- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Biology, Evolution, and the Global Brain
Since the infancy of the personal computer in 1983, authors and scientists have been churning out works on the subject of a coming global brain strung together by computer networking. Today the Internet, the World Wide Web, and its successors allow a neuroscientist in Strasbourg to swap ideas instantly with a philosopher of history in Siberia and an algorithm juggler in Silicon Valley. But according to the visionaries who predict a world-spanning intelligence, this is just the beginning. They tell us that a radical human transformation has begun, 1 one that will hook "the billions of minds of humanity together into a single system . . . [like] Gaia growing herself a nervous system." We will soon come together, predict the techno-prophets, on a post—World Wide Web computer net that will learn our ways of thought and fetch us the knowledge we need before we know we want it, a web that will turn the human race into a single "spiritual super-being," a massive "collective conscious" that will even incorporate the brains of computer-equipped whales in distant seas. The result will be "one of the greatest leaps in the evolution of our species." My twenty years of interdisciplinary work indicate that beneath these visions lurks a strange surprise. Yes, the computerized linking of individual minds is likely to bring considerable change. But a worldwide neocortex—complete with whales—is not a gift of the silicon age. It is a phase in the ongoing evolution of a networked global brain which has existed for more than 3 billion years. This planetary mind isneither uniquely human nor a product of technology. Nor is it a result of reincarnation, or an out-growth of telepathy. It is a product of evolution and biology. Nature has been far more clever at connectionism than have we. Her mechanisms for information swapping, data processing, and collective creation are more intricate and agile than anything the finest computer theoreticians have yet foreseen.
From the beginning, we've been yanked together by the tug of sociality. Three and a half billion years ago, our earliest cellular ancestors, bacteria, evolved in colonies. Each bacterium couldn't live without the comfort of rubbing against its neighbors. If it was separated from its companions, a healthy bacterium would rapidly divide to create a new society filled with fresh compatriots. 5 Each colony of these single-celled foremothers faced warfare, disaster, the hunt for food, and windfalls of plenty as a megateam. From the beginning, we living beings have been modules of something current evolutionary theory fails to see, a collective thinking and invention machine.
This book will show how without microchips or mystic intervention we evolved as components of subgroups, overgroups, and cross-group hyperlinks. It will show how our nature as nodes in a larger net has affected our emotions, our perceptions, and our ways of bonding with or tyrannizing friends and enemies. It will show how even when we battle using ideas or weaponry we are parts of a greater mind constantly testing fresh hypotheses.
In coming pages, we'll see how our bacterial progenitors rose from the muck shortly after this planet congealed and built intricately organized settlements whose inhabitants numbered in the trillions, settlements which sent and received information globally. We'll see how our more "advanced" forebears gave up the swiftness of bacterial data-swaps in order to achieve the size and skill which came with multicellularity. We'll spy on the 1.2 billion years in which our forebears were severely retarded in their networking, and see how we finally learned to interlink our data in a manner which began to approach the high-speed give-and-take between our cousins, the champion data linkers of all time, microbes to whom we are mere cattle on whose flesh and blood they dine.
We'll glimpse the appearance of new information cabling nearly 300 million years ago among the spiny lobsters of Paleozoic seas, and see how this wiring upgrade would someday put us on the road to broadband connectivity. We'll watch as knee-jerk squabbles splintered early prehuman tribes, in the process upping the options tumbling through a networked mind. We'll see how Stone Age cities and their web of interconnects made it possible to harness the powers of strange emotions and of peculiar intellects. We'll note how ancient bakers and pickle makers plugged into the database of strange creatures to achieve things far beyond our native capabilities. We'll witness the manner in which groupthink literally shapes the tissues of a baby's brain, and how crowd power conjures up the shared hallucinations that we adults call reality.
We'll see through the battles of Spartans and Athenians how our species-wide IQ continued to be upped or lowered by the tussle between cultural points of view. We'll uncover a battle between two global minds, a bizarre world war which could blacken the glitter of this fresh, new century, and see why 3 billion human lives could be snuffed out if we fail to maximize our freedoms and our interconnectivity. Finally, we'll peer one hundred years ahead and summon up one way, with luck, we'll snare the energy flaring from the centers of black holes and harness it to fuel new opportunities.
Along the way, Global Brain will offer a new scientific theory—one I've been refining for the last twenty years—which explains the inner workings of something to which conventional evolutionary thinkers have been blind: a planet pulsing with a more-than-massive data-sharing mind.
