Howard Bloom: Mind at Large

June 25th, 2002 | Category: Interviews

Howard BloomMy friend and colleague Brandon Pierce let me run this interview in my book, Follow for Now.

When attempting to examine the essence and inquire about the idiosyncrasies of human behavior, where should one turn? The beaten paths of the past have lead us in the direction of archetypal models involving psychological studies and reflection on past human history. We have also ventured into cultural anthropological endeavors, as well as primatology and ethology. Howard Bloom has managed to swivel heads in a new direction. Many are now peering through the lenses of light microscopes, and catching a glimpse of our ancestors in action. Welcome to the world of primordial bacteria. Bloom’s latest book, Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind from the Big Bang to the 21st Century (J. Wiley & Sons, 2000), takes the reader on an evolutionary adventure where “time” seems to march backwards and forward simultaneously. Bloom dresses modern societies in anachronistic garb, and portrays our evolving communication culture in terms of vintage bacterial ideology.

The precursor to Global Brain, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History (Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995) was the work that unleashed Bloom monstrous intellect onto the scientific world. He laid the groundwork for what was to become (is still becoming) a fluid science that shifts across boundaries, shapes to its new surroundings, and somehow holds its ground. Bloom takes an all-encompassing attitude toward his work. The bacterial derived theories are placed against the backdrop of geopolitics, particle physics, memetic phenomenon, and traditional evolutionary theory. They maintain an extraordinary amount of explanatory power.

A formal introduction of this man would include many honors and distinctions that would inspire a genuflection from anyone with an open, scientific, or creative mind. Bloom’s wanderings from the reserved and stuffy halls of academia to the speedy, reality-warped microcosm of pop music culture and back have produced a frantic human being whose personality, passion, and research are equally unordinary.

Brandon Pierce: You manage to articulate your theories quite broadly, injecting life into often prosaic scientific inquiry. Your ideas have profoundly changed the way readers view the world, with respect to ourselves, history, and human behavior. What can you stress about your ideas that will infect others with a sense of the importance of your work?

Howard Bloom: Be perceptually independent. Know a political or scientific cliché when you see one. Sidestep its rigidities. Try to see what others take for granted from unaccustomed points of view. Look for facts that are off the beaten track. Then come up with your own perspective. Pursue new insights even if they make you unpopular and politically incorrect. Try to inject new understanding into your own life and that of others. Use your empathy to understand as many other people as you can. Be curious. I don’t know if that answers the question, but it’s a way of life I believe in.

BP: I am fascinated by biological frameworks that transcend boundaries, and this is becoming somewhat of a trend in the fields of social sciences and networks. You claim that we “inherit” our behaviors from bacteria, and I find this to be a recondite assertion and a bit hard to digest. What is the nature of this relationship or “inheritance,” i.e., do you truly believe that the genes for bacterial communication, warfare, and group dynamics survive in humans and function in a similar fashion, or perhaps is this some sort of a default reaction to the stresses of the outside world?

HB: Life existed on this planet for three billion years in just one basic form: single cells grouped in megacommunities. In other words, our ancestors were bacterial for seventy-eight percent of their time on earth. We share roughly forty percent of our genes with bacteria. More important, we share with them the basic stuff that allows all life on this planet to operate — the system of DNA. None of this was obvious to me in the beginning. When I first set out on a scientific hunting expedition for the roots of war, violence, and the sorts of crowd frenzies that fascinated me, I looked where everyone else was looking — at the behavior of baboons, chimps, and indigenous human tribes. But none of the theories based on primate research or anthropology came close to explaining the sorts of mass emotions Hitler or the Beatles had stirred up. None came close to explaining personal passions. That’s probably because movements like Osama’s firebrand Islam or St. Augustine’s heretic-hunting Christianity draw their flame from emotions like idealism and from frenzies of commitment and belief. When you take a closer look, these emotions are part of a crowd phenomenon — a group thing on a huge scale. Christianity swept the known world of St. Augustine’s day. It was a movement fueled by the emotions of millions. So is Osama’s Islam. Chimps, baboons, and hunter-gatherers don’t cluster in groups of millions. Bacteria do. In fact, they gather in societies of trillions. And, like us, bacteria broadcast their chemical “feelings” as widely as they can. They communicate their experience using attraction and repulsion cues, chemicals of seduction and fear, chemicals of influence. Bacteria make war and peace using armies that dwarf ours. Bacteria wheel and tumble through the equivalent of mass mood swings. And bacterial colonies are group-brains, ultra-quick R&D centers, parallel-distributed processing machines. I started gathering information on bacterial battle, cooperation, and communication back in 1985. Then, in 1995, I contacted Eshel Ben-Jacob, the head of the physics department at the University of Tel Aviv. Eshel was doing extraordinary research on bacterial mass behavior, mind-blowing work. My experiences with human mass movements and his with bacterial colonies meshed so eerily it was crazy. The things I’d seen among humans helped explain what he’d seen under his microscope, and his work made sense of mine. It sounds a bit crazy, but it was one of those eureka experiences you’re lucky to come across even once in your lifetime.

