Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny

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One way to describe my book is as an exercise in natural theology. I examine the whole history of our species—from the primordial ooze to the world wide web—and then ask whether that history shows any evidence of higher purpose. The first four paragraphs of the book’s introduction set out my agenda pretty straightforwardly. Here they are:

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 “elan 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 you can see from these four paragraphs, I take pains to stress that my standpoint is fundamentally materialist. I’m not arguing that biological evolution needs a higher power to guide it along, or anything like that. On the contrary, I’m arguing that natural selection is such a powerful creative engine as to make us wonder whether it is itself a product of design. Only after spending 22 chapters making a materialist argument for directionality in biological and social (or cultural) evolution do I spend a couple of chapters addressing the issue of higher purpose raised by that directionality.

In other words, you could summarize my argument as consisting of three separate but related sub-arguments: (1) It was almost inevitable that natural selection, given long enough, would produce a species about as complex and intelligent as ours–a species capable of, among other things, generating culture (where culture is defined broadly to include technology, politics, and for that matter all forms of non-genetic information that are passed down through the generations). (2) Once cultural evolution in our species had acquired much momentum–by, say, the Upper Paleolithic, when the evolution of hunter-gatherer technology started to accelerate–it was almost inevitable that social complexity would grow in scope and depth until social organization finally reached planetary breadth, as it has now done with globalization. (3) The directionality in these two evolutionary processes suggests that maybe the processes are themselves subordinate to a larger purpose.

What exactly is it about the direction of biological and cultural evolution that I find suggestive of higher purpose? I’ll save that argument for later in the posting. But one key to the argument lies in the analytical framework I use to account for the directionality, and I’ll go ahead and say a little about that framework right now. In the book, I make extensive use of the logic of game theory–in particular, the distinction between zero-sum and non-zero-sum games. (Hence the book’s title, Nonzero.) Here again, there are a few paragraphs in the introduction that make the point about as well as I know how to make it:

 [The founders of game theory, John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern,] 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.

[For elaboration on non-zero-sum logic, and a discussion of the classic non-zero-sum game “the prisoner’s dilemma,” see]

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 naive; 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.

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.

 OK—I guess that’s enough to try to get people to swallow in one posting. But, in closing, let me just (at the risk of repeating myself) try to crystallize my argument by putting it in a contemporary context.

We’ve all heard that the global age is an age of growing interdependence. An economic downturn in one part of the world can prove contagious; one nation’s fossil-fuel emissions can be bad for a nation half-way around the world; a nuclear war anywhere is bad for everyone—and so on.  In other words, relations among nations are more and more non-zero-sum. By the same token, relations among individual citizens of different nations are more and more non-zero-sum. (When I bought my Honda mini-van, I was in effect playing a non-zero-sum game with thousands of people, in various countries, involved in building the car. I paid part of their salary, and they built my car—a win-win outcome.)

My argument depicts this state of globalized interdependence as the natural, and virtually inevitable, outcome of cultural evolution. I’m saying that, ever since the late stone age, social evolution has amounted to an expansion and elaboration of interdependence, as non-zero-sum games have been played over greater and greater distances, among more and more people.

Furthermore, that direction—toward more and more “non-zero-sumness”—is the basic direction of the biological evolution that had created a culture-generating species in the first place. For to say that animals have gotten more complex over evolutionary time is to say that more and more genes have come to play larger and more elaborate non-zero-sum games among themselves. (Of course, the genes don’t think about these games, or about anything else. But because the survival of genes on a genome typically depends on the smooth functioning of their common vehicle–rather like the survival of those Apollo 13 astronauts—natural selection favors genes that cooperate with one another in maintaining the vehicle.)

There are obvious objections to the argument that human history over the last few millennia exhibits a generally growing web of non-zero-sumness. What about the collapse of the Roman Empire? The Dark Ages? China’s seeming stagnation for much of the past millennium? Similarly, when I assert a comparable trend toward greater non-zero-sumness—i.e., organic complexity—in biological evolution, various objections ensue: What about the many species that go for a long time without getting more complex? What about the occasional species that evolves toward less complexity?

