Re: Global Brain: Chapter 1 - 2 - 3 Discussion
I'm impressed with the scope of Howard Bloom's scholarship. He has compiled an extensive interdisciplinary review, and arrived at some remarkable conclusions about nature and life. Two theses stand out: one that terrestrial life comprises a "global brain" that has existed since life's inception (may even predate its inception), and two that current evolutionary theory is seriously flawed in failing to recognize something called "group selection." I find these ideas intriguing, but have reservations about both.
I do not see an advantage to proposing the term, "global brain," as a replacement for the term, "web of life," to describe biological interconnectedness. That all life forms interact, both intra and inter specifically, is well recognized. On the other hand, suggesting that the interconnectedness of life in general gives rise to thoughtful and purposive behavior is not substantiated. Bloom goes beyond even this, however, when he describes a neutron as "a particle filled with need." He says that, "To survive, it must find at least one mate, then form a family." Interesting language that might have some vague metaphorical value, but can be highly misleading. I see no reason to believe that a neutron has "needs" at all, let alone that it "mates" and forms a "family," or that it gives a damn about "surviving." These are all anthropocentric notions that do not enlighten us about the character of neutrons. A neutron possesses no mechanism for intention and no basis for deciding between one existential path and another. Persisting or not persisting are equally valid outcomes for a free neutron. Those that happen to collide with appropriate "partners" persist, those that do not, cease to exist. There need be no internal bias either way. Bloom uses an extended discussion of the "needs" of neutrons to introduce a favorite mantra of his: "To he who hath it shall be given. From he who hath not even what he hath shall be taken away." This aphorism, attributed to Jesus, neatly sums up a concept long known, well accepted, and thoroughly researched in chemistry and biology: namely the concept of competitive exclusion. No need to redefine it, anthropomorphize it, or mystify it.
I find Bloom's discussion of stromatolites curious. He notes that the cyanobacterial colonies which produce them contain very large numbers of organisms, which numbers he finds so impressive he refers to them throughout the book, and seems to believe that each of these organisms is somehow equivalent to much more complex organisms. He says, for example, that: "Stromatolites were manufactured by cooperating cellular colonies with more microorganisms per megalopolis than all the humans who have ever been." Seeing a stromatolite as a "megalopolis," a very large city, requires a more pliant imagination than I possess. That aside, what he says about stromatolite colonies applies equally well to every single human. We are all colonies of immensely large numbers of cells, interacting in a vastly more complex manner than the bacterial cells that generate stromatolites. I find more curious the statement that "each bacterial megalopolis possessed a staggeringly high collective IQ." Really? I find stromatolitic intelligence unimpressive considering that after three billion years they continue to occupy the same limited environment they always have. Surely they could at least have made it out of the mudflats. Oh, yes, I forgot; their ancestral forms were also the ancestral forms of multicellular organisms, such as humans, who did make it out of the mudflats. I am equally unimpressed by what is presented as a major indicator of stromatolitic intelligence: "the strategy of probe and feast," in which stromatolites "spread like ripples from a common center." This "strategy" appears identical to that of wildfires, floods, or salt crystals developing in an evaporating brine. No intelligence is required for such a strategy, just a slavish obedience to natural law.
I think Bloom also makes too much of the urgency of togetherness, exemplified by phrases such as: "bacteria are social to the nth degree." I worked for twenty years as a research microbiologist for NASA and much of my effort was directed toward growing and assessing bacteria from soil and other natural habitats. A favorite technique involved separating organisms into individual units and plating them on agar or other solid surfaces where resulting colonies were used to infer original numbers. The technique is highly effective, and readily calibrated against mechanical and electronic counts. Bloom never mentions the vast body of research using chemostats to grow organisms in suspension, assuring that each develops separately and optimally. Productivity in fermentation is greatly enhanced by such techniques. In fact, in most cases bacteria do better alone than in colonies. The latter occur mostly out of necessity, rather than due to any "choice," deliberative or other, made by the organisms. Obviously there are exceptions, stromatolites for example, but there is no exclusivity to either solitary or social ways of life (The same, incidentally, applies to humans. Socially isolated individuals do not automatically die as Bloom implies. History is replete with its ascetics, monks, hermits, and others who have chosen solitary lives and lived them fully).
I question Bloom's almost mystical notion of "group selection." It is not clear how this selection takes place other than through individual gene selection. Clearly, group selection of a kind takes place in all multicellular organisms, where the tissues of the body are coselected. This type of group selection is accepted, documented, researched and fairly well understood as a phenomenon of coevolution, which includes as well the coincident evolution of species in complex ecosystems. How group selection differs from coevolution is not clear to me.
I see Bloom's theses as a kind of animism, a broad positing of consciousness, purposiveness, willfulness to all living things and even to things ordinarily considered inanimate, such as elementary particles. This seems more religious than scientific to me.