Few scientists have spotted the clues to the prehistoric rise of global data connection. The reason for this clouded vision is a theory known as individual selection. Individual selectionism has provided powerful new ways of piercing such human and animal mysteries as love, hatred, and jealousy since it was first proposed in 1964. 6 But during the years since then the individual selectionist legacy has fallen into premature senility, going from an eye-opener to a conceptual cataract. To the blind keepers of an outworn scientific creed, the assumptions underlying the recognition of a global brain in the near future and the distant past would seem at best naive—at worst, a pseudoscience, a punishable heresy.
Yet the scientific credentials of those who predict a computerized worldwide intelligence are impeccable. Peter Russell, who wrote the first book on the coming global brain 7 in 1983, studied mathematics and theoretical physics at Cambridge, worked with Stephen Hawking, earned a degree in experimental psychology, then obtained a postgraduate degree (once again at Cambridge) in computer science. Joel de Rosnay, author of the 1986 book Le Cerveau Planétaire (The Planetary Brain), has been director of research applications at the Pasteur Institute, a research associate in biology and computer graphics at MIT, and was instrumental in the creation of France's Center for the Study of Systems and Advanced Technologies. Valentin Turchin, a key thinker on the future linked computers will bring, holds three degrees in theoretical physics. Gottfried Mayer-Kress, author of "The Global Brain as an Emergent Structure from the Worldwide Computing Network," holds a doctorate in theoretical physics from the University of Stuttgart and has been associated with such prestige institutions as CERN, Los Alamos National Lab, and the Santa Fe Institute. Francis Heylighen, chief organizer of the Global Brain Study Group to which all these gentlemen belong, possesses a doctorate in physics from the University of Brussels and is, among other things, associate director of Brussels's multidisciplinary Center Leo Apostel.
Why, then, would an army of equally august specialists be likely to deride the Global Brain Study Group's notion of superorganismic intelligence? Why would hard-nosed experts in a host of disciplines resist anticipating the future of such collective data processing, and, far more important, how could they have failed to see its multibillion-year-old ancestry?
The individual selectionists who dominate today's neo-Darwinism believe that humans and animals are driven by the voracity of genes. A gene sufficiently greedy to guarantee that many copies of itself make it into the next generation will rapidly expand its family tree. Genes which program for self-denial and give up what they have to help out strangers may fail to breed entirely. Their number will shrink decade after decade until the unselfish utterly fade away. Those who survive will be cynics preprogrammed by natural selection to commit an act of generosity only if their donations pay off in hordes of progeny. Meanwhile, another school of evolutionary thought has been driven underground. It is known as group selection. Those few willing to admit to their belief in group selection argue that individuals will sacrifice their genetic legacy in the interests of a larger collectivity. Such a need to cooperate would have been necessary long ago to make a global brain and a planetary nervous system possible. On the other hand, if the individual selectionists prove correct, humans and earlier life-forms would have been unwilling to share knowledge which might have given others a competitive edge. If selfishness is the force that drives us, there are future consequences, too. The cyber-ocean of the World Wide Web and its coming technological successors could be a barracuda pit rather than a meta-intellect.
Numerous academics who allegedly shun emotional bias have turned group selectionism into a scientific crime.*
Meanwhile, Robert Wright, a scientific chronicler with clout, calls individual selectionist psychology "the new paradigm." Yet the scientific view that all behavior is ultimately based on self-interest isn't new at all—it began its climb early in the twentieth century. A primal imperative to save one's self underlay the concept of "the fight or flight" syndrome hinted at by William McDougall in 1908 9 and popularized by Walter Cannon in 1915. 10 However, as research psychologist Robert E. Thayer says, "certain aspects of the fight or flight response were never supported by scientific evidence." 11 What's more, creatures confronted with an overwhelming threat are frequently paralyzed by anxiety, resignation, and fear. In other words, instead of fighting or fleeing for their lives, real-world inhabitants often leave themselves open to the jaws of death and let themselves be hauled away as prey. David Livingstone, of "Dr. Livingstone, I presume" fame, describes the actual sensation:
I saw the lion just in the act of springing upon me. . . . He caught my shoulder as he sprang, and we both came to the ground below together. Growling horribly close to my ear, he shook me as a terrier does a rat. The shock produced a stupor similar to that which seems to be felt by a mouse after the first shake of the cat. It caused a sort of dreaminess in which there was no sense of pain, nor feeling of terror, though [I was] quite conscious of all that was happening. It was like what patients partially under the influence of chloroform describe, who see the operation but feel not the knife.
Livingstone felt no urge to either put up his dukes or run away. Yet the fight-or-flight hypothesis is gospel to this day.
Some thirty years after fight-or-flight analyses became the rage, biologist William Hamilton and others had the courage to face at least one small fly in the self-interest ointment. If individual survival is the be-all and end-all of existence, how could one account for altruism?