I try to deal with all of these objections in the book. For now, I just want to make clear that this is the essence of the direction I’m positing in both biological and cultural evolution—larger and more elaborate non-zero-sum games, manifested in greater and greater structural complexity. Later, I get into the question of why this particular sort of directionality might be particularly suggestive of higher purpose.


Above, I made three assertions:

(1) that both biological evolution and cultural evolution have direction, in the sense that they are very likely to generate more complex structures over time.

(2) that this directionality can be described in terms of game theory: the growth of biological complexity consists of more and more genes playing more and more elaborate non-zero-sum games with one another; and the growth of social complexity consists of more and more people playing more and more elaborate non-zero-sum games with each other.

(3) finally, I asserted that this sort of directionality provides at least some evidence that the evolutionary process is subordinate to a larger purpose–a “higher” purpose, you might even say.

Obviously, that’s a lot of asserting! Also obviously, I’m not going to be able to back up all of these assertions in the course of my posting. So I’m going to ask you to accept the first two assertions for the sake of argument. (Skeptics—and for that matter non-skeptics—are encouraged to look at my book, Nonzero, where I spend 300 pages arguing that the observed growth of both biological complexity and human social complexity was so probable as to border on the inevitable.) I’m going to spend the remainder of my posting on assertion number three—the question of “purpose”. Assuming you will indeed indulge me by stipulating that both biological and cultural evolution have direction, how do we decide whether that direction is indicative of purpose? And, more problematic still, what are the hallmarks of a “higher”—even “divine”—purpose?

I think the first step toward seeing evidence of purpose in the evolutionary process is to see what exactly was wrong with William Paley’s famous 19th-century teleological analysis. In case you’ve forgotten the details, Paley used the evident functionality of plants and animals to argue for the existence of God. If you come across a rock, he noted, you have no reason to conclude that it was made for a purpose. But if you come across a pocket watch, you know that it was made by a watchmaker, for the purpose of keeping time. And plainly, living things are more like watches and other artifacts than like rocks; animals are evidently designed to eat, to breathe, to do other things. As Paley put it, “There is precisely the same proof that the eye was made for vision, as there is that the telescope was made for assisting it.”

Since Darwin published the theory of natural selection, Paley’s logic has often been depicted as one giant heap of muddle. But it’s not. Paley wasn’t wrong to say that plants and animals are evidently functional. And he wasn’t wrong to say that this functionality strongly suggested a designer. He was just wrong to assume that the designer was a being rather than a process (natural selection, it turned out). The eye, loosely speaking, *was* made for vision–it just wasn’t handcrafted by God. (Or, to speak of the eye’s *ultimate* function–and the ultimate “purpose” for which natural selection “designs” things–the eye was made to aid the transmission of genes into future generations.)

My point is just that there are indeed certain things that, we all more or less agree, have the hallmarks of purpose–of having been designed to pursue a particular end. And once we’re clear on what those hallmarks are, we can look at a system such as biological evolution by natural selection and ask: Does it, too, have the hallmarks of purpose?

In my book I explore the hallmarks of purpose by imaging two extraterrestrial observers who happen upon planet Earth and try to figure out whether various of its living systems are purposeful.

The first extraterrestrial lands in a greenhouse. He notices that the green objects surrounding him tend to get taller. Does this alone—simple directionality—imply purpose in the common sense of the word? No. Water flows from high to low, but we don’t think of water as being imbued with purpose.

But these plants do more than move directionally. The extraterrestrial documents this fact by using his awesome powers to relocate the sun. He notices that within days the plants have reoriented themselves so that their leaves once again face it. What’s more, if he cuts off the end of a branch, a new twig sprouts. All told, the plants seem strongly inclined to grow upward even when you throw a roadblock in the way—by cutting them back, say, or by moving their source of energy.

Based only on these observations, we could say that these plants meet what the philosopher Richard Braithwaite proposed half a century ago as a rough-and-ready criterion of teleological behavior: “persistence towards the [hypothesized] goal under varying conditions.”

