacteria that can protect us from the diseases that threaten our survival.  Ultimately, if we follow Bloom’s projected path and use bacteria for our survival, we can create an interwoven “brain” of humans and bacteria that can carry both networks into the future.

 

Unlike the more bleak Gaia hypotheses of some authors, who suggest that Earth has a consciousness that is threatened by exploitative humans and so humans are perhaps a race that should die out, Bloom suggests that any group which finds success is the “right” group to continue living.  This is obviously Darwinian in its language, even though it relates to groups rather than individuals.  The last paragraph of the book exhorts us to find our destiny, to survive the intergroup confrontation with bacteria and go on through a dizzying upward spiral of development that will eventually lead to...perfection? happiness? increased consciousness?  Bloom cannot say where we will find ourselves, but he does believe that we are participants in what will eventually become an interspecies, truly global mass mind in which every species is free to explore “fresh realities.” 

 

III.

 

The last chapter sounds an unrealistically cheerful, exuberant note after the earlier arguments about group destruction and our seemingly-imminent death by bacteria.  Bloom has exuberance to spare—his book is filled with what might best be described as a joy of scientific findings, rather than a joy of serious technical analysis.  But, if we are indeed hypotheses in a mass mind, then perhaps Bloom’s excitement about the future is understandable.  It is rather easy to attack his theory on a superficial level; the idea of some intangible global brain comprised of bacteria seems, at first sight, to be far-fetched.  For the sake of argument, however, let us assume that Bloom is correct and that group selection is the major force at work.  Even if we operate under this assumption, Global Brain still suffers from an obvious bias towards Western, and especially American, ideals about what makes for a successful and desirable group.  This returns us to the discussion about Athens and Sparta.  Bloom is clear in his opinion that we must fully adopt the Athenian model of diversity generation in order to survive.  This initially seems like an obvious, sound argument.  However, there is little evidence, either within the book or in the flow of history in general, to suggest that diversity generation is going to eventually win out over conformity enforcement.  It is true that most Americans, at least, would prefer to believe in the triumph of the glorious individual over the rise of the scary, repressive collective.  With terms like “conformity enforcers” and “diversity generators”, Bloom automatically stacks the deck in his favor; “conformity enforcement” immediately creates images of secret police and prison camps, while “diversity generators” are perhaps innocuous artists, writers, and musicians.  Before he even mentions Athens and Sparta, Bloom’s choice of words leads the reader to believe that diversity generation is completely preferable to conformity enforcement.  Several successful contemporary societies rely heavily on notions of collective good and collective will.  This includes Japan, a group which Bloom uses as an example of an “influence attractor”.  As an influence attractor, Japan draws the attention of its neighbors, as evidenced by the way the world watched it during its astonishing economic growth of the eighties and early nineties.  Bloom’s belief in the ultimate victory of diversity over conformity is weakened by his inattention to the successes of peaceful, non-totalitarian “conformity enforcers” in the non-Western world.

 

Within the bounds of the book, Bloom makes an relatively strong case for the need for diversity generation.  And, perhaps it is true that diversity generation is what will save us in our upcoming war against bacteria, since we will need quick, constant innovations of technology to ensure our survival.  However, until the experiment that is humanity has run its course, it is unclear whether Bloom’s bias towards diversity will indeed be supported.  It is surprising that Bloom creates five elements of group formation and then claims that we must choose one, at the expense of another, to create a truly successful mass mind.  This seems to contradict Bloom’s own theory that group selection relies on a variety of forces working in tandem.  Humans may be destined for some grand future within the global mind—but it is still unclear whether we should follow Bloom’s advice in our attempts to reach that state.