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

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

Howard Bloom. John Wiley & Sons, $27.95 (384pp) ISBN 978-0-471-29584-6

Bloom's debut, The Lucifer Principle (1997), sought the biological basis for human evil. Now Bloom is after even bigger game. While cyber-thinkers claim the Internet is bringing us toward some sort of worldwide mind, Bloom believes we've had one all along. Drawing on information theory, debates within evolutionary biology, and research psychology (among other disciplines), Bloom understands the development of life on Earth as a series of achievements in collective information processing. He stands up for ""group selection"" (a minority view among evolutionists) and traces cooperation among organisms--and competition between groups--throughout the history of evolution. ""Creative webs"" of early microorganisms teamed up to go after food sources: modern colonies of E. coli bacteria seem to program themselves for useful, nonrandom mutations. Octopi ""teach"" one another to avoid aversive stimuli. Ancient Sparta killed its weakest infants; Athens educated them. Each of these is a social learning system. And each such system relies on several functions. ""Conformity enforcers"" keep most group members doing the same things; ""diversity generators"" seek out new things; ""resource shifters"" help the system alter itself to favor new things that work. In Bloom's model, bowling leagues, bacteria, bees, Belgium and brains all behave in similar ways. Lots of real science and some history--much of it fascinating, some of it quite obscure--go into Bloom's ambitious, amply footnoted, often plausible arguments. He writes a sometimes bombastic prose (""A neutron is a particle filled with need""); worse yet, he can fail to distinguish among accepted facts, scientifically testable hypotheses and literary metaphors. His style may guarantee him an amateur readership, but he's not a crank. Subtract the hype, and Bloom's concept of collective information processing may startle skeptical readers with its explanatory power. (Aug.)