Cover image for NonZero : the logic of human destiny
NonZero : the logic of human destiny
Wright, Robert, 1957-
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New York : Pantheon, 2000.
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x, 435 pages ; 25 cm
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GN360 .W75 2000 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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At the beginning ofNonzero, Robert Wright sets out to "define the arrow of the history of life, from the primordial soup to the World Wide Web." Twenty-two chapters later, after a sweeping and vivid narrative of the human past, he has succeeded -- and has mounted a powerful challenge to the conventional view that evolution and human history are aimless. Ingeniously employing game theory -- the logic of "zero-sum" and "non-zero-sum" games -- Wright isolates the impetus behind life's basic direction: the impetus that, via biological evolution, created complex, intelligent animals and then, via cultural evolution, pushed the human species toward deeper and vaster social complexity. In this view, the coming of today's interdependent global society was "in the cards" -- not quite inevitable, perhaps, but, as Wright puts it, "so probable as to inspire wonder." So probable, indeed, as to invite speculation about higher purpose, especially in light of "the phase of history that seems to lie immediately ahead: a social, political, and even moral culmination of sorts." In a work of vast erudition and pungent wit, Wright takes on some of the past century's most prominent thinkers, including Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Stephen Jay Gould, and Richard Dawkins. He finds evidence for his position in unexpected corners, from native American hunter-gatherer societies and Polynesian chiefdoms to medieval Islamic commerce and precocious Chinese technology; from conflicts of interest among a cell's genes to discord at the World Trade Organization. Wright argues that a coolly scientific appraisal of humanity's three-billion-year past can give new spiritual meaning to the present and even offer political guidance for the future.Nonzerowill change the way people think about the human prospect.

Reviews 4

Booklist Review

A populistic presentation of the proposition, challenged by much evidence in history, that humanity is on an ineluctable path to betterment, material if not moral. Wright sees this having occurred over the range of human polities, from the hunter-gatherer band to the chiefdom to the nation-state. Writing in a conversational, offbeat manner, Wright maintains that societies evolve through combinations of technological innovation and plain old innate human competitiveness and status-seeking. "Add Technology and Bake for Ten Millennia" runs one typically chatty chapter title that ambles about the invention of agriculture even as it twits Margaret Meadean anthropologists who argue that societies have no evolutionary direction. Defining the process as "non-zero-sumness," the opposite of a zero-sum game, Wright supports his view by drawing on an impressive breadth of knowledge that happily doesn't lord over the text but rather buoys it with interesting connections. Ending with a push of his thesis of progressiveness into biology, of all things, Wright caps a spritely, opinionated big-picture history of human civilization. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Evolution meets game theory in this upbeat follow-up to Wright's much-praised The Moral Animal. Arguing against intellectual heavyweights such as Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper and Franz Boas, Wright contends optimistically that history progresses in a predictable direction and points toward a certain end: a world of increasing human cooperation where greed and hatred have outlived their usefulness. This thesis is elaborated by way of something Wright calls "non-zero-sumness," which in game theory means a kind of win-win situation. The non-zero-sum dynamic, Wright says, is the driving force that has shaped history from the very beginnings of life, giving rise to increasing social complexity, technological innovation and, eventually, the Internet. From Polynesian chiefdoms and North America's Shoshone culture to the depths of the Mongol Empire, Wright plunders world history for evidence to show that the so-called Information Age is simply part of a long-term trend. Globalization, he points out, has been around since Assyrian traders opened for business in the second millennium B.C. Even the newfangled phenomenon of "narrowcasting" was anticipated, he claims, when the costs of print publishing dropped in the 15th century and spawned a flurry of niche-oriented publications. Occasionally, Wright's use of modish terminology can seem glib: feudal societies benefited from a "fractal" structure of nested polities, world culture has always been "fault-tolerant" and today's societies are like a "giant multicultural brain." Despite the game-theory jargon, however, this book sends an important message that, as human beings make moral progress, history, in its broadest outlines, is getting better all the time. