Beyond the Supercomputer: Social Groups as Learning Machines


The following is The formal academic paper
In which the theory
Laid out in
Global Brain: The Evolution of Mass Mind From The Big Bang to the 21st Century 
Was first was introduced to the scientific community.
It was presented before a joint session of
The European Sociobiological Society, The International Political Science Association,
And The Association for Politics and the Life Sciences,
And later appeared in the book
Research in Biopolitics, Volume 6, 1998.
Sociobiology and Biopolitics.
Edited by Albert Somit and Steven A Peterson.
Greenwich, CT: JAI Press Inc., 1998: 43-64.

Sociobiology and Politics

by Howard Bloom

photo by Howard Bloom

In the new evolutionary disciplines there is a debate with major implications for the way in which we view politics, citizenship, emotions, health, ideology, and even the perceptual processes that produce a consensual reality.

In one sense, the scientific argument resembles that between the Lilliputians and the Blefuscudians who, in Gulliver’s Travels, warred over whether a breakfast egg should be opened at the large or at the pointed end. Dominating the field are individual selectionists, those who believe that the emergence of all behavior must be explained by forms of self-interest which embody what author Robert Wright, in his summation of “the credo of the new paradigm,” calls “head to head competition” between individual genes and often between individual animals or humans (Wright, 1985: 188). Group selectionists, on the other hand, are convinced that new evolutionary forms can emerge both from the battle for personal advantage and from the competition between social coalitions.

The formulae upon which individual selectionism rests were enunciated by biologist William Hamilton in the early 1960s. Hamilton’s conclusions were based on an analysis of bees and other Hymenoptera. The view that all behavior is ultimately based on self-interest had strongly taken hold. How, then, could one account for altruism? Hamilton focused on the selfless manner with which female worker bees sacrifice their reproductive rights and chastely serve their queen. His triumph was a mathematical demonstration that the workers were carrying essentially the same genes as the queen. Hence when an individual lived out her life on behalf of her monarch, she only appeared to be ignoring her own needs. The genes she carried were closely related to those in the eggs laid by her mistress. By pampering the colony’s egg-layer, each worker was coddling replicas of her own internal blueprint. Altruism, asserted Hamilton, was self-interest in disguise.

Hamilton’s ideas and those built upon them have contributed mightily to our understanding of evolutionary mechanisms in fields from psychology, medicine, and ecology to the study of animals in the wild.

But roughly twenty-five years after the Hamiltonian epiphany, examination of real world bee colonies demonstrated that Hamilton’s mathematics did not correspond with fact. There was far more genetic variety in clusters of unselfish insects than the equations would allow (Queller et al., 1988; Seeley, 1995: 7). Individuals were not abjuring their interests simply to protect near-clones of their own genomic material. Apparently something else was going on. Nonetheless, concepts based on what became known as the selfish gene (Dawkins, 1976) are now dogma.

Many scientists have been tempted to propose non-Hamiltonian approaches to the activities within and the competition between groups. For decades, these thinkers have been stopped by the quiet threat of exclusion from professional respectability, expulsion from career advancement, and banishment from the possibility of academic tenure.

However it is becoming increasingly obvious to a small group of heretics that a new breed of evolutionary insights can emerge if one accepts the coexistence of both group and individual selection. In other words, indications are that the social and biological sciences may benefit enormously from a truce between the Blefuscudians and the Lilliputians.

In my book The Lucifer Principle: a scientific expedition into the forces of history (Bloom, 1995), I’ve attempted to show the many ways in which we are both selfish competitors and pawns of the social group. For example, The Lucifer Principlepresents evidence that individuals are biologically wired as expendable cells in a social “superorganism.” The book goes on to contend that human groups follow the rules of dominance hierarchies uncovered by naturalists but normally applied primarily to individuals. The Lucifer Principle combines naturalists’ observations with those of psychoendocrinologists and others to shed new light on phenomena from the bickering of local cliques to the machinations of nation-states and from the maneuvering of economic competitors to the butchery of armies.