During the early 1960s, Hamilton focused on the selfless manner in which female worker bees* sacrifice their reproductive rights and chastely serve their queen. His triumph was a mathematical demonstration that the workers carried essentially the same genes as their regal ruler. Hence, when an individual lived out her life on behalf of her monarch, she only appeared to be ignoring her own needs. By pampering the colony's egg layer, each worker was coddling replicas of her seed. Altruism, asserted Hamilton, was merely a slick disguise for selfishly promoting your own genes.
W. D. Hamilton's ideas and those built upon them * have contributed mightily to our understanding of evolutionary mechanisms in fields from medicine and ecology to psychology and ethology (the study of animals in the wild). But roughly twenty-five years after the Hamiltonian epiphany, examination of real-world bee colonies demonstrated that the Oxford professor's math didn't fit the facts. There were far more genetic variations in societies of unselfish insects than Hamilton's equations would allow.
What's more, in 1992 Hans Kummer—a Swiss primatologist whose twenty years of work with the Hamadryas baboons of Ethiopia and Saudi Arabia had made him one of the acknowledged greats in his field—wrote a book, In Quest of the Sacred Baboon, summarizing his research experiences. In it he looked over not only his own evidence, but the accumulated results of others who'd studied monkeys and apes. Kummer's research had demonstrated conclusively that primates do not ally themselves primarily with those who share their own genes. In fact, Kummer pointed out, when primates fight, they go at it hammer and tongs more often with their relatives than with anyone else. So in the case of bees and baboons, individuals were not tossing aside their interests simply to protect near-clones of their own chromosomes. Apparently something else was going on.
Nonetheless, Hamilton's formulae for individual selection hardened into catechism. Many of those whose scientific observations have tempted them to stray have been stopped by the threat of excommunication from professional respectability, of banishment from career advancement, and of being blackballed from a vital achievement in the academic community—tenure, the guarantor of status and of job security.
In the mid-1990s a growing group of scientists risked ridicule by arguing for the simultaneous validity of group and individual selection. State University of New York evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, who has produced papers championing group selection for over twenty-five years, is this band's acknowledged pioneer. I was the organizer of its only formal guerrilla brigade—the Group Selection Squad—which shook things up considerably in the mid-1990s. David Sloan Wilson has pointed to over four hundred studies that support the group selectionist point of view. He has concentrated his attention on research indicating that humans who pool their reasoning usually make far better decisions than those lone rangers who keep their calculations to themselves. I've focused my efforts elsewhere, introducing to the debate a scientific discipline whose data individual selectionists refuse to contemplate. This obdurately overlooked field is psychoneuroimmunology—the study of how friendships, lovers, marriage, rejection, isolation, personal devastation, and self-loathing can rev or wreck your body and your brain.
As we've already seen, individual selectionists insist that a creature—be he man or woman or beast—will only sacrifice his comfort if the pay-back to his genes is greater than what he gives. Reality has sinned against this one true word of theory. As long ago as the early 1940s, researchers like Rene Spitz 19 discovered that among humans the genetic survival instinct had a dark twin of an unexpected nature. It was a physiological doppelgänger of Freud's fanciful Thanatos, the death wish. Spitz and other trackers of hard evidence documented the many ways in which isolation, loss of control, and a downward plunge in status provoke depression, listlessness, ill health, and death, then came up with separate labels ("anaclitic shock," "learned helplessness") 20 for each instance they identified. In an earlier book, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History, I took the liberty of introducing a blanket designation. Each investigator from Rene Spitz and Harry Harlow to Lydia Temoshok, Martin Seligman, Hans Kummer, and Robert Sapolsky has unearthed an example of a "self-destruct mechanism"—an inner-judge built into our biology that is able to sentence us with harsh severity.
Rene Spitz showed that up to 90 percent of foundling home babies raised with excellent food, bedding, and sanitation but without love and cuddling died. Harry Harlow revealed how baby monkeys brought up without mothers and playmates sat in their cages whimpering and picking at their skin and flesh until they bled. When given the freedom to be with others, these pictures of pathos were too frightened, inept, and emotionally damaged to socialize. Robert Sapolsky discovered how wild baboons who couldn't gain status in their tribe were flooded with hormonal poisons which killed off their brain cells, made their hair fall out, invited illness to come in and stay a while, and threatened their very lives.
Humans are apparently the same. Investigations have revealed that the hospital patients who need help the most—those submerged in depression—are the least likely to receive their doctors' and nurses' tender, loving attention. Careful scrutiny indicates that the sufferers are unwittingly triggering their own rejection. Depressed patients whine, snarl, or turn their faces to the wall in ways that alienate their doctors and nurses. They upset their caregivers through every means from facial expression and verbal intonation to body language. An individual selectionist would explain that such self-damaging behavior must be the result of an adaptive response—one with a hidden benefit. The patient's death might boost the genetic success of close relatives by relieving them of a burden or by enriching them with insurance and bequests. In addition, by subtly doing themselves in the patients might benefit friends who could return the favor to their family someday.
