Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

Robert Wright

Published by Pantheon, 1999
ISBN 10: 0679442529 / ISBN 13: 9780679442523
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Synopsis: At the beginning of Nonzero, 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. Nonzero will change the way people think about the human prospect.

Review: Nonzero, from New Republic writer Robert Wright, is a difficult and important book--well worth reading--addressing the controversial question of purpose in evolution. Using language suggesting that natural selection is a designer's tool, Wright inevitably draws the conclusion that evolution is goal-oriented (or at least moves toward inevitable ends independently of environmental or contingent variables).

The underlying reason that non-zero-sum games wind up being played well is the same in biological evolution as in cultural evolution. Whether you are a bunch of genes or a bunch of memes, if you're all in the same boat you'll tend to perish unless you are conducive to productive coordination.... Genetic evolution thus tends to create smoothly integrated organisms, and cultural evolution tends to create smoothly integrated groups of organisms.

Admittedly, it's as hard to think clearly about natural selection as it is to think about God, but that makes it just as important to acknowledge our biases and try to exclude them from our conclusions. It is this that makes Nonzero potentially unsatisfying to the scientifically literate. Time after time we've seen thinkers try to find in biological evolution a "drive toward complexity" that might explain all sorts of other phenomena from economics to spirituality. Some authors, like Teilhard de Chardin, have much to offer the careful reader who takes pains to read metaphorically. Others--legions of cranks--provide nothing but opaque diatribes culminating in often-bizarre assertions proven to nobody but the author. Wright is much closer to de Chardin along this axis; his anthropological scholarship is particularly noteworthy, and his grasp of world history is excellent. Unfortunately, he has the advocate's willingness to blind himself to disagreeable facts and to muddle over concepts whose clarity would be poisonous to his positions: try to pin him down on what he means by complexity, for example. Still, his thesis that human cultures are historically striving for cooperative, nonzero-sum situations is heartening and compelling; even though it's not supported by biology, it's not knocked down, either. If the reader can work around the undefined assumptions, Wright's charm and obvious interest in planetary survival make Nonzero a worthy read. If the first chapter's title--"The Ladder of Cultural Evolution"--makes you cringe, the last one--"You Call This a God?"--will make you smile. --Rob Lightner

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Title: Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny
Publisher: Pantheon
Publication Date: 1999
Binding: Hardcover
Book Condition: Acceptable

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