But perhaps the best way to demonstrate how far one can move if one accepts both individual and group selection is to reveal one of the many potential approaches to a post-individual selectionist sociobiology. I propose to outline five elements which turn virtually every form of social group–from a teenage gang to a multi-national culture–into a collective intelligence, a complex adaptive system whose powers of perception and invention both utilize and transcend those of the individuals within it. Next I’ll show how social groups at every level on the evolutionary ladder operate as group brains. Finally, I’ll present examples to suggest how the five principles can throw individual passions, mass mood swings, geopolitics, fashion, fads, and health into surprising new perspective.

A great deal of work has been done since 1980 on complex adaptive systems–biological and electronic learning machines. Most of this scholarship has taken mathematical form. However, it is possible to sum up a complex adaptive system’s quintet of key elements entirely without equations. These elements are (1) conformity enforcers, (2) diversity generators, (3) utility sorters, (4) resource shifters, and (5) intergroup tournaments.

  • Conformity enforcers impose sufficient similarity on group members to give the social structure coherence, relative permanence, and the ability to carry out large-scale, integrated, multi-participant projects.

In humans, conformity enforcers lead, among other things, to a collective perception, a socially constructed view of reality which influences both childhood brain development and adult sensory processing, and which produces a Weltanschauung displaying many of the characteristics of a shared hallucination.

  • Diversity generators spawn variety. Each individual represents a hypothesis in the group mind.It is vital for the group’s flexibility that it have numerous fallback positions in the form of individuals sufficiently different to provide approaches which, while they may not be necessary today, could prove vital tomorrow. This can easily be seen in the operation of one of nature’s most superb learning machines, the immune system. The immune system contains different antibody types, each a separate conjecture about the nature of a potential invader (Farmer et al., 1985: 188). However diversity generators take on their most intriguing dimensions among human beings.
  • Next come the utility sorters. Utility sorters are systems which sift through individuals, favoring those whose contributions are most likely to be of value. These pitiless evaluators toss those whose presence represents excess baggage and faulty guesswork into biological, psychological, and perceptual limbo. Some utility sorters are external to the individual. But a surprising number areinternal. That is, they are involuntary components of a being’s physiology.
  • Fourth are the resource shifters. Successful learning machines shunt vast amounts of assets to the individuals who show a sense of control over the current social and external environment. These same learning machines cast individuals whose endowments seem extraneous into a state of relative deprivation. Christ captured the essence of the algorithm when he observed “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath” (Mark 4:25).
  • And bringing up the rear are intergroup tournaments, battles which force each collective entity, each group brain, to continue churning out fresh innovations for the sake of survival. Psychoneuroimmunologists have found that we come complete at birth with a myriad of seemingly self-defeating and maladaptive physiological reactions. It is currently fashionable to suppose that self-destructive built-ins are misplaced leftovers from our hunter-gatherer days. But there is an enormous amount of evidence that each of these biological handicaps gives the group intellect a competitive edge. In fact, there is good reason to believe that autonomic shut-down devices help produce an even more positive byproduct: the constant enrichment of the environment, the complexification of the planetary biomass.

To understand how these five principles affect you and me, it may be helpful to examine the workings of a group brain in an organism normally thought to have no intelligence at all: the bacterium.

Simulation of a colony of P. dendritiformis bacteria,
Eshel Ben-Jaob’s Bacterial Cybernetics Group

In the late 1980s, University of Tel Aviv physicist Eshel Ben-Jacob and the University of Chicago’s James Shapiro were perplexed. Bacteria, which we are popularly regarded as loners, are extraordinarily social, clustering in highly structured colonies. Traditional neo-Darwinism says that bacteria stumble from one innovation to another by random mutation. But a growing body of evidence has accumulated to indicate that bacterial mutations are not completely random (Kiely, 1990; Weiss, 1990; Lipkin, 1995a; Lipkin, 1995b). Seemingly every month fresh studies suggest that these mutations may, in fact, be genetic alterations “custom-tailored” to overcome the emergencies of the moment.