Personally, though, I don’t find Braithwaite’s criterion for purpose quite satisfactory. After all, by his criterion, rivers might still qualify as teleological; erect a hill in their path, and they meander around it, thus persisting in their direction even under “varying conditions”. But I do think that by adding one element to his criterion we can come up with something that succeeds in separating plants and animals and other purposeful systems, on the one hand, from rivers on the other. Namely: plants and animals, in their “persistince towards the goal under varying conditions,” make the necessary adjustments *by* *processing *information*. The plant that the extraterrestrial is watching absorbs data reflecting the state of its environment—where the sunlight is coming from, for example—and this information guides the plant’s growth accordingly.

This added criterion for purpose, by the way, was popular among cyberneticists at mid-century. Arturo Rosenblueth, Norbert Wiener, and Julian Bigelow wrote in their 1943 paper “Behavior, Purpose and Teleology,” in the journal Philosophy of Science[10:18-24], that “all purposeful behavior may be considered to require negative feedback.” This criterion is also consistent with an assertion commonly made by philosophers: that a good definition of a purposeful system should include such things as robots and anti-aircraft guns that automatically track a moving target via feedback from radar.

If you accept this criterion for purpose–persistence toward the hypothesized goal under varying conditions via the processing of information–the question becomes: does evolution by natural selection fulfill it? I think the answer is yes.

To see why, let’s imagine a second extraterrestrial visitor. She is very long-lived—to her, a billion years is a week. She arrives on Earth in 1 billion, BC, and her mission is to see whether organic evolution seems to be a purposeful, goal-seeking process.

She soon comes up with a good candidate for the goal—the creation of organic complexity, in several senses: broadening the diversity of species; raising the average complexity of species; expanding the outer limit of complexity (in other words, in the long run, the complexity of the most complex species on the planet tends to grow); and expanding the outer limit of behavioral flexibility—that is, of intelligence.

What’s more, she notices the same sort of stubbornness that the other etraterrestrial had noticed about plants: when she “prunes” the tree of life, evolution regenerates branches. The branches may not look exactly like the ones pruned, but they’re certainly reminiscent. If she wipes out all life on an island, the island get repopulated, and previously filled niches get filled, even if not by the exact species that filled them before. If she wipes out all life that can fly, flight gets reinvented, again and again, until the air is once again full of flying objects. (We know that flight—like other nifty properties, such as eyesight–has been invented numerous times, independently, by natural selection.) If she wipes out the most complex life, or the smartest life, replacements are eventually forthcoming. Indeed, even if she doesn’t personally do the wiping out–even if a meteor shows up and causes a mass extinction—the biosphere’s resilience soon becomes manifest.

And, rather as a plant reorients itself when the source of light moves, evolution channels life toward the most benign environments. If lush lands dry up, while dry lands become wet, the balance of the biomass shifts accordingly. Of course, some life stays behind in the newly dry lands, and adapts to it. Indeed, in general what is striking is the varying conditions under which evolution creates complex life.

All told, I submit, evolution by natural selection fulfills that first, rough-and-ready criterion of goal-directed behavior, the one championed by Richard Braithwaite: “persistence toward the goal under varying conditions.” But what about the further condition, the one that separates living things from rivers? Does natural selection do its adjusting to varying conditions by processing information?

Yes, I think so. Natural selection sends packets of information—genes—into the world. If they proliferate, this positive feedback signifies an environment with which they are adaptively compatible. (In fact, their proliferation *constitutes adaptation to this environment; through this positive feedback life “senses” and reacts adaptively to environmental change.) Of course, sometimes new genes don’t proliferate. This negative feedback signifies a lack of adaptive compatibility with the environment. Trial and error is a system of information processing—even if, as here, the trials are randomly generated. The noted geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky once wrote, “natural selection is a process conveying `information’ about the state of the environment to the genotypes of its inhabitants.”