However, studies show the opposite. The patients with the greatest number of relatives and friends are the least likely to be depressed. Instead, they tend to be the cheerful souls who even in the face of death remain charming and bring doctors and nurses flocking sympathetically to their beds. These are the folks in the best position to satisfy individual selectionists by conferring their earthly remains on the children and grandchildren who carry replicas of their genes. Yet they are the least likely to die and prematurely open their last will and testament.
Both animal and human studies demonstrate that the depressed souls who flirt unwittingly with the grim reaper are those the individual selectionists would not expect—those whose death is least likely to benefit kin-folk carrying genes similar to their own. These patients' family ties are either frayed or nonexistent. Friends? They often have none. In fact, they tend to feel there's no place in this world where they belong. These unfortunates are apparently seized by something akin to the suicide mechanism called apoptosis. Apoptosis is a firecracker string of self-destruct routines preprogrammed into nearly every living cell. Its fuse is lit when the cell receives signals that it is no longer useful to the larger commu-nity. Between self-crippling immune systems and self-defeating conduct, isolated individuals vastly increase their odds of death. The payoff to their gene-mates is likely to be zilch.
When caught in a bind, individual selectionists frequently claim that we are witnessing an instinct which was helpful during our days in hunter-gatherer tribes—an instinct which, when we were wandering the savannas of Africa, genuinely did enhance our genes' chances to survive. These apologists often declare that what benefited us in the era of the first stone ax has been perverted in its purpose by modern civilization. For example, some evolutionary psychotherapists have proposed that the uncontrollable restlessness of attention deficit disorder came in handy on the African plains, where the more you wandered the more likely you were to come across prey, but that the urge to roam is frowned on now that we make children and teens sit unnaturally still to learn their ABC's.
This argument is intriguing, but it's unlikely to hold water in the cases we're talking about. When you snatch chimps, dogs, laboratory mice, and a wide variety of other animals away from the group they know and love, exhaustion overwhelms them, their immune system downshifts, and they begin to waste away. 30 Like us, these creatures dramatically increase their odds of death when they are severed from their social bonds, not when their disappearance stands to benefit other carriers of their genes. Too much time cramped up in postindustrial classrooms is unlikely to be these animals' problem—especially those who've been observed plummeting into this wretched state in the wilds of the Serengeti or of Ethiopia.
This is where the new model of the evolutionary process I introduced in The Lucifer Principle and will take to virgin territory in this book may come in handy. Let us suppose for a moment that group selectionists are correct. One notable proponent of group selection, a naturalist named Charles Darwin, argued in 1871 that groups do battle, and in the face of such competitions, "a selfish and contentious people will not cohere, and without coherence nothing can be effected. A tribe rich in the above qualities [' reasoning . . . and foresight . . . the habit of aiding his fellows . . . the habit of performing benevolent actions . . . social virtues ... and... social instincts'] would spread and be victorious over other tribes. . . . Thus the social and moral qualities would tend slowly to advance and be diffused throughout the world." 31 In other words, individuals will sacrifice themselves for the good of a larger whole. When groups struggle, the ones which boast the most effective organization, strategy, and weapons win. Individuals who contribute to their group's virtuosity will be part of the team which survives. Those too busy serving themselves to lend a hand in defense of their band are likely to have more than just those hands lopped off when their homes are plundered by invading foes.
The bridge between group and individual selectionists may be hidden in another concept—that of the complex adaptive system. A complex adaptive system is a learning machine, one made up of semi-independent modules which work together to solve a problem. Some complex adaptive systems, like rain forests, are biological. Others, like human economies, are social. And the ones computer scientists work with are usually electronic. Neural networks and immune systems are particularly good examples. Both apply an algorithm—a working rule—best expressed by Jesus of Nazareth: "To he who hath it shall be given; from he who hath not even what he hath shall be taken away."
High-tech neural nets are hordes of individual electronic switch points wired in a complex mesh. The network linking the switches together has an unusual property. It can beef up or turn down the number of connections and amount of energy channeled to any switch points in the grid. An immune system is a team of free agents on a far, far grander scale. It contains between 10 million and 10 billion different antibody types. In addition it possesses a flood of entities known as "individual virus-specific T cells." Both the immune system and the neural net follow the biblical precept. Agents which contribute successfully to the solution of a problem are snowed with resources and influence. But woe be unto those unable to assist the group. In the immune system, T cells on patrol encounter the molecular signs of an invader. Each T cell is armed with a different arrangement of receptors—molecular grappling hooks. A few of the T cells discover that their weaponry allows them to snag and disable the attackers. These champions are allowed to reproduce with explosive speed, and are given the raw material they need to increase their clones dramatically. T cells whose receptors can't get a grip on the invaders are robbed of food, of the ability to procreate, and often of life itself. Each is subject to destruction from within via apoptosis's preprogrammed cellular suicide.
