One of the main layman's objections to the supposedly random process of evolution is that for all its inherent pointlessness, evolution seems to have a goal, a narrative, a conscious direction. And that direction is towards complexity. Germs become animals. Apes become humans. Blood-caked Aztec savages become liberal-minded East Coast essayists. Now Robert Wright, author of the much-praised The Moral Animal
, has come along with a contentious new book to tell us that the layman has been on to something all along. Evolution does
have a goal.
The title of Wright's book comes from games theory, which divides human interactions into "zero sum games", where for every winner there's a loser, and "non-zero sum games", where everyone gains. Wright's aim is to knit together this theory with anthropology, zoology, biology, and history, plus a dash of chaos theory, and thus attest that "non-zero sum altruism" is the natural inclination of humankind. To prove this he cites such disparate phenomena as the sago-swapping natives of the US Northwest, the global government-in-waiting that is the European Union, and the anarchically generous ethos that rules the Net--all of which apparently go to show that we are, deep down, caring, sharing nice guys. Wright's second aim is to show this niceness is no accident: evolution helps to make us that way.
The author's learning is lightly worn. Sometimes too lightly. After a while his chatty, hey-let's-have-a-beer style starts to grate: "When was the last time you invented a boomerang?"; "Ah, Tahiti!". There are also some minor errors, like his claiming that Britain fought the Hundred Years War (it was England), or his perception that milkmen are a thing of the past, that make you wonder whether he has finessed some of the more intractable scientific arguments. Certainly his book has already attracted some brickbats from the atheistic hardnuts of evolutionary psychology. But the case that he advocates remains as exciting as it is unsettling. Because, if evolution does have a point, if human history has a deliberate, conscious, "narrative drive", who had the idea? Who's the scriptwriter of Man, the Movie? --Sean Thomas
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"Exciting and intellectually stimulating?well-written, witty, and quite timely as we consider the challenges of our global, interconnected future."?The Philadelphia Inquirer