I don’t claim that this argument *proves* that biological evolution has a designed-in purpose, like plants and animals. But I do claim that biological evolution has a set of properties that is found in such designed, purposive things as animals and robots and is not found in such evidently purposeless things as rocks and rivers. This isn’t proof of teleology, but it’s evidence of it.

Or, to put the point another way: It may indeed be that evolution is not teleological. But if that’s the case, then evolution is the only thing I can think of that exhibits flexible directionality via information processing and isn’t teleological.

Or, to put the point yet another way: If you were the second extraterrestrial, and could watch the whole history of life on earth in time-lapse, you would be hard pressed to draw a clear analytical distinction between the blossoming of the biosphere and the blossoming of a flower.

Okay—that’s about enough for this week. In my next posting I’ll make other arguments for attributing purpose to the direction that, I contend, is characteristic of evolution. But next time I’ll focus on cultural evolution, not biological evolution. And next time I’ll address not just the issue of whether evolution may serve a “larger” purpose, but whether it may serve a truly “higher” purpose–whether it may tend to move toward something we might call good.


I contended that (1) both biological and cultural evolution are directional in the sense that they have a strong tendency to create more complex structures over time (animals and human societies, respectively); and (2) in the case of biological evolution, at least, this directionality is suggestive of purpose (particularly given the role that information processing plays in sustaining the direction).

But to say that evolution may serve a “higher” purpose in the sense of a “larger” purpose isn’t to say it serves a “higher” purpose in the sense of a “divine” purpose. Even if you accept my contention that the evolutionary process has some hallmarks of design, the question remains: does the design seem to embody the values that religious people associate with God?

In one sense, the answer has to be no. The kind of God that is hardest to find evidence of is the kind most people seem to believe in: a God that is infinitely powerful and infinitely good. After all, presumably that kind of God wouldn’t permit the various forms of cruelty and suffering that afflict the world (including those inherent in organic evolution, and thus in our creation).

Still, even if we acknowledge the problem of evil, and acknowledge that we can’t solve it, we can at least ask: Are there signs of any divinely imparted meaning in the evolutionary process? Granted directionality in the sense of growing complexity, is there any directionality along what you might call a spiritual or moral dimension? For that matter, is there anything you might call a spiritual or moral dimension? I think the answer to these questions is yes.

The first part of my argument has to do with what I consider the mystery of consciousness, or of sentience—the mystery surrounding the fact that we are capable of feeling pleasure and pain; that, as the philosopher Thomas Nagel famously put it, it is “like something” to be alive.

Let me stress that the “mystery” I’m talking about isn’t the mystery of how the brain generates consciousness (the question Daniel Dennett addresses in Consciousness Explained). Rather, I’m asking why the brain generates consciousness. And the point I’m trying to make is that, according to what is the closest thing to a consensual view of consciousness in the modern behavioral sciences, this “why” question is wholly baffling. The reason is that, according to this mainstream view, consciousness—subjective experience—has no behavioral manifestations; it doesn’t do anything.

Sure, you may feel as if your feelings do things. Isn’t it the sensation of heat, after all, that causes you to withdraw your hand from the surprisingly hot stove? The answer presupposed by mainstream behavioral science is: no. Corresponding to the subjective sensation of heat is an objective, physical flow of biological information. Physical impulses signifying heat travel up your arm and are processed by your equally physical brain. The output is a physical signal that coerces your muscles into withdrawing your hand. Here, at the sheerly physical level, is where the real action is. Your sensation of pain bears roughly the relation to the real action that your shadow bears to you. In technical terms: consciousness, subjective experience, is “epiphenomenal”—it is always an effect, never a cause.

But if this is true—if consciousness doesn’t do anything—then its existence becomes quite the unfathomable mystery. If subjective experience is superfluous to the day-to-day business of living and eating and getting our genes into the next generation, then why would it have ever arisen in the course of natural selection? Why would life acquire a major property that has no function?