In the computerized neural net, nodes whose guesswork contributes to the solution of a problem are rewarded with more electrical energy and with connections to a far-flung skein of switch points they can draw to join their cause. The nodes whose efforts prove useless are fed less electrical juice, and their ability to recruit connections from others is dramatically reduced. In fact, their failure drives connections away.
Both T cells and neural network nodes compete for the right to commandeer the resources of the system in which they abide. And both show a seeming "willingness" to live by the rules which dictate self-denial. This combination of competition and selflessness turns an agglomeration of electronic or biological components into a learning machine with a quandary-solving power vastly beyond that of any individual module it contains.
The same modus operandi is built into the biological fabric of most social beings. Look, for example, at evidence from the phenomenon which its discoverers call "learned helplessness." Animals and humans who can solve a problem remain vigorous. But mice, monkeys, dogs, and people who cannot get a grip on their dilemma become victims of self-destruct built-ins. Experiments on the physiological impact of mastering a problem began in the 1950s, when Joseph Brady and his colleagues devised a cruel but clever contraption. They placed two small chairs side by side. The chairs were wired to an electrical circuit which slammed simultaneous shocks of identical voltage to a pair of involuntary loungers. The experimental couples destined to be strapped into these hot seats were monkeys. Only one thing made the monkey on the left different from that on the right. The right-hand monkey was given a button with which he could solve the duo's joint dilemma. With it, he could turn off shocks when they arrived. Investigators assumed that the monkey with the switch would develop severe health problems. He was the "executive monkey," the one of the pair weighed down with responsibility. The beast sitting next to him was relieved of pain at the same instant, but didn't have to lift a finger to gain his swift reprieve. Indeed, early analyses seemed to demonstrate that the experimenters' assumption had been correct. The monkey with the ordeal of decision making was declared to have a far greater tendency to develop ulcers—a major scourge of human corporate executives at the time.
But later inquiry showed that the executive monkey experiments had been poorly designed. Their results were declared invalid. Ten years down the road, Rockefeller University's Jay Weiss tried a wicked variation on the experiment, and demonstrated something rather different. Weiss hooked 192 rats by their tails to a live electric wire. He gave some of the rodents a control switch, but left the others to simply grin and bear it. When Thor's (or Edison's) lightning struck, the unsuspecting rodents would at first scurry and jump to find a quick way out. The luckier of the beasts would soon discover their control buttons. When the current sizzled their sterns, they would lunge for the switch and turn it off, rescuing both themselves and their switchless fellow sufferers. The rats whose frantic searches resulted in no discovery of a means of control, on the other hand, would eventually give up their struggle, lie down on the cage floor, and accept their jolts with an air of resignation. Even worse, the rats without the control levers would end up physical wrecks—scrawny, unkempt, and ulcerated—while those who could slam the current off stayed reasonably plump and fit. All this despite the fact that each and every rat received exactly the same surge of current for the same amount of time and at the same instant. As "learned helplessness" experiments continued, it was discovered that more than mere laziness crippled the beasts who couldn't find a way to abort their punishment. Their immune systems no longer protected them from disease. If given a way to escape their situation, their perceptions were too bleary to notice something as simple as an open doorway out. Their self-destruct mechanisms had taken control. All indications were that these self-maiming reflexes were physiologically preprogrammed. Most telling was the fact that the experimental animals able to cope with the slings and arrows of a researcher's outrageous fortunes retained a vigorous immune system, a relatively keen perception of the world around them, and remained energetic—despite the periodic spurts of abuse. The rats without control switches had been sabotaged by their own bodies, poisoned by their own stress hormones. How could this internally inflicted damage aid the victims in projecting their precious genes into the next generation? Apparently no one asked.