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Wright (The Moral Animal) has written an informative and insightful book that examines the sociocultural evolution of our species toward ever-greater complexity, advancing technology, and scientific information. In the footsteps of cultural evolutionists Lewis H. Morgan and Leslie A. White and indebted to the vision of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Wright stresses the general progress in cultural evolution from nomadic bands to the emerging global society. He stresses the dynamic non-zero-sum basic pattern throughout human history, observing that "the directionality of culture, of history, is an expression of our species, of human nature." Special attention is given to the influences of war, agriculture, technology (iron implements and the printing press), and the convergence of information. Wright gives a quintessentially planetary perspective that does not consider the awesome influences of future outer-space exploration and migration on the destiny of our species. Despite its lugubrious style and the lack of illustrations, this scholarly analysis of human sociocultural development is suitable for large academic collections.--H. James Birx, Canisius Coll., Buffalo, NY (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Choice Review

If the question about how the world and humans came to be is a difficult one to answer, the one as to why it all happened at all is even more intriguing. Science has been making every effort to find out answers to the first question, and the religions of humankind have, over the ages, furnished answers to the second. Modern science generally leads us to believe that biogenesis was a random event, and it has also led to a negative nonanswer to the second question: there is really no reason why the world and humans came to be. Wright develops his insightful thesis to the effect that both biological and cultural evolutions were in some sense implicit in the nature of the physical world; i.e., this is not an accidental universe but one that quite possibly has a very meaningful purpose yet unknown to us. The thesis itself is not all that new, but the arguments Wright furnishes are quite original, drawing from the latest results and framework of science. There are serious discussions of current propositions about evolution and history, about game theory and thermodynamics. Not everyone will be convinced by Wright's analysis and conclusions, but he presents his case with reason and erudition. Upper-division undergraduates and up. V. V. Raman; Rochester Institute of Technology



Introduction: The Calm Before the Storm A great many internal and external portents (political and social upheaval, moral and religious unease) have caused us all to feel, more or less confusedly, that something tremendous is at present taking place in the world. But what is it? -- Pierre Teilhard de Chardin The Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg once ended a book on this note: "The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless." Far be it from me to argue with a great physicist about how depressing physics is. For all I know, Weinberg's realm of expertise, the realm of inanimate matter, really does offer no evidence of higher purpose. But when we move into the realm of animate matter -- bacteria, cellular slime molds, and, most notably, human beings -- the situation strikes me as different. The more closely we examine the drift of biological evolution and, especially, the drift of human history, the more there seems to be a point to it all. Because in neither case is "drift" really the right word. Both of these processes have a direction, an arrow. At least, that is the thesis of this book. People who see a direction in human history, or in biological evolution, or both, have often been dismissed as mystics or flakes. In some ways, it's hard to argue that they deserve better treatment. The philosopher Henri Bergson believed that organic evolution is driven forward by a mysterious "é lan vital," a vital force. But why posit something so ethereal when we can explain evolution's workings in the wholly physical terms of natural selection? Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit theologian, saw human history moving toward "Point Omega." But how seriously could he expect historians to take him, given that Point Omega is "outside Time and Space"? On the other hand, you have to give Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin some credit. Both saw that organic evolution has a tendency to create forms of life featuring greater and greater complexity. And Teilhard de Chardin, in particular, stressed a comparable tendency in human history: the evolution, over the millennia, of ever more vast and complex social structures. His extrapolations from this trend were prescient. Writing at the middle of this century, he dwelt on telecommunications, and the globalization it abets, before these subjects were all the rage. (Marshall McLuhan, coiner of "global village," had read Teilhard.) With his concept of the "noosphere," the "thinking envelope of the Earth," Teilhard even anticipated