BP: To truly understand a concept or argument, one must view the idea from all angles and superimpose the images to construct a complete understanding. This is certainly true of human behavior. Interdisciplinary work is crucial. Unfortunately, you must drag your coattails through a myriad of fields (biology, psychology, history, sociology, anthropology) upon which academia has a stranglehold. Do you encounter resistance from scientists who feel that you are not grounded sufficiently in their specialty or do not fully grasp their ideas to be able to make the assertions and connections that you do? How do you deal with this and navigate the seas of academia without lofty credentials from the inside?

HB: That’s a good question, and I’m not sure I know the answer. I started in science at the age of ten. By the time I was eleven, everyone knew I’d be a college professor. But things that didn’t fit the academic mold fascinated me. I wanted to understand the exaltations of mystics, why poetry was so on target, why religion had its pull. When I graduated from NYU, I had four grad school fellowships in clinical psychology. By then, I’d spent more than half of my life in academic science. I wanted to jump ship. There was no way I was going to get to the blaze at the center of the human soul by putting together rinky-dink paper-and-pencil experiments using groups of college kids — the standard technique for psychological research. I was going to have to go where the wild things are — into the arts, the media, and ultimately into film, politics, rap, and rock ’n’ roll. After fifteen years of fieldwork with everyone from Tipper Gore (we were at war with each other over censorship) to Michael Jackson and from Bob Marley to Aerosmith, Kiss, AC/DC, and ZZ Top, I pulled my notes together and went back into the scientific world. I figured my colleagues who’d done things the “legitimate” way would laugh at me, or worse. How do you get people to take fieldwork in punk rock, political activism, and hip-hop seriously? I was wrong. Only three people pounced on me. Yes, one did try to get me blackballed. But from nearly everybody else, I’ve gotten an awful lot of help.

BP: You gave a lecture in the past entitled “Instant Evolution,” which challenged the notion of the “Stone Age brain” trapped inside bodies that exist in a modern world. In other words, the milieu of urban existence has not induced any significant genetic alterations within the human body. Have your ideas on this subject evolved, or are you familiar with anyone making headway on theories of urban evolution?

HB: No one that I know of has taken up the challenge. Here’s the idea: it’s a big mistake to think we evolved all our human qualities when we were hunter-gatherers like the !Kung San of Botswana and Namibia. I tried to make the case that we’ve done a fair amount of evolving since 10,000 years ago when our first Stone Age cities were founded, and that city living has literally gotten into our genes. The evidence started to come together when I was researching my second book, Global Brain. Then I got a call from the Foundation For the Future asking me to participate in an elite symposium on cultural evolution . . . a meeting of the eight of us who were supposedly the top brains on the subject in the world. That gave me an excuse to do even more research. Then the journal New Ideas in Psychology asked to publish the piece, which gave me a chance to research it further. The evidence that piled up is pretty substantial.

I’ve heard other scientists use the key term from the “Instant Evolution” article, Homo Urbanis, which means they’ve read the piece and that it’s influenced their thinking. There’ve been a lot of requests for reprints, mostly from scientists in Eastern Europe. And the webpage with the Foundation For the Future version of “Instant Evolution” is one of the most heavily hit pages on the site; it’s had over 868,000 visitors. But, nope, I don’t think anyone is doing additional research to test the validity of the concept.

BP: China seems to be kicking up dust within your crystal ball, as you co-outlined in the most recent Disinformation publication (Everything You Know Is Wrong: The Disinformation Guide to Secrets and Lies, 2002). Being a seer par excellence, could you hint at the causes, or ideas that underlie the many strategic moves that China is making?

HB: The Lucifer Principle, my first book, says that humans are pecking order animals. Twins gestating in the womb together will duke it out for dominance. The winner will take over the central living room of the uterus, and the loser will be shunted off to the side. This is fact, not fiction. Then, when kids are small, they’ll play one pecking-order game after another, from King of the Castle to cops and robbers. In the process, they’ll work out a dominance hierarchy. One kid will usually come out as the leader. Another typically emerges as the leader’s sidekick. One becomes the group clown. And at the bottom there’s some poor schnook the group picks on. All this is provable fact. But the Lucifer Principle says that human groups battle for dominance, too. The fight for the number one position in the hierarchy of groups has been going on since the beginning of history. The Athenians fought the Spartans for top-dog rank among the Greeks. The Greeks fought the Persians for number one position in the Mediterranean and Asia Minor. Then along came the Romans and knocked both of them off the peak.