A naturalist named V. C. Wynne-Edwards, however, had already observed the effects of these phenomena au naturel. Most species in the wild are not isolated by a cage, but live as part of a herd, a flock, a colony, or a pack. Edwards studied communities of wild grouse in the Scottish moors. Here, punishments and rewards were handed out not by scientists, but by wind, rain, other grouse, and by poultry-loving prowlers of all kinds. Male grouse who mastered their surroundings and were socially adept managed to corner the best food and the largest plots of real estate. In the process, they became strong and self-confident. Those less able to forage successfully or to grab a large plot of land became droopy, dispirited, and unkempt. Weakened, they entered the seasonal competition for females, attempting to outdo their problem-mastering flockmates in tournaments of ferocity and of fancy display. Each morning they erected the combs on their heads in a feeble manner which showed their lack of confidence, fluttered in the air with as much flash as they could muster, battled for control of land, and usually lost. Their failure to find a way to dominate their natural environment led to a corresponding failure to gain control in their social milieu. By winter's end, almost all of the losing red grouse were dead ... victims, says Wynne-Edwards, of "the after-effects of social exclusion." The triumphant birds, on the other hand, were rewarded with avian harems and patches of land not only rich in food, but heavily fortified by high heather plants against passing predators.
Wynne-Edwards theorized that he was watching group selection at work. The birds whose failure had led to a physical decline, he reasoned, were unwittingly sacrificing themselves to adjust the group size to the carrying capacity—the amount of food and other necessities—in their locale. The Scot announced his conclusions in 1962. By 1964 William Hamilton's equations had taken the evolutionary community by storm. Wynne-Edwards became the poster boy for group selection and was driven from scientific respectability.
What Wynne-Edwards had seen at work was a complex adaptive system devilishly similar to a neural net. Those individuals within the group capable of finding solutions to the problems of the moment were rewarded with dominance, desirable food, luxury lodging, and sexual privileges. The weak links in the group's neural net, the individuals who had not found a means of solving the puzzles thrown their way, were isolated and impoverished by the social system and disabled internally.
In other words, a flock of feathered aviators had shown all the characteristics of a collective learning machine. Later, Israeli naturalist Amotz Zahavi would postulate that bird roosts function as communal information-processing centers (more about this later when we make friends with the raven). Now try a little twist of thought. If you put Zahavi's conjecture together with the observations of Wynne-Edwards, add in the evidence from "learned helplessness" experiments, and toss in the discoveries of complex adaptive systems researchers, an interesting pattern emerges.
My work since 1981 has been to put that jigsaw puzzle together. Here's how the picture looks once the various parts are snapped in place. Social animals are linked in networks of information exchange. Meanwhile, self-destruct mechanisms turn a creature on and off depending on his or her ability to get a handle on the tricks and traps of circumstance. The result is a complex adaptive system—a web of semi-independent operatives linked to form a learning machine. How effective is this collective learning mesh? As David Sloan Wilson discovered, a group usually solves problems better than the individuals within it. Pit one socially net-worked problem-solving web against another—a constant occurrence in nature—and the one which most successfully takes advantage of complex adaptive system rules, that which is the most powerful cooperative learning contraption, will almost always win.
It is time for evolutionists to open their minds and abandon individual selectionism as a rigid creed which cannot coexist with its supposed opposite, group selection. For when one joins the two, one can see that the networked intelligence forecast by computer scientists and physicists as a product of emerging technologies has been around a very long time. In fact, it has sculpted the perverse makeup which manifests itself in our depressive lethargy, in our paralyzing anxiety, in the irritability which drives others away when we need them most, in our depressive resignation when success repeatedly eludes us, and in the failure of our health when we lose the status, goals, or people who give us our sense of meaning and even our very sense of being. Our pleasures and our miseries wire us humans as modules, nodes, components, agents, and microprocessors in the most intriguing calculator ever to take shape on this earth. It's the form of social computer which gave not only us but all the living world around us its first birth.
CREATIVE NETS IN THE PRECAMBRIAN ERA
4.55 Billion B. C. to 1 Billion B. C.
Networking has been a key to evolution since this universe first flared into existence. Roughly 12 billion years ago, a submicroscopic pinpoint of false vacuum arose in the nothingness and expanded at a rate beyond human comprehension, doubling every 10-34 seconds. As it whooshed from insignificance to enormity it cooled, allowing quarks, neutrinos, photons, electrons, then the quark triumvirates known as protons and neutrons to precipitate from its energy. The instant of creation marked the dawn of sociality. A neutron is a particle filled with need. It is unable to sustain itself for longer than ten minutes.*
To survive, it must find at least one mate, then form a family. The initial three minutes of existence were spent in cosmological courting, as protons paired off with neutrons, then rapidly attracted another couple to wed within their embrace, forming the two-proton, two-neutron quartet of a helium nucleus. Those neutrons which managed this match gained relative immortality. Those which stayed single simply ceased to be. The rule at the heart of a learning machine was already being obeyed: "To he who hath it shall be given. From he who hath not even what he hath shall be taken away."