People who claim to have an answer usually turn out to have misunderstood the question. For example, some people say that consciousness arose so that people could process language. And it’s true, of course, that we’re conscious of language. As we speak, we have the subjective experience of turning our thoughts into words. It even feels as if our inner, conscious self is causing the words to be formed. But, whatever it may feel like, the (often unspoken) premise of mainstream behavioral science is that when you are in conversation with someone, all the causing happens at a physical level. That someone flaps his or her tongue, generating physical sound waves that enter your ear, triggering a sequence of physical processes in your brain that ultimately result in the flapping of your own tongue, and so on. In short: the experience of assimilating someone’s words and formulating a reply is superfluous to the assimilation and the reply, both of which are just intricate mechanical processes.

Besides, if conscious experience arose to abet human language, then why does it also accompany such things as getting our fingers smashed by rocks—things that existed long before human language?

The mystery of consciousness has lately been underscored by computer science. Though artificial intelligence hasn’t advanced at breathtaking speed, there has been measured progress in automating sensory and cognitive tasks. There are robots that “feel” things and recoil from them, or “see” things and identify them; there are computers that “analyze” chess strategies. And, clearly, everything these robots do can be explained in wholly physical terms, via electronic blips and the like. “Feeling” and “seeing” and “analyzing,” these machines suggest, needn’t involve sentience . Yet they do—in our species at least.

So what is my point? Why do I attach such philosophical, even theological, significance to the mystery of consciousness?

In answering that question, it is helpful to imagine a world without consciousness. Consider planet X, on which life evolves. Little bits of self-replicating material (call them genes) encase themselves (by a process we’ll call natural selection) in protective armor that exhibits behavioral flexibility. One species in particular—a brainy, two-legged organism—exhibits lots of behavioral flexibility. These organisms are capable of great feats: communicating with subtlety, creating art, watching TV.

But these organisms have no trace of sentience; it isn’t like anything to be them. Yes, fire burns their skin, so, yes, they’re designed to withdraw their hands from fire, but, no, they don’t feel pain. Or happiness, or anything.

Obviously, such a world would lack the kinds of things many people cite as key sources of life’s meaning: such feelings as undying love, devout allegiance, the thrill of victory, and so on. But there is something else, too. Such a world would lack moral meaning. After all, these so-called “organisms” are just machines, as devoid of feeling as a computer (or at least, as devoid of feeling as we presume a computer to be). Is there anything immoral about unplugging a computer for good? And if not, then how could there be anything immoral about killing one of these insensate organisms on this emotionally barren planet, where there was never any potential for fulfillment in the first place? This is what a world truly without meaning would look like: it would offer no context in which words such as “right” and “wrong” made sense.

In this light, it seems to me that the mystery of consciousness takes on genuine theological significance. I’m not saying it proves the existence of God. But certainly the fact that the one feature of human existence that is of mysterious, even inexplicable, origin is also the central source of life’s meaning doesn’t exactly discourage speculation about divine beings and higher purpose.

And this fact renders odd the tendency of people convinced of life’s meaninglessness to cite, as support, science’s having “explained away” the mysteries of life. After all, it isn’t just that science hasn’t managed to solve the mystery of consciousness. In a sense, science created the mystery of consciousness; the mystery emerges from a hard-nosed, scientific view of behavior and causality.

Faced with the mystery of consciousness, some people—including such philosophers as David Chalmers—have suggested that the explanation must lie in a kind of metaphysical law: consciousness accompanies particular kinds of information processing (perhaps only organic kinds, perhaps information processing in general).

This notion that sentience naturally accompanies complex data-processing strikes me as the most plausible explanation of consciousness around. And in its light, organic history acquires an interesting kind of significance. Because, as I argue in my book, organic evolution pretty much ensures extremely complex data-processing. Over time, we see more and more complex animals that process information more and more elaborately.

And it isn’t just that natural selection favors behavioral complexity, and thus deft data processing. Complexity of biological structure itself, from the very beginning, entailed information processing. Forget about your brain and its ability to plan vacations, wondrous though this is. Just think about your lungs or kidneys, about breathing or urinating. These things, too, are data-rich—not just via involvement with the nervous system, but via hormonal control, via all kinds of minor bits of cellular crosstalk. For that matter, a single cell—any one of yours or any one bacterium—has at its heart an information processor of no meager sophistication, DNA.

