Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

by Robert Wright

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In his bestselling The Moral Animal, Robert Wright applied the principles of evolutionary biology to the study of the human mind. Now Wright attempts something even more ambitious: explaining the direction of evolution and human history–and discerning where history will lead us next.

In Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Wright asserts that, ever since the primordial ooze, life has followed a basic pattern. Organisms and human societies alike have grown more complex by mastering the challenges of internal cooperation. Wright's narrative ranges from fossilized bacteria to vampire bats, from stone-age villages to the World Trade Organization, uncovering such surprises as the benefits of barbarian hordes and the useful stability of feudalism. Here is history endowed with moral significance–a way of looking at our biological and cultural evolution that suggests, refreshingly, that human morality has improved over time, and that our instinct to discover meaning may itself serve a higher purpose. Insightful, witty, profound, Nonzero offers breathtaking implications for what we believe and how we adapt to technology's ongoing transformation of the world.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375727818
Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
Publication date: 04/20/2001
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 712,234
File size: 2 MB

About the Author

Robert Wright is the author of Three Scientists and Their Gods and The Moral Animal, which was named by the New York Times Book Review as one of the twelve best books of the year and has been published in nine languages. A recipient of the National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism, Wright has published in The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the New York Times Magazine, Time, and Slate. He was previously a senior editor at The New Republic and The Sciences and now runs the Web site He lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife and two daughters.

Read an Excerpt

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.