Protons, on the other hand, seemed able to survive alone. But even they were endowed with inanimate longing. Flitting electrons were overwhelmed by an electrical charge they needed to share. Protons found these elemental sprites irresistible, and more marriages were made. From the mutual needs of electrons and protons came atoms. Atoms with unfinished outer shells bounced around in need of consorts, and found them in equally bereft counterparts whose extra electrons fit their empty slots.
And so it continued. A physical analogue of unrequited desire was stirred by allures ranging from the strong nuclear force to gravity. These drew molecules into dust, dust into celestial shards, and knitted together asteroids, stars, solar systems, galaxies, and even the megatraceries of multigalactic matrices. Through the connective compulsion "a terrible beauty was born."
One of the products of this inorganic copulation was life. Gravity pulled this earth together 4.5 billion years ago. The latest findings suggest that before the new sphere's crust could even stabilize, the powers of chemical attraction yanked together the first detectable life. While massive rains of planetesimals were still smacking this sphere like a boxer pummeling the face of an opponent, self-replicating molecules paved the path for deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA).
Massive minuets of DNA generated the first primitive cells—the prokaryotes—by 3.85 billion B.C. A geological wink after that—in roughly 3.5 billion B.C.—the first communal "brains" were already making indelible marks upon the face of the early seas. Those marks are called stromatolites—mineral deposits ranging from a mere centimeter across to the size of a man. Stromatolites were manufactured by cooperating cellular colonies with more microorganisms per megalopolis than all the humans who have ever been. These primordial communities throve in the shallows of tropical lakes and of the oceans' intertidal pools. Their citizens were cyanobacteria, organisms so internally crude that they had not yet gathered their DNA into a nucleus. But in their first eons of existence, these primitive cells had already mastered one of the primary tricks of society: the division of labor. 5 Some colony members specialized in photosynthesis, storing the energy of sunlight in ornately complex molecules of adenosine triphosphate (ATP). The sun-powered assemblers took in nutrients from their surroundings and deposited the unusable residue in potentially poisonous wastes. Their vastly different bacterial sisters, on the other hand, feasted on the toxic garbage which could have turned their photosynthetic siblings into paste.
The mass of these interdependent beings were housed in an overarching shelter of their own construction. As cyanobacterial founders multiplied, they formed a circular settlement. The waters within which the homestead was established washed a layer of clay and soil over the encampment. Some of the bacteria sent out filaments to bind these carbonate sediments in place. Tier by tier, the colony created its infrastructure, a six-or seven-foot-long, sausage-shaped edifice as large compared to the workers who had crafted it as Australia would be to a solitary child with pail and sand shovel.
Another capacity of the colony outshone even its architecture. Evidence indicates that each bacterial megalopolis possessed a staggeringly high collective IQ. The clue is in a pattern extremely familiar to those few scientists who study the intelligence of microbial societies. The fossil remains of stromatolites spread like ripples from a common center—the key to a game plan of exploration and feeding unique to certain bacterial species. Let's call it for convenience the strategy of probe and feast.
For generations bacteria have been thought of as lone cells, each making its own way through the treacherous world of microbeasts. This is a misimpression, to say the very least. The work of the University of Chicago's James A. Shapiro and the University of Tel Aviv's Eshel Ben-Jacob has shown that bacteria are social to the nth degree. A bacterial spore lands on an area rich in food. Using the nutrients into which it has fallen, it reproduces at a dizzying pace. But eventually the initial food patch which gave it its start runs dry. Stricken by famine, the individual bacteria, which by now may number in the millions, do not, like the citizens of Athens during the plague of 430 b. c., merely lay down and die. Instead these prokaryotes embark on a joint effort aimed at keeping their colony alive.
The early progeny of a colony's spores had been shaped as ace digesters—creatures built to feed on the chow around them and stay steadfastly in place. Being rooted to the spot made sense when their micro-bit of turf was overflowing with treats. As food ran low, sitting still and swallowing fast was no longer a winning strategy. Out of hunger or sheer restlessness, 8 the bacterial cells switched gears. Rather than reproducing stay-at-homes like themselves, they marshaled their remaining resources to generate daughters of a different kind—rambunctious rovers built to spread out in a search for new frontiers. Members of this restless generation sported an array of external whips with which they could snake their way across a hard surface or twirl through water and slime. The cohort of the bold left to seek its fortune, expanding outward from the base established by its ancestors. When their travels finally brought them to new lands of milk and honey, they issued the signal to change ways and put down solid roots again. The successful explorers produced whipless daughters equipped to mine the riches of one spot just as their grandparents had done. These stolid homesteaders dug into the banquet discovered by parental kin. But when the homestead's food ran low, wanderlust again set in. The rooted exploiters sent forth new daughters whose whips propelled them on another expedition into the great unknown.