Ben-Jacob detoured from normal physics and spent five years studying bacillus subtilis. Meanwhile Shapiro focused on such organisms as E. coli and salmonella. Unlike the traditional biologists who had preceded them, both Shapiro and Ben-Jacob applied an unconventional tool to their data: the insights they had absorbed from the mathematics of materials science. Gradually their work indicated that, rather than being a mere carrier of construction plans, the package of genes carried by each individual subtilis functions as a computer. What’s more, the genetic bundle seemed to accomplish something even computers cannot achieve. Says Ben-Jacob, “the genome makes calculations and changes itself according to the outcome.” Unlike a silicon chip, the genome adapts to unaccustomed problems by remodeling itself (Eshel Ben-Jacob, personal communication, 1996; Ben-Jacob, 1993; Ben-Jacob, 1997; Ben Jacob, 1998; Ben-Jacob and Dworkin, 1997; Shapiro, 1991).1

Reaching this conclusion left a puzzle. Gödel’s theorem implies that one computer cannot design another computer with more sophisticated computational powers than its own. So how does the individual bacterium’s central processing unit confront large-scale catastrophe, natural disaster so overwhelming that it dwarfs the bacteria’s solo computational abilities? The answer, Ben-Jacob hypothesized, lay in networking–in knitting the colony’s multitude of genomic personal computers into something beyond even the massively parallel distributed processor known as a supercomputer. A supercomputer is only faster than its less sophisticated cousins, but does not transcend many of the smaller machines’ most basic limitations. However the “creative net” of the bacillus, unlike a machine, can recast its form to face an unfamiliar challenge.

Ben-Jacob has now analyzed thousands of colonies of bacillus subtilis to find out if his creative network hypothesis is true, and if so what makes the collective information-processor work. His conclusion: bacilli are in constant contact, communicating through a wide variety of means, measuring their environment’s limitations and opportunities, and feeding their data to each other, then finally summing the product through collaborative decision. In short, bacilli engage in many of the basic activities we associate with human beings.

Here’s how Ben-Jacob’s work appears when filtered through the lens of a social learning machine’s five principles:

1) Bacillus subtilis colonies utilize the most basic conformity enforcer–the genome, which restricts the range of forms and of operating methods among the colony’s individuals. The resulting semi-uniformity makes it possible for each and every member of the community to “understand” a common collection of “languages.”

2) Bacillus subtilis colonies employ a variety of diversity generators. Says Ben-Jacob, bacterial clones (genetically identical offspring of the same mother) can assume intriguingly different variations. Which each dons depends on the chemical signals it picks up from the herd around it. These cues activate or deactivate individual genes, redrawing a bacterium’s design and replacing its old operations manual (Ben-Jacob, personal communication, 1996). In the best of times, when food is plentiful, the colony clumps together for the feast. Divergent appetites and digestive abilities are vital to a gorging group’s survival. The bacteria which concentrate on mining the new food source produce a poisonous by-product–bacterial excreta, the equivalent of feces and urine. Other bacteria adopt an entirely different metabolic mode. To them the excrement is caviar. By snacking heartily on toxic waste, they prevent the colony from killing itself (Ben-Jacob, personal communication, 1996).

More diversity generators kick in when the colony’s banquet runs out. As famine approaches, individuals send out a chemotactic signal of repulsion, a signal that says “spread out, flee, explore.” This prods roughly 10,000 groups of cells to act as scouting parties, setting forth in a trek which looks to the human eye like a spreading circle of fractal lace. Meanwhile other cellular cohorts apparently set up posts in the wake of the outward advance and channel the findings of the explorers toward the center.

3) At this stage the teams of pioneers (technically called “random walkers”) utilize the third principle of a complex adaptive system: the colony’s utility sorters. Those exploration parties which find slim pickings have an internal device, the bacterial equivalent of what British theorist Michael Waller, writing about human beings, has called a “comparator mechanism” (Waller, 1995). This gauge determines that the outriders have chanced across parched and dangerous territory. Their mission, in short, has failed. The unfortunates send out an altruistic repellent which makes others in the group avoid them, leaving them to starve in isolation.

Conversely, discoverers which encounter a cornucopia of edibles have their comparator mechanisms tweaked in the opposite direction. They disperse an attractant which makes them the star of the party.

4) Now the fourth principle of the complex adaptive system enters the petri dish: the resource shifters. Those stranded in the desert are deprived of nutrients, which their location cannot provide, of companionship, and, most important from the point of view of the group brain, of what might best be termed popularity. Meanwhile, those who find an overflowing buffet eat their fill and command the attention and protection of a gathering crowd. They are transformed into leaders, guiding the group mind. “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath” (Mark 4:25).