in a vague way the Internet -- more than a decade before the invention of the microchip. Can the trends rightly noted by Bergson and Teilhard -- basic tendencies in biological evolution and in the technological and social evolution of the human species -- be explained in scientific, physical terms? I think so; that is largely what this book is about. But the concreteness of the explanation needn't, I believe, wholly drain these patterns of the spiritual content that Bergson and Teilhard imputed to them. If directionality is built into life -- if life naturally moves toward a particular end -- then this movement legitimately invites speculation about what did the building. And the invitation is especially strong, I'll argue, in light of the phase of human history that seems to lie immediately ahead -- a social, political, and even moral culmination of sorts. As readers not drawn to theological questions will be delighted to hear, such speculation constitutes a small portion of this book: a few cosmic thoughts toward the end, necessarily tentative. Mostly this book is about how we got where we are today, and what this tells us about where we're heading next. The Secret of Life On the day James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the structure of DNA, Crick, as Watson later recalled it, walked into their regular lunch place and announced that they had "found the secret of life." With all due respect for DNA, I would like to nominate another candidate for the secret of life. Unlike Francis Crick, I can't claim to have discovered the secret I'm touting. It was discovered -- or, if you prefer, invented -- about half a century ago by the founders of game theory, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern. They made a basic distinction between "zero-sum" games and "non-zero-sum" games. In zero-sum games, the fortunes of the players are inversely related. In tennis, in chess, in boxing, one contestant's gain is the other's loss. In non-zero-sum games, one player's gain needn't be bad news for the other(s). Indeed, in highly non-zero-sum games the players' interests overlap entirely. In 1970, when the three Apollo 13 astronauts were trying to figure out how to get their stranded spaceship back to earth, they were playing an utterly non-zero-sum game, because the outcome would be either equally good for all of them or equally bad. (It was equally good.) Back in the real world, things are usually not so clear-cut. A merchant and a customer, two members of a legislature, two childhood friends sometimes -- but not always -- find their interests overlapping. To the extent that their interests do overlap, their relationship is non-zero-sum; the outcome can be win-win or lose-lose, depending on how they play the game. Sometimes political scientists or economists break human interaction down into zero-sum and non-zero-sum components. Occasionally, evolutionary biologists do the same in looking at the way various living systems work. My contention is that, if we want to see what drives the direction of both human history and organic evolution, we should apply this perspective more systematically. Interaction among individual genes, or cells, or animals, among interest groups, or nations, or corporations, can be viewed through the lenses of game theory. What follows is a survey of human history, and of organic history, with those lenses in place. My hope is to illuminate a kind of force -- the non-zero-sum dynamic -- that has crucially shaped the unfolding of life on earth so far. The survey of organic history is brief, and the survey of human history not so brief. Human history, after all, is notoriously messy. But I don't think it's nearly as messy as it's often made out to be. Indeed, even if you start the survey back when the most complex society on earth was a hunter-gatherer village, and follow it up to the present, you can capture history's basic trajectory by reference to a core pattern: New technologies arise that permit or encourage new, richer forms of non-zero-sum interaction; then (for intelligible reasons grounded ultimately in human nature) social structures evolve that realize this rich potential -- that convert non-zero-sum situations into positive sums. Thus does social complexity grow in scope and depth. This isn't to say that non-zero-sum games always have win-win outcomes rather than lose-lose outcomes. Nor is it to say that the powerful and the treacherous never exploit the weak and the naïve; parasitic behavior is often possible in non-zero-sum games, and history offers no shortage of examples. Still, on balance, over the long run, non-zero-sum situations produce more positive sums than negative sums, more mutual benefit than parasitism. As a result, people become embedded in larger and richer webs of interdependence. This basic sequence -- the conversion of non-zero-sum situations into mostly positive sums -- had started happening at least as early as 15,000 years ago. Then it happened again. And again. And again. Until -- voilà! -- here we are, riding in airplanes, sending e-mail, living in a global village. I don't mean to minimize the interesting details that populate most history