Granted, when it comes to our most sublime, most meaningful moments—feeling love or empathy, joy or epiphany, even abject but profound remorse—kidneys and bacteria just won’t get the job done. Brains are where the action is. So it’s fortunate that large multicellular animals with great behavioral complexity seem to have been in the cards. My point is just that these brains are a continuous outgrowth of something at life’s very essence: a primordial imperative to process information. Given the connection among information processing, sentience, and meaning, it is fair to say that evolution by natural selection was from the beginning a veritable machine for making meaning.

(In my book Nonzero, I argue that the logic by which complexity, hence data-processing, hence meaning, grows is the logic of “non-zero-sumness”. The genes along a strand of DNA have a non-zero-sum relationship with one another, as do the organelles within a cell, the cells within a body. In all of these cases, the cause of the non-zero-sumness is shared Darwinian interest—being in the same boat in one sense or another—and the result is transmitted information. For, as I also note in the book, the successful playing of non-zero-sum games—cooperative coordination—generally involves communication.)

That biological evolution has an arrow—the invention of more structurally and informationally complex forms of life—and that this arrow points toward meaning, isn’t, of course, proof of the existence of God. But it’s more suggestive of divinity than an alternative world would be: a world in which evolution had no direction, or a world with directional evolution but no consciousness. If more scientists appreciated the weirdness of consciousness—understood that a world without sentience, hence without meaning, is exactly the world that a modern behavioral scientist should expect to exist—then reality might inspire more awe than it does.

Of course, a world full of meaning isn’t a world full of goodness. After all, sentience brings equally the capacity for joy and for suffering, for good and for bad. It is the existence of meaning that allowed Pol Pot to be a person of consequence. On Planet X, that imaginary world of zombies, devoid of sentience and thus of meaning, the Pol Pots and Hitlers and Stalins would be incapable of evil; however destructive, they could inflict no suffering, prevent no happiness, affront no dignity.

In short, the existence of meaning is morally neutral; it creates the potential for good, but doesn’t, by itself, tip the scales in that direction. In this light we might hope for more from a divine architect than mere meaning, the mere capacity for good things. We might hope for the *realization* of good things–every now and then, at least, and the more often, the better.

Is there any reason to think that the evolutionary process, in addition to naturally creating and expanding meaning, naturally creates and expands goodness?


The story so far:

I argued that (a) biological and cultural evolution tend on balance to raise structural complexity; (b) in the case of biological evolution, at least, this directionality, upon close examination, can be construed as evidence of teleology—not definitive evidence, but evidence nonetheless.

I explored the question of teleology further, making a series of related points: (a) consciousness—by which I mean subjective experience, sentience—is, according to the philosophy implicit in mainstream behavioral science, functionally superfluous; hence its reason for being is mysterious; (b) consciousness is also what gives life meaning—indeed, moral meaning; (c) since consciousness seems to be a property of complex organic information processing, biological evolution, by increasing the complexity of information processing in animals over time, would seem to be a recipe for generating consciousness, hence meaning.

On the other hand, as I noted at the end of my third posting, the existence of meaning, and even of moral meaning, don’t by themselves provide any evidence that the conjectured higher purpose of evolution tends toward the good. Indeed, if sentience on this planet more often assumes the form of pain and suffering than of joy and contentment, one might well speculate that, on balance, the higher purpose is evil.

So today’s question is: Was the existence of goodness inherent in biological and/or cultural evolution? And, if so, does biological and/or cultural evolution have any tendency to expand goodness, to raise the ratio of good to bad?

In one sense, it may seem naive to expect goodness to emerge from natural selection. At its core, natural selection is cutthroat. It is a zero-sum struggle for finite resources, and there are no rules. How much good could come of that? More than you might think.