Should things prove truly grim, however, and even the most strenuous searchers confirm that food is nowhere within reach, another diversity generator, the most startling of them all, may rouse to meet the challenge. It is a mechanism which James Shapiro calls the “genetic engineer.” Explains Ben-Jacob, “the cell carries a complete set of tools for genetic self-reconstruction: plasmids, phages, transposons, and too many others to mention,… the same tools, in fact, used in the lab today for genetic engineering.” A microscopic research and development squadron goes to work recrafting its own genetic string.

Which raises a question: does the genomic skunk works merely trot out pre-fabricated parts which have worked in the past? Or is it capable of true innovation?

Explains Ben-Jacob, “We’ve tried exposing bacterial colonies to conditions so novel that the creatures could never have encountered them before. Tough conditions, conditions of life and death. We wanted to know how inventive the colonies could be in reworking their genetic code. For example, we took bacteria that can’t move on agar but are able to roam freely in liquid. We put them on the wilderness of their worst nightmares, agar, and deprived them of food. The need to branch out in search of grazing land was a true creative challenge.” By forming a modular network beyond the supercomputer, by assembling a group mind, the massed genetic engineering teams were able to solve the problem.

Thanks to the synergy of the conformity enforcer, the diversity generator, the utility sorter, and the resource shifter, the colony was capable of something numerous humans never achieve–creativity.

5) In a natural environment, the fifth of a complex adaptive system’s principles would presumably come into play: the intergroup tournament. Alas, Ben-Jacob has studied each colony isolated in its own petri dish, sealed off by glass walls from competing groups. But as the resources which feed the bacillus subtilis run out, imagine what might happen if a spore of another bacterial species were to drop in, a species which found the inedible plateau on which the subtilis was stranded to be more nourishing than roast beef and Yorkshire pudding. The race would be on. While the bacillus subtilisreworked its genome in an effort to gain sustenance from the now (to it) barren waste, the newcomer would rush to reproduce, taking advantage of the fact that subtilis‘ inedible slabs are its entrée du jour.

As the two groups struggled to take over the petri dish, would a new innovation emerge from the contest, an innovation of the sort which enriches the fate of a species for eons? One which transforms ever more of this once entirely barren planet into food for life?

Ample evidence indicates that complex adaptive systems, with their enormous competitive advantages, have progressed from kin‑groups through to mega-societies with little or no regard for the interests of solitary selfish genes. This is particularly apparent in large-scale human societies, societies seemingly ruled by the same five principles which structure colonies of bacillus subtilis:

CONFORMITY ENFORCERS. Humans are biologically programmed to “fit in”. For example, an infant’s brain is shaped by the culture into which it is born. Six-month olds can either distinguish or produce every sound in virtually every human language. But within a mere four months, this capacity has decreased by roughly two thirds (Werker, 1989; Werker and Desjardins, 1995; Werker and Pegg, in press). This slashing of ability, like other cultural blinkers of perceptions (Eisenberg, 1995; Segall, et al. 1996; Shi-xu, 1995, Lucy, 1992; Berridge and Robinson, 1995; Lancaster, 1968; Emde, 1984; Belsky et al. 1996; Bower, 1995; Caporael, 1995; Nisbett and Ross, 1980; Shweder and D’Andrade, 1980), is accompanied by extensive alterations in the cerebral tissue. During human development, brain cells are measured against the requirements of the physical and socio‑cultural environment. The 50% of neurons found useful thrive. The 50% which remain unexercised literally cease to be (Gould, 1994; Young et al. 1994; Nadis, 1993; Levine, 1988; Elbert et al. 1995; Barinaga, 1994; Pascual-Leone and Torres, 1993; Holden, 1995; Korein, 1988.). The cerebral floor plan underlying the mind is redrawn to conform to a larger social pattern.

Experiments by memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus (Loftus, 1980), psychologist Solomon Asch (Asch, 1956), and numerous others have demonstrated that even among adults there is a propensity to form a shared perception of the world, a view so distinctive that it can give outsiders the impression of a mass delusion. Pressures to conform arise from the urge to belong, the fear of social ostracism, and the appeal of role models. Nearly forty years ago sociologist Erving Goffman (Goffman, 1959) demonstrated that even much of what we think of as our most willful behavior is guided by scripts drafted for us by the social organism of which we are a part.