books: Sumerian kings, barbarian hordes, medieval knights, the Protestant Reformation, nascent nationalism, and so on. In fact, I try to give all of these their due (along with such too-often-neglected exemplars of the human experience as native American hunter-gatherers, Polynesian chiefdoms, Islamic commercial innovations, African kingdoms, Aztec justice, and precocious Chinese technology). But I do intend to show how these details, though important in their own right, are ultimately part of a larger story -- to show how they fit into a framework that makes thinking about human history easier. After surveying human history, I will briefly apply to organic history the same organizing principle. Through natural selection, there arise new "technologies" that permit richer forms of non-zero-sum interaction among biological entities: among genes, or cells, or animals, or whatever. And the rest, as they say, is organic history. In short, both organic and human history involve the playing of ever-more-numerous, ever-larger, and ever-more-elaborate non-zero-sum games. It is the accumulation of these games -- game upon game upon game -- that constitutes the growth in biological and social complexity that people like Bergson and Teilhard de Chardin have talked about. I like to refer to this accumulation as an accumulation of "non-zero-sumness." Non-zero-sumness is a kind of potential -- a potential for overall gain, or for overall loss, depending on how the game is played. The concept may sound ethereal in the abstract, but I hope it will feel concrete by the end of this book. Non-zero-sumness, I'll argue, is something whose ongoing growth and ongoing fulfillment define the arrow of the history of life, from the primordial soup to the World Wide Web. You might even say that non-zero-sumness is a nuts-and-bolts, materialist version of Bergson's immaterial é lan vital; it gives a certain momentum to the basic direction of life on this planet. It explains why biological evolution, given enough time, was very likely to create highly intelligent life -- life smart enough to generate technology and other forms of culture. It also explains why the ensuing evolution of technology, and of culture more broadly, was very likely to enrich and expand the social structure of that intelligent species, carrying social organization to planetary breadth. Globalization, it seems to me, has been in the cards not just since the invention of the telegraph or the steamship, or even the written word or the wheel, but since the invention of life. All along, the relentless logic of non-zero-sumness has been pointing toward this age in which relations among nations are growing more non-zero-sum year by year. You Call That Destiny Any book with a subtitle as grandiose as "The Logic of Human Destiny" is bound to have some mealy-mouthed qualification somewhere along the way. We might as well get it over with. How literally do I mean the word "destiny"? Do I mean that the exact state of the world ten or fifty or one hundred years from now is inevitable, down to the last detail? No, on two counts. (1) I'm talking not about the world's exact, detailed state, but about its broad contours: the nature of its political and economic structures (Whither, for example, the nation-state?); the texture of individual experience (Whither freedom?); the scope of culture (Whither Mickey Mouse?); and so on. (2) I'm not talking about something that is literally inevitable. Still, I am talking about something whose chances of transpiring are very, very high. Moreover, I'm saying that the only real alternatives to the "destiny" that I'll outline are extremely unpleasant, best avoided for all our sakes. Some people may consider it cheating to use the word "destiny" when you mean not "inevitable" but "exceedingly likely." Would you consider it cheating to say that the destiny of a poppy seed is to become a poppy? Obviously, a given poppy seed may not become a poppy. Indeed, the destiny of some poppy seeds seems -- in retrospect, at least -- to have been getting baked onto a bagel. And even poppy seeds that have escaped this fate, and landed on soil, may still get eaten (though not at brunch) and thus never become flowers. Still, there are at least three reasons that it seems defensible to say that the "destiny" of a poppy seed is to become a poppy. First, this is very likely to happen under broadly definable circumstances. Second, from the seed's point of view, the only alternative to this happening is catastrophe -- death, to put a finer point on it. Third, if we inspect the essence of a poppy seed -- the DNA it contains -- we find it hard to escape the conclusion that the poppy seed is programmed to become a poppy. Indeed, you might say the seed is designed to become a poppy, even though it was "designed" not by a human designer, but by natural selection. For anything other than full-fledged poppyhood to happen to a poppy seed -- for it to get baked onto a bagel or eaten by a bird -- is for the seed's true expression to be stifled, its naturally imbued purpose to go unrealized. It is for reasons roughly analogous to these that I will make an argument for human destiny. Of