Each generation of explorers left few traces in the wilderness it roamed. Only when it found a land of plenty did it hunker down, forming a visible ring of crowds which sucked the riches from its virgin home. Modern bacteria still shift from pioneers to colonizers and back to pioneers again, leaving ripples of concentric circles clear as a dartboard's rings. Ripples of exactly this type appear in the ancient stromatolites—an indication that bacteria 3.5 billion years ago used the intricate social system of alternating probe and feast. All modern bacterial colonies do not use the concentric ripple strategy to explore and to exploit. Some, like aquatic myxobacteria—gang-hunters which pursue their prey—will stretch and twist until they catch a victim's chemical whiff.This may explain why some stromatolites snake seven feet horizontally over shallow bottoms at the margins of the sea.
There was no "each woman for herself " in those deep, dark, early days. To the contrary. Modern research hints that primordial communities of bacteria were elaborately interwoven by communication links. Their signaling devices would have been many: chemical outpourings with which one group transmitted its findings to all in its vicinity; fragments of genetic material drifting from one end to the other of the community. And a variety of other devices for long-distance data broadcasting. These turned a colony into a collective processor for sensing danger, for feeling out the environment, and for undergoing—if necessary—radical adaptations to survive and prosper. The resulting learning machine was so ingenious that Eshel Ben-Jacob has called its modern bacterial counterpart a "creative web."
One key to bacterial creativity was the use of attraction and repulsion cues. When famine struck, some bands of bacterial outriders blazed a long trail which led to territory as barren as that from which they'd fled. But the failing expeditions did not suffer their fate in silence. For they were the sensory tentacles with which the larger group felt out its terra incognita. As such, they had to communicate their findings. To do so, they broadcast a chemical message—"avoid me." Other exploring groups heeded the warning and shunned their sisters stranded in the desert. By releasing chemical repulsers, the failed scouts had sealed their fate. They would die in the Sahara into which they'd wandered—unaided and alone. But their death had served its purpose—adding survey reports to an expanding knowledge base.
Other bacterial cells encountered turbulent conditions whose menace destroyed them utterly. But they, too, managed to ship back information about their fate. The fragments of their shredded genomes sent a message of danger to the colony back home. Then there were the voyagers whose trek took them to a new promised land. These sent out a chemical bulletin of an entirely different kind. Loosely translated, it meant, "Eureka, we've found it. Join us quickly and let's thrive. Ain't it grand to be alive?"
If the colony's strategy of spread out and seek proved useless, the messages sent back to the center did not unleash new waves of emigrants. The incoming communiqués provided raw data for genetic research and development. Informationally linked microorganisms possessed a skill exceeding the capacities of any supercomputer from Cray Research or Fujitsu. In a crisis, bacteria did not rely on deliverance via a random process like mutation, but instead unleashed their genius as genetic engineers. 30 For bacteria were the first to use the tools which now empower biotechnology's genetic tinkerers: plasmids, vectors, phages, and transposons—nature's gene snippers, duplicators, long-distance movers, welders, and reshufflers. Overcoming disaster sometimes involved plugging in prefabricated twists of DNA and reverting to ancestral strategies. When tricks like this didn't work and the stakes were life or death, the millions—and often trillions—of bacteria in a colony used their individual genomes, says Ben-Jacob, as individual computers, meshing them together, combining their data, and forming a group intelligence capable of literally reprogramming their species' shared genetic legacy in ways previously untried and previously unknown.
The microbial global brain—gifted with long-range transport, data trading, genetic variants from which to pluck fresh secrets, and the ability to reinvent genomes—began its operations some 91 trillion bacterial generations before the birth of the Internet. Ancient bacteria, if they functioned like those today, had mastered the art of worldwide information exchange. 32 They swapped snippets of genetic material like humans trading computer programs. This system of molecular gossip allowed microorganisms to telegraph an improvement from the seas of today's Australia to the shallow waters covering the Midwest of today's North America. The nature and speed of communication was probably intense. The earliest microorganisms would have used planet-sweeping currents of wind and water to carry the scraps of genetic code with which they telegraphed the news of their latest how-to tips and overall breakthroughs. At least eleven different bacterial species 34 apparently exchanged trade secrets by 3 billion B.C.
Microbes have continued to upgrade the speed and sophistication of their worldwide web to this day. Meanwhile future multicellular forms would come to land and sea with a plethora of new capabilities. Though networked intelligence would remain a key to the survival of these more "advanced" species, it would take over 2 billion years before a true brain of planetary scope would rise among the higher animals . . . along with the early spread of tools of stone.
Posted December 5, 2008
No text was provided for this review.
Posted July 10, 2009
No text was provided for this review.