DIVERSITY GENERATORS. All cultures impose conformity. Yet all benefit from the contribution of their marginal personalities–those who do not fit the mold. Numerous tribal groups turn their cross-dressers and their insane into shamans or seers and use the quirks of their vision as a guide in times of uncertainty. Large-scale societies benefit even further from singular individuals and unorthodox subcultures. Between 361 and 206 BC, the Chinese empire gained its unity, its bureaucratic structure and its standardized writing system from the most eccentric section of the future country, Ch’in, a territory constantly nourished by the input of traders shuttling between one culture and another. The religious non-conformists of 17th and 18th century England were excluded from the country’s official schools. Formulating their own educational substitute, they abandoned the traditional Latin trivium and quadrivium in favor of the newly emerging sciences. Forbidden to participate in traditional high-status occupations, they turned their attention to such déclassé new enterprises as canal building and the mining of coal. The result: the non-conformists saved Britain from possible stagnation and helped usher in the Industrial Revolution.

Productive deviants frequently benefit from “field independence” and a strong “internal locus of control” (Lefcourt, 1982). All too often, one era’s despised tinkerer–an isolate like Gregor Mendel–will lay the groundwork for a later generation’s innovative whiz kids.

Additional diversity generators include impulses toward self-assertion, individuation, and youthful rebellion, not to mention Sigmund Freud’s “narcissism of minor differences”(Freud, 1989; Scherer and Ekman, 1984; Boorstin, 1953; Birenbaum and Lesieur, 1982; Stevens and Price, 1996), Eric Erikson’s “pseudospeciation,” and the closely related ecological phenomenon of “character displacement” (Grant, 1994; Schluter, 1994). In all of these, fundamentally similar individuals seize on petty discrepancies and magnify them until they become insurmountable barriers (Stevens and Price, 1996). Even in tribal societies, the resulting differences of opinion easily overleap genetic barriers, turning brother against brother (Johnson and Johnson, 1995; de Waal, 1989: 247f.). In the last two and a half millennia, these forces have often gone one step further and created camaraderie among those of wildly varying chromosomal background.

Human diversity generators are shifted into high gear by precisely the type of signals which trigger diversity generation among bacteria‑‑signs that the environment is overcrowded, under‑resourced, or lacking in other critical requirements for survival. A large body of studies demonstrates how stressors ranging from a rapid rise in taxes to a dramatic increase or drop in temperature and even an intolerable noise level can break down group cohesion, increase conflict, and encourage restlessness. The result is often a group split which provokes dissenters to search for a new environment, a new world view, and/or a new modus operandi (Griffitt, 1970; Griffitt and Veitch 1971; Weber et al. 1988: 129, 341; Horney et al. 1995; Roberts, 1983: 558-562; Ferguson and Rogers 1981: 141; Dollard et al. 1957: 44; Braudel, 1981: 144f; Weber, 1968: xxiii; Russ et al. 1979). These mechanisms and their effects eerily parallel the chemotactic repulsers which drive stressed bacteria apart, turning human migrants, malcontents, and rebels into feelers who scour the technical, social, and geographic landscape in search of a new way forward for the wider group.

UTILITY SORTERS. The evidence, at this point, is not looking good for the selfish gene and its promoter, the individual selectionist. Among bacteria, a built-in comparator mechanism requires each forager to let the world know whether it has succeeded or failed. If its quest has been productive, physiology drives the bacillus to broadcast the message “follow me.” If its expedition has failed, it has no choice but to signal “leave me to my fate.” Voluminous evidence indicates that comparator mechanisms are virtually standard equipment in all social animals, from the microbial level (Ameisen, 1996) to that of crustaceans (Lange, 1996; Barinaga, 1996; Kravitz, 1988; Adler, 1996), birds,2 and mammals. At each evolutionary level these internal and external sensors of adaptation become more varied and complex. Are humans slaves to similarly implacable biological impulses?