course, the human-poppy analogy gets most contentious when we ponder the third reason: Is it fair to say that our species has some larger "purpose"? Is there some grand goal that life on earth was "designed" to realize? Here, as I've said, the argument has to get quite speculative. But I do think the reasons for answering yes are stronger than many people -- especially many scientists and social scientists -- realize. The Current Chaos Neither biological evolution nor human history is a smooth, steady process. Both pass through thresholds; they can leap from one equilibrium to a new, higher-level equilibrium. To some people, the current era has the aura of a threshold; it has that unsettling, out-of-control feeling that can portend a major shift. Technological, geopolitical, and economic change seem ominously fast, and the fabric of society seems somehow tenuous. For instance: World currency markets are rocked by the turbulent force of electronically lubricated financial speculation. Weapons of mass destruction are cultivated by rogue regimes and New Age cults. Nations seem less cohesive than before, afflicted by ethnic or religious or cultural faction. Health officials seriously discuss the prospect of a worldwide plague -- the unspeakably gruesome Ebola virus, perhaps, or some microbe we don't yet know about, spread around the world by jet-propelled travelers. Even tropical storms seem to have grown more intense in recent decades, arguably a result of global warming. It sounds apocalyptic, and some religiously minded people think it literally is. They have trouble imagining that this rash of new threats could be mere coincidence -- especially coming, as it has, at the end of a millennium. Some fundamentalist Christians cite growing global chaos as evidence that Judgment Day is around the corner. A whole genre of best-selling novels envisions "the Rapture," the day when true believers, on the way to heaven, meet Christ in midair, while others, down below, find a less glamorous fate. In a sense, these fundamentalists are right. No, I don't mean about the Rapture. I just mean that growing turmoil does signify, by my lights, a distinct step in the unfolding of what you could call the world's destiny. We are indeed approaching a culmination of sorts; our species seems to face a kind of test toward which basic forces of history have been moving us for millennia. It is a test of political imagination -- of our ability to accept basic, necessary changes in structures of governance -- but also a test of moral imagination. So how will we do on this test? Judging by history, the current turbulence will eventually yield to an era of relative stability, an era when global political, economic, and social structures have largely tamed the new forms of chaos. The world will reach a new equilibrium, at a level of organization higher than any past equilibrium. And the period we are now entering will, in retrospect, look like the storm before the calm. Or, on the other hand, we could blow up the world. Remember, even poppy seeds don't always manage to flower. For that matter, even if we avoid blowing up the world, elements of uncertainty remain. Though the natural expression of history's logic has certain firm parameters, they leave some leeway. One can imagine, within the bounds of possibility suggested by the trajectory of the past, future political structures that grant more freedom or less, more privacy or less, that foster more order or less, more wealth or less. One purpose of this book is to aid in exploring this "wiggle room" -- in choosing among such alternative futures and in realizing the choice. But at least as important as using destiny's leeway wisely is easing destiny's arrival. History, even if its basic direction is set, can proceed at massive, wrenching human cost. Or it can proceed more smoothly -- with costs, to be sure, but with more tolerable costs. It is the destiny of our species -- and this time I mean the inescapable destiny, not just the high likelihood -- to choose. Excerpted from Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny by Robert Wright All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Introduction: The Storm Before the Calmp. 3
Part I A Brief History of Humankind
1. The Ladder of Cultural Evolutionp. 13
2. The Way We Werep. 18
3. Add Technology and Bake for Five Millenniap. 29
4. The Invisible Brainp. 45
5. War: What Is It Good For?p. 54
6. The Inevitability of Agriculturep. 65
7. The Age of Chiefdomsp. 78
8. The Second Information Revolutionp. 93
9. Civilization and So Onp. 107
10. Our Friends the Barbariansp. 124
11. Dark Agesp. 138
12. The Inscrutable Orientp. 155
13. Modern Timesp. 174
14. And Here We Arep. 195
15. New World Orderp. 209
16. Degrees of Freedomp. 229
Part II A Brief History of Organic Life
17. The Cosmic Contextp. 243
18. The Rise of Biological Non-zero-sumnessp. 251
19. Why Life Is So Complexp. 265
20. The Last Adaptationp. 282
Part III From Here to Eternity
21. Non-crazy Questionsp. 301
22. You Call This a God?p. 318
Appendix 1 On Non-zero-sumnessp. 337
Appendix 2 What Is Social Complexity?p. 344
Acknowledgmentsp. 348
Notesp. 351
Bibliographyp. 403
Indexp. 419