For example, via “kin selection,” altruism among close relatives has evolved. And in our species, at least, this altruism (for reasons concealed in the more general mystery of consciousness) involves the experience of love.

This intra-family altruism has evolved multiple times, and naturally so. With closely related organisms tending to start out life near each other, commonality of Darwinian interest is thick, just waiting to be harnessed by the logic of kin selection. Though maternal devotion was presumably the original form of kin-directed love (even many insects display maternal altruism), other forms followed: sibling love and—in our species and some others—paternal love.

Altruism, having established a beachhead within the family, eventually branched out beyond close relatives. In a number of species, including ours, natural selection invented reciprocal altruism, which, notwithstanding its connotations of cold calculation, involves heartfelt obligation, even affection. This ability of human beings to form bonds beyond the family would become crucial as cultural evolution began to build larger and more complex human societies. Biological evolution, having created goodness by inventing altruism, would now surrender center stage to the second great evolutionary force, with which any hopes for expanding goodness would now lie.

And in some ways, actually, cultural evolution would expand goodness. Consider, for example, the moral progress made by the ancient Greeks. As the philosopher Peter Singer noted in his 1981 book The Expanding Circle, fifth-century Greece featured a fairly primitive morality; citizens of one city-state often treated citizens of another Greek city-state as sub-human, enslaving them and occasionally massacring them.

Eventually, this narrow moral compass expanded, as Greeks in distant cities came to consider one another worthy of decent treatment. Why? I contend that the reason was an expansion of the web of interdependence. As the Greeks mobilized to fend off the Persians, the different Greek city-states needed one another more. In the terminology of my book, you would say that Greeks in different cities came to play non-zero-sum games with Greeks in other cities.

War isn’t the only thing that creates interdependence. Since the days of ancient Greece, the realm of economic interdependence has grown to global extent. When you buy a car, you are playing a non-zero-sum game with countless workers in various nations. They all helped build your car, and you helped pay their wages.

This interdependence, I argue, is the main reason that today—especially in the most economically advanced nations—a universalistic morality prevails: all people are thought to deserve equal treatment regardless of nationality, religion, or race. If the US were to act as the Athenians did—periodically slaughter all male citizens residing in foreign polities—doing business with them would grow more complicated, to say the least.

In other words: Ever since ancient times, as the realm of “non-zero-sumness,” of interdependence, has expanded, it has made practical sense to extend respect to a growing number of the planet’s inhabitants.

In my book, I spend many chapters arguing that this expansion of interdependence has been more or less inexorable. As communications and transportation technologies evolve, it becomes practical—and often necessary—to play non-zero-sum games with larger and larger expanses of people. The moral compass expands accordingly.

But before we get too rhapsodic about humanity’s expanding moral compass, I want to back up a bit and inject some grim sobriety into the discussion. It is great that natural selection invented affection and even extended it beyond the family, and it is great that cultural evolution extended human bonds across great distances. But a word is in order about the oft-underplayed downside of affection and bonding.

Ever hear of the “Texas cheerleader mom”? She was convicted of plotting to murder her daughter’s rival for a high-school cheerleading slot. The good news is that this woman is manifestly not typical of mothers in Texas—or anywhere. The bad news is that she nonetheless illustrates, if in grotesque proportion, a ubiquitous point: love is, by design, an invidious emotion.

The problem isn’t just that love naturally gets extended selectively, often coming to a screeching halt at the bounds of family. The problem is that love is naturally deployed to the active detriment of people beyond the family. It’s a jungle out there, after all, and we want our loved ones to triumph. This seamy underside of affinity isn’t confined to intra-family affinity. One common purpose of reciprocal altruism in primates is to cement coalitions which then compete with other coalitions, sometimes violently. In general, as the biologist Richard Alexander has observed, the flip-side of “within-group amity” is “between-group enmity”.