Meanwhile, in Eastern Asia, China’s been number one for 2,200 years. Until the mid-1800s, China felt that it was top-dog on the planet. In fact, it regarded itself as the center of the earth, the “Middle Kingdom.” Then along came the Europeans with their steam-driven gunboats and humiliated the Chinese. Now the Chinese are ready to climb back where they’ve always known they belong — to the top. We in the US also want to be number one. But the Chinese will give us stiff competition. They led the world in science and technology for 1,600 years. We’ve only led it for ninety. They led the world in education, scholarship, and publishing for 2,000 years. We’ve only been ahead in those fields for roughly sixty years — assuming that we’ve ever led at all. We led the world in technological and software piracy from roughly 1811 until the 1890s. The Chinese lead the world in techno-absorption and techno-theft today. Add to that a population four times the size of ours, plug in the high value Chinese civilization places on hard work, and you’ve got a nation that could easily outstrip us in twenty years if we don’t stay very much on our toes.

BP: Can you tell us about some scientists, authors, or other humans who inspire, stimulate, or are strongly respected by Howard Bloom, people whose ideas mesh with yours or help thrust your work forward. Are any of these people involved in your Paradigm Book Series?

HB: Albert Einstein gave me reason to live when I was a kid. Let’s face it, unathletic geeks who read two books a day at the age of ten are not exactly popularity magnets. But Einstein was absent-minded like me (your average decapitated tortoise has a better memory than I do). He was a fashion-deadhead, like me. And he was slightly on the messy side. There were no role models in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. But Einstein made being strange and loving ideas seem okay.

Today, my favorite stimulators and co-agitators are: Eshel Ben-Jacob, who’s one of the world’s top physicists but can’t keep his hands off research on bacterial information-processing, brain-cell self-assembly, nanotechnology, and lord knows what all else; John Skoyles, the British neuroscientist and evolutionary theorist whose new book with Dorion Sagan, Up From Dragons, I executive edited; Peter Richerson, the cultural evolutionist, with whom I bat ideas around via email pretty regularly; David Smillie, a zoologist/psychologist at Duke University; Lynn Margulis and Dorion Sagan, whose ideas on biology, evolution, and synergy are incredible; Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene (Oxford University Press, 1976), whose ideas I often disagree with, but who makes disagreement a joy, not to mention a way to generate huge new insights; my mentor, Ted Coons, the neurobiologist who discovered what the hypothalamus does; and David Berreby, a brilliant science writer who gets my brain up and running every time.

BP: Anything exciting on the table for the Group Selection Squad or news concerning the Paleopsychology Project?

HB: We put the Group Selection Squad to sleep once its mission was over and we’d made it permissible to speak about group selection without literally risking your scientific career. That was back in 1998 or so. The International Paleopsychology Project is a great place to breed and test out new ideas. It gives its members permission to use every science, art, and political event known to mankind as a piece of the big puzzle, the big-picture way of understanding things. What I’d like to do but haven’t had time for is this: to establish a new field called “omnology.” You know how tons of people are interested in oodles of things, but know no one will take them seriously unless they specialize? Well, omnology’s designed to give them permission to be curious about whatever excites them. Here’s the manifesto:

We are blessed with a richness of specializations, but cursed with a paucity of panoptic disciplines — categories of knowledge that concentrate on seeing the pattern that emerges when one views all the sciences at once. Hence we need a field dedicated to the panoramic, an academic base for the promiscuously curious, a discipline whose mandate is best summed up in a paraphrase of the poet Andrew Marvell:

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our knowledge up into one ball
And tear our visions with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life.

Omnology is a science, but one dedicated to the biggest picture conceivable by the minds of its practitioners. Omnology will use every conceptual tool available — and some not yet invented but inventible — to leapfrog over disciplinary barriers, stitching together the patchwork quilt of science and all the rest that humans can yet know. If one omnologist is able to perceive the relationship between pop songs, ancient Egyptian graffiti, Shirley MacLaine’s mysticism, neurobiology, and the origins of the cosmos, so be it. If another uses mathematics to probe traffic patterns, the behavior of insect colonies, and the manner in which galaxies cluster in swarms, wonderful. And if another uses introspection to uncover hidden passions and relate them to research in chemistry, anthropology, psychology, history, and the arts, she, too, has a treasured place on the wild frontiers of scientific truth — the terra incognita at the heartland of omnology. Let me close with the words of yet another poet, William Blake, on the ultimate goal of omnology:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour.

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