Multiplying NonZero: Review of Robert Wright’s “Nonzero”

Multiplying NonZero: Review of Robert Wright’s “Nonzero”

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Review of Robert Wright’s Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny — (Pantheon Books, New York, 2000, 435 pages)

Multiplying Nonzero

Nonzero is now out in paperback. Frugal Metanexus readers may find this an opportune time to check it out. I think they will find it worth the investment. The book is a pleasing read, as Wright has a gift for turning a phrase. He presents an audacious thesis with humility, humor, and respect. The work is rich in detail and extensively documented: footnotes and references fill about 17% of the pages.

I think the book is appealing because it taps into two areas of neurological susceptibility: attraction to novelty, and a fondness for pattern recognition. Wright takes advantage of the first by applying a novel twist — an argument based on game theory — to an old philosophical-theological topic. He taps into the second by claiming to recognize a basic pattern in the evolution of life and of human culture.

        The primary reason Nonzero may be of interest to Metanexus readers, is that it offers fresh thoughts about an issue of importance to religion, an issue that has dropped off the radar screen of modern culture, the issue of teleology.  Teleology has suffered mightily at the hands of science. At the beginning of his book, Wright quotes the Nobel laureate Steven Weinberg: “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”

        Darwinian evolution is a core dogma of modern science. It is a dogma that severely undermines teleology. To ask about the purpose of life is to ask a meaningless question. Life evolved over a very long period as the unplanned result of random events. Life is an accident. Those who seek a pattern, a purpose, or a meaning, are involved in a futile and misguided effort. Those who claim to see a pattern see an illusion. They might as well claim to see the shapes of bears and hunters in the stars of the night sky.

        Richard Dawkins may have put it most bluntly: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.” (River Out of Eden, p 133)

        I think it is not only the super-religious who are troubled by two implications of Darwinism: (1) that existence is  purposeless, and (2) that the prime interaction of life is ruthless, amoral competition. I suspect that Wright has some misgivings about this world view, as well. Perhaps they led him to seek an alternative understanding of the way things are, and the way things came to be.

        Wright doesn’t deny the validity of evolution. In his Metanexus postings he has described himself as “fundamentally materialist.” Yet, like some thinkers of bygone days, he sees a direction (and possibly a purpose)  in both the evolution of life and the evolution of human culture. For him, it is a direction toward increasing complexity and interdependence.

        He argues that directionality is built into evolution, and that one can find in this teleological implications. His subtitle, “The Logic of Human Destiny,” reflects his belief that the coming of today’s globalized interdependence was ‘in the cards’ from the outset. He admits that this wasn’t an absolute, predetermined outcome. Rather, it was something like the destiny of a poppy seed to become a flower — not inevitable, but “so probable as to inspire wonder.”

        Darwin’s Origin of Species was published in 1859, and its influence was soon widespread. Evolution fit with a sense that progress was inevitable and was, in fact, the natural direction of life. In the social arena, Darwin’s thesis lent support to several positions: (1) Unrestrained competition will bring about continuous economic expansion.  (2) Unregulated competition of ideas will yield truth. (3) Socialist/utopian claims of human perfectibility and historical progress.

        Wright doesn’t advocate the long-abandoned arguments that progress and perfection are inevitable. He doesn’t equate increasing complexity and interdependence with either progress or perfection. He does argue, however, that increasing complexity and interdependence have brought us to a watershed. We have reached a turning point, from which human life could become remarkably better or remarkably worse. It would serve us well to understand the dynamic that drives the system. Although usually understated, his voice suggests at times the evangelical prophet, attempting to open our eyes to the way things are, and our minds to the way things might be.

        Wright uses the logic of game theory, as his primary rhetorical device — thus the title, Nonzero. Two kinds of games are recognized: zero-sum games, and non-zero-sum games.  Zero-sum games are those like tennis, in which someone must lose in order for someone else to win. Non-zero sum games are games with win-win (or sometimes lose-lose) outcomes. There aren’t many sports that fit this pattern, but in day-to-day life, there all kinds of non-zero-sum games that people play. Wright sees this as “the secret of life.” The book unfolds in three parts.

Part I: A Brief History of Humankind
(230 pages =  57% of the book)

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it seemed that there was a necessary sequence of progress in the evolution of human cultures: first, savages;  next,  low-middle-and-upper barbarians; finally, a people crossed the threshold of civilization. But during the twentieth century, the conventional wisdom changed. Claims of cultural evolution were seen as cultural chauvinism. Notions of inevitable progress seemed not just hopelessly naive, but positively dangerous in light of the world wars, in which modern culture killed people by the millions.

Today, cultural evolution has been replaced in academic circles by what might be called a politically correct multiculturalism. It is against this formidable academic intellectual consensus that Wright, a humble journalist, audaciously seeks to argue.

In section one, he leads a dizzying tour of world cultures. He touches on cultures from every continent, except Antarctica. The time span considered stretches from prehistory to the new world order, with the United Nations, NAFTA, IMF, WTO, and the rest. Continually, he points out the inexorably increasing complexity — and interdependence. “In 1500 B.C., there were around 600,000 autonomous polities on the planet. Today, after many mergers and acquisitions, there are 193. . .”