This dour equation seems almost to have been a constant of human history. Lengthened and strengthened bonds have tended to involve deepened fissures. Consider those nostalgic reveries about wartime. Soldiers talk about the indelible devotion to their comrades in arms, and civilians recall the sense of brotherhood that suffused an entire nation. Sounds great. But as amity thus reached national scope, the petty enmities of daily life weren’t so much erased as displaced—piled up, sky-high, along the nation’s border: a mass of hatred between peoples. It almost seems as if one of the basic laws of the universe, right next to “conservation of mass” and “conservation of energy” is “conservation of antipathy.”

Fortunately, “conservation of antipathy” is not truly a law of nature—for two reasons. First, martial fervor is not the only source of social bonding. If I water my neighbor’s plants while he’s away, and he returns the favor, our mutual amity grows just a bit—without any necessary growth in my dislike of anyone else. And much of the growth of non-zero-sumness over the past few millennia has been of this sort—people being “pulled” together for common gain, not “pushed” together by a common enemy.

One of the main pulling forces, of course, has been economic. Granted, commerce can be a cool affair, and often fails to expand the web of affection, but it does expand the web of tolerance. You don’t have to love your grocer, but you shouldn’t assault him. You don’t have to love the people who built your Toyota, but it’s unwise to bomb them—just as it’s unwise to bomb the people overseas who are buying the things you made.

The second reason that the alleged “conservation of antipathy” doesn’t doom moral progress has to do not with these “pulling” forces of economics but with the “pushing” forces, under which people unite to thwart a common threat. Though war is the time-honored example of such a force, things can change as social organization approaches the global level. At that point, barring extra-terrestrial invasion, conquest isn’t the peril that brings people together. Rather, they cooperate to evade such things as environmental calamity and economic collapse. More than before, non-zero-sumness can thrive without zero-sumness as its ultimate source. To whatever rough extent “conservation of antipathy” *has* held as a general law of history, it seems to be in the process of being repealed.

Of course, it may forever remain true that nothing brings people together, heart to heart, quite like a war. And that sort of bonding, thankfully, is unavailable on a planetary scale. But other common challenges—environmental distress, for example—are not devoid of bonding power.

Indeed, the classic experiment on inter-group solidarity suggests that inanimate threats can be quite unifying. Several decades ago, the psychologist Muzafer Sherif used boys in a summer camp (unbeknownst to them) to study human nature. He divided them into two groups and put them in a series of zero-sum games, with cherished perks going to the winning team. Jingoism blossomed; there was one full-fledged riot, and even after all zero-sum games had ended, contact between the groups brought slurs and fistfights. Then Sherif put the groups in a series of non-zero-sum situations, where all boys faced some mutual threat. Sure enough, antagonism was so dampened that some erstwhile enemies became lasting friends. And the mutual threats that did this congealing weren’t invasions from a neighboring camp, but rather such things as the breakdown of the truck all campers depended on, or of the pipeline that brought water into camp.

This doesn’t mean that combatting global warming will lead to a transnational lovefest. But it is evidence that, as global interdependence thickens, long-distance amity can in principle grow even in the absence of external enmity. And It’s something to build on. There is no telling what it could mean as technology keeps advancing; as the world wide web goes broad bandwidth, so that any two people anywhere can meet and chat virtually, visually (perhaps someday assisted, where necessary, by accurate automated translation). One can well imagine, as the internet nurtures more and more communities of interest, true friendships more and more crossing the most dangerous fault lines—boundaries of religion, of nationality, of ethnicity, of culture.

Here is one way to encapsulate much of the upshot of this posting:

Life on Earth was, from the beginning, a machine for generating meaning and then deepening it, a machine that created the potential for good and began to fulfill it. And, though the machine also created the potential for bad–and did plenty of fulfilling on that front—it now finally shows signs of raising the ratio of good to bad; or, at the very least, of giving the human species that option, along with powerful incentives to exercise it.

Obviously, the movement of biological and cultural evolution toward this moral threshold isn’t proof of a benign universal architect. But it’s closer to being evidence of divinity than its opposite would be. Once you’ve accepted that evil is, for whatever reason, built into the fabric of  human—indeed, organic—experience, the basic trend lines don’t look all that bad.