Through a variety of means, among them a sense of control (Lefcourt, 1982: 3-18; Miller et al. 1977; Shors et al. 1989; Shavit, 1983; Davis et al. 1980; Buchsbaum et al. 1982; Sagan, 1988; Davis et al. 1979) over circumstance and the intake of social feedback (Bloom 1995: 60-70, 140-145; Kemper, 1990: 7, 54, 197; Freedman, 1979: 100f; Kroeber, 1952: 43-47; Holmes, 1979), comparator mechanisms indicate to you and me our utility to the social group. A sense of being unneeded leads to a collapse of our self‑esteem (Brown et al. 1986; Price, 1988; Barkow, 1989; Festinger, 1944; Aronson and Linder, 1965; Goleman, 1988; Bloom, 1995: 47-72, 140-145; Maslow, 1973; I.H. Jones et al. 1995) and a range of physiological changes which, in the natural world, would sharply increase the odds of death. Our immune system is impaired (Bower, 1986; Ader, 1983; Sapolsky, 1990; Sapolsky, 1988; Davidson, 1992; Bower, 1988); our perceptions are dulled (Miller et al. 1977; Gazzaniga, 1992: 191-193); our sexual drive diminishes (Sapolsky, 1987; Miller et al. 1977); in males, sperm count and motility both fall; our appetite shrinks or is lost (Gallagher, 1992: 12-15; Lefcourt, 1982: 10; Thomas and DeWald, 1977: 229; Seligman, 1990: 69); our social magnetism evaporates (Gilbert et al. 1994: 149-165; Bloom, 1995: 140-145); and we tend to experience a profound sense of lethargy, negativity, and hopelessness (Dabbs and Leventhal, 1966; Gilbert and Allan, 1994).

A multitude of psychophysiological and psychoneuroimmunological deactivators contribute to these effects, among them “learned helplessness” and the chronic secretion of glucocorticoids and endogenous opiates. A persistent bath of glucocorticoids, for example, literally kills tissue in the hippocampus–a part of the brain vital to memory.

Comparator mechanisms in those who feel un-needed go a step further. They produce a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle signals which drive others away, thus marginalizing the victim as thoroughly as the bacteria whose quest has failed (De Vries et al. 1994: 108; Bloom, 1995: 47-49, 55-56, 60-66, 110-115, 325).

By contrast, those of us who’ve continuously had a handle on our fate:

  • are blessed with chemical tonics like androgens and serotonin, which boost health, sexual appetite, and energy (Sapolsky, 1988);
  • experience heightened acuity and independence of perception (Triandis 1993, Hollander 1958, Kandel and Hawkins 1992, Herskovits 1965: 39, Ezzell 1992);
  • become socially captivating (Thibaut and Riecken, 1995; Freedman, 1979: 68; Hurwitz et al. 1953; Torrance 1954); and
  • send out variants of the successful bacterium’s chemotactic “gather round and follow my ways,” using such devices as postural cues, verbal subtleties (Erikson et al. 1978), body languages (Henley, 1977; Thayer, 1989: 22; Hurwitz et al. 1953; Strodtbeck, 1957; Freedman, 1979: 96; K.R.L. Hall, 1967: 270; McGinley et al. 1975; Mehrabian 1981), and status symbols (Sahlins, 1986; Veblen, 1934; Johnson and Earle, 1987: 219; Galbraith, 1976; Fraser, 1989: 50; Braudel, 1981: 333).

In other words, the folks with the firmest grasp on the challenges facing their group become its opinion-makers. They are given the privilege of steering the collective mind. The bumblers and wrong-guessers either submit to the leadership of others, or, if the community undergoes a severe lack of resources, succumb to disease or suicide.