He mentions the domestication of plants and animals; the emergence of religious and political structures;  the development of  writing, money, commerce, accounting, law, and taxation. Here, and in the next section, he weaves a thread connecting intra family altruism, more generalized reciprocal altruism, and love.

What guides these developments is an “Invisible Brain” that understands the calculus of non-zero games. (Here, he is talking metaphor, nothing theological.)  The success of these games in providing mutual benefit is critically dependent upon the development of two factors between and among the players — namely, communication and trust. (The role of communication, of information exchange, is hard to over emphasize in Wright’s thesis.)

He deals explicitly with counterexamples to the notion that life follows a non-zero-sum pattern. He recognizes that zero-sum dynamics are an important part of life, but he argues that, quite often, non-zero results flow from zero-sum situations. For example, in the case of war, he says: “War, by making fates more shared [amongcombatants on either side], by manufacturing non-zero-sumness, accelerates the evolution of culture toward deeper and vaster social complexity.”

For those who would point to events, like the fall of Rome to barbarians, as evidence against human culture having a consistent direction, Wright stresses that one must consider the broad (i.e., worldwide) picture.  Finding eddy currents in the river doesn’t mean the river isn’t flowing in a general direction. In addition, he sees barbarians as underrated: “…barbarians are people, too. Unlike Conan the Barbarian — whose professed aim in life was to defeat the enemy, see him run before you, and hear the lamentations of the women — most real life barbarians are eager to settle down and savor the fruits of civilization: to defeat the enemy, tax him, visit his doctors, marry his daughters.”

Part II: A Brief History of Organic Life
(58 pages = 14% of the book)

In part two, Wright shifts from cultural evolution to what seems a separate topic, the evolution of life. Yet, he maintains that he hasn’t changed his subject. Both of these processes, cultural evolution and organic evolution, share the same dynamic. Both are driven by the energetic interplay between zero-sum and non-zero-sum forces. Both have the same direction — namely, long run growth in non-zero-sumness, and in the depth and scope of complexity.

One of the remarkable things about life is that it seems to violate the second law of thermodynamics — that entropy grows inexorably. Put a drop of cream in a cup of coffee and the drop diffuses throughout the coffee. Never, ever, does one see the spontaneous reappearance of a drop of pure cream.

But, life is not cafe au lait. Life not only preserves order; it builds complexity. It does so by taking in energy and using it in an informed way. The key word is ‘informed.’  Information is a fundamental aspect of life, along with energy and matter. Matter and energy may be interchangeable, but for Wright, information is more than either of these. It is the glue that holds systems together. It is what conveys meaning, and meaning is what induces behavior, be it at the level of the single cell or the level of human society.

Wright traces the evolution of life from the primordial soup to multicellular organisms. He then quickly repaints an image from the first section, that of a ‘co-evolutionary escalator’ (cultural evolution augmenting organic evolution — through learning, tools, symbolic communication, and socialization). It is this ‘escalator’ that has boosted us to where we presently stand. It is an escalator powered by non-zero. Prime examples, seen on the way up, are the transition from single-cell to multi celled organisms, and the non-zero joining of proto-organelles into functioning cells.  He vigorously defends his contention that organic evolution has a direction, against contrary arguments — particularly those advanced by Stephen Jay Gould.

Part III: From Here to Eternity
(36 pages = 9% of the book)

The third part of the book is the shortest, the most speculative, and the most controversial. Here, Wright brings the teleological question back into focus. Having identified what he sees as a pattern, a design, in the web of life, he asks whether this pattern has some purpose, perhaps even a purpose that we might call “good,” perhaps even a purpose held by something we might call “God.”

The argument from design — that having found a watch, we can assume a watch maker — has considerable common sense appeal, but the need for an intelligent, purposeful watchmaker has been rendered superfluous by recognition of the process of evolution by natural selection. Wright takes the design argument one step further back and asks whether the process of evolution, itself, shows evidence of a purpose. He concludes it does, because it exhibits “flexible directionality by means of information processing,”   his stated criteria for teleological behavior.

But, if evolution has a purpose, it isn’t one that fits obviously with the values people associate with a God that is “good.” One quickly runs into credibility problems when one calls the world designed by evolution the work of a benign, omnipotent divinity. On this issue Wright struggles, as do all who would reconcile notions of a good God with evidence of a world where suffering and evil are common. He deals with the problem of evil by supposing a benign, but not omnipotent creator, a creator limited by “metaphysical design constraints.” It is the weakest argument he puts forth, but to his credit, he seems to acknowledge that it is pure speculation, and he moves on.

He is more convincing in making the case that there is something profound about consciousness and meaning, something that isn’t adequately accounted for by non teleological explanations. Even so, his case is not altogether compelling. In the end, there is still plenty of room for disagreement. What Wright has done, I think, is to reopen, if just a crack, the door to an intelligent discussion of teleology. Also, he gives us pause to ponder whether the world may be morally richer than we think.

Don Smith
Clinical Professor, Neurology
University of Colorado Health Sciences Center, Denver