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Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Thankfully, an increasing number of authors (Landes, Diamond, et al) have been tackling social evolution - a crucial topic that's been shied away from for too long. Wright's effort is inspired, intelligent, engaging, erudite, not the least bit pretentious, and exceedingly well-written. Wright's basic message is that living organizations - both organisms and the groups they form - have been getting increasingly complex and well-integrated since life began, so it's a good bet that this trend will continue into the future. He presents a general hypothesis, and then provides a mountain of fascinating evidence to back it up. It's not experimental science, it's theory-driven science, but it's definitely not 'bad science' as a few reviewers (usually non-scientists, interestingly) have said. Reading this book will definitely increase your knowledge and understanding of the history of life on earth, and as the goal of science is to increase knowledge and understanding, I'd say the scientific value of this book is high - much higher than most history you will read (historians usually don't even try to make their interpretations consistent with biological knowledge). Though not the last word in social evolution, this book is an excellent leap forward, and anyone interested in history, biology, or social evolution should read it, and have a great time doing it. Highly recommended.
Guest More than 1 year ago
The paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould wrote two books demonstrating that evolution has no point¿that it is at best a random walk. It's just a matter of blind luck that humans are smarter and more complex than bacteria. Since the course of evolution is bounded by a wall of zero complexity, it is forced to expand gradually and blindly into the realm of complexity. That it got to us is just a matter of luck. Robert Wright wrote _Non Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny_ to prove Gould wrong. Although Wright doesn't claim that we have a pre-ordained, God-given kind of destiny, he does argue forcefully that it's no accident that both biological and social evolution obviously do produce grander and more complex entities over time¿plants, animals and us in the case of biological evolution; families, tribes, villages, city-states, nations and beyond in the case of social evolution. He argues that intelligent beings and complex institutions inevitably appear because of the interplay between natural selection an--surprise¿game theory. We're all familiar with zero-sum games--a football match for example. One team's gain is the other's loss, and there's always a winner and a loser. But Wright argues that most zero-sum games evolve into or are intimately linked to non-zero-sum games, exchanges in which all the players benefit by playing. We can see this in organized sports. Although the matches are zero-sum, they take place within a web of value-added exchanges and relationships. Fans who buy tickets or watch on TV are rewarded, and so are the teams and leagues that receive ticket and advertising revenues. Players and teams may lose games, but they still make a living by playing. And in the process they support a network of individuals and groups playing non-zero-sum games with them: advertisers, vendors, commentators, groundskeepers, umpires, security guards, cheerleaders, you name it. Wright shows that when this transformation from zero-sum into non-zero-sum exchanges is coupled with competition between the entities involved, with natural selection picking those who play more cooperatively, the inevitable result is increased complexity and information processing capability (that is, intelligence). And once complex entities appear, their presence sparks even more complex games, which create yet more complex systems, in an evolutionary upward spiral. It's a grand and fascinating idea, and Wright develops it thoroughly and clearly. I was particularly impressed with his willingness to state opposing ideas and arguments clearly, and with the care he takes not to slip into mysticism, grandiosity, or the kind of fish-eat-fish social Darwinism that this kind of thinking has been associated with in the past. He is realistic enough to recognize that neither biological evolution nor the evolution of civilization has been a smooth upward spiral. But he argues convincingly that even horrendous zero-sum exchanges, such as plagues or war, sooner or later sow the seeds of new growth. That's not to say I agreed with everything Wright had to say. I found myself arguing with many of his points, only to be convinced, at least enough to read on. At times he seemed overly glib, for example when he said that even if the dark ages had managed to destroy all ancient learning completely--'Well, them's the breaks.' Yet, more often than not, I found myself being surprised by his incisive, paradox-breaking analysis. He pokes holes in many fuzzy yet widely held ideas, such as religious determinism (e.g. that the West has surged ahead of the East because of the Protestant work ethic), or because of the Western exploitation of nature vs. Eastern merging with it, or the idea that societies evolve deliberately and as a whole rather than because of the striving and inventiveness of their individual members. Some of Wright's more interesting statements: 'As the centuries fly by, civilizations may come and go, but civilization flourishes.' 'Adam Smith'
Guest More than 1 year ago
Far too many authors these days shy away from 'big theory' books, probably because they (rightly) fear they don't have the chops to pull it off. Thankfully, Robert Wright does - and with style and humor. One might think at first that the application of game theory principles, originating in social sciences, would not assist in understanding the logic of human and biological evolution, but Wright quickly puts that concern to rest. The book is fascinating, intriguing, convincing and, in the end, quite optimistic. Beat that.
snarkhunt on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
It's brilliant. Like Guns, Germs, and Steel, examines all of human history through a single lens, in this case win-win games.The thesis is that human life and all progress comes about as a series of non-zero sum interactions, games where both parties win.It gets a bit repetitive some times - when a story begins you can start predicting how it will end because there is only one theme in the book, but it effectively demonstrates the idea and shows you the impact throughout history and applications for the future.
Davidicus on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Having just finished Nonzero for the second time, I've got to admit it is seriously one of the best and most important books I've ever read. Why did I have to read it a second time? The first was a quick read over a long weekend two years ago -- but something stuck in my mind that I hadn't really "grokked" it. And that was true, because, I read it as an archaeologist, rather than as an anthropologist, and I guess I was just looking at it as another theoretical bent. But there was that gnawing feeling I'd missed something. On a second 'conscious' reading of the book, slowly digesting as I read, and following all the notes, I came away with the gist of it, and you know, Wright's right: civilizations may come and go, but cultural evolution is here to stay. Is there a method to the madness? Yes, absolutely. Is it 'conscious' in its own right? Well, there's the rub. But as far as showing that cultural evolution proceeds pretty much along the same route as biological evolution (only at hyper-speed), well, Mr. Wright, I'm convinced.If there is any criticism, I'd have to say it centers on the fact that he lays it all at the feet of (the pursuit of?) non-zero-sumness (a sub-set of outcomes related to game theory, and which he freely admits was awkward at times), and that took some getting used to, as well as understanding, and then believing.The exploration of history against a background of Darwinian biological evolution, even to the molecular level, is mind-numbing, but well worth the ride. And his explanation of the (probability and) nature of life is awe-inspiring. I would suggest it become a standard text in Anthropology graduate courses as soon as possible.But again, I think it is a very important book, and I would highly recommend it to anyone with an open mind, intelligence, and hope for the future (and a good background in the sciences wouldn't hurt either). Read it slowly and contemplate the consequences. Thanks Mr. Wright.
slpaine on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I was led to this book after reading Authentic Happiness by Martin Seligman. Wright's book also referenced numerous earlier contributers to Game theory such as Robert Axelrod. Axelrod's book The Evolution of Cooperation was a truly great find. I have become persuaded that continuing research and targeted application of game theory can be the easiest (i.e. by being more natural) mechanism the human race can use to leverage cooperation, colaberation and equality. I may be overly optimistic but it sure beats the alternative.....
_Greg on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I've just finished re-reading Nonzero. Robert Heinlein once defined a good book as one which you can read again and get more out of it, and a great book as one which you can read again and again and keep getting more out of it. Nonzero is definitely in the great category. A conversation I was having recently with John Smart of the Acceleration Studies Foundation reminded me of Nonzero and made it clear to me that a re-read was in order. In Nonzero, Robert Wright brilliantly applies game theory to the evolution of life and human culture and makes an excellent case for the continuous expansion of non-zero-sum games in both arenas, giving a strong direction of progressive change in both. The book is much deeper and broader than that simple sentence implies, and I consider the book a must read for anyone who is interested in the nature of being human.
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Echo_Point_Books More than 1 year ago
Wright has written a masterpiece. If this isn't the most interesting book I've ever read, it's right up there. Even if you don't agree with it all, it's very thought provoking. His Moral Animal is also excellent. MG, fan of The The Fastest, Easiest (& Free) Way to Dig for the Lowest Prices Online
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