This concept and the empirical data from which it is derived run directly counter to the tenets of individual selectionism and current neo-Darwinism. In many instances, the victims of self‑perceived failure damage or eliminate, not only their own evolutionary interests, but also those of their kin. For example, a business failure can result either in suicide or other patterns of behavior equally damaging to both spouse and offspring. The case of the hospitalized is even more illustrative. Studies show that depressed patients become withdrawn (Zuckerman, 1995), cranky, inarticulate, lacking in wit, and deprived of verbal flexibility (E.E. Jones and Berglas, 1978; Paloutzian and Ellison, 1982; W.H. Jones et al. 1981). Even their facial gestures and body language drive others away (Altman and Vinsel, 1977; Raven, 1983: 253, 685; Argyle, 1989: 60; Kalin, 1993; Clore and Byrne, 1974; Gotlib, 1992; Myers and Diener, 1995; Emmons, 1986; Myers, 1993; Veenhoven, 1988; Seligman, 1990: 187-198; Bull, 1986: 121; Mehrabian and Williams, 1969; Kiritz 1971). The depressed also suffer from a severe reduction of immune function. They become sitting ducks for illness. In a hospital setting, studies show that depressed patients’ avoidance cues are nearly suicidal. Those in the throes of depression receive far less care than others with a more cheerful demeanor (H. Hall, 1989; Lerner, 1980; Tavris, 1982: 233f).

What causes depression in humans and other vertebrates? Two factors…an isolation which signals that one is socially dispensable (Raven and Rubin, 1983: 56f; Stolzenberg et al. 1995: 85; Lynch, 1979; Lynch and McCarthy, 1967; Lynch and McCarthy, 1969; House et al. 1988; Pelletier, 1983; Sarason and Pierce, 1988; Cohen et al. 1992: 301; Durkheim, 1951: 217, 241; Martin, 1968; Phillips, 1979; Phillips and Lu, 1980); and the loss of control which indicates that one is not capable of coping–that the hypothesis represented by one’s “personality” is inappropriate to current circumstance. The result: depressive humans suffer the utility sorter’s most extreme negative effects and are those most likely to die. (Depressive monkeys, rats, grouse, and numerous other creatures are subject to a similar fate.)

RESOURCE SHIFTERS take over where the utility sorters leave off. Those who demonstrate the ability to generate or accumulate resources are given even more. It may be yams and pigs among Polynesians, copper and blankets among the Kwakiutl (Benedict, 1934: 178; Johnson and Earle: 1987: 168f; Harris, 1978: 94-98; Harris 1977: 104-108; Sahlins 1986: 308), cattle amongst the Masai and the Xhosa (Mostert, 1992), and cash, Lamborghinis, and yachts in the West. But most humans are inordinately drawn to the material indications of success.

Resources are shifted in great quantities to those like Microsoft’s Bill Gates and Wal-Mart’s Sam Walton, who become the apotheosis of business success. People shower them with luxurious gifts. Hotels attempt to lure them with free rooms and restaurants with free meals. Men and women of exceptional talent take pride in becoming members of their team. And, most important, like the pay‑dirt‑striking bacteria who find themselves the center of a crowd, successful humans become hubs of influence (Johnson and Earle, 1987: 52; White, 1993; Freedman, 1979: 36; Bernays, 1928), commanders of what primatologists call the social “attention structure” (Chance, 1967; Tiger and Fox, 1971: 39f; Washburn and Hamburg 1968: 471; Fossey, 1983: 64; Altmann, 1967: 349). In short, their attitudes, thoughts, and styles set the trend for the group.

photograph by Howard Bloom

Success produces the equivalent of the bacterium’s chemotactic attractant; failure generates the counterpart of a chemotactic repellant (Lipkin, 1995; Zullow and Seligman, 1990; Seligman, 1990: 187-198). As the old song says, “Nobody loves you when you’re down and out.”

THE INTERGROUP TOURNAMENT. Everything from the subtle warfare between colonies of sea anemones to the territorial machinations of wolf packs and the outright pillage inflicted by armies of ants indicates the universality of intergroup strife. The forms of competition and bloodshed between troops of monkeys or apes are nearly innumerable. And then we have those primates who have left us eloquent histories, elaborate tapestries, equestrian statues, oil-on-canvas masterpieces, and heroic friezes testifying to their battles. “It is well that war is so terrible…”, said one member of this species, “or we should grow too fond of it.” The name of that Homo sapien was Robert E. Lee.

Beating the opposition is central even in peaceful commercial enterprise. Two decades ago the supercomputer company led by Seymour Cray seemed invincible. But Cray’s last enterprise was shattered well before his death, the victim of a new technology, the microprocessor. This superchip made possible a silicon version of what bacilli long ago evolved–the massively parallel computer (Verity, 1995). As Cray Computer Corporation fell, Bill Gates’ Microsoft rose. Cray had been admirably adapted to the environment of the mainframe. But Gates was a creature of a new ecology–that of the microprocessor-powered personal computer.

These are small‑scale battles compared to those which constantly unleash their brutalities across the face of this planet. Zoology, ecology, history, and current affairs abound with examples of competing group brains using their individual members as modules, sensors, parallel‑distributed information processors, pawns, and experimental test components in relentless battles for supremacy. The largest of them, we call nation states. These collective intelligences have frequently reengineered their organizational blueprints as thoroughly as the bacterial colony retooling its genome.

Individual selectionists have two major fallback positions to account for the otherwise difficult to explain–kin‑selection (the surrender of self to benefit those who carry genes like your own) and reciprocal altruism (the swapping of generous deeds). But a plethora of studies indicates that among humans, the victims of elimination are the group members with the fewest family ties or close friends (House et al. 1988; Severino, 1983; Pelletier, 1983; Jarvinen, 1955; Arnetz et al. 1983; Cohen and Syme, 1985; Broadhead et al. 1983; Berkman, 1984; Bloom, 1995: 60-65; Konner, 1990: 27f; Catanzaro 1995: 393.).The self-sacrificers’ pre-programmed renunciation does not add a scrap of benefit to genes identical to their own, nor does it store up favors for the future. This makes accounting for the survival of utility sorters ,and resource shifters in terms of individual selectionism exceedingly difficult, if not impossible.

Group selectionism can provide a richly productive alternative explanation. Individuals within a social unit are ranked on the basis of perceived relevance to a larger community. They either move to the sidelines or to the center depending on the verdict rendered by their psychophysiology and by their social or environmental milieu. Thus they become components of a communal intelligence. Put yet another way, conformity enforcers, diversity generators, utility sorters and resource shifters aid in the construction of competitive machines far more powerful than mere individual organisms. When matched against genes whose disguised selfishness restricts them to family support and reciprocal exchanges, genes free to participate in the computational and inventive power of a group brain will roll over their rivals like a tank flattening a Volkswagen.


Eshel Ben-Jacob has been forced to infer from his data on bacillus subtilis that we may be viewing “a new picture of cooperative evolution” (Corning, 1983; Corning, 1996; Smillie, 1993; Smillie, 1995), one entirely “orthogonal” to standard neo‑Darwinism (Ben-Jacob, 1998; Ben-Jacob, Cohen, and Czirók. In press.). What does “orthogonal” mean? In Edwin A. Abbott’s classic book, Flatland, creatures operating on only the two-dimensional axes of depth and width felt their world was infinite (Abbott, 1953). Yet there was an even larger infinity above them–if only they had been able to look up.

When using the light of both group and individual selection, the new evolutionary sciences are able to lift their eyes and see our kinship with three-and-a-half billion years of precursors, thus vastly expanding their range of explorable evidence and explanatory mechanisms. The world of the petri dish sheds light on the conference halls of the Hague. The mathematics of materials science and of such non-linear newcomers as fractals and chaos theory, the insights of cell biology and endocrinology, and the mysteries of psychology find a new place in the puzzle. If the evolutionary dogmatists of Lilliput and Blefuscu will simply recognize the equal importance of each end of the egg, they may finally make it possible for science to reveal something far more fascinating–the workings of an egg’s interior. The inner workings of you and me.

photograph by Howard Bloom


1) See unpublished papers by Ben-Jacob and Shapiro listed in bibliography.

2) Amotz Zahavi first proposed that assemblages of birds act as “information-centers” in Ward and Zahavi. 1973. Since then, avian experts like P. de Groot (de Groot 1980) and John and Colleen Marzluff with their sometime collaborator Bernd Heinrich have done much to probe the operation of bird roosts as collective brains, group intelligences (Marzluff et al. 1995).

3) Credit for pointing out that isolation and lack of control are the two factors which consistently produce laboratory models of depression in experimental animals goes to Pulitzer-Prize-winning science journalist Jon Franklin in his Molecules of the Mind: The Brave New Science of Molecular Psychology, New York: Atheneum, 1987.

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